Wednesday, February 27, 2008

мороженое для каждого

One of my Russian classmates was talking about a hammer and sickle t-shirt bearing the legend "мороженое для каждого!" ("Ice cream for everyone!") on something he called "Cafe Express." Having searched this out and determined that he probably mean Cafe Press, I'm still coming up empty handed on the t-shirt. And I kind of gotta haves it. Anyone seen it? I suppose the good thing about Cafe Press is that if it doesn't exist, I can create it.

Also, if there's anything more insidious than the way that DaVinci Code references have permeated popular discourse, I don't know what it is. Twice in the past few days I've heard someone use the phrase "sub rosa" when all they really mean is obscure or hidden (or, amusingly, password protected). Interestingly, we were just having a discussion about a similar phenomenon in my Dostoevsky class today. In "The Grand Inquisitor," the eponymous character deliberately confuses the words "tайна" (meaning mystery, as in 'mystery of faith,') and the more provincial "секрет," as in something that children keep from each other. The Grand Inquisitor reduces the mysteries of Christianity (perfect faith) for the dirty little secret that the Church keeps (i.e., that it's really in thrall to the devil). This confusion underpins most of the third part of his argument.

I think what I love most about Russian is the way that it has about five different words to every single English general purpose usage.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

For all the sound and fury kicked up about Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor scene ("It will shake your faith," promised my professor) I found it thoroughly unconvincing--almost beside the point, even. Perhaps it's because I don't have much faith to shake, but you'd think that would make me a particularly receptive member of the audience. For those unfamiliar with the argument: Christ reappears in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, starts performing miracles, and is immediately taken into custody by the Grand Inquisitor and sentenced to death. During the pre-trial, post-sentence interrogation (hey, it was the Inquisition), the latter asks the former why he created a faith utterly disconsonant with human nature; why, when the devil tempted him in the wilderness, Christ didn't turn the stones into bread and agree to rescue by flights of angels by leaping from the roof of the temple. The Inquisitor has an answer: "Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on a miracle." In other words, men will follow anyone if given the proper formula of signs (and bread), but Christ misunderstands this facet of human nature and it is the job of the Church to "correct" his work and found its faith for the masses upon the principles of "miracle, mystery, and authority." Miracles always enjoy this treatment in Dostoevsky novels, as a kind of ultimate paradox of belief: if you ask for a miracle, implicit in the very asking is your need for proof, and thus your demonstration that you lack the perfect faith required for the performance of a miracle. The Grand Inquisitor's line of questioning challenges this formulation of the problem by deeming it impossible for the majority of mankind to grasp. They need miracles, he says. They cannot follow "freely," without the compulsion of the miracle to cause them to sit up and pay attention.

To my mind, this is a curious definition of "freedom," one which may have something to do with the etymology of Russian. Dostoevsky throughout this passage uses the word свобода and its variants. This means freedom in a very particular sense, though--as in freedom from something. (One of the first things you learn in Russian is "что вы делаете в свободное время?"/What do you do in your free time?", as in "time free from activity.") But there's another word for freedom in Russian, and it signifies freedom in the political sense of the word in which most Westerners and Western European languages mean it: "воля," sometimes translated as "will." The connotation of the latter is more positive: the franchise, the statement or exertion of one's preferences, etc. The former is rather narrowly "freedom from compulsion." Leave aside for the moment that Dostoevsky's definition of "compulsion" appears to be "evidence" and consider how well the two definitions of freedom equate. They don't. One means "freedom from outside influence" but the other means something more like "the activities associated with freedom." свобода is very nearly the absence of activity. So where a Westerner would shake her head at "freedom" as a state of adhering to a religion in the absence of evidence, it makes perfect sense in Russian.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tofu scramble

(The title really has nothing to do with this post. It's just the current ad in my gmail account, and it sort of describes, figuratively, what I'm about to do.)

Berkeley's giving me something called an English Department Fellowship, although I really have no idea what that is or what it entails. (Performing public cartwheels on a quarterly basis? Spending Halloween night in a haunted mansion?) More importantly, they're paying for a visit in March. My general policy is to jump at any opportunity to go to San Francisco, and it's worked well for me so far.

This week will--if last year's notification times are any indication--yield results from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. An acceptance and funding offer in hand makes me (slightly) less jittery than I was a scant few weeks ago, but still, applying to graduate school isn't for the easily excited or those prone to palpitations. The fact that I'm suffering with my colleagues somehow makes things a little easier to bear. I was on who_got_in yesterday posting a story about the recent hack of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and got a friendly rebuke not to title my post, simply, "Harvard." Point well taken. This is usually how people start posts about acceptances, and apparently, I nearly gave someone a myocardial infarction.

I finished "The Moonstone" the other day, and remembered [spoilers ahead] that Sergeant Cuff does return for a curtain call near the end of the book, to unmask Godfrey Ablewhite's disguise. He even provides one of the narratives, and, interestingly enough, it's the narrative that ties the story together from the moment of the diamond's theft to the moment of Ablewhite's death. Still, his role in the actual detection is marginal, and I think this well describes his role as one of the dozen narrators, too. In some ways, it's one of the least interesting parts of the book, simply because it is traditional narrative: it's the chapter that hits you over the head with what a careful reader would have already pieced together from the preceding narratives. So I really find myself in disagreement with T.S. Eliot on this one: "The Moonstone" isn't the longest and best of the English detective novels simply because it's not a detective novel in the traditional sense of the word, where the reader passively watches detection unfold. The reader is the actual detective, privy to all sorts of facts that no single person knows at the time that the action of the book is unfolding. It's a neat and rather modern trick, of which more later. (/spoilers)

I've signed on to Twitter for the pleasure of condensing 700+ page Russian novels to 140 characters. "Brothers Karamazov. Papa to Ivan: Do you believe in God? Ivan: No. To Alyosha: Do you? Alyosha: Yes. The End." Look me up. I'm shannonissima.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

ha ha

*nelson muntzes*

I got my official Northwestern rejection (after the implicit one several weeks ago, after they failed to interview me). Now that I'm in at Berkeley and UCSD, it's hard to care too much about this. I think it's mostly a testament to the arbitrariness of these decisions--which is consolation when one gets rejected and something to pour a little cold water on all that joy when one isn't.

In only marginally related news, my professor wants me to move from the intermediate Russian class to the advanced one. I'm both timid and tempted. The former, because it's conducted solely in Russian. The latter, because it features reading real literature in the original and would help me with my literary Russian. что делать? as they say.

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Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 2:08 PM :: (0) comments

And an extra-gooey Valentine's Day to you, too

blah blah, corporate hate, Valentine's Day was invented by a secret cabal of chocolate makers, and florists...I still kind of love it. Matt and I have a picnic just because, as two Midwesterners, there's a certain novelty in sitting in a park on a February evening and not losing a couple of fingers to frostbite.

There's a predictable surge of opinions around this time of the year about how to keep the magic alive and what it means to be a good spouse or partner. Most of the advice is either wacky, misogynist, or self-evident. ("Dress up like a tiger and purr your man to bliss!" "Men like to be in charge. Let him order for you in a restaurant.") And I've given serious consideration to renaming February "penis euphemism month" for all of the synonyms of that organ that start appearing in the personal advice columns.

It was therefore a shock and pleasure to come across a genuinely funny, resoundingly accurate piece about romantic relationships. The audience, admittedly, might be rather limited: it's called "The Nerd's Handbook." Valentine's-appropriate excerpt:

A nerd needs a project because a nerd builds stuff. All the time. Those lulls in the conversation over dinner? That’s the nerd working on his project in his head.

It’s unlikely that this project is a nerd’s day job because his opinion regarding his job is, “Been there, done that”. We’ll explore the consequences of this seemingly short attention span in a bit, but for now this project is the other big thing your nerd is building and I’ve no idea what is, but you should.

At some point, you, the nerd’s companion, were the project. You were showered with the fire hose of attention because you were the bright and shiny new development in your nerd’s life. There is also a chance that you’re lucky and you are currently your nerd’s project. Congrats. Don’t get too comfortable because he’ll move on, and, when that happens, you’ll be wondering what happened to all the attention. This handbook might help.

Later in the article, some practice advice:

You love to travel, but your nerd would prefer to hide in his cave for hours on end chasing The High. You need to convince him of two things. First, you need to convince him that you’re going to do your best to recreate his cave in his new surrounding. You’re going to create a quiet, dark place here he can orient himself and figure out which way the water flushes down the toilet. Traveling internationally? Carve out three days somewhere quiet at the beginning of the trip. Traveling across the US? How about letting him chill on the bed for a half-day before you drag him out to see the Golden Gate Bridge?

Second, and more importantly, you need to remind him about his insatiable appetite for information. You need to appeal to his deep love of discovering new content and help him understand that there may be no greater content fire hose than waking up in a hotel overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice where you don’t speak a word of Italian.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 10:26 AM :: (0) comments

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.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Flower child

I just got into Berkeley.

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The week or so of blogging Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins is one of those writers your nineteenth-century novel class probably ignored completely. It's a shame, both because of his popularity among his contemporaries (and all of the significance and influence that it implies) and his unusual method of telling stories, which I touched on briefly in the previous post. Over the next week, I'm going to devote this blog to analyzing that structure--where it works and where it fails. A quick preview of my argument: the detective novel genre he's said to have inaugurated grew out of the multiple narrator format he adopted.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 10:33 AM :: (0) comments

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Indomitable Cuff

Part II in my personal series entitled Literary Comfort Food* is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, a multi-narrator extravaganza said to have inaugurated the English detective novel genre, but which I associate more often with its strong, albeit vestigial, Gothic elements. Since genre is fundamentally about what readers accept as its conventions, perhaps it's best to start with the aforelinked Wikipedia article, which lists the following reasons to consider TM a detective novel:

  1. large number of suspects
  2. red herrings
  3. a crime being investigated by talented amateurs who happen to be present when it is committed
  4. two police officers who exemplify, respectively, the 'local bungler' and the skilled, professional Scotland Yard detective
I agree with this assessment, but think it misses a few points, of varying importance. The first is the odd epistolary form, which Wilkins also exploits--to even greater effect--in The Woman in White. Here it functions (and well) as a kind of unreliable narrator to multiply the red herrings. Only when one steps back and finishes the work, with all of its individual accounts, does a complete picture emerge. This of course makes the ending less predictable until, well, you reach the end. The detective novel and the epistolary novel begin to seem almost like a single organic creation in the hands of Collins. The second interesting thing about this is that it makes the resulting narrative its own artifact, or clue. Collins doesn't quite do everything he might have done with this: the ending, and much of the rest of the book, is unambiguous, and there's no indication that we're to regard the manuscript as suspiciously as we might regard any other clue. But this is a kind of self-referentiality that doesn't appear until at least a few decades later, so I think we can forgive him that.

Two problems emerge in considering this a straightforward example of the detective novel genre. (To paraphrase the novel) Problem the First: those Gothic elements I mentioned above (a particularly creepy batch of quicksand which hides bodies and secrets and which one character refers to as her "grave" shortly before making it so) which seem to ally it more closely with its epistolary elements and therefore a far earlier period in English literary history. Problem the Second: Sergeant Cuff, the competent Scotland Yarder, is actually a brother of those fantastic Conan Doyle creations to whom Holmes is always ascribing "a little talent." Like them, he seems to analyze the case primarily based not on the empirical evidence that seems to have won out (if the popularity of CSI and its permutations is any evidence) in the detective genre but on the grounds of such hazy entities as "personal experience of young ladies and their credit woes." As in the Sherlock Holmes stories, the narrative here is the doggedness of the amateur versus the staid complaisance of the professional, who seems to believe that he's seen the full set of the human condition and the crime it inspires. His detecting is mere recitation with a few empirical twists, which is always at alarming odds with the first narrator's depiction of him as the epitome of mystery-solving genius. It's quite the jar for those of us who are reading backwards, from the crime novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to their supposed ur-text.

*Definition of the Literary Comfort Food genre:
1) must have read it before
2) must be heard in audiobook format by someone of the British persuasion
3) must have been published pre-Ulysses

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 2:18 PM :: (0) comments