Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Ocean Ground Against His Utmost Bones"

Let us return once again to the passage I cited in yesterday’s letter from the epilogue of Crime and Punishment:

"He was ill a long time. But it was not the horrors of prison life, not the hard labour, the bad food, the shaven head, or the patched clothes that crushed him. What did he care for all those trials and hardships! He was even glad of the hard work. Physically exhausted, he could at least reckon on a few hours of quiet sleep. And what was the food to him—the thin cabbage soup with beetles floating in it? In the past as a student he had often not had even that. His clothes were warm and suited to his manner of life. He did not even feel the fetters. Was he ashamed of his shaven head and parti-coloured coat? Before whom? Before Sonia? Sonia was afraid of him, how could he be ashamed before her? And yet he was ashamed even before Sonia, whom he tortured because of it with his contemptuous rough manner. But it was not his shaven head and his fetters he was ashamed of: his pride had been stung to the quick. It was wounded pride that made him ill. Oh, how happy he would have been if he could have blamed himself! He could have borne anything then, even
shame and disgrace. But he judged himself severely, and his exasperated conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone. He was ashamed just because he, Raskolnikov, had so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind fate, and must humble himself and submit to ‘the idiocy’ of a sentence, if he were anyhow to be at peace."

I like this paragraph. I like it a lot. Among other devices that might be of benefit, we can observe the transition from physical realities to internal, with the former being a reflection of the latter: the beetles in the soup reflecting in an inexplicable, but nonetheless tangible manner the circumstances of his inner torment.

More to the point, I am struck by the manner in which Dostoevsky manages to prise his way into the head of our beloved protagonist and reveal to us the vibrant, multicolored skein of fears, resentments, and evasions lurking there, without in any way seeming to support Raskalnikov’s emotional state, nor his dark, subversive thoughts. “But he judged himself severely, and his exasperated conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone.” The blunder thus referenced is Raskalnikov’s slaying of an old woman with an axe. Might have happened to anyone! It is unfortunate that fate reserved such an uncomfortable circumstance for the hero of this novel, with whom we have been growing more than casually acquainted for the last 700 pages, and who less than anyone else in the book we should like to see thrown into prison for the totally arbitrary occurrence of murdering a woman in cold blood.
“He was ashamed just because he, Raskalnikov, had so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind fate…” Through the experience of writing my own novel I have discovered that such stray details are never merely a reflection of the character’s current convictions, but are the extenuation of sentiments and paradigms which have been at work within him, normally since the beginning of the novel, and which in one way or another are connected to every single event of the story, and every word he speaks. I would have to write out the previous sentence, three, four, five, or six times to emphasize the reality of it, and its ongoing significance for our present purposes.

And now, at the opposite pole, not the end, but the beginning, of another great Russian novel:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

"Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid and the coachman had given warning."

The line about the various members of the family all feeling they were but loosely connected, more like the inhabitants of a dingy inn than a fellowship of blood, is unnervingly vivid. I remember at the height of my mother’s insanity during the summer of 2006, wildly exclaiming to Booth, “This isn’t a family! This is nothing like a family! It’s just a collection of people who live together under the same roof!” The entirety of the first chapter is delineated in a similar manner. Nothing particularly eventful happens, but the accumulation of small, perceptive details leads in the end to an impression of overwhelming realism. Stepan’s reaction to his wife when she first confronts him with the evidence of his transgression is particularly startling—he smiles. “His face utterly involuntarily… assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile.” It is hard to imagine such a person reacting in any other way.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Loneliness of a Tragic-Minded Chronicler

“I had to close down everything, I had to close down my mind
Too many things could cut me, too many things make me blind
I’ve seen so much in so many places, so many heartaches, so many faces
So many dirty things, you couldn’t even believe…”
– Moby, “Extreme Ways”

Perhaps because it’s nearly fall again, this has been one of the most vividly beautiful visits I’ve had to Southwestern. I love the way the light slants into corners of a darkened room; the high, austere gloominess of the Chapel on a quiet afternoon; that place in between Herman Brown and the McCombs apartments where the light from the moon, and the street lamps, and the stars, all seems to pool into a single place, and the rest of the campus, by extension, is utterly swathed in darkness (an appropriate symbol, I guess). Yet there’s a certain menace to it, also. When I was trekking with Rebecca across the front of the campus this morning after Sunrise Club, I mentioned that she had eight more glorious months to be here, and, being in a particularly cynical and snarky mood these past few days, she muttered hostilely, “I haven’t idealized it yet, like you have.” Yet, in walking round the campus alone this afternoon, and sitting in the library for an hour by myself, and praying in the Chapel, I eventually concluded that the accusation was unjust. I’m not yet so fully removed from this school and the time that I spent here (if indeed that’s even possible for me) that I’ve forgotten how some of the worst years of my life were spent in this place.

For I’m finding (if I ever forgot it) that Southwestern means more to me than Worship in the Chapel, and long nights spent with others in communal prayer, and making Micah laugh in the Commons, and scheming with Booth and Alex, and spinning round in circles with Shelley through the faint haze of autumn. It’s also the place—may I capture it well!—where I sat on a bench in the lamplight feeling lonelier than I had ever felt in my life. It’s also the place where I lay in my bed until long after midnight feeling restless and uneasy at the relentless, unblinking condemnation of the bare, white walls of my room. It’s the place where, every night as night set in, I would flee to the library to escape the terror of the emptiness I felt. It’s a place where I trembled and wept.

If nothing else, though, one good thing has come of it: Being here again has given me a much deeper understanding of my novel, and myself. It was during the middle of the summer that I first began to re-envision the overarching structure of the chapters on Southwestern, after reading Dr. Herbert’s book Moby-Dick and Calvinism and the first few books of The Brothers Karamazov. Our venerated Melville-enthusiast-companion contends that the reason his beloved author suffered so much emotional anguish at around the time he was writing his masterpiece was because his understanding of the world had been profoundly disturbed by a reality which was incongruent with its preconceived assertions. Essentially, his parents had raised him in a Unitarian faith which taught that God rewarded the good and rendered judgment on the wicked. For the early Unitarians, of course, prosperity was a sure sign of God’s favor. However, when Allan Melvill became involved in some unscrupulous financial arrangements, ruining the family income, the guilt he incurred on his head was so great that he suffered a panic attack and died of anguish. Now, young Herman could have dealt with this, theologically, by recognizing what might have been obvious to anyone else, then or now, that his father was something less than the paragon of virtue he had previously believed him to be. However, he did not do so; and his failure to do so plunged him into an arresting theological dilemma. God rewards the good with tokens of benevolence and smites the wicked with afflictions; everyone knew that. Yet Melville’s father had been faithful to the Lord in all his dealings, and had died at an early age in the most appalling circumstances. How do you reconcile the indisputable truths of your religious understanding with the evident realities of ordinary life? For Melville, the answer was to do essentially what I did during my freshman year here: to ping-pong back and forth from one particular conviction to its opposite, inviting doubt, and disbelief, and, ultimately, searing psychological disturbance, in the process.

The primary difficulty, as Dr. Herbert explains it, lies in this: A person who has been raised in a particular matrix of belief can never let go of the convictions attendant on it without, in some measure, doing violence to his own psyche, because those convictions form the edifice on which his personality is built, and he removes them at his peril.

Dr. Herbert describes Melville’s struggle with a predestinating God in the most mythical terms: “This dilemma lies at the heart of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael and Captain Ahab come to terms with a whale whose career of wanton destruction suggests a God run amok” (shades of the CCT!). “Melville recognized that the remorseless logic of orthodox Calvinism was not only consistent with itself; it was also consistent with realities of human experience that cannot be explained by the theory that God respects liberal conceptions of human dignity.” All true; there’s an unassailable logic to Calvinism (to say nothing of its apparent support in the Scriptures) which renders it from a rhetorical standpoint virtually inarguable. I suppose this explains, at least in part, why so many right-thinking, deep-thinking people are taken in by it.

It was during my time here at Southwestern that I grappled at close quarters with two mighty, sublime, and potentially treacherous religious frameworks. The first was Calvinism; the second, Jungianism. Looking back on it now, I suppose I fled into Jungianism as a revolt against Calvinism, and against my own apparently inexorable calling as a prophet. In large part, it appears that the liberal revolt against orthodoxy in the early- to mid-nineteenth century was a revolt against Calvinism as well. Unitarianism offered an understanding of Christianity with some basis in the Scriptures, just as Jungianism offered an understanding of my final year of high school, and first year of college, and the general mystical, disturbing, ornately symbolic, literary nature of my life, which fit the facts as comprehensively as Calvinism did. Yet Jungianism, like Unitarianism, proved to be something of a dead end. For one thing, it encouraged me to go around quoting Moby Dick with the same avidity and fervor with which I had once quoted the Scriptures aforetime; for another, I became so lost in aethereal metaphysical abstractions that I nearly lost my mind. This would seem to be the natural consequence of seeking to escape a religious understanding enshrined around an impersonal God who coldly, grimly foreordained the mechanical movements of your brutal and surreal existence. My conception of God as a being who is adamantly, almost forcefully un-relational impelled me into a metaphysical framework where relationship was utterly unnecessary.

I still have respect and sympathy for Jungianism and Calvinism—even agree with them, in fact, in certain essentials—but it appears that my novel will be a takedown of both these systems of belief. Even if that wasn’t what I had intended, the arc of the narrative would render it so. They’ve simply proven too destructive; Calvinism as I understood it came close to annihilating my faith when I first began to grapple with my calling as a prophet and the literary nature of my life. Jungianism, though subtle and more insidious, came closer still.

Yet even so, what I said at the beginning of this entry holds true, and in some inscrutable manner—I know not how, exactly—plays into it all. Southwestern is like a person: sometimes willing, sometimes helpful, sometimes cold and isolating and possessed of terrible moroseness. In the fall, these attributes take on a quality of nigh-unbearable acuteness. Even at my happiest, I still felt lonely here. The place is so spacious, and the people so few; and the scenery so lulling, so deep; you expect at any moment for the shadows in a corner or the crevice of a stony stair to swallow you alive and never let you go. You’re talking to a friend for an hour—say, Shelley on the mall, or Booth, or even Taylor, in the Chapel—and you turn to leave, and in the very instant that you turn away, the darkness deepens, and the immeasurability of loneliness is overwhelming to your senses. It engulfs you like the sea. I refuse to believe that it’s just my own extraordinary sensitivity to mood and lighting; there were many times I was alone in London, yet I never felt so lonely. (I say nothing of Chicago for, as always, the less said the better). This is a place of endless depths. And there are things that lurk here, hidden from the common eye, which lend to its inner richness a most brooding hue.