Saturday, December 3, 2011

Final Thoughts Guest Post: Anna Que?

Guest post from group member MJ (follow him on Twitter here!):

Well, another Tolstoy epic, another tome that doesn't quite know how to end. I should say right now that I greatly enjoyed Anna K; for the first 60% or so, I mostly loved it, and for most of the remaining 40% I was definitely engaged. But I very much preferred War and Peace, and I think it has a lot to do with a point emphasized in the foreword to the Pevear/Volkonsky edition: whereas War and Peace is sui generis, Anna K is a much more conventional 19-century novel. And since I love my Dickens and Eliot, I've now concluded that Tolstoy simply was not as well-suited to the genre.

It's strange, because I find many of the classic, romantic novelistic components of W&P--particularly the melodramatic relationship of Natasha and Prince Andrei--completely absorbing, but I'm now wondering whether I'd like them a lot less if they weren't combined with sweeping battle scenes, historiographic philosophy, and the fantastically entertaining skewering of Napoleon and "great men" more generally.

Because now that I think of it, I don't really care much about most of the characters in War & Peace; I suppose I like Pierre, and Andrei is admirable in his way, but the girls and women are not really believable, and most of the other men are just types. Similarly, in Anna K, I found Levin and (to a lesser degree) Vronsky interesting, but most of the others--including the title character--did not strike me as having meaningful interior lives. So while the plot engaged me, I rarely found it psychologically deep, except when Levin was on the scene.

And oh, that denouement! [QUASI-SPOILER FOLLOWS] The end of Book VII was just not at all meaningful to me. Sure, it was sad, but it didn't mean anything, and I think this is directly attributable to Anna K's weakness as a character. And everything that followed was just kind of blah. Similarly, I happen to like the end of W&P--you've gotta have a heart of stone not to love a 40-page essay on historiography!--but it is kind of a weird way to end that book.

Which brings me back to my intro, and also to the picture that accompanies this post, which depicts another great Russian who didn't quite know how to finish what he started.

Guest Post: Final Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Over the next week, we'll be posting some final thoughts on ANNA KARENINA. Full disclosure: I myself am not done yet -- though I think I'll be done later tonight. Our first post of final thoughts on the book comes from group member The Dude Abides (follow him on Twitter!):

Finishing Anna Karenina at a whirlwind pace left me a little unsatisfied with the last part of the book. After we see Anna connect with her true love and Levin marrying Kitty things seemed to lag along like a telenovela that has a few weeks to go. But the tension picks up again when we see Anna constantly fighting with Vronsky as pressure builds in the saga of her impending divorce.

Levin seems happy yet but does not seem to have quite the married life and fatherhood he envisioned when he had starry eyes in courting Kitty. As if love were a map where you can see the road, both Anna and Levin take roads that have consequences that will turn dire in one case and apocalyptic in another.

The tension between Anna and Vronsky is firecracker-quick and results in some very schizophrenic moments for Anna. Confused as to whether he loves her anymore or has fallen victim to another woman, she ultimately chooses to end her life in a barbaric and tragic way that ties back to her first meeting with Vronsky in a train station. This quick and fatal decision seemed odd to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to the build-up but it seemed like Anna turned into a mental patient in a quick few pages.

Continuing on to Part VIII, Levin goes through some mental gymnastics in dealing with the news of Anna's death, which leads him to a full evaluation of his being, both physically and metaphysically. In the fast-paced and hurried last section Levin nearly loses his wife and young child in a lightning storm -- an event that anchors his reality and transforms him into a religious man.

From the death of Anna on, the ending seemed hurried and disconnected from the rest of the story. It seemed weird that the suicide took little time to get through and the impact on others was curt and efficient. Perhaps Tolstoy clashed with his editors over the last part, maybe due to the idea he expressed there that all religions are equally good or maybe it was shoddy work to complete the serialization or maybe I just need to re-read it because I was rushing to finish the book. In any event, I did enjoy Tolstoy's work and thought it was a well-written and interesting story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Guest Post on Anna Karenina

This week we have a guest post on our current selection from group member The Dude Abides (follow him on Twitter at @thedudeabides).

The Men of Women

Anna Karenina has been a pleasant and quick read so far, and uniquely for this book I am on pace with the group schedule. I know we should be talking about Parts 5 or 6 at this point but I have been thinking about the early stages of the novel. Specifically about the men in love who seem to be thwarted by our friend Cupid.

Of course we can see similarities in Alexey (Mr. Karinina) and Levin whose hearts are stretched for the women they love. In the case of Alexey it is the love of Anna Karenina who he thought he once had is being wrested away by a younger man. With Levin it is the hope of love with Kitty for whom he has set his heart's song melody to her muse. In the case of both men they have fallen to the women who fall for others.

It is always interesting to see men in the roles of the broken hearted. I think Tolstoy showed some real emotional honesty and made me like these two for the truth of their lives.

Mr. Karenina

Alexy is a powerful, older, and one can say non-feeling man whom Anna despises. And we certainly can see the cliched narrative carried out between an older man and his younger bride: Tolstoy certainly makes this clear from Anna’s perspective, but I think we see a deeper understanding of Alexie’s love. It struck me that he treated her with respect even though there were rumors of her running about town with another man. He seemed composed and caring but one might get the impression he was uncaring and apathetic. Of course, his tone will change later in the book as his fate is almost certain in losing her love but I see an interesting time of trying to keep Anna in his heart and the struggle of his position in society and the stigma of a failed marriage. Early on, he pleads with Anna to think about her actions and we see in his mind he feels for her: Alexy Alexandrovitch, a man of great power in the world of politics, felt himself helpless in this. Like an ox with head bent, submissively he awaited the blow which he felt was lifted over him. Every time he began to think about it, he felt that he must try once more, that by kindness, tenderness, and persuasion there was still hope of saving her, of bringing her back to herself…..

As we can see Alexy is desperate to do anything to get Anna back but this too shall pass and his tone changes as his frustration grows.


Early on I made a comment about Levin by saying, “Poor Levin.” He seemed like he was truly in love with Kitty and that he made her happy, but of course, like anything in life, there is alway something better or richer or more attractive. Levin to me was the one for Kitty and I think she knew that but let the influence of others and her dreams get in the way. Later we find that these two cross paths again but Kitty's rejection of Levin was devastating to a man who, although prosaic, was good and loving.

So in Levin we see a genuine sweet and loving man who in the best intentions loves Kitty and yet she rejects him.

Two men not quite the same in power or social standing yet two men who have felt the wrath of the women they love. Tolstoy does a good job in representing the male point of view from a broken heart.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Our next nonfiction pick

Here are the options (as suggested by members and the Zeitgeist):

- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford

- Capital, Vol. I, Karl Marx

- Nixonland, Rick Perlstein

- The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud

- The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker

- The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter
I'll set up a voting system in the sidebar this week. In the meantime, let me know if there are other titles you'd like to add to the ballot.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Anna Karenina: Part Two: As the World Turns

So this update is now weeks late. All apologies, as usual.

So I like this book so far. But, as I noted on the Twitter feed, from early on, there was something about the plot and the characterizations that felt a bit soap-operaish. Part Two really just confirmed that feeling. Can any of us say we were surprised by anything that happened in Part Two? Was the entire horse race not clearly going to end with Vronksy having some type of horrible accident -- but surviving? All of the major plot points in Part Two felt obvious and too clearly preordained.

It may not be the book's fault. This was a novel from a long time ago; perhaps some of the tropes we come across in the novel feel overly familiar only because they've become so in the many years since the book was written.

Honestly, beyond that, I didn't have much more of a reaction to Part Two. I felt unsurprised by the section. And I couldn't figure out why I should care about what was happening with Kitty and the weirdness with Varenka. It all felt like a pointless and boring digression.

Don't get me wrong: I am enjoying the book. I'm just looking forward to the Great Moments in Literature parts -- which I hope are coming. I'm sure they are.

Your thoughts on the book so far?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Anna Karenina: Part One

Another season, another Great Work of Literature. Apologies for the delay in coming out with our first ANNA KARENINA post. And further apologies for the delays in getting up a final post on BEING AND TIME. I'm actually still struggling with BEING AND TIME -- and may be for a while. You know, "the world worlds."

Once I was able to sit down with AK, I was amazed at how quickly I was sucked in. We'll have lots to say about Anna, Kitty, Levin, Vronsky, Oblonsky, et al. as we get further through the book, but I wanted to note in this first post how heavily Tolstoy seems to rely on images of ice and fire in Part One. Over and over, he describes frosty scenes, ice skating, blizzards, etc., and every now and then, at a climactic moment, the stillness and ice is punctuated with a blast of fire and smoke. The main scene I'm thinking of is the scene where Anna is riding in the train on the way back to Saint Petersburg:
She went through all her Moscow memories. They were all good, pleasant. She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his enamoured, obedient face, remembered all her relations with him: nothing was shameful. But just there, at that very place in her memories, the feeling of shame became more intense, as if precisely then, when she remembered Vronsky, some inner voice were telling her: 'Warm, very warm, hot!' . . . . For a moment she recovered and realized that the skinny muzhik coming in, wearing a long nankeen coat with a missing button, was the stoker, that he was looking at the thermometer, that wind and snow had burst in with him through the doorway; but then everything became confused again . . . This muzhik with the long waist began to gnaw at something on the wall; the old woman began to stretch her legs out the whole length of the carriage and filled it with a black cloud; then something screeched and banged terribly, as if someone was being torn to pieces; then a red fire blinded her eyes, and then everything was hidden by a wall. Anna felt as if she was falling through the floor. But all this was not frightening but exhilarating. The voice of a bundled-up and snow-covered man shouted something into her ear. She stood up and came to her senses, realizing that they had arrived at a station and the man was the conductor.
(pp. 100-01.)

The imagery here is a little heavy handed, but effective. It's surely no accident that the book opens in the Russian winter, with everything frosty, frozen, and shrouded in ice and snow. It's in this winter that the train -- the novel seems to be driven and propelled by trains -- bursts through, driven by fire, spewing ash, smoke, and flame. It's not hard to put it together: Anna's heart and passion have been frozen in her loveless, respectable marriage -- her own long, personal winter of the soul. Her encounter with Vronsky is a terrible but spectacular disaster, unleashing shame, desire -- heat and a "red fire" -- but "all this [is] not frightening but exhilarating" to Anna. And of course, after she wakes up from her heavily symbolic dream, she steps out into a blizzard at the station (which, of course, she also finds "exhilarating") and runs into Vronsky, who's following her back to St. Petersburg.

The style of the book, so far, is quite straight forward and simple. Thankfully, unlike WAR AND PEACE, it doesn't look like there will be any long digressions on the meaning or practice of history or warfare from Tolstoy -- although, who knows? Tolstoy's digressions (and endless epilogues) came on heavier and heavier as we progressed through WAR AND PEACE. It seems unlikely that we'll see the same thing happen here.

The other bit I was going to mention was the part where Tolstoy spends a lot of time describing Anna reading an English novel, her attention drifting in and out of the novel. "Anna ... read and understood, but it was unpleasant for her to read, that is to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She wanted too much to live herself. . . . But there was nothing to do, and so, fingering the smooth knife with her small hands, she forced herself to read." (p. 100.) This bit reminded me for a moment of some of the themes we addressed in our reading of DON QUIXOTE, where characters were constantly reading, or referring to, or acting upon things they had read, and where the main character in fact found himself becoming a character in another book. This little scene here wasn't quite at that hall-of-mirrors level, but it did seem peculiarly modern and knowing. To describe the act of reading a novel in a novel is something, it seems, that can only be done once novels themselves have reached a certain point of maturity, or self-awareness. ANNA KARENINA was certainly a novel well aware of other novels, including English novels like the one Anna is reading on the train. (Indeed, Oblonsky makes reference to Dickens's OUR MUTUAL FRIEND on page 41.)

I'll plan to post thought on Parts Two and Three this week. As always, please let me know if you'd like to post your thoughts.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Anna Karenina Reading Schedule

We started on ANNA KARENINA yesterday (9/23). We'll be reading the book for eight weeks. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is 817 pages. Conveniently, the book is broken down into eight parts; not all parts are of equal length, though it'll be close enough for our purposes.

Week 1 (9/23-30): Part 1

Week 2 (10/1-7): Part 2

Week 3 (10/8-14): Part 3

Week 4 (10/15-21) : Part 4

Week 5 (10/22-28): Part 5

Week 6 (10/29-11/4): Part 6

Week 7 (11/5-11/11): Part 7

Week 8 (11/12-18): Part 8

So the plan is to finish up a little before Thanksgiving. As always, I'll be looking for posts from readers, so let me know if you'd like to contribute posts on the reading here on the blog.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Early Reactions to BEING & TIME - Guest Post

"In computer science, an ontology is a data model that represents a domain and is used to reason about the objects in that domain and the relations between them." - Univ. of Georgia Complex Carbohydrate Research Center

This guest post comes to us courtesy of Oroboros (follow on Twitter @ Thanatologist). If you have reactions to, thoughts on, memories of, or grievances with BEING & TIME you'd like to post here, let me know @ tolstoysbeard @

No self respecting student of Continental philosophy can speak with any credibility unless they've studied the juggernaut of the 20th century Being & Time! We may embark on a journey & not return quite the same, if at all.

I've already read bits as a lowly undergrad. And those bits proved that I was more than just wet behind the ears. This time... I've taken an alias to cover my true origins as a Nietzschean ironist. So I'll enter the world of Being & Time unnoticed in this alter ego.

I shall no longer be known as the Nietzschean Awet but as Dasein Awet. I'll leave behind Nietzsche in appearance but I shall hold on to the light of Götzendämmerung when the labyrinth gets too twisted.

Either I'll end up just another notch on the bedpost of Being & Time or I'll conquer the juggernaut of philosophy. Either my Nietzsche will persist through the suffocating labyrinth that is Being & Time or Dasein will overcome Götzendämmerung.

Warning. Heidegger is difficult.

The problem with reading difficult thinkers like Heidegger is that even if you agree a lot you probably don't understand. What sounds good isn't always good and if you don't grasp the ideas properly, there's no way to assess their validity. Your entire brainpower is spent on trying to understand what he says & you have nothing left over for assessment. Worse yet, you may also be reading too much into Heidegger. Even if you assume he makes sense and you do not understand, you try to find ways to explain his ideas, you end up inserting ideas that aren't there.

However, Heidegger is difficult for justified reasons. He attempted to avoid traditional philosophical terms due to the specious ontology built into them over the centuries, and worse yet, ordinary language has been inevitably misleading & contributed to and reciprocally corrupted by traditional philosophy.

On one hand, since Heidegger formulates philosophy in unfamiliar terms, he is not spelling out any dependence on the philosophical tradition and that leaves us without any guidance to its true meaning. Hence, my familarity with traditional philosophy and the novice's lack of familarity are both barriers to true understanding.

Moreover the novice is more a sympathetic reader because the book is about something of interest to everyone: death, conscience, guilt, and authentic existence. The novice reader won't be as objectionable to the book as the professional thinker because he isn't as prejudiced by the tradition. Yet a thorough understanding of the tradition preceding Heidegger is necessary to understand him.

Introduction: preliminary remarks
According to Heidegger, the meaning of Being has been neglected in philosophy. After proving that looking for its meaning does not include circular reasoning, he shows us that it must have a different kind of meaning than other concepts. That meaning cannot be a theoretical one, because that would always require premises, and that mean reducing Being to something other that is, but there is no way that these other beings could exhaust the meaning of the Being they themselves take part in.

Why should we bother about the question of Being?

Go back to Aristotle & Plato. Their philosophies have been trivialized, vulgarized regarding Being in 3 ways:

Being is the most universal concept. Philosophers assume that since it's universal, so general, it needs no definition. However this by no means Being is also the clearest concept. As the most universal, it's also the most obscure concept of all.

Being is indefinable. No higher concept can define Being. Neither can a lower concept represent Being. Therefore, Being, not something like "a" being, remains a problem.

Being is the most self-evident concept. We implicitly understand Being, in predicates & relations to beings, but not explicitly. The very object of analysis IS the self-evident. Thus, Being isn't explicitly self-evident, an "a priori enigma," and remains a problem.

Bottom line: Not only is there no answer to the question of being, even the question itself is obscure.

The meaning of Being is in the way it manifests itself; therefore, the method of phenomenology is used to unhide it. Moreover, the being that is able to ask questions, Dasein (there-being), is privileged in this book. Because only Dasein can question its own being & thus understand it, the study must be based on analyzing how Dasein purports to understand itself.

When a circle is not a circle

The gist of the claim:

There's no circular reasoning in asking the meaning of Being because meaning is NOT derived from premises through logic, which is a necessary condition for something to even be a possible species of circular reasoning. But the question purports to show the foundation or unhide it. Important: for Heidegger, truth is unhiddeness. The meaning of Being cannot be deduced. Only shown.

There's your Wittgenstein gloss. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said the form of the picture can only be shown, not pictured. Language is the picture of reality, and the form of the picture is something that accompanies all pictures, but that itself cannot be pictured -- only shown. Basically, logic cannot be explained or proven, but it just simply is and shows itself only through usage. Moreover, Heidegger says Being only shows its truth.

All ontology is circular. Heidegger's approach has to be non-deductive because there's NO prior validation of the inferential rules for producing conclusions - other than assuming the conclusions to be true or some true & others inferred from them.

Reading Heidegger has led me to the speculation that his use of the word Being has a lot in common with Oroboros. The Oroboros is not just a serpent or a circle but a symbol of a meaning that turns back on itself.

Its entire essence is an endless circle where you can travel forever. The truth of Being cannot be seen within the circle because you will only see an endless repetition of questions that turn back on themselves in a never-ending cycle. The truth of Being or the essence of it is understood as the circle itself.

knee deep into ontological shit
I feel there's plenty to mine from the first part of the introduction.

Where Heidegger says that Dasein has a number of positions - the special position is ontic, in which existence determines this being in its being. another is ontological: Dasein is itself ontological, based on its existence. The third special position of Dasein is the ontic-ontological condition of all ontology.

Dasein is ontologically primary being that precedes all Being that is the object of inquiry (or questioning).

Yeah, so?

This piece is actually quite thought provoking. That is, if you can handle the number of beings and ontologies and onticalities and existences...

The ontic considers the things that are, so Dasein's ontic position has to do with where things are & in this that which makes it special is its existence. In other words, its ability to reflect upon its own possibilities and come up with a purpose for itself. That makes it quite different from things like the wood fence outside my window.

The ontological level is about the structure of being, and Dasein in this regards is different, since like I said, its being is itself ontological, since its mode of being is to question its own being. Dasein is obsessed with its own being, and ultimately differs in its structure of being precisely in which its structure includes its way of reflecting upon this very structure.

Basically it seems that we have a self-consciousness that reflects upon itself, and more importantly that it is a necessary condition for us: we are self-conscious & reflect upon ourselves and can do nothing else.

Not only is Dasein trying to understand itself, it also tries to understand that which is not Dasein (nature or objective world). Since ontology is the reflection upon the structure of being & Dasein isn't just the only one doing that, its the only being that can do that. Dasein's determining attribute is the ability to ask questions. Thus the necessary condition of all ontology in general is Dasein - the only being that can have an ontology, the inquiry to the structure of being.

In a nutshell: only self-conscious beings are able to ask & only asking beings are able to even try to understand being, no matter if those other kinds of things are themselves part of being.

Nothingness remains a plank in my eye

After consulting Dreyfus' excellent Being-In-The-World (I've stayed away from it in this reading group just to keep my impressions authentic), I've come to the conclusion that I've been reading Heidegger with Sartrean goggles and I have yet to wean myself off them when it comes to phenomenology. First love dies hard. :p

Dreyfus insists that Dasein isn't a conscious subject for the term "Dasein" means everyday human existence, and Heidegger uses it to refer to human being. That doesn't necessarily mean Dasein is only a self-conscious subject. Early interpreters have fallen in the same rut as Sartre, likely because they approached Heidegger through Sartre, and ended up reading Heidegger as an existential phenomenologist.

However, I do not have the benefit of reading ahead, where Heidegger says "...if we posit an 'I' or subject as that which is primarily given, we shall completely miss the phenomenal content of Dasein" (p. 72) and neither do I remember much from the class I took on Heidegger in several years back.

Thus Dasein is understood to be more basic than mental states & intentionality. Some interpreters go the other way and claim Dasein is the masses. But Heidegger uses the term to signify an individual throughout the book, particularly in Division II, so the golden means between a self-conscious individual and the masses is human being, for it can refer to both all people & a person, without being either one exclusively.

Then again, Dasein, essentially self-interpreting, has no nature. And at the same time Dasein understands itself as having a specific essential nature, and bases its action in this understanding of a "human nature" and is comfortable in being a member of a country or an ethnic group.

Dasein... really?

Regarding Dasein, Heidegger avoids from making dogmatic statement what constitutes the meaning of Dasein, because the existential analysis must begin with account of Dasein in its everydayness. I.e. The most uncritical mode of daily life that where even the most profound live.

Talking about the everyday self allows experience to speak for itself. This avoids limiting Dasein to a criteria that reduces analysis to an aspect of Dasein's being. The entire point is to study what it means to be.

The fact of everydayness is a vague awareness. Awareness of being is not some mysterious mystical knowledge or insight. But everyday perspective must be transcended to a perspective of ontological insight, after entire range of everyday perspective is examined thoroughly.

In all the ways in which a person can be said to be, the understanding of such ways is limited by finitude. Non-temporal truths of logic and faith are temporal since they're understood by a person determined by temporal dimensions. To grasp what it means to be in time is to grasp what it means for Dasein to be at all

Heidegger claims the temporality of Dasein has been long ignored since questions are always temporal and partially determined by the context of the culture they emerge from. It seems reasonable because the questions we are likely to bring up in our culture are based on culture itself. We ask questions about the environment when the relationship between the environment and our culture become a problem.

The question about Being has to be temporal as well, and Heidegger says this has been forgotten. The tradition has hidden its foundations too well from itself. This is where Heidegger unleashes his most creative idea: the entire history of Western philosophy has been a progressive cumulation of forgetting, and we must return to the very core to reinterpret the thinkers of antiquity.

They were the original context in which the question of Being emerged first, and that context has been buried by the tradition that dropped the problem and ran away with the answers.

Here, Heidegger brings up the idea of "Destruction" in which tradition has to be shattered into pieces in order to reveal what was buried within. Then we shall navigate back through 2300 years of philosophy to its core to rehabilitate the meaning of Being.


It's important to note that Heidegger chose the Latinate Destruktion instead of the German word for destruction (Zerstorung). Destruktion should be understood as de-struere, 'de-construct' or 'ab-bauen' rather than devastation. That which covers up the sense of being or structures that pile on top of each other, making the sense unrecognizable is deconstructed.

Thus, destruction doesn't mean Heidegger is about to destroy or overthrow the entire history of philosophy. However, one must do violence to the history of thought. Destruction is hermeneutic violence, for it resists the traditional understanding and goes against it. Take your own approach and problem and under the guiding rules of this problem prod the thinker with your questions and reinterpret what they actually said and test the spirit or power of their thought. Heidegger engages the past thinkers in a dialogue about his topic, the meaning of being.

Due to the impediment of the traditional meaning of Being the past thinkers ended up speaking of existents instead. Despite their failure, given that they're the greatest thinkers they did implicitly say much to add to the meaning of being.

Heidegger has a strategy when confronting the past thinkers:
I. First, point out the major error they made in failing to recognize difference between Sein and Seienden (things that exist).
II. Then show how much what they said is relevant to the question of being.

Heidegger breaks the ice to loosen the tradition that froze around the ideas of the past thinkers. Traditions i.e. the work of lesser minds freezes and destroy the creativity of the Great thinkers. School of philosophies do more damage and dishonor to a thinker than a violent antagonist.

If Heidegger distills insights from Kant, Aristotle, or Descartes about question of being that no tradition has heard of, then what the thinkers actually meant becomes trivial. Heidegger doesn't change what they said but instead force them to give-up a secret that wasn't obvious before. If Heidegger does succeed then the complaint the older thinkers didn't mean what Heidegger says, because it's not traditional, merely begs the question. How they implicitly dealt w the question of Being affect our understanding of it & a legitimate part of the inquiry as to how Dasein understands it's own being.

Dasein understands itself in time & through time. Therefore, a historical approach of Dasein is necessary and to uncover the foundations of this understanding all that is piled on it and obstructs it must be removed through the method of Heideggerian destruction.

So the study begins from time and the way Dasein understands itself in time, and through the foundations that are unhidden, we can attempt to understand the more general Being.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BEING & TIME Reading Schedule

We'll start BEING & TIME on 8/24 and finish by 9/24.

I'll be using the Harper Collins 1962 translation by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. There are newer translations out there. It won't matter too much, in terms of following along, which translation you use, as we'll be going by chapters/units, as follows:
Week One: Introduction through Division One, Section III

Week Two: Division One, Section IV through Section V

Week Three: Division One, Section VI through Division Two, Section II

Week Four: Division Two, Section III through End
I'd like to get thoughts and reactions on the blog every week. These can be short or long, half-baked or burnt to a crisp. If you'd like to post some reactions to the reading, please let me know, and we'll get you set up to post.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Middlemarch: Preliminary Final Thoughts

So I seem to have skipped a whole bunch of weeks here. I apologize: I was too busy day trading on recent market gyrations.

Finally finished with Middlemarch. The book, all 791 pages (including the Notes section) now sits on the table before me, spent and exhausted. I gave my summer over to this book, toting it around with me on the train, to lunches eaten by myself, to the bathroom, to hotel rooms, bus stops. It seems fitting to be done with the book now, just as summer is ending, as the kids are picking out new clothes and backpacks for going back to school, as co-workers head out on final vacations in the empty bottom half of August in which nothing really happens and where substitute hosts fill in on radio programs for the regulars who are out of town.

I used to have assigned reading in high school. I remember the summer I had to read GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I had a copy of the book out from the local library. (I had to renew it a couple times.) I spent a lot of time in the car, on the porch, and in the one room in the house with air conditioning (my parents' bedroom) lying around reading that book. I distinctly remember the experience of reaching the final pages of that book, some time in the early evening on a day in August, lying on my parents' bed with the A/C on, while everyone else was downstairs getting dinner ready -- the sadness and satisfaction of completion, the letting go of the characters I had been carrying around in my head all summer, the closing of the book and, after a few moments of letting the ending sink in, the thought -- what next?

Why do we read long books? Maybe part of the reason is to engage with a story, a setting, and a set of characters over a long period of time; to carry them around with you for weeks, inevitably weaving the story and the characters into the events of your own life during the time you're reading the book. A summer becomes the summer you read WAR AND PEACE; or WAR AND PEACE is inextricably bound up with the things you did and saw and felt during the summer of 2010.

So what does it mean that we've given this summer over to MIDDLEMARCH? We've spent the last eight weeks following Dorothea into a loveless, cold, and sexless marriage, Lydgate into a conventionally attractive but ultimately disastrous marriage of his own, Ladislaw flitting in and out of the picture, the sudden arrival of Raffles and a wholly new storyline that would come to dominate the closing sections of the book, the moral triumph of Dorothea's actions, etc.

The book was largely excellent (though Eliot certainly did not wear her learning lightly), but I could not help but feel, especially as I got to the Raffles-dominated final portion of the book, that, after some point, Eliot was simply making stuff up as she went along. She clearly had an initial idea about following Dorothea into her hopelessly naive marriage, and the fiasco that would become; and perhaps Eliot also had some vague initial plans for Lydgate and his medical struggles. But the reliance on the introduction of Raffles, out of nowhere, to pull Bulstrode, a character in whose head we had spent little time for most of the book, into the forefront, and to make him into the most prominent character of the final portion of the book, with his downfall somehow, like the falling of the Berlin Wall, acting as a sea change, making room for all sorts of other possibilities for others (i.e., Fred Vincy, Dorothea, Ladislaw, et al.) had about it the whiff of a deus ex machina.

The end of the book did not leave me reeling, or in tears, or all that moved. And I don't think Eliot intended any such ending. The point she seemed to be making, through Dorothea's final actions, was that even noble, great characters can find their ways to middling, normal, unexceptional lives, though they continue to improve the world around them through small, unremembered, unhistoric acts:
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Such an ending for Dorothea is, of course, less dramatic than the end of Captain Ahab, more mundane and unspectacular than the final fate of Anna Karenina. In a way, the ending reminded me of the "incalculably diffusive" end of another great hero in literature: Tyrone Slothrop. After following him for hundreds of pages through GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, at some point, near the end, Slothrop simply disappears into the world around him:
There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly -- perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly -- and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down, Celtic style, in the order suggested by Mr. A.E. Waite, laid out and read, bu they are the cards of a tanker and feeb: they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity (not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too, yes yes nothing like getting the 3 of Pentacles upside down covering the significator on the second try to send you to the tube to watch a seventh rerun of the Takeshi and Ichizo Show, light a cigarette and try to forget the whole thing) -- to no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm.

Dorothea's end is plainfly not quite so obscure or bizarre as Tyrone Slothrop's -- her ending is of course more conventional -- but it remains middling, with no real "redeeming cataclysm." Perhaps she does find "clear happiness" with Ladislaw, though her final fate seems less than ideal, given the extravagant promise with which she is depicted at the book's opening. (Lydgate, the book's sub-hero, suffers a more serious decline and disappointment, a steeper descent from the outsized ambition and promise with which he was introduced.)

Most everyone in MIDDLEMARCH gets taken down a peg or two (think Casaubon, Bulstrode, Fred, Ladislaw, Rosamond, et al.). That is, of course, in keeping with the general theme of regret, choices that turn out to be disastrous, etc. What, one wonders, was the point Eliot was trying to make (besides being a general killjoy and downer)? I'm not sure if it's entirely clear, but perhaps it's something along the lines of this: even great souls are bent and constrained by the mores and prejudices of the societies in which they happen to find themselves. Given the limits of what is possible in a given society and the petty pressures and demands of one's social milieu -- here, the provincial eighteenth-century setting of Middlemarch, -- one's original intentions and plans for one's self are often "broken down . . . and scattered." The "full nature[s]" of individuals like Dorothea and Lydgate are fragmented and disintegrated "[spend themselves] in channels which ha[ve] no great name on earth." The good one can do is often done in small "diffusive" ways, through a series of tiny "unhistoric acts."

One gets the sense that this might have been how Eliot viewed her own life. She didn't start writing until relatively late in life. Perhaps she viewed herself, for much of her life, a bit like Dorothea (or even Lydgate or Casaubon): full of ambition, but unable to produce any major works or acts to show for it. Of course, in the end, Eliot did produce several timeless novels, but she couldn't have known the worth of her work at the time. Perhaps she worried that her own life would, in the end, be seen as one like Dorothea's: begun with tremendous ambition, ended in relative obscurity, mostly unremembered. Perhaps Eliot worried that, in the absence of her production of great works or acts, her own tomb would remain "unvisited." If that was the case, that fear obviously turned out to be unwarranted; but in any event, she clearly understood the fear of not achieving all that one imagined. It's fascinating and perhaps inevitable that it takes a great, historic book for the ages to get across the message that the true work most of us will do in our unhistoric lives toward the "growing good of the world" will be found in our small, unremarked, and unhistoric acts.

Friday, July 22, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH Thoughts: George Sand v. George Eliot

Greetings, readers! I am the crazy person who suggested we read George Eliot's big fat Victorian tome, Middlemarch. You might want to throw a big fat book at me now, right? Go ahead, I'm a fast one, you won't hit me. You might also be wondering why I wanted to read this book. The simple answer is, because it conquered me before. I am right around the crack in the spine where I gave up before. It honestly feels good to (almost 17 years later) be passing the mark where I lost interest.

But the point of my blog post today is a little off the beaten path. I was telling an English-major friend of mine that I was currently hacking my way through this book with a mental machete and we had a little mix-up moment. He asked me if I had seen the "cute movie" about George Eliot, at which point I was pretty incredulous. "Cute" is not a word Dorothea Casaubon would ever utter or use when talking to her crusty, pedantic, cold-hearted jerk of a husband. We quickly realized he had mixed his female nom de plumes mixed up! He was referring to the movie Impromptu, which is about George SAND. My next thought was, "Evangelical Mary Ann Evans clearly predates the saucier Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, right?"

(The French George.)

The pants-wearing, scandal-causing, Chopin-lovin' George Sand wrote her most famous novel, Indiana (1832), long before George Eliot wrote Middlemarch (1871-1872). I was blown away by this switcheroo. George Sand and her persona and milieu (Romanticism) feel so much more modern than George Eliot and her many references to Greek literature and Protestant Church history.

(English George.)

Both women were rebels, in different fashions. Mary Anne Evans openly lived with a married man and his 3 children, and then eventually married a different man 20 years her junior, while George Sand, a few decades before, was smoking cigarettes and hanging out with Franz Lizst. Most pointedly, both women wrote novels about the folly of entering into bad marriages for the wrong reasons, although Sand's Indiana was clearly much more "Escandalo!" than the often petty small-town machinations depicted in Middlemarch.

Just a little literary food for thought. Two women, both taking "George" as a pen name, both leaving different marks on the literary world. The works of George Eliot still live on, even if it is mostly through BBC adaptations (or in online reading groups), while Sand's are largely forgotten - but the cult of her personality lives on. Don't get your Georges mixed up ever again!

Monday, July 11, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH: Thoughts on Weeks Two & Three: Regrets

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Wedding (1434)

More apologies for the long absences. It's wedding season, the baby is keeping us busy, etc. But it's Saturday, the baby is in the Jumperoo, and it's time to get my MIDDLEMARCH blogging on!

Through Books Two and Three, it's become clear to me why Virginia Woolf said so famously of MIDDLEMARCH that it was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And why is it a novel written for grown-up people? Because the book so precisely depicts the regrets, disappointments, disillusionment, resentments, bitterness, and envy that suffuse grown-up life. The major theme of the novel, so far, seems to be regret -- a cornerstone grown-up sentiment. We regret our career paths, the first loves we let get away, opportunities we let pass, choices we did not make -- and choices we did.

An interesting example of this is the friendly Vicar Farebrother, whose obsession with his amateur collection of animal specimens suggests that he has gone into the wrong line of work:
"Ah! you are a happy fellow," said Mr. Farebrother, turning on his heel and beginning to fill his pipe. "You don't know what small items about a variety of Aphis brassicae, with the well-known signature of Philomicron, for the Twaddler's Magazine; or a learned treatise on the entomology of the Petateuch, including all the insects not mentioned, but probably met with by the Israelites in their passage through the desert; with a monograph on the Ant, as treated by Solomon, showing the harmony of the Book of Proverbs with the results of modern research. You don't mind my fumigating you?"

Lydgate was more surprised at the openness of this talk than at its implied meaning -- that the Vicar felt himself not altogether in the right vocation. The neat fitting-up of drawers and shelves, and the bookcase filled with expensive illustrated books on Natural History, made him think again of the winnings at cards and their destination. But he was beginning to wish that the very best construction of everything that Mr. Farebrother did should be the true one. The Vicar's frankness seemed not of the repulsive sort that comes from an uneasy consciousness seeking to forestall the judgment of others, but simply the relief of a desire to do with as little pretence as possible.
(Ch. 16.)

Farebrother seems to have reconciled himself to the path he's chosen, but is willing to share his professional frustrations with a near stranger like Lydgate. Lydgate, of course, is eminently happy in his chosen work. The memory of his opening an anatomy textbook for the first time as a child is recounted as a type of revelatory moment.

But many of the other adults in the book seem less than satisfied, thwarted even, with where they've ended up life. Casaubon is, of course, the prime example of this. His own creeping insecurities and anxieties become more obvious to the reader -- and Dorothea -- during the disastrous Roman Holiday. Casaubon fears that he will never live up to the image he has cultivated among others in Middlemarch: the brilliant scholar producing a profound, pathbreaking work. Dorothea, with Will Ladislaw's help, begins to see this, too. During her honeymoon, the full scope of her marital mistake begins to become clear to her:
How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight -- that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.
(Ch. 20.)

The preceding passage remarkably illustrates the suffocating, claustrophobic sense of enclosure and limitation that can come with the realization that the person you've married is not the person you thought (or hoped) he or she would turn out to be. In the time of MIDDLEMARCH -- an era before divorce parties -- such a realization would likely have been pretty devastating -- and terrifying.

Of course, in Book Three, we learn that Dorothea may find an early escape from the "enclosed basin" of her marriage to Casaubon, when he has some kind of fit or seizure in his library. The mercenary and always calculating Rosamond Vincy considers Casaubon's new illness not such a bad prospect for Dorothea:
"Of course she is devoted to her husband," said Rosamond, implying a notion of necessary sequence which the scientific man regarded as the prettiest possible for a woman; but she was thinking at the same time that it was not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor with a husband likely to die soon.
Rosamond's rather heartless and cynical take on Mr. Casaubon's health is of a piece with the general behavior of the relatives and would-be heirs who swoop down upon Featherstone as so many vultures as he staggers, crankily, through his final illness. Mr. Vincy, we see, is positively giddy with the news that Featherstone's health has taken a turn for the worse:
He came again in the evening to speak with Mr. Vincy, who, just returned from Stone Court, was feeling sure that it would not be long before he heard of Mr. Featherstone's demise. The felicitous word "demise," which had seasonably occurred to him, had raised his spirits even above their usual evening pitch. The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action. Considered as a demise, old Featherstone's death assumed a merely legal aspect, so that Mr. Vincy could tap his snuff-box over it and be jovial, without even an intermittent affectation of solemnity; and Mr. Vincy hated both solemnity and affectation. Who was ever awe struck about a testator, or sang a hymn on the title to real property? Mr. Vincy was inclined to take a jovial view of all things that evening: he even observed to Lydgate that Fred had got the family constitution after all, and would soon be as fine a fellow as ever again; and when his approbation of Rosamond's engagement was asked for, he gave it with astonishing facility, passing at once to general remarks on the desirableness of matrimony for young men and maidens, and apparently deducing from the whole the appropriateness of a little more punch.
(Ch. 31.)

The themes Eliot focuses on in the book so far -- regrets, cynicism, professional envy, jealousy -- brought to mind, for me, a more recent author: John Updike. Updike seems like he could be a distant literary cousin of Eliot's: both authors chose settings outside of the city (Eliot's Middlemarch, Updike's settings in rural Pennsylvania), focused on the often disappointing realities of work and marriage, and worked with Van-Eyckian precision and realism. Updike, like Eliot, was most interested in the realities of people's finances, prospects, living situations, resentments. Both authors are hyperrealists, working, at times, at a microscopic level of detail. (Compare Eliot's "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence" (Ch. 20) with Updike:
Upstairs, in a slanting closet off of what once must have been a boys' bedroom – its walls pricked with dozens of thumbtack holes and marred with ends of Scotch tape used to hold posters – he finds stacks of Playboys and Penthouses from the early Seventies. He fetches from out beside the kitchen steps, under the slowly revolving electric meter, one of the big green plastic trash barrels he and Janice bought yesterday at Shur Valu; but before disposing of each magazine Rabbit leafs through it, searching out the center spreads month after month, year after year, as the airbrushing recedes and the pubic hair first peeks and then froths boldly forth and these young women perfect as automobile bodies let their negligees fall open frontally and revolve upon their couches of leopard skin so subscribers' eyes at last can feast upon their full shame and treasure. An invisible force month after month through each year's seasons forces gently wider open their flawless thighs until somewhere around the bicentennial issues the Constitutional triumph of open beaver is attained, and the buxom boldly gazing girls from Texas and Hawaii and South Dakota yield up to the lights and lens a vertical rosy aperture that seems to stare back, out of a blood-flushed nether world, scarcely pretty, an ultimate of disclosure which yet acts as a barrier to some secret beyond, within, still undisclosed as the winter light diminishes at the silent window. Outside, a squirrel is watching, its gray back arched, its black eye alert. Nature, Harry sees, is everywhere. This tree that comes so close to the house he thinks is a cherry, its bark in rings. The squirrel, itself spied, scurries on.
(RABBIT IS RICH) (emphasis added).

(The parallel of the squirrel in both passages was so startling to me that I considered, for a moment, looking into whether Eliot had been an influence on Updike. But I'll leave that thought for another day.)

Your thoughts on the book so far?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH: Week One Thoughts

Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge.

- Ch. 3
Our topic for this week's post is interpretation -- a theme that Eliot comes back to again and again in the opening of the book, especially in her descriptions of Dorothea's view of Casaubon and her faith that he is a profound source of wisdom who will guide her into the world of the mind.

Eliot repeatedly compares Dorothea's understanding of Casaubon to a devout believer's (perhaps overly) generous interpretation of a text she takes, a priori, to be a sacred text. For example:
Dorothea’s faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.

- Ch. 5

All appeals to her taste she met gratefully, but saw nothing to alter. His efforts at exact courtesy and formal tenderness had no defect for her. She filled up all blanks with unmanifested perfections, interpreting him as she interpreted the works of Providence, and accounting for seeming discords by her own deafness to the higher harmonies. And there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship which a loving faith fills with happy assurance.

- Ch. 9
The foreshadowing is not all that subtle. We watch Dorothea give in to her immature obsession with Casaubon, rejecting younger, livelier, and less pompous suitors, knowing, from the get go, that this is probably not going to end well. Casaubon is so dry, so smug, so old, and so deeply unsexy. And his reasons for wanting Dorothea -- that she will be some kind of perfect young female trinket to match his accomplishments and position -- feel slightly vampiric, as if he hopes to suck some life out of our young heroine.

The repeated metaphor of Dorothea reading Casaubon as a believer would read an imperfect text, with the believer importing meaning, significance, and even perfection into her reading of the the all-too-human text, is somewhat peculiar. It makes sense that Casaubon is compared, several times, to a dry and lifeless ancient text -- much like the texts he spends hjs days poring over, trying to piece together all of the world's fractured mythology into one perfect, master Ur-myth. Dorothea, I guess, is then the anxious believer, convincing herself that she sees answers and truth revealed in a sacred text (here, Casaubon). It's worth noting that Eliot spent a lot of time in her youth reading and translating theological works.

(Sidenote: Eliot's description of Dorothea's faith in Casaubon and the blanks her faith filled is a nice description of the approach we're sometimes in danger of taking when tackling these Great Works of Literature -- where we go in knowing that readers for hundreds of years have claimed to have found these works to be Life-Changing, Profound, Totally Mind-Blowing. We don't want to be the morons that just don't get it, who just aren't blown away by what other people claimed to find so incredible, so we sometimes fill in the blanks, and assume there must be something we're missing; we grant the works profundity or depth they don't have, etc. See, e.g., WAR & PEACE.)

All of the build-up to Dorothea and Casaubon's marriage sets up a crisis of faith (perhaps paralleling the crisis of faith Eliot had in her youth). During the first week of reading, I found myself getting pulled ahead through the book, wanting to find out if Dorothea and Casaubon would actually end up together, what Lydgate was up to, whether he was going to be ensnared by Rosy Vincy, etc. There was a whiff of soap opera to the introductions and interactions of the characters, but Eliot's sly observations and asides added some type of thoughtful heft to the proceedings. The book is not really ever out-and-out hilarious, but Eliot's humor and snarkiness show through again and again, and the reader occasionally finds herself snickering at some casually vicious depiction of an unlikable character (often Casaubon, or one of Middlemarch's gossips or busybodies.)

Overall, I'm finding the book to be a wonderful summer read. Entertaining, moving along at a brisk pace, thoughtful and wry, absorbing. Are you all enjoying the book? Will you be sticking with it for the long haul? Initial thoughts?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH Reading Schedule

Hope you have by now gotten your hands on a copy of our next selection, George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH. My copy of the book is a Bantam Classic, featuring an introduction by Margaret Drabble. (It's an old, beaten-up copy I got at Read Books for three dollars; it looks much like the copy pictured above.) The Bantam Classic edition is 766 pages long.

MIDDLEMARCH is helpfully broken down into eight Books, with a Prelude and a Finale. Each Book is about 100 pages long. Our plan will be to read one Book every week, for eight weeks. All versions of MIDDLEMARCH (including electronic versions) will be broken down into these eight Books, so everyone should be able to follow the schedule.
Week One (6/19-6-26) Prelude & Book One

Week Two (6/26-7/3) Book Two

Week Three (7/3-7/10) Book Three

Week Four (7/10-7/17) Book Four

Week Five (7/17-7/24) Book Five

Week Six (7/24-7/31) Book Six

Week Seven (7/31-8/7) Book Seven

Week Eight (8/7-8/14) Book Eight and Finale
Hope you'll join us. Rope in your friends.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Final Thoughts on BLEAK HOUSE

It's been a few days since I finished BLEAK HOUSE in one final bout of late-night reading, staying up until 3:45 in the morning, ripping through the last hundred pages or so.

It's true that, after spending weeks reading a ridiculously long book, we can find ourselves wanting to come up with reasons to justify spending so much time on the book. We begin to tell ourselves (and everyone else) that the book is profound, incredible, life-changing.

I do feel as though, with our previous two selections, WAR & PEACE and DON QUIXOTE, we came upon the sad truth that the books, for the most part, did not live up to the hype. Those books had such outsized, legendary reputations: one expected one's world to be completely shaken. Sadly, the actual books, when read, turned out to be bloated, often boring, and meandering -- just not so great.

BLEAK HOUSE was different. This was a book where nearly every page offered some marvelous turns of language, delicious detail. As I complained about in my previous post, Dickens's characters could at times come off as cardboard cut-outs, but his descriptions of London, and of the places his characters inhabited, were absolutely spectacular. The book was funny, profound, gripping, weird, dark, and sweet.

After complaining about not being moved for much of the book, I found myself moved when Esther finally comes upon her mother at the burial ground. By Jarndyce's release of Esther and his gift of the miniature Bleak House to Esther and Dr. Woodcourt. By George Rouncewell's reunion with his brother and his family. By Ada's living on with her son Richard. And, perhaps most of all, by Sir Leicester's forgiveness of Lady Dedlock. In Sir Leicester, perhaps beyond all of the other characters in the book, did we finally have an example of some psychological depth. Prior to Lady Dedlock's departure, Leicester had been a pompous, narcissistic fool. The shock of the news about Lady Dedlock changed him completely; he comes off as a noble and generous soul, loyal to the very end to his beloved wife.

All of these endings for these characters felt well earned. Despite my previously expressed misgivings, it turned out that I was invested in these characters. And after eight hundred and something pages, I found myself sharing Esther's happiness in starting a life with Dr. Woodcourt. Dickens was, in the end, very generous with most of his characters, and this generosity felt, somehow, like generosity to the reader. It felt a bit like he was rewarding us for having hung in for so long and followed these characters for so long. It all may have been a bit cheesy and over the top, but I didn't mind.

And of course, the lawsuit that opens the book comes to a close in the final pages of the book. The passage describing the end of the lawsuit is remarkable:
Our suspense was short; for a break up soon took place in the crowd, and the people came streaming out looking flushed and hot, and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. Still they were all exceedingly amused, and were more like people coming out from a Farce or a Juggler than from a court of Justice. We stood aside, watching for any countenance we knew; and presently great bundles of papers began to be carried out -- bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce and Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them, whether the cause was over. "Yes," he said; "it was all up with at last!" and burst out laughing too.
(Ch. 65.)

In this passage, Dickens describes once again the farce of the Chancery proceeding, the suit's senseless and seemingly endless production of words, and its empty, meaningless ending. The final, ridiculous fate of the Chancery suit seems to be purposely set up against the emotional import and memorableness of the book we've just finished. As Esther writes in Chapter 67: "The few words that I have to add to what I have written, are soon penned; then I, and the unknown friend to whom I write, will part for ever. Not without much dear remembrance on my side. Not without some, I hope, on his or hers."

This novel is also an "immense mass[] of paper," comparable in bulk to some of the pleadings in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. Yet the power of writing is in its purpose. The endless writing in the Chancery suit is to no end; it is a symptom of the law making business for itself. The hundreds of pages we've just finished serve to burn the characters in the story into our minds, to leave us affected by the sympathies we've grown to have for them, the concern we've developed for their fates. These characters are, in the end, as fictional and unreal as the rules and standards and legal fictions bandied about interminably in the Chancery suit. Yet, this novel does not end up thrown down onto the pavement, cast aside. The novel is a device for winning our affections, for reaching us, and that's why, 158 years after publication, we still bother to work through the hundreds of pages of BLEAK HOUSE.

If you've made it all the way through, congratulations. I hope the experience was a good one. Onward and upward, to MIDDLEMARCH, starting this Sunday.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Week 7 (Chapters L-LVIII)

Sunset in the long drawing room at Chesney Wold.

As always, this post comes with a hefty SPOILER ALERT. Read no further if you haven't yet read through Chapter LVIII.

One week left in our reading now. I come here to make a confession: for the most part, I'm just not very moved by this book (so far). This is going to be one of those posts where I will fixate on some of the flaws I perceive in the work we're reading. (Too often, perhaps, we feel the need to justify our project by continually singing the praises of the work.)

Don't get me wrong: I really do love the writing in this book. I love the meditations on the obscurantist nature of the law, the monomania of litigants who have lost their bearings, the bizarre depictions of the power and fascination of writing, etc. I've covered some of that in earlier posts.

However, I find myself oddly unmoved by the portions of the book that I assume are meant to be moving. Lady Dedlock's meeting with Esther didn't do much for me. None of Esther's interactions or feelings about Ada really move me: Ada seems to be a plastic cut-out figure. Esther herself, and her anguish about her weird proposal from Jarndyce didn't really affect me. George's reunion with his mother -- nothing. Maybe I'm unfeeling, or too cold. Maybe I haven't opened myself up to the characters. Maybe.

Dickens's characters, as I've noted before, tend toward the cartoonish and two-dimensional. They are generally stock figures, unchanging, cast in black or white, depicted in absolutes and extremes, drawn with unbelievably sweetness or grotesqueness (see, e.g., Ada and Smallweed), etc. It's rare to come across the Dickens character with much interesting psychological depth or complexity. After a while, this can leave the reader feeling a little numb toward the characters, as they come across as impossibly sweet or bad or dumb or silly caricatures careering around the plot lines.

The novel as a form or medium, we recall, was in its first stages at the time Dickens was writing. Psychological depth and complexity for characters in novels would develop later on.

Interestingly, sometimes, Dickens's descriptions of the city of London, or of buildings, or rooms have more depth and feeling to them than his descriptions of his often cartoonish characters. For example, I found this passage about the post-chaise making its way through the night full of depth that is sometimes missing when Dickens is describing his characters:
Railroads shall soon traverse all this country, and with a rattle and glare the engine and train shall shoot like a meteor over the wide night-landscape, turning the moon palet; but, as yet, such things are nonexistent in these parts, though not wholly unexpected. Preparations are afoot, measurements are made, ground is staked out. Bridges are begun, and their not yet united piers desolately look at one another over roads and streams, like brick and mortar couples with an obstacle to their union; fragments of embankments are thrown up, and left as precipices with torrents of rusty carts and barrows tumbling over them; tripods of tall poles appear on hill-tops, where there are rumours of tunnels; everything looks chaotic and abandoned in fell hopelessness. Along the freezing roads, and through the night, the post-chaise makes its way without a railroad on its mind.
(Ch. LV.)

The image of the "not yet united piers desolately look[ing] at one another over roads and streams" is so powerfully evocative and expressive -- much more so than many of passages about actual characters. Similarly, this passage depicting the Dedlock town-house is full of life:
Impassive, as behoves its high breeding, the Dedlock town-house stares at other houses in the street of dismal grandeur, and gives no outward sign of anything going wrong within. Carriages rattle, doors are battered at, the world exchanges calls; ancient charmers with skeleton throats, and peachy cheeks that have a rather ghastly bloom upon them seen by daylight, when indeed these fascinating creatures look like Death and the Lady fused together, dazzle the eyes of men.
(Ch. LVI.)

Again, the delight and loving care Dickens bestows on these passages about places, buildings, rooms, things, suggests, to me, that Dickens's true joys, in writing this book, were in the opportunities he had to describe places, settings, interiors, warrens, etc. Think back to his descriptions of the slightly bizarre interior of Bleak House, of Tulkinghorn's chambers, Krook's shop, Tom's-all-Alone, etc.

Perhaps, while Dickens was very good at describing characters, his real genius was in painting the settings and places in which he placed those characters. The mud and fog of the city, the dark and hidden rooms of Chesney Wold, the burial yard, the hovels by the river, etc. Or maybe I'm just being too hard on the characters.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Week 6 (Chapters XL through XLIX) (A Guest Post)

This week's guest post comes from Canada -- from reading group member Blackbird_Bones (follow her on Twitter!) And, as always, **SPOILER ALERT** -- Read no further if you have not read through chapter XLIX:

Dickens always strikes me to the quick.

Getting immersed, losing myself utterly in the storyline of Bleak House has been considerably easier than I ever expected, despite undergoing the same experience while reading Great Expectations for some coursework a few years ago. Daunted by the prospect of The Dickens, so old & revered amidst the English canon.

Much to my surprise, Dickens’ serialized sectioning of the novel quickly tangled me in the plot. Each chapter contained just enough action to keep the story moving briskly and as an author, he perfected the art of efficiently describing characters who make a mark on your memory & haunt you with their choices long after they’ve closed the end cover. This, of course, can also be said of Bleak House and is one of the main reasons for the success of its deeply-embedded satire.

The drama within chapters XL-XLIX deals mainly with the conspiratorial world of Chesney Wold. Specifically, it is Mr. Tulkinghorn’s melancholy story of a woman who was shamed by the townspeople for having given birth an illegitimate child, stolen away from her by her husband after she was publicly exposed that strikes a chord among those listening. Our discovery that it references the lives of Lady Dedlock and Esther is momentarily unbelievably uplifting, with both characters experiencing the momentous joy of finding each other against what seem to be staggering odds.

However, this revelation is quickly compromised by the level of fear possessing Lady Dedlock that she will be found out. Her guilt & inability to extract her consciousness from her past errors (so similarly to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations) leave her painfully incapable of appreciating even Esther’s presence, despite it being quite possibly the best thing that could have happened. Rather, she is driven to neurosis by the prospects of her secret becoming realized by others and she swears Esther to secrecy, meaning that they cannot publicly interact or engage with one another.

As Chapter XLI plays out, she seems about to commit suicide as she confronts Tulkinghorn about his knowledge of her past, moving ambiguously towards the room’s window while stating definitively that she is leaving Chesney Wold. However, Tulkinghorn decries this, recommending that she remain in the house until the truth surfaces. Through these couple of chapters, we are shown explicitly how deep Lady Dedlock’s shame runs. She is unable to overcome it even when she has the chance of a lifetime to develop a relationship with Esther and Dickens hints at the possibility that it is only either through death or a complete withdrawal from the world she knows that she could provide her with any relief.

This strategy, one of preceding sad or hopeless moments with those of potential happiness and delight (and the quick interchange of the polarized atmospheres within the text) intensifies the emotions of the novel - the depression is that much more severe when contrasted with the pleasure of a few moments prior. In Dickens, happiness and sadness are so highly polarized when juxtaposed in such a short space that both seem to be magnified tenfold. Thus, Bleak House engages us without necessarily seeming unrealistic or exaggerated. Its force impresses us, but remains believable in the process. This gives the story one of its most prominent strengths, as it means that the satirical element is much more subtle here than in other works in the genre (such as Orwell’s Animal Farm or Cervantes’ Don Quixote) but still effective. Bleak House is intensified ever so slightly, staying plausible while being slightly more engaging than most realism.

The following chapters generally cover the aftermath of Tulkinghorn’s story and Lady Dedlock & Esther’s pact to avoid giving themselves away by ignoring one another. However, Esther’s highly positive impression of Mr. Jarndyce causes her to reveal the secret to him. This results in one of the most affecting scenes of the novel thus far as he responds with compassionate understanding. Through this interaction, we become privy to perhaps the most major difference between Esther and her mother: Esther has not experienced the pain and bitterness that is a result of being condemned and ostracized. Her naivety has very positive effects, as it allows her to open up to others in a way that Lady Dedlock, fearful even of those who are closest to her, cannot. Even though these chapters are depressing ones, we are ultimately left with the impression that if the secret does come to light, there is some hope that Esther will not be isolated or suffer as intensely as her mother has, her innocent trust the key to keeping the past from repeating itself.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Open Forum

Thoughts on the book so far, now that we're past the halfway point? Is Dickens just for kids? How does reading Dickens now compare to memories you may have of reading Dickens back in high school or junior high? Is the book too long? Too old? Are the characters too cartoonish? Is reading the book a pleasure or a chore? Does the book make you want to read or reread more stuff by Dickens? Are you disappointed the world hasn't ended yet? How does radio work? How do people know where do dig mines for gold? Is time an illusion? Do other people really exist? Do blind people see in their dreams? Is there a purpose to manned space exploration? Should Greece be allowed to fail? Can poetry be translated? Are cloth diapers really better for the environment than disposable diapers? Is it cruel to neuter one's dog? Is it wrong to circumcise baby boys without their consent? Should one try to master one foreign language or try to gain a basic understanding of many languages? Can you call an offensive foul during a game of pick-up basketball? Are we all infinitely old?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

(Much Belated) Week Four Thoughts: Chapters XXIV-XXXII


Do not read any further in this post if you have not read through chapter 32.

As I began to realize that I had finally arrived at the infamous Spontaneous Combustion scene in the book, a weird elation began to come over me. It was sort of like arriving at a particularly spectacular and famous vista, reached only after a long, arduous, maybe treacherous hike or climb: here I was, at the famed Spontaneous Combustion scene, "a thick, yellow liquor, . . . offensive to the touch and sight, and more offensive to the smell" dripping all around, "and a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling." (Ch. 32.) Though I had been eagerly waiting for this event, it still came as a stunning, ridiculous surprise.

And this is perhaps part of the genius of the book: at almost precisely the midpoint of the book, Dickens inserts, as if taking a cue from Michael Bay or Robert Rodriguez, a spectacular explosion. To this point, most of the action in the book has consisted of words, written, read, deciphered, compared, copied, etc. And indeed, right before Krook's explosion, Guppy and Weevle are waiting for the Appointed Hour to receive/take from Krook a bundle of letters belonging to the late Captain Hawdon; Guppy and Weevle are standing around, waiting, and speculating as to what the content of the letters might be, whether Krook may have been able to decipher the contents of the letters, etc. And that's when the book takes a turn into lurid, horror film antics, and "[h]ere s a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is -- is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him." (Ch. 32.)

The scene is spectacular and stunning, because there is nothing in the book that prepares us for it. Knowing that the book was produced in installments, one wonders if the Spontaneous Combustion was always part of the plan, or if it was an idea that came to Dickens, perhaps as he approached a deadline, as he sat scratching away on his own "desk bespattered with a rain of ink," perhaps near the Appointed Hour of midnight. (Ch. 20.)

The image of the "desk bespattered with a rain of ink" -- the desk that Weevle inherited from the late Captain Hawdon -- keeps appearing in my mind. Dickens repeats this image in chapters 10 and 20. The image first appears as Tulkinghorn looks in on Captain Hawdon's room, and finds him dead.
It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low. In the corner by the chimney, stand a deal table and a broken desk: a wilderness marked with a rain of ink.
(Ch. 10.) The image is repeated with the "desk bespattered with a rain of ink" in chapter 20, when describing the room again, now with Weevle as the inhabitant.

I'm going to bring this back to Krook exploding. The parallels between the scene in chapter 10, when Tulkinghorn finds Hawdon dead in his room and the scene Guppy and Weevle come across in the wake of Krook's explosion are striking: the noxious miasma, the images of soot and grease coating the walls, the small fires still smoldering. The image of the "wilderness marked with a rain of ink" marks the scene of Hawdon's death, and serves as a type of representation of his death: the law writer lost in dissolution, the ink he used to form legible documents sprayed wildly, illegibly. That image of the "rain of ink" is recalled in the scene of Krook's death: the grease smearing the walls and ceiling are a close parallel. Moreover, Krook was himself always attempting to ape the law writers, with his sweaty and anxious attempts to scratch out words on his wall, "from memory." Indeed, when we first come across him writing, he scratches out the title of the book "BLEAK HOUSE." (Ch. 5.) In that same chapter, we are, as noted in an earlier post, given a long and rich description of his junk shop -- a place full of, among other things, "quantities of dirty bottles." (Id.) "There were a great many ink bottles." (Id.) And an advertisement for the law-writing services of Nemo -- or Captain Hawdon.

My suggestion is that there are strong connections between the deaths of Krook and Hawdon, and odd parallels in their descriptions. With both characters, there is a fixation on their handwriting -- and, in particular, the physical, embodied nature of their writing. Dickens does focus on the bodily, physical nature of handwriting at various places in the book. Krook straining at his wall is the most obvious example. The "rain of ink" at Hawdon's desk is the residual trace of his physical exertions of law writing; and we are told of his tremendous physical feats of law writing: "The advantage of this particular man is, that he never wants sleep. He'll go at it right on end, if you want him to, as long as you like." (Ch. 10.)

There is something going on here, that I'm still working out, about the bodies of these two characters, the bottles of ink, the scenes of their deaths, and the rain of ink, or the spraying of grease. With their deaths, legibility is exploded: the substance of writing, no longer under the control of a disciplined will, flies out, into chaotic illegibility. It's a weird and unfinished idea in my mind, but I do think part of the idea is that Krook's Spontaneous Combustion is his final piece or act of writing. But it is an act that goes beyond writing, in destroying the very possibility of writing or legibility. And like his own previous attempts at writing, this final act is one he does not himself control or understand. I think only further reading will help me figure out if that makes any sense or if it's just a completely stupid idea.

Your thoughts on Week Four and the book so far? If you've made it this far, you're probably in for the long haul. We're past halfway now -- it's all downhill from here!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Reveal (A Guest Post)

Yet another guest post from one of our fantastic members, TheDudeAbides. **SPOILER ALERT** - the post mentions things that happen through Chapter 36, so be careful, if you haven't gotten that far yet:

The nice thing about technology wrapped in the Kindle is that I can highlight quotes and post them to my Twitter account. It lets the world know with no uncertainty that I am picking out nuggets of golden prose to share with the world from the great Charles Dickens. Much of the feedback I got from my twitterites was confusion. Why in the world would you want to read Bleak House? Well to be honest a month ago I would have questioned my choice of reading material too. Aside from the forced reading in high school by nuns who loved it and sold it like holy water , I haven't spent much time with Mr. Dickens. In fact the closest I've gotten to the perennial classic "A Christmas Carol", was Bill Murray's Frank Cross in Scrooged.

My self assigned journey into reading Charles Dickens or Chuck D as I call him was brought on by a desire to read the classics. I filled my Kindle with all kinds of free books that sat there like dusty old memories wanting to be renewed with life again. But for me it was always an exercise in reading the first chapter or so, putting it down and thusly neglecting it as I turned to the latest Dan Brown mystery. I will admit I read the Michael Bay of crappy fiction, but don't we all have our guilty pleasures? So when I stumbled upon @Tolstoysbeard's twitter account and found there was an online book club that was reading ridiculously old and long books I was sold. It seemed the perfect venue to "force" me to read books I really wanted to read but lacked the structure to do so. Peer pressure and the fact that I would let down people on the internet if I didn't keep up seemed timely and appropriate.

One chapter in and I was ready to log in to and pay whatever money to get the skinny on the book so I could give up and just report in with the help of the yellow and black book that everyone is all too familiar with. I really slogged through the first chapter, but once we started moving on I really enjoyed the fluidity of Chuck D's prose, and even though I was reading Victorian vernacular, I was moving through quite nicely. The Chapters moved along and a concoction of characters would pop in and out and I felt if I would need the assistance of some iphone app to keep track of them all. Moving along I got the feeling that the narrator and protagonist in this story, Esther Summerson, wasn't coming through as a strong character and even quite boring. So poking around the internets, because the internets are good for that, I found an opinion of Dickens's Esther by some to be a quite banal lead in this story. I found that interesting but I wanted to continue on to explore this elusive Esther.

After being sick and taking respite in the country Esther is confronted by Lady Dedlock whilst on the Ghost Walk. This revealing chapter is where Esther finds out the truth about Lady Dedlock being her mother and how she must keep this secret and never tell anyone the truth. Chapter 36 was a riveting chapter to read and it drove home, for me, the complexity of Esther and her longing for her mother.
"I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her, that it was natural love with nothing in the past had changed or could change. That it was not for me, then resting for the first time on my mother's bosom, to take her to account for having given me life, but that my duty was to bless her and receive her, thought the world turned from her, and that I only asker for leave to do it."
The entire chapter weaves in happiness and despair, for both mother and daughter are reunited for a brief moment but must continue on their paths alone with the secret of their relation intact. It must have been hard for Esther yet we see such compassion. My meager summary can't do this chapter justice so I will leave it here with encouragement to read it in whole for it was the chapter that made me believe in Bleak House and I am excited to see what happens next.