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.

“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.

Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy.com.

“America prospered, in large part, because it accepted that destruction is the price for creation. The world’s most liberal bankruptcy laws allowed companies to go out of business. The world’s biggest internal market allowed people to move to places where their skills would be more generously rewarded. The United States accepted that ghost towns and shuttered factories are the price of progress.”

As its title says, Capitalism in America covers the history of the United states with a focus on its economic setting and growth. From the joint stock companies of the English colonists (which they identify as a wholly new invention in a world where mercantilism was taken for granted) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Greenspan and Wooldridge lay out the circumstances leading to, the benefits produced by, and the reactions against the free (and at many times not-so-free) market of the United States. I listened to the audiobook version read excellently by Ray Porter.

One of the unifying themes of the book is the necessity of creative destruction for growth. As great as the major leaps of the market were—spurred on by the mutually reinforcing and liberating inventions of like the Lowell Mills, the Bessemer Process, the steam engine, the telegraph, and many others—they meant that investments in previous processes, industries, locations, and jobs were and had to be liquidated, adjusted, or left behind. The authors, thus, also follow the growth of reactionary movements such as the populist Grange Movement and the unionization and regulation of the Progressives—all the while citing the benefits and, more often than not, economic drawbacks and ironies of such things.

However, being a general history, the book does not focus only on the turn of the 19th – 20th century (though the surrounding events and precedents set the stage for later discussion). Honestly elaborating on the dreadful economic impact of plans like the New Deal, the authors nonetheless lay out the social and presidential merits of actions by presidents like FDR to slow or stave off the destructive elements of the market (and give that president, perhaps, more credit than one might expect, or is due). The authors also go through the rest of the 20th century and early 21st, describing the relative economic plans of the Cold War and post-Cold War presidents, which many times diverged from their respective executive’s party affiliation or persona. The book ends at 2019, noting the various economic benefits of President Trump’s deregulation agenda, as well as the looming effects of his administration’s declining to cut entitlement spending. While the fact that the authors could not foresee the sudden economic downturn caused by the 2020 lockdowns, etc, or the inflation of the 2020-2024 administration lends a bit of irony to the final chapters, such events do fit within the book’s final prediction of recession, as well as within the broader themes of economic cycles.

As an AP US History teacher, I plan to recommend this book to my students, if not use it in class. Besides some parts which discuss elements of market economics (e.g. when the 2008 mortgage loan bubble is discussed), the book is clear enough in its language and consistent enough with its themes to be readable by non-economists (and even those aforementioned parts are manageable and made clear within context). While Greenspan takes a generally conservative view of America’s economic history, he is, nonetheless, quite even-handed in his treatment, which may be what some readers are looking for. I was tempted to give four stars because of a few minor gripes, but I decided those were due to my own differing views on some of the book’s topics and not due to any deficiency in the book, itself.

A Romantic Case for Anime

Originally published in The Mallard.

We’ve all felt it—the mixed excitement and dread at hearing a beloved book is set to be made into a movie. They might do it right, capturing not only key plot events but also (and more importantly) how it feels to be swept up in the work as a whole; 2020’s Emma with Anya Taylor-Joy comes to my mind, most of all for the way it captures how someone who understands and loves Austen’s ubiquitous irony might feel when reading her work. However, they also might do it poorly; despite both 1974 and 2013 attempts’ being worth watching, I’ve yet to see a rendition of The Great Gatsby that captures the book’s plot and narrative tone in the right proportion (in my opinion, the 1974 version emphasizes the former but misses some of the latter, while parts of the 2013 version exaggerate the latter just to the border of parody). My readers have, no doubt, already imagined examples of works they’ve always wished could be faithfully put onto the screen and others they’d rather not be risked to the vicissitudes of translating from one medium to another. 

The last decade has thankfully seen a growth in long-form, box-office quality productions that makes it more possible than ever to imagine longer works being produced without curtailing their lengthy plotlines—example, the BBC’s 2016 rendition of War and Peace. However, this leaves another, perhaps more important, hurdle to hazard: while live-action media can now faithfully follow the plots of the originals, there still remains the difficulty of conveying the tone and feel of the works, especially when different media necessarily have different capacities and limitations of representation. Though I’ve enjoyed productions that have been made, I don’t know that I would expect live-action renditions to reproduce the aesthetic impression of, say, Paradise Lost, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Crime and Punishment, and I worry that attempts to do so might mar more than measure up. The problem lies in the difficulty of translating characters’ inner experience—which is usually conveyed by a stylizing narrator—via the essentially externalistic medium of the camera eye.

While a live action movie or series might remain faithful to the selective events in a plot, the lack of an interpretive narrator removes a key element of what defines epic poems and novels. Paradoxically, the narrowing of perspective through a stylizing narrator allows the story to move from the limits of natural events into the limitlessness of human perception and interpretation. Voiceover narrators can provide thematic stylization in film, as well as essential plot coherence, but it is still primarily the camera that replaces the literary narrator as the means of conveyance. Furthermore, if too ubiquitous, voiceovers can separate the audience from the action, which is the focus of film. Film’s power inheres in its ability to place the audience in the midst of a plot, removing as many frames between the watcher and the story’s events as possible. However, this is also why books are so difficult to translate: motion pictures focus on events when the aesthetic experience of literature inheres in how characters and narrator experience said events.

The literary movement that focused most on the character’s experience (and, vicariously, ours) as the purpose of art was Romanticism. Romantic literature and poetry were less concerned about the subject matter than about their effect on the character’s emotions—in the sense that, from the generally Platonic metaphysics of the Romantics, the incidental reaches its fullest meaning by provoking an aesthetic experience far beyond it. From Hawthorne’s rose bush growing outside Salem’s prison, to Shelley’s second hand rumination on the ruined feet of Ozymandias, to Keats’s apostrophe to the Grecian urn, the Romantics showed how part of the reality of an object involves its significance to the observer, and it was the role of the Romantic narrator and speaker to draw out that effect for the reader. 

It is this essential influence of the narrator and characters’ inner lives on the great works’ aesthetic experience that makes me skeptical of even the best acting, camera work, and post-production effects to sufficiently replace them. It may be possible, and, again, I have very much enjoyed some renditions. Furthermore, not wanting to be the audience member who misses the Shakespeare performance for the open copy of the play on their lap, I tend to watch movie adaptations as distinct works rather than in strict relation to the originals. However, this, itself, may be a concession to my hesitance to trust film to live up to the aesthetic experience of certain books. I would, however, trust anime to do so.

While a history of Japanese manga and anime is beyond the scope of this piece (or my expertise), since choosing to explore the artform as a post-grad-school reward (or recovery—one can only stare at the sun that is Paradise Lost for so long) I’ve watched plenty of anime over the past ten years, and I have become convinced that it might serve as, at least, a middle ground when seeking to capture plot, narrative tone, and inner character experience in a motion medium. Anime is capable of handling virtually every story genre, and while it contains many of the same ridiculous hi-jinks and satire of Western cartoons and CG animation, it can also capture tragic pathos and sublime catharsis in ways that would be out of place in the vast majority of Western animation. This makes sense: originating in early 20th-century Japan, manga and anime were not subject to the same skepticism about artistic representations of transcendent value that characterized Western art after the move from 19th-century Romanticism and Realism to 20th-century modernism and postmodernism. 

Of course, there have been exceptions; 20th-century Disney animation, or Marvel and DC Comics, were iconic because they attempted to be iconic—they unironically tried to depict in images those values and stories that are transcendent. However, even these were created predominantly with the child (or the childlike adult) in mind. Furthermore, while anime certainly has deserved elements of ambivalence, if not cynicism, and while there are many incredibly satirical and humorous series, anime as an artform is not implicitly dismissive of narrative trustworthiness and characters’ experience of the transcendent in the same way that much of Western motion art is. Rather, anime conventionally allows for the sublime heights and deepest horrors that previously characterized Romanticism, all of which it presents through the stylization of animation. This stylization is able to act as an interpretive medium just like a novel’s narrator, contextualizing events through the experience of those involved in a way often eschewed by, if not unavailable to, film.

For an example, I submit Kaguya-sama: Love is War (Japanese Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai – Tensai-tachi no Ren’ai Zunōsen, “Kaguya Wants to Make Them Confess: The Geniuses’ War of Hearts and Minds”). Though a romantic comedy in the Slice-of-Life genre, it exemplifies anime’s ability to convey the heights and depths of inner experience of the characters—here Kaguya and Miyuki, a pair of high school teenagers who, as student council president and vice president, compete to be top of their class while being secretly in love with each other and too proud to admit it. As the English title conveys, a running metaphor through the show is the bellicose subtext of their attempts to maneuver each other into confessing their love first and, thus, losing the war; think Beatrice and Benedick with the extremizing effect of teenage hormones and motifs of heavy artillery. 

Plot-wise, Love is War follows a standard rom-com formula, with tropes recognizable to Western audiences: the pride and prejudices of the characters, the much ado about things that end up being really nothing, the presence of a mutual friend who acts as an oblivious catalyst and go-between in the relationship, etc. However, the show reinvigorates these tropes by portraying via hyperbolic narrator the deuteragonists’ experience of the episodes’ conflicts, bringing audience members into the all-consuming tension of how a teenager might see something as minor as whether to share an item from their lunch. The combination of chess and military metaphors conveys the inner conflicts of the initially cold but gradually warming characters (the “tsundere” character type common in such animes), and the consistency of such motifs creates a unified aesthetic that, due in large part to the disconnect between the over-the-top tone and, in reality, low-stakes subject matter, is hysterical. Another unique aspect about Love is War is that, due to its focus on the characters’ experience of the plot (all the better for being trivially mundane), it’s a technically Romantic romantic comedy.

Love is War is, of course, a low-stakes example of what modern anime can do, though it did score three awards, including Best Comedy, at the 2020 Crunchyroll Anime Awards. A more serious example, Death Note, similarly conveys much of its gravitas through voiceover—this time the first-person narration of protagonist Light Yagami, a high schooler who with the help of a book from the realm of the dead is able to kill anyone whose name and face he knows, and L, a mysterious and reclusive detective charged by Interpol to find him. Throughout the series—which employs similar, if non-parodic, attempts by characters to outwit each other as Love is War—Light and L articulate their planned maneuvers and the implications thereof through inner voiceover. Not only does the narration lay out elements of their battle of wits that the audience might have missed, but it conveys the growing tension the two experience—especially Light, who, as he amasses fame as both a menace and cult hero experiences a growing egotism and subsequent paranoia around the possibility of being found out. 

Just as Love is War is, in many ways, a parallel of Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth and Darcy, themselves, both being tsundere characters), Death Note’s focus on a young man who wishes to achieve greatness by killing those deserving of death and who subsequently develops a maddening neurosis is virtually the same as Crime and Punishment—however enormously their plots and endings differ (Crime and Punishment lacks an explicit demonic presence like Death Note’s Shinigami Ryuk, the Death Note’s otherworldly owner; Dostoevsky would not employ the spectre of a conversant devil until The Brothers Karamazov—yet another point of consanguinity between anime like Death Note and his writing). Regardless of their differing plots, the anime’s inclusion of the characters’ inner thoughts and imaginations convey an increasingly tense tone similar to how Dostoevsky steadily shows Raskalnikov’s moral unmooring, and the explanations and attempted self-justifications by both Light and L convey more than I think even the best cinema would be capable of showing.

I am not advocating that every narrative motif or figuration be included in page-to-screen renditions, nor that we cease trying to actively reinvigorate great works of art through judicious adaptations into new media. Yet, if the inner lives of teenagers—which are often exaggerated, if at times unnecessarily, to Romantic proportions—can be portrayed by anime to such comic and tragic effect, with the figuration and tone of the characters’ perceptions seamlessly paralleling the literal events without obscuring them, then I’d be interested to see what an anime Jane Eyre, The Alchemist, or Sula might look like. Based on the above examples, as well as anime heavyweights like Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, and, if one is not faint of heart, Berserk, all of which present events in some measure through the background and perspective of the main characters, I could imagine the works of Milton, Hugo, Austen, Dostoevsky, and others in anime form, with the aesthetic experience of the original narration intact.

Eve: The Prototype of the Private Citizen

Originally published in The Mallard.

Written in the 1660s, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the type of book I imagine one could spend a lifetime mining for meaning and still be left with something to learn. Its being conceived as an English Epic that uses the poetic forms and conventions of Homeric and Ovidic antiquity to present a Christian subject, it yields as much to the student of literature as it does to students of history and politics, articulating in its retelling of the Fall many of the fundamental questions at work in the post-Civil-War body politic of the preceding decade (among many other things). Comparable with Dante’s Inferno in form, subject, and depth, Paradise Lost offers—and requires—much to and from readers, and it is one of the deepest and most complex works in the English canon. I thank God Milton did not live a half century earlier or write plays, else I might have to choose between him and Shakespeare—because I’d hesitate to simply pick Shakespeare.

One similarity between Milton and Shakespeare that has import to today’s broader discussion involves the question of whether they present their female characters fairly, believably, and admirably, or merely misogynistically. Being a Puritan Protestant from the 1600s writing an Epic verse version of Genesis 1-3, Milton must have relegated Eve to a place of silent submission, no? This was one of the questions I had when I first approached him in graduate school, and, as I had previously found when approaching Shakespeare and his heroines with the same query, I found that Milton understood deeply the gender politics of Adam and Eve, and he had a greater respect for his heroine than many current students might imagine.

I use “gender politics” intentionally, for it is through the different characterizations of Adam and Eve that Milton works out the developing conception of the citizen in an England that had recently executed its own king. As I’ve written in my discussion of Shakespeare’s history plays, justified or not, regicide has comprehensive effects. Thus, the beheading of Charles I on 30 January 1649 had implications for all 17th-century English citizens, many of which were subsequently written about by many like Margaret Cavendish and John Locke. At issue was the question of the individual’s relation to the monarch; does the citizen’s political identity inhere in the king or queen (Cavendish’s perspective), or does he or she exist as a separate entity (Locke’s)? Are they merely “subjects” in the sense of “the king’s subjects,” or are they “subjects” in the sense of being an active agent with an individual perspective that matters? Is it Divine Right, conferred on and descended from Adam, that makes a monarch, or is it the consent of the governed, of which Eve was arguably the first among mankind?

Satan Talks to Sin and Death, by Gustave Dore.
Photo Credit.

Before approaching such topics in Paradise Lost, Milton establishes the narrative framework of creation. After an initial prologue that does an homage to the classical invoking of the Muses even as it undercuts the pagan tradition and places it in an encompassing Christian theology (there are many such nuances and tensions throughout the work), Milton’s speaker introduces Satan, nee Lucifer, having just fallen with his third of heaven after rebelling against the lately announced Son. Thinking, as he does, that the Son is a contingent being like himself (rather than a non-contingent being coequal with the Father, as the Son is shown to be in Book III), Satan has failed to submit to a rulership he does not believe legitimate. He, thus, establishes one of the major themes of Paradise Lost: the tension between the individual’s will and God’s. Each character’s conflict inheres in whether or not they will choose to remain where God has placed them—which inerringly involves submitting to an authority that, from their limited perspective, they do not believe deserves their submission—or whether they will reject it and prefer their own apparently more rational interests. Before every major character—Satan, Adam, and Eve—is a choice between believing the superior good of God’s ordered plan and pursuing the seemingly superior option of their individual desires.

Before discussing Eve, it is worth looking at her unheavenly counterpart, Sin. In a prefiguration of the way Eve was formed out of Adam before the book’s events, Sin describes to Satan how she was formed Athena-style out of his head when he chose to rebel against God and the Son, simultaneously being impregnated by him and producing their son, Death. As such she and Satan stand as a parody not only of the parent-progeny-partner relationship of Adam-Eve but also of God and the Son. Describing her illicit role in Lucifer’s rebellion, Sin says that almost immediately after birth,

I pleased and with attractive graces won
The most averse (thee chiefly) who full oft
Thyself in me thy perfect image viewing
Becam’st enamoured and such joy thou took’st
With me in secret that my womb conceived
A growing burden.

Paradise Lost II.761-767

In here and other places, Sin shows that her whole identity is wrapped up in Satan, her father-mate. In fact, there is rarely any instance where she refers to herself without also referring to him for context or as a counterpoint. Lacking her own, private selfhood from which she is able to volitionally choose the source of her identity and meaning, Sin lives in a state of perpetual torment, constantly being impregnated and devoured by the serpents and hellhounds that grow out of her womb.

Sin’s existence provides a Dantean concretization of Satan’s rebellion, which is elsewhere presented as necessarily one of narcissistic solipsism—a greatness derived from ignoring knowledge that might contradict his supposed greatness. A victim of her father-mate’s “narcissincest” (a term I coined for her state in grad school), Sin is not only an example of the worst state possible for the later Eve, but also, according to many critics, of women in 17th-century England, both in relation to their fathers and husbands, privately, as well as to the monarch (considered by many the “father of the realm”), publically. Through this reading, we can see Milton investigating, through Sin, not only the theology of Lucifer’s fall, but also of an extreme brand of royalism assumed by many at the time. And yet, it is not merely a simple criticism of royalism, per se: though Milton, himself, wrote other works defending the execution of Charles I and eventually became a part of Cromwell’s government, it is with the vehicle of Lucifer’s rebellion and Sin—whose presumptions are necessarily suspect—that he investigates such things (not the last instance of his work being as complex as the issues it investigates).

The Heavenly Hosts, by Gustave Dore.
Photo Credit.

After encountering the narcissincest of the Satan-Sin relationship in Book II we are treated to its opposite in the next: the reciprocative respect between the Father and the Son. In what is, unsurprisingly, one of the most theologically-packed passages in Western literature, Book III seeks to articulate the throneroom of God, and it stands as the fruit of Milton’s study of scripture, soteriology, and the mysteries of the Incarnation, offering, perhaps wisely, as many questions as answers for such a scene. Front and center is, of course, the relationship between the Son and Father, Whose thrones are surrounded by the remaining two thirds of the angels awaiting what They will say. The Son and Father proceed to narrate to Each Other the presence of Adam and Eve in Eden and Satan’s approach thereunto; They then discuss what will be Their course—how They will respond to what They, omniscient, already know will happen.

One major issue Milton faced in representing such a discussion is the fact that it is not really a discussion—at least, not dialectically. Because of the triune nature of Their relationship, the Son already knows what the Father is thinking; indeed, how can He do anything but share His Father’s thoughts? And yet, the distance between the justice and foresight of the Father (in no ways lacking in the Son) and the mercy and love of the Son (no less shown in the words of the Father) is managed by the frequent use of the rhetorical question. Seeing Satan leave Hell and the chaos that separates it from the earth, the Father asks:

Only begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars…can hold, so bent he seems
On desperate revenge that shall redound
Upon his own rebellious head?

Paradise Lost III.80-86

The Father does not ask the question to mediate the Son’s apparent lack of knowledge, since, divine like the Father, the Son can presumably see what He sees. Spoken in part for the sake of those angels (and readers) who do not share Their omniscience, the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son assume knowledge even while they posit different ideas. Contrary to the solipsism and lack of sympathy between Sin and Satan (who at first does not even recognize his daughter-mate), Book III shows the mutual respect and knowledge of the rhetorical questions between the Father and Son—who spend much of the scene describing Each Other and Their motives (which, again, are shared).

The two scenes between father figures and their offspring in Books II and III provide a backdrop for the main father-offspring-partner relationship of Paradise Lost: that of Adam and Eve—with the focus, in my opinion, on Eve. Eve’s origin story is unique in Paradise Lost: while she was made out of Adam and derives much of her joy from him, she was not initially aware of him at her nativity, and she is, thus, the only character who has experienced and can remember (even imagine) existence independent of a source.

The Archangel Raphael with Adam and Eve, by William Blake.
Photo Credit.

Book IV opens on Satan reaching Eden, where he observes Adam and Eve and plans how to best ruin them. Listening to their conversation, he hears them describe their relationship and their respective origins. Similar to the way the Father and Son foreground their thoughts in adulatory terms, Eve addresses Adam as, “thou for whom | And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh | and without whom am to no end, my guide | And head” (IV.440-443). While those intent on finding sexism in the poem will, no doubt, jump at such lines, Eve’s words are significantly different from Sin’s. Unlike Sin’s assertion of her being a secondary “perfect image” of Satan (wherein she lacks positive subjectivity), Eve establishes her identity as being reciprocative of Adam’s in her being “formed flesh,” though still originating in “thy flesh.” She is not a mere picture of Adam, but a co-equal part of his substance. Also, Eve diverges from Sin’s origin-focused account by relating her need of Adam for her future, being “to no end” without Adam; Eve’s is a chosen reliance of practicality, not an unchosen one of identity.

Almost immediately after describing their relationship, Eve recounts her choice of being with Adam—which necessarily involves remembering his absence at her nativity. Hinting that were they to be separated Adam would be just as lost, if not more, than she (an idea inconceivable between Sin and Satan, and foreshadowing Eve’s justification in Book IX for sharing the fruit with Adam, who finds himself in an Eve-less state), she continues her earlier allusion to being separated from Adam, stating that, though she has been made “for” Adam, he a “Like consort to [himself] canst nowhere find” (IV.447-48). Eve then remembers her awakening to consciousness:

That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flow’rs, much wond’ring where
And what I was, whence thither brought and how.

Paradise Lost IV.449-452

Notably seeing her origin as one not of flesh but of consciousness, she highlights that she was alone. That is, her subjective awareness preexisted her understanding of objective context. She was born, to use a phrase by another writer of Milton’s time, tabula rasa, without either previous knowledge or a mediator to grant her an identity. Indeed, perhaps undercutting her initial praise of Adam, she remembers it “oft”; were this not an image of the pre-Fall marriage, one might imagine the first wife wishing she could take a break from her beau—the subject of many critical interpretations! Furthermore, Milton’s enjambment allows a dual reading of “from sleep,” as if Eve remembers that day as often as she is kept from slumber—very different from Sin’s inability to forget her origin due to the perpetual generation and gnashing of the hellhounds and serpents below her waist. The privacy of Eve’s nativity so differs from Sin’s public birth before all the angels in heaven that Adam—her own father-mate—is not even present; thus, Eve is able to consider herself without reference to any other. Of the interrogative words with which she describes her post-natal thoughts— “where…what…whence”—she does not question “who,” further showing her initial isolation, which is so defined that she initially cannot conceive of another separate entity.

Eve describes how, hearing a stream, she discovered a pool “Pure as th’ expanse of heav’n” (IV.456), which she subsequently approached and, Narcissus-like, looked down into.

As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the wat’ry gleam appeared
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love.

Paradise Lost IV.460-465

When she discovers the possibility that another person might exist, it is, ironically, her own image in the pool. In Eve, rather than in Sin or Adam, we are given an image of self-awareness, without reference to any preceding structural identity. Notably, she is still the only person described in the experience—as she consistently refers to the “shape” as “it.” Eve’s description of the scene contains the actions of two personalities with only one actor; that is, despite there being correspondence in the bending, starting, and returning, and in the conveyance of pleasure, sympathy, and love, there is only one identity present. Thus, rather than referring to herself as an image of another, as does Sin, it is Eve who is here the original, with the reflection being the image, inseparable from herself though it be. Indeed, Eve’s nativity thematically resembles the interaction between the Father and the Son, who, though sharing the same omniscient divinity, converse from seemingly different perspectives. Like the Father Who instigates interaction with His Son, His “radiant image” (III.63), in her first experience Eve has all the agency.

The Paradise Lost of Milton, with illustrations designed and engraved by John Martin.
Photo Credit.

As the only instance in the poem when Eve has the preeminence of being another’s source (if only a reflection), this scene invests her interactions with Adam with special meaning. Having experienced this private moment of positive identity before following the Voice that leads her to her husband, Eve is unique in having the capacity to agree or disagree with her seemingly new status in relation to Adam, having remembered a time when it was not—a volition unavailable to Sin and impossible (and unnecessary) to the Son.

And yet, this is the crux of Eve’s conflict: will she continue to heed the direction of the Voice that interrupted her Narcissus-like fixation at the pool and submit herself to Adam? The ambivalence of her description of how she would have “fixed | Mine eyes till now and pined with vain desire,” over her image had the Voice not come is nearly as telling as is her confession that, though she first recognized Adam as “fair indeed, and tall!” she thought him “less fair, | Less winning soft, less amiably mild | Than that smooth wat’ry image” (IV.465-480). After turning away from Adam to return to the pool and being subsequently chased and caught by Adam, who explained the nature of their relation—how “To give thee being I lent | Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart, | Substantial life to have thee by my side”—she “yielded, and from that time see | How beauty is excelled by manly grace | And wisdom which alone is truly fair” (IV. 483-491). One can read these lines at face value, hearing no undertones in her words, which are, after all, generally accurate, Biblically speaking. However, despite the nuptial language that follows her recounting of her nativity, it is hard for me not to read a subtle irony in the words, whether verbal or dramatic. That may be the point—that she is not an automaton without a will, but a woman choosing to submit, whatever be her personal opinion of her husband.

Of course, the whole work must be read in reference to the Fall—not merely as the climax which is foreshadowed throughout, but also as a condition necessarily affecting the writing and reading of the work, it being, from Milton’s Puritan Protestant perspective, impossible to correctly interpret pre-Fall events from a post-Fall state due to the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in keeping with the generally Arminian tenor of the book—that every character must have a choice between submission and rebellion for their submission to be valid, and that the grace promised in Book III is “Freely vouchsafed” and not based on election (III.175)—I find it necessary to keep in mind, as Eve seems to, the Adam-less space that accompanied her nativity. Though one need not read all of her interaction with Adam as sarcastic, in most of her speech one can read a subtextual pull back to the pool, where she might look at herself, alone. In Eve we see the fullest picture of what is, essentially, every key character’s (indeed, from Milton’s view, every human’s) conflict: to choose to submit to an assigned subordinacy or abstinence against the draw of a seemingly more attractive alternative, often concretized in what Northrop Frye calls a “provoking object”—the Son being Satan’s, the Tree Adam’s, and the reflection (and private self it symbolizes, along with an implicit alternative hierarchy with her in prime place) Eve’s. In this way, the very private consciousness that gives Eve agency is that which threatens to destroy it; though Sin lacks the private selfhood possessed by Eve, the perpetual self-consumption of her and Satan’s incestuous family allegorizes the impotent and illusory self-returning that would characterize Eve’s existence if she were to return to the pool. Though she might not think so, anyone who knows the myth that hers parallels knows that, far from limiting her freedom, the Voice that called Eve from her first sight of herself rescued her from certain death (though not for long).

The way Eve’s subjectivity affords her a special volition connects with the biggest questions of Milton’s time. Eve’s possessing a private consciousness from which she can consensually submit to Adam parallels John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Civil Government” of the same century, wherein he articulates how the consent of the governed precedes all claims of authority. Not in Adam but in Eve does Milton show that monarchy—even one as divine, legitimate, and absolute as God’s—relies on the volition of the governed, at least as far as the governed’s subjective perception is concerned. Though she cannot reject God’s authority without consequence, Eve is nonetheless able to agree or disagree with it, and through her Milton presents the reality that outward submission does not eliminate inward subjectivity and personhood (applicable as much to marriages as to monarchs, the two being considered parallel both in the poem and at the time of its writing); indeed, the inalienable presence of the latter is what gives value to the former and separates it from the agency-less state pitifully experienced by Sin.

And yet, Eve’s story (to say nothing of Satan’s) also stands as a caution against simply taking on the power of self-government without circumspection. Unrepentant revolutionary though he was, Milton was no stranger to the dangers of a quickly and simply thrown-off government, nor of an authority misused, and his nuancing of the archetype of all subsequent rebellions shows that he did not advocate rebellion as such. While Paradise Lost has influenced many revolutions (political in the 18th-century revolutions, artistic in the 19th-century Romantics, cultural in the 20th-century New Left), it nonetheless has an anti-revolutionary current. Satan’s presumptions and their later effects on Eve shows the self-blinding that is possible to those who, simply trusting their own limited perception, push for an autonomy they believe will liberate them to an unfettered reason but which will, in reality, condemn them to a solipsistic ignorance.

By treating Eve, not Adam, as the everyman character who, like the character of a morality play, represents the psychological state of the tempted individual—that is, as the character with whom the audience is most intended to sympathize—Milton elevates her to the highest status in the poem. Moreover—and of special import to Americans like myself—as an articulation of an individual citizen who does not derive the relation to an authority without consent, Eve stands as a prototype of the post-17th-century conception of the citizen that would lead not only to further changes between the British Crown and Parliament but also a war for independence in the colonies. Far from relegating Eve to a secondary place of slavish submission, Milton arguably makes her the most human character in humanity’s first story; wouldn’t that make her its protagonist? As always, let this stimulate you to read it for yourself and decide. Because it integrates so many elements—many of which might defy new readers’ expectations in their complexity and nuance—Paradise Lost belongs as much on the bookshelf and the syllabus as Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and it presents a trove for those seeking to study the intersection not only of art, history, and theology, but also of politics and gender roles in a culture experiencing a fundamental change.

For further critical reading, readers are encouraged to look into the authors from whom I’ve benefitted and who have influenced the interpretations above:

  • J. E. Browning—“Sin, Eve, and Circe: Paradise Lost and the Ovidian Circe Tradition.” Milton Studies 26 (1991).
  • N. Frye—“The Breaking of the Music.” The Return of Eden (1965).
  • J. G. Halkett—“Ideal Marriage.” Milton and the Idea of Matrimony (1970).
  • R. S. Ide—“On the Begetting of the Son in Paradise Lost.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24.1 (1984).
  • M. Jooma—“The Alimentary Structures of Incest in Paradise Lost.” ELH 63.1 (1996).
  • E. Murphy—“Paradise Lost and the Politics of ‘Begetting.’” Milton Quarterly 45.1 (2011).
  • M. Nyquist, Mary—“The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” Re-Membering Milton (1988); “Gynesis, Genesis, Exegesis, and the Formation of Milton’s Eve.” Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce (1987).
  • S. S. Zimmerman—“Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve’s Struggle for Identity.” American Imago 38.3 (1981).

Shakespeare—That Villainous Abominable Misleader of Youth

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.


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

King Henry IV, Henry IV Part 1, I.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1, III.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, I.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Trio of Fools”
Photo owned by Dustin Lovell

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

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, II.2

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.


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

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

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

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

Cognitive Dissonance and Humbling

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness, Revelation, Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Progressive to Prophet

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

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

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

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

Fyodor Dostoevsky [Photo Credit]

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

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

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


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


References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Youth, Arrest, Mercy

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

Mock Execution of the Petrashevsky Circle Members [Photo Credit]

Disdain and Disillusionment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crime and Brutality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening—Applying Handcuffs by Aleksander Sochaczewski [Photo Credit]

Property and Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contempt, Despair, Preparation

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

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

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

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


References:

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