Wednesday, May 20, 2015


It had such promise.

Dostoevsky’s The Double is a mess.  One of the strange problems of reading the writers of Great Books is that you usually start with the Great Books, and then move onto the rest of the corpus.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that once you move to the B-list, it isn't as good as the A-list.  Yet, it is always a disappointment nonetheless.  Dostoevsky’s four Great long novels are as good as it gets.  Indeed, The Brothers Karamazov is a legitimate contender for greatest novel of all time.  Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons?  All long and all worth rereading.  Notes from Underground is fascinating.

The Double?  Ugh.

The most coherent summary is that this is the tale of a bureaucrat who becomes schizophrenic.  On this reading, the double is just some sort of projection of his other self.  Fight Club does this sort of thing much better (well, at least the movie—I haven’t read the book), though in that story the Double is not an identical twin of the person doing the projecting.   But, in this case (Dostoevsky, not Pitt/Norton), it isn’t clear that the schizophrenia story works all the way through.  I’d have to go back through the book to see if it all fits. That’s not going to happen.  It probably doesn’t work.  The book is just messy.  I think I said that already.  If it isn't a story about schizophrenia, then it is the tale of a guy who is a bit insane who also has a double and there is no way to tell where the insanity stops and the real double exists.  That would be an even messier, and utterly pointless, story.    

So, parting from the story entirely: suppose you found out you had a double, a person who looked so exactly like you that nobody could tell the difference, and that person moved into town.  (By the way, I have a double.  Some friends of mine found him.  (Thanks, Aimee.)  You can see my double here.  Eerie.  Fortunately, my Double died on the Titanic.  Hmmm.  Maybe “Fortunately” is the wrong word.  It sure sounds wrong.  Should that be “Tragically”?)  Imagine further your double takes a job at the same place you work.  Would you then go insane?  Or would you figure out how to cope with the fact that you never knew if people knew they were talking to you or had talked to you the past?  And if your double was evil, how much would your life be destroyed?  OK, this is really a pointless thing to ponder.  Some questions just aren’t worth asking. 

Oddly, however, you can learn a thing or two asking pointless questions which don’t need to be asked.  (Good life lesson, that.)  After finishing that last paragraph and before starting this one, I was interrupted with some bureaucratic annoyances.  My place of work is full of idiotic bureaucracy of late.   Faced with the question of how to respond, I realized there are two separate selves living within my head.  There is the patient, kind, thoughtful me.  That me would have ignored the nonsense.  There is also the impish agent provocateur who enjoys annoying people who deserve to be annoyed.  That me would respond to the nonsense in a way designed to engender even further nonsense and have a merry time pointing out the incoherence of it all.  The latter me won.  So, it turns out I do, in fact, have a double who does, in fact, look just like me, and does in fact, work at the same place as I do. 

And, that immediately makes me realize that Paul also talks about one’s Double in Romans (chapter 7, verses 15-24).  I have that Double inside me too.

All of which wraps back to this song. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Escapist

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life

File that opening under: Inexplicable.  I never liked the artist or the album and I never saw the movie.  Yet, when I sat down to write about the book soon to be mentioned, I opened Spotify, wondered what I should put on while I typed, and that was the first album that popped into mind.  Makes no sense.

And oddly, while I was typing that last paragraph, I realized there is a connection.  When I finished the last book I had assigned for Spring semester (Bad Paper, by Halpern (maybe I’ll get around to reviewing it here—but in case I don’t: The book is not worth your time)), I needed my first book of the summer.  The first book of the summer is invariably a short, fun read.  Wodehouse, Christie, something like that.  Yet, when I looked up at my bookshelves to pick out that first book of the summer, I suddenly found myself holding a 641 page Pulitzer Prize winning novel by an author I had never read.  Not the usual Start Of Summer fare.  I have no idea why I decided to read it then.  Kind of like the album to which I am currently listening, and which is, all in all, not shaping up to be an album I will enjoy.  I have never listened to this album before.  I have heard the hits off it many (many, many, many) times (endless radio play when it came out.  (Endless.)).  But, after a lousy opening song and second song, song 3, “The Beautiful Ones,” is truly awful.  I can’t decide if I am looking forward to this song ending and hearing the next one or not.  What if it is worse?  [Your Humble Narrator is taking a perverse pleasure in the fact that you, Dear Reader, are hoping that sooner or later the album to which this refers will be mentioned because it wasn’t worth your time to Google the lyrics at the outset of this blog post to find out what album it is.]  [Your Humble Narrator is also not unaware that the book mentioned above has also not yet been named.]  [Your Humble Narrator is additionally not unaware that there is no Actual Reader who is providing the perverse pleasure to which the previous two parenthetical asides refer.]

The book:  Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

As mentioned before, this book won the Pulitzer.  This is not normally a recommendation.  But, in this case, the award is fully merited.  I really enjoyed reading this book.  In the realm of modern fiction, it’s a star.  (Part of me is wondering how Mallory never recommend this book to me.  It is exactly the type of book she would a) read and b) instantly recommend to me.)

It is a slice of life novel: New York in the ‘30s and ‘40s.  (1930s and 1940s, that is.  When will saying the ‘30s not instantly be assumed to mean the Great Depression?  In 2030? Or earlier?  2029?  2026?)  Two cousins.  One a Jewish refugee; one a New York native.  They become comic book writers.  The time period is, as comic book aficionados know, the Golden Age of Comics.  Superman, Batman and the Escapist are all created.  Haven’t heard of the Escapist?  He is fictional—created by Kavalier and Clay.  [Your Humble Narrator is not unaware of the irony of calling the Escapist a fictional comic book hero to distinguish him from Superman and Batman.]  [In a marketing stunt which was as inevitable as it was undoubtedly a disaster, there are now actual comic books starring the Escapist.  I would be shocked if said comic books were not Beyond Awful.]

If you love comic books and high literature, then you should instantly put The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on your reading list.  It is that good.  If you don’t like comic books, but do like literature, then this book is still highly recommended.  It is a great story, and the comic book elements do not get in the way.  After all, in any slice of life novel, the protagonists have to have some job.  You may not care at all about Dentistry, but you don't avoid McTeague because it is about a Dentist, do you?  If you don’t like comic books or literature…hmmm, why are you reading this blog?

Escape is, not surprisingly given the title of the fictional comic book hero, the overarching theme of the book.  The characters in this book are constantly seeking to escape.  They want to escape from their pasts and their presents and their futures.  They want to escape from their own identities and their surroundings.  Why?

It’s not the desire of the characters in the book to escape that intrigues me.  That is all pretty explainable from the novel itself.  (I pity the poor souls who will have to read and write papers on this book for a college English class.)  Why do non-fictional people (like you, Dear Reader) want to Escape? 

I received a letter yesterday from a good friend of mine, noting among other things “The adults I know are never fulfilled.”  And, it occurs to me now that I am writing about this book that her observation and this book have a lot in common.  People are not fulfilled, they sense that there must be something better, and they want to Escape into that better thing.  But, nobody quite knows what that better thing is.  How do you escape when it is not clear to what you are escaping?

At this point, I would dearly like to provide the obvious religious answer that fulfillment is found in Christ.  But, I am haunted by that sentence: “The adults I know are never fulfilled”—well, that applies to most Christians I know too.    That is, of course a bit of a dodge—theologically I know that fulfillment is only found in Christ, that short of Divine Fulfillment, we are all left eternally desiring something more.  So, there is a religious answer.  But, does the theological answer mean that fulfillment is possible or not?  If we are inherently aliens here, if we are strangers in a strange land, then is it wrong to be fulfilled?  If our souls are longing for the City of God, is it a sin to feel fulfilled in the City of Man?

But, that religious answer merely begs the question.  Why do people so desperately want to escape?  How have we been hardwired to lack a sense of fulfillment?  Why is being perfectly content so remarkably rare?  Why is it rare even among those whose religious convictions assure them that they have the capability of feeling fulfilled within themselves?  And, the even more pressing question, the question this novel raises but to which it fails to provide even a remotely satisfying answer: can we escape that deeply felt sense of not really belonging where we are, that there is some better place we should be inhabiting?  Can we escape not ourselves and our surroundings, but the feeling itself that we need to escape?  Short of finding fulfillment, is escape even possible?

I do know this: now that I am done writing this blog post, I am going to stop listening to Purple Rain by Prince.  And I will be shocked if I ever play it again.  I guess that is an Escape.

(For those of you who want to feel a similar liberation, you should rent this movie and then I suspect you will be very glad when you stop watching it.)  (I would have linked to the song, but apparently Price doesn't like his music available on the internet.  Seriously--search for Prince videos on YouTube.  Pretty funny.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Open Letter to my Friends

Yesterday was graduation.  As always, it was a strange mix of emotions—joy at seeing my students graduate and sadness that they are leaving. 

Last night I read a couple of stories by Wodehouse (“Extricating Young Gussie” and “Jeeves Makes an Omelette”) and a story by Gaiman (Odd and the Frost Giants).  Finding things to read the evening of graduation is tough.  It is hard not to let my mind wander. 

I realized this morning why those two authors were the ones I ended up reading last night. 

I spend a lot of time talking with students during the school year.  Rarely do we just talk about the material in a class—there is a whole universe of interesting topics and, as a result, conversations in my office or over lunch wander far and wide.  I always call the people with whom I talk “students,” but truth be told, that isn’t always the right word.  Some of the people in my classes are just students—they are in a class and maybe they come by to talk about how why a line on a graph shifts the way it does and then they leave, but never anything more than that.  Most of the ones who come by to talk end up staying for a bit.  I never kick anyone out of my office—we talk until whomever I am talking with decides to leave.  (I never answer the phone either when I am talking with someone—some students find this disconcerting.  As I tell them, “Why would I assume the person calling is more important that you are?”)  I enjoy talking with my students.  There it is again.  That word “students.” 

Calling these people “students” reduces them to a single dimension.  They are so much more. 

A more accurate word: Friends.  I spend a lot of time in my office talking with my friends.  The friendship that can form between a professor and a student is one of the most fascinating and fulfilling friendships I can imagine.  Stripped of all the social obligations that come with other types of friendships, this type of friendship exists purely in the realm of conversation—wide-ranging, deeply personal, important conversations.  When my friends want to talk, they stop by or e-mail and we talk.  When they have other things to do, they need never fear that I will feel neglected or left out.  And when they stop by or write again, the conversation continues exactly as if we were just talking yesterday.

I have a number of friends who graduated in the past and with whom I still regularly or irregularly talk.  Graduation does not end this friendship.  So, what is this loss I feel at graduation?  Not a hard question. 

While many of my students are my friends, they are not all the same.  I suppose that is like other sorts of friendships.  Many, well most, of my students are ones with whom I spent some time here or there having some conversations; I like them; I always enjoy talking with them.  They are my friends.  In the future, they will occasionally send me an e-mail updating me on their lives, and I will read those e-mails with great joy.  I really like it when my former students write me.  (Though, I always feel bad trying to answer them when they ask me what is new in my life.  Nothing.  My life never really changes.)  But, I never know at graduation which ones I will hear from again and which ones will vanish.  Some of the students who just graduated I will never see or hear from again.  I will miss them; not in some crippling sense of saying life can’t go on, but in that sense of I spent time talking with her and I always enjoyed talking with her and I wonder how she is doing.

Of all the blog posts I have ever written here, “The Love of Scrooge” is without a doubt the one I think about the most often.  I love many of my students. They are truly my friends, and I love them.  I know them in a way unlike the way anyone else knows them and I care about them immensely. 

Then there is that other set of students, the ones I deeply love.  Every year there are a few students whom I can honestly say I love as much as anyone outside my immediate family. I am always glad, very glad, when I know that they know this.  When these students graduate, there is undoubtedly a loss.  I will hear from them again—these students almost always write, some more often than others, but the frequency of e-mails and the time between e-mails makes absolutely no difference with these friends.  They will come back for reunions and we will find some time for a conversation.  I will continue to love these friends of mine for as long as we are both around.  But, graduation inevitably marks a change.  I will necessarily see them less often.  And that is sad.  It is a strange world when your best friends are constantly moving away.

Here is the thing I find most curious about these friends of mine.  Some of them I have known for their entire time at Mount Holyoke.  Some of them I have met only in their last semester.  The depth of my friendship is uncorrelated with length of time I have known them.  Some of the students for whom I have the deepest love, the bond which will certainly persist no matter what, I have met in their last semester of college.  Some of them I had in a class in their first semester of college.

My students occasionally tell me how much I have given to them. I don’t think many of them understand that they also have given much to me.  That magical moment between the ages of 18 and 22 when a person is just beginning to craft an adult self, when the world is all open and new and exciting, when ideas seem like the most important thing in the world because they are, in fact, the most important things in the world, that time before opinions have hardened and life has become routine, that moment, that magical moment, my students share with me.  My students, my friends, have made my life richer and fuller than it ever could have been.  I perpetually dwell in a world of discovering Beauty and Truth with friends for whom discovering Beauty and Truth is more important than anything else.  That is what my friends give me.  By bringing me in and letting me share in the wonders of their lives, I experience great joy.  The friendships I have with my students is very much a mutual friendship.  I am not sure why it is so hard from them to understand that.

Why did I read Wodehouse and Gaiman last night?  Like I said above, I only realized this morning why those two authors would be the ones I would read after the very draining weekend of Commencement.  They are both utterly predictable authors.  They are the literary equivalent of friends, writers whose work never ceases to bring that same easy joy of a conversation with someone with whom you “just connect.”  That phrase, “just connect” is from a very lovely letter I received from one of my dearest friends who just graduated yesterday.  And it is a perfect description.  Gaiman is like that clever friend with whom you just like to spend time because he always makes you smile.  He is an easy friend, not a deep friend, but one you know will never present anything particularly challenging or particularly dull.  Wodehouse is the better sort of friend.  The friend with whom you never need any pretense, the one you can just slip into and know will bring you to a more enlightened place through the mechanism of a lovely, wide-ranging, impossibly deep and fulfilling, amusing and vitally important (all those things rolled into one) conversation.  Both authors are perfect for graduation night because both allow for that subconscious ruminating about the joy and the sadness of graduation itself.

To my friends: both those who just graduated and those who graduated in the past: I love you.  Thanks for all the joy you have brought me and will bring me in the future just by being You.