Monday, October 30, 2006

The wrong end of the problem

[I posted this to a discussion that criticized a liberal writer named Amy Sullivan. I don't really agree with Sullivan's arguments in general, but the post, by Matthew Yglesias, seemed to have grasped the wrong end of the problem of interfaith dialogue, to say the least. Read on for a discussion of minority status, worldview confusion, and hell.]

Following MQ's 1:02 comment, it is very different on my side of the fence. I'm a Protestant in Utah, surrounded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I and people like me have experienced intolerance based on religion in America, the real kind, not the whiny "War on Christmas" stuff. For example, my relatives have been screened, obliquely but obviously, for their LDS religion or lack thereof in job interviews. At the same time, I recognize the earnest desire of my neighbors to be close to God.

One thing living here has taught me is that there is no dividend in criticizing people based on how wacky you think their beliefs are. As an example of a belief that was foreign to me, roughly, Mormons believe that eternal godhood, eternal family, and eternal procreation await in the best of three heavens for families who are faithful to the church's teachings in their lifetime.

But these beliefs don't seem wacky to them at all: they suffuse the air the Mormons breathe, or if you like, they are shot through the lenses through which Mormons see the world. It all seems very natural to them. If I tried to criticize their belief starting from Protestant premises, my argument would come across as nonsense to them.

And unfortunately, that's the way the post's argument comes across to me.

On the other hand, the evangelical view of this matter is, in fact, completely absurd. ... On this view, a person who led an entirely exemplary life in terms of his impact on the world (would an example help? Gandhi, maybe?) but who didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior would be subjected to a life of eternal torment after his death and we're supposed to understand that as a right and just outcome. That, I think, is seriously messed up. [excerpt from original post]

I bolded the key phrase. You are not supposed to understand. The believers are supposed to understand. Their belief coheres, has its own internal consistency and logic. It all seems absurd to you. It all seems very natural to them.

In fact, this very issue of damnation is taken up early in church history in a notoriously difficult passage in the letter to the Romans (chapters 9 through 11). It takes the view, first, that if God wanted to, he probably could have made a world where some people can not make it to heaven, in order to provide object lessons to the people who can. And, the argument goes, if you think that's unfair, tough, that would just be how it is. "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?" You criticize what you do not understand. Put another way, given a prior assumption that Christianity is broadly true, your argument is arrogantly presumptive about the way God must work.

The second part of the passage is about what actually happened: God's careful plan, through the history of Israel and the action of Jesus, to instead offer mercy to all: "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." This is close to my view of the matter. How "mercy on them all" plays out in the real world is an exercise for the reader.

The meaning of hell in Christianity is not cut and dried. It has been controversial and difficult for 2000 years. But it will only be a confused muddle if you come at it from secular assumptions and ethical systems and presume to judge it from the outside.

In fact, it is the same muddle, in reverse, when Christians try to persuade you that you are in danger of hellfire because "the Bible says so". From their point of view, the argument is practically over. From your point of view, it has barely begun.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


I subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, so I am aware that several recent posts may have been reposted to your reader. Blogger is in the middle of an upgrade and I finally got on the bandwagon. I am going to change the site's template shortly too, so I hope for your sakes that my posts don't start clogging your reader like a broken copy machine.

Halloween always brings out the crazies, but now you can strike back: why not do something crazy and write a novel? November is National Novel Writing Month, and believe it or not, there is a community of hundreds or even thousands who plan to do just that.

If anyone knows how to cook with shiitake mushrooms, please tell me. I cut some up into a New Orleans pilaf along with some chicken, but I'm at a real loss as to where to go from here. Sarah said they made the kitchen smell like I was cooking diapers, and I thought they came out pretty well.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Goings on

Sarah and I watched two great animated movies yesterday and today: Over the Hedge and Monster House. The voice talent in these things is unbelievable. If I had to pick, I would recommend Monster House first. It is genuinely fear-inducing and funny, and doesn't talk down to you. I almost want to say it wasn't aimed at kids. The animations of humans (I guess this one was mostly motion-capture like Polar Express) were pretty amazing too. Over the Hedge is pretty funny, if not as ingenious.

We just finished the first season (six episodes) of 30 Days. It's by Morgan Spurlock, who did Super Size Me, where he spent a whole month eating nothing but McDonald's: experience a lifestyle foreign to you for 30 days. He lived on the minimum wage for a month, then did shows on a Christian dude who lives as a Muslim in Dearborn, a concerned mom who spends a month binge drinking like her coed daughter, DJs who live as hippies in an eco-friendly commune, and so on. They are thought-provoking and eye-opening shows, more so than their cousins, like Wife Swap. One interesting thing I didn't expect was that the thirty-day length of the experience really gives the subjects time to settle in and for the situation to evolve. These fantasy camp visits to another life turn into something else by the end.

I bought a book at the USU library along the same lines: it's called The Genesee Diary, by Henri Nouwen. It's an account of the 7 months he spent as a Trappist monk. I've never read a Henri Nouwen book all the way through, but I have wanted to for some time now. Cost to me: 25 cents. At the same stock-retirement sale, I bought a hardcover copy of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (I read and liked his Foucault's Pendulum a while back). Cost to me: $1.

There was a Tech Expo at the university today. I got a few leads, but the most positive one was the guy from the NSA. There were two guys at the booth, so I picked the scruffy one instead of the one in the suit. His name was Jack. His last name began with a J too, I think. One of those nondescript names They want you to forget.

The first words out of my mouth were name, degree (MS in Computer Science), and thesis topic (image steganography). He was surprised. He looked over my resume and said I would be a great fit. We talked about the unlimited resources of the agency, its ability to do blue-sky research because it's not in the private sector, the large number of research groups, and so on. He looked over my resume and recommended I get it online immediately, concentrating on expanding my list of computer skills so I pop up right away in their resume search engines. The background checks take 8 months, so I'd better saddle up if I want a job for next year.

As I explained to a friend later, it sounds like an ideal job for me, as long as I'm not spying on Americans.

I've followed that FISA stuff pretty closely, and I'm as sure as a lay person can be that the President essentially ordered the NSA to break the law with fig-leaf legal justifications, and then they did it. Not everyone at NSA, but enough of them, in collusion with AT&T and other carriers, to spy on ungodly amounts of internet and telephone traffic that should have been hands-off according to our surveillance laws.

I didn't bring all this up in my short conversation with Jack. It didn't seem polite. But I'm sure if I apply and they do background checks on me, it'll be pretty easy for them to find all the stuff I've written about them on this blog. Like I told my friend, I hardly know whether to teach people to hide from the NSA and encrypt their email, or to help the NSA spy on America's very real enemies (with proper legal safeguards, like warrants, firmly in place). My hope is that I can make a more informed opinion as I move through the hiring process (or get turned down early, whichever).

Research appeals to me more than software development. I'm not sure yet if a PhD is for me, but I am definitely looking at the companies like IBM, MS, and Google that have a place for research. My thesis process has been frustrating at times, but fabulous when it's working. I enjoy taking the problems one step deeper and gaining insight.

Vote on November 7.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Long delay

Sorry for the long delay in posting. The Playstation finally arrived. I gave some dude neutral feedback on eBay because I paid on Tuesday and then the guy said he lost the tracking information. Well, I found it on the label when it got here, buddy, and that UPS shipment was initiated Friday. Anyhow, my journey to the DDR side is complete. I am better with the controller than my feet, obviously. I did have some fun trying to do doubles on one controller. The only hard part is hitting two directions at once on the D-pad. That and blowing your mind.

We finished a season of Angel, the Buffy spinoff. Angel is a vampire and sometimes he kills people who are evil. He's out for justice for the downtrodden, and that makes the moral center of the show a bit more gooey and interesting than in Buffy. On the other hand, a lot of the fun tricks and running jokes from Buffy would have been too derivative, so the show feels a little less well-rounded.

It's been an exciting week for school, work, and the future. On Thursday is a Tech Career get-together. Micron, Dell, Novell, the FBI, and some of the other usual suspects are going to be there. I've been trying to think about the kind of job I want to get. Do I want to write software or research algorithms? And if it is research, do I need to go on for a PhD? And would I work for MS? If anyone is interested in sorting me out, or giving me some helpful advice, let me know. And my research is going better. We actually seem to be making well-defined improvements over our competitors. I may be able to write a thesis proposal and graduate on time.

I'll be back on Anna Karenina soon.

November 7 is fast approaching, so register to vote, and then vote. It's time to change the course in Iraq, and in America.

Monday, October 16, 2006

AK: (I.7-8) Sergey my brother, you are older than me

I'm reading for chunks. Maybe two or three chapters will turn out to be more appropriate than four or five.

Meet Kozneyshev. Yes, yes, every single heading I've used so far has said "Meet X". It's like there's a party in my book, and everyone's invited. Things are going to start happening soon, I promise.

For some reason now unfathomable to me, after the better part of a decade reading this book, I never picked up on the fact that these chapters with Levin's brother are a flashback, which occur in the morning before Levin goes to see Oblonsky. At the end of the Chapter 5, Levin bounded off to find Kitty at the skating rink. Along with Chapter 6, the backstory on Levin and Kitty, these chapters interrupt the action to characterize Levin and his brother Koznyshev, and to introduce Levin's other brother, Nikolai.

This kind of interruption would be a no-no on the airport rack. The exciting narrative is put on hold for these expository lumps. The fact that I didn't notice for years probably means it's no big deal. Maybe it also shows that the exposition is interesting enough in its own right.

Levin's brother Sergey is renowned as a thinker, a member of the intelligentsia who enjoys nothing more than seeing around all sides of an issue and arguing articulately about it. I understand why; just this was my favorite thing for a long time.

When I was in high school, I was a policy debater. It's an intellectual game where the object is to score points in an argument game. A resolution, chosen at the beginning of the year (actually, before the summer break preceding), delineates the sides of the debate. One team, the Affirmative, must argue in favor of the resolution (e.g., "The US should change its foreign policy towards Iraq"), and they essentially set the ground for the hour of debate that follows; the other team, the Negative, explains why the Affirmative is totally wrong, even if the Affirmative plan is to give everyone a pony and live happily ever after. In the course of a typical tournament, you might take the Affirmative 3 times and the Negative 3 times. You might say things that you don't believe, or further, things that contradict the statements you made to win the last debate.

For me, the system started breaking down in my senior year. People started making philosophical arguments about the way people talked in the debates, essentially playing the Race card or the Class card or the Patriarchy card or the Sins of the State card. Environmental debates lend themselves to this kind of indictment of how you speak rather than what you're saying, owing to the variety of philosophical takes on the environment. All of a sudden, you're a misogynist who wants to oppress people because you're interested in funding the ethanol industry. The debates could get pretty ugly. Once, a team brought up suicide during a critique of Western morality. Not in a good way. It was me and Geraldine, and we were both friends of Chris. That one was ugly.

Words do matter. They can kill and heal, build up and tear down, just like in the poem. They cut you, you bleed. They lift you, you fly. But Koznyshev doesn't treat words like that anymore. He refuses to take them seriously. That's why it says in the first paragraph of Chapter 7, first, that the professor came to talk about "a very important philosophical question", and second, that their discussion is a "fashionable question." These two opposed views brought me up short. Is it more irony? Is there just irony on every page of this book now that I am 26? Am I ironic?

Here's another explanation. For Koznyshev, there has long ceased to be a distinction between what is very important and what is fashionable. He doesn't take a position because he has no positions. He understands everything except for himself. Levin, on the other hand, feels forced by a kind of innate honesty or maybe courage, to take stands that he must later retract. He is interested in questions as Koznyshev never can be, because he sees the mystery of himself at the heart of all of life's questions.

This is why Kozneyshev and the professor dance around questions of sensation, being, and death. It takes a man who looks like a barge hauler, like the man who sings "Old Man River", to bring them face to face with the very real implications of the ideas they toss around like coins. They are good at the debate game, but no one gets good at death. Koznyshev is a great debater, and saves the game by pointing out that there is no data beyond death; only theory remains.

The next chapter has more of the same, as Koznyshev dispassionately chats about things that he has no personal stake in. Even the news that his brother Nikolai is back in town does not sway him. When Koznyshev pays a debt for Nikolai and sends him the receipt, Nikolai responds with a sarcastic note asking to be left alone. Then Koznyshev makes a very telling statement: "'He obviously wants to insult me,' Koznyshev went on, 'but he can't do that.'" That's because Koznyshev isn't enough of a person to be insulted. He doesn't take any stands worth fighting about, or even worth some mild indignation. Nikolai can't hurt what he can't touch. Nikolai, can, however, inspire Koznyshev to soar to new heights of personal moral rectitude by his example. In theory, Koznyshev is a towering intellect, a respected moralist and thinker; in reality, he is a ghost.

One thing to keep in mind as you read about Nikolai, Levin, and Sergey is to remember that they are brothers, and in some way may represent a kind of continuum. Sergey and Nikolai are estranged, and Levin travels between them. Sergey is well-respected, Nikolai is reviled, and again Levin is about halfway between. I'll revisit this idea when we meet Nikolai.

Levin decides that letters and paid-off IOUs aren't enough, even for a wastrel like Nikolai, and wants to go see his brother. He is tempted to blow it off because his mind is full of Kitty and his plans to propose, but he still decides to go that evening. The flashback ends as Levin sets out for Oblonsky's office.

These two chapters aren't very far out of order, so why do it as a flashback at all? Consider where Tolstoy had to begin the novel. The precipitating event for all the action that follows, one way or another, is the Oblonsky crisis. Levin is also introduced from Oblonsky's point of view, rather than appearing first waiting around in his brother's office. Instead our first impression of Levin is as an impulsive man of action. The Oblonsky crisis is more interesting, and provides some unresolved tension to carry us through the first chapters of the book. It also drops the name of the main character, Anna, who we don't see for a while yet.

Why have the two chapters at all? We could just go straight from Oblonsky's office to the rink. I think it was important to get Nikolai into the backstory quickly, and perhaps to characterize Koznyshev. These things set up the promised scenes with Nikolai in the evening.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Blog updates

I'm having a busy week for school. Next up: Levin and Koznyshev, Levin and Kitty at the skating rink, and Levin and Oblonsky on the town.

I am pleased to announce that on Google's blogsearch, I am now the number 1 hit for dan lewis. USA! USA! USA!

My DDR pads arrived today. New vinyl smell.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I'm changing the RSS feed slightly

Hi all. I know a few of you out there read me via RSS syndication. I've decided to change the feed slightly.

The new URL is:

As far as I know, the old one will keep working, but I'm switching the link on the front page to this new one.

If you don't know what RSS is, or why it might be cool to subscribe to your favorite blogs and news services, read this. And here is a fine blog reader.

Numbers game

Those epidemiologists are at it again.

Before the United States invaded Iraq, the death toll was 5.5 per 1000 per year; after, the death toll went to 13.3 per 1000 per year.

That translates to 655,000 civilian deaths, the number the scientists are reporting.

According to this death figure, that's 220 9/11 attacks, or about 1 per week.

On the other hand, if Iraq were the size of America, the number of deaths would be about 7.5 million. Roughly, this is like killing every last person inside the city limits of Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia (the metro areas are obviously larger). Or it's like the number of casualties the United States suffered in Vietnam, 100 times.

But these are only numbers. They're huge, and there's a human life behind every tally mark, but they just don't convey what is going on in Iraq, what we hath wrought. So here's a journalist in Iraq explaining where we are now.

Some readers and viewers think we journalists are exaggerating about the situation in Iraq. I can almost understand that because who would want to believe that things are this bad? Particularly when so many people here started out with such good intentions.

I'm more puzzled by comments that the violence isn't any worse than any American city. Really? In which American city do 60 bullet-riddled bodies turn up on a given day? In which city do the headless bodies of ordinary citizens turn up every single day? In which city would it not be news if neighborhood school children were blown up? In which neighborhood would you look the other way if gunmen came into restaurants and shot dead the customers?

Almost unimaginable
Day-to-day life here for Iraqis is so far removed from the comfortable existence we live in the United States that it is almost literally unimaginable.

It's almost impossible to describe what it feels like being stalled in traffic, your heart pounding, wondering if the vehicle in front of you is one of the three or four car bombs that will go off that day. Or seeing your husband show up at the door covered in blood after he was kidnapped and beaten.

I don't know a single family here that hasn't had a relative, neighbor or friend die violently. In places where there's been all-out fighting going on, I've interviewed parents who buried their dead child in the yard because it was too dangerous to go to the morgue.

Imagine the worst day you've ever had in your life, add a regular dose of terror and you'll begin to get an idea of what it's like every day for a lot of people here.

So what do we do? Well, the executive is committed to a failed policy. Bush has said that he won't leave Iraq even if the only people supporting him are his wife and his dog. The strategic vision is over. The Republican Congress refuses to hold the President accountable, for lying to us about the reasons for going to war, screwing up the post-war occupation completely, putting our soldiers into the meat grinder without adequate safeguards, and finally for spinning and covering up for all the failures and their consequent violence.

So it's time for a Congress that will hold Bush accountable. Make sure you're registered, and vote in November.

You have lots of excuses if the Iraq war doesn't suit you: an obvious cover-up by the Republican House leadership of a child sex predator in order to retain political power, the atrocious Medicare Part D, the sale of Iraq war reconstruction to private companies, the bill codifying the President's right to torture prisoners and suspend habeas corpus, the illegal wiretapping of American citizens by the NSA, the foreign policy failure that is the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the signing statements that purport to allow the executive to ignore laws, the anemic response to Hurricane Katrina and the still-worse failure to rebuild New Orleans... the list is definitely not complete yet.

The Congress isn't directly responsible for all of these decisions; a lot of them are on the President. But the Congress has oversight power (at least in theory, if not in current events). If you want investigations and accountability, you need a Congress willing to stand up to the President. Could that be a Republican Congress? All signs point to no.

Don't we need to stand up to this President? (funny)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dancing game

After years of saying I was going to do it, I got on eBay tonight, birthday cash burning a hole in my pocket, and bought two dance pads and a Playstation to play DDR. Total cost: $50.

Monday, October 09, 2006

AK: (I.4-6) Making introductions

Side note. My son Alexander turned two on Saturday. He is a wonderful boy. We took him to the doctor today for a scheduled checkup. He's growing well and all. Our pediatrician noticed my battered copy of Anna Karenina, and asked me how far I was into it. I explained that I was reading it once again, and he said he recognized it because of the front cover, which is a painting called "The Spinet". Spinet means upright piano, as opposed to grand piano, and the picture shows a lady playing the piano. (Spinet is also a term for harpsichord-like keyboard instruments (presumably popular in the 19th century) that pluck strings rather than hammering them like the piano does.) Anyhow, the doctor too has the Magarshack.

Meet Dolly. Chapter 4 introduces Oblonsky's wife, Dolly. She was once beautiful, but the strains of seven pregnancies in nine years, raising five children, and running a house on nothing while Oblonsky fritters away his living and her fortune have aged her prematurely. When she discovered Oblonsky's betrayal, it probably should have been the final straw. As the chapter opens, we hear Dolly's indecision as she tries to pack up the children's things. She has been on the verge of leaving Oblonsky for days, but can't quite cross the threshold.

Here are a few interesting verbal coincidences that explain why, at least to me. At the end of Chapter 3, Oblonsky says, "it can't be left as it is," then marches into Dolly's bedroom to have it out. A mirror image at the beginning of Chapter 4 reads, "[Dolly] kept saying to herself that it could not go on like that, that she had to do something to punish and humiliate him." Notice how Oblonsky thinks the status quo is too harsh, but Dolly thinks that the pain hasn't even begun to touch him. But it's essentially the same language, the same phrase. Another one says that Dolly "could not break herself of the habit of looking upon him as a husband and loving him." Compare to the first three chapters, which repeat almost obnoxiously that Oblonsky is a creature of habit. Finally, there's the last line in the chapter, which explains how Dolly's reflection on the tragic state of her marriage is interrupted by another household crisis: "And Dolly, absorbed in her daily cares, drowned her grief in them for a while." This reminded me very strongly of the "dream of life" image used for Oblonsky. Again, the mirror: life is what happens to Oblonsky while he's waiting for his dreams of decanter girls and sybaritic pleasures to start up again, but Dolly uses life as a soporific against her deep sense of despair for her family and her situation. Oblonsky escapes from life, Dolly escapes to life.

Why are husband and wife described with such similar language? I started to get the feeling that Oblonsky and Dolly fit together, or deserve each other somehow. They float along on the sea of their quotidian arrangement. She bails water and he fiddles. Neither one of them is willing to make a real break, a big change. They've been doing it for so long that they forget why they're doing it.

The quarrel scene is quite tragic to me. Oblonsky is not moved, in the end, by Dolly's hatred. She says, "I loathe you. I hate you. You're a stranger to me, yes, a perfect stranger!" He says, "And the maids may have heard! Terribly unladylike, terribly." But the most tragic thing of all is that Dolly still loves this boob.

Ellipsis is used to hint at things the characters don't want to say out loud. In one of the first chapters, Oblonsky almost says that the situation has gone from bad to worse because he's gotten his mistress pregnant. In this chapter, Dolly says last, "How I loved! And don't I love him even now? Don't I love him even more than ever now? What's so dreadful is that..." I think the end of this sentence is that Oblonsky doesn't love her anymore. Dolly can't say it out loud. The very idea deprives her of oxygen.

Meet Levin. Konstantin Levin is a mass of contradictions, like most of the characters in this novel. Levin runs onto the stage as a strong, broad-shouldered man climbing the steps to Oblonsky's office "swiftly and lightly". He feels out of place and shy in Oblonsky's office, but also feels contempt for Oblonsky's meaningless sinecure and government jobs in general. He detests the town and he detests the rural council, but he especially hates Grinyevich's well-manicured fingers.

Levin and Oblonsky are unlikely friends. "Each believed that the life he himself led was the only real life and the life led by his friends was nothing but an illusion." Oblonsky is the ambassador of the world, reflexive smile firmly and involuntarily in place, stranger to none and making no distinctions of place or status. Levin, on the other hand, is a man of ideas, popping up with a frown and "some totally new and unexpected views on things in general."

That is, Oblonsky and Levin reflect another great division, between what you might call the physical life and the spiritual life. Levin thinks that Oblonsky's hedonism, for lack of a better word, is worthless, and ignores questions of meaning. Oblonsky thinks that big ideas are a big waste of time, and that a world beyond the material doesn't even exist.

Along this line, here's a short passage from Kierkegaard's The Single Individual (from a page of Kierkegaard commentaries and translations):

There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that "the crowd" received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in.

"Oblonsky, doing the same things as everyone else, laughed confidently and good-humoredly, whereas Levin laughed not so confidently and sometimes angrily." Levin is the great individual, but he often stands alone, unsupported by his culture or even universal ethical principles. His ideas are always earnest, but are not always grounded and consistent, as is evident when Levin and Oblonsky talk about the rural council. Oblonsky needles Levin, "I can see that you've now entered a new phase, a conservative one this time." Levin blushes at this kind of talk like a schoolboy. He knows that Oblonsky thinks he's naive and that he looks like a wild man to the worldly set, but he can't bring himself to give up his quixotic quest for meaning.

Oblonsky's last word on the subject reminds me of Re-Neducation, and of course of the last line of 1984: "But even you will come over to us in the end." One of us! One of us!

Meet Levin's Kitty. Kitty Shcherbatsky (not a typo) is Dolly's sister. We meet her in Chapter 6 as the object of Levin's affection. The Shcherbatskys were a surrogate family for Levin, his father and mother being dead and his only sister older than him. He idealized the women: "he imagined... the most elevated sentiments and every conceivable perfection." Shopping, piano, French literature, dancing lessons, might very well seem mysterious and opaque to Levin. There's nothing mysterious, though, about why Levin admires Kitty's legs in their tight red stockings. Meow. The paragraph concludes, "it was with this aura of mystery that he was in love." Along with the obvious reasons, Levin is a man searching for meaning, and that makes him a mystery-lover.

The paragraph on how Levin fell in love with Dolly and Natalie, the older sisters, before Kitty is quite funny. I've mentioned before that my love-dar was quite unmanageable in high school, but this reminded me of another pertinent high school memory, one of those poetic coincidences that explains everything, but goes unnoticed at the time you're living it.

I was in drama for a while. I wasn't very good at it, I think, because I never thought of how I appeared to the audience, or even about being a character instead of just a version of myself saying some words. Anyway, we played this drama game for most of a year, improvising scenes in an elevator as delightfully wacky characters. Eventually, the drama advisor (Tristan and Jessica Devin's mom, Lynne Devin-Smith (spelled right?)) wrote up our scenes into a play called Ups and Downs. It was me, Heather Moon, Nate Todd, Deanna Gauthier, and Amber Anderson.

Here's Heather, Amber, and Deanna, as a runner, deaf girl, and bug lady respectively, encountering me in the elevator (slightly changed my name in the script to keep alive the surprise, and a few stage directions for clarity):

BUG LADY enters elevator, searching for bugs. RUNNER enters jogging, and sees BUG LADY catching bugs [perhaps nonexistent]. DAN enters from SR, gets on elevator, notices RUNNER. He gradually moves next to her.

DAN: Hi!

RUNNER: Hello...

DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

RUNNER: ... uh... I don't think so - no, you don't look familiar...

DAN: Well, I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...

RUNNER: Excuse me?

DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.

BANKER [Nate] gets on. RUNNER jogs off. DEAF GIRL gets on.

DAN [to DEAF GIRL]: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

DEAF GIRL [signing]: Excuse me?

DAN: I have a very strong feeling about you... I think... well, I think we're probably soul mates...

DEAF GIRL [signing]: I don't think so...

DAN: I think we're destined for each other - destined to be together.

DEAF GIRL [signing and exiting]: This guy is really off his rocker...

DAN notices BUG LADY.

DAN: You know, you might think this is a bit... well, odd, but I think... well, I have the feeling that we know each other.

BUG LADY doesn't acknowledge him, but finds a bug on his jacket. ...

Pretty much says it all, huh? I invented "everyone's soul mate" and didn't even realize it was me. I can laugh about it now.

That's why Levin is so funny here: "He seemed to feel that he had to fall in love with one of the sisters, only he could not make up his mind with which." He falls in love with Dolly, but she marries Oblonsky; then he falls in love with Natalie, but she marries Lvov. Levin doesn't see them for a while, but after visiting them again, "he realized which of the three sisters he was really destined to fall in love with." And of course, it was the one who wasn't married yet. Of course. I feel like I'm noticing the irony more on this read through.

Levin's been shy about popping the question, though. One reason, that he was worried about what people would think of him, a landowner without a profession, dovetails with the stuff above where he is embarrassed by his individuality and his difference from the crowd, like a schoolboy. But the more intriguing reason is that he sees himself as flawed and dirty, but if he were the girl, he would only pick someone handsome and remarkable. Levin judges by himself, and what he's looking for is perfection. Not just in love, but in his search for the answers to life's persistent questions, he isn't going to settle. Feels like a setup for a rude awakening, doesn't it?

Twice in the last paragraph in Chapter 6, this love is linked ominously with death. He realizes that "he could not live without having settled the question whether or not she would be his wife," and "he could not imagine what would become of him if she were to refuse him." Without getting too far ahead of the story, the meaning of life and the meaning of death bring continual pressure on Levin's self-image. So we might ask ourselves, is Levin planning to propose out of love, out of fear, out of his personal quest for answers? We don't actually know fact two about Kitty (fact one: Meow) because Levin idealizes her so completely. She could be anyone once you get her down from the pedestal, out of the heavenly lighting. So who does Levin think he's marrying, anyway?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

AK: (I.1-3) Welcome to the Russian Novel

[Note: Yesterday, I really should have given a quick shout-out to Mount Rainier High School's Class of 1998 IB English 12 class, where I first read this novel, to Mr. Mac Willems who taught the class and led the reading, and to all my classmates who loved or hated it along with me. This live reading of Anna Karenina is dedicated to all of you.]

Congratulations. You're the proud reader of an immense 19th century Russian novel. Here are a few things to be prepared for as you read.

Omniscient Point of View. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina as an all-knowing storyteller. This is in marked contrast to the modern airport bookstore thriller, which generally uses what you might call a chase camera focused on one character at a time, reporting events from their viewpoint only. Tolstoy feels free to editorialize about the action, comment on characters with a God's eye view, use more than one perspective in a scene, and even tell you his own judgments of the characters rather than show you the characters and imply what he thinks of them.

For Joe Author, this is a really difficult trick to pull off. It breaks a cardinal rule of modern storytelling: "Show, don't tell." The idea is that actions speak louder than words, or that really great details speak for themselves. Tolstoy doesn't go this way. Instead, think of the narrator in AK as another character, a very observant character with a particular slant on life.

You can see this quite clearly in the opening two paragraphs of the novel:

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky household. The wife had found out that the husband had had an affair with their French governess and had told him that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This situation had now gone on for three days and was felt acutely by the husband and wife themselves, by all the members of the family, and by their servants. ...

Interesting information, but it's telling, not showing.

Wordiness. Just as the narrator's judgment is explicit, a lot more of the action and motivation is explicit in AK than your modern novel. There's a lot of repetition of concepts that are redundant in context, a lot of explanations where a few words would suffice. Or would they? Well, here's the next part of the second paragraph:

... All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together under the same roof and that people who happened to meet at any country inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the Oblonsky family and their servants.

What I find is that when I'm looking for the wordiness, it's everywhere, but I don't really notice it when I'm not.

Detailed Observation. In the modern novel, the depth and detail of the writing is often determined by the importance of the scene. For instance, one sentence can be used to describe a trip from Los Angeles to Boston, but a whole chapter can focus intently on fifteen minutes of story-changing dialogue in a kitchen. These can give the action in the story some ebb and flow, a chance for the reader to calm down after a particularly harrowing scene, or reflect on the future course of the story.

For Tolstoy, it is all details, all the time. That's an exaggeration, but even in a low-key, unimportant scene, the action is described carefully. Here's a bit of the fourth paragraph.

[Oblonsky] turned his plump, well-cared-for body on the well-sprung sofa, as though intending to go to sleep for a long time, hugged the pillow on the other side, and pressed his cheek against it; suddenly he jumped up, sat down on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

If you think that's detailed, wait until something actually happens. Here's the sixth and seventh paragraphs, after Oblonsky has woken up and recalled his dream. There's a very long chain of cause and effect, and the details are very specific.

Oblonsky's eyes sparkled gaily and he smiled as he sank into thought. "Yes, it was nice, very nice. There was a lot that was excellent there, but it can't be put into words, or expressed in thoughts, now that I am awake." Then, noticing the shaft of light coming through the side of one of the holland blinds, he briskly thrust his feet down from the sofa to feel for the slippers his wife had given him as a birthday present the year before and which she had worked in gold morocco and, as had been his custom during the last nine years, stretched out his hand without getting up for the place where his dressing gown hung in the bedroom. It was then that he suddenly remembered how and why it was that he was sleeping not in his wife's bedroom but in his own study. The smile vanished from his face and he wrinkled his forehead.

"Dear, oh dear!" he groaned, remembering what had happened. And in his mind's eye he saw again all the details of the quarrel with his wife; he realized the utter hopelessness of his position and, most tormenting fact of all, that it was all his own fault.

What follows after this is Oblonsky's memory of the quarrel (not a scene, just a moment from a scene). A little shaft of light got the ball rolling. The first real dialogue isn't until Chapter 2.

Last warning: everything in the reading is fair game for me to write about. I won't cheat by talking about future action (say, the thing in a later chapter that may have something to do with the current chapter), but I will mention events and my personal judgments as I go. If you want to read these little thoughts without spoilers, stay four chapters ahead of me.

Meet Oblonsky. Prince Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky (Oblonsky to us, Stiva to his friends) is the quintessential inertial man; I wrote about this a while back. That is, he tends to remain as he is unless acted upon by an outside force, and act the forces do, blowing him around like a weathervane. Although Oblonsky is an aristocrat and has more freedom of action than most people in his country, he abdicates his power in favor of the whims of the crowd. This is clear in the section of I.3 describing Oblonsky's newspaper: he belongs to a certain worldview not because it is right, but "because it corresponded more closely to his way of life."

Because Oblonsky has given up his free will, he has trouble accepting that anything is his responsibility. It's obvious throughout I.1, where Oblonsky says, tellingly, "It is my own fault and yet I'm not to blame. That's the tragedy of it." When Dolly, his wife, discovers the affair, Oblonsky's involuntary "reflexes of the brain" cause him to smile foolishly. "It's all the fault of that stupid smile," he decides. Of course, it is his smile, and his affair, and his callousness masquerading as bonhomie.

[Digression: you might make an interesting comparison between Oblonsky and Angel, a character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who eventually spawned his own spin-off series. Angel is a vampire who murdered his way around the world for hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, he killed a Romany girl. The gypsies cursed him by returning his human soul to his vampire body. He acquired a conscience and became deeply remorseful for his limitless cruelty, perversion, and wickedness. In a way, Angel is at fault, but not to blame.]

Another aspect of Oblonsky's inertia is his default to routine behavior. These opening chapters contain numerous references to Oblonsky's behavior as customary: "woke up at his usual time"; "as had been his custom during the last nine years"; "smiled its usual kind and, for that reason, rather foolish smile". In fact, this is why Oblonsky gets up out of bed at all: "There was no answer except the usual answer life gives to the most complicated and insoluble questions. This answer is: carry on with your everyday affairs, that is to say, put it out of your mind." It should be clear, though, that just because this is the usual answer or Oblonsky's answer, that doesn't make it the right answer.

Matvey is the Evil Jeeves to Oblonsky's Evil Wooster. Instead of caring for Oblonsky and getting him out of jams in ways that reflect good will for the innocent parties, Matvey is Oblonsky's partner in crime. By turns sympathetic and sly, Matvey is entertained by the spectacle of Oblonsky's family trouble, but not interested in doing the right thing. "Don't worry, sir," he says. "It'll all come right." Oblonsky, though, has cause for his worry and even regret, and Matvey is his enabler when he tells Oblonsky to do nothing until the situation sorts itself out.

Oblonsky's attitude toward his marriage can be called the way of the world: marriage is when two people fall in love, have kids, tire of each other, and begin to commit adultery. This happens to the "handsome and susceptible" man when the woman gets used up and unattractive. The woman should see it coming and accept it as inevitable. Oblonsky internalizes this attitude so deeply that "It was clear that he had never thought the matter out..." After nine years of marriage and seven kids (two dead!), Oblonsky is an absentee husband, making sure not to interfere with his wife, as he puts it. In fact, he wants nothing more than to be out of the house, away from the kids. It is ironic that Oblonsky, who stuck Dolly with all the child-rearing responsibility, should betray Dolly with the person he hired to help her out, the governess.

Finally, is Oblonsky deluded, but otherwise honest? A couple of passages speak to this. In the first, a deeply ironic section on his opinions and liberalism, Oblonsky agrees that marriage is an obsolete institution because "family life gave Oblonsky very little pleasure and forced him to tell lies and dissemble, which was so contrary to his nature." Again, Oblonsky doesn't own up to his actions, but feels oppressed by his marriage vow. In the second, Oblonsky feels like he can't put their relationship right because he can't make Dolly beautiful or overcome his desire for passionate affairs with beautiful women: "Nothing could come of it now except lies and hypocrisy; and lies and hypocrisy were contrary to his nature." After these first three chapters, you have to wonder if Oblonsky is anything but lies and hypocrisy. But you could also say Oblonsky has no depth. He isn't able to see himself from a neutral position. He only sees himself from the point of view of the various masks he puts on to work, to play, to make love to a woman. He never recognizes what he's doing, never examines his life. From that point of view, Oblonsky is worthless, as "the unexamined life is not worth living", but not exactly malevolent.

Here are some random highlights from the first three chapters, the leftovers. "... he therefore had to put it out of his mind by the dream of life" is an especially poignant and well-turned line. Watch the trains closely; Oblonsky's kids are playing with one in I.3. And why did Oblonsky have a good dream after three days of estrangement, anyway?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Anna Karenina goes blogospherical

Next obsession. There are 239 chapters in my edition of Anna Karenina. Here it is on Amazon. For at least sentimental reasons, I'm sticking with the David Magarshack translation.

You might consider "A favorite book" a short introduction to the power and relevance of this book. Let me just add a few bullet points about its significance. It's written in fulsome, astounding detail, with great realism. The main characters are a kind of cross-section of the Russian upper class of the time, and their relationships are complex. The plot has dizzying continuity (the book is 800 pages in paperback, or even 960 if you followed that link above). The meaning of life, death, marriage, and family are tackled in all their human squishiness. It also "provides a key to understanding the Russian revolution" in the early 20th century by exposing the inward rot of the aristocratic social system.

I'm going to read the whole thing and write about it here. If you want to follow along, buy the book. It's cheap and you can get it anywhere. At four chapters a day, five days a week, it'd take about three months to read it. I don't know what pace I'll be able to keep, but I plan to write something about every chunk of the story. Whether that means a close reading or a reflection spawned by a single line will just have to be up to me.

Feel free to contribute your own comments. Disagree with me, bring up something I don't talk about, write about a moment that touches you. It's a huge book, full of material for reflection. I hope you enjoy it as much as I undoubtedly will.

I'm going to label these posts "AK: ", so those who don't want to read about this great old book don't have to.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

And in the end...

So, we did it. We finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It took us about three months from start to finish, so we got to do it about thirty times as fast as someone who saw it once a week in real time. (Of course, there's still Angel to get to, the five-season spinoff...) I can't imagine what it would have been like to see it as it came out. We were amazed at the intricacy of it all, and we got to go from a season finale to a season premiere in minutes. The original fans got to chew over the action for weeks and months at a time.

There's a reason this thing is a cult television show. It is the total cat's pajamas, people. It's wicked clever, epic, and demanding. Fall in love with it now.