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Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

Monday, May 16, 2016

High school impostors

Two new, bizarre stories in my favorite genre, one involving an old guy masquerading as a high school student, the other a high school student masquerading as an old guy. The fake doctor story is funny, but ultimately there isn't really anything so shocking about a kid pretending to be an adult with a good adult job. It's fraud, sure, but it suggests that society is working ok, instilling sufficient and even overweaning desire in the young to grow up and be respectable. But Miss Self-Important does love this defense of the kid, advanced by his father:
“He’s not out doing drugs, he’s not out trying to rob nobody,” Robinson said. “He’s trying to do something constructive, and if he did do something and the paperwork wasn’t right — he can get ahead of himself sometimes and he may have been trying too hard, but he had good intentions.”
The old guy who posed as a high school and also as a fake teenaged son to an actual married couple though, that one is much weirder, but it's hard to know from the reporting which parts of this scheme were his idea and which were his "parents'," and what the goal of the charade was. Was it just the most bizarre way to stay in the US illegally that anyone has come up with, or was there some other motive? The article has him playing the clueless foreigner card, so who knows. But since both of these stunts have already occurred in film (recall the great Drew Barrymore vehicle, Never Been Kissed) there isn't even anything ultimately original about even the old guy's weirdness. We can thank Drew Barrymore for her culturally pioneering work normalizing creepy old guy impostordom.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notes on baby sleep

1. When strangers strike up conversation with me about the baby (the sharp increase in unsolicited stranger interactions is an additional benefit of having a baby), the order of their questions is invariably: what's her name, how old is she, how's she sleeping? I know baby sleep is a fraught topic, but how could strangers have any real interest in my baby's sleep patterns? I have no interest in anyone else's sleep patterns, not even my friends' (sorry). I oblige them with a response (pretty well), but the prevalence of the question continues to puzzle.

2. I actually don't know if Goomba is sleeping pretty well. I only know that she sleeps the requisite number of hours per day that the baby books suggest. But I also think the baby books are full of lies about sleep training. They're all like, "Just toss your kid in the crib and shut the door and plug your ears. Don't worry, she won't cry for more than 40 minutes! And she'll sleep through the night (except for the 90% chance that she'll wake up at midnight to eat). And within three days, you won't even hear a peep out of her when you put her down. She will practically be begging for naps! She will learn to talk just so she can say, 'May I please be put to bed now, Mother?' It's gonna be great!" This is a lie. It is true that Goomba has never cried for more than 40 minutes and that she sleeps for many hours after crying. But it is not true that she doesn't cry. "Sleep training" is a false advertisement. There is (eventual) sleep, yes, but no training. Or, at least the baby is not the one being trained. If anything, it trains parents to withstand willful baby crying and to enforce baby sleep. Which is fine if it's all that can realistically be achieved with a pre-rational creature whose driving passion in life is to be held all the time, but the sleep-training gurus should just admit that. When you read further into the books, there are some disclaimers about how maybe the magic won't happen quite as quickly as three days, and maybe you just have to keep at it for a while until the child finally achieves protest-free sleep. I suspect that will occur closer to 10 years than three days.

3. Up to about five months, Goomba would fall asleep as if by spontaneous collapse. There was no gradual drifting off like an adult, but instead, normal activity or even howling one minute, unconsciousness the next. This was especially funny in the cases of howling. Now she drifts off, in principle, except she mostly prefers not to sleep at all. I miss the days of spontaneous collapse. It was the cutest thing.

4. Before the instruction to put babies to sleep on their backs became widespread, it was apparently very common to sleep babies on their stomachs. But most babies hate "tummy time" until pretty late into their first year, when they're already rolling and sitting and therefore not stranded like sad, overturned turtles when they're put on their stomachs. How then was it possible that a majority of infants used to be put to sleep on their stomachs from birth? This question has been bugging me for many months.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The prototypical American adolescent is from Skokie, IL

I re-watched Sixteen Candles the other day and realized for the first time that it takes place in Skokie. The school bus reads, "Maierhofer Bros., Skokie, IL" and one of the geeks wears a Niles East jacket. Indeed, the schools scenes were filmed at Niles East before it was torn down. I knew that many John Hughes movies had been filmed in the north suburbs of Chicago, but I didn't realize that this included specific places in Skokie. I'm sure it's been noted many times before that those movies generated the sort of defining image of American adolescence for at least for the next two decades, if not still today. Adolescence is suburban, middle-class, white, angsty, anti-intellectual, dominated by social cliques and anxiety about sex. Later teen movies tended to be set in vague southern California suburbs, which was probably more convenient given the location of studios, but continued to work from the basic template created by Hughes. It's kind of nice to think that the prototypical American teenager created by Hollywood, who has been so important for the self-understanding of so many actual teenagers*, was not the product of some generic Burbank soundstage, but was instead modeled on the particular inhabitants of, of all places, my home town.

It's at least better than having to identify Skokie as, "the place where the Nazis once had a march that almost became a Supreme Court free speech case," which is how I do it now. Henceforth, I will say, "the place where the epochal film, Sixteen Candles, was filmed."

*I can't exactly say this self-understanding is an especially good one, but since it's bound up with my home and my childhood, strong feelings of partiality prevent me from criticizing it too much. Besides, whatever the shortcomings of Hughes's movies, you must admit at least that Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a piece of comedic brilliance.