Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Predestination and the Hero of Our Time

It's amazing what staring down the barrel of a loaded gun will make you believe.

Late in Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time," its Byronic hero Pechorin bets one of his barracks fellows, a Serbian lieutenant named Vulich, that there is no such thing as predestination. The bet stems from an argument, and comes after Pechorin has survived various physical and romantic threats that have thus far failed to stir his blood. However a game of Russian roulette, so to speak, ends with Vulich aiming a pistol at his own head to no effect, when it misfires. Moments before, Pechorin had sensed from Vulich's manner, and a feeling in the air, that the man was going to die. As he walks away, Pechorin tells Vulich he does indeed believe in predestination, then he goes out into the night air: 

"Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amused to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men's petty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody's 'rights.' While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that's felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny." 

This beautiful passage sums up our hero and his time. Pechorin confesses to various people that he gains little pleasure from life, and sees it as mostly pointless. He comes to embody a new wave of Russian, less certain of the religious truths that had long dominated the nation, and a student of the absurdity of life. But for just a moment, he is faced with the disconnect between his intuition - which told him Vulich was doomed, and the reality - with Vulich collecting on the bet.

Predestination in Lermontov's time was a Christian idea, of course, though the novel also points to the Islamic idea as well. The argument hinges on when a person's appointed moment of death will come, but the question deals with life as well. What will we do? What can we do? How much control does God have over us? Is the future already written? If we are fated to know Him (or not know Him as the case may be) then should we do anything at all to speed or change the outcome? Pechorin is bored with an absurd life, seeing little point to anything, but we see him in this little moment as questioning all he has believed or not believed, if only for a second. Pechorin disbelieves in it because he does not believe in a divine order, or perhaps any other.

Our time has a different version of predestination that is more scientific, and perhaps more pitiless. Some scientists who study the brain tell us that what we have come to believe is free will may be nothing more than the biological responses of our brain to external stimuli. That our deepest fears and emotions, not to mention our most dire decisions, are the product of silent chemical and electrical impulses is a disquieting and dispiriting thought. In this world as in Lermontov's, the "hero" is robbed of his heroism because heroism itself isn't anything more than a name we give to a behavior, which no longer seems as mystical or praiseworthy. All social strata and every emotion loses its "magic," for lack of a better word. If he becomes a hero then, it is only because he is not afraid of a world robbed of meaning. But a hero to himself? To others? In the eye of the beholder...

But the story does not end with his walk. When Pechorin returns, he finds that shortly after winning his bet, Vulich was the victim of a Cossack sword stroke. He is dead, so Pechorin's intuition, and Vulich's fatalism just before putting the gun to his head, were both right and wrong. Whatever fate was ordained, it was not what we or they expected. Pechorin indulges his own fatalism in nabbing Vulich's murderer, then states that he prefers to doubt everything. "I always go more boldly forward when I don't know what lies ahead. After all, the worst you can do is die, and you've got to die some time."

The author of "A Hero of Our Time" died as a young man, and in a preface to his work says that the novel is full of bitter truths that are meant for people who have dined on sweets for too long. Yet he curiously ends his introduction by saying that mankind suffers a malady and "Heaven alone knows how to cure it!" The argument over predestination obscures an older one in each human soul over meaning and the inadequacy of human beings to find meaning on their own. We learn midway through the novel that after Vulich's death, Pechorin will eventually meet his end in Persia. Through his and our sleepless nights, the silent stars go by.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"I am a sick man...I am a wicked man," begins the anonymous narrator of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground," in words that sound just as current and common in the 21st century as they must have read on the page in the 19th. It is a voice we hear every day and with increasing regularity, as we become animals both more and less social, more and less giving, more and less self-destructive. Even in the smirking author's voice behind that of the Underground Man is a reminder that human consciousness curdles without attention, and without love.

You could argue that the book and its themes are hardly needed anymore. Over the past month, American society, at least, has gotten a refresher course in just what sick, wicked men are capable of. On July 20, a would-be comic book villain interrupted a midnight screening of a movie by killing 12 people and wounding 58. His act overshadowed a similar one a few days before, when an angry unemployed man shot 17 people in an Alabama bar after other acts of violence, none of them, thankfully, fatal. Within the past week, an apparent racist killed six and wounded two others at a Sikh Temple before turning his gun on himself. And not long after, the author of a Jan. 8, 2011 attack at a political rally pleaded guilty to killing six and wounding 13 others, among them, a sitting U.S. Congresswoman.

In each of these cases, what we have are varying forms of mental illness, diagnosed and undiagnosed, suddenly disclosed behind the trigger of a firearm. Some of the perpetrators seem to us insane, some disaffected, and some simply angry and armed at the worst time. In each case, as in all the cases where some seemingly crazed loner uses a gun to announce his almighty existence to the world, media outlets set up vigil at the scene of the crime and begin to look in vain for the causes of such acts. The inevitable stories follow - the seeking-out of the gunman's neighbors, with either memories of antisocial behavior or the mystified "he seemed so quiet, so harmless." There are the psychologists who try to put the private traumas we all struggle with in society in context. Then the victim's families are interrogated for their observations on the senselessness of it all, in the vain hope of finding "closure." This is the media's hunt, not the victims', because closure will allow the interviewer to move on. If these horrors teach us anything, it is that there will be no moving on for some.

And yet, the world does move on. It is the maddening nature of existence that nothing - nothing at all - brings existence to a halt. The world goes madly on. Yet we all secretly covet that moment when we can, as Eliot observed, dare to disturb the universe. The narrator of "Notes" is just such a being. Richard Pevear reminds us that Dostoyevsky's Underground Man relates to us "the instability, the perpetual 'dialectic' of isolated consciousness." What we have are the writings of a man whose brain will not relax, who desperately wants an acknowledgment from someone of his importance. From the first sentence, we are aware that he is very aware of his sickness, yet he still feels he has much to offer, if everyone would merely give him his moment. And as he himself observes, he not only takes pride in his sickness, but swaggers in it.

"And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something."

Here is a man stewing in his consciousness, as the first section, "Underground," makes plain. The Underground Man surveys history and finds himself akin to its movers and shakers, yet can't quite understand why he has been robbed of his place among them. He detects the outlines of a conspiracy, and finds it extends from his front door to the very zenith of civilization. Not that there are any secret meetings on his behalf, but it is an unstated and unshakeable pact to deny him his importance. He perceives an ungrateful world that will not acknowledge what he has to offer, but yet he continues to address his comments to a group of "gentlemen" he presumes are reading what he has to say. We can assume that our hero feels, even in his solitude, that he is playing to a crowd.

There are two ideas that we can impose on the text from the comfort of more than a century's remove. The first is that the Underground Man's feelings are not at all unique. We all feel, at one time or another, the feeling of disappointment that life has not, as yet, fully grasped all we can give to it. It goes hand in hand with a similar feeling that the world is "on to us" and will no doubt in the next second figure out just how naked we are in our armor against it. But the other idea we can see now is that even in our solitude, we tend to believe what we are doing matters, or should matter, to a group of eyes far away from our own. Anyone who has read, say, the Unabomber's Manifesto or the ravings of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, hears the same sad and sinister music of someone resolved to not remain forever anonymous.

It is in the second section, "Apropos of the Wet Snow," that our Underground Man interacts with the world. At least, he does in his own way, resolving to bump into his enemies in the park and force them to acknowledge him. His stewing ravings, which are exceptionally literary, reveal themselves as dead when uncorked among living, breathing people. His actions are freighted with cosmic significance to himself, but his fear restricts him from carrying out his plans. He turns "coward before reality," he tells himself. He is a martyr for an embattled cause - himself.

It is only when he finds Liza, the prostitute, that we see him reveal the tenderness that is still within him. Dostoevsky picks a female foil for him, sure to excite and yet bewitching because of her distinct "otherness." We have the faint sniff in the air of perhaps a happy ending for the embattled narrator, finding love in the presence of another who simply wants to be acknowledged. But even this comes to nothing. When Liza tries to reach out to him, he lashes out that society will not allow him to be good. She flees from him, and the Underground Man leaves us as he came to us, alone. "Which is better?" he asks. "Cheap happiness or lofty suffering?" He will take suffering, and one presumes he does not mean ultimately to suffer alone.

As I said, the voice is familiar. One sees it in the anonymous postings that follow news articles and opinion pieces on every website, where a person stripped of identity is suddenly capable of the most vile, poisonous words, left in answer to no one and everyone. The identity of the Underground Man can be both the voice of the teenagers who pick one of their number and begin assaulting him socially until he crumbles, or the one who crumbles under the weight of their taunts. It is the voice of the letter to the editor that inevitably digresses from the issue of the day to the obscure slights of a lifetime, seemingly for reasons known only to the author. It is the voice of the amateur blog, where the writer leaves an observation that perhaps no one else may read, but is desperately important to the one writing.

Dostoevsky created his character as a reaction to certain strains in Russian philosophy. He recognized them as perhaps the seed of something destructive, though it would be perhaps too much to say that he perceived the coming Bolshevik tyranny and all its subsequent horrors. But instead of writing a philosophical response, he created a character who has educated himself and will not learn. Instead of finding the connection between himself and the rest of guilty humanity, he exalts himself in a kingdom of his own creation. Such is the nature of sin that we are always merciless on ourselves but even more on others, grasping God's infinite mercy to our own bosoms and hoping for His terrible justice to be visited upon everyone else.

The Underground Man is a man without gifts who intends, at some point, to teach someone else what he believes society has taught him. If he has felt a keen anguish, then others must as well.  His tragedy is that he is all too aware, of everything. If he speaks for our time, as Dostoevsky felt he spoke for his own, then we find in our fractured social networks, where even children can create true and false personas for themselves, the verdict that we are most dangerous when we are left alone to exult in our wickedness. But the personal audience we create for ourselves never is, and will never be, enough to satisfy.

Buy my book, "Brilliant Disguises," for .99 cents here. Available in all e-formats.
Buy my book, "The Uncanny Valley," for $5.99 here. Available in all e-formats.