Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sir Percival Piggybottom shared his thoughts and insights with me on The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Amazingly, his opinions exactly reflected my own.  What can I say?  Great minds think alike.  Here's what we have to say.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Reading a novel by Dostoevsky is like stepping into a world wind.  There's no down time.  Just when you think a certain scene or situation is coming to an end, someone else shows up and away we go again with nary a pause for breath.  No character possesses neutral emotions either.  Everyone is either turning white with rage or red with...with...even more rage.

The story starts on a train where we meet our hero Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin.  He is returning to Russia after many years in Switzerland.  On the train he meets Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin.  Little do these two men know but they are going to play profound roles in each other's lives.

While riding Prince Myshkin relates his background.  Some years past he suffered a mental break down and was sent to a hospital in Switzerland until he recovered.  Now, though still a young man, the Prince is returning to Russia.  He knows no one but hopes to make a few contacts.

Rogozhin immediately brings up the topic of a woman he is obsessed with, Nastasya Filipovna Barashkova.  He is going to propose to her.  He has raised an insane sum of money, which she has demanded, in order to achieve his desire: her hand in marriage.

Insane is an appropriate word here.  Because all the major players in this novel are insane.  Or desperate.  Or angry.  Or emotionally out of control.  Hence the unalleviated excitement that relentlessly rides the entire novel.

Nastasya is a fascinating character study in her own right.  One doesn't know whether to hate or pity her.  Born into a poverty-stricken family, she was orphaned very young but being very beautiful was soon taken up by Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, a wealthy man of high society, who took her and basically kept her for himself.  No need to spell that out.

Being orphaned and helpless, Nastasya had no choice but to submit to Totsky's..let's call it what it is... sexual abuse.  But a time comes when Nastasya is no longer the helpless one.  She realizes that she holds Totsky's reputation in her hands, especially since he now wishes to marry into an important family.  Totsky understands that he is no longer the one in control of their relationship and his one objective is to get rid of her.  He attempts to acheive this by marrying Nastasya off to a clerk of General Epanchin who also happens to be the father of the woman he wishes to marry.

Totsky offers this clerk, Ganya Ivolgin, 70,000 rubles to marry Natasha. Ganya was pursuing General Epanchin's youngest daughter Aglaya but he breaks his relationship with her and everything looks settled.  Nastasya holds an evening party at her apartment to seal the deal.  

Why Ganya would want to marry Nastasya, other than for the money is beyond me. She lets her contempt for him be known at every opportunity.  She delights in making a fool of him.  And she has one last trick up her sleeve.  

Late in the evening Nastasya's party is crashed by Rogozhin and a bunch of rowdies.  He has come with the money Nastasya has demanded to marry him.  Nastasya grabs the money, throws it in the fire, and tells Ganya he can have it if he'll pull it out.  Then she runs off with Rogozhin.

  Where does the Prince fit in?  He loves Nastasya.  But not the way the other men do.  He feels compassion for her and he wants to save her.  He also proposes to Nastasya.  She understands his pure love but doesn't feel worthy of it so repels him.

Meantime there's Agláya Ivánovna.  Aglaya is a nut case in her own right.  She loves the Prince and wants to marry him.

Then she doesn't.

Then she does.

No she doesn't.  She hates him.

She's madly in love with him!

No, never!

That pretty much describes Aglaya. Strangely enough, the Prince also loves her and in a real romantic sense, but instead of doing the common sense thing and blow her off, his emotions corresponds to her mood swings.

I'm in ecstasy, she loves me!

I'm crushed, she hates me!



I really cannot figure the Prince out.  It's interesting how the other characters respond to him.  They all consider him a fool, even calling him an idiot to his face.  Yet, one by one, they each develop an attachment to him and soon find that they need him to turn to, confide in, be listened to.  He's the only one that genuinely loves and believes in the goodness in each person.

Dostoevsky digs deep into the human soul and bares the desperate sin that lurks there.  By doing so he reveals the light of God that shines on that darkness and disperses it.

There are no tidy endings in real life and Dostoevsky certainly doesn't provide any in his writing.  This book probably has the least satisfying ending of any of the books I've read, with maybe the exception of Demons (also titled, The Possessed).

Spoiler alert!  Don't continue reading if you don't want to know how the story ends.

As much as the Prince loves people, his belief in their inner goodness is finally shattered.  He finally breaks it off with Aglaya (or she breaks it off, who can tell?) and proposes marriage to Nastasya who, after living with Rogozhin, accepts.  

Everything proceeds as planned.  Nastasya, adorned as a princess, approaches the church where the Prince is waiting for her.  In the crowd she sees Rogozhin.  She screams and jumps into his arms.  They run off together.

After searching all over town and St Petersburg, the town where Rogozhin lives, he finally finds them.  Rogozhin, after hiding out in his family apartments, comes to the Prince and brings him home.  

The final part is surreal.  Rogozhin talks about all sorts of nonsense with the Prince but we finally become aware of Nastasya lying under a sheet on a bed in the corner of his room.   Both he and the Prince spend the night together discussing what to do because the body will soon begin to smell.

Eventually they are found out.  Rogozhin is sent to Siberia and the Prince truly becomes an idiot.  Relapsed into madness he is sent back to the hospital in Switzerland.

There is ever so much more to this story than can be related here.  I cannot begin to count the number of characters in the cast.  As my husband, Josh, said.  "How many people can fit into one room? Can you imagine a stage production of this story?"

Every character is a story all by him or herself.  But if you want those stories, you'll simply have to read the novel for yourself.

Percy says, "I would not have tried to love two women at once.  Wait.  Yes I would.  I'm a Guinea Pig.  That's how we reproduce."

Kindle .99

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When Pigs Read

Our family has increased with a couple of furry additions.  Luckily they're huge readers so they fit right in.

This is Little Bear.  She likes to start the day off with some Kale and the Wall Street Journal

Here is a piggie after my own heart.  She loves Dostoevsky, although she was saddened at how "The Idiot" ended.  When asked her name she informed us that she was called "Zorgon the Destroyer".  However, we prefer to call her Princess Priscilla Piggybottom.

Is it a bookshelf?

Of course not!  It's home to a pair of book loving piggies.

Both Little Bear and Princess Piggybottom enjoy Celtic Art

Little Bear was simply shocked at the language and subject matter of  D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover.  She found it so upsetting we had to quit reading half way through the novel.
She let her opinion be known in no uncertain terms.

These are our Hermit Crabs, Hermie and Kermie.  They're not much readers.

And that's enough silliness for one week.  I promise to post a book review next time.  (Princess Priscilla Piggybottom wants to impart her insight on "The Idiot." Stay tuned...)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Three books I've just finished: Shadows and Chilvalry, We Never Make Mistakes and In Defense of Elitism

   My "have read" pile is, well, piling up so I'm going to knock out three books with one review.  I know the reviews are short and don't do the books justice but hopefully they will whet your appetite to read the books for yourselves.,204,203,200_.jpg
Shadows and Chilvalry: C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald on Suffering, Evil and Goodness by Jeff McInnis

George MacDonald was a Victorian author and Christian minister.  He wrote children's fantasies that spurred the imagination of countless people and particularly one.  MacDonald is credited with being the inspiration of one of the twentieth century's greatest apologists and fantasy writers, C.S. Lewis.
In his book, Shadows and Chivalry, Jeff McInnis informs the reader of both MacDonald's and Lewis' belief concerning God and His relationship to people, how they expressed those beliefs in their fiction and how the former author influenced the latter.

McInnis offers an insightful look on the particular topics of the title:  suffering, evil and goodness.  He offers an informative and interesting analysis of several of MacDonald's and Lewis's stories and how they portray each of these human experiences.,204,203,200_.jpg

We Never Make Mistakes by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn translated by Paul W. Blackstock

We Never Make Mistakes are two short novels that paint a grim picture of Soviet life in the early twentieth century.  The first story, An Incident at Krechetovka Station is about a Red Army lieutenant, Zotov, who is in charge of a railroad station during WWII.  A stranger arrives who insists that he has missed his train and needs to take the next one.  At first Zotov is willing to help him, but then he becomes suspicious.  Is this man who he says he is or a deserter?  Zotov becomes tormented between the fear of letting a lawbreaker get away and arresting an innocent man whom he knows will meet an unspeakable fate if charged.  His decision haunts him the rest of his life.

In the second story, Matryona's House, a school teacher is living with an elderly lady, Matryona.  Through the teacher's eyes we see the woman's poverty and hardship.  Her house is falling apart, with mice running up and down the walls.  She barely has enough to subsist on.  She cannot work because of government regulations, she can not grow food because of government regulations, she can not receive government assistance because of government regulations. 

Both stories show how socialized economies and government micromanagement over the individual cause widespread poverty and even starvation.  I shared this story with a friend of mine from Moldova. She said, "Look down the road, Sharon.  Where do you think your own country is heading?"
In Defense of Elitism by William A. Henry III

 Henry attacks our egalitarian culture on many levels.  He defies the "victimhood" labels given to minorities.  He argues that women need to stop classifying themselves as a minority. He provides statistics showing that the assertion that women make less money than men for the same jobs is a myth.  He contends that these special interest groups are not asking for equal rights but privileged ones. 

He also attacks the public school system with its dumbing curriculum down so that even a college education doesn't hold the value it had fifty years ago. 

I agree with a lot of what he says.  I don't like being viewed through the lens of my gender and I certainly don't view others that way.  We are people.  I can't worry about other's prejudices.  Prejudice will always exist.  At least I know that every job I got was by my own credentials.  Henry makes a good argument that affirmative action will always leave women and minorities wondering if they got the job due to their qualifications or their gender/race.

I agree that much of what we're seeing is thinly veiled government control over individuals right to live according to their own convictions.  If I want to stay home and raise my children and keep house, that doesn't make me oppressed.  Conversely, if I want to work professionally, I want to get the job according to my qualifications.  I don't want the job "given" to me in order to fill a gender quota.

There are other assertions that Henry makes that I vehemently oppose.  He is anti-religion- especially Christianity and he expresses those beliefs in the most venomous of terms.  

I also disagree with his attitude that some kids aren't meant for college so we need to stop wasting our time with them.  He points to Europe as an ideal.  I've lived in Europe.  I have a Master's degree but I promise I would have been sent to a labor camp had I been educated in the European elitist system.  Man doesn't make perfect systems and our man made evaluations of people's intellect doesn't accommodate everyone's intelligence.  I don't have much faith in America's public school system either but that's another story.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman

Neil Postman presents an interesting theory as to why the concept of childhood is disappearing.  He takes the reader on a historical trip back to the Middle Ages where no culture of childhood existed.  Children were treated as small adults.  Small, helpless adults that bigger, stronger adults were at liberty to take advantage of.  They were expected to work like adults and serve those stronger than themselves.  They were not protected from adult themes, such as exposure to sexual situations which they either witnessed or at times were forcibly involved in.

According to Postman, the concept of childhood began with the invention of the printing press.  The ability to read created a division between adults and children because adults were now keepers of information that children did not have access to.  Not only did the printing press create a class of children, it also created a class of adults, something else that did not exist previously.

As a result, starting with churches, schools were raised to create a literate society.  Instead of children being sent straight to work they now were expected to spend their youth learning how to decode symbols and deduce meaning from them.  This exercise opened them up to a universe of concepts and ideas that developed their own intellectual capacity.  Society began producing abstract thinkers.

It's interesting to note that it was first Protestant churches that began the widespread use of schools before the Catholic church which was very much embedded in the practice of reverencing images.  Imagery in the Catholic church was a powerful tool in teaching congregations Biblical history and principles. Icons and other images as paintings, statues etc.. were an integral part of worship.

Nevertheless, Catholics soon got on board and are responsible for schools worldwide and can also be credited for spreading literacy and as a result, childhood.

Literacy produced a culture of children because it produced adults.  Adults now possessed abilities and knowledge that children didn't have and children were expected to spend their childhood acquiring these abilities in order to become functioning adults in a society that was now shaped by a largely educated demographic.

That is not to say that literacy was immediate and it took some time to trickle down to the poorest communities.  However, church schools weren't respecters of people and both Catholic and Protestant churches planted schools worldwide in every neighborhood poor or rich.

Eventually, this was taken over in Europe and North America by the government.

Now the turning point:  After describing the rise of childhood, Postman then writes on its disappearance.  

Postman traces the disappearance of childhood to the development of technology, primarily, television and music.  Themes and materials that previously were the domain of adults are now a part of a child's world. 

First of all there is the diminishing of the intellect.  Television requires no decoding, no interpreting, it is a completely passive exercise.  No skills are needed to watch TV.  There is no such thing as remedial television watching or classes that need to be taken in order to develop the ability to watch it.  Instead of reasoning and analyzing, instead our emotions are manipulated by images and music that tell us how to feel about those images.

Most devastating of all, is what children are exposed to through television and popular music.  Once upon a time,  no one questioned the innocence of childhood or that children should be protected from certain aspects of life.  Adulthood was needed in order to carry the load of information required by certain subjects.  

The information that children receive about sex and other life themes though media has robbed children of this innocence.  Parents buy music for their children that have graphic sexual content.  They allow them to watch movies with language and violence that  were once considered factors that children needed protecting from.  This has all but disappeared from our culture. 

And it shows.  More and more shows are presenting younger and younger actors engaged in adult themes, including sexual activity.

But it's not only childhood that's fallen by the wayside.  It's also adulthood.  The average character in popular movies, TV and books is single and has the social skills of an adoloscent.  It used to be that thirty was the new fifteen.  Now it's forty. It shows in our culture.  How many people prefer pursuing their own happiness as defined by "My relationships, my career, what I want to do with my life and it doesn't involve the oppression of being tied down to a marriage partner and even less to children." The rantings of a five year old from the mouths of many adults today.

Postman's book does not hold an optimistic view for our society where he believes technology has deprived the majority of people of basic adult skills for becoming thriving, functional and productive members or our society.  

 Perhaps a neo middle age serfdom is not so far  off with an ever growing poverty class and elitist wealthy class. The inability to reason for oneself certainly will make the masses easier to control.  

Resistance entails conceiving of parenting as an act of rebellion against American culture. (p. 152).

My own view is not so pessimistic as Postman's for the reason that I have faith based on the promises in the book of Revelation.  

In the meantime I will be doing my own "rebelling" against the culture by reading good books rather than watching sitcoms, preferring the Wall Street Journal to 24/7 TV news and training young children to think logically.