Sunday, March 30, 2008

Thoughts - Old and New

[January 12, 2002] ... re-read The Brothers Karamazov again, after many years. I had forgotten what a great, amazing book it is -- an epic! It also seemed to me not so long or tedious, and, being older now, I saw his characters in a much clearer way than I had before. Alyosha is crystal-clear and good, and actually occupies much more of the book than I had remembered. The passionate unclarity of Mitya is set against the deliberate and malicious unclarity of Smerdyakov. Actually Mitya's is not so much unclarity as complications wound upon spools of honor - complications of honor so thick he can barely know himself as himself. Ivan - what to say about this character, who in many ways is the least appealing of the Karamazovs? The man in the middle in every sense of the word, torn between his brothers and particularly susceptible to the malice of Smerdyakov and suggesions of the Devil. Yes - it was moving to me to read this book in the light of biblical epistemology - to see so much in it interpreted in terms of religious faith - God and immortality - and yet to realize there is so much in it apart from faith. That is, so much that has to do with one's relation to Ideas, to the Tree of Knowledge. It is Ivan, the man of ideas who meets the Devil, or the Anti-Christ, who tells him -- "What I dream of is becoming incarnate once and for all irrevocably..." For the Devil "stays with" Ivan "from time to time" and in that way "gains a kind of reality." Otherwise, "I am X in an indeterminate equation, I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name." The Devil even knows his philosophy - he can quote Descartes, Je pense, donc je suis - but it is Mitya who suffers the consequences of ideas: "You seem" he tells his brother Alyosha, "I never had any of these doubts before, but it was all hidden away in me. It was perhaps just because ideas I did not understand were surging up in me, that I used to fight and drink and rage. It was to stifle them in myself, to still them, to smother them."

Another big theme is that of responsibility and the power of wishes. The saying of Christ, "If any man looketh upon a woman and lusteth after her, he is an adulterer," is taken to be a case of strenuous morality - over-strenuous perhaps, for after all it is one thing to look and another to act. Yet Ivan "looked on" as the plots of Smerdyakov - deliberately guileful and obfuscating as they were - swirled about him. So that it is in a way correct to hold the blame for the parricide upon Ivan. And it is this strenuous morality that informs this novel. For one is responsible, indeed, for one's own soul - for each is in all, and all are in each.

From Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Writer's Life by Geir Kjetsaa: [quote] Dostoevsky's novels are about what questions are worth asking...[He] wrote, in his younger days: "You know that the artist in the moment of inspiration comprehends God. It follows then that poetic inspiration is in reality a philosophical inspiration; and philosophy is in reality nothing but poetry, a peculiar, higher form of poetry!"

[quote or paraphrase] Dostoevsky's chief interest - the individual's attitude toward his neighbor. Action is of less significance than attitude - sinful actions are more forgivable than sinful states of mind. This is to get away from a formalistic concept of sin (transgression) to one in which sin is viewed as the absence of compassion - the refusal to affirm suffering.

"Freud's essay on Dostoevsky and its emphasis on patricide have given nourishment to innumerable attacks on the writer... and the source of the most hopelessly mistaken biographical interpretation of the author's work...[quote or paraphrase continuing] some biographers speculated that D's father was murdered by his serfs (despite the fact that the doctor's certificate existed testifying that Dostoevsky's father died of natural causes) -- "The traditional portrayal [of Dostoevsky's father] as a cruel, punishing father, with the murder, and finally of his self-inflicted punishment in the form of an epileptic attack -- all of this fits perfectly within a psychoanalytic hypothesis. But the biographical foundation for this theory is more than questionable." Indeed - it is outrageous. This is not the first time that a cavalier attitude toward the facts and dimensions of a story is discernible in that Founder of Psychoanalysis.

Sometime, I think, when the real history of the 20th century is ever written, it will be seen that psychoanalysis was a trap sprung by the Devil to strangle historical consciousness in its cradle. A kind of spiritual infanticide. I base this judgment on three things: the interpretation of Oedipus; the interpretation of Dostoevsky; and the "false-memory" craze which swept through this country, causing unparalleled woe and destruction. It was an attitude which fostered a licentious
attitude toward the truth, toward what happened -- hence a disparaging attitude toward history. [Close of journal passage]

Speaking of Freud, the writer Anthony Daniels (whose real name is Theodore Dalrymple) writes in the March, 2008, issue of The New Criterion an article, "At the forest's edge," linking Freud and Ortega y Gasset. A more inappropriate linkage can hardly be imagined. He does it because Ortega's Revolt of the Masses and Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, happened to appear in the same year (1930). But mere conjunction in time or proximity in space does not for kinship make - though it is owing to the insufferable materialism of the modern mind that such kinships are gleefully proclaimed from the intellectual gutter press with all due orotund profundity. But I think Mr. Daniels has defamed Ortega by calling him an atheist: "...because Ortega, like Freud, was an atheist, he could not suggest a religious solution to the problem..."

I ask you, dear Reader, does a thinker have to propose a religious solution to a problem in order to be exempt from the charge of atheism? This is neither logical nor true. What the truth of this matter is, is that Mr. Dalrymple himself is an atheist - he has admitted as much, and somewhere, in the bowels of this website, I have addressed the issue of Mr. Dalrymple's atheism ("Atheism Lite" Nov. 30, 2007- See From the Catacombs-Archives). So that the writer, being an atheist, finds atheism wherever he looks -- there is a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas about how everything is received according to the mode of the receiver - unfortunately, I cannot dig it up the Latin out of my haphazard pile of notebooks-- but in the case of Ortega y Gasset, I consider the charge unconscionable. And this too is characteristic of materialism, taking religious belief for a matter of verbal professions only, and ignoring the soul.

As a final note, Russell Seitz also discovered the article on Ortega y Gasset, and posted a squib on Taki's Top Drawer, "Hunting for Jose" (March 28). For some reason the Taki editors are censoring my comments. I therefore reproduce it below. I should also add that I was formerly slightly acquainted with Mr. Seitz, having met him in Cambridge in the early 70's. He, as my father had been before him, was a member of the Fly Club of Harvard; Mr. Seitz was evidently eager to meet ladies descended from such impeccable lines. Our acquaintance was no particular success, and I hastened to introduce the gentleman to a friend of mine, who likewise reported a similar dismal outcome. Perhaps Mr. Seitz has improved with time, as I hope I have; although I have to confess that I find his writings on Taki's Top Drawer difficult to decipher, if not bordering on incoherence.

Anyway, here's what I wrote:

I thought it a disappointing article on Ortega y Gasset in several respects - also surprising, as Theodore Dalyrymple is in general a very fine writer. First of all, he linked Ortega to Freud, which I thought extremely unfortunate. And was it quite correct to call the Jesuit-trained Ortega an atheist? I have my doubts.
It seems to me that Ortega and Freud had diametrically opposing views about the nature of the instincts. Ortega wrote in "The Sportive Origins of the State" that "... in every vital process the first impulse is given by an energy of supremely free and exuberant character..." Ortega could write in that fashion because he possessed in his soul the animating ideas of Catholic civilization - which Freud loathed and did everything he could to destroy.
Anthony Daniels was right to assert that Ortega's idea of a European Union was mistaken. Yet he missed noting Ortega's real error in The Revolt of the Masses - which was, he thought that science would disappear because mass man would no longer apply himself to such a discipline. Alas, the situation is quite otherwise - as John Lukacs has pointed out with his phrase, techno-barbarism: "We know something that people at the beginning of the 20th century could not even imagine: that the advance of technology and barbarism are no longer irreconciliable." From "The End of the Twentieth Century and the and of the Modern Age." I believe that John Lukacs may have had Ortega in mind with that statement.

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