A Story About Raskalnikov

A Broken Literacy Narrative:

Involving Crime, Lust, World Travel, Fear, and a Fictional Axe

I.

It began with Raskalnikov entering my life. No, that can’t be. Because if I told you that I chose Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1956) on a whim you would believe there is an exceptional person writing this narrative, but I didn’t, and I’m not…

So let me go back to a watershed moment in my life that changed my conception of reading and writing forever. Lest this moment be qualified by a courteous acknowledgement of the struggles of other cultures—thus deafening my moment’s personal merit—I’ll go ahead with the banal truth: my ‘watershed moment’ took place after completing my undergraduate work at a local state college in 2002. A very important point of independence for a young, American, white, male, Lutheran, of rural working-class origins, who is attempting a sustained penetration into the middle-class in all its glory.

But the devil is in the details, as is said, so instead of continually approaching the scene from an impressionistic perspective—fuzzy and abstract even at close range—this moment would be better illustrated with poignant details: My car had crank windows, no air conditioning, and due to a theft, no radio. The evening rush-hour commute from work to my home was some forty-five minutes; longer if there was traffic, and there most certainly was loads of traffic. So I spent my early evening hours avoiding traffic in relaxation: reading and examining the shelves of Borders bookstore.

As it so happens, there was no less coincidence in my choice of Borders than the vast influence this retail bibliotheca had upon my life: for this Borders would later be the scene of my break from standard cubical employment, and it also served as the place where I met the mother of my child. But for now it served as respite from the world at large; a place to collect a pile of books, a journal, a coffee, and a space of my own. I read Kesey, Kerouac, Burroughs, Chomsky, Salinger, Kafka, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Marx, and perused much more.

II.

I often joked that my idea for traveling to different countries was spurred on by the particular letter with which the country began: “I chose ‘I’ at random, thus resulting in Italy, maybe India was next!” I asserted one night over dinner. Hindsight provides the distance to expose that this joke was taken seriously by my mother, or her shock may have had more to do with my wayward respect towards life and superficial carefree attitude. Nonetheless, disregarding all concern for a ‘career,’ I quit my office job, bought a plane ticket, and on November 6, 2003 flew alone to Rome, Italy.

Amidst clothing and toiletries, I packed Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781)[Abridged], my Oxford English Dictionary, a small collection of poems by Walt Whitman, a borrowed copy of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (1992), and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There was a plan; well, a formula for a plan, as I later learned my plan was backward: I would get a job at Yellow Hostel in Rome (who I had been having communications with before my departure), see the sights, and then travel a bit before wandering home. The average traveler would exhaust all his or her moneys and then find a job; my approach was more apropos the “prodigal son” tale, but with a hint of underlying fear to temper my mettle. The worst part is: this was my second time living the prodigal tale. My first trip was to Rouen, France in March 2003 to visit my then girlfriend and spend four weeks traveling, only to return home broke and jobless.

It wouldn’t be fair to leave my writing unexamined at this point, since my travels were as equally driven by my journal, as my journal by my travels. I can’t remember my first journal, nor can I remember what purpose I set forth in writing my thoughts down on paper, but I found a voice I did not know existed which took almost 23 years of life to find its specific articulation. It seems as though I should not proceed without a list of activities found in my journal that advanced my self-imposed educational standards—I’m confident the list will be revealing—so I’ll proceed despite my better judgment towards a “narrative structure”.

Found in my journal between undergraduate work, and my developed study of English as Literature at a local community college and then the University where I attained my MA in English Literature: the recording of dreams, alliteration exercises, quotes collected along the way, beginning and end dates of books I read and why I read them, a list of the countries I’ve been to and dates, bad short stories, letters to person’s far away, poor grammar, poems asserting personal definition, novice critique of political texts, musings on ideology and Existentialism, song lyrics, and the occasional sketch. For the first page of each journal I began discussing the challenge of writing that ominous first page of a journal: the empty page of possibilities, the impetus to create a witty remark that will be instantly recognized later in life when the time for journal entries is gone.

III.

I had made the mistake of reading the first part of Crime and Punishment and then going directly to bed. Dostoevsky’s prose weighed heavy upon my head. When I quit the evening to my four-bedded room at a hostel in Krakow, Poland, there was another traveler. He had arrived late and his friends were sleeping in another room. He took the lower bunk adjacent to me, and I the upper. We said “goodnight” after exchanging formal “hello’s” and polite inquiries to each others comings and goings.

(Dear Reader, are you familiar with Crime and Punishment? Rather than assume you are I’ll briefly summarize so as to lend a hand to my ensuing narrative: the first part out of six of Dostoevsky’s mystery, told from the point of the criminal, involves the crime: murder; only it’s not that simple. Rodion Romanovich Raskalnikov is a student who has as of late been reading about Nihilism. In order for Raskalnikov to take control of his life he convinces himself that he should murder a person of little concern with an axe, a pawnbroker for example. The philosophical concept inspiring Raskalnikov is the Nietzsche-ian Superman: the idea that foregoing good and evil, man can do anything with a clear conscience. Even murder.)

I awoke in the middle of the night to screams of frustration below me. My roommate was cursing me for snoring! I thought little of it and, helplessly, returned to sleep. Suddenly he continued his yelling, “Hey you! You are too loud!” What could I do? I was over-tired from traveling, and unable to control my snoring. I drifted back to sleep. As soon as slept consumed me I awoke again to the sounds of my roommate’s metal bed frame rattling violently against the opposite brick wall. He tossed and turned muttering loud complaints and venting his frustration upon himself as he shook with impotent rage. I tried turning on my other side, facing away from the wall in order to maybe ease my companion’s sleep. And once again I hesitantly drifted off to sleep.

I frantically awoke. My bed was now shaking! The metal frame of my bed pounded against the wall causing me to wake with adrenaline and fear only to find my companion shaking my bed to gain my attention. Anxiously my mind assessed the situation, “How can I stop snoring? Should I turn to my other side?” Then in an instant the image of an axe popped into my imagination. The pawn-broker, murdered. If a man as Raskalnikov is capable of cold-blooded murder, then what would this ordinary traveler do to me? I trembled with fear and loneliness. I didn’t know whether I could stop snoring, or whether he would stop shaking my bed. I lay with my eyes open and the covers pulled up to my eyes, fearing the least inclination of sleep.

At last he fell asleep before me. I woke the next morning to find the room empty, and my former roommate complaining about my cacophonous snoring to the hostel’s receptionist. I waited for my light-sleeping cohort to leave, eaves-dropping on his rant. I later spoke with the receptionist and offered to exchange my room with another. He would return later that day to a peaceful room of his own, as would I.

That day (February 9, 2004), I wrote in my journal: “Dostoevsky has left me insane. His writing is so engaging, so frightening. I didn’t want to put Crime and Punishment down, but I was frightened to turn the page. I could see everything in my mind. Every action, every squeaking door, every drop of blood, every home, every street. It was amazing.”

18.12.2009

Advertisements

On Marx’s Grave, or “What Price Salvation Now?”

A Philosophical Musing

As a man who in his past has carried the Marx-Engels Reader with him quite often, I thought I should have something profound to say while standing on Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery East. Instead, standing below that bulbous stone head, I told the man, the myth and the legend, Herr Karl Marx, what he already knows: namely, that he is dead and that I am alive.

Shortly before this moment, I had overheard a passing conversation between one Englishman and two English ladies. The smartly dressed, middle-aged Englishman seemed to be leading the ladies through Highgate, informing them of the visitors and the inhabitants; i.e., the living and the dead. As he neared Marx’s grave he recalled an anecdote that turned out to be more clever and philosophical than I suppose he intended. He bent his frame in a serpentine manner so as to make eye contact for his story; thus shielding the ladies from the dilapidated death circumscribing their path, while speaking confidently as a man will who is leading two ladies on a quiet walk through a not so well known London attraction.

It seems that throughout the years of Highgate’s existence he had been privy to the knowledge that individuals had been lodging complaints concerning their unexpected veneration to capitalism in the form of £3 to enter the cemetery and visit Marx’s grave. With a determined set of philosophical conclusions, he soberly and jovially pointed out to the ladies, and, incidentally, yours truly, that “without that £3, Marx’s grave wouldn’t be there to visit”! The ladies “oohed” and “aawed” at this rather wry observation before rounding the southern bend, content in their knowledge of the rather unnecessary existential distress this ironic turn of events had caused so many young visitors of Marx’s grave.

The existential juxtaposition of a cemetery needing private funding to house the mortal remains of the man who touted the teleological fall of capitalism—“What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”—is far too beautiful in its essential nature to be ignored. And the waggish Englishman has a point; in fact, he is quite right. For the Englishman, and the ladies laughing by his side, those griping, idealistic youths who bemoan the payment of their £3 to worship their deceased iconoclast simply cannot see the value of those £3 due precisely to its reified nature as a commodity.

Without those £3 from the living, what would become of Marx’s grave? Would it be moved in its moribund condition to a private estate in Europe? Would the nearly 130-year old corpse be transported to Chávez’s Venezuela, only to be put on public display in all its rotting glory? Or would the cemetery simply fall into dilapidation into a place where hippies and youths camp out and have morbid, anti-capitalistic orgies? That’s no matter. The point the Englishman is making is that those individuals aiming their bleating toward Highgate Cemetery’s pricey containment of Marx’s bones should be thankful a designated space is even available where to pay tribute to der Mann!

Those making complaints have a point as well. Is the irony not palpably obvious? Karl Marx’s grave, the star of Highgate Cemetery—no, George Eliot does not draw the same crowd—is being peddled and promoted as the reason to visit Highgate Cemetery. The man who meticulously dissected the history and construction of capitalism in its most fundamental form is now part of its postmodern, consumerist rendition. The very same man who is evoked when the masses of revolutionaries turn the tables on their oppressors, who inspires colonized to brandish their fists and stones toward colonizers, who allows for an alternative economic structure to be imagined by and for the masses is now being interned in London, where he once found refuge after French exile in 1849, and where you can visit for a mere £3.

But the Englishman is wrong, and so are the complainers. Although they are archetypes of an often necessary dialectic—those defending the class system and those wishing to uproot it—neither of them can see the forest for the trees. The complainers inductive reasoning, e.g. using this specific moment in space and time to fulfill their battle against abstract ideas such as capitalism, is simply a logic that pleasantly ignores their current state of being. They act as though there should be a virgin space where all their altruistic intentions can manifest—and yet even that place has been infested by their dreaded nemesis: capitalism!

The Englishman is no worse in the dichotomy; for, although he visits the moment with a sort of ironic laughter that is required to rip away the solemness of private property, he too holds on to the belief that there should or should not be a place where capitalism touches. This is the very worship of private property as an idea and a manifestation! Both parties cannot see that the very existence of private property is held within the idealizing of a confined and specific space. One cannot visit Marx’s grave without acting within capitalism; whether Highgate is funded by the state, a non-profit group, an individual, or the Communist League, it requires not only capital to exist, but the idea of capital.

Marx’s grave will only be free from complaints and ironic laughter when we no longer care to visit his grave, and when we no longer consider that spot as a necessary point of philosophical departure. That moment, when we all realize that he is dead and that we are alive, will not be a shattering, defeated acquiescence to capitalism’s omnipresence, but a brilliant acknowledgement of the social relations required to keep any economic system alive.

Originally Written: 12.03.2012

How to Teach Yourself Parallel Structure, While Standing and Holding A Red Dry Erase Marker

TWO hours ago this white board was filled with erratic markings from a red, dry erase marker. I was trying to explain parallel sentence structure to my one-and-only student. And she was tired. This is understandable. For the last two hours, she had been taking a series of tests designed to assess her mastery of reading comprehension. After passing the reading section—a feat I congratulated her for repeatedly—she was on to the writing section, but she had hit a wall.

So, parallel structure. You have four answers: A, B, C, & D. C is the correct answer. You know this, but you can’t tell your student the answer and then explain; that’s not what a teacher does. You have to lead them to C, by teaching him or her about parallel structures. She has to do this on her own. Even if her eyelids are beginning to droop as the small, drab, and windowless room finally drains the last of her energy. But you have no lecture planned for parallel structures. So, what do you do?

I did what came naturally. I visualized. I aligned my hands side-by-side and demonstrated how two parallel lines are situated. Not very helpful. I was losing my student. I grabbed the red marker standing on the the table to my left, and stood up with no clue what to do next. My first instinct was to demonstrate the incorrect answer: B. B reads: “Scarlett flirted with the men, and sung a song.” I now had to isolate what is parallel in this sentence. My first demonstration was underlining. I wrote on the board: flirted with the men, and directly underneath that: sung a song. Four words in the first action and three in the second: this is the first clue that the sentence is not parallel. Your second clue: the tenses do not match.

Next, I demonstrated a non-parallel sentence (due to tense) that contained the same amount of words. I think I confused her more. So then it dawned on me: I could write them as a list! Answer A: “Tom turned down the position because the hours are too long and low pay”. I wrote on the board: “Tom turned down the position,” and to the right of that: 1) “because the hours are too long” and 2) “low pay”.

(please excuse the mirroring)

Finally, I wrote C on the board in the same manner as A: “Phillip” 1) “mopped the floor” and 2) “fixed the sink”. As a list, the comparative structure became more evident. I was teaching…

I knew this because I had learned something. I had learned how to teach parallel structure. That moment is my favorite moment when instructing. The specificity of the subject matter is not very important. What is important is that moment when you both understand something that you didn’t not just five minutes ago. That is the ephemeral moment of teaching.