Literary Lessons: What I learned from the axe-wielding murderer, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

The End

In a recent post, I reviewed Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which I added to my list of “profoundly impacting novels“. A commenter on this post, one Peter Galen Massey, remarked my inclination toward rather, uhm, “unstable” characters. One such character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. This got me thinking—navel gazing, of course, of which I am want to do while whistling away at work—and my thoughts lingered first on why am I attracted to these more reckless characters? and, furthermore, what does this reveal about my own character?

Once I came to the conclusion that I don’t revere Raskolnikov for his axe-wielding abilities, I set out to undertake an explanation as to why nearly every other year I come back to such a large and engrossing novel, such as Crime and Punishment. But to explain this phenomenon, I have to quickly summarize C & P. Alright, here it goes.

The novel is a reverse crime novel, i.e. we know who dunnit. In fact, we are privy to the murderer’s thoughts and actions both before and after the deed is done. There are six parts of the novel, and the first part is the murder. The rest is how Raskolnikov atones for this murder. Along the way there are some amazingly beautiful characters (including the Marmeladov family—who were actually the basis for the original novel of C & P, entitled The Drunkards—, Raskolnikov’s buddy Dmitri Razumikhin, and Porfiry Petrovich, to name just a few). Raskolnikov is a poor law student, and happens to follow a bit of Nihlism that is popping up around St. Petersburg at the time—Russian Nihlism, German Nihlism‘s uglier, angrier, and drunker sibling. Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom he has convinced himself, after hearing a conversation in a bar, is worthless and that the world would be better without her in it.

The first portion is Rodya not only plotting the murder, but convincing himself that it is okay. Now, here’s where the book becomes something more than just a run-of-the-mill, mystery-thriller-dime-store-novel stuff. CSI does this stuff to death, right? (excuse the pun): someone is murdered, and they have to find not only the killer, but his/her motive as well. Well, here’s the deal with Dostoevsky: we get to actually watch and imagine Rodya justifying murder—an act no normal individual can reasonably justify. Yes, murders are everywhere. Go ahead, turn on CNN, I’ll wait… but being inside the thoughts of someone who is convincing himself that murder is permissible is absolutely insane. It is raw, ugly existentialism.

Stuttgart StrasseSo, what I learned from Raskolnikov is that one must justify ones actions to two sets of peoples. First there is yourself. You simply must justify yourself each and every day you exist. And most of you, and me, have a preexisting justification for our daily lives. For example, why we eat bacon, why we wear jeans, why we take 10 minute showers, etc. The next set of peoples are the society in which you live. There are laws, both subtle and pronounced, for which each of is responsible for the sake of a peaceful existence. Such as, Thou shalt not steal, murder, worship false idols, and stopping at red lights, paying taxes for wars we protest, pirating music, etc. The weird (and beautiful) part is that both of these conditional clauses are dependent upon environment. In example, let’s say, in Germany, jaywalking is a huge no-no, but it is mostly enforced by social conditions. Whereas in New York, jaywalking is a part of the environment and one can and will justify their right to jaywalk with the proverbial, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” This response would not fly in Deutschland.

What is unique about Raskolnikov is that he overcame the most important person who kept telling him no: himself. Once he overcame that… well, that’s only the first part.

The rest of the novel is whether this “overcoming of self” is justifiable within societal norms, laws, and customs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rodya confesses in a populated square in the middle of St. Petersburg after an interesting scene where Sonya Marmeladov reads the story of Lazarus to him. And another scene where he confesses to the police, but they don’t believe him! (Ugh, that is a tough one to read). It should be no surprise that Christianity is impetus for Raskolnikov’s confession. It is personal guilt that eventually overcomes him, and guilt is the driving force behind Roman Catholicism, not to mention Christianity as a whole. Suffering is purposeful and personal for Raskolnikov. But atonement is not only personal, it is societal—which is why his confession is performed in a public square. Raskolnikov has overcome personal guilt to become this übermensch, or so at least he thinks (what is ultimately played out in C & P, is that the übermensch is an impossibility, if not a strict rarity, because of civilized norms).

The point is that all of this, all of this life, needs justification. It needs, nay requires, a reason. Not just breaking the law, but adhering to it as well. And it is not only oneself that one must reason into submission, it is also you and everyone reading this blog. And everyone driving on the road. And everyone on the subway staring into their new iPhone 5s. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to explain to people that each of us justifies our lives and actions in some way, shape, or form. Most people do NOT want to hear that their actions are conditional responses based upon profound and unfathomably numerous cultural signals and cues. Most people want to hear that each and every time they do something, it is a result of a choice. A rational choice plucked from the blooming flower of infallible logic. But that was Dostoevsky’s point! He thought that man was irrational! Such was the basis for existentialism. In fact, Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, is a philosophical response in favor of irrationality against Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done?

Boston CrowdI read Crime and Punishment and understand millionaires. I understand their wanting more. I understand crooked criminals. I understand the bribers and the bribed. I understand the takers and the givers, the makers and the destroyers. Because each and every one of them has justified their existence and their actions. Whether it be purchasing sliced bread or a new bed, each and every single one of us justifies our actions so that we can sleep at night—with full stomachs and on soft sheets.

I hope that I am not misunderstood in this post. And I hope that we can all learn something “good” from Raskolnikov. What we should learn is that we are all here for one another. No one exists alone. Not even Raskolnikov, not even the übermensch, not even the genius or the tyrant, the hero or the villain, the thief or the prosecutor. We are all responsible for the well being of one another. So, thank you for my well being, dear readers. I am truly thankful for yours.

A Collision of Inspiration from the Telly

I have had this note in my iPhone since August 5th, and it is the right time to go on about it.

It was a Monday, and I had the afternoon off. I had finished class that morning, my workout in the afternoon, and I was correcting assignments before my next job while a television program called “Last of the Summer Wine” was softly playing in the background—wonderful show, by the way. And, yes, I feel like an old man admitting to my liking of this show, but I have a small inclination toward British comedies.

So, the quick joke between two characters began thus:

“Do you realize how long people are buried?”

With a witty rejoinder that followed:

“The same way as short people, I imagine.” [insert artificial laughter]

The question was initially promoted with a philosophical air, but fell short where it landed in the ears of the bourgeois—who usually have little to do with philosophy. Well, it brought me to a halt.

So much so that I turned off that glowing-radioactive-entertainment-box and stared off into the distance—which, if you have not done, you should on a regular basis. That question was a very profound moment that collided tremendously with a bit of self-reevaluation that has recently surfaced in my life. Namely that once I die, I am dead forever.

State FairNow, yes, I know, “put it on a friggin’ t-shirt and shut up”. But it isn’t about life. It isn’t about living in the moment and this Carpe Diem or YOLO stuff. It was immense. It was just so profoundly quiet and immense. Perhaps because it was the day before my birthday. Perhaps it was because an important person just stepped altogether out of my life. I just don’t know.

Things haven’t really changed. I haven’t jumped out of a plane, or driven my car really fast, but something has clicked. By now, you might have surmised that I am an atheist. Go ahead, I’ll give you some time to recollect all the subtle (and not so subtle) stereotypes you can muster. Okay. I’ll proceed. I would describe myself, since announcing and embracing the whole atheism thing many years ago, as a navel-gazing atheist. I’m not one to argue or fight or push my interpretations of life onto others. No. I will wholly share my opinion if asked, but if you find God in a phone booth, a flower petal, or the death and life of a loved one, that’s cool. Just don’t treat me like I have some incurable (or curable) deficiency or disease.Light

But here’s where things alter a bit. And it’s with that day: August 5th, and all the collisions that came with it. I don’t care anymore. And I don’t know what that precisely means yet. But it feels earthy. And it feels bigger than I can grasp. And that is profoundly frustrating.

This might sound like I’m asking for support or help through a difficult period of my life, but I’m not, and yet I am. I’ll briefly explain in metaphor, lest this late-night post get too blustery:

I want something different. I want something to start. I want a push, a pull, an overflowing, a deluge, an effrontery, a chain-reaction, and I want to be beautifully ready for it. I want to embrace it. I want to be pulled under. I want to fight hard because I must. I want to sing loud because I can. I want money: to play with, to give, to have, to love, to flourish, to work for me, to buy gifts for others, to put in a paper cup of a blind man, to fill my pant pockets, to fly to India for Holi. I want knowledge to knock me over with its weight. I want friends who call and demand attention. I want my burdens to feel like gifts.

And I can only do this with the knowledge that some day I will die. And when I get off this planet, it will still spin: people will still swear, eat, f*ck, burp, run, bite their fingernails, cough loudly during a film, wake up hungover, ignore those near them for a phone call, survive terrible diseases, orgasm alone, yell “surprise!” in unison, hug their children in public, and cry from laughter.

The cool part is that all this is happening right now…

“Society Must Be Defended,” by Michel Foucault

Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be DefendedLectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended by Michel Foucault

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michel Foucault’s “Lectures” series is a collection of lectures given at the College De France from 1971 to 1984. They have been recently translated and published, but for whom, that I am not quite sure.

I absolutely loved reading this particular lecture series, “Society Must Be Defended”. The major themes Foucault discusses are Race and War, and their causal relations. As an American reader, my initial interpretation of the word Race hinges on the historically motivated US interpretation: skin color. But Foucault, and most of Europe, consider Race in a different, albeit for more accurate, way. They consider Race in the terms of what I would describe as nationality. So, Race, then, is not skin color, but regional origin, national origin, etc. I have had lengthy discussions upon this cultural distinction with friends from Europe, and it has proven true each time.

Now, this fits very well into what Foucault describes as War. War is antagonism. War is power relations. War is struggle. And ultimately, War is racist. It is racist in the sense of power and subjugation, not in the Malcolm X / US / Huey Newton race war between Whites and Blacks, but in the sense of one subspecies of man establishing dominance over another subspecies of man. Foucault takes for a precondition, man-as-species. Or in Literary Theory terms: Universal Humanism. But Universal Humanism is an ideal, and it is not a reality. Beyond Humanism is man-as-species, man-as-political-body, etc. What amazing phenomenon has occurred beyond the eighteenth century is namely the classification and hierarchialization of War. But before Foucault can get to that, he must confront Clausewitz’ famous dictum: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Foucault first challenges this statement by reversing it and arguing that politics is the continuation of war by other means. I will summarize this, most likely in an inaccurate manner, by stating that Foucault ultimately argues that politics hold the population in a state of perpetual war. I think of Virginia Woolf‘s essay Three Guineas, in which she criticizes the pomp and celebration of the aftermath of War, and these ritualistic measures to keep the public employed at war, while not actually, physically, being in a war. Something along the lines of the Military Industrial Complex discussion.

He then goes on to discuss and dissect how it came to be that War became the means to understanding History. Who are the major individuals who wrote History? When did it become a State functioning separation and domination of one race over another? For this, Foucault takes on Hobbes and the function of War within the building of modern France, Germany, and England.

This is all far too large a subject to cover in this little review. So, I will end it by arguing that this book is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think I may ever read it again. Reading Foucault is a special thing. His knowledge is not meant for this man sitting at a desk, wanting a paycheck, desirous of life, love, and such. It’s meant for someone distinct. Someone devoted. It’s meant for a time and place that no longer exists for me outside Academia.

I apologize for this late realization. But it is the direct reason it took me months to finish this collection. The terms “normalization” and “biopower” are absolutely essential to any theoretical argument I undertake, but they are so few and far between outside of those halls of Academia that Foucault’s relevancy is waning for me. Still, I do not hesitate in giving it five stars. So, enjoy at your leisure, but beware: the ideas and theories contained herein may cause alienation.

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Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

Praise of FollyPraise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the layreader, I would recommend skipping the introduction to this text, which comprises the first fifty pages of this edition, and continuing on to Erasmus’ essay, Praise of Folly. The essay itself is quite an easy ready, if one approaches it in a superficial manner excluding historical, metaphorical, or personal references. Without those things considered, this essay reads something like our modern bestsellers that reveal some secret way of living that eludes anxiety, stress and worry, e.g. The Secret, or author, Sylvia Browne. Approaching Erasmus’ philosophical treaty as a popular self-help book is problematic, but I think reveals more about our culture then we would like.

Structurally, Erasmus’ essay is organized in “chapters,” or small sections that cover a certain topic, e.g. marriage, play, common sense, fools, science, etc. The “plot,” if there is one, is limited to a speech or oration by the goddess, Folly, who is speaking on her own behalf—and defense. The reader can extract at the very least one aphorism from each chapter, and perhaps find themselves enlightened by a banal truism—although it may confront the very thing they perform on a regular basis.

I don’t believe I can do justice to this review without quotations and examples—I will now flip through the text at random… einen Moment, bitte. Folly states, “But it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived” (135). Is this not the precursor to Friedrich Nietzsche and his Dionysian man? Is not the absolution of facts for the beautiful complexity of opinion a mode that informs our postmodern, interrogative culture? Folly continues, “For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain…” (ibid). There are no facts, only opinions. Quite the statement in 1509 for a religious scholar—even if he is highly critical of theologians and the church.

To return to my earlier assertion that Praise of Folly is obscurely related to our self-help books. One of the gods who follow in Folly’s leadership is Self-Love. Self-Love is continually and highly praised by Folly—even so more than the other followers, e.g. Pleasure, Flattery, Idleness, etc. (73). Folly states in a glorious rhetorical aphorism, “Now tell me: can a man love anyone who hates himself?” (94). And later on states that “happiness consists in being willing to be what you are [and] Self-Love [ensures] that no one is dissatisfied with his own looks, character, race, position and way of life” (95). Beautiful. One can extract quotes continually, but they add up to our culture’s way of selling self-recognition and self-affirmations through quick guides to better living. Of course this is only one aspect of Erasmus’ essay, but the usefulness of Folly’s instruction and observations are reflected in our culture of self-denial and overwhelming desire to treat Self-Love as a mortal sin.

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit (Wikipedia)

Folly is in direct conflict with the pretensions of knowledge. Her skewer cleaves itself in the wise man—the very man who escapes Plato’s cave—and, as I read it, neither Folly nor Erasmus, is expounding this theory in jest. The wise man, according to Folly, does not lead a happy life—and this is THE goal of Folly’s mortal tutelage. The wise man does not admit himself a beast, nor does he admit himself to the absurdity of the basic elements of man. For example, Folly takes complete responsibility for the propagation of the entire human race (75). Why, you may ask? Well, ahem, excuse my vulgarity, but it is basic biology. Folly states that the part of the body that reproduces men is unspeakable do to its humors and that “it can’t be named without raising a laugh” (76). And that even philosophers, if they want to reproduce, must come to Folly. For, Folly asks, what woman does not praise a man for his humor, his pleasure, his love, his wit? Rather then his ability to expound numerous theses. And since Pleasure is a follower of Folly, it is but that emotion to bridge the necessary gap of reproduction…

But, I digress.

I caught myself underlining text, laughing out loud, and sharing my thoughts with my friend while reading Erasmus’ essay. I think it shall be a text I refer to from time-to-time, and look for when my “adulthood” is called into question, or when I am considered childish or immature. For the pretension of man stands upon the annulling of the very nature of Folly, and the absurdity of man a far too beautiful a thing to bear without Folly.

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Who Has Choice?

There is currently a wonderfully written article on The Atlantic Monthly‘s website entitled, “Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen is Wrong,” by Uzma Kolsy that I urge all of you to read. But my post isn’t about Uzma’s writing. It is about the comment section.

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. ...

First cover of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. November 1857.

I love reading articles from The Atlantic—possibly because they are free and often deal with topical cultural/gender/racial issues. But what is often times more revealing, and interesting, than the articles themselves are the comments made by The Atlantic‘s readers. First, let’s acknowledge something: all of those leaving comments must sign in somehow; whether that is through Facebook, Gmail, or whatever online system the kids use these days to remember their friends’ birthdays. They must take the time to sign in and leave a comment. So, it is with some effort and time that they devote to their often inane and dimwitted comments. Okay. Have I lost you yet? I’ll get to my point in a moment.

The article concerns Femen‘s activity regarding Muslim/Islamic culture—and their assumptions about a monolithic, oppressed Muslim female who must be represented, spoken for, and rescued (if you do not know who Femen is, please follow my .org or wiki link). Uzma argues that Femen’s “core flawed presumption” is that “Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive” (Kolsy). She goes on to write that instead of removing their shirts and presumably speaking for, i.e. representing, Muslim women, they should donate their time to Muslim charities and social organizations. Her bulk argument is that the Femen organization is not helping Muslim women by considering them “unfree” or “oppressed,” but rather they are, first, bringing negative and fallacious attention on Islam, and secondly making Orientalist, racist and sexist presumptions about a women’s right to “choose” the hijab, or any other clothing.

Now, I have “cherry picked” two incendiary comments from the article to diagnose, and I realize that not all people think this way, but I wanted to mention that I am aware of that bias. I would also like to acknowledge that by highlighting these quotes I realize I am bringing a type of promotion or fame to these ideas—which I certainly do not promote or champion. Here are two comments made by readers of the Atlantic article in question:

1) “Muslim women are not making choices. They are making choices within a very limited set circumscribed by men, or by their mothers or other women who have a vested interest in the system.”

2) “If the Muslim women of the world did remove their hijabs in solidarity, you know exactly what would have happened to most of them: they would be beaten, if not murdered. Whipped back into compliance by men who are cowards and cannot trust their own wives to fend off the advances of another man.”

Now, here comes the controversy: I agree with point one, but on the condition that it be changed to “no one is making choices”. “Choice,” for me, is a highly contentious term. Many of us take it for granted that we have “choice” or that we feel the necessity to exercise some conception of “choice” on a daily basis, e.g. I “choose” to write this late at night instead of sleeping, even though I know I have to get up early (I will refrain from using ironic, and rather annoying, quotes from now on). But the problem is that a division wedges itself between those who have choice, i.e. those free to act, think, vote, etc., and those without choice, i.e. those oppressed by some larger force like culture, class, religion, etc. But the thing is: we are ALL influenced by immutable social forces, such as ulture, class, religion, gender, etc.; these things ALL enforce our decisions, actions, and lives.

Let’s be obvious for a moment. Do you wear glasses? Yes? Then you have a different mindset than someone who does not. Thought about corrective surgery? Investigated the price? Someone with 20/20 has not. Think about your glasses? Their care and cleanliness? Do you think about wearing contacts when you pick out sunglasses? A person with 20/20 has not had these thoughts. “Sure,” you say, “that’s biological”. Right. Okay… Guys, where do you buy your underwear? Target? Walmart? Is it Hanes? or Fruit of the Loom? Have you ever bought a single pair of Calvin Klein underwear at Macy’s for the price of four pairs of Hanes? No? You should. Because you have that choice.

Choose.

Choose…

Here’s where it gets sticky. You don’t have that choice, but you think you do because a nice mix of consumerism and late capitalism is an empowering and entitling narcotic. The danger is when that entitlement bleeds over into politics, ethics, gender, sexuality, etc. That you think you have choice is all that matters to Ronald McDonald, underwear factory owners, or managers at Target or Walmart. Even if you try to prove to me that you have choice, you are doing so out of a condition—sure, go buy the Calvin’s, gentlemen, you will love them! That condition is that you are trying to prove something to me, so the action is a necessary one, not chosen. Even a seemingly random act has a causal condition. But when we use the term choice, we are isolating a phenomenon in order to distinguish that act from others as important. We are telling a story. You are selecting, most often unconsciously, what information to exclude and what to include based on your experiences and the inherit desire for social acceptance. And that story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning isolates and solidifies the cause, the middle is the detail-y bit, and the end, well, the end is our moral justification—”I may have done something wrong, but here is why I did it. Do not condemn me“.

I find the use of the term choice abhorrent and despicable when used to distinguish one group from another as those possessing choice and those not possessing it. In its most casual and vulgar form it is employed to justify personal morality, and isolate and punish the other individual’s failure to achieve—”I have been able to do this, therefore you are able to do this. If you do not, then that is your choice“. This example ranges from arriving to work on time, living a healthy lifestyle, to earning a degree. Rather than choice, I prefer the terms desire and decisions. These terms allow for social influences and a range of numerous possibilities—as opposed to the either/or of choice. As far as I am concerned, choice is an absolute: either everyone has it or no one does. There is no way to clearly distinguish between those who have choice and those who do not. By creating that distinction to judge others lives of which we often know very little, we reveal the forces that have shaped our own morality; and more often than not, we reveal our bigotry, our fears, our hatred, and our ignorance. Just as some of those individuals making comments on Uzma Kolsy’s article have done.

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek

The Sublime Object of Ideology (The Essential Zizek)The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Žižek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot write to the impact that Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology has had upon Lacanian Psychoanalyis or Marxist Criticism. I cannot even lie enough to tell you, dear reader, that I understood the majority of this text. But I do know that of what I understood, I thoroughly enjoyed and gathered not only a new perception of the world, but the terminology with which to envision it.

Before remarking that Žižek’s writing is “____” or that Žižek’s interpretation of the Lacanian “____” is “_____,” let me state why I read this book, and why someone should read this book. I’ll begin with the latter: I cannot imagine a reason for someone to read this book. Unless, said person is interested in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Stalinism, a general critique of the Postmodern, etc. But, these are highly individualized and specialized reasons. I read this for one of those reasons: I knew this was a seminal work, and I like Žižek’s writing. I find him quite entertaining, and I appreciate what many criticize about Žižek: namely, his blend of good ol’ Socialist humor adjacent to Marxist/Lacanian theory.

But, on with the show. For a number of years now, quite before I even knew of Žižek, I have been approaching individuals with this notion: there is no such thing as choice. Now, I don’t go saying this willy-nilly to everyone; no. Gosh, no! I only reserve it for those who I wish to engage in a bit of an intellectual battle with, i.e. someone who can, perhaps, change my mind or, better yet, harden my thought. You can work this notion from the consumerist angle of limited selection, or the lovely Leninist paraphrase, “freedom, but for whom and for what!” or any others to fit your sparring partner. But what you really want them to realize is that even what they say to me has been determined. Even me saying “there is no choice” is determined by a mix of my experiences, memory, journeys, gender, class, race, language, nationalism, heredity, and so on, and so on. But, I am totally okay with that.

You see, they (my straw men) fight to hold on to this banal notion of “individuality” being made up of “choices”—I had coffee this morning because I decided to; not because of my environment, my internal make up, my bank account, my access to coffee, the development of coffee as a commodity, etc. And when you present the absurd aphorism that “there is no choice,” the first response is fear. Go ahead, try it on the first person you meet. I’ll wait…

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IF, a big IF, you can get past this initial fear of the loss of morality, freedom, ability, talent—not to mention the Protestant virtue of the individual—etc., then you must counter their fear. They must know that in the absence of choice, or “free will” for you old school philosophers, we still retain our individuality. There is no one like you. And there is no one like me. (Even an imitation is just that: an imitation of the thing. Even if I am an imitation, I am still this original imitation that is occurring now. God save Postmodernism). Even the hypothetical identical-twin-sci-fi-crap renders individuality a truism. Because no one can occupy your space or your time. Even if they did, the slightest deviance (say, a misplaced hair or an unbuttoned shirt collar) would alter any similarities. (And even those things would not be “choices”).

So, to make the theory of “choice,” one simply must isolate an incident. Then—and this is important, which is why I used an em-dash—the incident, once severed from any prior beginnings or futile continuation, is immediately rendered moral. AND: “There are no moral phenomenon at all, but only moral interpretations of phenomena.” (Agreed, I wouldn’t acquiesce to someone who quotes Nietzsche either.) So, let’s try this:

“the subject must freely choose the community to which he already belongs, independent of his choice–he must choose what is already given to him“. Furthermore, “The point is that he is never actually in a position to choose: he is always treated as if he had already chosen“. Finally, “we must stress that there is nothing ‘totalitarian’ about it. The subject who thinks he can avoid this paradox and really have a free choice is a psychotic subject”. (Žižek 186, original italics)

I feel quite vindicated in my initial philosophical challenge. And the thing is that there are a handful of other chapters and sub-chapters that made total sense to me! Totally. Like: pieces of “How Did Marx invent the Symptom?,” “the subject presumed to…” on page 210, or “Positing the presuppositions” on page 244. (The rest of the text consisting of Lacanian hieroglyphics that I hope to someday render in to perfect psychoanalytic crop circles that eventually reveal, revive and revel in the Real, the Symptom, the Imaginary, and das Ding all in one foul grand gesture in which the proletariat will finally come to total consciousness, amass in the nearest city and stare blankly, longingly at the sky waiting for Lacan to appear in some great 1960s Télévision set floating overhead. Perhaps I’ve said too much… Oder: Vielleicht, ich habe zu viel gesagt).

I think the difficulty of this text lies in the thickness of it; no, no, not the page number; um, the density; yeah, that’s it: density. So, I’ll keep it on my shelf for inefficient perusal; the proverbial “wait a second, I gotta find this quote!”. I can discuss a mere five pages of this text for hours; or, for that matter, write an annoyingly long book review on one sub-chapter. But I only write this stuff for me. And, luckily, you, dear reader, have no choice.

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A Story

“Astonishment gives pleasure; evidence of this is the fact that everyone exaggerates when passing on news, on the assumption that they are giving pleasure”

“If impossibilities have been included in a poem, that is an error; but it is correct if it attains the end of the art itself…”
Aristotle, from Poetics

OJP StreetLast weekend my six-year old daughter told me a story about being at her mommy’s house. We were decorating pink frosted Valentine’s Day cupcakes with sprinkles, and she remembered a time her mother and her made cupcakes. Her story was simple. It began: “At my mommy’s house we made cupcakes for my birthday. Then we brought them to Nana’s (her grandma’s house), and I got to eat two whole cupcakes!” I replied, “What a lovely story.” To which she turned her head with a furrowed brow and a grimace, remarking, “It’s not a story, daddy!” I said, “Well, of course it is. Someone did something; something happened to someone. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t a very good story—next time include a dragon—but it was a story.” Before you rage against my parenting skills, I’d like you to know I tell this to everyone; I even say this when relating my own stories (“I should throw a dragon in there next time”).

So, her grimace now became frustrated, “But it really did happen, daddy!” Now this is where I shine. I said, “Well, stories can be true and not true. You are still telling me a story when you tell me about something that happened to you. Even if it’s just going upstairs to use the bathroom. It’s still a story. It’s just better when there’s a dragon. More dramatic.” Yes, this is how I talk to my six-year old. I tend not to belittle her or make that awful “child speak” that people often do. I use big words. And I tend to explain everything at eye level. She’s an individual to me, and I am so happy that she finally has an opinion.

OJP CameraAs I was explaining to my gf the other night: many people tend to think children are not very smart, or rather, observant (I am thankful if you, dear reader, are not one of these people; but you should read on anyway). I tend to think they are absolute geniuses. Let me explain with an example. Some people think children don’t consider race, class, or gender when watching Disney films, or, say, playing with toys. And, therefore, do not consider those issues on our privileged, adult or mature level. But I think they are very wise; wiser than us.

You see, they have nothing to do. No bills to pay. No cars to fill with gas. No groceries to accumulate. No job. They don’t worry about sex, or looking good, or being confident around a pretty boy or girl. They don’t worry about shaving, or where food comes from, or what’s in their bank account, or taxes. All they do is watch you. They are learning how to be a person. All day, every day. And playing. 90% of their waking time is figuring out how to best utilize their play time, i.e. who can play with me, when can they play, how long, and what game. They make friends by proximity, not a shared morality, interests, or hobbies. So, that’s it: Play and Mimic us. Children have a sincerely simple and myopic view of life: it is black or white. There is always a rule present: either you follow it or you don’t. That’s it. And following that rule depends solely upon what brand of attention the child wants, and from whom they want it.

OJP Battle CreekSo, to my point. It is clear that my daughter firmly holds this logic: A story is a lie, and lying is bad (due to parental enforced consequences). Therefore, I should not lie; I should not tell stories. Here’s the rub: I don’t see it that way. I think we all tell stories. We are a social, story telling species. When I ask you, “How are you doing?” Then you tell me a story. Same with, “How was your day?” I get a story (hopefully a good one). Now, there is no possibility that you can tell me an accurate version of a story. It is always colored. Your perspective colors it with a Crayola of tones, adverbs, and adjectives like grey sadness (like Eeyore) or pink worry (like Piglet)—for just a few examples. And you decide, every time, how to tell your story. You decide where to begin, where to end, and what details to include. Nietzsche states that we actively forget. If not, we would never move! Every color or smell would provoke a memory, which in turn would provoke another memory, which would provoke another, and another. We would never move; or, even worse, never experience our amazing life; and in doing so never create new memories. So, we forget. Then, we embellish; we tell stories.

I broke my daughter’s chain of logic. She still looks at me with a weird, cock-eyed grimace when I tell her I like her story. You see, I want her to know what pleasure can be derived from hearing and telling a story, whether it is fact or fiction. That her life is not simply Black or White, Truth or Lie, Story or Reality. I don’t want her to tell me everything, but I want her to feel free to do so. In fact, I want her to tell me stories twice. Because each time, even if it is the exact same story, I’m a different person than I was two or thirty minutes ago. And I hear a uniqueness every time she tells it. Same with you. You haven’t told everything. You can’t. But what you piece together is You. So, the next time someone asks you about your day, remember that you’re telling them a story. So, color it well…