Blogs Don't Burn

My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

When I was a kid, I liked rules. What’s more a lot of these rules came from my own parents, who I loved and who loved me. I was shy and cautious, and as far as I could see life was pretty simple; rules were for our own good, and people who stuck to the rules were happy, but people who broke the rules were not.  Of course this convenient dichotomy soon started to tear at the seams. Exceptions to the rules cropped up, and I found myself frantically trying to sew the seams back together. When that no longer worked I began tossing aside a few of my parents’ rules, first reluctantly, and eventually rather gleefully. I came to possess new beliefs, and the experience rather thrilled me. After a while though, some of my new beliefs began, in turn, to wear just as thin as my parents’ beliefs. Any set of beliefs, convictions, or values threatens to crumble at some point under the chaotic forces at work in the world. The drive to make sense of the world, especially by creative means, can sometimes run dry in the face of discouragement. It can become tempting to give in to despair, and save ourselves from being disappointed ever again by falling into a permanently standoffish relationship with the idea of belief itself. An artist struggling in the face of such despair could easily take refuge in a storytelling tradition fixated on aesthetics and form over everything else, and that sees the literary achievements of the past as no more than lines of text, arranged in a pattern made only to be broken down, and not as the stuff with which we connect ourselves to the world and to other people, and to help us live a more fulfilling life. But can an artist really be said to be creative if all they do is destroy what came before? For my money, I think such an artist only has half of the picture in mind. It’s human nature to test the rules of both our biological and literary parents, but the journey has to come full circle. David Foster Wallace played a key part in jolting the literature of the recent past out of despondency, and his comment on literature devoted to destruction still rings true:


For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it's great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat's-away-let's-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody's got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there's cigarette burn on the couch, and you're the host and it's your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It's not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it's 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody's thrown up in the umbrella stand and we're wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders' patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We're kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we're uneasy about the fact that we wish they'd come back--I mean, what's wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren't ever coming back--which means we're going to have to be the parents.


Given his dissatisfaction with postmodernist preoccupations, it’s no surprise that Wallace wrote a review of Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank’s biography of the literary titan, and commended Frank’s commitment to giving readers an exhaustive understanding of the ideological climate in which Dostoevsky wrote his great novels. In his review, Wallace compares Dostoevsky’s struggle with the nihilism infecting Russian thinking with the “nihilistic spell” under which so many of Wallace’s own contemporaries had fallen. Compared to these contemporaries of Wallace’s throwing up in the umbrella stand, Dostoevsky is a rejuvenating voice of parental authority, calling readers and writers to provide some order to their house.


This is not to say that The Idiot is necessarily comforting. The nihilism against which Dostoevsky was fighting by writing the novel would not have been threatening if the despair that fed it were not a beast capable of persisting beyond nineteenth-century Russia, on into the literary culture in which Wallace and Frank found themselves twenty years ago, and continuing to trouble us today. The titular idiot, Prince Myshkin, embodies all the values that Dostoevsky hoped would save Russia from this despair. Like a loving parent trying to make everything better he plies the people around him with love: the delusional General Ivolgin, the manic Nastasya Filippovna, the violent Rogozhin, the obsequious Lebedev. They all cannot bring themselves to put aside their egos and put themselves under a loving hand, and most all of them come to tragic ends. They become trapped in a late-night revel of their own making.


Though despair overcomes most of the characters, the love with which Myshkin sought to cure them is just as tenacious. Though the loving would-be parent of Dostoevsky’s characters is banished to a Swiss Sanatorium, the need which he offers to fill does not go away. We might be trapped in an authority-free, spiritually malnourished environment, but we can be our own parents. We can bring some order to the world, even if it doesn’t last. Our hearts will break, but better to have a broken heart capable of love, than be the cool kid who tries to hold the world at arm’s length.

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