David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: dostoevsky (page 1 of 2)

Nikolai Leskov

Slightly late here, but I did write an essay on Nikolai Leskov over at the Quarterly Conversation, the fantastic and strange 19th century Russian writer. I hope his works are reprinted and retranslated.

My old exegesis on his greatest work, The Enchanted Wanderer, is still available here.


Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.

Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.


Who Cares If You Read?

I posted that excerpt from the inflammatory (for sufficiently small values of inflammatory) intro to Steven Moore’s book only as a gag, since people like Steve Donoghue have said much more about it than I wish to. (However! In a rebuke to Moore, his elevation of the Velvet Underground as too-avant-for-Ashbery has just been answered by Moe Tucker’s endorsement of the Tea Party).

But then I happened to reread Milton Babbitt’s The Composer as Specialist. (At publication, it was retitled by the editor to the far more inflammatory and interesting “Who Cares If You Listen?” Supposedly he wasn’t in on it and complains that he is “far more likely to be known as the author of ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ than as the composer of music to which you may or may not care to listen.”)

The war between elitists and populists among the creative classes has gone on for so many centuries that I really don’t think there’s any new argument to be made in the area. Since I’m fairly likely never to command a large audience, I could throw my lot in with the elitists and share in that warm fuzzy smugness that comes with belonging to the aesthetic elite of civilization (and offer it to my readers!)…but no, it’s too silly. But because music offers a purer and less semantically-laden form of art, the elitist arguments there are more raw and less able to fall back on fallacies like “making you a better person.” And Babbitt is upfront and sincere, to his credit.

Babbitt is/was one of those hyper-serialist composers who took Schoenberg’s system to a far greater extreme than Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern ever did. Iannis Xenakis, no traditionalist himself, complained that such music became incomprehensible:

The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum.

And Babbitt said that for most audiences, that indeed was true. Here’s a string quartet:

Well, I like the textures, but it doesn’t quite hold together for me, which tends to be my experience with his music. But music often belies composers’ intentions, so let’s look at the words. There are two criteria by which Babbitt wants to elevate the new, hyper-serialized music.

Criteria 1. Complexity

This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more “efficient” than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the “redundancy” of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener). Incidentally, it is this circumstance, among many others, that has created the need for purely electronic media of “performance.” More importantly for us, it makes ever heavier demands upon the training of the listener’s perceptual capacities.

So here, in place of the qualities of allusiveness, elusiveness, nonlinearity, and prolixity of difficult fiction, we have a single analogous criterion: density of information. Babbitt gives a couple other criteria, but they really aren’t so different from this one: those characteristics defining the work are as great in number as possible across the shortest possible time period. (A lossless compression of the music should compress as little as possible!) Stockhausen made a similar complaint when he listened to techno music, always bemoaning the fact that there was any sort of regularity or repetition in the music.

For all the bragging about the density of the information age, I think things are going in the opposite direction. People consume so much that there’s been an incentive to make things consumable as fast as possible. If you look at any of the would-be highbrow serials on television (with the exception of The Wire), they proceed far more slowly plotwise than your average 70s episode of The Rockford Files, which stuck a whole plot arc into a single hour. Ostensibly this is to give a richer background, but the more obvious reason is that there is that much more content to digest in general, and so no point in a greater density of information.

Xenakis’s point was simply that information would be absorbed at a more macroscopic level, which is one way of getting around the problem. Arguably Ferneyhough embraced this as well, though you can make the argument in the other direction to attack Babbitt: how many works with an information density on the order of Webern can a composer make that are going to be masterpieces? Webern only managed a few hours of music total. Babbitt has written far more, and if they’re going to be ranked, information density will not be the criterion for how they’re graded.

Is the density a prerequisite then? In the article, Babbitt simply seems to think that any piece below a certain level of information density just isn’t going to be interesting, and for him, no doubt that is true. But this reduces density to a qualifying factor. Is anything below the threshold just going to be dismissed?

Well no; Stockhausen found some interesting bits in the techno pieces too. But it places the elites in a position where they must discount their own antecedents. This is the problem of so many literary snobs today: they either have to trash Dickens, Cervantes, and Chaucer as being as unworthy of attention as the mass-marketed pablum of today (or else appeal to a dubious “people used to appreciate books more!”), or they have to say that these authors had qualities that were never appreciated by the mass of readers even then. Moore’s polemic hits the wall when he is forced into defending complexity, difficulty, and wordplay for its own sake, as though such qualities had intrinsic merit independent of the content of a work. But appealing to such objective qualities is the safest way to delineate one’s opinions from those of the hoi polloi.

Of course, in music, the complexity really is the content (there are no messy semantics here, for the most part), so Babbitt goes the first route and pretty much proclaims new music to be of a wholly different quality and merit than all previous musics; maybe not universally better, but unmistakably different. And so Beethoven is definitely not dense enough. But at this point, well, he has established a new genre of technical music and no longer has any claim to identify with “music” as it has been known throughout the history of the world, whether gamelan, raga, Gesualdo, or Telemann. And if he does not want to claim the inherited mantle of “music,” then should anyone deny him the right to proclaim worthiness in whatever undefined field of art he occupies?

The thing is, I suspect most composers and writers do want to claim the mantle of their supposed predecessors. They would rather be the next Dostoevsky than the next Robert Grenier.

Criteria 2. Expertise

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else? It is only the translation of this boredom and puzzlement into resentment and denunciation that seems to me indefensible. After all, the public does have its own music, its ubiquitous music: music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, and to be impressed by. Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

Ah, the old art-as-science argument. The Social Text people trotted this one out during the Sokal Hoax in the 90s, saying that of course literary theory wasn’t comprehensible to non-experts, just as quantum physics wasn’t. Babbitt trained as a mathematician and so perhaps has better purchase on these arguments than the critical theorists, but even he hedges slightly:

I do not wish to appear to obscure the obvious differences between musical composition and scholarly research, although it can be contended that these differences are no more fundamental than the differences among the various fields of study. I do question whether these differences, by their nature, justify the denial to music’s development of assistance granted these other fields. Immediate “practical” applicability (which may be said to have its musical analogue in “immediate extensibility of a compositional technique”) is certainly not a necessary condition for the support of scientific research.

But nonetheless, if the funding is there, go for it! (And certainly coming from a science background, Babbitt saw how much grant money there was being thrown at math and science at that time.)

And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

There were a couple superficial reasons why the critical theorists couldn’t use the expertise argument to outflank their detractors. First, there was a shortage of autonomous results: a book of theory, even Of Grammatology, simply does not have the aesthetic standing that a piece of music or even poetrydoes. Patrons of the arts will support philosophy in a pinch (less so these days!), but they do prefer their arts to be lively, even if they are incomprehensible.

Second, there was no theoretical method to which they could appeal, the main direction of critical theory being to dismantle method. Babbitt (and his forebears) have no such issues. They produce music that can be and occasionally is performed, and Babbitt was only one of many who produced extensive theoretical background depicting the exact mechanisms by which works were composed. Even Xenakis produced a book about stochastic music. So ironically, the scientific argument holds together better here than it does in literature.

The problem is the reverse of before. It now makes the expertise a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Or at least, there’s something very puzzling that an appeal to expertise might be needed for something that could be appreciated viscerally and without a background in close listening and musical theory. I suppose I can pick up a physics paper or the Principia and marvel at their visual elegance and the mysterious arrangement of symbols, but that’s a bit difference than enjoying the “moments” of a Stockhausen or Webern piece in a plebeian way, at least to my mind. But such enjoyment is now bastardized, if not wholly illegitimate. And this is not a criterion by which any artist, even an ardent serialist, wishes to live by.

Everything Else

So why use these two criteria of complexity and expertise? Ultimately, I think it’s just a highly developed quantitative argument attempting to marshal seemingly objective measures in the service of judging art, or at least one type of art. I have to admit to giving some grudging respect to Babbitt’s callow words here because he is more objective than every literary or art critic from Longinus onward who thought that ever-so-vague statements of aesthetic guidelines would be sufficient to help everyone decide which art was good from thereon out.

Complexity and listener expertise (comprehension, that is): if these become the metrics by which music is judged, then we really can judge what new piece of music is “interesting” and back it up with evidence. True, the connection of these metrics to enjoyment remain speculative, but hasn’t every aesthetician also insisted that there were more objective measures than a simple statement of like and dislike? At least here we have them. It bothers me far less than the territorial ramblings of aesthetic polemicists struggling to articulate why they are the first to have discovered the actual path to the soul of humanity.

Dostoevsky’s Sequel

James L. Rice in the TLS clues us in to the unwritten second half of The Brothers Karamazov, which sounds like it would have been a good deal better than Gogol’s disappointing sequel to Dead Souls.

Alyosha remains at the end, to face his destiny, uncertain whether it may be for good or evil. His bonding with the adolescent boys in the village, whose leader Kolya is unmistakably a future radical, points the way to the hero’s role in the unwritten sequel.

Dostoevsky discussed his general plan for the Karamazov sequel with a few people close to him, on different occasions with his wife Anna Grigorievna, and the eminent publisher Aleksei Suvorin (a brooding and devoted friend who was later also a confidant of other complex writers, including Vasily Rozanov and Anton Chekhov). The author’s concept found its way not only into their diaries and memoirs published after the Revolution, but also, through rumour “in Petersburg literary circles”, into the front-page report of an ephemeral Odessa daily newspaper on May 26, 1880 – when Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov had yet to appear. The anonymous correspondent had attended the author’s public reading of bewildering excerpts from the forthcoming instalment. Despite great admiration for Dostoevsky’s genius, the critic complained that most of his characters were mental cases, who sometimes appeared to communicate by psychic means. Rumour in the tsarist capital had it that Alyosha would become the village schoolmaster, and by obscure “psychic processes in his soul” would arrive at “the idea of assassinating the tsar” (ideya o tsareubiistve). Although the Novorossiiskii Telegraf had a circulation of 6,000 and subscribers as far-flung as Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw and Paris, this astounding remark never reached the authorities. It tallies exactly with the diary of Suvorin published forty-three years later (1923), which directly quotes the novelist on Alyosha’s future: “He would be arrested for a political crime. He would be executed” – very nearly the fate of the author himself in his youth. In the sequel there might have been, of course, any number of plots and paths to such a tragic outcome. In one plausible version, Alyosha retreats to the monastery as a clandestine revolutionary.

The surest proof that The Brothers Karamazov was conceived with such a denouement in store is the very name Karamazov: it is very close to that of Dmitry Karakozov, whose point-blank shot at Tsar Alexander II on April 4, 1866, missed its target but heralded an era of terrorism in Russian politics. Karakozov was publicly executed in Petersburg on September 3, 1866. His deed, incidentally, had interrupted serialization of Crime and Punishment – its hero another deranged student dropout with murderous “Napoleonic” ambitions. The Karamazov plot unfolds at the end of August, 1866, so that Dmitry Karamazov’s arrest for the murder of his father occurs at about dawn on September 3, precisely when in real life the would-be assassin Karakozov was led to the scaffold.

Wishful thinking? Rice implies the same wish that I and so many other teenage Dostoevsky readers have had, that he would stop compensating for what really is an obsession with evil and let his books become the ultimate refutation of Christianity and the Good that they so badly want to be. The goodness in them never achieves the grace of, say, this:


Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

It must not be imagined that Iudushka was a hypocrite in the same sense as Tartuffe or any modern French bourgeois who goes off into flights of eloquence on the subject of social morality. No, he was a hypocrite of a purely Russian sort, that is, simply a man devoid of all moral standards, knowing no truth other than the copy-book precepts. He was pettifogging, deceitful, loquacious, boundlessly ignorant, and afraid of the devil. All these qualities are merely negative and can supply no stable material for real hypocrisy.

In France hypocrisy is the outcome of a man’s upbringing; it forms part of “good manners” so to speak, and almost always has a distinct political or social coloring…If this kind of hypocrisy cannot be described as a conviction, it is in any case a banner around which men who find it profitable to be hypocritical in this rather than in some other way can gather. They are conscious hypocrites, that is, they know it themselves and are aware that other people know it too. For a French bourgeois the universe is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on and one hypocrite gives his cue to another.

We Russians have no strongly biased systems of education. We are not drilled, we are not trained to be champions and propagandists of this or that set of moral principles but are simply allowed to grow as nettles grow by a fence. This is why there are very few hypocrites among us and very many liars, bigots, and babblers. We have no need to be hypocritical for the sake of any fundamental social principles, for we have no such principles and do not take shelter under any one of them. We exist quite freely, i.e. we vegetate, babble, and lie spontaneously, without any principles.

Whether this is a matter for grieving or rejoicing is not for me to say. I think, however, that while hypocrisy may arouse fear and indignation, objectless lying makes one feel bored and disgusted. And so the best thing is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the conscious as compared with the unconscious hypocrisy, but to keep away both from hypocrites and from liars.

And so Iudushka was a sneak, a liar, and a babbling fool rather than a hypocrite….

The Golovlyov Family (1876)

And so, like a sober, humorless Gogol, Shchedrin sets about proving his point, not just by portraying these characters in unrelentingly brutal detail, but by killing them off rather arbitrarily. In Dostoevsky and in Tolstoy, characters do tend to stick around so they can meet a fate, deserved or undeserved, that serves some dramatic or moral purpose. Shchedrin kills off characters prematurely to foreclose any possibility of redemption, though it quickly becomes clear there was never a chance anyway. What begins as a character sketch ends with that same character dying. Even by Russian standards, this is a miserable book.

I don’t know if Shchedrin had read Burke or Diderot, to whom he seems to be responding here, but his point that hypocrisy implies a bourgeois sort of moral self-awareness is well-taken, and I would say I see Shchedrin’s sort of hypocrite a lot more often than Rameau’s Nephew.

J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

This is the third book in a series that began with Elizabeth Costello and continued with Slow Man. These books are fundamentally about being a writer who has won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Coetzee keeps writing them because some people haven’t yet figured out that his fictional characters’ opinions are not his own; perhaps, as a writer already drowning in consciousness of tradition and context, he feels that these are the only sorts of books he can now write. I tell people when they read these books: remember that Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize, and think about what that means to him and what it means to people’s opinions of him. In having this title thrust on him, he is no longer any old author, but a certain sort of elder statesman. And being the sort of writer he is, he cannot let that stand unquestioned. And since academics are still using the animal rights sections in Elizabeth Costello as though they were freestanding philosophical essays, Coetzee takes further steps in Diary of a Bad Year to make it clear that the “philosophy” in the book is hardly meant to be taken seriously as philosophy. Out goes Elizabeth Costello; in comes J.C., a Nobel Prize winning South African novelist now living in Australia, just like Coetzee, except dumber.

The structure of the novel, in brief: several voices, those of a writer, J.C.; his amanuensis and crush, a cosmopolitan Filipina named Anya; Anya’s financier/scammer husband Alan; and most of all, the writings of J.C. as typed up by Anya. The writings are divided into two sections, one called “Strong Opinions,” written for some sort of German literary publication, and later on, “Soft Opinions,” written for Anya. Since these sections co-exist on each page, the book resists reading in an easy rhythm, as any attempt to read the three sections in parallel, especially early on, results in continual jarring shifts as the highfaluting tone of the “Strong Opinions” is undercut by J.C.’s earnest and vaguely creepy obsession with Anya and Anya’s own sardonic detachment. In some ways it comes as a respite, as the “Strong Opinions”–on the War on Terror, on torture, on intelligent design, and on other urgent political issues of the day–quickly become unbearably pompous, banal, and irritating. They are filled with cliched homilies familiar to anyone who has read the New York Review of Books in the last seven years and dilettantish excursions into areas that J.C. knows nothing about. I winced when reading his “opinion” on Guantanamo Bay that begins:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate…In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.

Had I read these opinions in a Philip Roth or John Updike book, I would take them at face value and discount the author accordingly. But Coetzee is too smart, and any comparison of the “Strong Opinions” to his real opinions in his thoughtful, careful essays makes the difference blindingly apparent. (It does take something approaching guts for a Nobel Laureate to write something so profoundly trite and irritating and attribute it to his own ostensible fictional proxy.) As with many literary intellectuals, J.C.’s excursions into math and science are particularly stupid. By the time J.C. writes, “I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being” and invokes Heisenberg without knowing what uncertainty even is, it’s obvious that Coetzee has no wish even to defend thes opinions; he is making them transparently foolish so that readers examine the rhetoric rather than the opinions. Underneath the sanctimonious white male liberal pablum, including defenses of pornography, Adorno-esque cultural snobbery in indictments of rock music, latent sexism (captured especially well, complete with tired attack on Catherine MacKinnon), and sympathy with enemies of whom he knows nothing, there bleeds the personality that is revealed in J.C.’s internal voice lower on the page. With most would-be political commentators in the literati, it is not quite so obvious, but in J.C., Coetzee gives us tools for easily making the connection.

For it is Anya who carries the voice objecting to the “Strong Opinions.” Alan picks up this critique later in a less sympathetic fashion, but it is Anya who connects J.C.’s emotional life with what he writes on the page. I felt great relief to hear her articulate my thoughts (and no doubt those of many other readers) when she politely tells J.C.:

OK. This may sound brutal, but it isn’t meant that way. There is a tone–I don’t know the best word to describe it–a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. I know that isn’t how you are in real life, but that is how you come across, and it is not what you want. I wish you would cut it out. If you positively have to write about the world and how you see it, I wish you could find a better way.

So we lead to the real problem, which is J.C.’s impotence in the face of the current world horrors and the disastrous results of the obligation he feels to be relevant. As the book continues on and reveals J.C.’s ignorance of the world in several ways, Coetzee spares him little criticism, but does ultimately make a case for his real art in the form of the lovely, impressionistic “Soft Opinions,” short lyrical reflections in the last half of the book that mercifully replace the “Strong Opinions.” These vignettes are written with Anya in mind and with no attempt to be politically incisive. J.C. describes his dreams, his doubts, his age, his friends, and his passions, as antiquated and pedantic as they may be. Most of all, he makes no attempt to suppress the “I” out of the fear that he must pretend to be something he is not in order to address the world with urgency. There is some resignation in this shift, but also great relief; J.C.’s mask has fallen and he returns to himself. It puts him in correct proportion to the thoughtful but non-bookish Anya and her powerful but cowardly husband Alan, and the shift in tone allows him to have a visible, evident effect on Anya, one (it is implied) far greater than that of telling a bunch of would-be intellectual liberals what they already know and having them feel good about it because it’s coming from a Nobel Prize winner.

The affirmation ends in a paean to Dostoevsky. It is one of the most straightforward passages in any of Coetzee’s books, so heartfelt and elegant that it shames the “Strong Opinions” even further. Having achieved some rapprochement with Anya, J.C. stands in relation to Dostoevsky and his books and not to the world, leaving those connections to those more qualified to make them. And with this it becomes clear that those who will best appreciate these unpolitical, abstract thoughts are the ones who will read Diary of a Bad Year, and understand it, in the first place. William H. Gass came to a similar conclusion:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be done for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

William H. Gass

The theme of the writer’s relation to the world has dominated Coetzee’s post-Disgrace work, and many critics seem downright annoyed that he hasn’t produced another easily digestible and Important book like Disgrace. It would be too easy for Coetzee to do so. The narrowing of his territory may be starting to produce diminishing returns–this book is not nearly as eerie and vertiginous as Elizabeth Costello, though it is more consequential than Slow Man–but the earnestness with which Coetzee crawls over it and avoids easy answers is exemplary.

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