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10/10/2008

Comments

the wandering jew

I always think the transparency of Dostoyevsky and his ilk is exactly what makes him overpraised. It's easy to point at the "greatness" in his work - "Look! Moral truths!" than it is in greater, more slippery books. It's the same blunt, blind logic that makes Moby Dick get praised for talking about God rather than its more complicated merits.

james wood

I'm amazed that someone as intellectually sophisticated as Dan Green can think this about Dostoevsky. Has he never heard of Bakhtin? Dostoevsky was indeed increasingly dogmatic as a Christian, but his fiction tends to mobilize arguments against such dogmatism; Joseph Brodsky nicely said that one ends a Dostoevsky novel "nostalgic" for the lost belief.
Thus "The Brothers Karamazov" may want to be a Christian affirmation, but in fact leaves the arguments for Christianity in shreds. And one should not slight the ideas in Dostoevsky's fiction (or the ideas in fiction generally) as easily as Green does: his fiction is intimately bound up with the ideological history of nineteenth-century Russia, and had an enormous influence on it. Speaking personally, I can say that my reading of Ivan Karamazov on evil pretty much turned me into an atheist (which would have horrified Dostoevsky of course).
But then Green is hostile to ideas in fiction; he is a formalist fatalist (see his earlier post) for whom fiction, over the centuries, simply discloses not the world, nor ideas, but ideas about how fiction gets written...It is an astonishingly narrow view of the novel, and it needs to be said again and again that fiction does EVERYTHING: it is about itself, and it is also about the world; it is about sentences, and also about lives; it is form, and it is also politics, metaphysics, ideas. We don't have to choose. I recommend that Green reads, say, Jose Saramago's novels, for a sense of how the novel can be at once an ancient and radical form, a way of discussing the world, and the world of ideas; and that this is not in tension with a challenging aesthetics (Saramago's long sentences).

On Dostoevsky, Green is channeling Nabokov's formalist disdain, but a lot of work has been done on the apparently slapdash nature of Dostoevsky's Russian (see Victor Terras, for instance), and his supposedly messy prose turns out to be allusive, self-conscious, parodic, wittingly melodramatic -- exactly what Green would like if it were done by John Barth,say!

James Wood

philq

It is certainly true that those who claim Dostoevsky as a "seeker" or "existentialist" are way off the mark. But it is the opposite error to reject his arguments out of hand, simply because he believes in truth. One does not have to embrace Zosima's worldview and become a Christian, but then until someone finds another answer to Ivan Karamzov we're stuck with the Grand Inquisitor.

As Dostoevsky say in one of his notebooks, "I've overcome greater doubts to Christian faith than my critics have ever conceived."

Rohan Maitzen

"it needs to be said again and again that fiction does EVERYTHING"

I agree that there is often a very narrow, and narrowly prescriptive, view of the novel put forward here--one that can seem to exclude many of my own favourite novels from counting as art. I don't see the payoff in this attitude; there seems much more to be gained and enjoyed (aesthetically and intellectually) by taking more of the attitude Henry James invokes in "The Art of Fiction":

"[T]he only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. 'Enjoy it as it deserves,' I should say to him; 'take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you, and don't listen either to those who would shut you up into corners of it and tell you that it is only here and there that art inhabits, or to those who would persuade you that this heavenly messenger wings her way outside of life altogether, breathing a superfine air and turning away her head from the truth of things. There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. . . . Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible--to make as perfect a work. Be generous and delicate, and then, in the vulgar phrase, go in!'"

Edmond  Caldwell

Dan certainly knows how to get a discussion going.

I’d put it this way: Dostoevsky’s ostensible impurities and absurdities and excesses are exactly what make him, for me, such a great and interesting novelist. His novels are like mythical beasts, hybrids of feuilleton, political pamphlet, social philosophy, eschatological prophecy, psychological investigation worthy of Nietzsche and Freud, sensationalistic pot-boiler, and more. There’s also the powerful element of the fantastic in his depiction of character, as if everyone in his novels (often brought together into the same small room for one of his great, hallucinatory ‘scandal’ scenes) is running a very high fever. There’s the use – perhaps even the invention? – of a distinctly modern paranoid vision in conception and plotting (in all of his major novels but especially in The Possessed, which is saturated with the same kind of politically and metaphysically-paranoid vision that we find updated in works by, say, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo). In fact, I’m almost tempted to say that Dostoevsky’s burlesque, over-the-top plots and characters amount to kind of brilliant “hysterical realism” avant la lettre, except for the fact that these ostensible novelistic impurities and excesses pre-date Dostoevsky by a long mile. The novel as the pre-eminently mixed genre form goes back to Cervantes and Rabelais; it was only in the nineteenth century that it got fixed into a more streamlined, uniform “realism” that in turn lent itself so well, in the twentieth century and up to today, to commercial “literary fiction.” I would think Dan would admire Dostoevsky’s works for bucking that nineteenth century trend that has led to something very tedious indeed, and which he has written about with such power elsewhere on this blog.

And I still haven’t mentioned Notes from the Underground, which anticipates so many writers, from Hamsun to Bernhard, that I’m certain Dan admires.

Thanks for the provocative post!

Nigel Beale

Anyone who can write this line "The old man has been honest all his life and as faithful to my father as seven hundred poodles," goes to the top of my pantheon.

Edmond  Caldwell

A quick addendum. I wrote:

"There’s the use – perhaps even the invention? – of a distinctly modern paranoid vision in conception and plotting (in all of his major novels but especially in The Possessed, which is saturated with the same kind of politically and metaphysically-paranoid vision that we find updated in works by, say, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo)."

but I think another version of that "paranoid vision" can be found in Melville as well, in Moby Dick and The Confidence Man, maybe Pierre too. It's interesting to think of such a vision deriving from absolutist Russia on the one hand and the small-r republican (except for blacks, Indians, & women) United States on the other, although both share being to some degree on the margins of the development of the European novel . . .

Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles

wait is someone now trolling as "James Wood"?

"But then Green is hostile to ideas in fiction; he is a formalist fatalist (see his earlier post) for whom fiction, over the centuries, simply discloses not the world, nor ideas, but ideas about how fiction gets written...It is an astonishingly narrow view of the novel"

I like the phrase formalist fatalist, but I would say Green's view *is* the current intellectual understanding of the "novel" because once one has read the bulk of western literature one cannot faithfully or truely suspend the disbelief required to absorb the text as a "true believer" would experience it; yes, we modern or postmodern readers can suspend our disbelief, but only to subsequently view a text with very rational, very skeptical, and perhaps hostile and traitorous, eyes. We have only listened to the text for one moment, accepting its biases and blindspots as truths, so that later, like Cicero, who studdied his opponents positions so vigorously, we can refute and critique them, knowing them better than they know themselves.

regarding style, Dostoevsky is complete trash. Poets and philosophers (Keats, Will, Plato, Nietzsche, La Fontaine, La Rochefoucauld,etc) have style but not novelists. I loathe Joyce because he is moderne; good taste demands it.

"...fiction does EVERYTHING: it is about itself, and it is also about the world; it is about sentences, and also about lives; it is form, and it is also politics, metaphysics, ideas."

actually, fiction is none of these things; these qualities are what you are inventing for and adding into "fiction." Without you (which while we are at it, is also an invention), the texts you love (and it really is love here which is speaking, which is pretty I suppose) are silent, meaningless artifacts full of vacuous symbols (this is an old line of thinking, running from Plato's Cratylus through Nietzsche and recently employed by Derrida. Plato of course does it with the greatest sarcasm, Nietzsche is subtly vocal about it, and Derrida makes the bourgeois dizzy with it).

Have I misread the entire post, or do you as a critic read sincerely and not ironically or with a great degree of cynicism? If I havent misread, I've got some magical Forms I want to tell you about!!

LML

Surely this post was more provocation than serious argument. I agree that Dostoevsky at his worst is a laughably bad writer, too reliant on cheap suspense and the shock value of certain types of derangement, but it's also true that Tolstoy takes himself too seriously and Proust could have done with a couple hundred thousand words fewer. Dostoevsky's excesses are inseparable from his achievement, and as E. Caldwell says, his influence if nothing else makes him an essential writer. I'd argue furthermore, in direct contradiction to Dan's thesis here, that there are few books as morally elusive as Notes from Underground. Dostoevsky thought his way through modernity long before it was established fact, and his vision (at least as encapsulated in that book) still hasn't been superseded.

Jim H.

"...it needs to be said again and again that fiction does EVERYTHING: it is about itself, and it is also about the world; it is about sentences, and also about lives; it is form, and it is also politics, metaphysics, ideas."

No, no, and no. It is about these things (call them ideas) embodied in human-seeming characters who face challenges, make decisions, and then act (or fail to do so) and thereby change (or don't) in the as-presented "reality" of the world of the novels they inhabit.

With regard to the status of fictional propositions, there can be no dispute that they are avowedly untrue. They have no referents in the world external to the text—except by sheer chance or coincidence. To say anything other is nonsense. Delusional, in point of fact. One thinks of Tarski's formula: "'snow is white' is true if and only if snow is white." In the fictional text, the author may create a fictional (call it 'possible') world wherein all snow is only green. Thus, the statement "snow is white" in the world of that text would be demonstrably false. Whereas those of us who have lived in cooler climates would, generally, agree that, indeed, snow is white. Thus, we have "'snow is green' is true if and only if 'snow is green.'" The truth conditions of fictional propositions are falsifiable only by appeal to the text itself, not to the real world of tables, chairs, snow, neurosis, narcissism, etc.

"The current King of France ate a slight lunch of kitten eyes" cannot be a true statement in any other context than an avowedly fictional (specifically textual) account of an imaginary depraved French monarch. It is not "about the world"—or at least about any other world than that imaginary one created by the author of text. The life of that "current King of France" is only about the life bequeathed to the imaginary monarch in the text about him by the creative effort of the author. The "politics, metaphysics (whatever that is taken to mean), ideas" are the politics, metaphysics (ditto), ideas at play in the text and, hopefully, dramatized in the story(!) and characters of the work.

Certainly, Messrs. Wood and Beale et alii are free (as are we all) to infer from fictional texts conclusions about people, lives, worlds, and ideas, etc., and even, through their own imaginative effort, to apply those conclusions to the people, lives, worlds, and ideas they encounter in their daily travels. That is the work of the reader. Sometimes they will fit, sometimes they won't. But to ascribe that sort of coincidental fit to 'realism' is simply out of bounds. To say fiction does EVERYTHING is to miss the level of reality on which fiction operates—where fiction works. It is to take the sort of leap of faith Dostoevsky, in the context of Christianity, demanded in the face of all rational objection to the existence of God. Indeed, in fiction everything IS permitted, but only when one lets go the god of reality.

Best,
Jim H.

james wood

I find it highly suggestive that whenever I contribute to one of these threads, there is always someone around, like "Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles," to express disbelief that James Wood would have come down from his Olympus to troll around in Hades...
Dostoevsky had a word for this, of course, and he called it the Underground mentality. It had a considerable influence on Nietzsche, who brilliantly turned it against Dostoevsky, and applied the notion of "ressentiment" against the very Christianity that meant so much to the Russian. So much for Dan Green's assertion, expressed in an earlier post, that fiction has never had anything to do with new ideas.
Edmond Caldwell is right that there is an obvious link between, say, 'Notes from Underground' and Benhard's 'The Loser.' I'd go further and take the line back to Diderot's 'Rameau's Nephew', and to Rousseau, who was read with great interest by Dostoevsky. Rousseau's idea of "amour propre" is essentially a dry-run for the idea of ressentiment. (I argue this in my new book).
Jim H is too hasty. Intelligent readers will see that there is nothing in his post at tension with mine. I did not and do not try to confine Dostoevsky to 'realism'(it is he, not I, who brought up this word, tellingly); on the contrary, like Edmond Caldwell, I see and enjoy Dostoevsky's fantastical elements. But I do think Dostoevsky has tremendous powers of psychological insight (as did Nietzsche, Freud and, I suspect, Thomas Bernhard). That this insight is practised on hypothetical clusters of words we choose to call fictional 'characters' (and how could it be otherwise?) does not rob it of great human truth. Ford Madox Ford puts it like this: he hoped that the novel could be seen as "a means of profoundly serious and many-sided discussion and therefore as a medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case." Not realism (FMF was not a realist in the traditional sense); the human case. People like Jim H always seem to be terrifically pleased with their epistemological powers, but of course they are not saying anything controversial or even arguable. They are essentially just saying that fiction is made or words, and invents hypothetical fictional scenarios. So what? Who quarrels with this?
What IS arguable is Dan Green's formalist fatalism, in which fiction is only, and dismally, about itself. (See his post about how no novel has ever really moved him -- well, of course not!)
For all that, to answer Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles, I "troll" Dan Green's site, because although I don't often agree with Dan, I think he is smart and provoking. Exchanges like this can't be easily had in print.
--James Wood

Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles

Actually, I thought it was just a poor troll to pick, of all the possible names for trolling, the name James Wood. I'm not familiar with you, as before this post I thought your name was James Woods and you wrote mundane newspaper reviews of mundane american authors for fat flatheaded and mundane americans. So far, it looks like the only thing I have gotten wrong is the spelling of your name. No where at all in my post did I intimate awe at a visit from an intellettualoide, nor have I ever suggested that Green's site is the conceptual, linguistic, or even simple equivalent of "Hades"; perhaps when you do visit I can start comparing it to certain sooted circles of the Inferno. Finally, you need not worry about someone mistaking you for a sojourning olympian since your thoughts are entirely comprised of lapalissades and your diction exhibits a tepidness beyond the wide globe of expression found in English, Latin, French, Greek, German, and Italian. You columbus of stupidity and boredom! I suppose Tyhpaon would be envious of your putrid barkings and the subsequent linguistic rape and slaughter that accompanies them, but you are certainly not inspiried by both, or even a single peak of Parnassus (not even a tree!)

Nietzsche as full of tremendous psychological insight? He owes his philosophy and "psychology" to Leopardi and La Rochefoucauld. You might know this if you bothered to read beyond popular philosophical trends or were brave enough for intrepid thinking and not inclined of reciting assertions you most likely stumbled upon in puerile introductions to translated philosophical texts.

Regarding ressentiment, I would be suprised if you managed to say it without butchering a certain language I am fond of, and no doubt only encountered the word due to the unfortunate downside of philosophy which is that it eventaully trickles _all_the_way_down_ to the fetid public. (Alexander was right to complain to Aristotle about the Metaphysics!) I personally spend much time with Juvenal (and thus with Mars) but only because I saw what the public (comprised of people like you) did to Socrates, and feel the need to be equipped to defend Truth and Good Taste because so few will come their aid and so many wish assault them.

Now then: Yes, Dan does write interesting pieces; you should make him challenge his principles and try to get him published in main stream print (to see if he *really* is true to blogging!)

addendum: I just discovered you are an englishman and since I have given you a relentless and ruthless spanking I imagine instead of humiliating you, I have made you giddy. Please repay my favor with sparing Zeus a lightning bolt and killing yourself. Or at least just being silent for a little while.

Steven Augustine

"I find it highly suggestive that whenever I contribute to one of these threads, there is always someone around, like "Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles," to express disbelief that James Wood would have come down from his Olympus to troll around in Hades..."

We just find it difficult to believe that you have time to fritter on the Sisyphean task of chasing down so many of the (legion of) intelligent commenters, online, who disagree with you (or believe that your rasher propositions need work); I don't find your "trolling" bathetic, I find it tactically peculiar. A little too much like Putin in his karate clobber, proving that he doesn't need that bomb-proof Zil?

JW, are you being needily egalitarian or witchily insecure?

Dan Green

I don't myself question James Wood's motives in contributing to a comment thread on a blog. I don't think of it as trolling, although it would be nice if he contributed more than once in a great while. Perhaps the heated rhetoric sometimes directed his way from the blogosphere would even cool off somewhat if that were to happen. Nevertheless, I take him at his word when he says he finds exchanges such as this all too rare--if not impossible--in print.

Also: I don't approve of the sort of language that SBK uses in the above comment, but since SBK has made numerous intelligent contributions to comment threads in the past, I'm not going to delete this one. Although I was sorely tempted to do so.

Chris

Everybody's a critic.

Joel

I'm on Wood's side with regard to Dostoevsky and Dan's restricted formalism, but please don't ever delete SBK's last comment. It's the most hilariously archaic shit-talking I've ever heard--the online equivalent of the slap that proceeds a dueler's demand for satisfaction. Pistols at dawn, James?

arthur

And, for what it's worth, I once tried to push Dan Green towards print. He stuck to his principles. He is really true to blogging, no matter my best Mephistophelean efforts.

Steven Augustine

"For all that, to answer Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles, I "troll" Dan Green's site, because although I don't often agree with Dan, I think he is smart and provoking. Exchanges like this can't be easily had in print. --James Wood"

What sort of "exchange" is JW referring to, do you suppose? He posts a comment disagreeing utterly, sneeringly (quasi-peremptorily) with DG's article, sprays some politic flattery-foam (see above) to cap the ungreased proctology of his comment ("But then Green is hostile to ideas in fiction; he is a formalist fatalist... It is an astonishingly narrow view of the novel"), settles a couple of micro-scores, takes care of another possibly dangerous blogger (one wonders if James Wood could be so silkily Machiavellian as to flatter the man who writes a blog called "Contra James Wood" on *purpose*, or if it was a priceless gaffe)... and nips off.

Admittedly, it's not easy to have that kind of fun "in print"... but to call it an "exchange" (thus far) strikes me as stretching things a bit.

One can only anticipate DG's zaftig rebuttal.

Chris

Joel -- for archaic shit-talking you'd be far better off reading Edward Dahlberg.

HumanProject

Let now be heard from the audience a clap, guffaw, laugh, or squeal of fear or excitement. You boys play hard. "Silkily Machiavellian" is a keeper, kudos to Augustine. I think we've just seen a demonstration of the fun that can't easily be had in print.

John

"It is incomprehensible to me that so many readers and critics have fallen for Dostoevsky's cheap tricks (and endured the unrelenting tedium of his fiction) and declared him an "existentialist" or religious "seeker" or some other such rot."

That's because you must be so unimaginably wise, as opposed to people like Nietzsche, Hesse, Einstein who said Dostoevsky taught him more than all of science. As for Dostoevsky's reactionary transparency...from the man who turned accepted notions of consciousness on their head with works like "Notes From Underground."
As Dmitri Karamazov says, "Man is broad, too broad even. I would narrow him down." And of such narrowed down souls are your good self, so sure of what you are most ignorant.

Jim H.

Dan,

Kudos for facilitating such a salon-like atmosphere on the internets with your ever-provocative posts. It seems the status of Dostoevsky is a perennial favorite lure.

I think it goes without saying that D. is a major writer. His work has stood the test of time and continues to provoke intense passionate debate—often about taste. Indeed, I do find myself in agreement with James Wood on a whole host of issues, particularly his view that D. pioneered intense psychological novelistic insight into characters of a less than savory social status. And I appreciate his tracing the lineage back to Diderot and Rousseau (which we gleaned from his book). I don't think it's fair or valid to assert that in understanding Raskolnikov we can understand every low-life murderer, though.

Dan's viewpoint, if I read him aright, is an ancient and honorable one best expressed on the MGM lion logo: ars gratia artis. The point is, again forgive me if I'm putting ideas in your head (or, if you're analytic, words in your mouth), the text is a battleground. At war over the use of the text are authors/writers on the one hand and interpreters/critics on the other. The writers assert their intentions govern the meaning of the work. The critics claim is that the text has a meaning somewhat other than what the writers assert—and, in the 20th Century, meanings have been meaningful only in the context of such systems of thought as ideologies, philosophies, partisan politics, and the like. On the critical side, of course, there are any number of sectarian skirmishes and out-and-out civil wars aflame. Art for art's sake attempts to liberate the text from the warring critical agendas and to preserve textual integrity against the utilitarian motives of its interpreters (as well as from the claims of its writer's intents). Maybe this, too, is noncontroversial, though it is by no means obvious. Umberto Eco refers to the "open text", "unlimited semiosis" (a Peircian notion) which attempts to see the work qua battleground, to understand it just as it allows such a diversity of interpretations, and to affix the empirical constraints on critical interpretation within the empirical grounds of the text (which, of course for him, included intertextuality, allusion, reference, etc.). I have been blogging the past few days on the series of lectures he delivered this week on just this point.

Now, I may be wrong in my appreciation of Dan's point of view, but I must confess my ignorance of the term "formalist fatalism". (Is that your term JW?) They may be the same—though the latter formulation seems a bit crabbed. If not, then I will cop to the view expressed in the preceding paragraph, own it as my own, and allow Dan to speak for himself as we all know he is perfectly capable.

On another matter: does anyone really believe that Raskolnikov would cop so readily to the murder? Was he that weak? Was his conscience so overwhelming? or was this just a way for D. to end the story in a redeeming, sort of uplifting way he couldn't find it in himself to challenge? D. was never a great storyteller. Do you think he had a failure of nerve?

Best,
Jim H.

Dan Green

As most of the comments here attest, my opinion of Dostoevsky is certainly a minority opinion. I'm quite sure that everyone is sincere in his enthusiasm for the elements of Dostoevsky's work evoked, but I myself don't read works of literature for arguments about "belief" (for "arguments" generally), as "political pamphlets" or "social philosophy," certainly not for "psychological insight," and not to be "taught" anything at all. I read fiction for the aesthetic experience it might provide, and Dostoevsky's fiction provides me with none. It's too busy doing EVERYTHING. If this makes me a "formalist fatalist," so be it. "Form" is at least something. If novels are otherwise doing everything, they're really doing nothing.

philq

It is true that print does not have exchanges like this, but it also does not have immature flame wars. With such mean comments directed at Mr Woods in lieu of substantial argument, it is not surprising that blogs continue to get a bad rap compared to print.

Anyway, back to Dostoevsky. When James Woods said that the novel does EVERYTHING, I don't take him to mean that each individual novel does everything. He means that a novel can do anything, and so it is unfair to judge a novel simply for doing something in particular- for example making an argument or illustrating morality. Of course the particular novel may not be to your taste, but that is different than arguing that the novel is trash.

Jim H. gets it exactly right when he says: "To say fiction does EVERYTHING is to miss the level of reality on which fiction operates—where fiction works. It is to take the sort of leap of faith Dostoevsky, in the context of Christianity, demanded in the face of all rational objection to the existence of God."

This is true, but we shouldn't be so quick to reject the leap. You cannot rationally prove that novels deal with characters, morality, or truth. But you cannot rationally prove any complete worldview. We have to decide whether to believe it in the same way we decide on whatever worldview we have- try different ones on for size and see which one gives you a world large enough in which to live (a line from the great Rowan Williams, who indirectly started this thread.) Just like the solipsistic world in which people are simply sensory impressions, the world in which novels are simply words unmoored from truth is not the world in which I live. If it were I wouldn't waste my time reading books. And frankly, given some of the understandings of the novel advanced in this thread, I don't understand why some of the commenters do so.

Andrew

For starters Dan, you should only read Dostoevsky in the Pevear Volokonsky translation, and see their comments about the strangeness of his language, and intense attention to detail, in the form particularly of each character's distinct use of language. This and other often humorous self-mocking almost of language are almost infallibly overlooked in other "smooth" translations, which do away with Dostoevsky's sometimes jagged edge strangeness. The level of aesthetic achievement, in its grandest sense of life as extension of life, in an early work like "The Double" is at times stunning, and Notes From Underground certainly a work, or perhaps "the" work that ushered in the modern age, again remarkably strange and revolutionary as a work of art. This "reactionary" claim makes so sense, given the small-scale Copernican revolutionary nature of his art from previous forms of truth.

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