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Artists and Philistines, Part 4

with 3 comments


Okay.  I feel a lot better than I did yesterday.  I’d say I was getting too old to pull all-nighters, or even mostly all-nighters, but the fact is that I never felt anything but awful when I pulled those in college.  It’s the same with exercise.  Exercixe makes you feel great! all those programs yell at you.  Well, I’ll do it, because it’s good for me, but it made me feel like hell even when I was a lot younger than I am now.  I am not, I suppose, a very physical person.

Anyway–Nabokov and the Philistines.  I don’t know whether to capitalize it or not.  But the idea of the Philistine, and the existence of Philistines, and…but we’ll get there.

First, a slight explanation–the book I’m reading is a collection of essays by Nabokov that existed originally as notes for a class on Russian literatre he gave, I think, at Wellesley.  They’re not polished and amended essays as they would be if Nabakov had intended to see them in print in a journal.

That said, these things are remarkable comprehensive–the one on Tolstoy, which must have taken up several classes, is exhaustive–and they are solidly about the literature.  The only word about politics in them are asides having to do with the terrible mess the Soviets, and their social-consciousness forebearers, have made of the Russian novel.

I think my generation was the last to have English courses like this on the college level.  If they still existed, we’d have a lot more English majors, and a lot less discussion of what the point of studying English literature is.
That said,  the essay/lecture on Philistines and Philistinism is one of the shortest in the book and one of the least coherent. 

Nabokov starts by giving the following definition, and giving it as the very first sentence:

“A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.”

As a definition of Philistines and Philistinism–okay, he doesn’t capitalize it; for some reason, I always want to, as if I’m talking about one of those groups of people St. Paul wrote epistles to.

Anyway, as a definition,  this is both unusual and a little inadequate.  It’s also highly ahistorical.  Even when he amends that definition a couple of paragraphs later, by saying:

“Philistine implies not only a collection of stock ideas, but also the use of set phrases, cliches, banalities expressed in faded words.  A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists.”

Even with this, which declares that in order to be a Philistine, one must be entirely made up of nothing but the trivial and the conventional, there seems to me to be a sort of mushy mess that misses the reality of the real world.

For one thing, in common usage, “philistine” implies an attitude to the arts that is not just indifferent, or in bad taste, but aggressively false–admiring paintings, for isntance, only for how much money they’ll bring at auction.

There are a great many people in the world who would satisfy Nabokov’s definition–or almost would–who have no such attitude to the arts.  Some of them just don’t care one way or the other, and hardly notice.  Some of them have really bad taste–an admiration for wide-eyed children painted on velvet, for instance–but do in fact approach the arts as arts, as valuable in and of themselves. 

For another thing, the definitions as rendered by Nabokov assuming the univerality, both temporally and geographically, of a high value placed on the unique and the nonconformist.

But it is not only not true that all cultures value originality and individuality–most Asian cultures have no use for them at all–but it isn’t even true that Western Civilization always valued these things. 

My little side book these last couple of weeks–the one I keep on the love seat to read snatches of after it’s gotten late and I’m too tired to make sense of linear exposition–has been a big coffee table volume on symbols and symbolism in Renaissance  painting.

And it doesn’t take long to realize that the Renaissance had only a tenuous connection to the entire idea of originality and individuality in art.  In many ways, it held to the Medieval idea that such things are actually likely to make art bad.  Good art expresses eternal truths, not passing notions..

What’s more, the Renaissance artist wasn’t an artist as we know him, but an artisan.  He had a studio full of apprentice and assistant painters who would fill in the detail work after the Master had painted the main figures.  Many of the most famous of Reniassance paintings are “by” one artist or another only by convention–the Sistine ceiling, for instance, is the work of Michaelangelo in conception, and his own painting in the main figures, but the rest was done by employees in his studio and nobody thought there was anything strange about that.

Part of the problem is also that Nabokov in this essay throws out definiton after definition, often at odds in one way or the other with the ones he’s thrown out before.  For instance, he says:

“The character I have in mind when I say “smug vulgarian” is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity.”

But–again in common English usage–a vulgarian is not any of this.  He’s the guy who insists on talking about the color and consistency of h is shit at the dinner table. 

Then there’s that word “bourgeois,” which Nabokov uses as–well, let’s just say not as the rest of us do.  For instance:

“Philistinism is international.  An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen.   Then mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois.  A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.”


This takes “bourgeois” and cuts lit loose from any definition it’s ever had before.  It means neither the rich commoners of French history (the American equivalents would be the Rockefellers, say, or the Roosevelts) nor the solid middle class of American history.  It’s apparently a word for an approach to humane learning, as the phrase used to go–or maybe not, it’s hard to tell.

The odd thing, though, is this–I do think I know what Nabokov is talking about.

One of the problems I’ve been having recently is finding a school for my younger son–not so young now–that both teaches what I want taught (Herodotus, Sophocles, Aristotle, Pliny, etc, etc, etc) and yet is neither run by nor filled with what I’ve come to think of as “those people.”

That “those people” are by and large the people I grew up with, and the people I’ve worked with, for most of my life–well, that’s the kind of thing I moved out of Fairfield County to avoid, and then I failed.

But I did finally come up with what it was that bothered me.  And that is that this is a group of people who cares passionately for the Humanities, for the Great Tradition, for classical education–but as an accessory, like houses built before the Revolutionary War and that little wince of pain when they’re forced to drink ordinary table wine.

In a way, the Great Tradition is for those people what cowboy hats and Southern accents are for country music singers–a badge of identity which it is unnecessary to examine or even to understand.

Those people will quote Shakespeare to you, or Sappho, or Plato–and have absolutely no idea what it is it means. 

My sixteen year old son, reading through an introductory text on the history of philosophy, came to me and announced with absolute glee, “I”ve got it–Bill Clinton is a Sophist.  It all depends on what the meaning of is is.”

Those people will never make that connection, because they don’t bother to actually hear or understand what they’re reading, or seeing, or hearing.   They have season tickets to the ballet, season tickets to the opera, they fill up the front seats at every chamber music concert–but they don’t actually hear music. 

At one point, Nabokov says, of the Philistine:

“He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh’s or Whistler’s respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.”

But this is wrong.

Those people don’t secretly prefer Norman Rockwell.  They don’t secretly prefer anybody.  If they did, they’d have some relationship with painting. 

Instead, they don’t actually see painting at all.  They are drawn to that kind of painting that works as their badge of identity.  Otherwise than that, paintings have no meaning for them. They can’t even see a painting when it’s right in front of them.  That’s why museums of contemporary art can exhibit dead sharks in urine and draw crowds of paying customers. 

Any half-drunk frat boy at an Aquapaloozza concert, any Biloxi trailer park mama who owns every record Kenny Chesney has ever put out, knows more about music than those people do–because they can hear the music, and do hear it.  Those people attend concerts, which is not the same thing.

I have no idea how people get to be like this.  For me, most of the arts are compelling on their own, so that I have to pay attention to them.  But if you find an art compelling, the chances are that you will not have easily categorizable “taste.”  If you’re really hearing the music you’ll find you like classical and jazz and rock and country and bluegrass and opera and…  If you’re really seeing the painting, you’ll find yourself drawn to Vermeer and Michaelangelo and Hopper and Byzantine icons and….   If you’re really understanding what you read, you’ll like Sophocles and Shakespeare and Stephen King and Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen and the Hitchhiker’s guides and…

I think, maybe, what Nabokov was talking about was those people, and that he had a problem expressing it because the categories for talking about that phenomenon were hemmed in by the conventions of the Forties and the Fifties, conventions that made it impossible for him to conceive of the real difference between people being not that one likes Vermeer and the other likes Rockwell, but that one like Vermeer AND Rockwell and the other doesn’t see the painting at all, but chooses on the basis of what will make him feel like he belongs to the “right” set of people. 

And with any luck, that made sense.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2010 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Artists and Philistines, Part 3

with 4 comments


Last night, the entire state was under a severe thunderstorm watch except us.  Which sounds good, until you realize that the facilities for all our utilities are someplace else, in another county which was getting the storms.  Lots of them.

The result was that our power kept going on and off.  This messed with the air conditioning, and in this house air conditioning isn’t about temperature any near as much as it is about allergies.

This didn’t bother me, because, quite frankly, I was asleep.  Greg, however, kept getting up every time the air conditioning went off, and finally he decided to call the electric company to see what was happening.

Now, there’s nothing particulary wrong with this.  The electric company has an automated line just for people who are angsting out over outages.  And Greg called that. 

The problem was, he called from his phone, and not mine. That meant the system didn’t recognize the number–it has mine, after all, not his–and started asking him a series of questions.  This is a voice operated system, not a touch tone one, so, of course, it would ask questions, Greg would answer, and the system would not be able to make out what he said.

So, eventually, it shunted him off to a real person–which, at three and four in the morning, is going to be somebody who is only there for dire emergencies like downed wires across roads or people who have been electricuted or electrical fires.

And he then proceeded to talk to this person in as loud a voice as possible for minute after minute on end–waking up the rest of us in the process.

Meaning that I’m a mess here.  I haven’t had any sleep (one thing and another, I didn’t get to sleep until midnight last night), I can’t see straight, and I’m worse than usual at catching the typos.

Which means I’m not going to get to th is definition of “philistine” today either.

I did think, though, that I’d try to respond to the thing about Dostoyevski, and maybe a little about poor Constance  Garnett.

I know that Nabokov thought Dostoyevski had forced and unnatural dialog and cartoon characters–but Dostoyevski’s books do not read that way to me.

Even when I first read them (and I read them at around the age of ten or so, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov), they felt entirely real.  When I got older, they felt not just realistic and true to life, but a virtual field guide to real people in the real world, especially in the real world of American academia in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Dostoyevski is one of the great chroniclers of self-styled revolutionaries and the tourists at their revolutions.  Any one of his political characters would be perfectly at home in any sociology department in any second-tier university from New Jersey to Oregon.. 

Is their language sometimes forced and stilted?  Yup, and it’s worse now than it was in Dostoyevski’s time.  At least Doestoyevski didn’t have to put up with lectures about how the hegemonic heteronormative discourse represses the transgressive hermeneutic of the developing world.

Or, you know, something.

It’s Tolstoy’s characters that seem to me to be cartoonish, deliberate constructs rather than organically grown, overdone, overwrought, and artificial.

And, like I said, that could be the translations I’ve read.  The first of those were by Constance Garnett–and would have been; in the Fifties, that was what Americans had–and Nabokov definitely does hate Garnett.  And since he speaks Russian and I don’t, I could hardly argue with his evaluation of her talents.

But I wonder if something else is going on here.  I wonder if some of this has to do with time.

I wonder if there are some writers who feel silly and false to their contemporaries because they are writing about things that are not present to most of those contemporaries–about things and people far enough removed from the everyday and ordinary for the time to feel unbelievable.

And if, time having gone on, we reach a point at which those out of the ordinary people become a larger part of society, so that representations of them in literature no longer feel wrong or artificial–because the real-life counterparts are all around us, and the characters ring true.

I feel like I’m wrapping myself up in verbiage here.  

But I think the point is this–one of the reasons why Dostoyevski’s characters don’t feel false or cartoonish to me is that I know their real life counterparts.  I know these people in droves.  And Dostoyevski had a very good ear for what they’re like, for the way they think and the way they behave and the way they speak.

Or, at least, he does in the translations I’ve read.

I wonder if it’s possible that writers can write well and naturally, but be in the wrong place at the wrong time for the narratives they’re presenting–so that they get written off as less than first rate until the culture changes and the things they’re writing about become part of the everyday experience of everyday people.

At which point, they begin to look like prophets. 

I’ve actually got one major Dostoyevski novel I haven’t read yet.  I picked it up in hardcover for less than what most paperbacks cost because it was one of the Barnes and Noble editions.

It’s The Idiot, in the Constance Garnett translation.

It also weighs a ton and scares me, so it may be a while before I get around to it.

I’m going to go see if I can put enough tea in me to fake being awake.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2010 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Artists and Philistines, Part 2

with 2 comments


This isn’t really the post that was meant to follow yesterday’s post.  I’m having one of those days when I have to do thirty gazillion things right away, so I wasn’t going to post at all.

But some interesting things came up in the comments, and I thought I’d cover them, more or less.

My actual interest in all this is in the idea of the “philistine,” which begins with Nabokov’s short essay/speech on it in the book I’m reading, but that’s going to take a little time.  I’ll get there tomorrow, or over the weekend.

In passing, however–

1) Mab is absolutely right about what Nabokov SAID was his understanding of Humbert Humbert.  And I’m one of those people who thinks that we should take what an artist says he means and what he says he’s trying to do with seriousness.  After all, he’s the one most likely to know.

The problem, however, is that he’s not always right, and not always on to himself about his own deepest motives.   I think it was Byron who said that Milton “was of the Devil’s party, and didn’t know it.”  Milton certainly did not think he was promoting the Devil’s faction, but Lucifer remains the only truly vivid character in Paradise Lost.

In the end, we can only take the text in front of us.  It is what it is, and somewhere there will come a time when we no longer have access to what the author thought he was doing.

And Lolita is, taken as it exists in front of us, a brilliant but highly skewed novel.

Second, Mab is also right about what Nabokov SAID were the reasons for his preference for Tolstoy over Dostoyevski.

Here, I’ve got two problems.

The first is that the essay/set of lecture notes on Dostoyevski in the book I’m reading is absolutely lunatic.  With every other writer Nabokov deals with–Tolstoy, yes, but also Chekov, Gogol, Pushkin and Gorki–he presents an evenhanded analysis.  With Dostoyevski, he spends page after page after page calling the man names, declaring all the novels sentimental dreck that shouldn’t ever be called literature, trashing Dostoyevski for everything from his epilepsy to his preferred form of Christianity–and then he gets Crime and Punishment wrong. 

The whole thing is a disply of visceral emotion, not a literary evaluation.  And I’d say it probably means that there was more going on with Nabokov and Dostoyevski than he comes out and admits to.

The second thing here is the idea that Tolstoy’s characters are “more realistic” than Dostoyevski’s.

All I can say is–not to me.  Tolstoy seems to me to be “realistic” only in the sense that the old noir hard boiled writers were–that is, he presents people as inherently and unredeemably and nearly automatically corrupt.

I know a lot of people think that this is more “realistic” than writing about characters who are good and decent–but it always seems to me to be just the mirror image of sappy sweet Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm kinds of things.

This definitely collides, for me, with the way Tolstoy portrays women–not only in the nearly constant theme of female adultery, but in his near obsession with the pains of childbirth.

And it doesn’t help any that I know, from what I’ve seen of his ideas of religion, that Tolstoy opposed the introduction of anesthetics in childbirth as somehow “inauthentic,” or something.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a brilliant short story whose underlying sense of the nature of human beings is as foul as a garbage dump.  I don’t find it realistic.  I find it disturbing.


And it’s a big but.

Like most Americans, I have read the Russians only in translation.  I don’t read Russian.  I probably never will.

And that brings up the possibility that Tolstoy and Dostoyevski as I experience them are not what they would be in I could read them in Russian.

Translation can have an enormous effect on the experience of reading any writer, even if the translation in question is a good, solid and accurate one.  I think it explains why the French have always considered Edgar Allan Poe a genius while English and American readers winced at the overblown style.  It is always possible that, in French translation, the stylistic oddnesses have been corrected.

There’s an essay on translation at the end of this Nabokov book I’m reading.  I’ve been interested in getting to it.

But I do have to say that this whole thing may be nothing but the result of the differences in the texts that we’ve all read, as I assume that Mab, like Nabokov, can read Russian novels in Russian.

And now to do forty pointless things that I have to do if my life isn’t going to come apart.

Written by janeh

June 3rd, 2010 at 8:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Artists and Philistines, Part 1

with 4 comments

So, here’s the thing.  The last few days, while I’ve been writing about mystery novels and mystery stories, I’ve been reading my way through a volume of essays/letctures on Russian literature by Vladimir Nabakov.

For those of you who find the name not at all familiar, or sort of familiar but you don’t know why, Nabakov is the Russian-born author of the novel  Lolita, which he wrote in English.  And, for that matter, after his emigration here, he tended to refer to himself as an American novelist.

All this stuff is necessary background, because Nabakov is, I think, a very odd man.  Certainly Lolita is an odd phenomenon, a book about a man who marries a woman to get to her teen-aged daughter, with whom he is sexually obsessed.  The teen-aged daughter is herself sexually obsessed, not with Nabakov’s hero (Humbert Humbert), but with sex per se.  She is, in fact, the absolute antithesis of everything we now “know” about “pedophilia”–or, really, older men’s sexual attraction to teen-aged girls.

She is, in fact, exactly what all those older men have been saying all those teenaged girls really are–what they still say all those teenaged girls really are.  In her thoughts, her feelings, her movitivations, she is both thoroughly sexualized and thoroughly predatory.

Lolita is, as you can imagine, a very uncomfortable book in more ways than one.  It is also a spectacularly well written and well constructed one, with an honest chance at being one of the very few truly great novels to have been written in the second half of the twentieth century. 

I was thinking about Lolita the entire time that discussion about morality and literature was going on in the comments.  On the one hand, there is certainly an argument to be made for its greatness on purely aesthetic grounds, and that argument should be made. 

And I’m a firm believer in aesthetic grounds.  I don’t believe that they’re “just opinion” or “just a matter of taste,” and I think it’s important to learn to understand them.  What’s more, I think it’s important that art be judged as art, first and foremost–that the decision as to whether or not a work of art is good art should be a matter of aethetics and not of whether the work says what we want it to or  promotes what we think is right and proper.

All that said, Lolita was, from the beginning, a book that made most people very uneasy.  Long before our present day obsession with child sex, almost the first thing most people did when they tried to defend this novel was to write interpretations of it that seemed to make it say something other than what it was actually saying. 

The book may seem to be saying that Lolita entices poor, hapless Humbert Humbert into the affair with her–that she preys on him and that he is helpless to resist–but if you read closely enough, that’s not what the novel is saying at all.  When you think you’re seeing that, what you’re really seeing is the novel expressing Humbert Humbert’s rationalizations.   The novel is really about—well, how we’re all slaves to our own appetites, maybe, or how we all rationalize doing what we want to do even when it’s wrong, or…

Even at the time, none of these explanations really rang true.  These days, with an entirely different climate about teen sexuality, and especially teens have sex with older men–we forget that, in the Sixties, it was conventional wisdom that the instigator in such cases was always the teen-aged girl–they just sound lame.

I don’t think it’s philistinish to note that, in all probability, Nabakov had something of Humbert Humber in himself, or even that he might not be wrong in thinking that there is something of Humbert Humbert in most men.  Nor do I think that it’s philistinish to note that the underlying message of this novel is, on any factual level, mostly untrue.

The internal tension between these two things–the worth of a work of art as art and the utility of it as a factor in the overall climate of a civilization–has been with us at least since Plato dissed Homer, and is likely to be with us for the rest of time.  I’m not going to solve it here.

What made me bring this all up is that I find it an interesting background to Nabokov’s essays, and especially to his valoration of Tolstoy and his nearly hysterical repulsion for Dostoyevski–pretty much the exact opposite of the way I feel about those two writers, and for reasons that I don’t find very clear.

Well, I do find his reasons for preferring Tolstoy clear, and I also find it a little funny that in order to uphold Tolstoy’s superiority as an artist Nabakov has to strenuously deny that Tolstoy’s moral message is what it is.  That is, he has to deny that Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Orthodox Christian conservative when it came to morals, that he upheld exactly the bourgeoise family ideal Nabakov himself so virulently despises.

All of this might have caused him less trouble if the lecture he was giving had been about, say, War and Peace–okay, I don’t know that for certain, because I can’t seem to make myself read War and Peace.

The problem is that Nabokov is writing mostly about Anna Karenina, the story of a woman whose attempts to express her love at the expense of her marriage end in suicde.  Anna Karenina is one of the most moralistic novels in existence, and Tolstoy himself spent the latter part of his life as a very publicly devout–and very conservative–Orthodox Christian.

Part of what’s going on here is explicable in terms of biography.  Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899, and his family had to leave Russian in 1919 when the Revolution came fully into power. The Russian literature Nabokov knew best was the literature “of ideas,” as he called it–the literature of social commentary really, both in the examinations of politica and intellectual movements in the Russian nineteenth century novel (like, um, Dostoyevski), or in the Soviet Realism state-imposed really bad writing of the Stalinist and Cold War years.

Part of Nabokov’s really peculiar reaction to all things Dostoyevski may be simply his hatred for all novels that deal in politics, no matter what the politics are–that Dostoyevski, who opposed the rise of socialism and Communism, seemed no different to Nabokov than the writers that heralded and celebrated it.

Still, I wonder how much of it has to do with Tolstoy’s truly excreable ideas about women.  Anna Karenina is an adulteress, and she isn’t the only one–and Tolstoy’s adulteresses are all expression of the female nature, the real expressions of the female nature.  Women are bad, sexually predatory, sexually impure, sexually foul.

That’s true of Anna, and it’s true as well of the wife of the murderer who tells his story to the passengers on the train in “The Kreutzer Sonata.”  Tolstoy managed to name that one after one of Beethoven’s greatest pieces for piano. 

In other words, I wonder if what Nabokov sees in Tolstoy is a similar attitude to the nature of women, a similar repugnance at the fact of femaleness and a resentment and anger at still being attracted to that femaleness.

I’m beginning to write very convoluted sentences again.

But it’s been bugging me the entire time I’ve been reading this book, and I haven’t even gotten to the stuff about the Philistines yet.

But more on that tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2010 at 7:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Music of the Spheres, No Whine

with 2 comments

Today, I’ve got the sinus headache from hell.  So I thought I’d post this

  and let it go at that.

That’s Gustav Leonhardt on the harpsichord.

Written by janeh

June 1st, 2010 at 5:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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