Thoughts on Passions, Boredom, and Kindness from Gogol’s “Dead Souls” 


It took me a while to finish reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. I have to be honest and say, I did not enjoy reading it as much as I did Dostoevsky’s novels. This is bias on my part, perhaps, because I am a Dostoevsky fan. It was an almost an effort reading this novel to the end.

Still I am glad I finished reading it even though the novel itself ends in mid-sentence.

Here I would like to share some of the lines that I highlighted and why they struck me.

“For human passions are as numberless as is the sand of the seashore, and go on to become his most insistent of masters. Happy, therefore, the man who may choose from among the gamut of human passions one which is noble!” 

The mistake of Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, the main character, is choosing the ignoble passion of greed, of wanting much more than what he has, and doing everything he can, even if it is wrong, just to get ahead.

Yes, it is human nature to desire, but not everything we desire can be ours. This is the reason it is most often not a good idea to just  do “whatever makes you happy.” If every single one of us just does whatever makes us happy, will we all be happy? Someone is bound to cry.

This is not to say that one cannot be happy without consequently hurting other people. Rather, there are many things that can make one happy that won’t hurt others at all, but there are a few things that will surely hurt the others that one cares about if one selfishly follows the desires of one’s heart. I think every human being has been through this kind of dilemma.

“Weariness of everything is a modern invention. Once upon a time one never heard of it.”

Platon Mikhalitch is a young and rich landowner who is weary of life. He finds life and work boring. He visits his neighbor, Peter Petrovich Pietukh, whom he finds annoying because the latter is always cheerful thinking of what to eat next, while he, Platon, is always gloomy.

I can understand weariness of life, and if I have a choice between a long or short life, I’d choose the latter (just until my son can live on his own). However as I still have life and the ability to move, I can think of so many things to do. The problem is not having enough time to do all the things I want to do. So I do not understand boredom when I am doing something.

Maybe it’s because people are made to think that their work has to be fun or exciting or interesting that has caused them to get bored with their jobs. WORK is work. In the past, people worked the land to put food on the table. I don’t think they considered whether it was fun to do or not. They just did it.

Now people don’t have to work so hard to put food on the table, and they get bored. Easily.

So I agree with the author: Weariness of everything is a modern invention. 

“Therefore, if it really be that you have no genuine love for doing good, do good by FORCING yourself to do so. Thus you will benefit yourself even more than you will benefit him for whose sake the act is performed.” 

Murazov spoke these words to Chichikov after the latter confessed to his lack of real love for what is good and only wants acquisition of property.

Murazov is a wise man. He knows how habits are formed. Even doing good deeds can be made into a habit. In the same way, forcing ourselves to be kind to people we don’t particularly like will benefit us even more than it will benefit them. How?

Eventually we will forget why we didn’t like them in the first place. And if we do not dislike anyone, then our minds are more at peace. Nobody’s living rent-free in our heads. (The irony is the more we dislike someone, the more often we think about them. And nothing is more annoying!)

*****

Published in 1842, Dead Souls is supposedly “widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature.” But for some reason, I do not find it as interesting, as thought-provoking or as moving as The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot or Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s novels, their characters and their stories are somehow more memorable. But as I’ve spent time on it, I made sure I learned something.

Have a peaceful week! 💕

 

T.

Thoughts after Reading Gogol’s The Overcoat 

I’m not entirely sure if it’s mere coincidence that last night I read Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat , and this afternoon, I watched the second episode of The Young Pope where Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII spoke to the faithful for the first time, and he said something like we have to be closer to God than to each other, that he will never be closer to the people than he is to God because we are all alone before God. 

Akakievitch’s death was truly tragic, just as tragic as his life. Tragic to the reader, anyway. If he existed in our times, he would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum and would get some help. But in the story, in his adult life, no one cared about him. 

The quote I pasted on the photo reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. I told him how the sight of so many people who came to my father’s funeral made me think there would be very few people who would come to my own funeral because as I grow older I’ve become less sociable, less friendly. Especially now that I’ve been away from home for 14 years, and most of my friends and former students have left the city or the country, and I don’t visit friends or relatives whenever I go home; I don’t attend family (clan) reunions….

At my mother’s funeral last year, I was moved by the number of people who came to condole  with us. A lot of them I’ve never even seen before — my sisters’ co-workers and friends, my mother’s former co-workers and students, my father’s former co-workers. It was comforting to see so many people cared about my family enough to come to my mother’s  funeral. My parents were luckier than Akakievitch. 

Now and then I would remind my husband not to die ahead of me, or I would never forgive him. We often laugh when I start talking about this, but we both know I am serious. No way he’s dying before me. Good thing is we agree this is a good idea. 

Having said that, I’ve decided to try to be a little more sociable again. Not because I want people to remember me, but because I want my husband and my son to find comfort in the thought that they’re not alone, that there are people who care enough to come to my funeral. 

In today’s society where fake online friendships are common, will people care if one day you just disappear? Or will you be like Akakiy Akakievitch whose death mattered to no one? 

On Kafka’s The Trial

Franz Kafka became one of my favorite authors after I read The Metamorphosis. The two stories In the Penal Colony and The Hunger Artist” were just as interesting to me. More than a couple of times in the past years I tried to read The Trial, but I couldn’t finish reading it. Until two days ago, that is. 

After reading the last few sentences of this novel, (even though I hate to admit that this came out of my mouth,  but it really did) I went, “WTF?” And to me, that’s what I am supposed to take away from the novel — that it was simply absurd. That life is absurd. 

The only way I can explain what this novel seemed to me like is: Imagine you are dreaming, and in your dream you are the same YOU in your waking life; and even though everything and everyone else around you is acting strange, you react in the same way you would in your reality. 

The whole time I was reading, I kept asking the questions, “What was his crime? What did he do? Why weren’t they telling him? Why didn’t he insist on being clearly told what his crime was?” 

Reading this novel gave me the same kind of feeling (though not literally) that the main character, Josef K., had when he went to the court offices for the first time: “It was as if he was suffering sea-sickness.” The novel just kept getting stranger and stranger as I read. It was not like this with The Metamorphosis where I was prepared for the strangeness because right at the beginning, I knew it would be strange because — who wakes up and finds himself transformed into a giant insect? 

This novel might not have made me question and ponder on things like Dostoevsky’s novels have, but  it’s left me with a very strong feeling that life can truly seem absurd, surreal, that if we look closely into our day-to-day life, we would find a lot of absurdities. 

 ————- 

My weekend starts on a Thursday evening, so…I hope you have a not-so-absurd weekend. 🙂 

T. 

On Ideal/Real Men as Heroes 

      Two incidents brought this blog topic to mind. The first was my friend laughing at me for always, in our conversations, referencing Jack Bauer of “24” (portrayed by Kieffer Sutherland, who I still ADORE after all these years. He will always be Jack Bauer to me. Lol.) The second was reading the narrator’s description of Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch (good luck remembering the spelling!) in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (The Devils). 
So why do I like Jack Bauer so much, even when he cold-bloodedly killed, assassinated, mutilated his enemies? Of course he is the “good guy” in the series. I know Jack Bauer is not a unique action “hero”; most action heroes are just like him: tough, cool, gentle with women and children, and merciless with bad people. (So I guess I like Jack Bauer because he’s Kieffer Sutherland!) 
Today I found the answer in Dostoevsky’s description of Nikolay:
 “Stavrogin would have shot his opponent in a duel, and would have faced a bear if necessary, and would have defended himself from a brigand in the forest as successfully and as fearlessly as L—n, but it would be without the slightest thrill of enjoyment, languidly, listlessly, even with ennui and entirely from unpleasant necessity. “
     “Without the slightest thrill of enjoyment…and entirely from unpleasant necessity. “
To me this is what distinguishes a real man from a child or a bully. When a real man defeats his enemy in a REAL fight, as in battle, (not in sports nor any game,) he does not gloat. He does not laugh. He does not feel proud at having killed another human being. Rather to him, it’s an “unpleasant necessity.”
There are bad people. “Bad” as society have judged them — the likes of former dictators who died a brutal death in the hands of their own people. The people’s anger is justified, but I find very disturbing that one can laugh about the very violent and public death of these people. If you find joy in killing a murderer or in watching his violent death, what makes you different from him?
Jack Bauer never smiled nor laughed after killing his enemies. You can say he’s a fictitious character. True. So is Nikolay. But why are these characters created? With fiction being based on reality, is it because there are REAL men like Jack Bauer and Nikolay? Or is it because these are what we hope our heroes should be?
Only a child or a bully (an adult with the mentality of a child) or a sick person, can smile or laugh at the death of his enemy.
Real men/women, tough men/women would not find the “slightest thrill of enjoyment” in defeating them.

Old Age and Dependency in Neruda’s Don’t Go Far Off

dont-go-far-off
Mindanao, Philippines 

Don’t go far off by Pablo Neruda

Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because —
because — I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

I like the hesitation expressed in the repetition of “because,” as it seems the speaker seems unsure whether the reason he is going to give for asking the other person not to go too far even for a day, would be reasonable enough for the latter. And to me, he succeeded in sounding convincing with his use of the imagery of the empty train station – empty of not only people, but of the trains as well as they are “parked off somewhere else, asleep.” This last line of the first stanza emphasizes his feeling of emptiness – everyone and everything else has gone and they are asleep (not dead, just having a rest), which I think signals what the speaker himself is going through (revealed in the last line of the last stanza.)

Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

His demand not to be left alone becomes urgent as he argues even an hour would be too long. He knows himself and knows that slowly but surely anguish will come in full force. I think “smoke” here refers to fear that can overwhelm a person and make one’s heart rate grow faster thus “choking my lost heart.”

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,

Whereas in the first and second stanzas, he gives reasons for not wanting the other to leave him (he will be waiting, feeling empty; he will be full of anguish and be heartbroken), in the third stanza, he reveals further that he is not only thinking of physical distance, but emotional as well – “may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.” These words show the total dependence of the speaker to the other person. He never wants to lose sight of this person (“Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;”), nor to have this person not being in the present with him. From not being able to be without this person for a day, then for an hour, then for a second, the speaker obviously relies heavily on the other person for his existence.

because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Normally, I would be very cynical about people being too dependent on other people, emotionally. But I totally understand that certain people like the elderly and young children, and people with certain developmental disorders cannot help being so. And this is how I see the speaker of this poem. He is not a young and healthy man in the best years of his life. Rather he is old, and nearing his end and fears dying alone. This is not a man speaking to his lover, but a mere human being asking the one he trusts not to leave him, physically and emotionally.

This is not a love poem.

A couple of times, I have heard old men, who when they were young, were once brave soldiers and then, stern fathers; but, as they became old and frail, they became fearful of being left alone, begging their children not to leave them. This, I find extremely sad.

This is perhaps the saddest Neruda poem I have ever read.

 

Here’s the Spanish version (probably the original)

“No lejos de mí un solo día”
Pablo Neruda

No estés lejos de mí un solo día, porque cómo,
porque, no sé decirlo, es largo el día,
y te estaré esperando como en las estaciones
cuando en alguna parte se durmieron los trenes.

No te vayas por una hora porque entonces
en esa hora se juntan las gotas del desvelo
y tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa
venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido.

Ay que no se quebrante tu silueta en la arena,
ay que no vuelen tus párpados en la ausencia:
no te vayas por un minuto, bienamada,

porque en ese minuto te habrás ido tan lejos
que yo cruzaré toda la tierra preguntando
si volverás o si me dejarás muriendo.

 

 

On Reality

reality

When I was still a child, I often heard my mother tell people about how I liked to look up at the sky —  wondering, (over)thinking, imagining, which was why she didn’t let me wash the dishes. It took me forever to finish.

These days I find myself doing the same thing — taking some time to finish washing the dishes because I keep looking up at the sky from my kitchen window and wondering, “Is there somebody up there watching us live our lives here below?”

I shared this thought with my husband, who simply laughed and said, “Oh, yes! And they are looking down and saying, ‘Oh look at this cute little girl bravely asking such questions!” (Let me be clear on this one: No one else thinks I’m cute except my husband. That’s why he’s my husband.) 

Ever since I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” over twenty years ago, I’ve always wondered about the nature of “reality.” I remembered asking the question, what if there was another world where their idea of reality is different from ours?

It was a few years later that I read Bradbury’s stories, and watched “The Matrix” and my idea of “reality” was further changed. Two years ago I watched “Interstellar” and the scene where Cooper was finally able to communicate with Murph (they once thought there was a “ghost”) made me think of what we think is “real” or “imagined.”(Some of my friends who are into science fiction weren’t very impressed with “Interstellar,”  but I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so it was very impressive for me.) 

These days there are more and more people talking  about the simulation hypothesis and consciousness and how human beings can suddenly change because of some damage to the brain. Reading about the brain and consciousness and theories on reality and our existence makes me even more eager to know the truth about our existence, our reality.

Just yesterday I started watching the HBO TV series, Westworld, and perhaps this is the reason at 11:31 in the evening I am still up writing this. Hopefully with the popularity of this TV series, more people will be asking questions about our existence and actively seek answers to these questions.

Who are we?

I really want to know.

 

Self-made Prisons: Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead

house-of-the-dead    I just finished reading Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia, and as I was reading about the different people he met in prison — the ones he liked, disliked, tried to avoid — I couldn’t help feeling life itself is like a prison. This feeling was made stronger after a friend complained about the shamelessness of a former colleague who had lied about his condition to the employer. He said he couldn’t stand working at the same place as this unscrupulous person. So I said to my friend, “I told you this is like prison. You can’t choose your prison mates!” 🙂
The main character, Alexander Petrovich, a noble, observed the peasants in the same prison he was in and said, “…you’ll never know what is at the bottom of the man’s mind or heart. You may think you know something about him, but it is all optical illusion, nothing more.” Isn’t this true of people, in general? It is truly impossible to know one person fully. How many times have you been surprised or shocked by something done by a person you think you know inside out, something so out of character?
Petrovich also said this of Suchiloff, the man who volunteered himself to serve the former, “It is indeed difficult to know a man, even after having lived long years with him.”
In our lifetime we sometimes have to live, study or work with people we do not like. It is stressful to always try to be polite with them, which we still do because it is what we were taught to do since we were kids. Be nice. Be polite. Be courteous. Perhaps we can learn from the main character, Alexander Petrovich, how to deal with the oppressiveness of a “prison,” surrounded by people with whom we are not comfortable: “I soon understood that work alone could save me, by fortifying my health and my body, whereas incessant restlessness of mind, nervous irritation, and the close air of the barracks would ruin them completely. I should go out vigorous and full of elasticity. I did not deceive myself, work and movement were very useful to me.”

Sometimes we create our own prisons. If we are aware that we put ourselves there, then we can get ourselves out of that prison. Unless we are too afraid of freedom, just like some convicts in Dostoevsky’s time “…poor devils who commit crimes in order to be sent to hard labour, and thus to escape the liberty which is much more painful than confinement….”
Why do some people stay in an unhealthy relationship for decades, for example? Could it be being in “prison” where their role is set is less painful? Or the person they are with, no matter how vile, is predictable and therefore not as petrifying as the uncertainty that freedom brings?
I think each of us has his own “prison.” Some have luxurious “prisons” — they have a materially rich and luxurious environment, but inwardly they are tortured by their own demons. Others probably have even worse than the barracks in Siberia in the 19th century — economically poor, uneducated, unemployed living in squalor among those who want to be forgotten by society. And there are those who have just enough — neither too much nor too little — but they get bored easily, so they create their own “prisons” and for some time their minds are “occupied” as to how to get out of it, and they may or may not admit to being responsible for creating it.
The House of the Dead, like all the other novels by Dostoevsky that I have read, leads the reader to think and re-think ideas or previously held ideas about humanity — individually and as a group. One critic of Dostoevsky berated his endless psychologizing and philosophizing, but to me, these are exactly what made his novels achieve greatness. His characters are people that readers get to know deeply, and with whom we can relate because underneath all the masks worn and personality and experience of each one, is a real human being, and no matter how vile a character may be, because we get to know him, then we understand and have compassion.
I know I’ve said this before in this blog: the more Dostoevsky works I read, the more I admire the man, the more grateful I am for his words.

(The House of the Dead by Fedor Dostoieffsky with an Introduction by Julius Bramont)