Monday, February 11, 2008

Switcheroos and nihilism

Plodding my way through The Devils and trying to refer to the Russian whenever possible has delayed my essay on Wilkie Collins. One of the problems with reading Dostoevsky is familiarizing yourself with his context. Back when I read Crime and Punishment for the first time in high school, I had the vague sense that the whole thing was one extended argument against something: what, I didn't know. Now I know that it was the hard materialism of Chernyshevsky, et al., and I still find The Devils difficult going. Today's classtime revelation: despite all of that nihilist business about "prejudging" good and evil and freeing himself from remorse, Stavrogin is really just raping twelve-year-olds and perpetrating general mayhem because he's bored. In retrospect, this should have been obvious. In the passage just before he exempts himself from good and evil, he says, "Every extraordinarily disgraceful, infinitely humiliating, vile and, above all, ridiculous situation in which I happened to find myself in my life, invariably aroused in me not only intense anger, but also a feeling of intense pleasure." If the rule of his life really is that he "neither knows nor feels good or evil...that there is neither good nor evil," one would expect that his actions would fall pretty evenly between good, evil, and neutral. Instead, he purposely sets out to do what he himself describes as disgraceful, vile, base, etc. This requires him to prejudge those acts as either good or evil to commit only the latter. This also squares pretty well with what we know of evil, of course: its single-minded pursuit of what I'd call narrative, or the desire to make something happen.

In the meantime, someone over on who_got_in posted one of the more perspicacious things I've read about a disturbing phenomenon: namely, the really bad writing endemic to literature programs. The author traces it to the professionalization of the study of literature (and that, in turn, to the perils of the academic job market). I'd be discouraged, if I didn't know lit. professors who clearly work hard to avoid the jargon trap and apparently enjoy success and publication despite it. One of them teaches me Dostoevsky here at UCSD. James Wood is another, and I'm looking forward to reading his latest.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 1:33 PM