Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dostoyevsky: The Original Punk Hero?

Punk culture is so sprawling at this point that it means different things depending on where you are. My experience with it comes from my days as a student at UC Berkeley. Around campus, there were the students; on Telegraph Ave. and downtown, there were the punks. Although it was never stated policy, I think the City of Berkeley likes to keep Telegraph grungy so as to attract the alternative subculture. After all that studying, everyone needs a diversion . . . and Telegraph Ave.'s human zoo is second to none.

I was always intrigued by those kids. They had green hair, sneering expressions, and so much metal on their face that the city could have cleared the streets with a giant magnet. And yet despite the extremities that made you second guess their presence of mind - - I'm talking about piercings that were beyond painful to look at - - -I always thought those punks were a cut above your average drop out. I was convinced by the swagger in their stride that there was something really there, an ethic worth getting to know and thinking about.

I would never have guessed that a key to unlocking it all would reveal itself in a Dostoyevsky novella of all places . . . but his Notes from the Underground reads like a punk bible, if such a think exists. The clue to me was the dignified suffering of the narrator . . . kinda reminded me of the poker-faced expressions of the types who served up salads at the Intermezzo Cafe . . . with ear-lobes stretched to the size of doughnuts and railroad spikes in their tounges. C'mon. You can't tell me they weren't in pain?! But you'd never know it, and they served up the salads with such dignity, such aplomb.

Dignity in suffering, joy in suffering, pride in suffering . . . why? Dostoyevsky's novella answers that fascinating question and gives the punk movement, at least the slice of it that I've experienced, an intellectual underpinning. I'll never see those mohawked cool cats the same way again. In my eyes, Telegraph Ave. is now teeming with Dostoyevsky Jrs. . . .

Dostoyevsky's novella reads like a personal essay, a conversation really, with a man who constantly refers to himself as being "spiteful." His problem? He suffers from what he calls "acute consciousness"; in other words, he is more sensitive and intelligent than most people. It isn't empty narcissim and that last description of him is mine, not his. The character does not profess to be superior in any way, in fact, he is very confused by himself. And yet he is aware of something that makes him different from most people, something he is vaguely proud of. That is his relentless questioning, "Why?!?!?" When most people create a "Wall" of certainty in their mind, an impenetrable boundary that they will not question . . . this guy fights it. Reality just doesn't add up to him the way it does to most people.

So where does the joy in suffering come from? Every time the world is unfair, nonsensical, cruel, unreliable, or abusive in any way, this character feels a strange sense of pleasure because his theories about reality being funked up are validated. They become evidence to him that yeah, the world really does suck, and he's right to not accept things for the way they are. When he suffers he is being honest and true. And he feels pride because it becomes him against society: while everyone is saying that the world is just and all is well, he becomes the emboldened one against the millions, proving everyone wrong that reality is messed up. He feels powerful. But the power just exists in his head. He often feels bested by the more simplistic, passionate brutes out there who act without thinking about the world. It never occurs to them that perhaps there is no real justice, no real right or wrong. They believe everything they are taught without any second-guessing. And so they sometimes bulldoze over the narrator who, trapped in a tangled web of thoughts, can not decide how to act when no clear right or wrong presents itself.

The fascinating thing about this character is the inner struggle he experiences. On the one hand he loves being pitted against the world; it builds his self-esteem. On the other hand, he feels guilty and disgusted with himself for his relentlessly bad, "spiteful" attitude. And he's sick of being trampled on by people who seem inferior to him. He's sick of feeling like "a mouse" in comparison to people who are driven by blind momentum.

More coming!

Friday, July 10, 2009

March of the Morons: classic sci-fi and the mind v. the heart

March of the Morons . . . with a title like that, I had no idea what to expect. And I still don't "understand" C. M. Cornbluth's classic sci-fi tale. But the importance of understanding the work has now taken the backseat to my interest in the way the story worked on me.

First and foremost, the story had an unsettling ending that elicited a strong emotional response. By packing the story with an emotional punch, the author made me care about his work and planted a seed in me, as it were. Throughout the remainder of the afternoon, the story kept popping up again and again in my mind as I tried to make sense of my reaction. In the process of trying to understand my feelings, I contemplated the story and the themes of the work.

The lesson I learned from this experience is that the best way to get people to think about something is to make them feel something strongly, first. That's because thinking is hard work. Speaking for myself at least, people will go as far as they can go in life without thinking. Most people will overcome their slothfulness, however, to make sense of their emotions. Emotions are impossible to ignore; they demand analysis. The times in my life when I have done the most soul searching and questioning have always been the times that are the most emotionally traumatizing. And the works of art that have challenged me the most intellectually are the ones that challenged me first, emotionally.

Thanks to Cornbluth's story, I've now developed a new criterion for effective art. The most complex and satisfying art begins by triggering an emotional response and then invites and holds up to rational analysis. That last part is key. If a work of art is emotional without also being intellectually rigorous, it will come off as merely sentimental.

So far in this post, I've been writing from the perspective that emotion and reason, the mind and the heart, are two separate aspects and organs. I'm starting to believe, however, that that distinction is artificial and that the two are actually linked. The heart will not engage with a work of art if the mind does not, and vice versa. Take a story like Flaubert's A Simple Heart. Flaubert, a proponent of naturalism, wrote this story to explore the sufferings of a poor servant girl living in a cruel, Darwinian world. His stated intention with the story was to jab at the reader's conscience, to make them feel pity and empathy for the sufferings of an innocent. But the world Flaubert created in his story was so thoroughly cruel and Darwinian that the behaviors of all the characters were too predictable. The work was not intellectually challenging because there was no tension in it, it was so deterministic that one did not need to read to the ending to know how it would end. For that reason, I never cared about the poor servant girl. The story never came to life. Because the story lacked powerfully complex ideas, it didn't tug at my heart strings.

So, when it comes to the age-old debate about reason v. emotion, I'd like to chip in my two cents and say that the two are inextricably linked. When we feel a strong emotion, our mind kicks in to think about it. But we wouldn't feel that emotion in the first place if our mind were not unsettled by something. Emotion gives rise to thought, thought gives rise to emotion. They are two aspects of consciousness that go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. When we think, we feel; when we feel, we think . . .