Aristotle! Or, the Joys of Greek

July 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Sight today was so cool! Now we have relative-corelatives, the verb “to be” in all its existential utility, and the sorts of puzzles I love from Latin. The sight passages are starting to be of the sort about which (heh, unintentional Greek-speak) one can debate and ponder conceptually. (Today, for example, a part of Aristotle’s Politics where he’s comparing men to animals, and we learn the colors of verbs, in a way–what’s a sense perception versus a cognitive perceiving. Aristotle was describing “voices” (sounds a human makes) as the reactions to felt things hitting one, as they are for animals, and he goes on to talk about reason and understanding these “signs” as the mark of man. 

At the end of sight, Aramis read aloud and translated for us a passage from Sophocles’ Oedipus, which included delights like “mechanorrafon” (I need to learn beta code), reminiscent of Dido “weaving the pretexts of delay” in Book 4. I’m starting to see some of how Greek makes new words from old ones (verbs from nouns and v.v., like “a sense perception” from aisthanomai, etc.) and it makes the language really come alive for me. As does the chance to sit in an air conditioned, albeit windowless, room the whole summer and occasionally get glimpses of what it’s like to have, say, Aramis’s level of fluency in Greek.

The sense of Greek as a joy and a refuge is coming to me much easier, this summer, than that feeling did for Latin, last summer. Last summer, that sense came after the program. It was such a struggle to work on Latin some days. I’m not ever, really, feeling that way with Greek–it’s delightful! And totally unexpected–I wonder why. Partly, the language has more morphology, and thus in a way, less syntax–less ambiguity in forms, more you can do with fewer words (I think–I’ll contradict myself in a few months when I actually know something about Greek). Partly, it’s actually loads better to be doing this language for no practical reason at all, because it keeps me in the happy and rarefied mental place where the language matters because poetry and the history of science matter. And those two thoughts, untenable some nights in my version of the real world outside the Institute, within it are mutually reinforcing–the language makes me care about poetry more, just-so stories (and more rigorous ones) about ancient science motivate learning the language.

The biggest difference, which I hope I remember when I fall off the diligence wagon, is that I am drilling my morpho and syntax like hell this summer. Last summer I think I was still somewhat in student mode (immature one at that)–oh, I’m doing okay on assessments, so I can afford to be lazy about knowing exactly what the syntax of this one ablative is. Now I don’t feel like it’s an option for me to be lazy about syntax or uncertain about morphology (that we’ve learned and practiced, I mean–sight is of course different). It makes such a huge difference for how much I enjoy the language! Which I knew it would, even when I was not doing it quite right last year. But I’m glad I’ve been able to carry through and treat Greek with the care and attention a beautiful language (redundant? yes–) deserves. I wanted to go in and “do the Institute right” at the beginning of the summer, and I’m feeling grateful to all the people supporting me, and yeah, proud and excited, that I haven’t flaked on myself (or the community that is the Institute), as I so often do.

Time for sentences! Then more drilling old & new morphology. I really am finding it all fun–with Ray, I hope (wish incapable of fulfillment in present or future time) that our shirt this year isn’t something about bitter study bearing sweet fruit. This is a joy and a privilege. This is a community getting an astonishing amount of good things done in a summer together. This is what learning could be, if we give and get elsewhere the kind of support we give and get here. I get wanting to be in an insider’s club that’s done this terribly hard thing, but I hope we talk about the Institute in a way that does justice to what happens here when we’re through. Is it a harsh way to learn a dead language? Sure. Maybe. It certainly doesn’t work for everyone–and we shouldn’t get into “special flower” thinking if it happens to work for us. But it is, and could also be, such a joyous way to learn that really affirms, continuously, progressively, repeatedly, emphatically, that this language and what was written and thought in it matters. Just because. Because it’s sacred, to my (devoutly atheist) way of thinking.

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes from the Institute

July 4, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m feeling, intensified, some of those same things about Greek in particular, language in general, and learning in general that came, happily, last summer. I miss diagramming sentences – I’m looking forward to it; the relatively heavy morphology and light syntax we’ve had in Greek is a different sort of challenge than Latin was (during the Institute) and has been (since). I feel my nascent Greek reading abilities coming more fluidly than my Latin did, both because the languages are different and because I know how to learn a dead language now. Greek word order (in the fake Greek we’ve had) and the unambiguity of most forms has made Greek less like a puzzle and more like what will, I can feel, be a fluent reading experience at some time. Knowing morphology cold seems to have a clearer payoff in Greek than in Latin–not that it was in any way not essential in Latin, but I have a greater sense that you’ve fought more of the battle once you know what possible forms a Greek word could be in a sentence.

So far it’s not demanded as much systematic thinking of me as Latin, which I miss on the one hand, but which has a certain joy of intuition on the other. At first it drove me crazy that the Greek verbal system is much more sprawling and demanding of memorization than the thing of algorithmic and mathematical beauty that is Latin’s stem-infix-ending. Now I kind of like that about Greek–I’m starting to regain the zen feeling I got with Latin verb synopses, and I appreciate how verbs like lambanw are a mish-mash of principal parts from different verbs, since the commonest verbs often are. These irregularities that made me groan under the weight of irregular principal parts now give me a feeling for how Greek was a living language that evolved, that standardized its usage, in which different verbs once had different flavors and odd usages before coming together into one verb.

The thrill of language and the continuous feeling of stretching and miraculous competence and the restructuring of my English thought patterns are all there. Perhaps because having taught intensively this past year, I have more meta-cognition about what this program (happily) does to me. I notice more of the pedagogical moves that program instructors make, the incredible design and coordination of the whole thing, and I LOVE that. I’m trying to make my thoughts more explicit this year as I have them, about the unique combination of fast and slow reading, fluency and philology that the Institute fosters. What I loved half-wittingly last year, I understand my love for this year. This is a sort of haven for language and literature lovers, but a rigorous one, for once. Again, there are several fellow math folks among the students. I can confidently say after a day of Greek that “I know how to say something I didn’t yesterday”, which is a unique joy of language-learning for a poet and reader. How often, as a writer, do you get to feel that you’ve figured out how to say something right–an image, a word, a turn of phrase, an analogy, a reference, an anecdote–that you couldn’t yesterday?

My days when I am writing (or mathing) are marked by intense mental effort that often goes nowhere, or moments of solution and insight that mostly turn out to be false. Greek isn’t like that in this learning phase. I have the pleasure of analytical thinking like in math–but I get to say not just that I’ve learned a new technique for sparse graphs, but that with my poor grasp of Greek, I yet got to tackle the story of Prometheus or witty one-liners from Menander. How often do you get to feel like you’re making steady progress and unambiguously growing your toolbox for attacking what Anthony Storr, (following Thomas Szasz, in The Art of Psychotherapy) calls “problems of living”?

The Institute is unique in my life for its explicit encouragement of both philology and fluent reading–being able to dive down the rabbit hole, but not by default thinking of a sentence in an ancient language as a puzzle to be solved, instead of something one can aspire to read continuously. It’s perfect for someone like me who finds it hard to give up either of thinking analytically or synthetically, and it’s an amazing corrective to the turn towards contextualizing and cultural situation of texts, away from texts themselves. (It lets me keep this historicizing and contextualizing impulse, but be rigorous about the words in a poem too in a way that I partially pretend at in English.) Last year I think I was too overwhelmed by the newness of both classical languages and Institute methods to reflect much. This year, the structure I am looking at is more explicitly of the Institute itself and how it works, since I’m not too bogged down in the emotional roller coaster of learning a language this way.

Something else strange and COOL is happening in my relationship with the Institute this time around. I remember Alice getting frustrated at us one day in our Augustine elective because (probably) we were underprepared. She framed the situation in terms of our responsibility to do what the Institute asked of us, and I remember thinking it was a little grandiose. We were all there voluntarily, had paid tuition, and were going to take out of it what we would; we didn’t “have” to do any of this, even though we’d signed up for this–at least in the strong sense of moral requirement. Of course I took her framing seriously, because philosophical approaches to the sanctity and obligation of the classroom aside, she was right that we were underprepared and that was hurting the community.

I feel much more moralistic about it this time around. The sense of responsibility I feel is not because “I agreed to take part in this”, but because the Institute has to work a certain way for it to work, and I as a student have to (moral requirement, this time!) play my part fully and enthusiastically. I think I was a little more dazed and shocked by the pace of things last year, and more prone to complaining. Perhaps there were more people learning Latin for a requirement than there are learning Greek this year (medievalists in various fields, historians, etc. – there’s only a few students wonderfully crazy enough to be taking Greek the Institute way because they need it for something basically unrelated, like Koine for seminary). Either way, I find myself much more oriented towards the needs of the community and the mutual investment of all students and teachers in this crazy thing. I feel energized after a week of Greek, and I’m probably annoying some fellow students when I call this “fun”, unironically, with some frequency…and as much as I love translation and composition over drilling vocab and morphology, I can even get myself to do that with some enthusiasm, knowing, this time, around where I will be in my Greek on Day 31, 41, 51 if I do right by the program.

What this means is: what I’m not naturally inclined towards is still fun because I know in my Latin-Institute bones how helpful it is and will be. I trust more completely that Hardy, when he and Gerald Quinn put together this marvel of a textbook, and all three teachers, when they prepared for this summer, know exactly what they are doing when they tell us learning some particular thing is more essential than it might seem. I’m not so focused on the emotional impact the program has for me, this time, because I recognize–partly from last year, partly from more teaching experience of my own–the orders of magnitude harder our teachers have to work than we do. Just conceiving of how much true coordination and common preparation this level of synchronicity takes is doing wonders for how I think about everything from my board work to how to say exactly what I want to say and not a word more to the new level of thoroughness I realize can exist in preparing lessons and lectures. I’m not a little in awe of Institute teachers. (And wishing I were gonna be a classicist so there could be some sliver of hope that I’d teach here one day…)

I love what I didn’t see fully last year, too. I felt emotionally supported as well as pushed, last year, of course. I had a few breakdowns in Aaron’s office and pushed back against and finally accepted the wisdom of Akiva’s iron insistence on knowing the syntax of everything. (I have to remember to go genuflect to his teaching insights sometime soon…I’m now that person who knows the syntax of every word in a Greek sentence and not all of the vocabulary meanings, which doesn’t *only* speak to how I need to step up my vocabulary retention…). Now I see more clearly the things our teachers are doing minute by minute to strike this delicate balance of unwavering support and tough love. “No, you’re not being too slow translating, and yes, you need to get faster,” they manage to say, and make us believe. “Yes, it’s okay how this is going–and yes, we want you to progress and go at Greek differently.” That’s a series of subtle moves that I have a lot to learn from pedagogically (and as a person!) 

As much as I feel humbled by the dedication of my fellow students and the faculty, I feel some pride in how I’m handling this year too. I’ve had a few nights of being sick or utterly beat, but for the most part I’ve pulled through on my promise to myself to thoroughly prepare every sentence and prose comp for drill the next day. From my experience last year and listening this year, I feel some level of independence and competence in how I know what questions to ask myself about each sentence. I look for what is new about the sentence, what Hardy (and Quinn) are clearly reinforcing from a few units ago, all the interesting features that one could conceivably examine in this sentence. Then the same for the next. I think I’m really doing my part in drill this year in a way I didn’t last year–I don’t keep questions to myself or leave them until during drill. There hasn’t been a sentence where I say “pass on me, I don’t have this one”–which there were not many, but too many of, last year. I don’t feel complacent about how much I need to drill morphology on the weekend, really knowing how much it’ll help and how I can always do better at Greek. So much more goes into teaching at the Institute than I can imagine, but I really feel like I’m holding up my end of the implicit learning contract we have here. 

I even, blessedly, get to encourage and help along some of my fellow students with insights from last year :) Not that I know anything better than last year, not at all–but I think, and certainly hope, that it might be making a difference to hear from a fellow student that the steep learning tasks the faculty are asking of us pay off. I think maybe this would be some of the joy of teaching at the Institute–I feel a thrill watching fellow students who haven’t learned languages before, or here, and having some sense of what part of the roller-coaster they’ll be on today, what the Greek learning landscape must look like to them right now, and where they’ll be with their language in a week, then two, if they keep up what they’re doing in their learning. I guess it’s weird to say this, but I feel okay saying it having done a lot of teaching myself, even though not at the Institute: I feel so proud of what my fellow students have learned about Greek and about what they are capable of learning so far. I’ve seen them grow so much already in how they approach language in particular and learning in general, and the many inspiring things I’ve heard from them about how they’re figuring out the Institute way and how to make it work for them are inspiring me in turn.

I feel so grateful and privileged to be here this summer. The Institute is beginning to occupy a special place in my life not just for making me learn my languages like gangbusters, but for the special dedication, community and pedagogy that’s grown up around it all these many years.

Categories: Uncategorized

“The Bee Box,” Lowell Parker

July 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Found this absolute gem at The Wondering Minstrels, which appears, sadly, to be defunct, but at which I’ve already rediscovered a bunch of old favorites. This is a stunningly original take on a love poem.

In this small box, my love,
 you'll not find a ring,
 but instead, a brave, little bee.
 He'll be dead by morn, having given his life
 defending his flowers against me.
 I felt his sting
 while picking the small, purple pansies
 growing wild along the roadside,
 in hopes of an afternoon bouquet for you.
 And I grieved the sting,
 more for him than me,
 knowing full well the price he paid
 for my small pain.
 And I allowed him his victory,
 leaving his flowers as a memory,
 and brought you instead
 this brave, little bee,
 who proves there is love
 even in the smallest
 of things.
Categories: Poetry

Hacking Learning

June 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve realized recently that one of my primary goals in my free time is to learn to learn efficiently. Thus, the stress I put on myself to learn a lot quickly is really a desire for methods that will help me (1) beat procrastination to focus on the things that really matter to me and (2) actually learn the material I go through, to the point where I can solve real problems and retain information long-term. I’d previously thought that I just had too long of a list of things I wanted to learn, and that stressed me out, so I started looking at people’s advice and research on how to get it all done. But I ended up not reading so much about organizational strategies, which I thought I needed to focus on because of my ADHD, but on how to revise the learning process itself–not how best to manage my list, but how to be effective at tackling each item on it. I’ve developed a professional interest in learning itself, not just what to learn.

There are three main prongs that I’ve been pursuing that take up most of my time of late:

(1) Thinking about pedagogy, and in particular how learning professionals can best support independent learning outside the classroom: I’ve read a lot about continuing and professional education, adult education, online classes and their effectiveness, and what makes successful online (and in-person) learning communities tick. A lot of this has been focused on a major shift in my thinking–from focusing on how to be a good teacher to how to be a good learner, and from fostering good learning by being a good subject-matter teacher to fostering good learning by being a good community builder. A lot of this has focused on observing various online lecture series and the forums that grow up round them (both officially supported, like the Coursera or MITx discussion forums, and unofficial communities of learners that band together online and otherwise to tackle learning together, like the StackExchange forums and the people who organize group read-alongs with discussion of a book).

(2) Researching and attempting to implement new learning strategies without the constraints of classroom instruction, and moving beyond the standard model of “lecture-take notes-read-revise notes-repeat-do problems” as a way to learn. At some point I abandoned my attempts to plow through lots of material and turned my attention to how that plowing can stick long term, and that meant that I couldn’t ignore the research on learning techniques anymore. It’s exciting, mostly because the research is so much more multifaceted than I thought–what started out as a corrective or defensive investigation for me to overcome the limitations ADHD and anxiety put on me became an active interest in the habits of highly effective learners for its own sake.

(3) Thinking about what it means to have a professional code of ethics in the teaching profession, and more broadly, what a Hippocratic Oath for teaching would look like and how to hold ourselves accountable outside of the assessment-based or value-added models that dominate the NYT Education section. This was sparked by a transformative encounter with Atul Gawande’s book on the Checklist Manifesto: what are a teacher’s professional obligations? How does professional development balance with daily interactions with student? To what extent is it ethical to try a “teaching experiment” with high risks and potentially high rewards, if it might mean your current class doesn’t do as well as it could? Partly this is my attempt to understand teaching as a profession, and to recreate it in my mind as a profession–society doesn’t exactly encourage us to think of teaching as a complex profession with its own societies, standards and ethics codes like law or medicine, but I think it should.

I’ll have more details on lots of this in future posts, but for now a few sites that have provoked my thinking on these things:

The StackExchange plaforms – check out or, including their “Meta” sites, for examples of an online learning community and discussion of what direction it should go.

Scott Young’s extensive blog articles about effective learning strategies at:, including, for example, his MIT Challenge (to learn the curriculum for 4 years of MIT courses more quickly and without the support of a formal school environment), and his extensive focus on the psychology behind how we learn best., for a perhaps older model of online learning in standard BBS format, where a community feel is created by prominent users but attention is more focused on discussion and less on answers to specific questions than on StackExchange sites.

Udemy, Coursera, MITx, Open Yale, and MIT OCW, for examples of online content offered by major universities.

Switching to Intrinsic Motivation

June 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Psychological research shows that giving external rewards can decrease the likelihood that someone will continue an activity longterm. This is an important principle for how to school effectively (or rather, how not to): conventional wisdom, which says that rewarding behavior that contributes to desired habit formation is good, is sometimes wrong.

It has been painful to realize how much of my motivation for learning, which I take to be an unqualified good thing, is external. It would still be painful, were it not for my newfound focus on not making my time-allocation decisions moralistic. Some examples: I signed up for MITx’s 6.002x course and stopped it about 6 weeks in, just before the midterm. A large part of the reason I stopped was simply time: I was working 50-60 hour weeks, and with that and family commitments, I felt the work just couldn’t get done (unless I cut out all my relaxing time, which is an ideal recipe for burnout). But my behavior after stopping is illuminating: I didn’t continue as I could, just learning a few topics or following along at my own pace, but abandoned the project entirely. The most painful reason for this I have to acknowledge is that I enjoyed being graded on the assignments and having the prospect of a certificate of completion on the horizon – that was definitely part of it, and I’m not proud of that. There were other reasons, though: (1) I was less enthralled by the specific material in 6.002 as I was intently curious about the MITx project, and the same impulse that meant I couldn’t pass up being part of the pilot meant that I didn’t need to see it all the way through as a subject learning experience to get what I wanted out of it. And (2) It is a big commitment to follow through on 10 hours or more a week of assignments for a course you’re taking alone over several weeks, and I chose to distribute those hours over several more relevant projects.

Which brings me to the second major pitfall in my self-educating methods, the tendency to plan extensively rather than dive into learning something. There’s a certain, odd, amount of fear here–it’s not like I’m going to set off a landmine by trying to learn about the role of tRNA before I’m ready. The worst that can happen with lack of planning in a learning context is that you have to go back to some more primitive concept or learn a concept more slowly, deviating from a plan. I’m still learning that, though, and finding that to really move forward I have to make it a habit to ignore my anxieties about starting a learning project. (This is a maximally general life principle for me: making it a habit to push aside limiting anxieties.)

In the past, I have often relied on standardized tests, syllabi, quals reading lists, and other conventional school benchmarks for measuring “progress” in my learning. For that matter, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety and a strong need to measure this progress–something I’d like to get out of the habit of doing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not in a degree program at the moment–there’s no benchmark I have to reach that’ll have consequences if I don’t reach it, learning-wise. The only way I can fail is by not learning what I want, in terms of the large-scale bucket-list style learning objectives I have for myself. The other major way I can fail, most dangerously, is failing and not realizing that I’m doing so, by speeding through drills and concepts and not understanding them as deeply as I’d like. While making lists encourages speedy and superficial learning, contributing primarily to the goal of appearing smart by serving as a proxy for having a credential in the subject (“it’s on my list of things I’ve learned”), I know in my heart of hearts that “wanting to look smart” is a false goal I’ve accidentally acquired out of anxiety. The real goal is to learn more in certain areas I’m fascinated by, and not even the ones I just tell people I’m fascinated by and havent’ followed up on.

So, back to studying MIT’s 7.014 intro biology course, with a TV break in between, because we all need them. For another post – how being in a teaching role can exacerbate anxieties about learning, but also how it can help achieve the deeper understanding that is the ultimate goal.

Unlearning School and Learning to Learn

June 25, 2012 1 comment

I’ve spent less time reading and learning recently, and more time thinking and struggling about how I want to live my life. Not being in school and still wanting to learn things, I have had to face how much of my motivation to follow through on something is external–how much I embark on projects I think I “should” do to be a more learned person, rather than following my nose with things I enjoy.

There’s some value to setting out pathways and structures for getting where you want to be. But I’m starting to understand that each brick of those paths has to be one you lay yourself, after some consideration. I know now that pushing through syllabi quickly isn’t the route to true understanding, and to learn a subject well you have to dwell on the things that confuse you, not skip over them (something that the pace of formal schooling and the fact that exams don’t necessarily focus on the things that are hard for *you* personally tends to encourage). I don’t have grades to worry about or perishable resources (university resources) that I’m wasting this year – but I’ve mostly still been acting like I do in how I learn. I have to face the fact that it’s much more important to just learn something than to procrastinate doing the hard thinking by making lists and roadmaps and bucket lists for things to learn. I truly am curious about the things I’m trying to learn about, but I still seem to treat the learning process as an inherently painful and goal-directed one, rather than something that I can go through playing to my strengths and interests.

I also have to face up to what my motivations for trying to learn things are. To a certain extent, if I’m honest, they’ve been “to know everything.” Of course I don’t actually have that goal–but, for example, I tend to insist to myself that I have to learn a particular subject as outlined in a university syllabus, and to diligently scramble to find a way to process and remember everything a course throws at me, rather than picking the things I’m most interested in to focus on. I’m well aware of the importance of one’s audience to the content and style of what one writes, but I haven’t successfully extended these basic principles to the learning process and what its aims are: I say, “I want to learn basic molecular biology” and force my sleepy eyes over pages of biochemistry that I know I won’t remember the details of, even though nobody else but me is insisting that I follow standard learning maps, and it’s well known that we don’t retain what doesn’t interest us.

I know in principle that I (myself as an instance of “anyone”) learn best when I need the knowledge or tool to answer a question I care about. It’s obvious in the writing case, where good writing is shaped around an argument and an angle, not a braindump of everything related to the subject at hand (even a structured one). I know how articulating that “objective” line at the top of a resume can suddenly make my motivations and story about myself cohere when I feel at my most scattered. So I’m going to try to spend less time making lists of subjects I want to learn and collecting syllabi as crutches, and more mining my memory for questions that I’d like to know the answer to, enough to learn the foundations of a subject area. (Of course, happily, this is a synergistic process: having a genuine question leads to systematic study of things you care about, or need to care about to satisfy other cares, which leads to more questions you genuinely want to know the answer to.)

Doing things for external reasons has its egotistical aspects, but for me, it’s also been part and parcel of depression and self-worth struggles. I spent a lot of time thinking I’m only worth as much as I give to other people, and in that framework, self-improvement that doesn’t have clear and direct external impact is not valued. When depressed, I can convince myself that having wants is selfish, that wanting alone time for self-care is selfish. But that belief gets you nowhere, including in your ability to help others. We are all alone with ourselves for most of our lives, and it is in that time alone that we form and re-form the habits and values that will dictate how we interact with others and treat ourselves: social interactions can reinforce a habit or spark interest in a change, but it is always you alone who will have to see the change-project through and have a vision for why it’s important. And it is you alone who will have the complete and unvarnished account of your progress to measure yourself with, you alone who can serve as judge when nobody else is looking to keep you honest to your best self.

So: I want to find ways to make the values I have articulated to myself as important into habits that are borne out in my life. I  want to learn to be a better and more honest judge of my own character, still able to hold court in matters not of public record. Most importantly, I need to find ways to undercut the moralistic overtones of my “self-improvement” project and understand to my core that being my best self is something that will bring me better quality of life, not just something to shoot for to get gold stars or self-congratulation or the moral high ground. I want to feel good because I’m living the way I want to, as I mosey in that direction–not because I’ve attained the “improved self” goals I obsessively set out for myself evenings. If I set goals, I almost don’t want to tell anyone about them specifically unless there’s real support I need that I’ll only get that way, because not keeping them private makes me vulnerable to external motivators like “showing I’m a reliable/dedicated/moral person” and “being known as having admirable goals.” I also need to get past the point where I have certain goals seemingly only to show those things to myself, but for now I think I’d settle for only wanting to impress myself–that’s going to be hard enough.

So if I detail any goals here, it’ll be to catalogue a journey that’s important to me, and only for that reason. To the extent that I’m open about changes I want, I pledge to talk about my failures as much as my successes. I want to talk about the things in my life that have led me to want changes badly, and the ways I’ve prevented myself from taking action towards those changes, because focusing on how great the changes would be if implemented hasn’t done much for me so far but make me feel bad.

On a related note, I’ll be talking soon about the strong impulses towards military service and religious devotion that I’ve had throughout my life, and how the hell a liberal atheist came to have them. I’ll also get specific about what I’m having to unlearn and how I plan to live with myself while doing that.

Categories: Personal - Essays

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

So much to love here. Not Dostoyevsky’s prose style–which is: loquacious; firmly prosaic. Not his characters–who are maybe not types, but certainly universals. Hard to have real dramatic action, perhaps, in a novel that above all makes philosophical ideas incarnate in the flesh.

And there’s the speciality of the novel: putting full-blooded ideas, theories, discussions of God and the fate of Russia in the mouths of the drunks, the peasants, the idlers outside the courtroom before the verdict is decided. There’s no narrator including allusions and references to make his characters look dumb by comparison: the narrator takes on the person of a humble witness to his characters, and it’s the characters themselves who wrestle with their heady ideas, not in writing or half-jesting while drunk, but whenever they meet. Even the children think. There is talk of the Russian soul and the national character: and this is maybe the one moment where I’ll grant weight to that talk, because the transformations in Russia at the time are immense and easily felt at every level–there’s no Zeitgeist being invoked, but rather the rapid transformations that are so evident that they are plain for all to see. The characters are trying to create, not invoke, the Russian spirit, imagine what it will be like with the pulls of atheism and the end of feudalism and people like Ivan coming back from the universities while people like Fyodor Pavlovitch are still the dominant model for the family.

The defense counsel’s query as to what makes a father fits naturally in this setting, where it’d be so hard to pull off almost anywhere else. The wrenching, rending scene at the end with Ilusha’s funeral and Alyosha gathering together the children to remember this time when they were good forevermore is a perfect cap for a novel about where beauty and salvation can be found amidst the vagaries of human actions and the chaos of the social fabric. And it is fitting that children are wise men in this new time, that Alyosha left the monastery and went out into the world and the message he learns to bring is the practical solution to Ivan’s question about a world where children suffer–his practical solution is spiritual. And Alyosha laughs gaily with the children, he learns how to do that while out in the world, where in the beginning he felt all lost when Father Zossima’s body decayed. The children are the answer: Ilusha’s body doesn’t decay, and a kind of new covenant is made with the children at the stone where Ilusha wanted to be buried, even as the holy rites continue to be said over Ilusha’s orthodox grave.

I suppose I’ll have to talk about “The Grand Inquisitor” at some point–but honestly, it didn’t strike me too much, except as beautiful prose and something I can relate to. Dostoyevsky is on so many existentialism syllabi, and I have to admit I don’t really understand why. Yes, Ivan is asking what we can do good in a world without God–but he certainly isn’t nihilistic about the solution! It’s Pushkin’s “sticky little leaves” that he clings to, not barren philosophy, and he’s keenly interested in the answer for how to find meaning. He’s basically a romantic atheist. He sounds most like Alyosha when the two brothers are talking, and he speaks of loving humanity so much–not so different from his novice brother. Alyosha has to learn to find the practical solution to how to treat the children: Ivan, though he’s seen the world, retains his novice-like love for it, and though maybe he struggles with the philosophical questions, he doesn’t get too occupied with them–it comes back to people and love. Alyosha kisses the ground for faith; Ivan for love.

Easily the funniest section of the novel: Ivan, in his delirium, talking to the devil-that-may-or-mayn’t-be-him. So great! One of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Even better because he’s up to the task, and he’s playing even as he’s tormented–something that can’t be said for the second funniest scene, Fyodor Pavlovitch in Zossima’s chambers at the initial family meeting, where we just see a fawning idiot.

I can’t believe how little really happens in this 800-odd page book. There’s no doubt as to who committed the murder on the reader’s part (maybe there should be, but anyway, we’re led from the beginning to think it’s by far not the point). Sure, there is a large cast of characters and triangles between them, and the many variants of Dmitri’s story are all rich in detail. But it’s hardly a real murder mystery. Maybe it’s a history of the brothers, as Dostoyevsky mentions–but it’s a very thin history, really. Mostly people just talk a lot about ideas, and get caught up in conversations and confabulations with each other. Even as Dmitri’s statement is being taken, we are privy to how the prosecutor writes it down, and know what acrobatics he’ll do at trial. We have several versions of the facts, none related as that actual night is related–who knows about the pouch with 1500 rubles being sown into Dmitri’s cap? We know he’s innocent of the crime, though we’re not sure how, and we know he might as well be guilty.

So where’s the interest? In the endless varieties of talk, the justifications and defenses by the characters of their own behavior, and the best courtroom speeches I’ve read in a while. In the sense of aliveness and action we get at only one place in the book, as the audience are talking outside before the jury reaches its decision–the only clipped conversation in the book. In each character anticipating the tricks the other is going to pull and falling for them anyway, but only half-way (when the prosecutor warns the jury that the defense will try to call for mercy, and he doesn’t use an emotional style at all, but gets the same effect; when Dmitri interprets what he’s saying in terms of what the prosecutor will undoubtedly think, coherent or not). A grand psychological novel with no fleshed out characters, a mystery where facts don’t matter much and nothing much happens–what a book.

I have to agree with the people who uphold this as a document of faith: why say Dostoyevsky must really have had strong faith if he can write Ivan’s critique of God and still believe. The ideas in this book go beyond political and philosphical–even mathematics comes in, and I was surprised that Lobachevsky had reached popular culture (or learned culture only?) by then:

” If God really exists and if he really has created the world, then, as we all know, he created it in accordance with the Euclidean geometry, and he created the human mind with the conception of only the three dimensions of space. And yet there have been and there still are mathematicians and philosophers, some of them indeed men of extraordinary genius, who doubt whether the whole universe, or, to put it more wildly, all existence was created only according to Euclidean geometry and they even dare to dream that two parallel lines which, according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I, my dear chap, have come to the conclusion that if I can’t understand even that, then how can I be expected to understand about God?” – Ivan, p. 274 in Penguin edition

Categories: Books

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