Posts Tagged ‘kafka’

Reading symbols

It may be mere idle speculation, but I can’t help wondering why it is we so clearly recognise Ibsen’s Wild Duck to be a symbol, and, equally clearly, recognise Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles not to be a symbol. Is it simply that we go to these works with different expectations, and that these expectations colour our responses? That’s certainly part of it, I think. It is also, perhaps, that The Hound of the Baskervilles makes perfect sense without the symbolism, but The Wild Duck doesn’t.

But this may be disputed. Why shouldn’t The Wild Duck make perfect sense if we see the wild duck as no more than the physical entity that it is? I think I’d argue that to see it as such wouldn’t be a particularly satisfactory way of looking at the work. The wild duck itself is not central to the plot, in the way the Baskerville hound is: if we were to see the wild duck but as a wild duck, we would be left wondering why so much attention is paid to something that the mere mechanics of the plot don’t really need. The introduction of the wild duck; the attention given to what is, merely in terms of plot, no more than an incidental detail; and also, in this case, the title itself indicating its importance; are all sufficient to convince us of an importance attached to this duck that quite transcends the plot.

Of course, it may be maintained that the Hound, too, is symbolic of something or other. But this would, I guess, strike most readers as foolish. Seeing the Hound purely for what it is, without any symbolic overtones, does not in any way diminish the impact of the novel; indeed, it may be argued that seeing the Hound as possessing more significance than the plot allows is to detract from the thing. I’m sure that hasn’t prevented over-zealous interpreters: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were to exist learned papers and theses pontificating on the symbolical significance of the Hound from Hell. But be that as it may, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say the Wild Duck is a symbol, and the Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t.

But now comes the tricky bit: if the Wild Duck is indeed symbolic, what is it a symbol of? This question is tricky not because it is difficult to think of plausible symbolic interpretations of the Wild Duck, but because identifying the symbol, or symbols, seems to diminish the richness of the work. It appears to insist on a single meaning, or a single set of meanings, when, before interpretation, a far greater wealth of possibilities seemed available. And even when we may come up with multiple interpretations of a symbol, the sum of the various interpretations seems less than the symbol’s potential. Ibsen’s Wild Duck seems a prime example of this. There are other examples too. As soon as you pin a meaning on the White Whale, on the Scarlet Letter worn by Hester Prynne, on Krook’s spontaneous combustion or on Kafka’s Castle, the potential of what these things may mean seems diminished.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, symbols can mean one thing and one thing only, and that meaning is fairly obvious. Bunyan, for instance, used to spelled it out: Giant Despair symbolised despair, the Slough of despond symbolised despond, Vanity Fair symbolised … Well, you get the idea. These symbols are intended not so much to suggest what isn’t explicitly stated, but to underline, and clarify, the author’s ideas. I suppose we may class these as “allegory”. But leaving aside such allegories, we are left with a problem: how should we, as readers, respond to symbols and to symbolism? Treating a symbol as something that signifies no more than what it physically is seems inadequate; and yet, various interpretations of what the symbol may mean seem reductive.

Perhaps – and I use the adverb advisedly, as I am not at all sure of what now follows – perhaps, I think, it might help if we were to think of symbols themselves in a different way. Perhaps we should accept that a symbol may carry various resonances, but at the same time, refrain from pinning the symbol down to anything, or any group of things, specific. Perhaps we should allow a symbol to gather different associations as the work proceeds, and try to see the connections and relationships between these various things that have been gathered upon this single symbol, but not insist upon any specific meaning for the symbol itself. Is that possible? Is it possible to see Kafka’s Castle as an obscure and distant presence; as an authoritarian and bureaucratic institution that may contain some great wisdom at its heart, but to which we are denied access; as a seemingly sinister and oppressive power; and so on, and so forth; but not think of this Castle as a symbol for God?

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why writers employ symbols in the first place. That is not an easy question to answer, but I think we can answer the question of what writers don’t set out to do: they don’t set out to create a puzzle for the reader to solve. That is the realm merely of the whodunit. If symbols serve any purpose at all, it is to help the author communicate matters that language, by itself, cannot communicate.

At least, this is how it seems to me, immersed as I currently am in the late, symbol-rich plays of Ibsen. Much of literature, it seems to me, is an expression of that which words are not designed to express. For there are limits on what we may communicate with words: Sibelius had famously said that “Music begins where the possibilities of language end”. But that seems to imply that, as a mode of expression, music is superior to literature – that literature can only get us so far, but that beyond that point, it is to music that we must turn. But things are not, I think, so simple. The best authors are capable of communicating far more than words, unaided, can: they can force words to convey far more than merely their dictionary meanings. If Kafka had merely intended his Castle to represent God, he could simply have told us; that he didn’t tell us doesn’t mean he was playing games with us, but, rather, that what the Castle means is not something that can be put into words. It goes beyond “where the possibilities of language ends”.

And it is in this spirit I am trying currently to read Ibsen. The last twelve plays of his, the “Ibsen Cycle” as they are sometimes known, are often considered the epitome of dramatic realism, but that hardly begins to do them justice. For Ibsen was always a poet, even when writing in everyday prose, about everyday people, in everyday walks of life. Increasingly, as we go through the cycle, poetic images abound – symbols, pointing to that which cannot be expressed directly in words. And the symbols, after a while, become real, concrete. In The Master Builder, say, we find that Master Builder Solness is afraid of heights, and cannot climb as high as he builds. This is an everyday matter (fear of heights), but is treated symbolically: in some way that Ibsen doesn’t make clear, Master Builder Solness cannot live up to what he professes. But Hilde seems almost distraught by this. What she is presumably distraught at is Master Builder Solness’ moral pusillanimity, but she expresses her anger in more concrete terms: is the Master Builder afraid to climb up the ladder? Is he afraid to climb as high as he builds? And the symbol becomes a reality: Master Builder Solness, to prove himself to her, must physically climb up a physical ladder to the top of a physical tower. Is this “realism”? If so, one would need to stretch the definition of “realism” considerably, I think, to accommodate it.

And this is the world which the later plays of Ibsen seem to inhabit – a strange world in which metaphor and concrete reality seem to merge, and become one. We are invited to feel the resonance of the images, of the symbols, but as soon as we try to tie these images and symbols down to any specific meaning, they seem to fall apart. These plays are rooted in reality: Solness owns and runs a building firm, is unhappily married, and finds himself attracted to a young girl; and he is afraid of competition from the younger generation. All this is real enough, and could easily provide the basis for a television soap opera. But Ibsen’s vision seemed fixed elsewhere, and he could only express these visions through the use of poetic imagery, and of symbols. And when we read these plays, what we make of this vast array of symbols is crucial. I am still not sure how best to read these symbols: perhaps it varies for each different reader. But what we mustn’t do, I think, is to tie them down to anything specific: if Ibsen could have said in a few words what these symbols symbolise, he would, I think, have done so.

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“The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky

[All excerpts from The Idiot in the following post are taken from the translation by Alan Myers, published in Oxford World Classics series by Oxford University Press. Please note also that it is impossible to discuss this novel, even in terms relatively superficial, without revealing some elements of the plot.]

When one doesn’t quite know where to start, it is perhaps best to start by conceding the fact: if nothing else, such a concession may win the reader’s sympathy, and perhaps even some measure of forbearance in the face of subsequent incoherence and inarticulacy.

Dostoyevsky’s novels have made, and continue to make, a huge impact on me, and yet, when I try to explain why, especially to sceptics, I find myself unable to express myself adequately. One should not, I say, try to apply to Dostoyevsky those criteria whereby we judge the novels of Austen or of Tolstoy or of James to be great: Dostoyevsky was a law unto himself. But how can one explain this law that was so unique to this writer? There seems at times to be no correlate for anything within the novel to anything outside it. But neither is it the case that these novels occupy a world entirely of fantasy: quite the contrary – they throb with the messiness and the ambiguities and the ungraspability of life itself. They depict a reality, although the reality they depict is heightened, and the nature of the heightening remains elusive. The characters seem almost constantly to be in varying states of hysteria and of delirium, and are extreme, grotesque – acting, it often seems, as no character in real life ever acts: or perhaps they do, but not so consistently, and not with such unremitting and uninhibited intensity. The fictional world they inhabit seems closed in and claustrophobic, and yet, at the same time, open to the loftiest thoughts and ideas and intuitions on the most elevated of themes. Ideas are expressed concerning the most fundamental aspects of our human lives, and yet each idea seems undermined even as it is expressed: nothing seems able to hold its shape long enough to achieve any kind of solidity, and no argument along rational lines seems ever to develop. The narrative seems crammed with symbols and patterns, but as soon as one tries to identify and to follow through the symbols, or to use the patterns to understand what happens, they almost immediately break down. This is not realism as it is commonly understood, and neither is it a forerunner of the modern “magic realism”: there is nothing in these novels that is physically impossible, or even, perhaps, granted the extreme and febrile nature of all the characters, psychologically implausible; but the logic whereby the characters act, and whereby the action flows, seems to belong to some strange dream world, some vague, elusive borderline between sanity and insanity, where the rules of rationality that most of us normally use to understand the world seem not to apply.

Dreams play a major part in these novels, and, especially, in The Idiot. At one point in the novel, Myshkin, reading Nastasya Filippovna’s letters to Aglaya, sees these letters as dreamlike, and, indeed, relates them to his own dreams:

The letters had much in common with dreams. Sometimes you have fearful dreams, impossible, bizarre; when you wake up, you remember them clearly and marvel at an odd fact: first of all, you recall that your reason never deserted you all through the dream; you even recall that you behaved extremely shrewdly and logically throughout all that long, long time when you were surrounded by murderers, who tried to deceive you, concealing their intentions, treating you in a friendly fashion, while they had their weapons ready and were only waiting for a signal; you recall how cleverly you hoodwinked them eventually, and hid from them; then you guessed they were perfectly well aware of your trick and were just pretending not to know your hiding-place; but again you outwitted them and cheated them, all this you remember clearly. But why was it that your reason was able to reconcile itself to the obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was crammed? One of your killers turned into a woman before your very eyes, then from a woman into a sly and hideous little dwarf – and you accepted it at once as an established fact, with barely a hesitation, and this at the very moment when your reason, on the other hand, was at a pitch of intensity and demonstrating extraordinary power, shrewdness, perception, logic? (III, 10)

This is very much how I find myself feeling about the novels. There must have been some logic that carried me through it all, I think to myself when I look back on them: my mind was definitely working very hard – indeed, at fever pitch – while I was reading. But how then could my mind reconcile itself to the absurdities and the weirdness with which the novel is so crammed? It could be that my mind is such that it can suspend disbelief at Dostoyevskian absurdities: having spoken to Dostoyevsky-sceptics, not all minds, I know, can; but the other possibility is that, at some mysterious level, within some obscure and rarely-visited compartment of the human mind, these are not absurdities at all; and that it is this compartment of the mind that Dostoyevsky addresses, and in which the action of his novels unfold. But how that elusive compartment of the mind can be described when we are no longer inhabiting the dream remains problematic.

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky tried – to his own mind, unsuccessfully – to depict the perfectly good man in an imperfect world – indeed, a mad world. In a letter written to his niece near the time he started work on the novel, he confesses to the difficulties inherent in this idea: the only truly positive, good figure is, after all, Christ. Dostoyevsky then cites two figures in literature whom he thinks “perfectly good” – Don Quixote, and, rather surprisingly perhaps, Mr Pickwick, and goes on to say that they are successful creations because they are comic: they are ludicrous, and are mocked for being so, but, since they are unaware of their own worth, they arouse sympathy. But Dostoyevsky did not want to go down this path: there is no shortage of comedy in The Idiot, but Prince Myshkin, the Idiot of the title, is most certainly not a comic figure. Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky had somehow to account for his otherwise unaccountable goodness, and also to elicit the reader’s sympathy on his behalf: so he made him ill: Myshkin, like his creator, is epileptic. Early in his life, he was literally an “idiot”, his illness having retarded his mental development. During the course of the novel, we see him as a different kind of “idiot” – a man innocent of human wiles and deceptions, and almost embarrassingly open and frank to all, assuming always the best in everyone he sees. Such guilelessness in itself is enough to mark him out as an “idiot”, but even those who describe him as such find themselves forced to concede that despite his “idiocy”, or maybe even because of it, he has startling insights into the very souls of people around him.

But how can such a person exist in human society? For, from the very start, this innocent, this ingenue, is thrown headlong into a world teeming with the most turbulent and unruly of passions and desires – all of which call for a judgement that he is neither equipped nor willing to pass. And here, right from the start, we begin to see cracks in perfect goodness: not that Myshkin isn’t perfectly good, but rather, that such goodness cannot even survive, let along emerge triumphant.

Such a summary is grossly inadequate, as, indeed, any summary of so complex a novel must be. Myshkin’s essential goodness is recognised by all: they may feel uncomfortable about it; they may even resent it, as Ippolit frequently does, or as the buffoonish General Ivolgin does towards the end of the novel, when he sees Myshkin’s refusal to judge him as a slight. But Myshkin’s refusal to judge – following, presumably, Christ’s injunction “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – is not to be confused with a failure to understand: for he understands, and describes often with a disconcerting openness, the passions and the intricate paradoxes governing the minds of those around him. But he steadfastly refuses to judge, or to condemn, even when judgement and condemnation seem explicitly to be asked for – even when the characters themselves ask for judgement. For, despite his all-encompassing love, and despite even his insight and his understanding, there seems a curious distance between him and the other characters – a distance that seems incapable of being bridged. For Myshkin’s love seems unaware of the object of his love. Nastasya Filippovna herself expresses this powerfully in one of her feverish letters:

Artists always depict Christ according to the gospel stories; I would paint him differently: I would show him alone … I would leave him alone with just one child. The child would be playing near him, perhaps telling him something in his childish prattle. Christ would not be listening to him, but presently fall to thinking; his hand would rest unconsciously on the child’s little fair head. He looks towards the distant horizon; a thought as great as the whole world dwells in his look; his face is sad.

An abstract love for the whole of humanity precludes love for a specific person, the essence of which lies precisely in its preferring this one person to the rest of humanity. And this, Myshkin seems incapable of: like Jesus in the imagined painting, the hand is tenderly on the head of the person he loves, but the mind is elsewhere: it is looking to the distant horizon, saddened by thought that is as great as the world itself.

Myshkin, from almost the start, finds himself at the focal point of two interlocking love triangles, and in both, while the sincerity and openness of his feelings cannot be doubted, he seems curiously lacking in passion. In one, he is in competition with Rogozhin for Nastasya Filippovna; and in the other, he has to choose between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya. Inevitably, parallels and contrast develop – between Myshkin and Rogozhin one the one hand, and between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya on the other.

In the very first scene of the novel, Myshkin and Rogozhin are seated opposite each other on a train. Towards the end they walk on opposite sides of the road to Rogozhin’s house, where Nastasya Filippovna lies murdered. Rogozhin seems in all respects to be Myshkin’s opposite, his “dark brother”, his ghostly double, who exchanges crosses with him in a deeply symbolic gesture, and who, soon afterwards, attempts to murder him. Yet, it is dangerous, in this of all novels, to be so schematic about matters: if Rogozhin is indeed possessed with all those dark passions that are absent in Myshkin, he seems curiously unable to act upon them. At the end of the first of the four parts of the novel, Nastasya Filippovna goes off with Rogozhin, with Myshkin following them, and what exactly happens afterwards Dostoyevsky, intriguingly, does not narrate to us; instead, he allows us to pick up fragments and rumours. But it is strongly indicated that “nothing” happens between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin: if Rogozhin is indeed throbbing with passion, it is passion on which he appears unable to act. It is not for nothing that the vast, old, rambling house of his, so full of menace and foreboding and so explicitly symbolic of Rogozhin’s own character, has a wing housing a sect of religious fanatics, of castrates.

There is, indeed, a sense of fanaticism about Rogozhin himself, although the nature of this fanaticism seems, as so much else in this novel, elusive: it does not appear to be religious fanaticism – Rogozhin is at no point depicted as religious – but his brooding and demonic presence bespeaks, as does the house he inhabits, some profound fanatic darkness of the heart.

Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, though kept apart in this novel until a climactic scene towards the end, also emerge as complementary opposites – recondita armonia di bellezze diverse. Aglaya seems a cold, haughty beauty, reared in the comfort and safety of the Yepanchin household and possibly something of a spoilt youngest daughter. Nastasya Filippovna, on the other hand, is the “fallen woman”, orphaned as a child and “seduced” – as the euphemism has it – by the man who was ostensibly her protector. In our own time, we do not regard the “fallen woman” as particularly sinful, especially when, as in this case, the woman in question had so little power over her own fate; but things were different then: a “fallen woman” was one who could, like Violetta in La Traviata (or her original, Marguerite, in La Dame Aux Camelias), be famed in the demi-monde, but who was not acceptable in “polite society”. It should not surprise us that, living in such an environment, the fallen woman Nastasya Filippovna harbours a tremendous sense of guilt; but at the same time, she harbours a rage for those who have caused her to be fallen, and who have instilled in her this unmerited sense of guilt; and the guiltier she feels, the greater her rage. She wishes to abase herself, and yet hates herself for wishing so; and she hates even more those inhabitants of “polite society” who expect her to do so. In Myshkin, she sees, for the first time, “a man” – a real man who does not even think of judging her; and yet, this judgement is precisely what she desires: even this lack of judgement drives her into insanity.

Both women are attracted to Myshkin – Aglaya for his openness and his utter lack of worldly guile, and Nastasya Filippovna for his compassion, and his refusal to judge. But ultimately, the kind of love that is demanded of him he cannot give: as with Christ in the painting imagined by Nastasya, his love is divorced from its object. His very refusal to judge is indicative of his ultimate detachment.

Judgement and condemnation, and the oppressive nature both of their presence and of their absence, seem to me to be very much at the centre of this novel. Myshkin introduces early the theme of the “condemned man”, as he speaks with his usual uninhibited frankness of a friend of his who had been condemned to death, but who had ultimately been reprieved. What goes on in the mind of such a man who is expecting at any given moment to die? Dostoyevsky knew this, of course, from his own experience: such a man has a heightened sense of time, a sense that does not however return when the unexpected reprieve restores him to the common light of the everyday.

Myshkin himself is also, of course, a condemned man, although in a somewhat different sense: his illness can, and eventually does, recur with such force as to return him to his previous state of literal idiocy. And Dostoyevsky, in one of the most vivid and immediate passages of writing I think I have ever encountered, describes, again from personal experience, the heightened sense of awareness that is experienced immediately before an epileptic fit; and, as with the heightened sense of time experienced by the condemned man, this too is subsequently lost. In this heightened sense of awareness, one senses, if only momentarily, the most perfect harmony and beauty. But then comes the fit, and the vision fades, and all that remains of it is but a vague and ungraspable memory. But this conjunction of beauty and of harmony in that mystic moment before the fit leads us into another major theme of the novel: the redemptive power of beauty – the power of beauty to bring harmony.

This particular theme is, however, deeply problematic. Myshkin is himself quoted as saying that “beauty will save the world”, although, as with Ivan Karamazov’s dictum “If God didn’t exist, then everything is permitted”, we never hear him say this directly: it is a sentiment that is merely associated with him, and it is left to us, the readers, to determine what, if anything, this can mean. The nearest Myshkin comes to expressing this idea is in his unexpectedly impassioned address to the aristocratic guests at the Yepanchins’ – shortly before he has his second fit in the novel, and where a sense of disorientation and of the mystical harmony that precedes the fit is presumably already upon him:

“… and is it really possible to be unhappy? … Do you know, I cannot understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy when seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! Oh, it’s just that I can’t find the words … and so many beautiful things at every step that even the most desparate man finds something beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you … “ (IV, 7)

Yet, as ever in Dostoyevsky, even when an idea is expounded, even if the idea is precious, it is immediately undermined: Myshkin, in the course of this extraordinary scene, clumsily breaks that all too obvious symbol of fragile beauty, a Chinese vase. Earlier in the novel, he had told Aglaya’s sister, Alexandra, simply to paint what she sees, and to find beauty in it; and yet, throughout the novel, beauty is at odds with what is seen, and rarely if ever accompanies harmony. Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are both very beautiful in their different ways, but in neither is there anything remotely resembling harmony, or anything capable of achieving salvation: both are deeply troubled souls. And as for the artist finding beauty in what he sees, the work of art that is central to this novel, and which is described in detail, is one that finds the most heart-breaking ugliness in the very figure who, to Christians, is the epitome of moral beauty: Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ.

“Dead Christ in his tomb” by Hans Holbein, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Here is a painting utterly without hope. Myshkin describes it as a painting that may cause humanity to lose its faith. Even the most beautiful of men, a man who is both divine and human, has succumbed here to the ugliness that is death; the body is stark and bare and utterly devoid of any hint of divinity; rigor mortis has set in, and the greenish tint of the dead flesh seems to indicate corruption; and the features on the face are contorted by the agony in which the man had died. Here is the ultimate failure, not only of goodness, but of the divine: beauty is not present even as a consolation. If we are to look for harmony in beauty, all we find here is a hideous emptiness – a negation in the dead Christ of everything that the living Christ had stood for.

And of course, this is also an image of Myshkin himself – the positively good man: whatever beauty there may be in his goodness, nature will not spare him, any more than it had spared Christ himself; nor will nature even allow him a beauty that, we are told, could save the world. At every turn, Dostoyevsky seems intent on undermining the very ideas that to him were precious.

And yet, the idea of beauty saving the world remains precious, even if only as an idea. In Dostoyevsky’s fictional world, ideas are not discarded simply because they are undermined, or refuted: ideas here are also states of being, of emotions, and they persist even through failure. The idea of the positively good man is one that is doomed to failure, and, indeed, the sense of devastation one feels in the final pages of this novel is unlike anything else I think I have come across. But the idea that has failed so spectacularly nonetheless remains, co-existing even with the forces that have defeated it. And the forces that defeat it, the forces that draw our lives away from beauty and from harmony, are more than merely acknowledged: they are depicted with the utmost force and vigour, and nowhere more so than in Ippolit’s “confession” – his “necessary explanation”, as he calls it, but which seems neither necessary, nor explanatory of anything. If Myshkin’s very presence communicates a sense of essential human nobility and moral beauty, Ippolit’s “necessary explanation” depicts something very different, and is worth examining in some detail.

It is in this section of the novel that we encounter a discussion of Holbein’s painting, and of its terrible implications. Significantly, a reproduction of this painting hangs in Rogozhin’s house, that great heart of darkness where we are sure the final act of this immense tragedy will be played out.

Ippolit too, like Myshkin, is a condemned man, a teenager dying of consumption, but Dostoyevsky seems to do everything within his power to alienate any sympathy the reader may have for him. The first time we see him, he is supporting the absurd claims of Burdovsky’s “rights”; and once these claims are shown to be baseless, he reacts angrily to Myshkin’s magnanimity: the very fact that Myshkin can be so generous and so noble to the very people who had so ignobly tried to get the better of him, is, to Ippolit, so indicative of Myshkin’s moral superiority as to be insulting. The paradox is irresistible, and occurs throughout the novel is various guises: thus, the buffoonish General Ivolgin feels slighted not because Myshkin judges and condemns him, but because he doesn’t; and, more significantly, perhaps, Nastsya Filippovna feels belittled by the very feature in Myshkin that has attracted her so to him – his refusal to judge. If judgement and condemnation are terrible things, lack of judgement or lack of condemnation can be terrible also, as they belittle the very concept of one’s moral agency. Ippolit senses this immediately: Myshkin’s forbearance is so great an indication of his moral superiority over those whom he refuses to judge, that he can only see such forbearance as a mortal insult.

Later in the novel, he reads his “necessary explanation”, and here, we seem to find ourselves in the world of Notes From Underground: in that earlier work, the narrator had started by telling us that he was a “sick man”: Ippolit too, as we know, is a very sick man. Like the nameless Underground narrator, Ippolit has no illusions about himself, or of the world he inhabits. As with Melville’s Bartleby, Ippolit’s world is defined by a huge, blank brick wall – Meyer’s wall, which is the view from his bedroom window: it defines a world that is blank, inexpressive, ugly – a world that, far from providing intimations of redemption or of transcendence, tells us in no uncertain terms that such things do not and cannot exist. If beauty is indeed to save the world, what salvation can there be in a world beset with such ugliness?

Ippolit goes on to lay bare his own soul, and, as with the Underground Man, he makes no attempt to hide its utter ugliness. He tells us of his neighbour Surikov, a desperately poor man:

I know of one poor man who died of starvation later on, as I was informed, and I was infuriated: had it been possible to bring that poor man back to life, I believe I should have murdered him. (III,6)

Ippolit hates and despises this man because of his meekness, because he has passively accepted his poverty and his misery. He then goes on to narrate a grotesque scene in which he and Surikov stand over the corpse of Surikov’s baby, who had frozen to death; and Ippolit, with what can only be viewed as a calculated cruelty, tells the bereaved father that the death of his child was entirely his fault.

… the wretch’s lips began to quiver and, grabbing my shoulder with one hand, he showed me the door with the other and said softly, almost whispered I mean: “Get out, sir! (III,6)

Ippolit is struck by the utter lack of anger on Surikov’s part, and, even for this reason, can feel for him nothing but contempt. Later, Ippolit dreams that Surikov has come into a lot of money, but is frightened by his wealth, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Ippolit suggests that he melt down all the gold and make out of it a coffin for his dead child, and that he exhume his child for the purpose of re-burying him in this golden coffin. And this suggestion Surikov, in Ippolit’s dream, accepts gratefully.

The world Ippolit presents in his “necessary explanation” is a world desperately in need of redemption: it is a world of cruelty and suffering, and of soul-sapping ugliness. But the very feature that we are told could save the world is very conspicuously absent: there is, and can be, no redemption. Meyer’s wall, for all its ugliness, at least tells us this truth. The essence of such a world appears, in another dream Ippolit has, in the form of a hideous scorpion-like creature:

It was something like a scorpion, but not a scorpion, it was more loathsome and much more horrible, in that there are no such animals in nature and it had appeared specially to me…(III,5)

In this dream, Norma, a family dog that had died some years earlier, appears, and it too is frightened and revolted by this scorpion-like creature. Norma nonetheless attacks it, but:

All of a sudden, Norma gave a piteous whine: the foul creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature was still wriggling across the width of her jaws, emitting large quantities of white fluid from its half-crushed body on to her tongue, like when a cockroach is squashed … That’s when I woke up, and the prince came in.(III,7)

As with the parables of Kafka, a passage such as this both demands and resists interpretation. To see the scorpion-like creature merely as a symbol of evil seems far too obvious: perhaps it is a symbol also of disease – not merely Ippolit’s, but also of Myshkin’s: Myshkin’s entrance at this very point is surely not accidental, and the horrible “white fluid” on the tongue of Norma is certainly more suggestive of epilepsy than of consumption. But it perhaps does not matter what it is a symbol of: what matters is the sense of grotesque revulsion the dream evokes. And this creature that evokes such revulsion does not exist in nature: it has appeared specially to Ippolit. To Ippolit, and to Ippolit alone, is given the vision of the essential unredeemable horror of the world, and of life. This sense of horror reappears in another dream he tells us of, this time featuring a tarantula; and it seemed to him – although he could not swear to it – that on his waking from the dream, Rogozhin, Myshkin’s ghostly double, had come into his room, and had sat in the chair under the icon lamp, silently staring at him.

In these dreams and visions – the scorpion-like creature, the tarantula, Rogozhin’s silent stare – there is no room for Myshkin’s vision of beauty redeeming the world. Ippolit rejects such a vision quite explicitly:

And what are they after with their ridiculous “Pavlovsk trees”? Trying to sweeten the last hours of my life? Can’t they realise that the more I forget myself, the more I surrender to this last illusion of life and love, with which they try to screen off Meyer’s wall and everything that is frankly and openly written on it, the unhappier they make me? What do I want with your nature, your Pavlovsk park, your dawns and sunsets, your blue skies and your smug faces, when all this feast that has no end has begun by excluding me alone? What is there for me in all this beauty, when I am forced to be aware every minute, every second, that even this tiny fly buzzing in the sunbeam near me, even that is a participant in all this festival and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I am the soul outcast, and only my cowardice has prevented me from wanting to face it before now! (III,7)

As an answer to Myshkin’s optimistic piety, it seems unanswerable. Ippolit, facing imminent death, wishes only for the truth, and the truth is what is so “frankly and openly” written on Meyer’s brick wall.

Curiously, Myshkin himself responds to Ippolit’s pessimism. Later in this same chapter, Myshkin thinks back on this part of Ippolit’s “necessary explanation”, and “a long-forgotten memory” stirs within him, and takes on “clarity of form”: he remembers the time in Switzerland, when, unable to speak, cut off from the lives of others – from life itself – by his illness, he had observed the beauty of the world around him, this great God-given feast in which even the buzzing fly partakes, but from which he, and he alone, is excluded. And he remembers now clearly the pain of utter hopelessness that had then seized him. It is hard not to be reminded here of Kafka’s famous line, quoted by Max Brod, that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us”.

By the end of the novel, Myshkin is, once again, becomes, quite literally, an “idiot”; meanwhile Ippolit, seemingly to everyone’s chagrin, is still alive, although still under the sentence of death. One had yearned for a redeeming beauty, but had been denied it; the other had never believed in it in the first place. And both are condemned. It is no surprise that Dostoyevsky had felt that the Great Idea that had inspired the novel had failed: it probably never really had much of a chance to begin with.

But the failure, if failure it is, is of the idea, not of the novel. It has from the first a doom-laden sense of tragic foreboding, a sense of a profound darkness poisoning a world that tantalisingly promises redemption, but which does not deliver on the promise. It is a world in which only an “idiot” can be a good man, but, being but a idiot, cannot survive. The closing chapters of this novel, where the two ghostly brothers, Myshkin and Rogozhin, keep watch over the murdered Nastasya Filippovna, have haunted my own dreams ever since I first read this novel nearly forty or so years ago: they retain still the power to haunt my imagination. Indeed, in this, my latest reading, I realised that as I was approaching this ending, I was, at least in some measure, frightened of what I knew I would encounter. Only in the chapters leading to the denouement of Anna Karenina have I encountered in a novel such overwhelming tragic power.

***

I started this post by saying I did not know where to start. Now that I am near the end, I realise that I don’t know where to finish either. This vast, complex work seems to be beyond analysis: it constantly demands to be interpreted, but seems greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. One should, given the content, finish the novel in a mood of the deepest despondency, but for some reason, one doesn’t: I suppose this is because the idea that is projected with such power and immediacy of transcendence, of redemption, does not disappear merely because it has been defeated. The fictional world presented in this novel is unlike any other, and, very possibly, it operates only in some obscure and rarely visited compartment of the human mind: but each re-reading hits me with the force of a whirlwind.

The joys of being miserable

How is it that we can witness some three hours of so of the utmost human misery that is King Lear, and still come out of the experience feeling exhilarated? Perhaps Orwell was right: in tragedy, we see human beings destroyed, but nonetheless feel that humanity is nobler than the forces that have defeated it. But, in the works especially of the last couple of hundred years or so, even the consolation of our essential nobility has been stripped away. Flaubert, in his works, presented an utter nothingess at the heart of our very existence, and refused to offer consolation: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as stupid and as pointless as that she rebels against; Frédéric Moreau remains as irredeemably mediocre and as unremarkable as ever; and even Félicité’s spiritual ecstasy is focussed upon nothing more exalted than a stuffed parrot that is already falling apart at the seams. Conrad merely saw darkness at the heart of everything; Kafka’s protagonist, when he finally has the knife twisted into his heart, hears before he dies the words “Like a dog”: our shame must outlive us; indeed, pace Larkin (who was actually quite an optimist in this respect), it is the only part of us that does outlive us.

Not very cheery, this modern literature lark, is it? Tragedians of the past told us that we were essentially noble: even if we have our eyes gouged out and even if we run stark staring mad on the blasted heath – as you do – we are still essentially noble, nobler than the forces that destroy us.  But the moderns won’t grant us even that. Between being born on the edge of the grave and falling in, Beckett tells us, there is nothing in that brief interim to make it worthwhile.

So, the obvious thing to do is to turn away from all this. All these Flauberts and Conrads and Kafkas and Becketts  – who needs ‘em? Why not, instead, feel good with some feelgood pieces of fluff? A West End musical? A Hollywood romcom? 

I generally have nothing against feelgood pieces of fluff, but ultimately, they don’t really satisfy. Not me, at any rate. Sooner or later, I know I’ll have to turn back to these Flauberts and Becketts for some sort of deeper satisfaction. But I’m damned if I can even begin to understand what sort of deeper satisfaction it is that I get from these works – works that tell us how utterly stupid, trivial and insignificant we are in every way. 

But there must for all that, be something there that satisfies. How else can I explain my actually reading and re-reading the likes of Flaubert and Conrad of my own free will? How can I account for these works satisfying me more deeply and more completely than even the goodest-feeling of feelgoods? I don’t know that I have an answer to this, but perhaps there is a clue in these lines I came across recently: 

When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit.

– Seamus Heaney 

That boy Seamus does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

I’m not sure where Seamus Heaney said that: I found it quoted in Colm Toibin’s review in The Guardian of Heaney’s new collection Human Chain. But it struck a chord. When a form generates itself, Heaney says, it is already on the side of life. Even when the artist imparts a vision of life that is irredeemably bleak, the work is, nonetheless, on the side of life. Any art that is worth the candle is on the side of life, whether it likes it or not. 

That does not provide a consolation: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. It says “bollocks” to the universe, that huge chunk of ironmongery against which we are all, apparently, insignificant. So, even when Flaubert tells us of the insignificance of Emma Bovary, even when Kafka tells us of the death “like a dog” of Josef K, they are contradicting what they are saying by the way they are saying it: they are protesting against the necessity, they are rebelling against the limits, even while depicting these same necessities and limits. And this protest, this rebellion, satisfies. 

I am reminded of some lines by another rather good Irish poet:

 All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

Somehow, I don’t think Yeats had “feelgood” in mind when talking about “gaiety”.