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.”

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

Originally published by The Mallard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

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

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

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

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

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey—Goodreads Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com and Reedsy Discovery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Traitor by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“There was not a moment of Vasin’s waking or sleeping days…where Vasin was not surrounded by reminders of the power of Lieutenant General Yury Orlov. He felt as trapped as a dragonfly in glass.”

Set in 1962, less than a year after the events of Black Sun in which KGB investigator Alexander Vasin narrowly averted a nuclear disaster, Red Traitor by Owen Matthews follows Major Vasin as his successful rise in the KGB has meant just so much more scrutiny from among its ranks. Following the threads (real and invented) established at the end of Black Sun, Vasin must maneuver GRU Colonel Oleg Morozov into revealing himself as a possible American spy while the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds in the Caribbean, all the while keeping himself abreast of the machinations of his own boss, General Yuri Orlov. The Moscow-based espionage plot that makes up half of the novel incorporates many of the themes, suspense, and gambits that made Black Sun excellent.

“‘That’s how our glorious Soviet Motherland works. Punish the innocent, leave the guilty at their posts.’”

To the investigative spy plot of Moscow, Matthews adds another plotline following submariner Vasily Arkhipov, who a year previous was among the only survivors of the K-19 submarine nuclear reactor accident that left most of his crew dead and him with a promotion. Selected for his prowess of surviving the traumatic ordeal of K-19, which has left him cautious of all things nuclear, Arkhipov is given fleet command of a secret group of submarines sent to run the US blockade of Cuba and, if threatened or cornered, to use the “secret weapon” of a nuke carried by each submarine. Paralleling Vasin’s “integrity vs party line” conflict from Black Sun, Arkhipov must avoid running afoul of the Party, embodied in his rival Captain Savitsky, while shrewdly trying to disobey orders and prevent nuclear war.

“In politics, there are things you do for show and things you do that really matter. The R-12 deployment? That matters.”

Though its deuteragonists never meet, Red Traitor moves back and forth between them to form a plot that is suspenseful and multi-faceted. Compared to Black Sun, which focused on the single location of secret nuclear facility Arzamas-16 to no less excellent effect, Red Traitor incorporates much more of the “historical” in the historical fiction, and the cinematic feel of the scene shifts—each foregrounded by place and date—shows Matthews deftly expanding his narrative style to meet the needs of his subject matter. Drawn from Matthews’s non-fiction work and from accounts of those who lived through the ordeal, the frequent details of KGB and GRU spycraft and the detailed descriptions of life on Soviet diesel submarine B-59 form a consistent setting that conveys one easily into the characters’ experiences. Though the scene-shifting form took a bit of getting used to, it ultimately made the dual-plot work well, especially nearing the book’s climax, and while the climax was not as cathartically hard-hitting as was Black Sun’s (possibly due to Red Traitor’s being more closely based on the history than the former book—and there, thankfully, NOT being a nuclear blast in the Caribbean), the book’s ending prepared the way for the Vasin trilogy’s third installment superbly.

“[An] idealist or a pragmatist, Sasha…What is your diagnosis of yourself, please?”

If Black Sun was a novel about Vasin’s discovery of the immorality of the system in which he is a cog, Red Traitor is a novel about his trying to uphold his own already compromised principles against the guttural, impulsive, self-centered chaos embodied by his boss Orlov—whom he is now fully aware he could become without difficulty. The book has many parallels, both within itself and with its predecessor: just as Vasin has his Orlov, Morozov has his boss Serov (no less unprincipled than Orlov), and Arkhipov’s conflict very much resembles many of the issues experienced by Vasin in Black Sun. All of these serve to reinforce the sense of oppressive, ever-watchful weight inherent in the Soviet system, where every success and favor comes with a hook (a consistent motif through the book).

Paradoxically, the frankness and irony with which Vasin and others admit the faults, if not malignity, of their system yield an air of dark humor to the book, even in its most tense moments. Drawing on his mother’s Russian humor described in Stalin’s Children, Matthews captures and maintains the fact that the Russian people and the Russian Soviet system were not synonymous. Another motif I found similarly endearing was the camaraderie of the sailors, whose easy manner, salutary superstition, and genuine friendship stood in stark contrast against the self-consciously forced comradeship of the book’s other relationships.

Though I have not read many Cold-War-Era spy or submarine novels, Red Traitor was an excellent read. I loved seeing Matthews’s utilizing elements from his non-fiction work for dramatic effect, as well as his expanding his novelistic style. The Author’s Note, wherein Matthews lays out exactly how much of the book is historically based (a vast majority of it is), was particularly useful, and I plan to recommend the book to my history students, as well as to anyone else who asks.

*Disclaimer: I received advance copy of the book from the publisher for review*

Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”

Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.

From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.

This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.

This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.

I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.

The Landlady By Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted at Goodreads.com.

Dostoevsky’s first focused study into the character type of the dreamer, The Landlady follows Vasily Ordynov, an denizen of St. Petersburg whose search for a new apartment and his desire for love find their object in Katerina, landlady and wife to the domineering mystic, Ilia Murin.

Like several of Dostoevsky’s pre- and post-Siberia characters whose inner lives take over and sabotage their real experience, Ordynov is a weakling who nonetheless (or therefore) possesses the tendency to extremize his interpretation of the world in ways that allow Dostoevsky to use the language of the steadily passing Romanticism in a growing Realist context. Thus, though set in mid-19th century Petersburg, the novella features the enigmatic Murin, who, due to both scenes where he obviously controls his co-dependent ward/wife Katerina, as well as scenes where he presents himself as little more than a humble, if much misunderstood, peasant, may or may not be a manipulative old sorcerer.

I enjoyed The Landlady, especially when read among Dostoevsky’s other pre-Siberian works. At times engaging and pathetic, the work shows Dostoevsky exploiting the mid-19th-century move from Romanticism to Realism (not to mention the cultural attempts to move from Old Russian mysticism to a European-influenced enlightenment) in a way that redirects the Romantic forms and tropes into a new, ironic direction. Though it lacks much of his post-Siberia surety and forcefulness, The Landlady also foreshadows many other figures and themes in Dostoevsky’s later works, from Raskalnikov to the Grand Inquisitor.

An approachable and engaging read, and, though unique in its content, indicative of many topics and tropes found in Dostoevsky’s work.

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.