Posted by: gdevi | April 3, 2012

Stillborn from Books

I have been teaching Dostoevsky for years now; this probably dates me, but I am a Modernist at heart. My idea of heaven would be to be shut up in a room for weeks with shelves full of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century novels. For some reason, I go back and forth between the long novels, and these days, primarily because of the exigency of time or lack of it, I usually teach the novella Notes from the Underground. This group of students really understood this great work; we were talking about the concluding sections of the novella, where the underground man goes on his rant against “books.” I asked them how they understood it; after all, we–me and them–are in a profession where books are venerated–and Dostoevsky himself was a writer — we had a lovely discussion–they entered the heart of Dostoevsky’s strange and in some ways frightening discovery about what the existentialists called “bad faith.”  Books–art, in general–can be so appealing and seductive–you can sell complete crock to yourself–primarily to yourself–and then to other people in the form of “ideas”– you can make it so seductive and appealing so you would somehow seduce yourself into thinking that you did not “device” the whole thing, that it came from a source outside of you.  This is the frightening revelation of the Grand Inquisitor and the nihilist Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov to little Alyosha — ‘Everything is permitted.” All art is amoral; you must not go looking for morals or ethics or truth etc in art/ books etc; if you do, you live in what existentialists call bad faith.  For Dostoevsky and the existentialists, thus, an authentic life springs from being aware of this manufacturing of “ideas” in the name of “life.” Lacking this dialectical awareness, you would be stillborn from books. What a waste of books! My students understood it intellectually, but I wonder if they understood it emotionally. Dostoevsky wrote for the heart, not for the head. What a great, great writer–to go beyond one’s consciousness as an Act. I guess this is why I have tremendous respect for David Lynch as well. To me, seeing a David Lynch movie is almost as rewarding as reading the great nineteenth century novelists.

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