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Through a [Vodka] Glass Darkly

Thoughts on finishing The Brothers Karamazov. In which I explain that, although I did not enjoy the novel, I can fully understand why people admire it, and in which I attempt to counter lidocafe's contention that Dostoevsky is not Postmodern. This may take some time,

First of all, though I don't think that I need to justify my own distaste for much of this novel, I just want to point out that just because I didn't like it doesn't mean that I don't think it's great. Let's not fall into that oh-so-common trap of review vs criticism, much perpetuated by students, in which "I don't like it" = "I think it's bad." I don't think it's bad. I think it's a complex, fascinating, psychologically penetrating, brilliant work filled with ideas. I like and appreciate many of the ideas - particularly those that I am going to comment on below - but did not necessarily enjoy the presentation of them. I found it, yes, distasteful, overly sentimental, long-winded, excessive, tiresome. It is possible for an author to be all of those things and still be brilliant. See, for example, Joyce and Beckett. And while we're on the subject, it may be noted that although lidocafe enjoys both, I dislike Beckett intensely. And I think for many of the same reasons. It boils down to a response to the world, similar to the difference I commented on this summer between Beckett and Tom Stoppard: both recognize that human existence is brief, experience is unreliable and fleeting, and that attempts on our part to understand our own place in the universe are doomed to failure. Beckett's response might be summarized as "the world is crap, but you've got to laugh." Stoppard's (and mine), perhaps is "human life is brief and fleeting, but at least there's love and beauty in the world, so let's hang on to that." I need to learn to appreciate, via Beckett and Dostoevsky, that it's possible to present a very unpleasant view of the world and still be idealistic; my response to lidocafe's denial of the "postmodernism" of Dostoevsky is that it's possible to have deep and enduring faith in something and still be "postmodern."

If deconstructive criticism has taught us anything, it is that binaries are slippery, untrustworthy schemes. Yet, we humans seem driven to use them to help us to understand ourselves and our beliefs and to define where the things or people we encounter in the world fall in relation to them (and to, of course, ourselves). What we always want to know is "are you like me?" and "can I understand you?" Too much difference (or "differance", and we back off, muttering "get thee behind me Satan." And, of course, in the placement of things on binary scales, we always "privilege" one or the other, give one greater power in its greater value to us. And, again, deconstructive criticism ought to have taught us that this too, is ... wrong, or at least one of those things that we do unthinkingly that we ought not to do, at least not unthinkingly, but we go ahead and do it anyway.

One of the age-old binaries of literary criticism is the Classical versus Romantic debate. I always begin my discussion of 18th century literature with students by outlining our own preconceptions about "Classical vs Romantic"; what usually happens is that it's fairly clear that the "Romantic" half of the binary is closely aligned with "us" and the "Classical" with "them" - conventional, old-skool, hegemonic, patriarchal, blah blah blah - whereas "Romantic" is anti-establishment, passionate, nature, imagination, all those cool things. What students need to recognize is that all those cool things arose in a world dominated by the boring stuff, that it's not one or the other, it's that each one is a debate, a discourse with the other. I think we tend to do the same thing with "Modern" vs "Postmodern" although the lines are considerably less clear, and, interestingly enough, for many today, "postmodern" is not the "privileged" term. Many regard "postmodern" with suspicion and distaste, even when they embrace the tenets of Romanticism. Yet, for me, postmodernism, at least the postmodernism of people like Tom Stoppard, falls very clearly in the line of descent from Romanticism. Those lines of descent begin to blur, though, when we try to put things in columns under Classical and Romantic, and realize how difficult it is - where do we put "human"? Where do we put "nature"? Where do we put "faith"?

Just as Romanticism emerged side-by-side with the flowering of Classicism in the Age of Enlightenment, so did Postmodernism emerge as a kind of evil twin of Modernity. Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult term to define (I think it was Umberto Eco who referred to it as a state of mind, like a taste of raspberry juice, rather than a set of rules), but it is often summarized as a "distrust of any kind of grand narrative." I like to think of it as a kind of "yes, but..." response. Descartes writes "cogito, ergo sum," and someone comes along as taps him on the shoulder and says "urm, yes, but... don't you often make mistakes? How do you know that you exist, really? What about the subconscious? What about dreams?" Those questions are intensely Romantic, of course, and also intensely Postmodern.

Another set of binaries that intersect with the Classical/Romantic Modern/Postmodern ones are faith/superstition, science/imagination, human/... erm... what? This is where it gets interesting. The Brothers Karamazov asks us to examine all those questions, particularly the one about how it's possible to maintain a faith in god in the face of humanity's, erm, inhumanity, cruelty, stupidity. We have to recognize that the Romantics (except Shelley) did not necessarily throw out their faith in God when they adopted their ideals, also that it's possible to adopt a postmodern stance of questioning the certainty of human-created precepts and still maintain a faith in some kind of ideal... somewhere. Thus, it is not safe to argue, as Ms Lido does, that Postmodernism is against Grand Narrative, Christianity is a Grand Narrative, Dostoevsky is a Christian, QED he is not Postmodern. lidocafe wrote
On that note, though, with all due respect for her vast learning on this topic, I cannot agree with Intertext that this is a postmodern novel. It is "intertextual" in the most common interpretation of that world, but as Kristeva has taught us, all works are intertextual, not just allusive works. The Brothers K is full of references and allusions, yes, but allusion in itself, even intertextuality in itself, is not postmodern, is it? If it is, the eighteenth century is intensely postmodern. Nor do I feel that an unreliable or self-conscious narrator automatically makes a work postmodern, though this too, gestures toward the radical uncertainties that postmodern writers will construct by playing with metafiction. (It is notable that people tend to cite Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground as a leap forward in what might be done with a first-person narrator.) I do not think this novel participates in the parody and unravelling that is so central to postmodern fiction. It is not ontologically destabilizing. Were Dostoevsky to take pains to stress the artifice of the narrative, to draw attention to the narrative as fiction, I might find it more postmodern (assuming, that is, that postmodernism comes in degrees?).
I think Alyosha's response would be to kiss Ms Lido on the cheek and smile. We are back to the binaries again. It's not Modern/Postmodern, faith/uncertainty, good/evil ... it's the recognition that it's possible for all those things to exist side by side. Evil doesn't cancel out the good. Unreason doesn't eliminate Reason. The Eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment is, in fact, the period when postmodernism emerged, fully born. Yet it had also existed in Shakespeare, in Dante, in, yes, Plato, if we recognize that whenever someone comments on humanity's stupidity, its failure to Get It Right is an intensely postmodern gesture. Particularly humanity's failure to understand God. But isn't that the point of faith? Isn't faith the answer to unanswerable questions?

It would not be difficult to demonstrate how often and how brilliantly Dostoevsky destabilizes his narrative, and demonstrates humanity's perpetual tendency to interpret but to err in so doing. Perhaps one brief quote from the ubiquitous narrator will suffice:
I must make it clear from the outset that I feel unable to give a really complete account of all that happened during the trial, or, for that matter, to report the events in their proper sequence. ... I may very well have mistaken points of secondary importance for crucial developments and have omitted altogether some essential facts.
This "drawing attention" to the narrative, to the way that everything is filtered and interpreted comes up over and over again, from beginning to end. There is not just the obtrusive and clearly unreliable narrator, there is Ivan's struggle to understand God, there are Alyosha's well-meaning but clearly often misplaced attempts to understand his brothers and their women and their respective motives. There is the murder mystery itself - do WE ever REALLY know what happened? All we ever read is what one or another clearly crazy character tells us and what we want to believe. There is the trial that out-Rashomons Rashomon. There are the many incidents where we are shown how difficult it is for witnesses to remember things correctly (remember the scene in the marketplace in Book X, where the stall-owners try to remember the boy they saw?)

Likewise, our attempts to understand God, or to make him show us any kind of Truth that we can hold on to, are also doomed to failure. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't believe in God, however; that's what Alyosha is there to demonstrate. What Dostoevsky tells us, through him and his other characters, is that humanity is stupid, capable of acts of great cruelty but also of great kindness and great beauty. Humanity is flawed, Dostoevsky would argue, but God is not, nor is divine providence. It's just that because we live in a fallen, imperfect (yes, postmodern) world, we cannot understand God's plan, and any attempt to do so, like any attempt to get to the "truth" of the murder mystery, is doomed to failure. There are absolutes; there are ideals, and we have to hold on to them. Our world is, after, all, merely a shadow, we see through a glass, darkly; if we face the truth we are likely to go mad or become, like the Ancient Mariner, like Ivan, doomed to attempt to tell people and doomed to be disbelieved (it's all in Plato... don't they teach anything in schools nowadays?)


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 6th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
I really like what you say about binaries, and how we seem drawn to that way of thinking, and how it's worth struggling against it, because there's a lot we lose in thinking that way. I also appreciate what you say about not confusing "I didn't like it" with "It's not a great work of literature." I wish I could make people understand that! Do you end up being able to persuade students of that distinction? I hear kids say, "Yeah maybe... but I thought it sucked." Back to square one.

I did really like the book, but when you say excessive, long-winded, sentimental, I can understand your dislike of it.

Edited at 2009-09-06 06:17 pm (UTC)
Sep. 6th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
I also appreciate what you say about not confusing "I didn't like it" with "It's not a great work of literature."

Indeed! I keep running into this with regard to my job as creative writing tutor. My students (who don't seem to realise that we tutors sometimes peek into their online forums!) keep saying things like, "Oh, the marking is all subjective. You only got a low mark because your tutor just didn't like it."

No, no, no! I often award high marks to things that are not my cup of tea and that I wouldn't read from choice. And vice versa.
Sep. 6th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
so true!
Sep. 6th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
It's so depressing when kids think that. So often it's just not at ALL true.
Sep. 6th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
This is meant to reply to asakiyume... Sometimes I do, I think. Once I got a comment from a student (in RatemyProfessor, iirc) to the effect of "the poetry nearly killed me, but she conveyed her enthusiasm well" And I also try to let them know that something that's popular is not necessarily good literature (like HP and Twilight)

Edited at 2009-09-06 09:18 pm (UTC)
Sep. 6th, 2009 10:30 pm (UTC)
It came through to me :-)

Glad to hear that sometimes you *can* reach students.
Sep. 6th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
This was such a delight to read: I think it's my favorite blog post anywhere in the past six months.
Sep. 6th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
oh, wow :-) Thank you! That's a lovely thing to say.
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:41 am (UTC)
Zing. Ms. Lido is dumb.
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
No!! Not at all!!!!! (now I'm having a Prufrock moment - "that's not what I meant, not what I meant at all...")

Edited at 2009-09-07 04:02 am (UTC)
Sep. 7th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
No worries. I knew I was treading one one of those areas you feel you own, so I'm not surprised. And many of my colleagues would and reportedly do question my intelligence, though not to my face, of course!

I love the notion of postmodernity as an "evil twin of Modernity" (there's that binary gesture again). As you define it here (whenever someone comments on humanity's stupidity), it seems everything is postmodern, which is an interesting idea but for me a confusing one as it contradicts my perhaps limited reading on the topic.

I agree with you about the trouble students face when they confuse their own pleasure (or lack thereof) with a critical response. Do you think that is partly the result of too many teachers trying desperately to assign to them only those things to which they can "relate?" On that tendency, one I often protest, you might find interesting Mark Slouka's insightful and incisive article in September's Harper's, one which I am copying and submitting this week to both our Dean and our President

Teachers are lucky, though, because they often assign works they do like. As for me, I seem to like more than most. For instance, I like both Beckett and Stoppard--it is not necessary for me to have an author offer me something that corresponds with my own outlook.

Edited at 2009-09-07 02:51 pm (UTC)
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
Oh dear. I still feel rebuked, and that you think I said you were stupid. That was never my intention. Your original post was so good that it inspired me to write something more articulate than my usual blather, in order to clarify my own thinking on the subject, and to counter some of your arguments (and I did say "attempt" to counter - I did not, and do not mean that as an attack on your intelligence or on the thoughtfulness of your own comments)

If that's how it came across, I'm really sorry.

Oh, and the parenthetical comment at the very end? It's a paraphrase from CS Lewis, one of the characters in the Narnia books - and was really a gesture to my other readers, not directed at you.

Edited at 2009-09-07 03:27 pm (UTC)
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
No rebuke intended. Damn these Internets!

The comment about colleagues refers to reports from a couple of students regarding what they'd been led to expect (not much, frankly) in my classes, as well as a comment by another colleague that it might be, ahem, beneficial that my union work keeps me out of the classroom at present. I was rather hurt by those comments because they were meant to be safely anonymous and because they affected my relationships with students.

On the contrary, you were saying (more or less) that I was wrong, not stupid. That's an important difference, I think.

I have been up since Saturday morning, so I may not be making much sense!!!
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
PS, for those paying attention, when I typed "Ms. Lido is dumb," I meant speechless, since I needed time to gather my thoughts before responding properly. Apologies to Intertext for my characteristic sloppiness.
Sep. 7th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank heavens. I think we've just had an extraordinarily "postmodern" encounter, and have ably demonstrated the potential pitfalls of language, reading and interpretation. Hahaha - I love the bit about "dumb" meaning "speechless" - that's what you get for using a word in its most correct way, not as it is used in popular parlance. And trust me to read it the popular way!

You really are the last person on earth I would ever want to offend.

As for whatever that rumour you've heard at work - ZMOG WTF???
Maybe the comment about it being a good thing you're not in the classroom has to do with your back, and nothing at all about your teaching?

Sep. 7th, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
What is this "ZMOG?"

As for the comment, no, that's not what the person meant. It predates my back and, indeed, I gave the nice version here.

But we have gone a long way from the topic of how to define (or whether to define) postmodernism. This is a much more interesting topic than my weaknesses as a teacher. At least, to me!
Sep. 7th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
Ha. That was meant to be ZOMG. To be honest, I'm not absolutely sure what the Z stands for, but it's what people say when they want something more emphatic than just omg. I think :-) ZMOG sounds like an anime monster...
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )


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