The Double – Dostoyevsky

As a huge fan of Dostoyevsky I have to admit this novel didn’t quite do it for me. Although the choice of Golyadkin as the exclusive point of view is effective in the first part of the novel, I think it ends up being a rather limiting one, particularly in terms of reader engagement.

In the first few chapters, this perspective works to create suspense because what is going on seems strange, unlikely, unreal but it is presented as an objective fact. The reader’s curiosity is piqued and we are engaged trying to make sense of what we are reading; the choice of POV has been successful.  However, as things become increasingly fantastical and unrealistic the reader sees behind the appearance of objectivity the workings of a tortured psyche, and understands that the “facts” are really nothing more than the distorted perceptions of Golyadkin. 

This is when the POV stopped working for me.  Events continue to happen and we continue re-interpret them as hallucinations and so it goes without anything really posing a new challenge for the reader. I had one remaining questions as I turned page after page in this long progression of events:  How bad will the end be for Golyadkin: will he only lose his job, will he be admitted into a mental institution, will he be injured/killed as a result of his misperception of reality?

The reaction of other characters to Goldyakin is evidence that, like us, they too have understood that he is paranoic and delusional. But I think the inclusion of their point of view in the narrative would have acted as a counterpoint to Goldyakin’s perspective and by contrast would have enriched the otherwise uni-dimensional nature of this narrative.

So at times it feels as if all we are doing is following the ramblings of an unremarkable and mentally unstable character. Is there anything really valuable and unique in all this? Yes, absolutely yes! The fact is that although far from the depth and richness of his later novels, this work is an early exercise on the dissection of the psyche, a glimpse into the subtle and mysterious workings of the mind. Dostoyevsky boldly steers away from the psychology of common individuals and dwells instead on the unusual, or less known aspect of our minds.

For example, a few times Goldyadkin is compelled to act in precisely the same way in which he decided not to act but a second ago.  This illustrates vividly the irrational aspect of the self and the strange unconscious impulses that have such a profound impact in life. And considering that the writer was only 23 at the time this is quite an achievement.This early work shows the extraordinary gift he has for capturing those remote, unexplored aspects of the self, a talent that he would develop into an unparalleled mastery that was his richly unique contribution to the world.

Kerouac – A freedom fighter

Inspired by “The Dharma Bums”

Can we possibly have forgotten who we really are and what really makes us happy?  And if we did, how can we endure it? When did it happen? When did we lose ourselves to social demands and the comforts of a material life?  And… do we really need to answer these questions? Or would looking for an answer just prolong our going around in circles in an artificial and empty life?

Reading this book is like hearing a portentous voice calling us to the Divine Return to Ourselves and Nature. The Oracle in Greece had already said it: “Man, know thyself”.

As we go along with Ray savouring the real pleasures of life (a delightful dinner of simple vegetables cooked 10,000 feet high, sleeping outdoors and looking at the stars, reading and making poetry) it is inevitable to look at our lives and wonder…. Are we making the most of our time on earth?  Or have we settled for a barely satisfactory experience? Has our pursuit of comfort (prestige, security, you name it) taken us away from what really matters in life…. beauty, happiness, simplicity?

Ray’s reflections on society and uniformity of thought are as relevant today as they were in the 50s when this book was written.  As he says the stunning fact that millions of people are doing the exact same thing at the same time (such as watching whatever show is the flavour of the month) speaks volumes to the loss of our individuality, the loss of connection with our real self.

However, as Ray’s adventures show, it doesn’t have to be that way.  We are unique individuals. We can craft our destiny by listening to “the call”. We all can do that.  No exceptions. But it takes introspection, solitude, reflection. (And who has time for that? the cynic will say).

In the midst of the crazy 50’s, with materialism creeping in America, Ray and the Dharma Bums were magnificent.  Their powerful message certainly lives on in their writings, but it is not limited to their artistic contribution. Their experience and example as young men in search of a purer way of living amidst the demands of materialism is a legacy just as priceless as their beautiful poems and writing.  Ray, and Japhy, and the others plunged wholeheartedly in the search and creation of a different way of life, and their determination was so strong that they never hesitated at the prospect of poverty, uncertainty, homelessness. There is not a single utilitarian notion going through Ray’s mind as he steadfastly continues his progress forward… towards what? That is not known and that is not relevant.  The point is that moving forward (away from the security of conventions and the easy escape offered by the mainstream) is the only thing worth doing and
the only decent way of living because it is the only way towards the Self, our real being. And how do we do that? By asking uncomfortable questions, by discarding all the useless noise that drowns the rich voice inside, by keeping the demons of materialism and conformity at bay….

And, once on the way, don’t look back.  Don’t stop to second guess yourself either.  The important thing is to keep going. To be compassionate. To study the Lunatic Zen Monks.  To live.  To really experience life, not as a hand-down prescriptive recipe, but as the unique experience that you were meant to have: the creation of Your Self.

Ray’s reflections on the unnecessary and sad waste of individuality offer a subtle, veiled promise of a different way of living, more dangerous and risky as we deliberately court uncertainty and surrender conformity, but a life lived to the full…. And perhaps we are not ready to break all bonds and to plunge wholeheartedly into this search as he did, but the tantalizing vistas of an authentic mode of living, custom made to our deepest needs, dreams and desires, are at the very least, worth exploring.

Coffee with Kafka

Inspired by “Proclamations”

So I had a Kafkaesque moment in the morning. Sure enough, the morning looked gloomy and pregnant with possibilities, a landscape more ominous than promising. But the real Kafka sensibility was better reflected in my inner landscape.  A feeling of heaviness and a slight headache, and my sense of reality highly molded by the dream I had a few hours ago, which I couldn’t remember very well but left a heavy, vague and indefinable feeling. It wasn’t even a bad dream, it just left me drained. In Jungian terms, it was a dream intensely charged with psychic meaning….

So I did the only sensible thing there was to do: I put aside my morning read (Brother Lawrence’s lessons on practicing the presence of God) and opened Kafka at random, like an oracle.

I land in “The Proclamation” and find myself pulled in a downward spiral through and toward the absurd. My friend Bruce used to say of Kafka that he is such a powerful writer that by his conviction alone he could take us anywhere, even to places quite outside the realm of reality.

And sure enough the opening lines transport us to a world were the desire to have a rifle, particularly one that doesn’t work, and the ownership of one rifle, provided you forego it, will equally qualify you as a member of a peculiar community whose leader acknowledges that there is no leader and whose members may carry the riffle or not carry the riffle.  Absurdity reaches a height when we are warned that since there are only four riffles “if there are more than four claimants [for the rifles]  they must bring their own riffle”.  The incongruent landscape reinforces the sense of the absurd: we are in a big estate interspersed by medieval constructions.  Lovely!

The thing is that Kafka doesn’t just give us the absurd; he gives us such a high dose of it that it seems a blatant lie that has no place in this the real world.  The effect of this highly compressed sense of absurdity is that we get both a very clear taste of what it is and a misleading sense that what we are reading is not at all like the reality that surrounds us, the “real” thing, where things happen for a reason and we can make sense of the world around us.

But, the world is full of non-sense, absurdity and incongruity.  Just take a look around you.  Is our behaviour rational, or at least consistent? Is our trajectory through life a straight or quasi-straight line? Do our actions serve to advance us towards a clearly defined goal? Yeah, sometimes, but more as an exception than a rule.  I look at my past and I see the almost random wanderings that brought me to a destination; the many rounds I needed to make in order to reach a decision, only to go in circles again around the execution of that decision.

I think that life is cyclical, or more generally, that progress is linear only in short intervals.  I say that we are the rational, productive, sense-making persons that we think we are… but only at times, when the sun shines and the stars are in alignment.  Coexisting with that, at a deeper stratum of our soul, we are the absurd, the illogic, the many unintentional words and actions that we couldn’t account for if we really had the courage to stop rationalizing.

At times like this, when I am drawn towards my deeper unexplored areas and get a glimpse of the circular, the redundant, and the non-sensical, reading Kafka is like a tonic – not to manage the “symptoms” but to actually transport me to a place where I can get a sense of my own deep abyss.

Does that make me feel safer? In a very weird way it does.  True, the abysmal, unknown, unexplainable areas of ourselves can be scary – we can not measure them, let alone account for the power they have over us.  But at the same time, when I’m there I feel a greater sense of reality.  It would be great to fully know myself and consciously and deliberately choose my actions (or would it?)  But the truth is that some of my actions can’t be explained any more than some things in the outside world can be explained. And I don’t mean things in the outer space, I mean things in our socioeconomical reality.  Just think of the irrationality of millions of people living in starvation in a world where food production would suffice to feed EVERYONE.

So reading Kafka makes me feel more complete, helps me embrace the non-rational and often neglected (or denied) areas of myself.  Somehow I have a more intense sense of myself when I’m in that mood than when I play my role as productive member of society and it’s all “Have a nice day” and “I’ve been great, thank you very much” and all those conventions and common places that make up the vast majority of our daily life and which make our experience on earth more palatable and less scary but also more artificial and stale.

The funny thing is that I have 25 minutes to put down the book, close the door to my attic (or is it the basement to keep the analogy?) and transform myself into my domesticated personna, the one that goes around her day without being bothered by substantial dilemmas such as: “What is the point of living anyway?”

Kafka, thank you so much for being a bridge to my my unknown dark deep real ways of being!

“The true wa;y leads a long a tight rope, which is not stretched aloft but just above the ground. It seems designed more to trip one than to be walked along” – Franz Kafka