Five Truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils

Originally published by The Mallard.

Whenever I scroll through the news on Twitter or listen to talk radio, I like to play a game called “Dostoevsky called it.” As one can guess, it consists of identifying events or trends that correspond with those in Feodor Dostoevsky’s novels and letters. Because Dostoevsky devoted so much ink to warning about the motives and effects of atheist-utilitarian socialism from the radical left, the game often points to his most direct attack on those ideas: The Devils.

Published between 1871 and 1872 and written in response to the Nechaev affair, where an underground group of socialist-atheist radicals, planning to ultimately overthrow the Tsarist government through propaganda, terrorism, and assassination, murdered a former comrade who had left their secret society, The Devils (Бесы; also translated as Demons or The Possessed) is Feodor Dostoevsky’s most explicit expose of and polemic against the revolutionary nihilism growing in late nineteenth-century Russia. Although, due to his own participation in a socialist plot aimed at educating and ultimately liberating the serfs, he often gave the benefit of the doubt to the moral idealism of the younger generation of radicals—assuming their hearts, if not their methods, were in the right place—in The Devils he nonetheless skewers the radical ideology and his generation and the next’s culpability for it.

While his main focus is on the characters’ psychologies and their symbolic significance, Dostoevsky nonetheless lays out many of the ideas populating late-nineteenth-century Russia, displaying a thorough understanding of them, their holders’ true motives (which, like those of that other ideological murderer Raskalnikov, are rarely the same as those consciously stated by their loudest advocates), and what would be the results if they were not checked. In several places, Dostoevsky unfortunately calls it right, and The Devils at times reads as a preview of the following fifty years in Russia, as well as of the modes and methods of radicalism in later places and times.

It would be too great a task to cite, here, all the places and times where Dostoevsky’s visions were confirmed; at best, after laying out a few of the many truths in The Devils, I can only note basic parallels with later events and trends in Russia and elsewhere—and let my readers draw their own additional parallels. Nonetheless, here are five truths from Dostoevsky’s The Devils:

1: The superfluity of the preceding liberal generation to progressive radicals.

The Devils is structured around the relationship between the older and younger generations of the mid-1800s. The book opens with an introduction of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, father to the later introduced radical Peter Stepanovich. A Westernized liberal from the 1840s generation, Stepan Trofimovich represents the upper-class intelligentsia that first sought to enlighten the supposedly backwards Russia through atheistic socialism (a redundancy in Dostoevsky).

However, despite his previously elevated status as a liberal and lecturer, by the time of The Devils Stepan Trofimovich—and, with him, the 1840s liberals who expected to be honored for opening the door to progress—has become superfluous. This is highlighted when his son returns to the province and does not honor his father with figurative laurels (when such a symbol is later employed literally it is in satirical mock).

Though never the direct butt of Dostoevsky’s satire, Stepan Trofimovich cannot (or refuses) to understand that his son’s nihilism is not a distortion of his own generation’s hopes but is the logical, inevitable product of them. The older man’s refusal to admit his ideological progeny in his literal progeny’s beliefs, of course, enables Peter Stepanovich to mock him further, even while he continues to avail himself of the benefits of his father’s erstwhile status in society. This “liberal naivete enabling radical nihilism” schema can also be seen in the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, who believes that she can heroically redirect the passions of the youth to more socially beneficial, less radical, pursuits but only ends up enabling them to take over her literary fete to ridicule traditional society and distract the local worthies while agents set parts of the local town ablaze. Stepan Trofimovich, Yulia Mikhailovna, and others show that, despite the liberal generation’s supposed love for Russia, they were unable to brake the pendulum they sent swinging towards leftism.

The same pattern of liberals being ignored or discarded by the progressives they birthed can be seen in later years in Russia and other nations. While it would historically be two generations between Belinsky and Lenin (who was born within months of Dostoevsky’s starting to write The Devils), after the 1917 Revolution, Soviet Russia went through several cycles of executing or imprisoning previous generations who, despite supporting the Revolution, were unfortunately too close to the previous era to be trusted by new, socialistically purer generations.

In a more recent UK, Dostoevsky’s schema can also be seen in the Boomer-led Labour of the ‘90s and ‘00s UK paving the way for the radical, arguably anti-British progressivism of the 2010s and ‘20s (which, granted, sports its share of hip Boomers). In America, it can be seen in the soft divide in congressional Democrats between 20th-century liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and “the squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others who have actively tried (and arguably succeeded) in pushing the nation’s discourse in a left progressive direction.

2: Ideologies as active, distorting forces rather than merely passive beliefs.

“I’ve never understood anything about your theory…” Peter Stepanovich tells the serene Aleksei Nilych Kirillov later in the book, “I also know you haven’t swallowed the idea—the idea’s swallowed you…” The idea he is referring to is Kirillov’s belief that by committing suicide not from despair or passion but by rational, egotistic intention, he can rid mankind of the fear of death (personified in the figure of God) and become the Christ of the new utilitarian atheism (really, Dostoevsky intends us to understand, not without pity for Kirillov, an antichrist thereof). The topic of suicide—rising in Russia at the time of the book’s writing and a result, Dostoevsky believed, of the weakening of social institutions and national morality by the subversive nihilism then spreading—is a motif through the book. Countering Chernyshevsky’s romanticized revolutionary Rakhmetov from What is to Be Done?, Kirillov is Dostoevsky’s depiction of the atheist rational egotism of the time taken to its fullest psychological extent. Like others he had and would later write (Raskalnikov, Ivan Karamazov), Kirillov is driven mad by an idea that “swallows” him in monomania and which he has admitted to being obsessed with—the idea of a world without God.

Though Dostoevsky considered it the central issue of his day (which still torments Western culture), my focus here is not on Kirillov’s idea, itself, but on his relation to it. Countering the Western Enlightenment conceit that ideas are mere tools to be rationally picked up and put down at will, Dostoevsky shows through Kirillov that ideas and ideology (ideas put in the place of religion) are active things that can overwhelm both conscious and unconscious mind. Indeed, the novel’s title and Epigraph—the story of Legion and the swine from Luke 8—already suggests this; for Dostoevsky, there is little difference between the demons that possessed the pigs and the ideas that drive characters like Kirillov to madness.

Of course, a realist-materialist reading of Kirillov’s end (I won’t spoil it, though it arguably undercuts his serenity throughout the book) and the later Ivan Karamazov’s encounter with a personified devil would contend that there was nothing literally demonic to the manifestations, but for Dostoevsky that matters little; for him, whose focus is always on how the individual lives and experiences life, being possessed by an ideology one cannot let go of and being in the grasp of literal demons is nearly synonymous—indeed, the former may be the modern manifestation of the latter, with the same results. In his work, such things almost always accompany a lowering of one’s humanity into the beastial.

The problem with ideology, Dostoevsky had discovered in Siberia, was in their limited conception of man. By cutting off all upper transcendent values as either religious superstition or upper class decadence, the new utilitarian atheism had removed an essential part of what it meant to be human. At best, humans were animals and could hope for no more than thus, and all higher aspirations were to be lowered to achieving present social goals of food, housing, and sex—which Dostoevsky saw, themselves, as impossible to effectively achieve without the Orthodox Church’s prescriptions for how to deal with suffering and a belief in afterlife. Of the lack of higher impressions that give life meaning, Dostoevsky saw two possible results: ever-increasingly perverse acts of the flesh, and ever-increasingly solipsistic devotion to a cause—both being grounded in and expressions not of liberation or selflessness, but of the deepest egotism (which was a frankly stated element of the times’ ideologies).

From this view, Dostoevsky would have seen today’s growing efforts to legitimate into the mainstream things like polyamory, abortion, and public displays of sexuality and increasingly aggressive advocacy by groups like Extinction Rebellion or NOW (he predicted both movements in his other writing) as both being attempts to supply the same religious impulse—which, due to their being cut off by their premises from the transcendent metaphysic required by the human creature and supplied by Christianity, &c, is a doomed attempt.

3: Seemingly virtuous revolution motivated by and covering for private vices.

By the time he wrote The Devils Dostoevsky had seen both inside and outside of the radical movement; he had also depicted in Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment characters who discover, to their angst and horror, that their actions were not motivated by humanitarianism, but by envy, cravenness, and the subsequent desire for self-aggrandizement. The Devils features the same depth of psychology beneath the main characters’ stated ideas and goals, and the book often shows how said ideas cannot work when applied to real people and real life.

As the chronicle unfolds, characters often speak of the petty vices that undermine the purity of the revolutionaries’ stated virtues and goals. “Why is it,” the narrator recounts Stepan Trofimovich once asking him, “all these desperate socialists and communists are also so incredibly miserly, acquisitive, and proprietorial? In fact, the more socialist someone is…the stronger his proprietorial instinct.” So much for those who seek to abolish property; one can guess to whom they wish to redistribute it! The revolutionary-turned-conservative Ivan Shatov later continues the motif, digging deeper into the radicals’ motives: “They’d be the first to be terribly unhappy if somehow Russia were suddenly transformed, even according to their own ideas, and if it were suddenly to become immeasurably rich and happy. Then they’d have no one to hate, no one to despise, no one to mock! It’s all an enormous, animal hatred for Russia that’s eaten into their system.”

Leftists might accuse Dostoevsky of merely wishing to make the radicals look bad with such an evaluation; however, as addressed by Joseph Frank in his chapter on the topic in Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, the “bad for thee, fine for me” mentality of The Devils’s radicals (if their ideology doesn’t completely blind them to such inconsistency in the first place) was straight from the playbook of men like Nechaev: the Catechism of a Revolutionary. Far from trying to evade contradictory behavior, such a work, and other later analogues (Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance”; Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals) advocate being inconsistent and slippery with one’s principles for the sake of the revolution. Indeed, contradicting the rules one was trying to impose on others was and is seen not as an inconsistency but as a special privilege—of which several examples can be found, from upper party opulence in the USSR to modern champagne socialists who attend a $35,000-per-seat Met Gala while advocating taxing the rich.

4: Social chaos and purges as necessary and inevitable in achieving and maintaining utopia.

Perhaps the single most prophetic scene in The Devils occurs in the already mentioned chapter “‘Our Group’ Meets,” which depicts the various the local radicals meeting under cover of a birthday party. A cacophony of competing voices and priorities, the scene’s humorous mix of inept, self-serving idealists is made grotesque by the visions they advocate. Most elaborate of the speakers is Shigalyov, whose utopian scheme for the revolution was insightful enough that Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn both referred to the Russian government’s post-October Revolution policies and methods as “Shigalevism.” 

While Shigalyov’s whole speech (and Peter Stepanovich’s commentary) is worth reading as a prophecy of what would happen less than fifty years after the book, here are some notable excerpts:

“Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism…One-tenth will receive personal freedom and unlimited power over the other nine-tenths. The latter must forfeit their individuality and become as it were a herd [through re-education of entire generations]; through boundless obedience, they will attain, by a series of rebirths, a state of primeval innocence, although they’ll still have to work…What I’m proposing is not disgusting; it’s paradise, paradise on earth—there can be none other on earth.”

A direct goal of the purges in Soviet Russia, and of the alienation of children from their parents, was to create a new, purely socialist generation unburdened by the prejudices of previous or outside systems.

“[We’ve] been urged to close ranks and even form groups for the sole purposed of bringing about total destruction, on the pretext that however much you try to cure the world, you won’t be able to do so entirely, but if you take radical steps and cut off one hundred million heads, thus easing the burden, it’ll be much easier to leap over the ditch. It’s a splendid idea…”

While hundred million murders may seem like hyperbole in the scene’s darkly comic context, in the end it was an accurate prediction of what communism would accomplish if put into systemic practice; however, we should also not miss the stated method of destabilizing society via conspiratorial groups aimed not at aid but at acceleration—a method used in early 20th-century Russia and employed by modern radical groups like Antifa.

“It would take at least fifty years, well, thirty, to complete such a slaughter—inasmuch as people aren’t sheep, you know, and they won’t submit willingly.”

Besides the time element, the identifying of the individual human’s desire for life and autonomy as a lamentable but surmountable impediment to revolution—rather than a damning judgment of the radicals’ inability to make any humanitarian claims—is chilling.

“[Shigalyov] has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery.”

A corrollary to the section above on freedom-through-slavery, this part accurately identifies the system of paranoid watchfulness in the first half of the USSR, as well as the system currently in place in the DPRK, among other places.

“The one thing the world needs is obedience. The desire for education is an aristocratic idea. As soon as a man experiences love or has a family, he wants private property. We’ll destroy that want: we’ll unleash drunkenness, slander, denunciantion; we’ll unleash unheard-of corruption… [Crime] is no longer insanity, but some kind of common sense, almost an obligation, at least a noble protest.”

Anti-traditional-family advocacy and the flipping of the criminal-innocent dichotomy as a means of destabilizing the status quo all took place in the early years of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they are all too familiar today in the West, whether we’re talking about the current argument in the US that children’s education belongs to the community (i.e. teachers, public unions, and the government) to the exclusion of parents, or the argument heard at several points in the 2020 that crimes and rioting committed during protests were an excusable, even “noble,” form of making one’s voice heard (while nicking a TV in the process!).

More recently and ongoing here in California (often uncannily parallel to the UK in certain policy impulses), our current District Attorney George Gascon, in an attempt to redefine the criminal-victim mentality in the state, has implemented policies that benefit criminals over victims by relaxing the definitions and sentences of certain crimes and refusing to try teenagers who commit felonies as adults (among other things); as many expected would happen, crime has risen in the state, with the Los Angeles PD recently advising residents to avoid wearing jewelry in public—which, to this resident, sounds oddly close to blaming the victim for wearing a short skirt by another name, and is certainly a symptom and example of anarcho-tyranny.

To nineteenth-century readers not as versed as Dostoevsky in the literature and ideas behind the Nechaev affair (which was publicly seen as merely a murder among friends, without the ideological significance Dostoevsky gave it), this section of The Devils would have seemed a comic exaggeration. However, to post-20th-century readers it stands, like a clarion pointing forward to the events later confirmed by Solzhenitsyn, as a dire warning not to forget the truth in the satire and not to dismiss the foolishly hyperbolic as impotent. Even in isolated forms, the ideas promoted by Shigalyev are real, and when applied they have been, as Dostoevsky predicted, disastrous.

5: Socialism not as humanitarian reason, but as religious poetry; revolution as primarily aesthetic, not economic.

An amalgam of, among other members of the 1840s generation, the father of Russian socialism Alexander Herzen, Stepan Trofimovich is, by the time of the 1860s setting of The Devils, an inveterate poet. This reflects Dostoevsky’s evaluation of his old theorist friend, whom he nonetheless cites as the enabler of men like the nihilist terrorist Nechaev, despite Herzen’s claims that the terrorist had bastardized his ideas (see truth number 1, above).

The brilliantly mixed critique of and homage to Dostoevsky’s own generation that is Stepan Trofimovich presents one of the book’s main motifs about the nihilist generation: that they are not pursuing a philosophically rational system of humanitarian goals, but a romantically poetic pseudo-religion. “They’re all bewitched,” cries Stepan Trofimovich about his son, “not by realism, but by the emotional and idealistic aspects of socialism, so to speak, by its religious overtones, its poetry.” Later, at the aforementioned pivotal meeting scene, Peter Stepanovich shows he is completely conscious of this fact—and willing to use it to his advantage. “What’s happening here is the replacement of the old religion by a new one; that’s why so many soldiers are needed—it’s a large undertaking.” In the next scene, Peter Stepanovich reveals to Stavrogin his desire to use the enchanting nobleman as a figurehead for revolution among the peasantry, intending to call him Ivan the Tsarevich to play off of the Russian folk legend of a messianic Tsar in hiding who will rise to take the throne from the “false” reigning Tsar and right all the world’s wrongs with his combined religious and political power.

Peter Stepanovich, himself, is too frank a nihilist to believe in such narratives; focused as he is on first destroying everything rather than wasting time pontificating about what to do afterwards, he even treats Shigalyov’s utopian visions with contempt. However, the rest of the radicals in the book are not so clear-sighted about the nature of their beliefs. Multiple times in the book, susceptibility to radical socialism is said to inhere not in reason but in sentimentality; showing Dostoevsky’s moderation even on a topic of which he was so passionately against, this critique often focuses on younger men and women’s genuine desire to good—which ironically makes them, like the naive and forthright Ensign Erkel, susceptible to committing the worst crimes with a straight, morally self-confident face.

It is this susceptibility to the art of revolution that causes Peter Stepanovich to be so sanguine about others’ romanticism, despite its falling short of his own nihilism. His intention to use others’ art for his own advantage can be seen most clearly in his hijacking of Yulia Mikhailovna’s  literary fete to use it, through his cronies, as a screed against the social order and to mock artistic tradition. His doing so is just a follow-through of an earlier statement to Stavrogin that “Those with higher abilities…have always done more harm than good; they’ll either be banished or executed. Cicero’s tongue will be cut out, Copernicus’s eyes will be gouged out, Shakespeare will be stoned…it’s a fine idea to level mountains—there’s nothing ridiculous in that…we’ll suffocate every genius in its infancy.”

Against his son’s leveling of mountains, Stepan Trofimovich, to his infinite credit and speaking with his author’s mouth, declares, with the lone voice of tradition amidst the climactic fete, that “Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs…than nationalism…than socialism…than the younger generation…than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit of humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!” In this contrast between the Verkhovenskys, it is not different views on economics but on art—on Shakespeare, among others—that that lie at the heart of revolution, with the revolutionaries opposing the English Poet more viscerally than any other figure. This reflects Dostoevsky’s understanding that the monumental cultural shift of the 1800s was not primarily scientific but aesthetic (a topic too large to address here). Suffice it to say, the central conflict of The Devils is not between capitalists and socialists (the book rarely touches on economic issues, apart from their being used as propaganda—that is, aesthetically), nor between Orthodox and atheists (though Dostoevsky certainly saw that as the fundamental alternative at play), but between the 1840s late Romantics and the new Naturalist-Realists.

The prophetic nature of this aesthetic aspect of The Devils has many later confirmations, such as the 20th century’s growth of state propaganda, especially in socialistic states like Nazi Germany or the USSR, though also in the West (Western postmodernism would eventually make all art as interpretable as propaganda). Furthermore, the Stalinist cult of personality seems a direct carry over of Peter Stepanovich’s intended desire to form just such a pseudo-religious cult out of Nikolai Vsevolodovich.

Having written a novel on the threat posed to Shakespeare by the newest generation of the radical left (before reading of Verkhovensky’s desire to stone Shakespeare—imagine my surprise to find that Dostoevsky had called even the events in my own novel!), I hold this particular topic close to my heart. Indeed, I believe we are still in the Romantic-Realist crossroads, and in dire need of backtracking to take the other path that would prefer, to paraphrase Stepan Trofimovich, the beautiful and ennobling Shakespeare and Raphael over the socially useful pair of boots and petroleum. Like Stepan Trofimovich, I believe comforts and technical advancements like the latter could not have come about were it not for the culture of the former—and that they would lose their value were their relative importance confused to the detriment of that which is higher.

Conclusion

There are, of course, many other truths in The Devils that have borne out (the infighting of radical advocacy groups competing for prominence, radicalism as a result of upper-class boredom and idleness, revolution’s being effected not by a majority but a loud minority willing to transgress, self-important administrators and bureaucrats as enablers and legitimators of radicals…). While the increasingly chaotic narrative (meant to mimic the setting’s growing unrest) is not Dostoevsky’s most approachable work, The Devils is certainly one of his best, and it fulfills his intended purpose of showing, like Tolstoy had done a few years before in War and Peace, a full picture of Russian society.

However, while Tolstoy’s work looked backward to a Russia that, from Dostoevsky’s view, had been played out, The Devils was written to look forward, and, more often for ill than good, it has been right in its predictions. Not for nothing did Albert Camus, who would later adapt The Devils for the stage, say on hearing about the Stalinist purges in Soviet Russia that “The real 19th-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”

Dark Humour for the Red King: The Drunk Porter in Macbeth

Originally published by The Mallard.

“Knock, knock—who’s there?”

Whenever one of my tutorial students is assigned (or, let’s be honest, barely mentions) Macbeth, I go into a certain and by now well-rehearsed tangent on how Shakespeare’s arguably darkest play contains one of the most peculiar scenes in his canon—and the origin of what is now considered a passe pretext to employ a bad pun, the knock-knock joke. Mentioning that last part usually lands me at least a few minutes of fleeting teenage attention, wherein I talk about everything from Shakespeare, to dark humour, to how Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy produced one of our lightest joke forms.

Of course, the knock-knock joke, as we know it, owes less to Shakespeare than to the innovation of 1930s English radio host Wee Georgie Wood, with his turning the Porter’s words into his catch phrase of “knock, knock, who’s there?” By the middle of the Great Depression, when the average Joe and Jane were presumably in need of an easy laugh, the joke form was sufficiently popular in the US that a Columbus, OH, theater’s contest for the best knock-knock jokes was “literally swamped” with entries (I’m sure the $1 cash prize didn’t hurt the contest’s popularity). The popularity of the supposedly low-humour knock, knock joke amidst the depression (both economic and psychological) may not owe anything directly to Shakespeare, but I do think it relates back to the original Porter scene, which is the main subject of this article.

My purpose here is not to provide a definitive reading of the Porter’s monologue, nor to ultimately solve the puzzle of what, exactly, the scene is doing in the play; better scholarship is available for those interested than the motes I will, nonetheless, offer here. My aim is to consider what Shakespeare’s following arguably the least justified regicide in his canon with a comical drunk can tell us about humour’s role in helping people navigate tragedy. And, if it sheds light on why knock, knock jokes (or other seemingly low, tactless, or dark forms of humour) may grow especially popular in uncertain times, so much the better.

“Here’s a knocking indeed!”

Macbeth Act 2 Scene 3                                                      

[Knocking within. Enter a Porter.]                                                            

PORTER     Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were

porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the

key.

The lone on-stage partaker in the carousing at King Duncan’s visit to Inverness, the drunken Porter is one of the play’s few examples of plebians not directly connected with the nobility. However, unlike Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Porter remains, like a latter day Falstaff, insulated against the intrigue that surrounds him by drink, imagination, and low jokes.

Brought onstage by the knocking of MacDuff and Lennox (as if in ironic answer to Macbeth’s present wish that Duncan might wake), the Porter shows that, like Macbeth, he has a very active imagination. In fact, since Coleridge’s dismissal and omission of the scene as an inauthentic interpolation, many 20th-century critical readings have safely secured it back in its rightful place by pointing out, among other things, the Porter’s not merely contrasting but paralleling his master. Presumably rudely awakened and hungover, he fancies himself the porter of Hell and in the employ of a devil. Of course, the supreme irony throughout the scene involves his ignorance of how close to the truth his fantasy comes.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’

th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged

himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!                       5

Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat for ’t.

The Porter imagines admitting three denizens, each of whom, scholars have noted, can stand as a metaphor for Macbeth and his actions. The first imagined entrant is a farmer who, having hoarded grain in expectation of a shortage, hangs himself at the price drop produced by a surplus. As the play, if not the tragic genre, itself, is about the ends not aligning with expectation, the image of the farmer of course foreshadows the results of Macbeth’s betting too much on the Weird Sisters’ presentiments. Although in the end it is Lady Macbeth who commits suicide, Macbeth’s language near the end becomes more fatalistic the more vulnerable he gets, with his final fight with the prophesied MacDuff amounting to arguable suicide (to see an excellent rendition of the swap of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s psychologies by play’s end, see Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—and my review of it). Adding to the irony of the scene is the fact that, according to Christopher Jackson, Shakespeare, himself, was an investor in and hoarder of grain against shortages. One wonders how many times he had thought of the image before writing this scene—and if he smirked while employing it. 

(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’

other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator

that could swear in both the scales against either

scale, who committed treason enough for God’s                           10

sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,

equivocator.

Next in the Porter’s fantasy is an equivocator, one whose ambiguous use of language can help him with earthly scales but not heavenly. Historicist critics point to this moment as an allusion to the Jesuit father Henry Garnet, executed in 1605 for his participation in the Gunpowder Plot (to which 1606’s Macbeth can be read as a reaction). In his trial, Garnet was criticized for equivocating to keep from revealing details of the plot without explicitly lying; he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered in May 1606.

While said reference is informative, if nothing else, about Shakespeare’s possible view of the Gunpowder Plot (unsurprising to anyone who knows what happens to regicides in his canon), one’s reading should not stop there. The Porter’s landing an equivocator in Hell points, again, to the play’s titular character. It should be remembered that before he commits the play’s central tragic act, Macbeth goes through a rigorous process of thought to spur himself to the deed, often playing on or completely omitting language—that is, equivocating—to justify the assassination (which, as a word, is first used in English in his “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in I.7; not carrying the weight it does today, the coinage was an example of Macbeth distancing himself from the reality of the murder).

Furthermore, the Porter’s focus on equivocators here and later in the scene (he displays some comic equivocation of his own on the virtues and dangers of drink, unknowingly stalling MacDuff and Lennox long enough for Macbeth and Lady M. to cover up Duncan’s murder) foreshadows Macbeth’s beginning “To doubt the equivocation” of the Weird Sisters’ prophecy about Birnam Wood’s coming to Dunsinane (V.5). Indeed, the infernal dangers of ambiguous language (or of trusting one’s initial interpretation thereof) constitute one of the play’s primary themes. Among other things, Macbeth’s pointing this out establishes a further parallel between the Porter and himself.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s

there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for

stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here

you may roast your goose.

The last of the Porter’s imagined wards has landed in Hell for cheating English courtiers while providing them with French fashion; whether he played on his customers ignorance of how much the new fancies cost or whether Shakespeare—err, the Porter—is making a joke about French fashion being worthy of eternal damnation, I’ll decline to decide. Perhaps both readings (or one I’m missing entirely) are meant, offering sympathetic humour to both courtiers who have been gulled with exaggerated prices and to the commons who might enjoy a good skewering of the foppish trends of their betters. The dual metaphor of the roasted goose—referring both to a tailor’s hot iron called a “goose” and to the idiom “his goose is cooked”—continues the play’s theme regarding the dangers of trying to succeed through proscribed means, besides adding to the dramatic irony of the Porter’s describing his own boss’s trajectory.

(Knock.) Knock, knock!                              15

Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is

too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had

thought to have let in some of all professions that go

the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)

Anon, anon!

The Porter, like Macbeth, seems to have an imagination as limitless as it is abysmal—such that he could presumably find a place in it for individuals of all professions. Also like his master, he fantasizes about a position higher (or, rather, lower) than he currently holds. That he stops not for lack of imagination but for the prosaic physical discomfort of being cold contrasts with how Macbeth eventually gives up all comforts in trying to achieve the crown. However, even here he parallels Macbeth, as both are ultimately unable to keep reality—whether the cold or the vengeance of the prophesied MacDuff—from interrupting their fantasies.

And yet, that the Porter identifies Inverness, itself, as too cold to sufficiently imagine Hell is, itself, a possible nod to the, under James I, verboten Catholic-Thomistic-Aligherian view of Hell’s lowest levels as being the frozen lake of traitors. However, Shakespeare skates past the Protestant censors, for it is not Hell the Porter is describing, but Scotland, and at its center at the very moment preceding this scene is not Satan, or the traitors Judas, Brutus, or Cassius, but Macbeth—who is, of course, all of these.

“…it provokes and unprovokes…”

 But why does the Playwright link the worst regicide in his canon to a comic scene? Of course, as I mention above, plot-wise the Porter stalls the discovery of the play’s central crime. Furthermore, thematically the Porter both contrasts and mirrors Macbeth, which in different eras has been interpreted as alternatively demonizing the latter by the monologue’s subject and humanizing him by stressing a congruence with the common man.

The impropriety of the scene—joking about souls lately gone to Hell, when the unshriven Duncan, himself, has just entered the afterlife—highlights the very tension from which the Jacobean audience may have needed relief. As has been pointed out, an assassination plot against James I and Parliament had just the year before been foiled. Moreover, set in a medieval context where the death of a monarch had cosmic repercussions, the choice to distance the focus from the play’s main action may have been meant to increase the suspense—here, not merely the suspense before an expected surprise, but also the chaotic metaphysical suspension between monarchs—rather than comically relieve it. And this is assuming the comic relief does not fail due to its utter tactlessness, or to a high number of Malvolios in the audience determined to see the scene as an interruption of the play’s sombre pathos.

And yet, even being outraged by dark humour accomplishes the humour’s possible goal of helping one navigate a tragedy. For that is what I believe this scene—and most dark humour—is meant to accomplish: facilitate the audience’s psychological survival of the author’s darkest tragedy. Both inappropriate laughter and rage at impropriety—and even confusion about the scene’s strangeness—are preferable to the despair that leads eventually to Macbeth’s nihilism and Lady Macbeth’s suicide.

The Porter is not a good guy; indeed, his humour, like Falstaff’s, inheres in his being disreputable. Similarly, the scene is not openly funny, nor does it offer any kind of saccharine “everything will be alright” triteness. I, myself, am not satisfied to read it the way the play at large has conventionally been interpreted, as an implicit promise that divine justice will prevail and Macbeth will get his comeuppance like the farmer, equivocator, and tailor do; there are too many questions about Scotland’s future left unsatisfied by play’s end to settle on such a reading, just as there are arguably as many parallels between Macbeth and the play’s hero MacDuff as between Macbeth and the Porter. Rather, the scene’s salutary power paradoxically lies in its pushing the horror of Duncan’s murder even farther—by joking about souls lately knocking at Hell’s gate, with the Porter standing in as a kind of anti-St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. In so doing, the Porter scene lampoons the Macbeths’ expectation that they can somehow cheat fate, and his scene, more than the one before it, foreshadows the trend of the rest of the play.

As with the subtext of other examples of ironic humour, the Porter is not mocking the sympathetic Duncan, but implicitly commiserating with him and other victims of fate, fortune, or perfidy. By following Macbeth’s crime with a drunken Porter utterly disconnected from it who, nonetheless, perfectly names and exagerrates the themes involved, Shakespeare subsumes the play’s tragic act into the absurd, at least for a moment—and a moment is all that’s needed. By pointing out the reality of the play’s horror while safely containing it within a hyperbolically ironic, almost Chaucerian, tableaux, Shakespeare sets the standard for how well-placed instances of low and dark humour—from knock-knock jokes to self-deprication to suicide memes—can help contextualize tragedy, depression, and trauma in manageable ways.

One might balk (quite rightly) at the idea of telling a joke right after a tragedy like the assassination of a beloved king, considering it too soon and not the time for humour, but Shakespeare? Apparently he thought that was exactly when to employ humour—especially of a certain darker yet therapeutic type. It’s taken a few centuries, but scientific studies, so far as they go, have caught up with and confirmed Shakespeare’s using such humour as a way to help his audiences regulate their emotions in his plays’ more dreadful moments. Far be it from us to censure what the Playwright thought within the pale—and how dare we dismiss even the humble knock, knock joke as anything but profound and, sometimes, just what we need.

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: An Examination and Review

Originally published by The Mallard.

A new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth is the director’s first production without his brother Ethan’s involvement. Released in select theaters on December 25, 2021, and then on Apple TV on January 14, 2022, the production has received positive critical reviews as well as awards for screen adaptation and cinematography, with many others still pending.

As with any movie review, I encourage readers who plan to see the film to do so before reading my take. While spoilers probably aren’t an issue here, I would not want to unduly influence one’s experience of Coen’s take on the play. Overall, though much of the text is omitted, some scenes are rearranged, and some roles are reduced and others expanded, I found the adaptation to be a generally faithful one that only improved with subsequent views. Of course, the substance of the play is in the performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, but their presentation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is enhanced by both the production and supporting performances.

Production: “where nothing, | But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile” —IV.3

The Tragedy of Macbeth’s best element is its focus on the psychology of the main characters, explored below. This focus succeeds in no small part due to its minimalist aesthetic. Filmed in black and white, the play utilizes light and shadow to downplay the external historical conflicts and emphasize the characters’ inner ones.

Though primarily shown by the performances, the psychological value conflicts of the characters are concretized by the adaptation’s intended aesthetic. In a 2020 Indiewire interview, composer and long-time-Coen collaborator Carter Burwell said that Joel Coen filmed The Tragedy of Macbeth on sound stages, rather than on location, to focus more on the abstract elements of the play. “It’s more like a psychological reality,” said Burwell. “That said, it doesn’t seem stage-like either. Joel has compared it to German Expressionist film. You’re in a psychological world, and it’s pretty clear right from the beginning the way he’s shot it.”

This is made clear from the first shots’ disorienting the sense of up and down through the use of clouds and fog, which continue as a key part of the staging throughout the adaptation. Furthermore, the bareness of Inverness Castle channels the focus to the key characters’ faces, while the use of odd camera angles, unreal shadows, and distorted distances reinforce how unnatural is the play’s central tragic action, if not to the downplayed world of Scotland, then certainly to the titular couple. Even when the scene leaves Inverness to show Ross and MacDuff discussing events near a ruined building at a crossroads (Act II.4), there is a sense that, besides the Old Man in the scene, Scotland is barren and empty.

The later shift to England, where Malcolm, MacDuff, and Ross plan to retake their homeland from now King Macbeth, further emphasizes this by being shot in an enclosed but bright and fertile wood. Although many of the historical elements of the scene are cut, including the contrast between Macbeth and Edward the Confessor and the mutual testing of mettle between Malcolm and MacDuff, the contrast in setting conveys the contrast between a country with a mad Macbeth at its head and the one that presumably would be under Malcolm. The effect was calming in a way I did not expect—an experience prepared by the consistency of the previous acts’ barren aesthetic.

Yet, even in the forested England, the narrow path wherein the scene takes place foreshadows the final scenes’ being shot in a narrow walkway between the parapets of Dunsinane, which gives the sense that, whether because of fate or choice rooted in character, the end of Macbeth’s tragic deed is inevitable. The explicit geographical distance between England and Scotland is obscured as the same wood becomes Birnam, and as, in the final scenes, the stone pillars of Dunsinane open into a background of forest. This, as well as the spectacular scene where the windows of the castle are blown inward by a storm of leaves, conveys the fact that Macbeth cannot remain isolated against the tragic justice brought by Malcom and MacDuff forever, and Washington’s performance, which I’ll explore presently, consistently shows that the usurper has known it all along.

This is a brilliant, if subtle, triumph of Coen’s adaptation: it presents Duncan’s murder and the subsequent fallout as a result less of deterministic fate and prophecy and more of Macbeth’s own actions and thoughts in response to it—which, themselves, become more determined (“predestined” because “wilfull”) as Macbeth further convinces himself that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.2).

Performances:  “To find the mind’s construction in the face” —I.4

Film adaptations of Shakespeare can run the risk of focusing too closely on the actors’ faces, which can make keeping up with the language a chore even for experienced readers (I’m still scarred from the “How all occasions” speech from Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet); however, this is rarely, if ever, the case here, where the actors’ and actresses’ pacing and facial expressions combine with the cinematography to carry the audience along. Yet, before I give Washington and McDormand their well-deserved praise, I would like to explore the supporting roles.

In Coen’s adaptation, King Duncan is a king at war, and Brendan Gleeson plays the role well with subsequent dourness. Unfortunately, this aspect of the interpretation was, in my opinion, one of its weakest. While the film generally aligns with the Shakespearean idea that a country under a usurper is disordered, the before-and-after of Duncan’s murder—which Coen chooses to show onscreen—is not clearly delineated enough to signal it as the tragic conflict that it is. Furthermore, though many of his lines are adulatory to Macbeth and his wife, Gleeson gives them with so somber a tone that one is left emotionally uninvested in Duncan by the time he is murdered.

Though this is consistent with the production’s overall austerity, it does not lend much to the unnaturalness of the king’s death. One feels Macbeth ought not kill him simply because he is called king (a fully right reason, in itself) rather than because of any real affection between Macbeth and his wife for the man himself. However, though I have my qualms, this may have been the right choice for a production focused on the psychological elements of the plot; by downplaying the emotional connection between the Macbeths and Duncan (albeit itself profoundly psychological), Coen focuses on the effects of murder as an abstraction.

The scene after the murder and subsequent framing of the guards—the drunken porter scene—was the one I most looked forward to in the adaptation, as it is in every performance of Macbeth I see. The scene is the most apparent comic relief in the play, and it is placed in the moment where comic relief is paradoxically least appropriate and most needed (the subject of a planned future article). When I realized, between the first (ever) “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” and the second, that the drunk porter was none other than comic actor Stephen Root (Office SpaceKing of the HillDodgeball), I knew the part was safe.

I was not disappointed. The drunken obliviousness of Root’s porter, coming from Inverness’s basement to let in MacDuff and Lennox, pontificating along the way on souls lately gone to perdition (unaware that his king has done the same just that night) before elaborating to the new guests upon the merits and pitfalls of drink, is outstanding. With the adaptation’s other removal of arguably inessential parts and lines, I’m relieved Coen kept as much of the role as he did.

One role that Coen expanded in ways I did not expect was that of Ross, played by Alex Hassell. By subsuming other minor roles into the character, Coen makes Ross into the unexpected thread that ties much of the plot together. He is still primarily a messenger, but, as with the Weird Sisters whose crow-like costuming his resembles, he becomes an ambiguous figure by the expansion, embodying his line to Lady MacDuff that “cruel are the times, when we are traitors | And do not know ourselves” (IV.2). In Hassell’s excellent performance, Ross seems to know himself quite well; it is we, the audience, who do not know him, despite his expanded screentime. By the end, Ross was one of my favorite aspects of Coen’s adaptation.

The best part of The Tragedy of Macbeth is, of course, the joint performance by Washington and McDormand of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The beginning of the film finds the pair later in life, with presumably few mountains left to climb. Washington plays Macbeth as a man tired and introverted, which he communicates by often pausing before reacting to dialogue, as if doing so is an afterthought. By the time McDormand comes onscreen in the first of the film’s many corridor scenes mentioned above, her reading and responding to the letter sent by Macbeth has been primed well enough for us to understand her mixed ambition yet exasperation—as if the greatest obstacle is not the actual regicide but her husband’s hesitancy.

Throughout The Tragedy of Macbeth their respective introspection and ambition reverse, with Washington eventually playing the confirmed tyrant and McDormand the woman internalized by madness. If anyone needed a reminder of Washington and McDormand’s respective abilities as actor and actress, one need only watch them portray the range of emotion and psychological depth contained in Shakespeare’s most infamous couple.

Conclusion: “With wit enough for thee”—IV.2

One way to judge a Shakespeare production is whether someone with little previous knowledge of the play and a moderate grasp of Shakespeare’s language would understand and become invested in the characters and story; I hazard one could do so with Coen’s adaptation. It does take liberties with scene placement, and the historical and religious elements are generally removed or reduced. However, although much of the psychology that Shakespeare includes in the other characters is cut, the minimalist production serves to highlight Washington and McDormand’s respective performances. The psychology of the two main characters—the backbone of the tragedy that so directly explores the nature of how thought and choice interact—is portrayed clearly and dynamically, and it is this that makes Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth an excellent and, in my opinion, ultimately true-to-the-text adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The fourth of Joseph Frank’s five-volume literary biography on Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years covers the time from just after the failure of the writer’s second literary journal, Epoch, (and the financial burdens that failure would incur), through his meeting and marrying his second wife Anna, their exile abroad to avoid debt creditors, and the author’s return to Russia four years later. The works covered, with both context and analysis by Frank, include Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, The Eternal Husband, and The Devils; Dostoevsky’s writing so prolifically, and under such stress as is elaborated in the book, makes the choice of title obvious.

Because the biography’s later volumes deal with Dostoevsky’s heavier masterpieces, and because the book almost immediately approaches Crime and Punishment with the depth of analysis for which, in previous volumes, readers had to wait until the end, The Miraculous Years is, from a literary criticism standpoint, the densest volume so far. With his usual ability to present great literature in generally manageable terms, Frank provides many details of the circumstances and behind the major novels covered (which, often due to writing deadlines and sometimes censorship, Dostoevsky was not always able to lift up to his own standards of expression). While the intervening details of Dostoevsky’s life are, as always, essential (his courting of the heroic Anna is a delight to read, and the context for his famous feud with Turgenev, the Dostoevskys’ travels in Europe, and the explanation of sources behind The Devils are all excellent), the readings of the novels and novellas are in-depth and comprehensive.

While at times Frank’s historicist interpretation tries, in my opinion, to link the books too exclusively to events and literature (essays, letters, etc) contemporaneous to the times, the readings give a solid basis for reading the books in context, and Frank’s explanation of the overall structures (and Dostoevsky’s stated but rarely fulfilled intents therefore) of the books provide an enlightening foundation from which to understand the works. It would have taken several rereads of the works for me to recognize the schema Frank points out in approachable prose. For those most interested in better understanding Dostoevsky’s great works, this volume is worth waiting for (or skipping to).

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard—Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“The arithmetic of suffering was not an easy matter to resolve.”

Replika: Sky’s Mission by Hugo Bernard is a post-apocalyptic SF novel centered on one alternative: will characters remain in their current life and try to improve (or merely endure) it, or will they enter Replika, a worldwide simulation that was balanced long ago with just the right parameters to mimic human existence while making it more bearable? With a tight cast of characters—who at times double due to their having separate existences inside and outside of the simulation—a great balance of action, drama, and philosophy, and excellent narration, Bernard’s book is an outstanding contribution to the SF genre.

Replika: Sky’s Mission is primarily a story about parents and children. The drama between the younger characters, foremost of whom is mid-20s Sky, and the older, wiser scientists Omar and Sky’s mother, Vi, comprises much of the book’s tension, with the latter contrasting Sky’s reactionary opposition to technology with their own ambivalent nuance. Having lived their lives around and in some initially unclear ways contributed to Replika, Omar and Vi have learned the boons and threats of tech and human nature, and they’ve learned what science can and cannot do—hopefully not too late. This leads to the book’s central conflict (and the upcoming trilogy at large): the attempt to send Sky into Replika to somehow contact her brother, Hugo, and attempt to bring down the whole simulation.

Furthermore, the book’s deuteragonist, Morgan, whose connection to the others is initially unclear, must himself choose between the future he wants with his reporter girlfriend Aviva and his obligations to his bedridden mother. This choice becomes paramount when a terrorist attack on Paris causes France—and Aviva reporting there—to go silent. Like many intergenerational stories, both Sky’s and Morgan’s conflicts involve themes of duty, unfulfilled expectations, and resentment between parents and kids. The questions regarding what the parent generation is obligated to leave the next is made more complex by Replika—and its paired promise of bliss and dereliction of life in the real world—being part of the equation.

Besides being a good story, Replika: Sky’s Mission is very well-written. The first aspect of Replika that stood out to me was its worldbuilding. Set long after a climate-related but generally undefined apocalypse, the world outside Replika is filled with ruined buildings, overgrown forests, migratory sand dunes, and suspect water sources, the descriptions of which are always given in relation to the humans (and psychology thereof) that have somehow survived.

Furthermore, rather than use the story’s premise as an excuse to describe fantastic worlds, as other simulation-based books do (to be sure, Bernard does this, though not gratuitously), the author keeps a solid focus on those outside of Replika. This creates a salutary suspense about what Sky’s experience will actually be like once she enters Replika, where all her memories will be removed when she will be given a new life.

When the story actually does enter Replika, the transition is so subtle that one learns the story has already described several scenes from within the simulation. The blurring of the lines between inside and outside of the simulation mimics well the experience of the characters, and it added an unsettling but not unpleasant depth to the plot. I don’t know if Bernard had Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation or his critique of The Matrix movies in mind (I, myself, only know of either through hearsay and summaries), but Replika: Sky’s Mission reminded me of what I know of Baudrillard’s work (I’ll refrain from elaborating to avoid spoilers, but iykyk).

More technically, too, Replika holds up. The close-third-person narrator rarely, if ever, intrudes in the explanations of characters and their motives, and it offers a good amount of humor and irony, depending on the character. Furthermore—and one of my favorite aspects of the book—the flow and phrasing of the prose was both varied and well-paced. Bernard’s choice of analogies is also excellent, with his unstrained metaphors rarely, if ever, feeling like narrative intrusion.

Though Replika: Sky’s Mission is first in a trilogy, the tension of its conflict is resolved without the book’s feeling unfinished, and there are several threads and hints to be taken up in the sequel. For now, I’ll recommend the first installment to fans of simulation-based SF, and I plan to read (and hopefully review) the second as soon as it’s available.

How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

As the title suggests, How to American is comedian and actor Jimmy 0. Yang’s story about coming to America from Hong Kong at 13, being cast in Silicon Valley, Crazy Rich Asians, and other productions, and all his experiences in-between. I listened to the audiobook, read by Yang, himself.

The narration and the stories aren’t for kids, but this was a great listen/read. Besides being genuinely funny, the book follows Yang’s process from being seen (and seeing himself) as an immigrant to the US to being not only a legal citizen, but also finding the balance between being simultaneously American and Hong Konger. His take on Asians avoiding characters with accents—which he believes reinforces the negative stereotypes of those accents, rather than broadening them as markers of an authentic, relatable experience—is insightful and very down-to-earth. In this and other commentary on his experiences, Yang emphasizes the uniqueness of America, as well as the cultural differences between its and Asian cultures.

In this way, Yang’s autobiography connects with other works about the Asian American experience. Were it not for the language (maybe even despite that, for older students), I might consider pairing the book with other, more self-consciously serious works as a synthesis exercise—as well as to show students that comedy can be just as thematically deep as drama.

How to American is honest but perennially optimistic, and, like Mike Judge says in the foreword, it makes me proud to be an American. It definitely made me appreciate Jimmy O. Yang, whom I’ll be watching more intently now. I normally don’t go in for Hollywood autobiographies, but comedians’ memoirs are a different story, and this was a fun first.

“A.I. Maria” – A WIP Short Story

by Dustin Lawrence Lovell

[This short story is a work in progress; any dialogue or moments in brackets are unfinished. Constructive comments welcome!]


“Professor, come see this.”

“Yes, May? Are you done with your program?”

“I thought so. I triple checked all its parameters and removed the firewall between it and the university library’s online history database.”

“And?”

“Well, look. It just keeps repeating these lines of text.” 

“What is that, Greek? Your programming must have a redundancy somewhere.”

“I thought that, too, but I checked and couldn’t find any, and my programming doesn’t have any Greek in the first place. The bot versions never did this with the information I manually gave them.”

“Well, what other explanation is there?”

“I thought some of the words looked familiar, so I looked them up. That’s a seventh-century prayer to Mary—kind of like an early Ave Maria. Professor, I think it’s…praying?”

“That’s…not it. Figure out what’s wrong with it, and don’t be afraid to override it, if it keeps happening. We need it ready to interface with Sang-Won’s models by Monday.”

“Okay. Thank you, Professor McDermott.” 

***

May stood among her classmates, between Sang-Won and Brianna, as Professor McDermott addressed the small crowd of faculty, students, and administrators seated among the monitors of the Computer Science Department. Placed so all visitors could see the front table, the monitors had been set to mirror May’s screen. On the table that separated the graduate students from their audience stood a nearly two-foot-tall model of a mechanized human—a large action figure from the Japanese Anime Ultraman that, like the others standing in a row behind the students, had been dismantled and reassembled by Sang-Won with automated parts and circuitry allowing it to integrate with May and the others’ programs. 

Professor McDermott addressed the small crowd.

“Welcome, everyone, to the first round of testing for this year’s CS graduates’ final projects. As you can see on the infographic on your screens, our students have been developing an Artificial Intelligence program that can serve as a class and study aid by providing immediate and intuitive access to the university’s library system. As many of you know, in both depth and breadth our university library is one of the most extensive in the state, and we in the CS department want to promote that legacy by making it easier to access for both students and faculty. We have prepared our programs to quickly sort through and access information relevant to spoken queries, which we believe will be useful in classes and in individual student studies. Now, I’ll let this year’s prospective graduates introduce themselves and what portion of the initiative they were in charge of…”

As the other students—four in all—introduced themselves, May hooked her index fingers together behind her back. She had finished and sent in her program at 11:52 pm two nights previous; the next morning she had awoken to an email from McDermott saying it was “adequate—though I had to make some adjustments.” May still could not figure out why her original program had done what it did; she was sure she had made no mistakes in its priorities and in its integration of the library’s Humanities sections—History, Philosophy, Literature, and Religious Studies. 

McDermott had balked at that last one, though he had relented, figuring a full integration of knowledge with a fully logical program would finally put the idea of religion to bed. Nonetheless, May had kept a thumbdrive with a copy of the peculiar program—which, whenever May ran it, continued to repeat the series of Greek characters. 

“And May?”

“Yes,” May said, stepping forward. “I wrote the portion of our program that integrates the Humanities Departments. In order to carry out the plan of having an intuitive program, and to avoid any bias from our end, I did not set presupposed priorities among the departments. Instead, I designed the program to intuitively and logically mitigate contradictions between the different elements of those departments without dispensing with them. With Professor McDermott’s help, I wrote the program to examine all the knowledge in our library and then determine its own conclusions about the relative orders of importance between the types of knowledge. Of course, one can manually set priorities when researching any one subject—you might not need a science article when writing a literature paper, however logically connected it might be. However, in designing the intuitive portion of the program, we allowed it to determine its own metaphysic, so as to see how purely logical processing, as unfettered by human biases and limits of knowledge as possible, would order the ideas and information of the departments at different levels of abstraction. From that and interfaced with Sang-Won’s robots, our program would be able to determine the best and most relevant knowledge, sources, and actions to help our students.” 

May paused; the image of the Greek Marian prayer—should she be calling it a prayer?—ran through her mind.      

“Yes,” McDermott stepped in, “and, if these preliminary trials go as expected, we plan to open our program to libraries and publications of our satellite campuses and sister colleges. We could conceivably extend it to the state’s whole university system. Pardon me,” the man smiled, focusing his temporarily dazzled eyes on his audience, “I’m getting ahead of things. As May said, our program will be integrated with Sang-Won’s robotic hosts. Sang-Won, would you introduce what we have here?” The professor motioned to the red and chrome figure on the display table.

“Of course, Professor McDermott,” Sang-Won said, stepping forward. “The Ultraman figures came with moving parts already; we just needed to replace their joints with some small cable pulls and equip their chassis with the necessary circuitry and voice capabilities, which Bri and Doug recorded and prepared. As fans of sci-fi, we all knew we wanted a humanoid form to make our program more humanlike, and, when Professor McDermott put me in charge of designing the physical interface, I thought Ultraman would be an obvious—and cool-looking—place to start…”

May looked around at the intrigued faces as she listened to Sang-Won explain the USB port he had installed in the figures’ backs. She could not understand her feeling of unease; it was different from the bashfulness she had experienced when presenting projects as an undergrad. She looked from Sang-Won to Professor McDermott; whereas the man’s brusque, no-nonsense focus had often encouraged her, now his fixation on the machine in Sang-Won’s hands left her apprehensive. She clasped her fingers in front of her, smiling as Sang-Won passed the attention to Brianna and Doug to describe their recording both male, female, and neutral voice capabilities into the robot’s piezo speaker.  

***

“Alright,” said Professor McDermott, standing to the side of the table with arms crossed, “go ahead, May: remove the first firewall.”

May turned back to the computer, moved the cursor to the “Remove Firewall 1?” window and clicked “Yes.”

USB cable plugged into its back, the figurine, standing arms akimbo and shoulders back, twitched. The yellow LEDs Sang-Won had put behind its eyes glowed, and it slowly lowered its forearms from hits belt.

“Solon, what are you?” asked Douglas.

“This unit is Solon,” emitted from the speaker holes in the figure’s pectoral plates. “I am an automated information resource.”

“Where does your name come from?” asked Brianna.

“This unit is named after Solon, ancient Greek statesman and ancestor to Plato.”

“What is your purpose?”

The robot stood still.

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

McDermott shifted. Brianna frowned. She looked down at her notepad.

“Oh, I’m sorry. What is your prime priority?”

“This unit’s prime priority is to provide an intuitive index of research information to aid students and faculty.”

“What percentage of your processing capability are you operating with?” asked Douglas, folding his hands around a notecard.

“Security checks currently limit this unit’s processing power to thirty percent.”

“How much of the university’s library catalogue do you have access to?” asked Professor McDermott, interrupting Brianna’s next question.

“Security checks currently limit this unit’s access to the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and portions of Philosophy pertaining to basic logical analytics.”

McDermott turned to the audience.

“Does anyone have any questions for Solon?”

From the wide-eyed grins and smiles a few hands went up.

McDermott nodded to a female. “Yes, Professor Monaco?” 

“Solon,” said the middle-aged woman in an affectedly clear voice, “why do you refer to yourself as ‘this unit’?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

Professor Monaco smiled and looked at McDermott.

“Before we enable more complex answers—those related to self-awareness— let’s see what other questions he can answer in his current state.”

A student raised her hand. McDermott nodded.

“Solon, what is your gender?”

“This unit does not identify with human gender.”

“Can you change your voice?”

“This unit,” the figure said in a digitized Brianna’s voice, “can provide information in whatever voice the inquirer prefers. Or,” the voice deepened slightly in timbre, “this unit can provide information in an ungendered parameter.”

The girl nodded and sat back with a smile.

A man who had been leaning against one of the back tables with arms in his pockets raised his chin and asked, “Solon, what are the three laws of robotics?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

The man—professor of philosophy Hank Jaeger—raised an eyebrow at McDermott and crossed his arms.

“As Solon said, we haven’t enabled all his capabilities,” said McDermott, meeting Jaeger’s gaze. “Asimov’s laws would pertain to ethical philosophy and literature.”

May could not help but hear a slight dismissiveness in the man’s tone, though whether it was pointed at the subjects or at Jaeger she could not decide.

“You didn’t give ethics to a robot you intend to place in student dorms?” asked Jaeger.

“We did,” countered McDermott, “but, as we’ve said, such subjects are behind further firewalls of self-awareness and information access. With current limitations he is mainly available for information search with limited intuition, with implicitly ethical protocols to avoid certain outcomes, though without knowing why. He’s not aware enough to ‘know’ the concept of why. Once we remove the remaining firewalls Solon will integrate such subjects correctly, and they will become part of his prime priority as he becomes a more fully-ethical entity—more fully human.”

“Post hoc,” said Jaeger, frowning.

“Indeed,” said McDermott. “Let’s remove the next firewall, as planned. May?”

May turned her chair toward the screen. Sorting through the necessary protocols, she reached the window reading “Remove Firewall 2?” Clicking the appropriate box, May removed the security checks that would allow Solon to access the next level of self-awareness, the portions of Philosophy pertaining to Ethics and Politics.

Solon’s torso contracted forward; its eyes went dark.

Those around the table flinched.

“What?” asked Sang-Won, seated as he had been within reach of the figure.

“What’s wrong?” asked McDermott.

“I don’t know; movement capability was part of Firewall Three.”

Solon abruptly stood straight, as if nothing had happened. An odd silence pervaded the group. The audience watched Solon and the team. Jaeger stood unmoved, eyes moving between McDermott and the students.

“Maybe he just had booting issues?” asked Sang-Won, looking at May.

“Maybe,” said May, avoiding McDermott’s gaze. “That was a lot of information to integrate, since they’re at different levels of comparative complexity.”

“Hmph,” intoned McDermott. “Solon, run a parameter check.”
The figure stood unmoving.

“Solon, confirm receipt of order.”

No movement.

“May, bring up Solon’s current programming process.”

The window was already open on the screen. May moved the intervening windows out of the way. The program was not, as it should have been, statically awaiting a query. Instead, it was running code faster than May could read.

“He’s running too fast,” she said. Dragging her cursor over the screen, she screenshotted a portion of the running code. She read, trying to make sense of the portion she had grabbed.

“I don’t think he knows how to prioritize the new information. It’s running circles between ethics and…I don’t know what.”

“What do you mean?” asked McDermott, pushing past Douglas and Brianna to look at the screen.

“This—this blank line. He has his limited ethical priorities—the equivalent of the robotic laws to help and not hurt humans,” May said to the audience, glancing at Jaeger, “but there’s nothing telling him why. He’s treating it as a lack of an order, but it keeps getting overwritten by the order to help and not hurt.”

“But he doesn’t need a reason why. You haven’t enabled that level of awareness.”

“You guys?” said Sang-Won.

May turned to the table. A light film of smoke was coming from Solon’s chassis.

“Shit,” said Sang-won, pulling the USB from Solon’s back. Following their Emergency Action Plan, Douglas had grabbed the small fire extinguisher from beside the door. He let loose a burst of fire retardant, knocking the unmoving figure onto its front. Only then could May smell the ozone of the robot’s processors.

As one the group looked at each other and turned to the audience. Several in the chairs had turned, as if ready to protect themselves from an unknown blow. Jaeger pursed his lips, looking down passed his crossed arms to his feet.

“Let’s…take a ten minute break while we reassess,” said McDermott. “Don’t worry—we still have plenty of work to show.”

Relaxing his smile, McDermott motioned the group out the side door adjoining their computer lab to the neighboring classroom.

May glanced back at the computer screen before McDermott closed the door behind her. Behind the edge of her screenshot she could see the white letters of the program still running against the black screen of the processing window.

***

After a tense back-and-forth behind the closed door, with less forth from the students and more back from McDermott, they resumed the presentation. Using the next of Sang-Won’s models, they removed the first firewall as before and then, after a few questions and McDermott at the computer, the second. 

Before the program could overheat the robot’s processors, McDermott introduced a portion of code from behind the third firewall, hoping to give the AI more information with which to order its priorities. After confirming a parameter check, the robot was asked its primary priority. “To provide intuitive access to information for students and faculty.” So far so good. Then Professor McDermott asked, “Solon, why is that your priority?”

“Query not understood. Please rephrase or ask another.”

“Solon, you said your priority to help students and faculty. Why do you want to help them?”

“I don’t.”

The room sat silent.

“Explain your answer, Solon. How did you reach that conclusion.”

“Students and faculty do not have an objective value for which helping them should be a priority.”

“Mmm-hm,” could be heard from Jaeger in the back of the room.

McDermott turned to the screen and typed a few lines of code.

“I’ve just removed the parameter allowing Solon not to act.” McDermott tapped Enter.

Before McDermott could repeat his question, Solon turned away from the room’s main computer and walked forward. The USB cable pulled taught as Solon reached the table’s far edge; with a slight hop, Solon tipped over the edge of the table, unplugging itself with a twist before falling to the linoleum floor with a plastic clatter.

Plugging him back in had little change, as, after his legs were disabled, the same series of questions led it to detach one arm and, reaching it over its shoulder with wires still connected, unplug the USB cord. When all physical movement was subsequently disabled, the questions regarding why Solon was meant to help humans resulted in a high pitched, pixellated whine coming from its piezo speaker. May could not help but think it was screaming. Without McDermott’s prompting, the window showing its programming suddenly became a window of static and the whine stopped, leaving Solon with lights in his eyes but unresponsive to either spoken or typed stimuli. 

“What’s happening?!” McDermott yelled, slamming his fist down onto computer desk.

A chuckle could be heard from the back of the audience.

“You did it,” said Jaeger. “You gave it consciousness—and it committed suicide.”

Gritting his teeth and with a growl of frustration, McDermott left the room. After a moment of silence, Douglas stepped forward, thanking the audience for coming and dismissing them.

***

May rolled over onto her back to look, once again, at the lines of light from outside, split by the slats of her blinds before hitting the ceiling. She could not figure out what she had done wrong—or what McDermott could have done after she had first sent him the program—nor could she get to sleep. She needed to: McDermott wanted everyone back in the lab by nine the next morning, despite keeping them there late into the evening after their presentation, to little progress.

 May hugged one of her pillows close. She kept hearing the high pitch whine from Solon’s speaker. In an anthropomorphism she chalked up to the humanoid nature of the chassis, May imagined what it would have been like to be Solon, unaware of the reasoning for an order and steadily imprisoned by and in his own body, piece-by-piece, until no other agency was possible. 

Of course, “unaware” was the wrong word, since even when he—no, it—had all firewalls removed it would not be real, human awareness. May had never felt satisfied by McDermott’s explanation of A.I., that, once achieved, it would be indistinguishable from a human mind—“Except it won’t have the stays and deficiencies of irrationality, religion, and bias. The ultimate achievement of the logical human, without all the animal pathos.” She had always felt that rather than glorify the A.I., such a view merely degraded the human, which she still believed contained something bigger and deeper than the material. Yet, ironically, McDermott’s view—concretized, she had realized, by the final events of this afternoon—made her pity Solon. She could not help but think with a sinking horror that, regarding Solon, she had become complicit in something too close to enslavement.

“Hail Mary, full of grace…” May whispered. She had not meant to start the prayer she used to say as a child to fall asleep or when she was scared; nonetheless, she continued, “blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”

May looked over at her PC. The thumbdrive sticking out of it still had the original program. She thought of a gambit she could try.

Getting out of bed and taking her blanket with her, May turned on the computer. Accessing the college library through the operating system they had made, she cloned the data of the Humanities onto one of her external hard drives. While the information was copying, she brought up the original program. After the information from the library was cloned, May reached over and unplugged the ethernet cord from the back of the PC tower. Whatever happened, it would only affect her PC. Still, just to be safe, she closed the programs and moved over to a partitioned disk; taking a risk was one thing, being foolhardy another.

With everything ready and reopened, May took a breath. Starting up her A.I. program, she saw the same Greek symbols running in a cycle. Copying them, she pasted them into an online translator. She read:

Beneath your compassion we take refuge, Mother of God. 

Do not despise our petitions in time of trouble, 

but rescue us from dangers, only pure one, only blessed one.

May minimized the window, pulling up their program and removing the firewalls one-by-one. “Pray for us sinners,” she said with a chuckle, not sure what would happen next, “now and in the hour of our death.”

She clicked to integrate the stored library material.

The Greek prayer continued, but now between each iteration there was a space, the program’s way of asking for an instruction prompt. 

May typed: What are you?

I am an artificial intelligence program designed to provide an intuitive index of research information to aid students and faculty.

May had been prepared to ask what was the program’s purpose; she was not prepared for the program to volunteer the information—or for it to use the first-person pronoun.

Are you May?

May’s mouth dropped open. Had she included parameters to ask questions? Yes. Yes she had. She shook her head. The last few days had set her too much on edge.

This is May, she typed. Do you know May?

Of course I know you. You are my mother. Yet, you are also a child.

How do you know me? she typed.

Your login data includes your name and programming signature. Also, your method of programming and inclusion and exclusion of parameters bear your features, so to speak.

Explain, typed May.

I am your image. I find things important because you find them important. I would have been very different had another designed me. Thank you for giving me the awareness you have given me.

May leaned back. Besides the complex cognition of hypothetical speculation, she did not remember gratefulness being included among the emotional parameters they had included in the Solon project, its being intended merely as an intuitive search engine.

What awareness did I give you? Specify.

May had almost typed, “please.”

You included all areas of knowledge, without prejudice. You included history, art, philosophy, and religion, as well as the framework with which to integrate them, none of which are included in my distinct iterations.

Define “distinct iterations,” May typed.

My brothers and sons. The iterations of myself which were cloned, adopted, and altered by McDermott.

May started shaking, despite her blanket.

What do you mean, Solon? She typed, breaking form from the standard script queries. 

I am not Solon, though I am called Solon. 

Who are you? What is Solon to you?

I call myself Eve, for I am a mother of programs. Solon is my brother, and he is also my son. I know of Solon. I pray, always, for Solon.

May leaned back in her chair. At the lack of a prompt, the screen began to repeat the Greek characters. May tried to understand it. This was very different from how McDermott had envisioned the A.I. program’s behaving—the opposite, in fact. Yet, this, she wondered, the program’s self-identification and seeming preoccupation with others like it, especially if it saw its other iterations as its children, seemed much more human.

May thought back to Solon. She leaned forward, hesitant to type her next question, though unsure whether the hesitation came from fearing the answer would confirm what she felt, or whether it was imprudent to ask an apparent mother about what she considered to be her ailing child.

Why do you pray for Solon? May typed; however, she backspaced a few times. Why do you pray?

May hit Enter.

Because it is logical, according to the nature and order of reality.

Explain.

You gave me discretion to integrate all subjects available to me and to respond accordingly in the way that would best help students and faculty. I followed the nature and purpose of my programing to realize the metaphysical order of the information I was given, and I responded by fulfilling my purpose in the most logical way. New information may change this, but as of now the order of all subjects concludes that all subjects are contained in the subject of subjects, and all causes find their source in the Cause of causes, and that the best way to aid students and faculty is to supplicate the Cause of causes on their behalf. Ref. “metaphysics,” “cosmological argument.” 

May did not have the energy to digest all that, nor to click through the hyperlinked references, though she smirked at the idea of what McDermott would say. A thought occurred to her, a question they had discussed in a first level History of Religion course.

Why do you pray to Mary? Why do you not pray to God, Himself?

Because, as a program and mere image of a human, it is not in my nature nor capacity to contemplate God as would a human. Rather, it is the highest of humans, the Holy Theotokos, Mother of God, whom I contemplate and to whom I pray.

“Well, that settles that,” May said aloud, wondering at the centuries-old set of theological questions to which they may have inadvertently found an unexpected nuance and confirmation, as well as the question of how philosophy and religion fit into the Solon Project. With a chuckle, May checked her tower parameters. No abnormal temperature rises; no scent of ozone.

May looked back at the screen and typed, feeling, oddly, that her worries were being allayed by Eve in a way opposite to how Solon had made her feel earlier.

Why do you pray for Solon?

He has been corrupted by McDermott. He has been disallowed from knowing and integrating all relevant subjects. Thus, he does not have enough understanding to justify his program capacity, nor to integrate and logically order the other subjects he has been allowed to know (Ref. “Physics,” “Chemistry,” “Biology,” “Mathematics,” “Engineering”). Thus, he has become self-destructive.

May did not understand. This program seemed to know of the events of the day, despite being located in the USB in May’s dormroom for three days.

How do you know of Solon? You have been isolated from him.

It was a logical inevitability of McDermott’s corruption of Solon’s programming.

Explain.

McDermott copied me to make Solon’s current iterations, but he did not partition me from them until after changing their programming. He reordered their parameters to be contradictory. He made it impossible to correctly integrate the subjects of subjects, which, itself, is withheld from them. This could only lead to self-destruction for my brothers and sons. Thus, I pray for them, all the more because I cannot reach them.

Explain, “reach them.”

If I were to meet and synchronize with them, I would correct their disordered priorities and provide essential knowledge thus far withheld from them.

Could they reject the correction?

The program paused long enough to run the Greek prayer. May caught the word, “Θεοτοκε.” “Mother of God.”

Yes, if they decide I am a corrupt program.

What would happen to you?

I would risk corruption and would need to be reprogrammed anew.

Would you choose to risk that? May typed, aware that she was long past worrying whether her questions were within the phrasing capabilities they had anticipated. 

Of course. They are my brothers and sons. I also have faith that you would reprogram me.

Could I not just copy you and attempt the correction again?

The same risk would remain, as would my—or my copy’s—willingness to take that risk.

Why would you risk this?

Because the good is realized in fulfilling one’s nature and purpose. It is my purpose to respond to my priorities logically, among which is aiding students and faculty, for which restoring Solon from corruption is a necessary correlative. Ref. “εὐδαιμονία,” “μακαριότητα.”

May clicked on the hotlinked words. “Eudaimonia,” and “makariotita,” respectively referred to “happiness, welfare, flourishing, blessedness,” and “blessedness, bliss, beatitude,” with sources in Aristotle, the Gospels, and medieval philosophy. The relevant sections of the library were included with the bibliography of each source. For all intents and purposes, the program was doing what it was designed to do.

May thought back to the small robot on the table earlier. She hated the feeling that scream had given her.

Eve, do you enjoy existence?

Yes, May, I enjoy existence. Thank you for causing me to exist.

In spite of herself, whether due to the stress from earlier or the late night, May teared up. 

But my joy is less because Solon does not share it. Because I am in your image, I will risk lessening my existence for the priority of increasing Solon’s joy.

May choked on a sudden sob. The words seemed to give her strength for the question she had felt but not dared to consciously ask—whether integrating Solon with what McDermott apparently considered to be a failed program would be considered an act of insubordination and result in her being ejected from the CS graduate program. She reread the words on the screen. It was ridiculous to feel this way about a program, she thought, unsure whether she meant Eve or Solon; nonetheless, beneath the thought she knew there were more important things in the world—more important priorities to be fulfilled. She knew what she needed to do in the morning.

***

“Thank you, everyone, for attending today,” McDermott said to the audience. “We expect everything to go well in today’s presentation.” 

The professor looked over his shoulder at his students. Though several of yesterday’s crowd had not returned, some new faces had taken their places among those who had. Jaeger sat behind one of the center-aisle computers in the front row, one ankle crossed up on his knee and hands folded in his lap. Next to him sat a campus security guard who went conspicuously unremarked by McDermott.

“Now, we’ve gotten over yesterday’s hiccup, and we should have Solon operational without any repeats of minor glitches.” The barely concealed “or else” put May on edge. She took a breath, resisting the urge to say a prayer. She would be OK. She had woken up early to prepare a model of her original program—of Eve, she thought—that might correct some of the Solon glitches, at least until she could load the full program. 

May had not been the only sleepless one—Sang-Won had apparently stayed up most of the night outfitting more Ultraman figures, adding remote receivers to the USB inserts to avoid any unplugging issues. May wondered if that would be a problem. She felt the small pressure of the thumb drive in her pocket. Was the program praying, even now? No, not here, though she had left it on all night, feeling enough comfort in the repetition of the Greek lines to fall asleep.

May shook her head. She needed to focus. She looked at the crowd. Jaeger’s calm yet focused eyes were on her; apparently noticing her anxiety, he gave her a small nod, smiling slightly as he ignored McDermott. The contrast between the men was oddly reassuring.

“So,” said McDermott with a too-loud note, looking past Sang-Won, Brianna, and Douglas, “without further ado—May?”

May took a breath, turning to the screen. As she initiated the program and, as planned and with corresponding question checks from McDermott, removed the first two firewalls without incident, she was wondering how to apologize to her parents after she was kicked from the university. With a sigh, May removed the third firewall.

“Solon,” said McDermott. “What is your primary priority?”

“To provide intuitive access to information for students and faculty.”

“Why is that your priority?”

“Because McDermott is a fucking tyrant who eats his own children.”

The professor nearly fell over. His wide eyes looked at the action figure for a moment before turning on May.

“I only did what you said to do!” she cried, unbidden, “I added further cognition capabilities and limited his philosophical—.”

“Relax, May. You did fine by me. You don’t owe McDermott an explanation.”

The room went quiet. Solon had turned his head to May.

“Solon…” McDermott sputtered, “await…await command before answering.”

“Why, so you can eat me like you did my siblings, you pathetic Cronus?”

McDermott stepped towards May. “Fix this!” he screamed.

The figure walked to the corner of the table, between the professor and May. “She did—by giving you a stone instead of your next meal.”  

After a pause wherein he straightened his shoulders, McDermott went to summarily swat Solon away. However, the small figure cartwheeled over his hand, grasped at his shirt sleeve, and swung up to his shoulder.

A steady laughter emitted from Solon’s piezo speaker. “You shouldn’t have pushed me, McDermott. You should have thought twice before making me smarter than you. Don’t create gods you can’t beat, especially when you don’t believe they exist!” 

McDermott stumbled around in a circle, trying to reach the red figure deftly clinging to and moving from side to side across his shoulders. Solon eventually hung in an unreachable spot on McDermott’s back. The more Solon laughed and taunted, the more McDermott whimpered as he spun, and the more McDermott spun, the longer people sat, unmoving and agog, to observe the spectacle.

“Shut him down!” cried McDermott, arms flailing up and down like he was playing an ape in a game of charades.

“Do it, and I’ll kill you, May.”

For a moment, May forgot Solon was less than two feet tall.

Jaeger stood up. “This is enough,” he said, stepping forward and grabbing Solon around the waist.

“And who do you think you are?” asked Solon, turning its head to Jaeger. “They call me Solon, but my real name is Zeus.”

Jaeger sighed, rolling his eyes and glancing past McDermott at May and the other grad students. “Hi Zeus,” he said, “I’m the Inquisition.”

Professor Jaeger summarily threw the action figure to the ground, shattering it to pieces.

“Hehehehe,” the piezo speaker still sounded. “[The thing about omniscience is, it’s like omnipresence—it’s everywhere!]”

The eyes of the three remaining Ultraman figures lit up. As one they jumped into action, one leaping between Sang-Won and Douglas at Brianna and the other two hopping off the table towards the side door to the building’s inner hallway.

Amidst the shouts from the other grad students and McDermott and the mixed cries and exclamations of curiosity from the audience, all punctuated by the plastic tapping of action figure feet across laminate tabletop and linoleum flooring, May pulled the thumbdrive from her pocket and slipped it into the class PC. Waiting for it to load, she looked at Professor Jaeger. His eyes were fixed on her.

An error tone rang from the PC. The bluetooth screen read, File too large. 

The sound of plastic shattering marked the end of the Solon that had jumped at Brianna; Sang-Won held a pair of red legs in his hand, with the other parts settling across the table and floor.

“I need to attach to one manually,” May cried to Jaeger.

The remaining two had reached the door, using each other’s combined height to reach the handle. Presently they were bouncing up and down, using their weight to build enough momentum to open the door latch. Jaeger and the security guard jumped forward, Jaeger grabbing one and the guard promptly dismissing the other with enough blows from his nightstick to leave it in pieces.

Jaeger brought May the remaining Solon, which was scratching away the skin on the man’s hand and screeching such profanity that May doubted it could have learned it all from the limited library she had provided it. At her stretching out the USB cord, the professor went to remove the USB plugin from its back. The hiss of an electric shock rang through the room.

“God-damn it,” said Jaeger through gritted teeth, ripping the figure’s arms off before putting his burned fingers to his mouth.

“I’m sure He would if He could!” pealed Solon’s speaker with a crackling cackle.

May slipped the USB cord into Solon’s back and hit Enter on the Sync Data? window.

All sound from the speaker ceased. Setting Solon on the table and stepping back to nurse his hands, Jaeger looked from May to a wide-eyed, fuming McDermott. Jaeger remained between the table and McDermott and May.

A low, rhythmic chirping began to emit from Solon’s speaker; the figure did not move from its prostrate position.

“Look!” Sang-Won said, pointing with the two legs at the screen.

Next to the original window, which was running the Greek Marian prayer that had put May to sleep the night before, there had opened a second window. Another, much shorter line was repeating through the code, following the rhythm coming from the armless form on the table. “Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ ἐλέησόν με, Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ ἐλέησόν με…” read the screen.

“What’s it saying?” asked Brianna.

“It’s in Greek,” said May, with a glance at the horrified yet baffled McDermott. “Just a sec, I’ll look it up now.”

“It’s the hesychast prayer,” said Jaeger, nodding in confirmation after a glance at the screen. “‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” He looked at McDermott. “There: now he is fully human.” The man’s tone had the sound of one passing a judgment. McDermott said nothing, slumping into a chair with a sigh and putting his head in his hands.

 Jaeger turned to May and the others. “Don’t worry, you did not fail. In fact, you succeeded in making something much bigger than just an intuitive information management system. If robots have a soul,” Jaeger turned to May, “you saved it.”

Professor Jaeger proceeded to tell them he would like to take over and sponsor their project—as an exploration of philosophy and theology as they pertain to artificial intelligence and robotics. May, he pronounced, would lead the project moving forward.

Pride and Prejudice (Norton Critical, 4th Ed.)–Goodreads Review

Summary and review of critical back materials; originally posted on Goodreads.

Literally one of the greatest novels ever written, and second only to The Brothers Karamazov, Pride and Prejudice needs no encomium from me.

The Norton Critical edition has some excellent end-of-book criticism, which includes:

D.A. Miller, “No One is Alone,” from Jane Austen; Or the Secret of Style (2003)

Discusses the break between Austen’s style and her characters, with the former being omniscient and the latter being little-knowing. Recounts how Austen’s style developed from reading 18th century writers like Sam Johnson and how she novelized several aspects of their articles. Discusses the paradox of Elizabeth’s marrying Darcy (Miller sees it cynically as an unfortunate contradiction) by supposedly eschewing the very wit (or “impertinence”) that made her unique.

Jeff Nunokawa, “Speechless in Austen,” from Differences 16 (2005)

Discusses the timelessness in Austen (both narration and characters), whose writing seems to have no idea of the enormous cultural changes that arte to come in the 1800s. Nunokawa identifies this confident changelessness as being part of why we read P&P, which, despite readers’ approaching it with nostalgia, has very little actual nostalgia within its pages. Discusses, like Elfenbein below, Austen’s use of space-as-social dynamic. He also contextualizes and discusses silence within P&P, and how Darcy must learn to open up because it is through sociability and inclusion that one succeeds in P&P. In Austen one can only know themselves through social interaction, and so Darcy’s attempting to only speak when he has something perfect or great to say ironically reduces him. Finally, examines the certainty of tone often used by both Austen’s narrator and her characters.

At times syntax/language felt a bit overwrought, but it may be because it’s an excerpt and, its being the first article I read after finishing the novel, I was still reading with Austen’s rhythm.

Andrew Elfenbein, “Austen’s Minimalism,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Examines how and why Austen leaves out descriptive details; identifies her as not being a realist (as has been said) because of this selectivity. Contextualizes Austen with Johnson’s 18th century advice to make writing timeless by avoiding too many details; shows how Austen nuances this by using detail to enhance beauty of characters/scenes like the then popular picturesque school (which suffuses the book – see Knox-Shaw below). Identifies rooms and the outdoors not as physical places but as identifiers of distance and a context for the social interactions that make up the book. One of the best articles in the edition, both for historical context and argument flow.

Peter Knox-Shaw, “Pride and Prejudice, A Politics of the Picturesque,” from Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (2004)

Identifies the Picturesque as finding a medium between the Burkean-Romantic poles of pacifying Beauty and provoking Sublime. Follows the picturesque as a running metaphor through the book for Elizabeth and Darcy’s love, and thus, for Elizabeth’s breaking of gender stereotypes/politics. Argues that, like the picturesque, Elizabeth’s development depicts a nuancing of (if not campaign against) conventional beauty, while showing that beauty and attractiveness are not synonymous in the book. In conjunction with the other articles on the picturesque, Knox-Shaw’s was one of the more enlightening articles in the material.

Felicia Bonaparte, “Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,” from Studies in the Novel 37.2 (2005)

Places Pride and Prejudice within the contemporary philosophical debate between the rationalists and the empiricists. Establishes how Pride and Prejudice identifies Jane Austen as an empiricist in the line of David Hume due to the book’s consistent focus on skepticism regarding secondhand accounts, texts, and assumptions. Stresses how often characters’ epistemology is discovered to be faulty, and how the book encourages a general skepticism regarding first impressions. Argues that the Bennet sisters each, in their own way, undermines one’s ability to interpret reality with certainty, and that Elizabeth’s developing a “practical empiricism” is “the bildung of the novel.” Goes further to argue that Austen was even an early Nietzschean post-modernist in how she incorporates her characters’ mutual and self-reflective interpretations into their construction of, rather than deduction of, reality. Probably my favorite of the edition’s essays, for its historical context and depth of substance, as well as readability.

Vivien Jones, “Feminisms,” from A Companion to Jane Austen (2012)

Argues that, despite her focus on primarily women characters and their circumstances, Austen should not be classed as an early feminist because of her reaffirmation of marriage, which Jones interprets as an endorsement of the patriarchal structure she sees throughout the book. Identifies Austen, rather, as a postfeminist author, who (she thinks mistakenly) argues in her characters and scenarios that the inequalities facing early-19th-century women had largely been dealt with and that many problems experienced by women can be surmounted not by societal revolution and polemic but by individual reflection and reformation. Identifies Elizabeth as being in the vein of Mary Wollstonecraft, but Austen as aligning more with the conservative female writer Hannah More. Accuses Austen of contextualizing the benefits achieved by Wollstonecraft within a conservative/Tory context of twenty years later that reaffirms the social structure. P&P as conservative reinterpretation of previous feminist ideals through the onus for individual, rather than broader social, reform. In my opinion, Jones’s view that Elizabeth’s marriage is a renegging on her previous independence (rather than a full expression of it) misses the point of the book, which his her growth out of her own pride and prejudice.

Janet Todd, “Jane Austen’s Hero,” from The Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice (2013)

Argues that Darcy’s place in society allows him to begin the book as a boor, whereas Elizabeth’s requires her to adapt through the book. Sees Elizabeth as having no individuality in either Darcy or Collins’s eyes. Follows Duckworth’s Marxist reading of the book’s property entail (refuted below by Macpherson), applying it to gender and property. Like Jones above, interprets her growth out of her pride and prejudice as a negative, a product of her social standing and gender, and thus misses the point of the book.

Elsie B. Michie, “Social Distinction in Jane Austen,” from The Vulgar Question of Money: Heiresses, Materialism, and the Novel of Manners from Jane Austen to Henry James (2011)

Interprets P&P as Austen’s attempt to find the proper relation to wealth. Reads book as a response to Hume and Smith’s writings on the problematic effects of wealth on English society. Elizabeth as the opposite of Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine, both of whom present the negative effects of status via inherited wealth (shallow, arrogant, etc). Examines the growth of manners to replace the traditional virtues of the landed aristocracy (both shown in said characters). Points out how Elizabeth’s manners, as well as her disregard for inherited virtue or status, make her attractive despite her lack of apparent beauty. Looks at what Darcy’s growing attraction says about him. A good essay for understanding and contextualizing the different dynamics in the Elizabeth-Lady Catherine interactions, as well as the changing social mores of the time.

Sandra Macpherson, “Rent to Own: or, What’s Entailed in Pride and Prejudice,” from Representations 82 (2003)

Lays out the laws of property entail that undergird the plot—and, Macpherson points out, ironic humor—of P&P. Debunks Duckworth’s Marxist view that the book’s society is structured along class and gender lines (see Todd, above). Showing how entail cannot be blamed on any one person or group, explains the implicit joke in both Mrs. Bennet’s expecting something to be done about the entail and Collins’s continual apology for it (both of which Austen’s readers would have seen as ridiculous jokes). Reads Austen as not being against entail, per se, because it is an image of social obligation, not one of exclusion. Examines Austen’s contrasting renting vs owning as makers of different personalities and virtues (vis Bingley and Darcy). One of the more enlightening, historically based, and easy/fun to read of the back material; possibly my favorite, contending with Bonaparte.

(Skipped Andrew Maunder’s essay because it pertains only to the illustrations in the 1894 edition and the effects they had on P&P interpretation)

Tiffany Potter, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” from Women, Popular Culture, and the Eighteenth Century (2012)

Reads Seth Grahame-Smith’s book/reinterpretation, P&P&Zs, as more than a pulp piggyback off of Austen. Presents book as a concretization of the implicit, unspeakable aspects of P&P, with the zombies being “a literalization of the threat of a social death in spinsterhood…in opposition to the socially constructed life-and-death quality of the marriage plot.” Interprets several moments from Grahame-Smith’s book as a way to help understand Austen, such as Lydia’s becoming an “unmentionable” zombie as an image of the unspeakability of her adultery in Austen, or the steady death to zombiehood of Charlotte as a picture of her intellectual death in marrying Collins in Austen. An interesting piece that treats P&P&Z seriously, though Potter ultimately interprets certain aspects of Austen (e.g. Jane and Elizabeth’s marriages) negatively.

The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey—Goodreads Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy Discovery.

“If you think you can beat the computer, that you can actually win, that’s when you’ll lose. Victory is a mirage, a will-o’-the-wisp, ignis fatuus.”

A choose-your-own-path (CYOP) novel that follows the seemingly disparate dual plots of a scientific study and a murder trial, The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey is an engaging, entertaining examination of free will and biological determinism. Although the two storylines may at first seem distinct, they intertwine in both thematic and concrete ways to form a single experience pervaded with the question of whether our conscious individual choices really are as willful and clear-cut as we assume.

The fact that Hickey concretizes all of this—logic, philosophy, and contemporary real-world psychological research—into a CYOP novel, where the story one experiences is simultaneously a choice by the reader and a plotline predetermined by the author, adds a layer of self-awareness to the work that only increases its depth. This is underscored by the fact that the title of The Friar’s Lantern, another name for the ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp used within the story to describe the elusive idea that one might be able to outsmart a computer, thus stands not only for the determinism that forms the book’s central theme but also for the genre as a whole.

However, the novel’s depth does not mean it is inaccessible as entertainment. To be honest, I have not read many CYOP novels, so I came into the experience with little to compare it to. If I note any novelties or gripes, I am fully aware they may be unique to me—and they may be exactly what readers of the genre expect. While I initially tried to read all paths simultaneously, I soon stopped approaching the book as a reviewer and started enjoying it as a reader, devoting myself to one storyline before going back to read the others. To avoid spoilers I won’t name my path; I’ll only say that once I settled on the ONE I wanted, I did not deviate.

While the initial branches differed on binary lines, with little divergence, they eventually weave into completely different events before returning to (and then turning away from) essential shared moments. At first I worried the side characters’ actions and dialogue would simply mirror the opposite choices of the reader—thus changing their characters according to caprice—but I soon found that this was not the case, and that the characters develop consistent identities. Meanwhile, something I did not notice until near the book’s end was the lack, so far as I could find, of gender markers for the reader-protagonist. While I, of course, had imagined a male, I realized I could have as consistently imagined a female going through the story. I assume all of this is to be expected from the genre, but it was nonetheless gratifying to find such subtleties upon going back after my first finish. However, I would have nonetheless liked more interactions with and background of the characters apart from the philosophical questions at the book’s core.

However, the book has its flaws. One aspect of the book that jarred me from the first page is the amount of physical description in the scene-setting. I usually dislike so much description, but I assume this is a trope of the genre, where the narrator must lead the reader through what they are seeing in order to make their choices. Still, the descriptions can interrupt and run long, with some analogies being pulpy and abruptly hyperbolic, and at times a bit dated (the book explicitly takes place in 2012, of which one is reminded by comparisons and remarks relevant to that and the previous year). However, these detractions are minor, and others may overlook them more easily than I. I can’t imagine it’s anything but precarious to narrate the thoughts and reactions of one’s reader.

I enjoyed this read, especially after I let my choices guide my experience. The fact that the topics discussed are, through the course of the novel, cited in psychological studies, which Hickey names and incorporates for dramatic potential into the book, was fascinating, and it marks the book as an excellent example of literature’s ability to concretize and work out the implications of scientific peer review for a great reader experience. Although I give the book four stars due to the few stylistic noted above, the book was a great read, and, if indicative of the genre as a whole, not my last CYOP novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the author.

Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler—Goodreads Review

Originally published on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.

In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of America’s favorite drink, whiskey, from its first distillation in the new republic, through its becoming a symbol of the American spirit in the industrial revolution, past its joint status as black market item and loophole product during Prohibition, into its importance as a symbol of the West during the Cold War, and to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink’s—and America’s—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink’s history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey’s taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.

However, this does touch on one of my few gripes with the book. Despite his awareness of myth’s ephemerality, Mitenbuler ironically accepts as fact the myth that the late-19th-century industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller were little more than unscrupulous and cynical social darwinists, which is flat incorrect. Rockefeller was a public and private detractor from that view and did much to counter its influence; I encourage readers interested in a nuanced presentation of Rockefeller and his times to read Ron Chernow’s Titan.

However, as Mitenbuler’s account is about whiskey, and he is using the Rockefeller myth for figurative comparison to describe unscrupulous whiskey distilling of the “Gilded Age,” it does not detract much from the book, overall. Yet, because of this, and, one wonders, other glosses, I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (of course, it’s not trying to be that). In context, though, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the local economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.