I finished A. V. Marraccini’s We the Parasites very very early Friday morning and then sneaked in two hours of sleep before a nine a.m. alarm. We the Parasites is a discursive ekphrasis, its finest moments concentrated on Cy Twombly (and his historical painting The Age of Alexander in particular). Marraccini turns her lens also to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, Jean Genet, and pomegranates and wasps. 2020 and Covid-19 hang over the book, inverting its would-be-flânerie: It’s flânerie for silent nights, cybernights, flânerie for necessary introversion.
I’m about 100 pages into Cities of the Plain, the final book of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I read it maybe fifteen years ago and recall almost nothing about it other than McCarthy uniting the two heroes of the first two books, John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. So far, the novel is a far quicker read than the first two Border novels—more direct, more cinematic, less adolescent, its intensities tamped by experience. About thirty pages in, McCarthy devotes two entire pages to a description of changing a tire. It’s beautiful.
Nest in the Bones collects a career-spanning selection of Antonio Di Benedetto short stories (in translation by Martina Broner). I’ve been trying to read one or two a day. Many of the early stories are quite short, and Di Benedetto perhaps shows a bit too much debt to Kafka here, but the oddity of it all is wonderful.
It is true that William S. Burroughs was fond of dinners with famous and interesting people, and was totally fine with having a young, perhaps good looking Victor Bockris serve as a nexus and recorder for such events, events that have nothing to do with big-ell Literature. But my favorite thing here (as was the case with Allen Ginsberg’s nineties jaunt with Burroughs in the same vein, Don’t Hide the Madness), my favorite thing here is how Burroughs undercuts any pretension or redirects conversation to his own strange obsessions.
A. Let’s start with this: I need to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice again. Like, I’m compelled.
B. But maybe a quick sketch before, no? Like, here in my office hours, before an afternoon class, when I should be shuffling through a few early papers—and, like away from the novel, which I’ve been rereading bits of? With the intention of re: point A seeing it again this weekend.
C. A claim, bold or otherwise: PTA’s film is better than Pynchon’s novel.
D. (Apples and oranges, bro, thou protest).
E. Okay so point C: What do I mean by better? I’m not really sure.
F. Maybe what I mean is: PTA slows down Pynchon’s novel. Expands the tension, the euphoria, the weirdness under the lines of dialogue.
G. (The film’s dialogue seems composed entirely from the text of the novel. Verbatim).
H. (But verbatim—how verbatim?: There are those gaps, those wonderful gaps that PTA fills—with color and smoke and sound and legs legs legs).
I. PTA also underlines plot connections for the reader, limning the paranoid contours that connect conspiracy-theory paranoia to vertically-integrated capitalism.
J. Okay, so point I: I’m not saying that clarifying the plot for the viewer (in a way that Pynchon arguably does not) makes the film, better—what I’m saying is that critics who contend the film fails to cohere are maybe missing the point.
K. Here’s a point: Inherent Vice offers the most coherent and balanced conclusion of any of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. The final act performs the spirit behind Pynchon’s letters, offering a vision of fraternal love, or of caritas, if not love—of partnerships, of how to feed the hungry, the famished. (Poor famished Bigfoot). Of resistance to the pavement.
L. Or, another way to flesh out point C, or revise point C:
PTA gives us—and by us let’s be clear I mean me—a new reading of the novel. (And of course not just PTA, but his marvelous ensemble, too marvelous to remark on at length here). PTA’s reading of Doc’s reunion with Shasta—surely one of the film’s most intense moments—is entirely different than my own reading, and rereading that scene after viewing, I feel like Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston read the scene right, or read the scene, depict the scene, perform the scene in a way that illustrates the darkest strands of sunny smoky searing Inherent Vice.
M. The aforementioned scene—Doc reunited with one (sort of) partner—is balanced neatly against two other key scenes: The final scene between Doc and (sort of) partner Bigfoot, and the scene in which Doc restores Coy to his family. Brother’s keeper.
N. (Parenthetically: I fell in love with the movie in its opening minutes. In those opening drumbeats of Can’s “Vitamin C”).
O. So I have to rush to class and discuss Kate Chopin and not PTA’s Inherent Vice, which is what I’d rather riff on. Not really a world of inconvenience, but…(oh, and I love how that Pynchonian byword echoed through the film).
P. End on P for Pynchon and Paul TA and Promise: Promise to rewatch, reread, rewrite.
Did I read it before? In high school? Not in college, not in grad school, I’m certain of that.
That I could have read Notes from Undergroundin full three times, but not Crime and Punishment—how?
I vaguely recall wandering into Crime and Punishment as a young man. All those Russian names though. My attention was on other matters.
And so reading Crime and Punishment this month I repeatedly felt a strange anger or shame at all my younger selves for lacking the attention or the will or the discipline to stick it out . . . and these words, attention, discipline, will, they don’t seem like the right words, because the book compels, commands,rewards . . .
2. You are familiar with the plot of course:
Our hero, our anti-hero, young Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker, an old woman; in the rush of the crime, he fails to close the door, and the pawnbroker’s innocent sister sees him. So he murders her too. The rest of the novel deals with the psychological fall out of this crime. Sure, there’s a sister and a mother, a failed marriage plot, a detective, a friend, and a love interest, a prototypical hooker with a heart of gold, etc.—but that’s it. That’s the plot.
3. What impels Raskolnikov to murder the pawnbroker?
Perhaps I shouldn’t answer here. Perhaps it’s better to suggest you just read the book if you haven’t yet—because is not this the driving question?
(Oh you’ve read the book? I’ll continue then).
4. Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not because he is an indigent student in need of funds. He murders her to test his theory—or rather, he murders her to test his place within the scheme of his theory.
5. Raksolnikov’s idea:
I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. . . . I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood . . .
Raskolnikov believes that “extraordinary men” have the right, the duty, even, to transgress law—even to the extremes of murder (even mass murder) in order to bring about a new word, a new idiom, a new philosophy, a new paradigm, a new zeitgeist, even a New Jerusalem.
Raskolnikov wants to know if he is one of these “extraordinary men.”
6. But Raskolnikov, like Macbeth or a figure out of Poe, is plagued by doubt, misgiving—and more than a touch of insanity and egomania.
His instability and his psychological and moral dilemma is summed up neatly in only the second chapter of the book:
“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”
7. The word or an iteration of the word psychology appears 25 times in the Constance Garnett translation I read.
Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, when Sigmund Freud was ten years old.
(I am not naively/stupidly suggesting that Freud invented psychology, by the way. I’m just riffing).
8. What Crime and Punishment does so well:
Harnesses the intellect of its protagonist Raskolnikov, shows us his fevered mind in revolution, shifts us through his moods and dilemmas and despairs and strange joys.
9. And it’s not just the interior of Rakolnikov’s skull we get such access to—Dostoevsky gives our lead a marvelous, taunting foil in the detective Porfiry, a loyal and empathetic counterpoint in friend Razumikhin, a despicable enemy in the poseur Luzhin, and a dark-future forecast in Svidrigaïlov.
Each of these characters represent viewpoints and attitudes about psychology and morality without ever falling into being mere allegorical sketches or mouthpieces for Dostoevsky’s ideas.
10. Dostoevsky—unlike certain contemporary novelists I’ll neglect to name—doesn’t tell us that his character is brilliant (or troubled, or confounded, or fucked up). And he goes beyond showing us—he actually lets us experience the character’s psychology.
11. A marvelous, frightening episode that illustrates point 10:
12. This isn’t to say that Dostoevsky’s handling of characterization is flawless.
His women appear less fully-realized than his men, as if he perhaps cannot inhabit their minds so fully or exercise their brains, their souls, their voices.
Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, for example, is a bold, more perfect, more more moral, more stable version of her brother, a woman who seems able to withstand conflict, disappointment, and misfortune with ease—too much ease. Raskolnikov’s mother, in contrast, is something of an idealized blank—not just a mother, but the mother figure: nonjudgmental, loving—her character summed up in her hugging her son and forgiving him for what she cannot forgive.
It’s the depiction of Raskolnikov’s love interest Sonia that I find most troubling though. Dostoevsky renders her an unsubtle merging of the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Her alcoholic father forces her into prostitution to save the family, but she never appears bitter or angry or even upset. Dostoevsky rarely affords her a speaking role, and in her biggest scene she reads the entire parable of Lazarus. Sure, she makes the words her own, but she’s being ventriloquized. The strings show. She’s pure symbolism, really, and stands in stark contrast to the dark, flawed humanity of Raskolnikov.
13. Re: Point 12 above: If Dostoevsky shows a certain weakness in his depiction of women, he perhaps compensates in other areas. For example, Luzhin’s roomate Andrey Semyonovitch, a utopian socialist, serves as a mouthpiece for emerging feminist ideas. And if Dostoevsky mocks would-be reformers in his novel, it’s not always with vitriol, but sometimes with understanding, and even perhaps love. After all, this is Raskolnikov’s pretension—to be a reformer of others, to step over the line of law, to be a great man.
14. But Raskolnikov is a failed reformer, or at least is unable to live with his trespass, his sin. Crime and Punishment’s epilogue emphasizes the Jesusian theme of the possibility of resurrection, even as it subdues or complicates that possibility.
We get the final image of Raskolnikov “mechanically” taking up Sonia’s copy of the New Testament; he doesn’t open it to read, but instead reflects on the possibility of a new life with Sonia, a life that “would cost him great striving, great suffering.” Dostoevsky does not let his protagonist off the hook, even as he offers the reader a final comforting vision of “the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”
15. There’s a strong temptation to see the epilogue as tacked on, as a sentimental gesture to the reader’s sense of stable morality, as a bit of window dressing that covers the ugliness of the narrative.
And perhaps this is true.
I’d argue though that Dostoevsky gives us a cold, ugly ending in the figure of Svidrigaïlov, who more or less commands the final moments of the narrative, moments that lead inexorably to his suicide—the self-erasing gesture that Raskolnikov cannot commit to. I think that Svidrigaïlov’s suicide might stand as a placeholder for Raskolnikov’s—an exchange of sorts.
And Svidrigaïlov’s death is not without a small measure of redemption—the redemption of other-directedness, of giving, of selflessness. It is far more complicated and troubling than the Jesusian resurrection that Dostoevsky implies as a possibility for Raskolnikov, but it also strikes me as far more real.
It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.
I stopped, blinked: suddently I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I did not understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. I laughed.
What I found strange at the time was that I had never realized before; that up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.
Then my laugh died. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention. “Stop a moment!” I shouted, “there is something wrong! Everything is wrong! We are doing the absurdest things. This cannot be the right way. Where can it end?”
People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desparate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I had raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.
“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We cannot see anything wrong or absurd.”
I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed normal, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, begggards, processions; yet this did not calm me, it tormented me.
“I am sorry,” I said. “Perhaps it was I who was wrong. It seemd that way then. But everything is fine now. I am sorry.” And I made off amid their angry glares.
Yet, even now, every time (and it is often) that I find I do not understand something, then, instincitively, I am filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp the other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.
“The Flash,” by Italo Calvino. Collected in Numbers in the Dark.