"Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost."
So starts Dante's Divine Comedy, and over the course of 100 cantos the narrator takes a most decidedly un-straightforward path to get to his goal, Paradise, where waits Beatrice. Through all the levels of Hell he must travel, from the outermost to the deepest and most terrible. Only then can he traverse all the levels of purgatory before he can make his entrance to heaven.
It seems to me that this is precisely the journey of consciousness. Awakening suddenly, already descending into Hell - else we would not want nor could be conscious in the first place. How lovely it would be to come back the way we came, straight back to the Garden of Paradise! But innocence lost cannot be regained. The way is shut, we have fallen and continue to fall. Dante, lucky soul, is fairly limited in his exposure to that of a mere witness to the horrors of Hell.
The only way out is forward, deeper into hell, whereupon knowing its depths can we then circle back around to Paradise - only from the back door, as it were, the long way around. The deeper into hell one goes, the stronger the consciousness must have been to make it through intact. Only then does one have the character and the constitution to return home, to Paradise, to Union with the good, resonant with deep harmonies and where every action is laden and ripe. Only with the full consciousness and experience of one who has made the travels and survived the dangers. We come back to where we started, or something close to it, but changed by the experience. To paraphrase Jung, for a tree's branches to reach to heaven, its roots must extend to Hell.
The long way is often the shortest way, in the end, because it affords the transformative experiences that shape us into the people capable of getting to our destination in the first place. What looks like a short-cut or the most direct way is also where resistance stiffens. The harder you push, the more what you push on, pushes back. Richmond, 70 odd miles from Washington in the Civil War, fell only after four years, a million casualties, the loss of the trans-Mississippi, Kentucky, Tenessee, all their ports and railhubs. The two most influential Union generals cut their teeth in the West - the long way around.
Of course this presupposes that consciousness is the a-priori good. In a paradoxical and tautological knot, the lack of this awareness means we are still in Hell somewhere. But we emerge from the Round, the Void, and return to it with a Self. I suppose that counts for something. Until, of course, we have to do it all over again. We perfect the process, and the process never ends, moving towards God-knows-what. We have inklings, and we have guides, but the experience must still be lived with the faith that what emerges on the other side will somehow be more complete, that there is an image unfolding through this process. And perhaps the movement towards is enough anyway. It stands to reason that it is better than the alternative.
If we can't move forward, we rot in our own personal Hell. What could have been a comedy dies a tragedy.
The Idiot: A Story on the Insufficiency of Love
A Brief Analysis of The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The Idiot in the book refers to Prince Myschkin, an epileptic orphan who returns to Russia in his mid-twenties after spending years in the mountains in Switzerland where a doctor had been attempting to cure him of his epilepsy. The opening of the book is precipitated by the Prince's return to Russia, where we find out in the course of the book that he has inherited a substantial fortune from a distant relative. In calling upon another distant relative, Lizaveta Yepanchin, he becomes embroiled in the drama of Saint Petersburg society.
The principle device that drives the plot, however, is the character of the Prince himself. He is repeatedly called an idiot by other characters in the book because of his innocence, naivit, and guileless good nature. He speaks his mind, he takes other people at their word, he sees the best in people, and he acts in a spirit of trust even towards those who have repeatedly broken that trust. Dostoyevsky imagined the Prince, as a character, as a man who by nature embodies the Christian ideals of love. In the book, he correspondingly exerts a powerful force on those around him. He attracts through curiosity, of course, but he also acts as a mirror for the qualities of the other characters. They either seek to support him or to take advantage of his "idiocy". Events, crises, and resolutions constellate around him.
This overlaps with the other driving force behind the plot. A bewitchingly beautiful, enigmatic, and seductive woman - Nastasya Filipovna - is also constellating forces and characters around her as she is set to decide who she will marry. In a very real sense, Filipovna is a devouress - able to manipulate and drive men to desperate and mad acts. Competing for her attentions are several other characters in the book, including the hostile brother/shadow figure Parfyon Rogozhin. The two forces of nature, Nastasya and Myschkin, dance around each other for the first half of the book, until they collide at a party in which Nastasya is to reveal which man she has chosen to marry. Seeing the good in her, the Prince - revealing himself to be the heir to a large fortune - also reveals himself to be in love with her. He sees the suffering she has borne, and with the goodness of his heart, can perhaps contain the devouress in his pure love. He asks her to marry him, she accepts, and the party becomes jubilant.
In a simpler book, that would be the end of the story. At first ecstatic and hopeful, her fears get the better of her. She then rejects Prince Myschkin and runs off instead with Rogozhin, who has paid her 100,000 rubles to choose him.
Over the course of the rest of the book, we see Nastasya Filipovna stringing Rogozhin along, with Myschkin pursuing her as in wait for when she decides she is worthy of redemption. Meanwhile, Myschkin and Aglaia Yepanchin, daughter of his distant relative Lizaveta Yepanchin, realize and admit their love for one another. Aglaia, as stormy as Nastasya Filipovna, is light to Nastasya's dark. With a privileged upbringing, she has not seen Nastasya's suffering. But she is bold and hungry for life, and as the Anima figure she acts as a counterbalancing figure to the Prince, as well as to Nastasya who functions as a sort of shadow-Anima. Nastasya Filipovna supports their relations, feeling that she cannot drag the Prince into hell with her and even feeling affection for Aglaia. At the moment when the Prince is to propose marriage to Aglaia, however, the storm fronts collide and break in a three-way meeting between the Prince, Aglaia, and Nastasya. In a nasty fight between the two women, the Prince goes to comfort Nastasya. The action insinuates, and is interpreted by Aglaia, as his choosing Nastasya over her.
She leaves. Nastasya and the Prince become engaged, and Nastasya abandons the Prince at the altar and returns to Rogozhin. Prince Myschkin tracks her down for the final time. Rogozhin - who had previously attempted to murder Myschkin - has killed Nastasya, rather than lose her again. Her death is too much for both of them. Rogozhin is stripped of his inheritence and sent to Siberia. Myschkin has another epilectic attack that returns him permanently to a state of child-like idiocy. Aglaia runs off with a Polish "count" and is promptly abandoned by him, penniless and disgraced.
Some questions that arise point to issues of human nature that can never be satisfactorily resolved. E.g. why did Nastasya feel so unworthy of Myschkin's love? Why did she feel she was so worthless that her proper situation was as a harlot, a temptress, and a seductress?
Rather, I want to focus on the character of the Prince. The story is a tragedy. In reading it, I presume that my desire to see at least the Prince and Aglaia (after Nastasya rejects Prince Myschkin) achieving happiness, union, and resolution is universal among readers. Why this union was not so, and could not be so, is the subject of this brief investigation. And worse, it is not even a proper tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the lovers at least leads to a broader reconciliation and resolution in the world, with the two feuding families deciding to live in peace. The price of their feud was too high. The world learns at the expense of the protagonists. In The Idiot, this broader re-ordering and resolution does not occur. Myschkin is reduced to truly being an idiot, Aglaia is disgraced and has ruined her life, Nastasya is dead, and Rogozhin is sent to Siberia. Aglaia's family, which features prominently in the book, is presumably reeling from the loss of their favored daughter, but the broader impact of the events on the family and on the other characters in the book is not particularly explored. The various characters constellated about the protagonists are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and go on with business as usual. This lack of integration is symbolized by Myschkin's loss of conscious faculties via his epileptic attacks, three of which occur during the course of the book. The final one - when he sees Nastasya dead -seems to be permanently damaging. These attacks will figure heavily into this analysis. But the inability of the constellated, secondary characters to absorb the events and manifest a resolution point to the fundamental problem with Myschkin's character.
Myschkin is treated by other characters as an idiot, but because Myschkin possesses full consciousness of what is happening to him, he can't properly be called one. He sees and understands that others are trying to take advantage of him, or gossip about him, or treat him as a non-entity. Only, he pretty generally does little about it. In the later part of the book, when he has his fortune, a group of ne'er-do-wells conspire with a false claim to gain a small fortune of their own from the Prince. Rudely barging into his home, they demand (in front of the Prince's friends no less) that he pay them what is due. Despite the entreaties of his friends to throw them out, Prince Myschkin admits that he wants to pay them. Only when the falsity of their claim is fully exposed do the rogues desist, more out of a sense of humiliation that in spite of their being ousted the Prince still wants to pay them money.
Why is this? Sensitive, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and good-natured, Myschkin exemplifies the Christian ideal of loving one's neighbor. And, for the first half of the book, these qualities make Myschkin an attractive hero figure. After people realize he is not an idiot, but rather a rare specimen of human goodness, his guileless good nature seems like it is enough to renew and revivify the lives of Nastasya and the Yepanchin family. Yet the writing is already on the wall, as it were. Until the party where he meets Nastasya, he is swept along by events to the party itself. His marriage proposal, coming out of the blue, is his one positive action. It is a redemptive act for him, taking positive steps towards a more active engagement with the world. Nastasya's rejection could have been the impetus for growth into a more developed person, one with more agency over his own life. Instead, he continues to allow himself to be dragged along, incapable of saying, "No," "enough," or "this is what cannot be." As a result, he is a surprisingly passive character. Things happen to him. In the interim in the two parts of the book, since receiving his fortune, he did little except follow Nastasya around in the vague hope that something might come of it, and to be there for her when she runs away from Rogozhin. And all the while he becomes embittered and jaded. He can't change and escape the cycle of entrapment and bitterness he is in, because change would imply positive action, something to move towards, which implies cutting up the world into Bad, Good, Better and Worse, into wrongs to be righted, insufficiencies to be addressed, and undone tasks to be done.This is something he is incapable of doing.
Myschkin cannot make any meaningful choices on his own, because that would imply assigning value. And assigning value means saying that some things are better than others, and that clear and purposeful action be taken to secure the more valuable choices. Something which is impossible for someone who is so highly open to the world that they essentially have no will or agency of their own. Anyone or anything can make a valid claim on Prince Myschkin's time, resources, money, and energy because he has no mechanism for sifting through what is in front of him. Hence, he is unable to decide between Aglaia and Nastasya, and at least four lives are ruined. He is open to the world and to others at the expense of his own personal boundaries and cohesion as a discrete psychic entity. Openness is antithetical to the act of valuation, positive segmentation of the world, and meaningful action. This does not mean the two cannot co-exist, but the one must be tempered by the other. There is a synthesis of the two that must emerge. Myschkin has the openness, the Christian love, but he lacks another positive virtue or guiding principle in his life to synthesize this with. He is all innocence and no thrust. He lacks a principle by which he can actively grapple with the world and, in doing so, shape himself. All power and no love is tyranny or psychopathy, but all love and no power is not automatically morality. Was it moral to enable Nastasya's descent into hell? Was it moral to lead Aglaia along, only to reject her for Nastasya?
Myschkin is clearly meant to embody a certain aspect of Christ, who went to his death with full consciousness of his fate and therefore of the depths of human savagery and cruelty. That can only be because Christ knew what he stood for and what it was worth. Myschkin, while not an idiot, was reduced to being one because he lacked consciousness of the shadows of human nature. His epileptic attacks occur during moments when that savagery comes out in others - at a party when he is being socially humiliated, when he is about to be attacked with a knife, and when he sees Nastasya dead. Because he can only see the best in others, he cannot see the evil in them (or in himself for that matter). He cannot keep anyone, himself included, out of Hell, because he cannot admit to its existence. He has no reason to, because anything is infinitely understandable and valid and thus anything is permissible. Because he cannot face evil and give it a name, he loses his mind.
Dostoyevsky, as I understand it, set out to write about someone who is inherently good-natured. That is, they do not have to learn how to be good. In the story, this asserts itself in the fact that Myschkin is an orphan. The implication is perhaps that he needed nothing from parents since he had it all within him from the beginning. Yet especially the Father represents not only the earthly father that raises the son as an embedded member of the community, but also the Heavenly Father, that is the ideal, the end towards which one dedicates their life. This is the principle that could balance Love and Openness, and create a whole person. This, I think, explains why Myschkin could not learn to balance his character or change his ways over the course of his adventure. He has no embeddedness, no structure or hierarchy of values, no North Star by which to orient himself. Without this, people spin out into the extremes of either nihilism and roguishness or, as Myschkin does, into apathy and dissociation. Indeed, we never hear of a goal or aim of the Prince's besides being introduced to the Yepanchins at the very beginning of the book, and later vaguely chasing after Nastasya.
I say all this having been incredibly inspired by the example of the Prince, particularly in the first part of the story leading up to the party where he initially proposes to Nastasya. But the story is ultimately a tragedy. To be able to consciously take on the highest suffering, as Prince Myschkin attempted to do with Nastasya, you need to be strong, insanely strong, or else the world disintegrates into chaos. To be strong requires taking a stand and exerting ones will onto the world. Heroic strength is power tempered with love, empathy, and compassion. But his shadow figures, Rogozhin and Nastasya, remain unintegrated and meet a gruesome end. His anima figure, the innocent but hungry-for-life Aglaia who acts as a foil to his passivity and resignation, is corrupted as the result of his unwillingness to take a stand. He is estranged from the Yepanchin family in general, which should have been his adoptive family. Psychologically, his mental breakdown is inevitable, and in fact has already occurred as the characters representing the various aspects of his personality are violently destroyed.
He is not strong enough to peer into the darkness and rescue the princess, so he stays a perpetual prince rather than succeeding to the kingdom.
Another throwback, this time from 2017. This was the first chapter of an abandoned book project on learning languages, before I realized I didn't really have much new to say about the actual mechanics of learning languages. Though I do still quite like the "theory" I talk about, and do plan to explore these ideas more in future writing. It will not be a "how-to" guide like this was, though.
This abandoned book is quite long, however, so it'll be coming in multiple parts...
To continue the throwback kick: an article I wrote for a newsletter in university about Don Quijote. It's fun for me to see how my thoughts and writing have evolved since then (2012), both generally and specifically about this book. I don't think I said much of anything in the article, actually, which is quite funny to me now. But I do like the ending: "While his effectiveness is unclear, his character issues a resounding challenge to us all to grapple with the reality of the virtues and ideals with we hold dear." It's increasingly clear to me that few, precious few of us live a life from principle, and we all to varying degrees participate in the timeless tradition of deluding oneself otherwise. Rather, living from convenience and expedience is the norm. For if a decision is easy or convenient, we cannot truly say it was freely chosen in affirmation of higher principle. We have only taken the path of least resistance.
If a knight is someone who "acts like a knight," then based on the results of his acts Quijote was inarguably not a very good one. While Quijote at least attempted to live a life of principle, he made the mistake of doing so in a fashion disconnected from his context and disconnected from most others- perhaps as fitting a definition of madness as any other. Any ideal can only come alive in relationship. But it did at least live in the relationship between Quijote and Panza, and perhaps a few other characters. That is something. Even if it has but lived once, then it has still lived. What, then, do we bring alive in our relationships?
Seems it is time for a re-reading...
I was listening to the radio the other day. Streaming the French culture station. I was only half paying attention, but I remember they were talking about the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. And my ears especially perked up when they compared it to one of my favorite books, Don Quijote. In fact, one of the speakers was busy making the case that, in fact, the two books are essentially the same.
There's nothing better than driving alone at night on an empty highway. The thought roared past me on the road, followed quickly by a semi-truck for emphasis. I shifted on the seat, already aching. I wasn't sure how long I'd been driving and I didn't care to know. The tank was still half full, and that was the only thing that mattered right then. This was the only place where there was any sense of purpose: to get to a station before running out of gas. The world shrank and became manageable, something I could grasp, the more I relaxed into the getaway. My wheels pasted the ruined remains of a skunk further into the road. I hate skunks, anyway. One of the few animals can't stand.
I love notebooks. Beautiful, well-made notebooks, of course, with silky paper and a pleasing design. But also cheap dollar notebooks from low-price box stores, the kind with scratchy paper and cheap binding or, worse, spiral bindings. Spiral notebooks both fascinate and repulse me.
I love them all because I love the idea of a notebook.
An empty notebook is enticing possibility. The magic of all the things one could live, learn, dream, design. It is the thought of the intimate essay we get to write for ourselves, what will be a constant work-in-progress, growing alongside the writer.
An empty notebook is an invitation. It is an invitation into conspiracy, where writer and receiving vessel are complicit in the act of rebellion that is writing. In its pages a shared secret unfolds, for they retain the silence of their father trees. They keep their secrets, their only whispers being that of pen on paper.
An empty notebook engages all the senses. There is the feeling of it in one's hands. The crinkle of the stiff pages waiting to be worn in. The imaginings of what it could eventually contain. The woody smell of the unspoilt pages still beating to the rythym of its former forest. It's an elixir I could get drunk off of, were it only able to be distilled. In a way, I do drink it in regardless. How else can I explain the uninhibited dance of pen across page, the inkblots like footprints in the sand? The dance that begins so hesitantly, so delicately, as I'm afraid to sully the pristine pages with the profanity of my penmanship. But, inevitably, I do. Thoughts crystallize as they can only do on a page.
The notebook is the medium, the sacrifice, the kindling that so patiently sacrifices itself in the search for something greater than the writer. The notebook can never again be perfect once it is used, filled as it is with earnest attempts at enlightenment crammed around yesterday's shopping list. The pages, clear like a polished mirror, reflect our own imperfections.
The only thing I love as much as an empty notebook is a freshly filled notebook. There is a different kind of beauty to it, but a beauty nonetheless. Everything in between is messy anxiety and stuttering insight.
I am learning to mistrust parts of myself. For example, a knee-jerk reaction of understanding. I get that sometimes when I hear or read something. It clicks and it makes so much sense! So I stop thinking about it and move on to something else.
Yet later I try and explain it and struggle to put it into words. To my chagrin, this happened to me the other day when I tried to explain to a friend a book I recently read. After a couple minutes of struggling with words, I sort of circumscribed the meaning of the book. He got the idea of what I was talking about- maybe. Maybe he just wanted me to shut up about it already. But it got me thinking- did I really understand the book before I had to explain it?
...sees much and knows much