T-Rx: The History of a Radical Leader was published in January, 2019. It is one of my political philosophy novels.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov—the father of the family. At the time of the book he is an elderly widower. He has been a lecher all his life and is the father of the illegitimate son, Smerdyakov.
Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov (Mitya)—The passionate oldest son who is a veteran of the military and is entangled in two love interests: Katya and Grushenka.
Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov--The intellectual nihilist (2nd son) who loves Katya (unrequited) and is filled with contradictory feelings about his atheism and general worldview.
Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov--(3rd son). He is the spiritual center of the novel. He becomes a novice monk and then follows his mentor’s (the Elder Brother Zosima’s counsel) call for him to enter into the world and do good (= love his fellow humans).
Stinking Lizaveta—A young retarded girl who is treated as the village idiot. She dies giving birth to Smerdyakov. Most of the town believes that the father of the child is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who continually raped her over a period of time.
Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov--The illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov and Lizaveta. He is epileptic and is the real killer of Fyodor Karamazov. He was raised by Grigory Kutuzov and his wife Marfa (servants to Fyodor).
Grigory Kutuzov--servant to Fydor Pavlovich Karamazov. He and his wife, Marfa, raise Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor Karamazov.
Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova (Grushenka)--At a young age she has an affair with a Polish officer who abandons her (thus ruining her “reputation”). She travels to another town and is taken on by a merchant as a mistress and then involves herself with Fyodor Karamazov and then with his son Dmitri. This causes much of the tension in the novel.
Katerina Ivanovana Verkhovtseva (Katya)--Dmitri’s finance until he turns to Grushenka. There was an early incident in which Katya needs money (before she realizes her wealth) in which she begs him for money so that she might redeem her father’s good name. This “goes against her intense pride.” She feels forever beholden to Dmitri so that she becomes his espoused. Her flip over this event makes her want to be Dmitri’s slave, but the more she wants him, the more he is moved to Grushenka. Her love-hate relationship includes showing some attention to Ivan and to her hysterical testimony at Mitya’s trial in which she produces a letter that seals his fate.
The Elder Monk, Brother Zosima--He is a revered monk (revered one who is treated as a saint and spiritual center). Alyosha is very close to him. In the novel we have two glimpses of him. In the first case we see many who come to him for advice and for healing. In the second case he is the spiritual advisor for Alyosha. He tells Alyosha to go out into the world—away from the monastery—to live in the world (including taking a wife and raising a family). When he dies, many are disappointed that his body smells just like any other corpse. What his followers wanted was a miracle in which his body would smell like a garden. Some questioned his spiritual status because of this. Alyosha was not so affected. But he followed the advice and gave up his monk’s clothes for lay attire and went out to the world and is the center of the rest of the novel.
Katerina Ospovna Khokhlakov (Madame Khokhlakov)--A wealthy lady in town who is also a friend of Katya. Her crippled daughter, Lise, is fixated upon Alyosha (who says he wants to marry her). She is rather coy showing affection and then proclaiming it all to be a joke.
Mikhail Osipovich Rakitin—a seminary acquaintance of Aloysha. Aloysha likes Rakitin mildly, but Rakitin despises Aloysha out of jealousy. Rakitin is a Nietzsche aficionado.
Ilyusha Snegiryov—a local school boy whose father is insulted and beaten by Dmitri Karamazov. He is taunted by his peers who throw stones at him. He bites the finger of Alyosha, but later befriends him before his early death.
Captain Snegiryov--Ilyusha’s father who no longer has a position and feels shame because of it. His son takes on the brunt of this as the boy tries to defend his father’s reputation against his school mates.
Nikolai Ivanov Krasotkin - (Kolya) A bold, intelligent young boy who claims to know who founded “Troy.” (This is a claim that cannot be verified since it is unknown). Kolya befriends Alyosha after Ilyusha becomes ill and is a positive element in the final scene in the book.
Fetyukovich--A renowned defense attorney from Moscow who represents Dmitri at the trial.
Ippolit Kirrillovich--The prosecuting attorney at Dmitri’s trial.
Structure of the Book:
Author’s Note & Book I: A Nice Little Family, Chapters 1–5
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 1–4
Book II: An Inappropriate Gathering, Chapters 5–8
Book III: The Sensualists, Chapters 1–11
Book IV: Strains, Chapters 1–7
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 1–4
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
Book V: Pro and Contra, Chapters 6–7
Book VI: The Russian Monk, Chapters 1–3
Book VII: Alyosha, Chapters 1–4
Book VIII: Mitya, Chapters 1–8
Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation, Chapters 1–9
Book X: Boys, Chapters 1–7
Book XI: Brother Ivan Fyodorovich, Chapters 1–10
Book XII: A Judicial Error, Chapters 1–14
Epilogue, Chapters 1–3
A brief summary: The novel begins with the family coming together in the town of their father after being apart for a while being in the care and employ of others. Each has a particular reason to be there. Dmitri wants to settle his inheritance with his father. Upon the death of their mother each child was to get 3,000 roubles. The tight-fisted Fyodor doesn’t want to do it—even though he’s worth 60,000-80,000 roubles. He is an evil man in several dimensions.
Aloysha is there because he is a novice at the local monastery.
Ivan is there perhaps for the same reason as Dmitri or to assist him.
One source of friction arises when Dmitri (who is engaged to Katya) has taken to Grushenka, instead. But Fyodor is also interested in Grushenka—even though he is old enough to be her father. Fyodor is a bad man.
The Karamazovs go the monastery to solicit the opinion of the elder Zosima. But Fyodor causes a ruckus and that nixes that idea. Aloysha seeks out Dmitri, who has been hiding in the garden, and the brothers talk. Dmitri tells the story of how Katya humbled herself to get money from Dmitri to redeem her father’s good name. After that, Katya devoted herself to Dmitri, who then asked her to marry him.
After a time, Dmitri falls for Grushenka, gets money (3,000 roubles) from the now wealthy Katya to carry on his affair with Grushenka.
Aloysha goes to his father’s house and finds Ivan, Fyodor, Smerdyakov, and Grigory engaged in a religious dispute. This is really a metaphorical confrontation on how each of them relates to the other. The only stand-out is the nihilist intellectual approach of Ivan. He represents the solely rational man. Out of nowhere Dmitri comes in and beats his father and runs away. [This is a sort of “red herring.”]
Aloysha also exits and goes to Katya who just happens to be entertaining Grushenka. But when Aloysha arrives, Grushenka insults Katya and is asked to leave. Katya’s maid hands Aloysha a note upon his departure. When Aloysha arrives at the monastery he finds the note is from Lise who declares her love for him (later she says it just a “joke”).
The next day Brother Zosima directs Aloysha to check on his family. Aloysha goes to his father who is angry to the point of being delusional about his other two sons. Aloysha leaves heading for Katerina Khokhlakov’s (and Lise) when he meets the Snegiryov family including the boy, Ilyusha, who had bit his finger viciously earlier in the day. Former Captain Snegiryov rejects Aloysha’s offer of charity. Aloysha is going back to his father’s house where he meets Smerdyakov who tells Aloysha that Ivan and Dmitri are having a conference at a local tavern.
Aloysha goes to the pub and finds Ivan alone. They dine together and Ivan defends his theological position via the poem: “The Grand Inquisitor”
“The Grand Inquisitor”: The narrator is Ivan with brief queries by Aloysha. In the narrative poem Christ comes back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition in the town of Seville, Spain. Christ performs miracles to establish his identity and the people praise him (reminiscent of Palm Sunday). But the authorities take this differently. The Inquisition hierarchy view Christ as a threat and arrest him and sentence him to death (just like the aftermath of Palm Sunday). The main problem that the Inquisitor has with Jesus mirrors the three temptations of Jesus by Satan at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the 40 days in the wilderness. In the end, it is Jesus’ doctrine supporting human free will that upsets the Inquisitor. “Non-freedom” is preferable from the viewpoint of a church that sees itself as a political institution (mirroring the social/political tensions in Russia at the time).
The ultimate judgment of the Inquisitor is that Jesus was wrong to give the answers he did to Satan. In fact, Satan was correct!
In this way, Ivan is purporting that the Church is Satan and antithetical to the doctrines of Jesus—and that the Church (in taking this position) is correct!
This is powerful nihilism in this context. It will provide intellectual support for the forthcoming Russian Revolution which will abolish the Church in Russia.
The novel now turns to Ivan. Ivan returns to his father where he first runs into Smerdyakov who insinuates that Fyodor may be vulnerable to murder. This upsets Ivan. The next morning Ivan’s father, Fyodor, asks Ivan to go to Chermashnya to get a price on some wooded land that Fyodor owns and to bargain a higher price. Ivan does go, but is not successful in the mission. He heads to Moscow.
We now turn to Aloysha who attends to his spiritual advisor, the Elder Zosima who is near death. Aloysha seeks direction in his life. Brother Zosima tells Aloysha his story of how he was once a soldier almost killed a man in a duel. This story is centered around what it means to be “brave.” It contrasts competitive, macho values vrs. strength of virtue. This difference marks the difference between those who appear to be good as oppose to those who actually are. This is a key point in the novel as Aloysha internalizes this and acts it out effectively. It makes Aloysha the hero of this tale.
The next day the Elder Zosima dies. Since the man was so revered in the region, people looked for a miracle to appear. But instead of a miracle the body decays as other bodies do. His monastic followers (including Aloysha) morn his passing by prayer and the reading of scriptures. [Note back to “The Grand Inquisitor” for the common folk miracles are important. But are they really important in the physical sense? Isn’t the character of a man much more important?]
Now Dmitri is out and about looking for 3,000 roubles (the amount he had taken from Katya). Both Kuzma Samsonov and Madame Khokhlakov turn him down. Then he heads to his father’s. He is consumed with the thought that Grushenka might be there with his father, but he gets a bird’s eye view through the window that no visitor is there so he decides to exit. Unfortunately, he runs into the servant Grigory who tries to restrain him. Dmitri extricates himself by hitting Grigory over the head causing profuse bleeding. Grigory screams, “Parricide!”
Dmitri returns to Grushenka's. He finds out from the servants that Grushenka has left for Mokroye to meet the Polish lover, who turned her over five years ago and thereby ruined her reputation. Dmitri rushes off to Mokroye, where Grushenka rejects her Polish lover (when she finds out that he will leave her with a financial inducement from Dmitri) and declares her love for Dmitri. They throw a party to celebrate, but the festivities come to an end when officials arrive to arrest Dmitri for the murder of his father.
The novel now returns to the story of Ilyusha Snegiryov. There is an incident in which Ilyusha believes that a needle that he had put in food that his dog ate had killed the dog. The pain of this contributes to Ilyusha becoming ill. Kolya, another boy in the school who is very bright, takes a liking to Aloysha who comes to visit. Aloysha rallies the very same boys who had thrown stones at Ilyusha when he had been defending his father. Kolya brings Ilyusha a dog that they convince the sick child was his old dog come back: that Ilyusha had not killed his dog. Despite this change in spirit, a Moscow doctor that Katerina (Katya) had paid for makes the prognosis that Ilyusha does not have long to live.
It is now time for Dmitri’s trial. Just before the trial Ivan questions Smerdyakov privately. The duplicitous servant admits to killing Fyodor and taking the three thousand roubles. Smerdyakov hands over the money to Ivan. Ivan and Smerdyakov talk about confessing in court: Ivan for wanting his father dead and Smerdyakov for doing it. Later that day Smerdyakov kills himself.
Dmitri’s case rests on the money. When he had taken 3,000 from Katya he had used ½ of it for a bender with Grusenka. The other half he had put in a pouch that he carried around his neck. After leaving his father and heading for Grusenka for another bender he spent a little less than the 1,500 left. There was no further money left on his person, so it would seem that he didn’t steal 3,000 from his father or there would be 3,000 on his person.
The case made by the prosecutor, Ippolit Kirrillovich, emphasized a certain psychological profile that would explain the “facts.” However what really made a difference is when Katerina (Katya) testified in an emotional outburst that she felt that Dmitri was seriously thinking about killing his father and had written a note to that effect when he was drunk the day before.
The defense, Fetyukovich a renowned lawyer, also used a psychological profile that made different fundamental assumptions. The crowd all thought that Dmitri would be acquitted. He wasn’t.
Ivan, who fell apart during his testimony, had gone a way towards setting up the proper bribes that might allow Dmitri to escape before going to Siberia. From there he would leave Russia for America with Grusenka. Katya would pay the bill.
Aloysha meets with Dmitri in jail. Aloysha give his moral judgment that it would be all right for Dmitri to follow Ivan’s plan. The novel ends before we find out if that is actually effected.
Then we go to the dying scene and wake of Ilusha with his twelve comrades (once antagonists) who are drawn together by Aloysha and Kolya. The group rallies around the grave site and Aloysha tells the boys that this is a sacred moment which will yield a memory that they should hold onto all their lives. It will give sacred meaning and life is all about finding and holding onto sacred meaning. The insight and goodness of Aloysha makes this final moment the ultimately most valuable moment in a novel filled with bitterness and sorrow.
Themes: One quick and easy dichotomy might be to contrast the “sensualists” (Book III) with Aloysha’s spiritualism (Books VI and VII). The way of the world is via competition and money. It is the exercise of power over others. But the use of extreme power is also dangerous because it can turn its back on the perpetrator as it does to Fyodor, Dmitri, and Smerdyakov. A tangent to this is to use intellect or perverse emotion to try and cope with life’s tragedies: Ivan, Katerina, and the early Kolya. Intellect is important but it is not the most important ingredient in the human soul.
Love, on the other hand, comes from the spirit and self-control (right conduct). Aloysha is the standard-carrier here. He is a transformational character who is not so good as to be “unreal.” Love truly does offer an option in times of crisis. And the humble execution of the same creates a real agent of positive social change.
Assessment: Dostoevsky is a fine writer. It is this reviewer’s opinion that The Brothers Karamazov is his best work. Further, I believe it to be one of the best novels ever written that I have read. When I first pursued this work forty years ago I was not able fully fathom the existential truth of the contrast of the three approaches: power via sensualism, power via reason, vrs. unconditional love. It can take a lifetime to understand how to weigh these options. Surely the way of the world is to lean toward the sensualist or rationalist, but though these roads may be the most powerful, they are not the most choiceworthy. Our only hope for survival as a species lies in unconditional love. This novel expresses via fictive narrative philosophy the truth of that normative proposition.
Attempted: *****/ Accomplished: *****
Fydor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, tr. Constance Garnett.
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (“Rodya,” “Rodka”)--Central character
Alyona Ivanovna –the old pawnbroker who Raskolnikov murders
Lizaveta Ivanovna--sister to the pawnbroker. She’s also murdered.
Nastasya Petrovna (“Nastenka,” “Nastasyushka”) –servant in the house where Raskolnikov rents his small room. She keeps him alive by bringing him soup and bread.
Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov (“Sonya,” “Sonechka”)--his love (daughter to Marmeladov)
Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov--Alcoholic civil servant. Sonya’s father.
Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov--Sofya’s mother
Polina Mikhailovna Marmeladov (“Polya,” “Polenka,” “Polechka”)--the oldest daughter of Katerina Ivanovna from a previous marriage
Pulkheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova--Raskolnikov’s mother
Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov (“Dunya,” “Dunechka”)--sister of Raskolnikov
Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin--Fiance to Dunya. That breaks-up thanks to Raskolnikov
Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov--Luzhin’s roommate. He is arrested for ninhilism.
Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin--friend, marries Raskolnikov’s sister
Porfiry Petrovich –Magistrate. Raskolnikov’s foe. Has a keen interest in psychology
Ilya Petrovich (“Gunpowder”)--policeman Raskolnikov runs into after committing the murders. He eventually confesses to him at the end of the novel.
Nikodim Fomich--amiable chief of police
Nikolai Dementiev (“Mikolka”)--a painter at the house where Raskolnikov committed the murders. He is suspected of the murder and imprisoned. He later makes a false confession.
Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov--evil man who killed his wife (Marfa Petrovna Svidrigaïlova) by poisoning her. He rapes women and has designs on Raskolnikov’s sister. He kills himself.
The book begins with Raskolnikov full of resentment : his career as a law student is on hold because he has been giving away the money he has (from his mother) to various people who desperately need it. He puts others above himself. From Nietzsche’s standpoint this is false aestheticism. If we buy into this interpretative lens, then Raskolnikov needs to act.
Again, he chooses a social goal: to kill an old pawnbroker who makes money at the expense of poor, struggling people. In this way he might be a quasi-Napoleon. (Remember, from the Russian standpoint Napoleon was a rascal invader that got his just deserts.)
So Raskolnikov carefully plans and murders the pawn broker. Her sister comes in at the end and is murdered, too. Raskolnikov collects some trinkets and the purse, but he realizes (after the fact) that this was not the reason he had committed the act. He walks about and decides to put the loot into a hole beneath a stone in a remote place.
Now the book begins. Exiting the building he has to hide to avoid detection by some painters. Then he runs into an angry cop. Raskolnikov is mentally unstable. He tries to clean up the blood with an obsessive nature (like Lady Macbeth).
He does it. Is everything okay?
No. His sister and mother are coming to town. They give him some money in the letter. Then there is a long period of Raskolnikov walking about with a fever coming home when he’s about to drop and then Nastasya gives him some weak soup and a piece of bread. Raskolnikov is thinking about the potential marriage of his sister to an unscrupulous lawyer and the possibility that he will be caught. He keeps repeating his theory (really Nietzsche’s) about supermen. Is he a superman? Raskolnikov is a bit of an egoist so he really thinks he might be. But events are not going as he thought they should.
Raskolnikov goes into a bar for a drink and meets Marmeladov. This is another person who has lost his bearings. He is drinking himself to death. He is spending the family money so that the only way to make things work is for his daughter, Sonia, to go into prostitution (yellow card).
Marmeladov gets lucky and is hit by a cart which leads to his death. Raskolnikov steps in to help (anti-superman activity) and gives all the money he has to the family for the funeral. It is then that he meets Sonia.
At the funeral Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin shows his evil self. He tries to say that Sonia stole money from him. But really he had stuffed a hundred ruple note into her dress pocket in order to frame her. Unfortunately for Luzhin, he was seen by another who also came to the funeral following the lawyer. The crowd turns away from Luzhin. He is never a power in the book again.
Then Svidrigaïlov comes to town also after Raskolnikov’s sister. He has gotten a good deal of money after poisoning his wife to death. After a scene in which he rapes a young girl, he gets Dounia into a situation in which she has to brandish a gun to protect herself from rape. The shot only grazes the man, but then he becomes upset at her so he hands over the key and Dounia escapes.
Svidrigaïlov gives some of his money to the children of the bereaved family. This means Sonia does not have to prostitute herself any more. Then Svidrigaïlov goes and kills himself after the turn-down by Dounia.
By this time Sonia has become a good friend of Dounia and Raskolnikov—so much so that Raskolnikov confesses his murder to her. Sonia is a good Christian so she tells Raskolnikov that his only option is to “kiss the earth and then confess to the world that he is a murderer.” She says that she will follow him to Siberia.
Given the two options of suicide or taking a prison term Raskolnikov does some walking to get his head together. He knows that his sister will be fine with his friend, Razumikhin. He tries to arrange that. It is time to take Sonia’s wooden crucifix and face his fate.
Raskilnikov goes to the police station to confront the policeman who ran into him just after the murder. Raskilnikov confesses. That is the end of the regular novel. In the epilogue Raskilnikov faces 8 years in Siberia due to his mental condition, his previous good works, and the fact that he does not try to dispute facts.
Sonia follows Raskilnikov to Siberia. She visits him regularly. She is seen by the other convicts as a “sister” and they adore her. She is the light of Raskilnikov’s redemption. He will be 32 when he gets out. He has changed. Sonia changed him. She is the Christ figure in the novel: Christ 1, Nietzsche 0. Game over.
I see the principal theme a tension between the Christian worldview of what makes a good person and Nietzsche (aka the nihilists—in Russian historical terms). This is the most powerful presentation via Fictive Narrative Philosophy of this theme. Compare to Nietzsche’s own attempt in Also Sprecht Zarathrusta. There is no comparison. This is one of the finest presentations of this theme. It beats Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by a mile.
Attempt: *****/ Accomplished: *****
10-26-18/ Bethesda, MD
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1956). Tr. Constance Garnett, revised by Avrahm Yarmolinsky
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin - The hero and protagonist of the novel. Myshkin is from an old noble line and a distant relative of Madame Yepanchin. Myshkin has light-brown hair and blue eyes. He is mid-twenties to early thirties. At the beginning of the novel he returns to his native Russia after an absence of four years spent in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Myshkin is a meek man in a land of competition. This is why he is called an “idiot.”
Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov - A recognized alluring female around the same age as Myshkin. Myshkin calls her mad. Nastassya Filippovna was once a ward of Totsky. Later, however, he seduced her and made her his mistress when she was a young woman. She blames herself for her dishonor and, although she loves Prince Myshkin, she considers herself unworthy of marrying him. Nastassya runs away on the day of her proposed wedding to Rogozhin, who takes her away and then, later, stabs her to death.
Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin - A swarthy twenty-seven year-old who is descended from a long line of merchants. Rogozhin is madly in love with Nastassya Filippovna. After receiving a large inheritance, he attempts to woo her [buy her] by bringing her 100,000 rubles. She cannot decide between the two—going first to one and then to the other. When he “rescues” her on her wedding day to Myshkin, he ends up killing her.
Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin - A beautiful twenty-year-old beautiful and the youngest daughter of General Yepanchin and Lizaveta Prokofyevna. Aglaya is haughty and childlike in her caprices, but also very romantic and idealistic. She falls in love with Prince Myshkin, but is unable to accept his compassionate love for Nastassya Filippovna. Aglaya ends up running away with a man claiming to be a Polish count, who later abandons her.
Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin - A thin, blonde, attractive young man in his late tweties. Ganya is highly vain and ambitious. Although the epitome of mediocrity, he strives for originality. He is in love with Aglaya, but is willing to marry Nastassya Filippovna—whom he despises—for 75,000 rubles. Of course, this never occurs.
Ivan Fyodorovitch Yepanchin - A fifty-six year-old general. Yepanchin is a wealthy and respected member of St. Petersburg society. At the beginning of the novel he lusts after Nastassya Filippovna. As the novel progresses he begins to fail and becomes something of a bafoon.
Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin - A distant relative of Prince Myshkin and the wife of General Yepanchin. In her willfulness and eccentricity, Lizaveta is very similar to Aglaya. Her greatest anxiety in life is finding suitable husbands for her three daughters.
Alexandra Ivanovna Yepanchin - The oldest daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-five and unmarried. Although Alexandra's parents worry about her marriage, she feels very calm. Highly educated and well read, she has a talent for music.
Adelaida Ivanovna Yepanchin - The middle daughter of the Yepanchins, who is twenty-three. Adelaida, like her older sister, is very cultivated and expresses a talent for painting. She is engaged to Prince S.
Hippolite Terentyev - A seventeen year-old consumptive. Hippolite is well aware of his approaching death and feels like an outcast of nature. He tries to reassert himself by espousing his own views on life and morality in his "Essential Statement" and then by his suicide attempt: shooting himself with an unloaded gun. He is in love with Aglaya, Hippolite is a friend of Kolya and the son of Madame Terentyev, the mistress of General Ivolgin.
Afanassy Ivanovich Totsky - A rich aristocrat in his middle fifties, he tries to arrange the marriage between Nastassya Filippovna and Ganya to get her off his hands. Several years before the action of the novel takes place, he makes her his mistress for several years.
Yevgeny Pavlovich Radomsky - A young and dashing suitor to Aglaya Yepanchin. Radomsky retires from the military just before he takes part in the novel's action. A man of reason, he frequently visits Myshkin in the Swiss sanitarium at the end of the novel.
Prince S. - The good-looking and intelligent fiancé of Adelaida Yepanchin, who later on becomes her husband. Prince S. is hardworking, knowledgeable, and very rich.
Lebedev - A rogue, drunkard, liar, and recently widowed father of a large family. At the beginning of the novel, Lebedev is part of Rogozhin's gang. He later rents out several rooms in his summer cottage in Pavlovsk to Prince Myshkin.
Ivan Petrovitch Ptitsyn - An ordinary man just under thirty who manages to collect a large fortune by being a usurer (lending money for interest). Ptitsyn is suitor and later husband to Varya Ivolgin.
Ardalyon Ivolgin - Ganya's father, an ex-general. General Ivolgin has lost his circle of friends in high society due to constant drinking and lying. He has a stroke late in the book.
Nina Alexandrovna Ivolgin - General Ivolgin's wife. Nina Alexandrovna, a dignified woman of about fifty, is the mother of Varya, Ganya, and Kolya Ivolgin. Despite her husband's lying and keeping of a mistress, she pities him and even helps Hippolite.
Varvara Ardalyonovna Ivolgin (later Ptitsyn) - Ganya's dignified twenty-three-year-old sister. Varya is among the characters whom the narrator considers ordinary people. She tries to help her brother's chances with Aglaya by befriending the Yepanchin girls, but to no avail.
Nikolai Ardalyonovitch Ivolgin - Ganya's younger brother. Kolya is a simple and good-natured boy who becomes friends with Prince Myshkin, whom he respects greatly. Kolya is also friends with Hippolite, whom he visits throughout his illness until Hippolite's death from consumption.
Ferdyshchenko - An ugly and insolent lodger in the Ivolgin apartment at the beginning of the novel. Ferdyshchenko strives to be original, yet most people regard him contemptuously as a drunkard and an amoral rogue.
Burdovsky - A young man who fraudulently claims to be the son of Pavlishchev, Myshkin's late benefactor. Burdovsky attempts to use the false claim to gain access to a portion of the prince's inheritance. When Myshkin’s hired detective shows this claim to be impossible Burdovsky leaves—but now without Myshkin helping Burdovsky’s mother (who Burdovsky defamed as having him out-of-wedlock).
The book revolves around three people: Prince Myshkin, Nastassya Filippovna, and Rogozhin. Each are “peculiar” in their own ways. At the beginning of the book Myshkin is coming home from Switzerland where he had been having health treatments. It is unclear whether this is really epilepsy. The so-called seizures do not clinically fit this. Instead, I think they are psychological panic attacks. I am not sure whether Dostoevsky read the Hippocratic treatise “On the Sacred Disease.” If he did, then it is probably that Dostoevsky intended Myshkin to be “touched” in a sacred way. Indeed, the prince is a quasi-Christ figure (on the model of Francis of Assisi). Myshkin is simple, but profound. He has money but he gives most of it away. He is not afraid to die, and is not overcome by desire.
Myshkin “falls in love” with two women: (a) a fallen woman in Switzerland; and (b) Nastassya Filippovna, a fallen woman in Russia. He feels sorry for them. He wants to save them. But then there is also Aglaya. He loves her too, but in a different way. She has let out that she loves him and that creates an expectation of marriage. Myshkin agrees (formally) but then Aglava wants to willfully show that she is the preferred woman and she sets up a “choose me or her” situation. Myshkin refuses to choose. That breaks things up and leads to the tragic end where on his wedding day Nastassya asks Rogozhin to save her from the marriage. But the end of love brings death.
There is definitely something crazy going on!
So whence the crazy? Is it the people? Is it the society? Is it humankind, in general (there are quite a few generals in this novel)? So getting beyond the questions, I believe that this novel is about Russia as being the idiot. Prince Myshkin is a decent guy who does not get hung up on his money (which he largely gives away) or any other personal gain. He is a Christ-like stoic who seeks to get on and do good whenever he can. This is totally contrary to the competitive social climbers who inhabit the rest of the volume. There are three key scenes. The first is when Burdovsky (spurred on by some of his friends) seeks to get half of Myshkin’s money claiming that his mother had an out-of-wedlock affair with Myshkin’s benefactor (Pavlishchev) and so HE, Burdovsky is the illegitimate son who is entitled to half of the wealth. This scene is about pure competitive greed. This is a tale told by a real idiot full of sound and fury and signifies nothing. Pavlishchev had been out of the country for a number of years at the time that Burdovsky was born. Myshkin had documentation to prove this. Myshkin is no “pushover” but he is a truly meek man and seeks to set out the truth in a way that is kind. Myshkin was kindto Burdovsky’s mother (which is more than Burdovsky can say).
Second is the statement of Hippolite Terentyev. It is a rambling treatise of a community worldview seen by a man who believes he is about to die. (He does die way before his teen-aged time.) This is essentially a statement of existentialism. The event is heightened when he attempts suicide with an unloaded gun. Is this a stunt (thus negating the statement) or is it the honest mistake of a troubled mind—existentialists say we should all be so troubled.
Third, is when Myshkin is taken by Aglava to Nastassya’s in order to “prove” to herself that Myshkin (who is legally engaged to her) really loves her more than Natassya. Big mistake. Myshkin does not choose women on the basis of love, but rather compassion. Just as he had in Switzerland defended the “fallen woman” here he does the same. He throws away his contentment with a conventional marriage in order to save Natassya. It is a pity that she is not able to accept this.
The message is that Christ-like meekness when introduced into the world is a radical game changer. Christ must be sacrificed and the world is shaken-up.
This book is very ambitious. It is a book of character that revolves around Myshkin and the three key episodes. In some ways these are a bit didactic—but not overly so
Attempt: *****/ Accomplished: ***1/2.
2nd time read: November 2014,
Fydor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, tr. Constance Garnett (Easton Press, 1967 ).
The Underground Man—anonymous narrator and anti-hero of the novella. He is a civil servant with an inferiority complex. He is situated in 19th century St. Petersburg. He is full of contradictions. In his first person narrative he pretends that he thinks of himself as brilliant and capable, yet in the events described he is anything but that.
Simonov—A former schoolmate of the narrator. He is the only social contact for the narrator. Though he seems innocuous, the underground man is suspicious of him.
Zverkov—A former schoolmate of Simonov (and by extension, the narrator). He is an officer in the army and is popular. The underground man hated Zverkov during their school days. He was really jealous—and charges Zverkov with being gross. Zverkov has money which the underground man lacks.
Trudolyubov—Another former schoolmate of the narrator and a distant relation to Zverkov. He is not actively mean to the narrator, yet he admires “success” and views the narrative as a “failure.”
Apollon—The narrator’s elderly servant. He is also a tailor. The narrator keeps failing to pay his servant because he spends his money on other things. He also is in a “master-slave” dynamic with the servant.
Anton Antonych Setochkin—He is the narrator’s boss in the department of the ministry. He is the closest thing the underground man has as a friend. He occasionally lends the narrator money. Occasionally, the narrator visits him at his home on Tuesdays.
The Officer—A military officer who treats the narrator rudely in an incident at the tavern and is thus transposed as an object of general hatred by the narrator. He is everything the narrator is not: strong, confident, well off, and socially accepted.
Liza—A young prostitute who was sold to a brothel by her father. She has to pay off that debt. She acts detached from events around her and after having sex with the narrator, he fills her with thoughts about marriage and another life. She comes to his place a few days later only to be rebuffed by the narrator.
The plot is divided in half. In the first part (or note) depicts the narrator around the age of 40. This is largely a philosophical rant. Like Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, resentment is the main character. The narrator hates the era of his life and his circumstances. He rants against both the society and his position within it. He longs for power, but is impotent.
The second note is entitled: “Apropos of the West Snow.” This note has a story attached. It begins as a flashback to his twenties when he was supposed to be making it in the world. But instead, he is a failure. He is not attuned to the mores of his country. While walking in the park he unsure whether to yield to a soldier, who is a stranger. Nothing is as it seems.
Then there is the failure of the dinner which he crashes with some of his former schoolmates (who don’t really like him). He thinks he is entitled. But he drinks too much (more than he can afford) and makes himself ridiculous.
Then he is drawn into a brothel and talks to the new prostitute, Liza. She was sold by her father and she cannot be free until she pays her father’s fee. The narrator spouts platitudes to her to make her want to leave her profession. He gives her his address on a small piece of paper. She comes by in a few days and then she takes pity on him as she sees the poverty in which he lives. He gets angry and she leaves. Ironically, she might have been just the person who could have been his salvation while he could have been hers.
The underground man cannot act. He even wants to continue writing his notes, but even fails to do that. In the eyes of any society he is a loser. But whose fault is it? Therein lies the interpretation of the tale.
Themes: Freewill and determinism is the predominant theme. Determinism seems to win, but why? Is it merely social? How much responsibility do we have for getting rid of our resentment and exerting our power to act? This puts a Nietzsche twist to the tale, which I think fits. Here “power” is not power over others but power to execute freewill and to see things clearly. These are necessary for authentic living, but they are lacking in the narrator.
Assessment: The central character is either pitiable or despicable—maybe a little of each. He is full of self-pity yet he does not act when he has the chance (via Liza) to extricate from his lonely, solipsistic existence. The novella is a form that allows the author a single focus—much like a lyrical poem. In this way Dostoevsky has accomplished his task.
Attempt: 4.0/ Accomplished: 4.0
Fyodor, Dostoevsky, The Gambler, tr. Constance Garnett.
Alexei Ivanovich—the narrator of the story. He arrives in Roulettenburg, a German resort after a stay in Paris. He is the tutor for the family of a retired Russian General. He is in love with Polina and claims he would do anything for her—including suicide.
The General—Retired. A spendthrift. All his Russian properties are mortaged. He has borrowed money from de Grieux.
Polina Alexandrovna Praskovja—Step daughter of the General
Maria Filippovna—The mistress of the General.
Marquis de Grieux—Alleged relative of Blanche. He has a love interest in Polina.
Mr. Astley—Englishman also has an eye for Polina.
Mademoiselle Blanche de Cominges—Love interest of the General
Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm—In the town’s social circle. Polina gets Alexi to insult them on a whim.
Antonida Vasilevna Tarasevitcheva—Grandmother (the General’s mother)—is wealthy and the General is just waiting for her to die so that he can get her inheritance.
Madame de Cominges—Mademoiselle Blanche’s mother
The General (retired) is in hock. He is at a German resort living on credit. He is waiting to marry Blanche de Cominges but he needs money. His mother has money and is old and infirmed. The General is constantly telegramming St. Petersburg to find out if his mother is dead. This bothers the “grandmother.” She makes a train trip to Roulettenburg. The grandmother is confined to a wheelchair, but her wits are about her. She is angry at her son for his greediness.
Alexei is head-over-heals for Polina. She asks him to insult the Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm to prove his love. Alexei does it, but it gets back to the General who sacks the tutor, but agrees to pay his hotel bills (with money that the General does not possess). Then Polina (who is also short on money) gives Alexei some money to gamble for her. Alexei (a novice) agrees and wins some at roulette. Everyone is up-beat. But then Alexei has to go back and lose it again.
Enter the grandmother. She also wants to bet and just like Alexei, she wins the first day, but then loses it back the next. But she is hooked and keeps gambling until she has lost all the ready cash and bank notes she has with her. She offers to take Polina back to Russia with her, but the latter demurs. With no money but a train ticket, the grandmother goes back to Russia.
There is some intrigue among the three who want Polina’s love: Alexei, Astley, and de Grieux. It seems that she doesn’t know her own mind. It is a bit of a gamble of her own. She favors de Grieux, but it is a bad choice. Polina tells Alexei that she has been de Grieux’s lover. Alexei tries to find Astley and get some firm footing, but doesn’t
Once Blanche sees that the General won’t get his inheritance she arranges to leave town (with her mother) for Paris. Alexei, who has the run of a lifetime on the roulette wheel decides to go to Paris with Blanche to live with her for a short time in return for giving her virtually all of his money. Blanche is financially set, but it runs out quickly for Alexei, who then has to leave town to re-make his fortune gambling. But it is not to be. He is always at the low end of things and is even sent to prison for not paying a debt. A mysterious person buys him out.
On the outside, Alexei meets up with Astley in Bad Homburg and they sort out the events of the story. Grandmother died and left her money to Polina, who is living in Switzerland. Astley tells Alexei that Polina really did love him. The General died in Paris. Astley gives Alexei a bit of money, but not too much because Astley knows that if he did, that Alexei would just lose it again to gambling. Alexei goes home and dreams of Switzerland and the magic of the roulette wheel.
It seems that the title is incorrect. There isn’t just a single gambler, everyone in the story is a gambler in some fashion. Some gamble with rather better odds (such as Blanche or de Grieux or Astley), but they are all placing primary goods of life before the wheel of fate. This is a decent metaphor for life. And it plays out well, for the most part.
One way to approach this story is to inquire about how many levels the presentation takes us. It is this reader’s opinion that the options are rather limited to a couple of levels: money and love. Perhaps with a more complex story or more physical detail the author might have create a fuller depiction. This is not the stuff of Notes from Underground or The Double. Novellas are tough to write.
Aspired= ****/ Accomplished= ***/ Bethesda, MD September, 2018
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” (a film based upon the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin). Written and directed by Barry Jenkins.
This is a simple story which is intended to be emblematic of the young African American experience in New York City during the early 1970s. It begins with a love story between Alonzo Hunt (Fonny) and Tish Rivers. The two have been friends since early childhood.
Fonny was an aspiring sculptor who specialized in wood as his medium. He like small, abstract pieces. He is a man who is very authentic in his worldview approach to life. His friendship with Tish develops into adult love and they begin to be intimate with an eye toward marriage. They try to find an apartment that they could rent, but there was little in the way of decent housing available to African Americans. Still, they persisted.
One evening while shopping at a bodega a Latino man makes unwanted advances to Tish. Fonny steps in and tosses the man to the sidewalk. Then comes the beat cop, Officer Bell, to survey the scene. He is a white racist who wants to take Fonny in for questioning. The bodega owner, a woman, intercedes for Fonny, but Officer Bell has his eyes out for bringing Fonny in.
Not long afterwards a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers, is raped. She really does not know who did it, but Officer Bell convinces her that it is Fonny and this suggestion makes her pick out Fonny in a lineup. Despite an alibi (being with a friend, who has just gotten out of jail) and the implausibility of Fonny being in two places so far apart at the same time, Fonny is found to be subject to reasonable suspicion and therefore is arrested and put in jail pending trial. Fonny languishes in prison. No “speedy trial” for him (despite this being a constitutional right).
Tish visits her lover regularly. They begin calling each other “husband” and “wife”—even though they are not married in the eyes of the state. When Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant with his child, it is even more poignant for him to be languishing in prison awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit.
When the two families are told that Tish is pregnant, Fonny’s mother has a fit using as a cover her intense Prostestant Christian religious beliefs. This creates a scene in which Fonny’s father knocks his wife down in the Rivers’ apartment.
The two fathers, Frank Hunt (Fonny’s father) and Joseph Rivers (Tish’s father), get together to steal goods in the garment district and then re-sell them (they act as “middlemen”). The point is to raise money to pay the lawyer’s costs.
Victoria Rogers flees to Puerto Rico. Sharon Rivers, Tish’s mother, gets a plane ticket and tries to convince Victoria to change her testimony. It doesn’t work.
Back in New York, Fonny decides to cop a plea (even though he is innocent) and he is serving his time even as his son grows up. In the poignant closing scene, Fonny is allowed visitation of his family in a family room (supervised by several policemen). Fonny’s son draws pictures with crayons of when his dad is coming home. Tragically, these tender years are lost to Fonny due to a poor system that has no “checks and balances” for young African American men.
It is a story of one family, but it is meant to be more broadly emblematic.
The overwhelming theme is that due to a system that has broad racist assumptions, innocent people can become crushed. If such injustice happens over and over again, then it poisons the social structure of society. Such is the situation with the Rivers and Hunt families. They suffer unjustifiably, but their pain is but one cry in a cacophony of sorrow.
One interesting philosophical question that is raised is whether it is right for Mr. Hunt and Mr. Rivers to engage in theft in order to save Fonny. This is similar to the “Heinz Dilemma” in feminist ethics. In that case there is a wife who has a disease that will kill her unless she gets a certain drug. The pharmacist won’t lower his price (too high for the family to pay). The question is then asked whether the husband should steal the drug to save his wife. Kohlberg (the creator of the Heinz Dilemma) thinks that it is clear that the husband should steal the drug. This brought push-back by feminist philosophers such as Carol Gilligan, who in her book In a Different Voice, demurs and thinks that some constructed dialog might be the better course. In Barry Jenkin’s script from James Baldwin’s novel, the point of view is in favor of Kohlberg over Gilligan.
The movie is an apologue told in strong strokes. This is appropriate for fictive narrative philosophy since it is one option for setting out an argument for a position. In this case the conclusion of the argument is: “The United States’ society in the early 1970s in New York (supposedly a liberal city regarding racial and ethnic difference) is deeply racist by the ruling European-descent power structure. This unfair system grinds innocent people up and ruins lives. If this happens in one of the so-called tolerant cities, it is far worse in the other parts of the country. The plot, as set out, makes plausible this claim.
Some professors from Literature Departments, may demur since the “show but not tell” strategy is dogma. However, since I do not hold to this as a critical principle for all of fiction, I come down in favor of the presentation and recommend it broadly to audiences across America.
Attempt: ***/ Accomplished: *****
A Movie by Spike Lee
*For those who have NOT watched the movie
So if you haven’t watched the movie your first reaction will probably be to the title referring to someone who is black (African American) AND a member of the Ku Klux Klan (a group whose mission it is [at a minimum] to spew hatred against African Americans or [further] to send African Americans back into slavery). How could an African American ever become welcomed in the Klan?
Well, that’s enough of a draw to get you into the theater. Obviously, everything is not what it seems. A little trickery will be in order. That chicanery drives the main plot and it is entertaining the way a good mystery or suspense thriller is entertaining. It is also very uncomfortable to be in the presence of so much hatred (albeit portrayed by actors).
The major theme concerns race relations both in the story’s center, 1972, and today in 2018.
For those who are intellectually and emotionally drawn toward this theme, this is a movie you should see as soon as possible. It is one of Spike Lee’s best.
*For those who HAVE watched the move
The year is 1972. Richard Nixon is running for re-election. The posters abound. The place is Colorado Springs, CO. Ron Stallworth (John D. Washington) is a recent college graduate looking for his mission in life. He decides to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. Their recruitment sign said that they were open to “minority candidates.” But the facts on the ground were more ambiguous. They had no black police officers on the force. The lieutenant said that Stallworth would have to be the “Jackie Robinson” of the police in Colorado Springs. Though there was some support for Stallworth—particularly by the man making the hiring—there was significant resentment, too, among a few. The rest were perplexed.
Because Ron Stallworth was bright, he did not like his first job in the records department walking back and forth among metal open shelving to retrieve and present files to one of the racist cops in the department. It is an interesting scene of “micro aggression.”
Then Ron confronts the man who hired him so that he might go undercover. The boss was interested but where would he send the rookie? The lieutenant leaned towards narcotics. Why did he think Stallworth would fit in there?
Then they changed their minds. The lieutenant decided to wire him for a speech to be given at the university in town sponsored by the Black Student Union, whose president was Patrice (Laura Harrier). The speaker was the one-time Stokely Carmichael, now named Kwame Ture. Ron is supposed to mingle among the mostly student crowd and determine just what the reaction is—viz., is there a “black revolution” on the horizon? Ron meets Patrice. He listens to the speech and feels conflicted. He appreciates the depiction of the wrongs done by the white society to those of African descent. But he is inclined to support the tactics of gradual change from the inside instead of violently attacking the system. This has been a tactical dividing line among African Americans since the days of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.
Ron arranges to meet Patrice at a bar. She is late because the local police harassed the speaker and his entourage (which included Patrice). She was groped and disrespected by the police who were bent on low-level violence as an act of power.
The next day Ron makes his report. But the brass do not like the information on police misbehavior. It was time to re-assign Ron. The boss thinks narcotics would be a good place for Ron since African Americans were really the main source of drug use. Ron gets a better idea. He sees an ad for a white supremacist group. He calls the number and uses his “white voice.” Ron gets an invitation to join. Ron presents the idea to the brass: Ron talks on the phone and gets all the contacts while a Jewish cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) becomes Ron Stallworth-2 and shows up with his white skin as a calling card.
Ron-2 meets with the group that is a Klan cell with some Nazi inclinations, as well. Ron-2 meets with some skepticism in the five-member cell. But the head likes Ron-2 and so he is invited to fill out membership papers. One member is very suspicious of Ron-2 (thinking he is a Jew, which he is by birth). There is a scene in which the paranoid man, P-1, tries to get Ron-2 to take a lie detector test in the basement and also wants to inspect his penis for possible circumcision. When Ron-1 hears all this on the wire, he thinks fast and throws something through the window of the house giving wife of P-1 the heavy-jeevies as she sees a black man running away. The small klan cell takes to the yard. Ron-1 is speeding away in his car while P-1 tries to shoot. Ron-2 takes the gun away and shoots after the car (obviously missing on purpose).
Things are getting tense.
There is a scene where the Klan cell tries to demonstrate to each other their shooting skills by shooting at targets that look like caricatures of natives from Africa. Ron-2 shows himself to be a sharp shooter. (Does this give the Klan cell second thoughts about Ron-2 missing the car that carried the “reengage black man”—really the police officer Ron-1)?
Ron-1 has a number of phone calls with David Duke (Topher Grace). These are wonderful examples of racial prejudice and its marketing plan for the general public. Some of the interchanges are subtle; most are very gross. But the worldview behind these exchanges gives an insight into one sort of racial hatred. The word “white” becomes a tag-word on so many expressions by Duke.
Duke loves his new recruit Ron-1 so he wants to come to Colorado to meet him. At the same time there is an icon of the very early black movement (in the WWI years) who is still alive. These two celebrities come to town and this is the final section of the main plot. The Klan cell wants to put a bomb next to the place where the African American icon will be speaking (played by Harry Belafonte). The deliverer of the bomb is P-1’s wife who is itching to kill African Americans. The police ironically assign Ron-1 to be the body guard to David Duke.
With much suspense Duke controls his “religion-like” message except when Ron-1 gets Ron-2 to take a Polaroid picture with Duke. Duke is confused, but allows it to happen, but gets flustered when Ron-1 puts his arm around Duke’s shoulder (so that the picture depicts Duke embracing a black man).
The bomb episode is thwarted by Ron-1 who gets the police there. Plan-B is instigated by the wife. Then Ron-1 saves Patrice in a tense scene while P-1 shows up but because the bomb is misplaced he detonates it and is killed himself. P-1’s wife is confronted by Ron-1 who wants to handcuff her. However, she puts up a fuss while the white police arrive and beat on Ron-1 who tells them he’s a cop, but they don’t believe him. When Ron-2 arrives, his word is immediately respected and all is good.
Then in a cameo scene the cop who had harassed Patrice is caught as he tries to do it again—this time while Ron-1 has a wire. That cop is history. It all seems like a happy ending.
THEN, fast-forward to Charlottesville, VA, 2017 and the events there with the President refusing to denounce the Klan + Neo-nazis. It is a chilling ending.
Random Thoughts: 1. It is interesting that the Klan in the movie use the phrase of purpose: “Make American Great Again.” (In this case, I believe reference to the South and Slavery.) 2. It is also interesting that the Klan cell chants (what seems to be in the context of the movie) a general Klan-neo-Nazi refrain—“American First.” 3. David Duke’s speech pattern instead of representing the way that people from Louisiana speak—sounded to this viewer as the speech patterns of Donald Trump. This #1-3 sounded like a statement that Trump represents this group and that, like Woodrow Wilson (who played “Birth of a Nation” in the White House), is the most overtly racist president the USA has had in the last 100 years. 4. Plato said that evil was ignorance in practical decision-making, phronesis. Since the Klan cell described in the movie represent very stupid people, this might be seen as reinforcing Plato’s idea.
Philosophy of History: The Klan randomly idealizes a time in history that is the “golden age” = slavery. Since the time of Hesiod in ancient Greece, this has been one attempt to understand historical development. It is aligned to the idea that the conquerors write history from their own perspective. Whether the verdict is evolution or devolution, most people living in a period are not well-equipped to render such historical judgments.
Assessment: From what is the scope intended, I think the movie delivers the goods.
Initial Thoughts on Black Panther
1. Power dynamics. (Social/Political Philosophy)One interesting presentational point is the re-direction of power in various ways. First, this is displayed in the very set-up of Wakanda. It is the most advanced country in the world by quite a bit. This shifts a popular conception of sub-Saharan Africa as being 3rd World and not technologically advanced. This means that the so-called G-20 Nations which aspire to that (and the associated hauteur) are fundamentally wrong in this assessment. Second, is the role of women. Women in this movie have power--both in the physical sense (the best warrior in the country is a woman and she is also the top general) and in the intellectual sense (the best scientist in the world is living in Wakanda is a woman). Third, is the way that the cast of tribal leaders represent the various ways that humans act in the world: kind, generous, mean, treacherous, etc. All of humanity is represented via the black African people of Wakanda. This shift in power dynamics can make the audience look at the outside world with fresh eyes.
2. How we handle positive accidents. (Philosophy of History)Let’s look at two positive accidents and see how history and our fairy tale history contrast. In the first instance take gun powder. Gun powder was first discovered in China. They decided to use it for artistic productions connected to New Year and other celebrations. Gun powder was later independently discovered in Europe. What the Europeans did with it was to construct weapons of death and then went around the world using their superior technology to kill, steal, and enslave others. This was certainly a bad use of an accident that has made a blot on human history. In contrast to this, the accident that brought the asteroid with vibranium to the region of Wakanda had a different effect. Vibrarium was hidden inside the country for a long time and helped the people develop a civilization that was largely cooperative. (There is a moment in the movie when the usurper, Erik Killmonger, is about to take over the throne and assert global military domination—perhaps because he was raised in the United States—but he is thwarted.)
3. Positive ethical duties. (Ethics)The people of Wakanda had traditionally lived secretly. Like the country in Nepal in The Lost Horizon, there is posited to be a society living at a much higher technological, medical, and organizational level. Should such a society just live for themselves at the top of the humankind’s achievements? Is there a positive ethical duty to go outside and assist others? Well, the new king T’Challa thinks there is. At the end of the movie he starts on such a project in Los Angeles in the very building where Erik Killmonger’s father was killed. This is a dangerous because once other people find out about Wakanda’s wealth and expertise, then they will come after them to try and steal it for themselves. There is often danger in acting altruistically for the sake of helping others who are in distress (no matter the cause). This risky moral play will be the subject of sequel movies. Acting morally on behalf of others, always comes with a risk— just act Gandhi or Dr. King.
The Shape of Tomorrow
On Friday, October 6th the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the International Campaign to abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, “The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement. Indeed, perhaps at no time since the unstable 1950s has the world been closer to nuclear war. Over the past few weeks the rhetoric has increased between Trump who threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” and referred to President Kim as “little rocket man” and Kim Jong Un who, in turn, said, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho on September 25th proclaimed that Donald Trump had declared war on North Korea when Trump tweeted that North Korea won’t be around much longer.
What are we to make of these exchanges in which both leaders call the other madmen and threaten military action against the other that sounds as if it’s consistent with pre-emptive attacks by either side? And the attacks sound like nuclear attacks as per Trump’s declaration when he threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” How are people to understand such rhetoric?
It is against this backdrop that ICAN has been working to press for support of the disarmament treaty that they negotiated in July. Those negotiations were boycotted by the nine nuclear nations (the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel) and their allies. However, there was participation by two-thirds of the U.N.’s member nations and 53 countries have signed on. This is a show of international anxiety about the current instability of the nuclear threat.
The instability of the 1950s led to a mutual strategy between the U.S.A. and the USSR called MAD (or mutually assured destruction). Both countries had the largest stockpiles of weapons that were deployed in various regions so that they might respond to an offensive attack by the other party. On top of this informal strategy were the various bi-lateral treaties to limit the stockpiles of the two nations and the multi-national Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Though the tensions were high, there was a general confidence that neither side wanted a nuclear war. It was an unthinkable outcome to be avoided at all costs.
Today, the world does not have such confidence when we bring in the leaders of the U.S.A. and North Korea. At this writing it seems improbable that North Korea could render a single nuclear weapon against the United States, much less a destructive event envisioned by MAD. However they could reach Seoul, (population of 10 million/ metropolitan area population of 25 million). They may be able to hit targets in Japan, as well. This would amount to an enormous bloodbath. Thus, launching a nuclear or even a conventional attack against North Korea might have some severe consequences.
Is this a sable situation similar to what we possessed under MAD? There is no way to know for sure. It depends upon the leader of North Korea understanding that he is NOT under attack and that all pressure to be applied will be economic and political. Does Kim Jong Un understand this? It depends upon who you ask. Prior to January 20, 2017 the answer was, “yes.” After this date the game changed to one of bluffing—aka “chicken.” The rules of this game require that each party (Trump and Kim) believes that the other may actually commit a military act to gain advantage—even though that game scenario has cataclysmic negative outcomes from both directions. Thus, one would have to say that each leader is either bluffing for some sort of posturing effect or that one or both is stupid or mentally unfit. Various outside commentators have made assessments about the capacities of the leaders, but thankfully, neither country is totally dependent upon the man at the top, alone.
Kim has a circle of advisors and so does Trump. How much sway do these advisors have? In the United States we have Mattis and Tillerson (who has recently claimed to have forged a direct contact with North Korea—though Trump rebuked him for that remark). Both Mattis and Tillerson have shown themselves to have the capacity of independence as evidenced by their comments when the President spoke out about the Charlottesville unrest.
It should be noted that un-written protocol for the President to have the power to launch a nuclear attack goes back to Truman who ordered the only two atomic attacks in history. However, there is precedent for disobeying orders in the military. Anyone in the Army, for example, may disobey a command when that command directly contradicts the Army Code of Conduct. This might create the groundwork for Mattis and/or Tillerson disobeying/interfering with a Presidential order to mount a nuclear attack against North Korea in response to a North Korean nuclear weapons test, for example. They could claim that such a response fails the proportionality provision of the rules of war to which the United States is a signatory.
Will these advisers have the independence to disobey an order to initiate a nuclear or conventional attack—when either scenario has a cataclysmic negative outcome? Time will tell. But a possible bright spot is the planned China trip by Trump in November with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Certainly it would seem that this would discount military action against North Korea before then (unless it’s all a ruse).
The stakes are certainly high. Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN responded to the Trump-Kim exchanges this way, “Nuclear weapons do not bring stability and security. . . We can see that right now.” Diplomacy is our only hope. Let’s pray that those around Trump and Kim can make the difference and save the world.
Michael Boylan is Professor of Philosophy at Marymount University. He has held positions at the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution and has served on federal government committees. His most recent books are: Natural Human Rights: A Theory (political philosophy), Teaching Ethics with Three Philosophical Novels (pedagogy), and Georgia: A Trilogy (philosophical novels).