I, Robot by Isaac Asimov—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The Olympians::the Titans; the monster::Dr. Frankenstein; Robots::modern man?

In I, Robot, Isaac Asimov explores artificial intelligence and robotics from different perspectives and in different situations. Set up as an interview by a reporter-narrator of Susan Calvin, lifelong robo-psychologist who was there for all major advancements in robotics between the late 20th century and the mid-21st, the book joins different chapter vignettes (previously published as short stories), each focused on one type of robot and subsequent issue or problem. Speculative in nature, the book provokes as many questions as it tries to answer (Are humans–often considered “rational animals”–really as rational as we think, especially when compared with supposedly fully rational robots? Are robots, though unknown to us, more or less dangerous than humans? Are the laws of robotics really as foolproof as the characters assume? What are the dangers of relying too heavily on robots; are those the robots’ fault? If a robot were to be made indistinguishable from a human, what would be the difference between the two? Would there BE a difference? etc).

Though the book does not follow a single robot (very little like the Will Smith movie, except in concept and some story sourcing), Asimov forms an engaging progression through the growth of characters that link the stories and the gradual building of the book’s world. Looking forward to reading more of his robot series.


Shakespeare—That Villainous Abominable Misleader of Youth

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

[They] Shall now…
March all one way, and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.

King Henry IV, Henry IV Part 1, I.1

In her notes laying out the philosophy and character of Ellsworth Toohey, the primary antagonist of The Fountainhead who, from his perch as a cultural commentator, subtly seeks to effect a socialist takeover of the early 20th-century America of the book, Ayn Rand wrote:

“Communism…is not merely an economic theory…Communism is, above all, a spiritual theory which denies the individual, not merely as an economic power, but in all and every respect…In opposing the existing order of society, it is not the big capitalists and their money that Toohey opposes…He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare…”

(quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s afterword to The Fountainhead).

Now, I have already written about why one should read Ayn Rand with a grain of salt, and her evaluation of Shakespeare as the godfather of nihilism is, in my opinion, a short-sighted “her problem”. Nonetheless, written in 1935, Rand’s description of Toohey have stuck with me since first reading it over a decade ago. Of course, further reading of writers before and after Rand, as well as contemporary attempts to equalize elements of the culture along with elements of the economy, have confirmed such an idea: that the impulse to collective equity is and has always been aimed at art as much as at economics, and that, because of its more fundamental power and meaning, for Marxists art may be the more important of the two to equalize.

The conceit that the movement initially presenting itself as an economic and political one might eventually come for Shakespeare and other greats motivated me to prepare as I studied the canon, should such a thing start to happen—and it left me unsurprised when it did.

It was inevitable that the restructuring of society proposed by Marxism—coming through a restructured higher academia, which, ironic to its erstwhile identity as the safeguard of knowledge, has become the vanguard of anti-canon advocacy—would eventually come for Shakespeare. Many of the liberal assumptions of what we call “Western Culture” arguably find their best, if not earliest, concretization in his works. That the targeting of Shakespeare has required such a long and deep process shows that he and the canon he represents are more fundamental to Western Culture than the politics or economics of any one generation. To speak generally, we may as well call it “Shakespearean Culture,” since the men and women who formed the classical liberal tradition were entertained, vitalized, and tempered by his plays.

Of course, this touches on the main argument against Shakespeare. Far from attesting the idea that there are universal elements in human nature that can find expression in great art, regardless of its place and time of origin, the very ubiquity of Shakespeare’s acceptance in non-English communities around the world is taken as evidence of the rapacious past of Western Culture, which is all the more vicious for having been made attractive to other peoples through the inuring subtleties of art. It is not a full representation of humanity one sees onstage—it is cultural propaganda; it is not human catharsis one experiences at the climactic moment—it is the internalized acceptance of an imperialistic oppression. And as for those Englishmen and women who esteem Shakespeare, it’s not because he’s “good”—you’ve only been told he is by the dominant power structure (he said humbly as a damned Yank).

I am, I’ll admit, overstating things; after all, diversifying what and how we read, as many institutions are doing, is very different from cutting any one writer (even if that writer is foundational to nearly all other writers). Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many advocating a reevaluation of what and how works are taught in primary schools and universities are in earnest; having been a teacher for over a decade and a reader for longer than that, I, myself, believe in taking the occasional Nietzsche’s hammer to our literary assumptions, if only to rediscover why authors like Shakespeare are worth reading. Yet, those who want to humbly and seriously decolonize their bookshelf, as the saying goes, might find no greater ally than Shakespeare, should they dare to read him seriously.

“Shakespeare’s First Folio,” British Library
Photo Credit.

My purpose here is not to elaborate all the ways that our culture—not just Western Culture but also its various counterculture movements—finds much of its origin in Shakespeare’s works, though there are many examples thereof. From giving the perspective of and examining the psychology of seeming villains (Richard IIIHamletMacbeth), to examining the tension between the elites and the plebs (Henry VI Part 2Julius CaesarCoriolanus), to giving women their due as multifaceted beings who at times dwarf the men in their lives (Much Ado About NothingTwelfth NightThe Winter’s Tale), to undermining the assumptions surrounding gender and behavior (As You Like ItThe Merry Wives of WindsorCymbeline), to humanizing and taking seriously the perspectives of  the “other” and of minorities (The Merchant of VeniceOthelloThe Tempest), to exposing the pretensions of language and cultural myths (A Midsummer Night’s DreamHenry IV Part 1Romeo and JulietHamlet again, King LearPericles), Shakespeare’s works are as deep as we’re willing to look, and his corpus stands as an edgeless Rorschach test where people of diverse and opposite views can both find what they’re looking for (and fight over which side Shakespeare belongs to in the process!).

But no, I come not to praise Shakespeare, for academia hath told you Shakespeare was problematic, and academia is an honorable clan! My purpose here is, rather, to say that we do not need to fear the removal of Shakespeare from our higher institutions, for whom, it’s worth noting, he was not writing in the first place. He can defend himself better and more cannily than we can, and, if the experience of Prince Hal can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows how to survive a culture’s reevaluation of its fundamental premises.

“Well, God be thanked for these rebels. They offend none but the virtuous.”

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1, III.3

Prince Hal did not choose the prince life—the prince life chose him. The son of Henry Bolingbroke, whose campaign to take back family land recently removed by Richard II puts him on the throne, Hal is described in Richard II as being notably absent, instead recreating “‘mongst the taverns…With unrestrained loose companions” (V.3). From his first mentioning, Prince Hal is caught between the chivalric tradition of King Richard’s court and the populism of his father’s move to usurp the king.

However, Richard II’s plot is no mere case of revolt against tradition. The play opens with Bolingbroke accusing the Duke of Norfolk (and, implicitly, the king) of killing the late Duke of Gloster to secure Richard’s claim to the throne. For all of his assuming the title and benefits of Divine Right and chivalric tradition established by Edward III and his son, Edward, Black Prince of Wales (called thus because of his dark armor—an aspect of the tradition Richard unpopularly neglects), Richard II is not a substantial representative of the forms he has received. Taking his authority for granted, he is blindsided when Bolingbroke, supported by the people and key members of the nobility, topples his pretentions and assumes the throne.

Yet, in doing so, Bolingbroke does not just kill a king and gain a crown. Because the royal hierarchy of Shakespeare’s plays is as metaphysical as it is literal and temporal, when Bolingbroke kills Richard (through insinuation, which he later denies, no less!), he is not just killing a man but the central source of authority and English identity—as well as the basis for his own legitimate rule. It should not be surprising, then, that for all his popular support, Bolingbroke is harried by counter-claims, rebellions, and his own neuroses throughout his reign. Once one shows that the previous source of authority can be questioned, how can one’s own authority with the same terms be assured? Does one simply try to uphold the previous forms of authority, or does one seek to further tear them down?

These are the two choices before Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1, a main theme of which is the tension between Hal’s obligations as prince and future king and his lifestyle. The first choice is embodied in the “all-praised knight,” Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the other in Percy’s thematic opposite, the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. While Hotspur presents himself as Harry’s rival (the characters compare the two from the first menion in RII V.3 to their climactic fight in 1HIV V.4), I believe it is Falstaff that is the greater threat to Prince Hal, and I believe the prince knows it. But more on that below.

The character who behaves the way everyone else expects Prince Hal to, Hotspur is all a father and king would want in a son and subject. He exemplifies the chivalry of England’s past, and even when he rises in rebellion against Henry IV, it is on behalf of maintaining honor against the slight of being dismissed by the king after helping him to the throne (Bolingbroke having recognized the awful truth that if Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, can make a king, they can break a king). Reaching the point of caricature, Hotspur even flirts with his wife in a martial tenor (1HIV II.3).

However, because he so completely follows the form of the chivalric knight, Hotspur is easily manipulated. Previously used by Bolingbroke to achieve his throne in Richard II, Hotspur is similarly used and nearly abandoned by his uncle Worcester once his chivalric chauvinism becomes a liability. Not only does Hotspur’s tunnel-visioned maintenance of the old forms make him vulnerable to comprehension, but it blinds him to the threat that is Prince Hal. Dismissing him as the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (IV.1), implying that he believes Hal will run from battle, Hotspur is unprepared for the frat-boy-turned-warrior he meets and is killed by at Shrewsbury. Like Laertes in Hamlet, Hotspur’s refusal to pause and question his assumptions does not make him stronger but weaker, and he thus displays the danger for Hal to simply be the son his father wants him to be. To mimic Hotspur (who, himself, is a mimic and possible parody of previous knights) and simply play out the forms appropriate to his station would make Hal vulnerable to all the threats, martial and psychological, that surround his usurping father. Much safer (and more fun!) to let everyone believe, as does Hotspur, that he is merely a drunk in dereliction of his princely duties—or, as he calls them, “the debt I never promised” (1HIV I.2).

“Hal listens to Falstaff’s lies in Henry IV, Part 1,” Folger Shakespeare Library
Photo Credit.

And yet, the tavern is not without its dangers. If Hotspur represents an established but, thanks to Richard and Bolingbroke, empty tradition, then the knight of the public house, Sir Jack Falstaff represents the implicit razing of tradition and its hierarchy—again, both literal and metaphysical.

Falstaff advocates as much! In his first scene’s banter with Prince Hal, Falstaff pleads against punishing thieves with capital punishment. “[S]hall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobb’d as it is with rusty curb of old father antick the law? Do not thou, when thought are king, hang a thief,” Falstaff asks, to which, in a phrasing readable as both humorous irony and ambiguous prophecy, Hal replies, “No; thou shalt” (1HIV I.2). In their ridiculous back-and-forths, which often contain as much sarcastic bite and, on Harry’s part, ominous prediction as open affection, Falstaff’s saturnalia and Harry’s royalty contest. Upon later hearing in Henry IV Part 2 that King Henry IV has died and Hal is king, Falstaff cries to his other taverngoers, “choose what office thou wilt in the land, ‘tis thine!…Let us take any man’s horses; the laws of England are at my commandment” (V.3). Throughout his time with Prince Hal, Falstaff represents and often advocates the overturning of the national order, placing thieves on top and men like the Lord Chief Justice (with whom he’s had a rivalry in 2HIV) on the bottom.

Like Falstaff’s gut, the irony of the situation is bottomless. One major joke is that in a state of usurpation, a thief is already on the throne, and the undoing of the metaphysical order of things has already been achieved. From this perspective, by advocating (not without constant irony and foolishness) his revolutionary goals for the court, Falstaff is merely making literal what is already implicit. The connection between Falstaff’s nihilism about royal hierarchy and the courts of Richard II and Henry IV is not merely theoretical; in a brief reference in 2HIV III.2, country justice Shallow reveals that Falstaff was once page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk—the same Norfolk used by Richard II to secure his throne, and who was exiled and died for the privilege. Knowing this, is it any surprise that, in V.1 of 1HIV, Falstaff should declare the emptiness of English chivalry, saying, “What is honour? a word…air”? Further, would not such a man try to prevent his young friend, Prince Hal, from assuming the highest position of that honor, at least not without a healthy dose of disillusionment?

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, I.2

Just as the prince cannot afford to blithely act out the form of chivalry like Hotspur, Hal cannot safely doff the idea of that form, as Falstaff might implicitly have him do. Worse than killing a king is to kill the idea of kingship—to advocate the discarding of the virtues at the nation’s center. That such virtues have been emptied by such men as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke is the central problem of Prince Hal’s accession to the throne: how to revive those virtues in an authentic and popularly-supported way.

Now, as with any virtue, such things must be lived out before they can be known as real, and nothing will lead to a disbelief in virtues as literally real things more than a literally real apathy concerning them. To paraphrase Aristotle, one must do courageous things before one experiences courage; so much for the confluence of Falstaff’s—or anyone else’s—unrestrained lifestyle, his seeming disbelief in things like honor, and his inveterate cowardice. Though the wild Prince Hal may be Hotspur’s worst enemy, Hotspur is not Prince Hal’s, since Hal is, after all, trying to restore the good aspects of Hotspur’s example. Harry’s real nemesis, so far as his kingship is concerned, is Falstaff, for he represents the nihilistic end and leveling of everything Hal is trying to resurrect. Hal identifies as much, as well as the caution with which he must treat Falstaff, et al., from the first. “I know you all, and will a while uphold | The unyoked humour of your idleness,” he says, switching from tavern prose to courtly verse as he predicts his future rejection of Falstaff just before his coronation in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 (1HIV I.2).

Of course, there are many worthwhile interpretations of this speech and its implications for the rest of the plays. Which is the real Hal, the one cavorting with Falstaff in the tavern, or the King Henry who hangs one of his previous tavern mates for stealing in Henry V? As Prince Hal transitions into King Henry V, is he progressively removing or putting on a mask? When are we hearing the real Harry? Between Bolingbroke and Falstaff, who is his more influential father figure, and who is Hal using to prepare him for his future? Or, in all of it, is the answer a nuanced mix, Hal being not a cipher for an ideology but a character—one of the roundest and most humanized in Shakespeare’s corpus?

These questions have enriched my life since my first semester of college, and I fully encourage my readers to consume Shakespeare’s history plays and decide for themselves. As with anything in life, we do not want to ask such questions without nuance; to assume we have Hal figured out is to risk being misled like so many Hotspurs. Harry can love and learn from Falstaff even while he rejects his politics—an enormous lesson there. Harry’s developing such nuance is kind of the point. In my opinion, Harry’s achievement is his realizing (indeed, surpassing) the popular support of his father while embodying chivalric honor in his campaign for land rightfully belonging to England. Against the constant criticism of Richard II and Henry IV for their lack of such a campaign, Harry’s revival of the mantle of English royalty last embodied by Edward III and his son is established in the words of the King of France in Henry V: “Think we King Harry strong…he is bred out of that bloody strain | That haunted us in our familiar paths…This is a stem | Of that victorious stock” (II.4).

Of course, cynics may say that this is just so much propaganda, placed into the enemy king’s mouth by an English author to justify imperialism—a criticism in which Shakespeare, himself, engages, having written King Harry to question the merits and methods of chivalric campaigning. Nonetheless, for the present argument, is King Charles VI here describing the same Hal who has previously described his own ability to drink with the lowest Londoner “in his own language,” and of humbly wishing for “small beer” (1HIV II.4; 2HIV II.2)? Yes—and that’s Prince Hal’s great power: that he is noble enough to embody the highest virtues of his country while still being humble enough to share life with the least of his constituents (politicians of all persuasions take heed!). Moreover, he is not precious about the forms wherein nobility appears, having learned the capacity of inherited traditions to inveigle reality, as well as the necessary balance between being and seeming.

(By the way, if anyone’s eyebrows rose at my painting Falstaff as Prince Hal’s ideological nemesis, I guarantee they did not rise so high as my faculty overseers’ when I claimed as much at my undergraduate thesis defense. Over a decade of further study, experience, and ruminating has shown me I dare not pretend to have Sir Jack Falstaff figured out; I doubt he is merely a short-sighted advocate of political saturnalia, just as I doubt he is a shrewdly disguised architect of the destruction of value. Indeed, from a certain perspective, Falstaff may very well want Hal to reestablish the authority of the crown, and is using his life as a wastrel as cover to cannily train Hal to understand and maneuver the absolute state of things. It’s noteworthy that for all his verbal poinards, he is always willing to be the butt of the joke, and that every exchange leaves Prince Hal looking better—or that may just be political expediency! Like the playwright whose name his parallels, Falstaff is smarter than we, and we underestimate him at our peril).

“A Trio of Fools”
Photo owned by Dustin Lovell

The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves…

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, II.2

But what does any of this have to do with the cancellation (real or threatened) of Shakespeare in our higher institutions? Well, what does the emptying of chivalry or the razing of the social hierarchy in Shakespeare’s histories have to do with Prince Hal? The answer is, everything, and our response should be Hal’s. If the institutions of recent generations have, like Richard II and Bolingbroke, shaken the past’s regard for Shakespeare, the answer may not be to do as Hotspur does and devote our energy to keeping that regard alive in those institutions; one does not beat a juggernaut by charging it head-on. Nor should we simply roll over and accept the premises of the anti-canon push by assuming, as do they, that because such things seem shakable they are meaningless or malignant. In the end, it may not be Shakespeare who has been shaken. If the academy has lost its conviction for Shakespeare, it is not Shakespeare who is dead, remains dead, and whom we have killed.

Though the subject of his education is fraught with debate and the vicissitudes of time, Shakespeare was notably the only member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men who was not university-educated, which I think significant when considering the purpose of his work. Yes, the highest chambers of thought have discovered great revelations in his plays, but we must remember that they were written for entertainment, as much for the groundlings on the Globe Theatre’s floor as for the aristocrats in the box seats. They can be understood as well outside of the university as in—perhaps better! Frankly, the assumption that one needs to be more educated than was Shakespeare to understand Shakespeare is an honor I think he would have, in Falstaff’s words, considered “a mere scutcheon”—a coat of arms declaring one’s heroism after death and which can just as easily obscure the quality of their life (1HIV V.1).

Like Hal, we should consider the perspectives that might jeopardize the tradition. We should never read less, and, as I said above, supplementation is very different from cancellation. Indeed, perhaps a few years of focusing on other works will serve to make society, if not the academy, miss Shakespeare, that, “Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1HIV 1.2). If the self-declared point of universities is no longer to motivate and equip people to read writers like Shakespeare, we should be relieved that they are losing interest in him, taking succor from the fact that the pearl’s greatest defense against being mangled is its being unrecognizable to swine. Instead, let those who value the pearl sell all we have to purchase the field wherein it lies.

Indeed, while (or because!) we love him, perhaps, as conservatives—for all who love Shakespeare are, in their desire to maintain him, at least a mote conservative—we should eschew Shakespeare’s place at the head of university literature department curricula, at least for a time. After all, to prepare himself to reinvigorate the chivalric royalty Prince Hal leaves court to avail himself of the tavern. It may do more for Shakespeare to read his plays on one’s own, or listen to an audio lecture series on him, or take part in a discussion group, or join a local production, than to fight to maintain his position in institutions for whom, again, he was not writing. Doing so might even make explicit the choice before higher academia, which is the same as that before Henry Bolingbroke: will they seek to kill the king, and, thus, remove the basis of their own authority? They would do so at their peril, for it is they and their height, not Shakespeare and his, who are threatened by their opposition to the Playwright.

Dostoevsky, 19th-Century Socialism, and the 21st Century: Part 2

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

In the previous portion of this two-part article, I examined Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s arrest for participation in an illegal socialist printing plot and the changes of belief and perspective that would result. Entering his Siberian labor camp with all the humanitarian assumptions of the privileged upper class, he discovered that the atheist socialism advocated by the mid-19th-century intelligentsia possessed a woefully inadequate understanding of average Russians and, thus, of how to achieve social progress among them. As he would later write in The House of the Dead

“It was practically my first contact with men of the peasant class…I was surprised and confused, as though I had heard nothing of all this and had not suspected its existence. Yet I had heard of it and knew of it. But the reality makes quite a different impression from what one hears and knows.” 

In this article I will examine how Dostoevsky would surmount his own preconceptions about the convicts around him, as well as how the experience would influence his later works. 

The initial debunking of his naive assumptions about the oppression of the peasants, the origins of crime, and the nature of private property and diversity of thought posed many questions for Dostoevsky, especially regarding his future as a writer. How was he to advocate on behalf of a nation he loved when he possessed such disgust for its people? More importantly, how could he do so when his previous beliefs—those shared by the supposedly most enlightened and educated members of the elite classes—had been so called into question by reality? In what would become a theme in several of his later works, it would be in the tested and established past, rather than in the supposedly progressive future, that he would find the answer.

Cognitive Dissonance and Humbling

More shocking to Dostoevsky than the insufficiency of his beliefs was the transition that took place in himself as his brotherly love turned to a mixed revulsion for and desire to be accepted by the convicts. Still in shock at the irony of casual violence and, he would discover, the convicts’ own desire to be trusted, the turbid state of his convictions pushed Dostoevsky into a dazed depression, and in the katorga he would develop the epilepsy that would characterize him and his work for the rest of his life. 

Among the reasons for Dostoevsky’s initial perturbation was his inability to understand the convicts. When first assigned to labor in his first week, he confesses the role his expectations played in how he saw the other convicts. 

“Everything about me was hostile and—terrible, for though not everything was really so, it seemed so to me…Of course, there was a great deal I did not notice then. I had no suspicion of things that were going on in front of me. I did not divine the presence of consolation in the midst of all that was hostile.”

Shocked into an anxious humility, Dostoevsky spent his early days, “wandering miserably about the prison and lying on the bed.” Unfortunately, even in later years, the author who pioneered the exploration of character psychology did not write much about his own psychological state during this time. In the second volume of his biography on the author, Joseph Frank writes that it is most plausible “to see him, at first, gradually trying to make sense out of his exposure to a whole range of new impressions that had clashed with his preconceived notions, and only subsequently coming to understand in a more self-conscious fashion how his experience had changed his ideas.” However, unlike his previous (and many later) characters who more often dig into and seek to fortify their convictions when faced with their irrationality, Dostoevsky allowed the experience to prime him into a teachable humility which would allow him to see past his preconceived notions about the convicts and Russian politics and spirituality.

Forgiveness, Revelation, Resilience

The foundational discovery that converted Dostoevsky’s condescending view of the peasant class to one of grave awe and respect involved a memory of Marey, a serf who lived on his family’s land while he was growing up. Recollecting prison life in his 1876 “The Peasant Marey,” Dostoevsky describes how one of the most oppressive aspects of prison was the inability to ever be alone. Because pretending to be asleep was the only way to be left in peace, resting behind closed eyes became his primary source of peace and amusement. During his first Pascha Easter season in the prison, Dostoevsky describes, when the reprieve from their labors and the prohibitions on gambling and drinking made the convicts especially and wearisome to him, he availed himself of his bunk. 

As Dostoevsky lay there a memory came to him of himself as a child, spooked out of the forest by an imagined cry of “Wolf!” Fearing for his life, the nine-year-old Fyodor ran from the forest to a nearby field where one of his family’s serfs, Marey, was plowing. Rather than be surly or resentful of his master’s son, Marey welcomed and calmed the child. “Why you took a real fright, you did!…Never mind, now, my dear. What a fine lad you are!” After convincing Fyodor there was no wolf and no danger, the smiling peasant crossed himself and the boy before watching him return to the estate barn. “[Had] I been his very own son he could not have looked at me with a glance that radiated more pure love. And who had prompted him to do that? He was our own serf, and I was his master’s little boy; no one would learn of his kindness to me and reward him for it…only God, perhaps, looking down saw what deep and enlightened human feeling…could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian serf…” 

The memory made Dostoevsky realize that, like Marey, the convicts and peasants who surrounded him might not necessarily resent him and his status so unforgivingly, and that, far from being provincial and backward, they were better equipped for a happy, tolerant, and contented life than the very intelligentsia seeking to release them from their oppression. This new affinity for the peasant-convicts around him changed Dostoevsky’s experience of prison, allowing him to approach the other convicts neither as mere intellectual children nor as monstrous beasts, but as individuals from whom he had much to learn. “I came at last to distinguish men among criminals,” Dostoevsky describes in a letter. “Believe me, there are deep, strong, beautiful characters among them, and what a joy it was to discover the gold under the coarse, hard surface.” Indeed, he steadily realized they bore his temporary impatience not merely out of lower-class deference (all official class distinctions being erased in prison), but partly out of an understanding of his situation. “They respected the condition of my soul and bore all without a murmur.” In many ways, he would learn, they understood the upper class more than the upper class understood them, and, at least with him, they, like Marey, were magnanimous in their understanding.

The Vision to the Youth Bartholomew by Mikhail Nesterov [Photo Credit]

Perhaps most importantly, the experience showed Dostoevsky that Russian Orthodoxy was not a mere opiate necessary to lift the hopes of and inculcate morality in the lower classes but unneeded by the more enlightened and worldly upper classes. Rather, the faith of the Russian peasants made them stronger and more resilient in the face of existential suffering, as well as more forgiving and hospitable, than any other section of Russian society. Indeed, it was their capacity for forgiveness that made them stronger; magnanimity presupposes a height. Because of their faith in things similarly hidden, long before, from the wise and revealed to babes, it was the peasants, not the intelligentsia, who were equipped to treat members of all levels of society with the solidarity of human brotherhood. 

The memory of Marey reinvigorated Dostoevsky’s Christian faith, which he found could encompass all the aspects of humanity for which his seemingly more humane and enlightened political views had been insufficient. This led to Dostoevsky’s conviction that in both metaphysical and political terms, it was in Orthodoxy and the Tsarist hierarchy tempered and blessed thereby, not atheistic socialism, that Russia’s hope rested. “The salvation of Russia lay precisely in the sturdiness of [the peasants’] moral-religious convictions,” Frank articulates. “The peasants were more truly Christian in their devotions than the arrogant ruling class who shoved them aside so callously.” 

With its offering of redemption after even the worst acts of evil, Christianity maintained belief in moral agency while offering both sympathy for circumstance and, more importantly, forgiveness and amnesty for the guilty and spiritually exiled, and it provided the kind of egalitarian fellowship idealized by the socialists but embodied, for Dostoevsky, in the peasant Marey. Perhaps most important for his later work, Dostoevsky’s new appreciation for the faith allowed him to understand the full humanity of those around him, crimes, suffering, and all, in a more robust and multilayered way than the socialist naturalism of the time had let him.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood [Photo Credit]

One may argue that Dostoevsky’s conversion only amounts to just so much betrayal of principle; however, he—notably the only member of the socialist circle not to recant or give up the other members, despite not being a socialist, himself—did not think so. Because he had only joined the printing scheme with the aim of liberating the serfs, and because it was Russia and her people to whom he was loyal (to say nothing of Christ), not to socialist utopianism, as such, Dostoevsky was ultimately able to shed the latter when he (re)discovered a better way to advocate for the former. 

Indeed, after learning what he did about the insufficiency of socialism to actually benefit Russia, it would have been a betrayal of principle not to abandon it. Had he not, it would have placed him among the ranks of his pre-Siberian characters who, faced with the irrationality and impracticability of their presumptions, too often choose to embrace their delusions and cut themselves off from growth, psychological freedom, and relationship with the very people whose community they had wanted to secure. Throughout his arrest and exile, Dostoevsky maintained the justice of his cause on behalf of the serfs, continuing to believe that “his social idealism [should] be an up-to-date version of Christ’s messages of brotherly love,” and “stubbornly [refusing] to be converted to the atheism” advocated by the 1840s upper-class socialists. He would hold, plumb, and advocate this conviction for the rest of his life.

From Progressive to Prophet

It was in the prison camp where Dostoevsky would become Dostoevsky; there he would learn what his Prince Myshkin would later imagine: that “one might find a wealth of life even in prison.” “Man has infinite reserves of toughness and vitality,” he wrote to his brother Mikhail from prison, “I really did not think there was so much, but now I know it from experience.” Not just the convicts he met—many of whose stories would inform virtually all of his later works—but the changes in his perspective would provoke Dostoevsky to stand against the very radicalism that had sent him into exile. He would spend the rest of his career being one of the most vocal opponents of atheism and socialism, the former of which he saw as foundational to the latter, ultimately identifying both in his opus, The Brothers Karamazov, as not new ideas but, rather, among the oldest: the motivating force and method of the Tower of Babel. 

In Siberia, Dostoevsky learned not only socialism’s insufficiency to surmount the problems of 19th-century Russia but its inability to even correctly identify the central problem, itself. Besides having learned that the peasants would not, then, welcome a revolution, Dostoevsky had learned that because each individual is a moral agent, regardless of circumstances, then no broad, class-based moral view of humanity would work. Furthermore, one’s happiness and psychological health paradoxically relied on having productive work and at times being contradicted and humbled in one’s convictions—as did one’s ability to trust one’s convictions at all. The gravity of such revelations—which his younger beliefs and motivations were too shallow and short-sighted to comprehend—would drive his later works’ sense that the real problems at work in the 19th century were not the ones on which the progressive element of the intelligentsia was focused, nor could they be simply fixed (indeed, he foresaw they would be worsened) by sudden external revolution arising from plenary, unconditional interpretations of the socio-political milieu.

Central to Dostoevsky’s work—and central to all implicitly conservative ethics and politics—is the conviction that truly beneficial change happens not through mass social revolution but through private, individual self-audit, and that any pretentions to the former without the latter are at best naive and at worst profoundly dangerous. It is from this conviction that Dostoevsky could burlesque a socialist revolution in Devils as a sorry, if fatal, attempt by characters who, due to their shallow lack of perspective in their radical pretensions, are easily misled by the vicious, disturbed, yet charismatic nihilist, Stavrogin. 

It is also this conviction that would underlie the presentation of Alyosha Karamazov’s learning to love the worst elements of society in The Brothers Karamazov as a heroic achievement. Alyosha is Dostoevsky’s answer to the former would-be revolutionaries—as he is to every other character in the writer’s corpus. More important than lacerating himself for the depredations of his landowning father, Fyodor, or responding to his brother Ivan’s acute criticism of the Russian social structure and church with an equally well-thought-out argument, or proving to young Kolya why his convictions as a fourteen-year-old would-be socialist may be shallower than he suspects, is Alyosha’s mandate to understand and recognize that which is lovely and worthy of cultivation in those around him, despite disapproving of their respective lifestyles and convictions. On more than one occasion, Alyosha’s humble, unassuming willingness to sit with those one might consider his opposites disarms and, at times, redeems them; his effect on Grushenka Svetlov, the capricious tease who torments the rest of the Karamazov men, is a characteristic example, revealing, as it does, a strain of tenderness and love in the woman.

Fyodor Dostoevsky [Photo Credit]

Alyosha’s is an inner triumph—the triumph over the equally shallow impulses to simply flee offense and live in the monastery or to meet the deeper needs of those around him (indicative of all levels of Russian society) with an external fix. Alyosha stands as the maturation of Dostoevsky’s earlier recognition that the social angst and dissatisfaction with the perceived status quo spoke to something deeper than the mere adoption of elements of the European Enlightenment, or the de-landing of the Russian Orthodox Church, or the abolition of the monarchy, or the emancipation of the serfs (which he, nonetheless, continued to advocate). In his four years in prison, surrounded by the very peasant convicts he had believed he was representing in his erstwhile socialism, Dostoevsky learned, among other things, that said peasants were nothing like what he had believed. 

After Siberia, Dostoevsky would treat the revolutionary impulse with deep skepticism, having recognized the need for social improvement to come primarily through individuals and in the context of the Tsarist and Russian Orthodox forms to which they were used. One does not need to be a pro-Tsarist or a Russian Orthodox Christian to recognize the wisdom in Dostoevsky’s reverse approach regarding the moral-social structures that preceded him. Paradoxically, it was a failed attempt to advocate against those structures which ultimately caused him to embrace them (though not uncritically). 

Providing a model for the later introspection of fellow revolutionary-turned-critic, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky used his time in prison to hash through the premises and ideals that had led him there, and he left a changed and much stronger man. That Solzhenitsyn left the Soviet gulags with many of the same convictions as had Dostoevsky the Tsar’s katorga only underscores the truth of those convictions—that there is more to humanity than modern assumptions might allege, that spiritual needs cannot be met with (and may be exacerbated by) broad political or economic fixes, that the potential for good and evil lie in the heart of every person, that the most dangerous thing one can do, ideologically and otherwise, is to unreflectively believe one is in no danger of being the perpetrator of evil, and many others. 

It behooves us, then, confronted by the same questions scrutinized by Dostoevsky, to consider the answers that have made him one of our greatest and most prescient novelists, especially when the same ideologies he spent much of his life warning about are again being advocated. If nothing else, the parallels between Dostoevsky’s youth and the current spirit of the culture should cause us to reexamine his work, the popularity of which was, in Frank’s words, “an astonishing harbinger of the crisis of values that has haunted Western culture,” ever since. As I said in my previous piece, reading Dostoevsky merely to find answers for contemporary politics cheapens the rest of what his works contain, in the same way that reading scripture just to learn about the early zealotry of some of the apostles against the Romans would miss and even obscure the greater messages of the Gospel. However, Dostoevsky did consider such things, from a firsthand perspective and in deeper and more enduring ways than nearly anyone since, and that should prompt us to listen to and take seriously the verdicts he passed, if only to better facilitate our learning the rest of what can be found in his work. 


16. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

17. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

18. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter V: The First Month (1).” The House of the Dead

19. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 87

20. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, “The Peasant Marey,” A Writer’s Diary.

21. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 77

22. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 77

23. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 115, 120

24. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 33

25. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 21

26.  Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 379

Dostoevsky, 19th-Century Socialism, and the 21st Century: Part 1

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

I know: even in Los Angeles, CA, I can hear my friends in the UK groan. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky—the dour wing of 19th-century Russian literature, the author whose brilliance is admitted as readily as is the masochism it sometimes takes to read him (which, considering the masochism he explicitly examines in his characters, may not be hyperbole). I, myself, despite my degrees in literature and attendance at Oxford (for Shakespeare, thank God), took several years to enjoy reading Dostoevsky; The Brothers Karamazov took me three attempts, with a couple of years’ convalescence between each.  

Nonetheless, over the last few years and accelerated by California’s Covid-19 lockdowns, I have been reading through the Russian Prophet’s corpus while following Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on the man, and I have been struck by how many elements of his work and life resemble aspects of our culture and its discourse, today. Out of moderation, as well as prudence against being labeled a McCarthyite alarmist, I often hesitate to point out such similarities between 19th-century Russia and broader 21st century culture; blithely predicting a repeat of post-Dostoevsky Bolshevism seems in as bad taste as, say, comparing anyone who does not keep in step with the leftward-moving Overton Window a Nazi.

And yet, I do not think it extreme to note the ways that our broader 21st century seems to be emulating the conditions, excesses, and excuses that energized radical socialists in the 1800s. Indeed, a serious portion of the protest mobs marching everywhere from the Lincoln Memorial to Westminster are actively promoting such a repeat. In my view, to understand state collectivism we should not just read Aleksandr Solzhenitysn: we should also strive to understand the author to whom he was an answering echo, the man who as early as the 1860s saw 1917 coming. 

Portrait of Dostoevsky, 1922, by František Foltýn [Photo Credit]

Now, historical and political understanding are not the primary (or even secondary) reasons to read Dostoevsky. One does not plumb the depths for trivia, but to learn what one is and how one is to survive and thrive. Like all great works of literature (indeed, fulfilling one of the requirements for being considered “great”), each of his major works and several of his minor ones bear reading multiple times to fully grasp their subtleties. His depicting the psychology of his characters with so few and such selectively chosen details, his integrating the best elements of 19th-century Romanticism with the Naturalism that would become the gout du jour of modern literature, and his concretization of the greatest questions of his day—many of which we still have not answered, or have not answered sufficiently (perhaps because we have not read Dostoevsky sufficiently)—into plots that are investigative without being didactic, all confirm Albert Camus’s later declaration that Dostoevsky, not Marx, was the real 19th-century prophet.  

This piece, of course, lacks the scope to list all the parallels one might point out between the 19th and early 21st centuries and between Dostoevsky’s work and modern events. I will only examine Dostoevsky’s arrest for advocating and his subsequent rejection of socialism—which was, granted, the most significant event in his life, dividing it in half both psychologically and ideologically. If we wish to better understand the cultural impulse to culture- and state-enforced collectivism, especially when it has again become so ascendant in the discourse, we would do well to look to an author who, himself, was arrested for promoting the very revolutionary literature he would spend the rest of his post-prison life advocating against.

Youth, Arrest, Mercy

Never fully able to accept the atheism of early 19th-century socialism, Dostoevsky was not, himself, a socialist. However, allying with the growing socialist movement in the late 1840s in order to promote his main cause of emancipating the Russian serfs, he landed himself too close to a seditious printing scheme for Tsar Nicolas I’s censors’ comfort and was subsequently arrested. After nine months in solitary confinement and a staged execution-mercifully-turned-exile (which paradoxically made him a lifelong pro-Tsarist), Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years’ labor in Siberia. Overjoyed at the Tsar’s seeming act of magnanimity in sparing his life, Dostoevsky looked forward to meeting the serfs, peasants, and convicts whose freedom he and the other members of the Russian intelligentsia had so ardently and philanthropically championed in their salons and literary meetings. 

Mock Execution of the Petrashevsky Circle Members [Photo Credit]

Disdain and Disillusionment

Before Siberia, Dostoevsky had assumed that the peasant class necessarily resented the landowning class. One can find a similar assumption of resentment by those collectively labeled oppressed for those labeled oppressors in much of today’s cultural parlance, just as one can see parallels between how Dostoevsky and people today developed that assumption. In the first volume of his biography, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, Frank describes the distress and guilt Dostoevsky experienced upon learning that, while he was away at school, peasants had murdered his sickly father. The event would weigh on Dostoevsky’s conscience, to the extent that, having asked for more funds during a bad harvest and received a despairing letter from his father “almost simultaneously with the news of his father’s death,” the young man blamed himself as a distant accomplice in the murder, as well as the circumstances leading to it. Alleging that this in part motivated his initial passion on behalf of the peasants, Frank claims that, “The existence of serfdom had now become literally unbearable for him because he could never free himself from the sickening feeling that, in helping to foment its worst excesses, he had brought on his father’s death.” 

In today’s terms, Dostoevsky had realized he had been an unwitting participant in an oppressive, legally-enforced power structure, and, with the fervor anyone who had a screen device in 2020 can imagine, he aimed his sights at that structure to liberate those whom he believed it pushed to commit crimes. However, rather than landing him an interview on CNN or BBC News, his revolutionary passion landed him in Siberia—where, in purgatorial fashion, his premises would be tested, contradicted, and distilled to produce the content and conviction of his later works.

Upon entering the katorga labor camp, Dostoevsky’s assumptions about the lower classes were soon revealed to be so much fiction. In the second volume of his biography, Frank elaborates: 

“It was only when he [Dostoevsky] arrived in the prison camp, and was forced to live cheek-by-jowl with the peasant-convicts, that some of his earlier opinions were directly challenged; only then did he begin to realize to what extend he had been a dupe of illusions about the Russian peasant and the nature of Russian social-political reality.”

In the katorga Dostoevsky found that the peasants were uninterested in being represented or saved by upper-class pretenders like Dostoevsky. “[They] are not fond of gentlemen…especially politicals,” Dostoevsky would later write in The House of the Dead, his semi-autobiographical recounting of the Siberian prisons published six years after his release, “they are ready to devour them; no wonder…you are a different sort of people, unlike them.” Furthermore, the other prisoners considered the French ideals of atheism and egalitarianism that the upper class had so embraced to be a foreign corruption inimical to their sensibilities.  

Among the revelations that would dismantle the seemingly humanitarian foundations of Dostoevsky’s early socialist sympathies was the fact that, though the peasants ridiculed him for his upper-class softness, they did not, necessarily, resent his status as such. “According to their ideas…I ought even to keep up and respect my class superiority before them, that is, to study my comfort, to give myself airs, to scorn them, to turn up my nose at everything; to play the fine gentleman in fact…They would, of course, have abused me for doing so, but yet they would privately have respected me for it.” Far from desiring liberation from it, the peasants derived a sense of security from the clearly-defined stations and prescribed behaviors of the social hierarchy of which they were the lowest level. The peasants and convicts Dostoevsky encountered in prison did not experience an all-consuming feeling of oppression under 19th-century Russia’s hard class lines, nor would they, he realized, participate in a socialist revolution, at least not at that time. 

This, of course, was only a surprise because of the depth of his implicit paternalism regarding the serfs. The presumption that the lower classes were not only politically but intellectually and morally unable to recognize their plight, and thus needed the upper class intelligentsia to free them, is one aspect of his youth that Dostoevsky would soon shed. As with other forms of such condescension, his view confessed an implicit insult of the very people he presumed to help, and it might have kept him naively blinded to the actual characters, perspectives, and desires of those he wished to save—had he not been forced to live at their level. The insufficiency of socialism to deal with the needs of actual Russians—as well as its implicit bigotry of low expectations for the lower classes—would be one of Dostoevsky’s primary whipping posts after his release, culminating most caustically in the bumbling, short-sighted revolutionaries of Devils

Crime and Brutality

Another assumption invalidated by Dostoevsky’s time among the convicts involved the origins of crime. In Netochka Nezvanova, his last pre-Siberian novel cut short by his arrest and never resumed afterward, Dostoevsky had already explored the psychology of abusive codependency in the pathologically self-deluding Efimov. The erstwhile-violinist-turned-drunk stands as Dostoevsky’s deepest pre-Siberian exploration of resentful impotence dressing itself up as brilliant genius and presages several later characters who seem to take masochistic pleasure in their own degradation. Yet, even in presenting Efimov’s psychological abuse of his young stepdaughter, the book’s title character, Dostoevsky gives the history and circumstances that led Efimov to be seen by other characters more as a tragic than criminal figure. As can be seen in later characters in that book, any truly vicious characters in Dostoevsky’s earlier works are almost universally members of the depredatory upper class. 

However, in prison Dostoevsky would learn that social deviance was not a mere product of circumstance: vice was not a result solely of upper-class decadence, nor were peasants’ crimes mere reactions against an unfair social structure (the assumption of the intelligentsia at the time, and of many today). Like his previous beliefs regarding peasants’ ignorance about their political situation, Dostoevsky would find the view that convicts were mere unfortunates incapable of moral agency (granted, a view he, a still implicit Orthodox Christian, never fully embraced) inadequate to comprehend the reality. 

While he was shocked by the violence of some of the guards towards the inmates, Dostoevsky was equally, if not more, shocked by the violence of the inmates toward each other. In his time in Siberia Dostoevsky would find that the crimes that had landed the convicts in prison, as well as many committed after arrest, were volitional acts of evil chosen, in many cases, with knowledge of the fact that—and at times because—they were evil. Describing the effects of the thefts, assaults, and murders that Dostoevsky would depict in The House of the Dead, Frank writes:

“It seemed to him [Dostoevsky] as if some bloody brawl was always about to break loose, though in most cases, to his initial surprise, matters would end after a volley of the most scurrilous abuse…[There] was hardly a moment when the menace of violence was not hanging in the air.”

Among the peasant convicts Dostoevsky would observe, firsthand, the psychology of crime that would so leaven the bulk of his later work. It was there that he would develop the conviction that the human person contained elements that could not be simply ameliorated with Enlightenment ideals of egalitarianism or socialism—that there were people who wilfully sought to needlessly degrade the good and innocent because they wanted to degrade the good and innocent and who could not be contained in simple spectrums of good and evil. “No, it seems crime cannot be interpreted from preconceived conventional points of view…Only in prison have I heard stories of the most terrible, the most unnatural actions, of the most monstrous murders told with the most spontaneous, childishly merry laughter.”

The lowest of Russian society, he would find, were too complex to fit neatly into any broad, class-based view of morality like that espoused by the upper-class socialists of the 1840s intelligentsia. Nor could Dostoevsky follow the broader European view of the lowest classes as too psychologically underdeveloped to be guilty of their actions; rather, Dostoevsky found that the Russian convict and peasant was “quite capable of thinking and had a well-developed, independent outlook of his own.” After Siberia, Dostoevsky would rarely, if ever, present an antagonist as a mere victim of circumstance, as he had Efimov; while he does present self-destructive drunks and even criminals as not unsympathetic side characters (Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov comes to mind), he would reserve pride of place for characters whose villainy is a direct act of often gratuitous, carnal choice, and he would no longer relegate the worst crimes to those in the upper class. 

Evening—Applying Handcuffs by Aleksander Sochaczewski [Photo Credit]

Property and Perspective

Furthermore, Dostoevsky would learn the humanizing and palliating effect of private liberty and property. He describes in the opening chapter of The House of the Dead, “If it were not for his own private work to which he was devoted with his whole mind, his whole interest, a man could not live in prison.” Many of them craftsmen, the men would be free after finishing their penal labor to pursue their own projects, often using illicit tools to which the guards turned a salutarily blind eye. Elaborating on how peasants will often work much harder on their own crops than on others’, Dostoevsky later articulates that the insufferability of the penal labor is not due to its difficulty but to its being coerced, and that the additional voluntary labor paradoxically makes the penal labor bearable. Far from being “the root of all evil,” says Frank, purposeful private work and property “was an important safety valve for the prisoners,” providing both extra money and psychic benefits that constituted for Dostoevsky “a flat rejection of the moral basis of Utopian Socialism (or any other kind)” that would say different.

One wonders at Tsarist Russia’s understanding, if implicit, of the convicts’ humanity, an understanding that would be shared, though used to more efficiently torture and dehumanize inmates, by the Soviets in the next century. In his later work Dostoevsky would often show the psychological amelioration of purposeful work and personal initiative. Raskalnikov’s foil, his friend Razumikhin, provides much of Crime and Punishment’s rare tension relief, in no small part via his excitement and optimism at the prospects of finding translation work and starting a press (both of which Dostoevsky and his brother did after his release). Similar to Tolstoy’s eschewing of upper-class decadence for the honest work of agriculture in his works, Dostoevsky would consistently portray, in action as well as tone, the beneficial effects of purposeful work. Furthermore, in the Underground Man, Raskalnikov, and others, he would warn about the negative psychological effects of being unmoored from some kind of production, often depicting how other intoxications, from alcohol to seemingly charitable meddling to obsession with contemporary politics, can fill the void of a neglected right to pursue private property. 

In addition to property’s capacity to alleviate depression, despondency, and outbursts of crime, Dostoevsky would learn the value of others’ perspectives. Among the paradoxes he had already discovered in the months in confinement in St. Petersburg before being taken to Siberia was the psychological boon of reading others’ ideas. In a letter to his brother he describes his joy at receiving “any book” and “the curative effect of having one’s train of thought interrupted by other people’s ideas, or one’s own rearranged on new lines.” 

From what had Dostoevsky needed a cure? From ideological solipsism. His later combination of Raskalnikov’s all-encompassing nervous illness and his Napoleonic delusions would be written from experience. In her recounting of Dostoevsky’s later opinion of his participation in the socialist printing circle, his second wife says that “if not for his arrest, which broke his life in two, he should have gone mad.” As Frank says, “The terror under which he was living had been so great that he later believed his sanity might have snapped if not for the providential accident of his capture.” In prison Dostoevsky was able to consider from a distance of time, space, and circumstance the premises that had underlain much of his young adulthood. “In my spiritual solitude I reviewed all my past life,” he would later write, “went over it all to the smallest detail, brooded over my past, judged myself sternly and relentlessly, and even sometimes blessed fate for sending me this solitude, without which I could not have judged myself like this, nor viewed my past life so sternly.”

Even before prison, Dostoevsky had already articulated the dangers of a perspective cut off from different views in Efimov and others (The Double’s Golyadkin is another noteworthy example) who derive their sense of the world by cutting off and ignoring other perspectives that might nuance or contradict their view of reality. Siberia would reinforce the concept. As a means of shaking one out of an idea that may have become an uncritical bubble—of being healed of such a mania—Dostoevsky consistently advocated engaging in the economy of ideas, as much as in the economy of property. Crime and Punishment, which opens months into Raskalnikov’s isolation and subsequent ideological obsession, follows the erstwhile student’s path to healing via the alternate concerns and cares of his sister and mother, Razumikhin, and Sophia Marmeladov—with life in a Siberian prison noteworthily signaling Raskalnikov’s final release from moral turpitude. In this and other works, Dostoevsky would include the plurality of perspectives in his later works as a consistent check on the isolation, depression, and, if the alternate title of DevilsThe Possessed—is considered, ideological possession of his characters. The implications of this revelation for today’s cancel culture, which seeks an overarching unity of perspective and, in the most extreme cases, treats alternative opinions to the predominantly leftward-moving discourse as mere apologetics for the worst kinds of oppression, is obvious. 

Dostoevsky was ultimately thankful for his time in prison, if only because it shook him out of his early ideology and the madness to which it had pushed him. Perhaps this, as well as the staged magnanimity of the Tsar’s pardon, is why, far from entrenching himself in his ideas against the supposed injustice of his situation, Dostoevsky left prison grateful for the system that had sent him there, ever after advocating Tsarist autocracy as a better means of uplifting the serfs than his early socialism could have been. Tsar Alexander II’s 1861 emancipation of the serfs initially justified this opinion to Dostoevsky, despite its and other reforms’ not being enough to prevent revolution in late-century Russia. Unfortunately, with its worsening of economic conditions for both the peasant and landowning classes, the long process of Russian progressive reforms would arguably exacerbate the conditions used by later radicals to foment revolution in the very ways Dostoevsky had predicted in Devils.

Peasants Reading the Emancipation Manifesto by Grigoriy Myasoyedov [Photo Credit]

Contempt, Despair, Preparation

Although Dostoevsky would eventually consider his exile to Siberia an act of providence, at the time he experienced all the cognitive dissonance of a young zealot learning their ideal is too simple to logically maintain. Amidst the “crisis initially caused by the destruction of his humanitarian faith in the people,” as Frank calls it, “nothing was more emotionally necessary for Dostoevsky than to find some way of reconciling his ineradicable love for his native land with his violently negative reactions to the loathsome denizens of the camp.” Falling into a deep depression, Dostoevsky would avail himself of what solitude he could find in the infirmary through feigned sickness or on his bed through feigned sleep. 

While seeking relief from the convicts who daily reminded him of the failures of his previous convictions, Dostoevsky would unintentionally engage in a psychological and metaphysical priming that would culminate in a conversion experience that would affect the rest of his life. In a paradox that would presage many other such revelations in his future characters, it would be in the proven past, not the progressive future, that Dostoevsky would find his way forward, availing himself of memories from his childhood and the truths in the only book allowed Russian prisoners, the New Testament. 

Dostoevsky’s earlier works focus on characters who, faced with a reality they had long suspected but never admitted, must choose between a reevaluation of closest-held premises or a sustained, self-destructive delusion. Unlike most of them, when Dostoevsky was faced with his own such contradiction with reality, he thankfully chose the former, and it would open up avenues to psychological relief and to substance and conviction for his subsequent work. 

In the sequel to this piece I will examine the experience that would change Dostoevsky’s perspective on his fellow convicts, and I will go through how his revelations in prison—and his rejection of the socialism with which he had allied himself in his young adulthood—would influence the characters, themes, and contentions of his later masterpieces. For now, let it be enough to pause, with Dostoevsky, and consider the political panaceas being pronounced by the elites of his day, to which many of today’s pronouncements sound all too similar. For their humanitarian assumptions and beautiful intentions, the mid-century Russian intelligentsia’s lack of experience with and knowledge of the very Russians they were championing made them inadequate to prescribe ideas that could account for them. We would be fools not to heed the author who, discovering that insufficiency, would stand ever after as a warning prophet and harbinger of the spiritual and physical desolation that would—and did—follow were a better way not divined and considered.


  1. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 85
  2. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pg. 88
  3. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 88
  4. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter II: First Impressions (1).” The House of the Dead
  5. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter VI: The First Month (2).” The House of the Dead
  6. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 93
  7. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
  8. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 97
  9. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter I: The House of the Dead.” The House of the Dead
  10. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 156
  11. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 22
  12. Quoted in Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 18
  13. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 19
  14. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Chapter IX: An Escape.”The House of the Dead
  15. Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, pg. 114

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A reflection on the pre-WWII English upper class and of Oxford University, Brideshead Revisited follows captain Charles Ryder as he and his battalion are sent to Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire during the final years of the war. Returning to Brideshead provokes the memories in Ryder that make up the content of the book.

The main bulk of the story follows Ryder at Oxford, where he is befriended by a young aristocrat, Lord Sebastian Flyte; their relationship introduces Ryder to the Marchmain family at Brideshead and their way of life. In the intervening scenes, Ryder maneuvers the Catholicism of the Marchmains (Ryder is an agnostic), the homosexuality of Sebastian’s eccentric friends, and Sebastian’s alcoholism, as well as the romantic prospect of Sebastian’s sister Julia. Throughout, Ryder negotiates his own beliefs and desires with those around him, and he discovers, often after the fact, the roles that friendship, art, and religion can play in adding beauty to one’s life (though it’s not as cliche as I probably just made that sound).

To be honest, I don’t think I got all I could out of the book, so I’m hesitant to say more than this brief summary. The close male-male friendship of Charles and Sebastian — which has homoerotic overtones and arguably provokes Charles’s initial love for Julia — was one of the best articulated aspects of the book. For better or worse, Charles becomes a part of the Marchmain family, and their reliance on him in dealing with Sebastian’s addictions, as well as the discussions on Catholicism (a consistent motif) that result from his pursuit of Julia really drew me into the relationships of the characters. Being a remembrance, the book consistently has an elegaic tone, which Jeremy Irons brings out excellently in the audiobook version.

Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Five Feet Apart: Dante’s Inferno Canto V in a modern context.

Opening in the hospital room of deuteragonist Stella, who has cystic fibrosis (CF), Five Feet Apart is a YA romance that explores the conflicts of people living with CF and other related diseases. Early in the book Stella meets the other deuteragonist, Will, and she can’t stand him. However, as anyone who’s read Much Ado About Nothing or seen a sitcom where opposites attract knows, this soon changes.

Going back and forth between Stella and Will’s first-person perspectives, Five Feet Apart steadily and subtly shows the two drawing together. One can see throughout the inner conflict each presents to the other: Will’s dark humor and desire to enjoy what life he has challenges Stella’s control-minded focus on staying alive, while Stella’s optimism and love for those in her life challenges Will’s cynical nihilism about the value of staying alive. I especially enjoyed and was impressed with Lippincott’s presentation of Will and Poe; more than once I told the student who had chosen to read the book that the author gets teenage male psychology spot-on.

Marketed as a YA romance that shows the experiences of the terminally ill, Five Feet Apart has a lot of depth. Like Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Stella and Will can never touch, despite their teenage love. The reference to Dante is made explicit in the book’s second chapter, where readers find “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” written on Will’s door. Allusions to other works (eg Stella’s name and untouchability invoke the courtly love tradition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella poems) similarly reveal how Five Feet Apart is self-conscious about the forms and archetypes which it uses.

Despite its tragic elements, it is, at base, a romantic comedy, and it plays with and reinterprets different tropes of the genre to excellent effect. The setting of the hospital, and the constant presence of the characters’ CF and B. cepacia introduce compelling conflicts into the plot. While young women are often taught to be skeptical of (if not to reject as objectification) appeals to their physical beauty, Stella’s condition lends a different element to the topic. As is shown in the book’s opening scene, where her best friends discuss and pick out their bathing suits for their upcoming trip to Cabo, Stella does not have the luxury of taking her physical beauty for granted (cue reference to “ugly duckling/Cinderella” archetype); this adds a special gravity to later scenes where she gets to experience being attractive in Will’s eyes. Similarly, her beauty and personality eventually give Will the desire to stay alive, and her effect humanizes him away from his mask of uncaring nihilism, a la La Belle et La Bete/Beauty and the Beast. Throughout the story Lippincott also shows the conflicts of the surrounding characters, all of whom develop as round and articulate by the end of the novel.

Entertaining for both passive and critical readers, Five Feet Apart is an excellent story that rearticulates established story elements into a modern context, and it’s as deep as one might want to look. The audiobook version by Simon & Schuster is great, as Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill give life to the two narrators to often very humorous and sympathetic effect.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Winning Conan Bingo Card: “thew,” “(blue) balefire,” “tigerish strength,” “ivory breasts,” “by Crom!”

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is a series of short stories that introduce Conan, as well as the Hyborean Age in which he lives (like a mythical, prehistoric Iron Age). Written in episodes that cover different times and circumstances in the barbarian’s life, the stories and their various scenarios show Conan to be a primal, instinct-driven type of mankind, who often conflicts with (though is rarely seriously threatened by) both primordial forces and monsters as well as more civilized – and, in the world of the book, thus more vicious – men.

Published in the 1930s alongside Lovecraft’s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the Conan stories often involve consistent themes and motifs (see Bingo card suggestion above). Conan is beset by trouble, and he must get out of it — usually without craft beyond his sword arm. There is usually a woman involved, and she unerringly discovers that she wants to be possessed by Conan. Men of civilization (members of court, politicians, magicians, tacticians, etc) are internally threatened by Conan, as are their pretensions.

This last point touches on one of the deeper themes of the Conan stories: the fragility, irony, and decadence of civilization. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages,” Howard writes, “because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Another quote indicative of this theme is, “The more I see of what you call civilization, the more highly I think of what you call savagery!” Throughout the stories, by the magnitude of his will for life (in battle, at board, in bed) and his respect for the primordial, Conan reveals those who presume themselves his betters to be fragile, inferior, and untrustworthy. His difference from them is the difference between being and seeming, and it becomes an indictment of civilizations that might think themselves infallible or beyond the more basic need for (or threat of) thew and steel. Many stories involve the discovery of the remains of past civilizations, and much of Conan’s wisdom inheres in his consistently keeping the rise and fall of empires in mind when engaging in the power politics of his time.

The Conan stories are excellent in their characterization of the titular hero, as well as the consistency of theme and setting. They can be read for both entertainment as well as for critical understanding of the role which fantasy literature plays in culture (is he an artistic concretization of the values readers wanted and needed during the height of the Great Depression? One could also read Conan as a Nietzschean overman — or do a compare/contrast with Superman, who was noteworthily created at the same time).

While my only complaint is that certain phrases/vocabulary appear so formulaically, that might be, for some, a good thing, since one of the major virtues of Conan is his reliability and simplicity. Besides, The Silmarillion (written by Tolkien at the same time as Conan), itself, contains only about 350 words it reuses, so perhaps I need to take a cue from Conan.