Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Powerful Toys

Ever since I went back and read Hannah Arendt’s exceptional study of violence, written in the late 1960s, I have been pondering the possible reasons for this country’s fascination with things violent. You may recall that she argued that violence is the result of a sense of powerlessness and it is when we begin to feel the frustration that arises from a sense that we have little control over our lives that we begin to gravitate toward violence. I have always thought this was the allure of an entire series of movies like “Dirty Harry” — an angry cop who has little patience with procedure and simply goes straight for the bad guy and shoots him dead with his huge Magnum hand gun (Freud take note). “Make my day!” It’s a quick and gratifying “solution” in a Kafkaesque world where molasses-slow procedures often allow the criminal to go free and tie up the police in yards and yards of red tape.

And as I noted in my earlier blog, we have a growing number of reasons to feel powerless as our world becomes increasingly crowded and angry, bills keep piling up, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the government is clearly composed of ambitious idiots without a brain among them, and nothing seems to get done. So if Arendt is correct in her analysis, and it seems likely, we shouldn’t be surprised by the increase in violence in this country and around the world. The fact that violence is more prevalent in this country may simply come down to the fact that we have access to more lethal weapons with very few enforceable restrictions and those who use them to kill people always make the headlines. The rest of the world may eventually catch up with us.

But related to our growing sense of powerlessness is our expanding fascination with electronic toys, especially the hand-held devices that give us the illusion of power in an age when we have very little to say about the events that surround us. What is especially interesting in this regard are the XBoxes with their incredibly violent programs that allow the user to take charge of a situation and repeatedly wipe out the “enemy” with a push of the button — not unlike the maniac who walks into a school with an assault rifle and proceeds to shoot real children. If one is in the XBox world long enough it makes sense that he might well lose his bearings and forget where the fantasy world leaves off and the real world begins. And given the ready accessibility of weapons and ammunition….

In a word, electronic devices — and I speak of all electronic devices, not just the violent ones — give us the illusion of power at a time when we sense we are losing power in the real world where problems keep mounting up and solutions seem farther and farther away. For most of us this is simply some sort of compensation for our inability to make changes in the real world. But, coupled with our growing cultural narcissism, for others it may translate into violent actions.

Nietzsche thought that the fundamental urge in all human action was the love of power. I suspect that’s where Hannah Arendt got her clue to our present malaise. We crave power and as we sense that we are losing it we seek alternatives that will restore that sense of power. Electronic devices, even cell phones, do precisely that. The awesome weapons that those who commit violent acts wield are quite possibly an extension of this same urge; the few who take those weapons into crowded places and start shooting people may have lost their sense of where they are, wandering in the real world they can no longer distinguish from the fantasy world where they are indeed all-powerful.

Underground Man

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”

It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay, and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.

Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical.  Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.

For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.

But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?