Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Six Theses on The Brothers Karamazov

1. "Monsieur sait-il le temps qu'il fait? C'est à ne pas mettre un chien dehors," jokes the Devil at the end of chapter nine of book eleven of The Brothers Karamazov. "Do you know what the weather is like? One would not put a dog outside." The punchline of the joke, our faithful translators (Pevear and Volokhonsky) note, is, "You, sir, are not a dog," uttered by the host to his visitor who, again, had meant to--without saying so--place himself on a footing, with respect to social etiquette, greater or equal to that of a dog. Why would you toss me out, he asks, when one would not put a dog outside in this weather? But it's not that the host's response simply renders him inferior to a dog; it changes the very terms of the first movement of the joke. The host alters the semantic meaning of the original statement--that this man here is at least as respectable as the genus of dogs--but merely by taking it at its syntactic face-value: you are not a dog and therefore should be cast out. We are no longer comparing one genus (man) to another (canine), but reducing a fact to a fact: humans are not dogs, and dogs should not be cast out into the cold. You, sir, will therefore be put outside.
2. The Brothers Karamazov is an angel that, at the end of Dostoevsky's life, comes crashing to earth. By this we mean that it is the truth in the guise of a lie. It is a book at bottom about lying and the question of the "guise," which the lie would by definition be, and which hides or obscures the truth, whatever such a word--truth--may mean and whether or not, by novel's end, it retains any meaning beyond being a heuristic device for making lies appear. I will say in advance that I do not believe this last supposition to be the case and that truth, in Brothers, produces what it discloses in the very act of disclosing it. This is the moment in which art becomes philosophy, so-called faith becomes reason, the lie becomes true, and the Father becomes what he already was. Then as Alyosha's elder, Father Zosima of the smelly corpse, pontificates moments before his death, this guise is "a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world," by which "the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds." But nothing less than the logic of our joke--that not even a dog would be put outside--provides the foundation for this touch, this point of intimacy that binds our fallen world to the world that transcends it absolutely. Many scholars of Dostoevsky and his proto-modernist contribution to literature have called it faith, but our terminology here must differ, because we neither accept "modernism" as a category for art nor "faith" as anything more than a placeholder for a term that respects what Dostoevsky wrought and so must be amended: instead of faith, we thereby propose "lying." But as Razumikhin declares in Dostoevsky's earlier Crime and Punishment, all truth begins with a lie. We only add that it is a lie repeated twice.
3. Let’s investigate the logic of this joke. The first line is a lie in the formal sense of not saying what it does, or of doing more than it says, in the same way that when a groom and bride say, "I do," they thereby authorize the state to marry them. "I do" does not or does not only assent to the terms of marriage but is on its own the act of marriage. So our liar seems to confirm a state of affairs: it is temps mauvaise, and no one with any compassion would put out a dog in such weather. More importantly, this statement--and this is what gives the liar his or her character--only fulfills the intention of the speaker by hiding it. It can become what it is--a declaration that does not persuade but is already, in itself, an assent to its own terms--only by appearing to denote an already existing state of affairs, by disguising the motive that "lies behind" it. Of course, the speaker could ask to remain indoors, but in order for this statement in particular to work felicitously, the preceding conditions must be met. The particular can only be accomplished when one smuggles it in a universal, applying by definition without exception. But like a conditional statement for which the antecedent is false and the consequent true (and that is thereby true), the addressee upends the statement precisely by allowing the intentions that underlie it to disappear completely and taking it at its word. So he deprives the lie of its false character by assenting to its superficial meaning, the surface connection of its parts; in this way it becomes an assertion that is not only thwarted but that actually achieves the opposite of its goal. A lie coincides with fact and so becomes the truth, but in its very form and the assent to its form, qua expression of a desire that expresses it by hiding it, this swindle punishes the liar who bears it--the "scoundrel," in Dmitri Karamazov's words. This punishment is the source of our novel's conflict. The lie is already in itself its own punishment. To become what it is, it must simply be said twice.

4. At the very moment that the lie is assented to ("believed"), it becomes true by punishing the liar. Punishment is therefore not a fact superfluous to crime but is contained in the "Amen" that lets it be so, that lets it be advanced as the truth. The lie returns to itself as truth, but also as guilt for having been a lie. We must then ask what the truth is and, by the same gesture, categorically reject the notion that it is a lie that the spirit believes in the form of faith. If we understand Dostoevsky's art at its core as depicting a "leap of faith," then we are lost and do not understand it. Not only does such an image mistake for criminal psychology the theological edifice that, for Dostoevsky, is at the core of modern democracy, it also presupposes that which it discovers. If faith is conceived as a claim about an existing state of affairs, then of course we will find in its light of lights only the darkness of unknowing. But, for our purposes, faith, or the passage of a lie into the truth as the very creation of what is revealed, is rather a practice and a form of life that produces eternity (die Ewigkeit, from the old high German ewa, which can mean tradition and marriage as well) at the same time that it invokes it. Belief is a practice that liturgically returns to the light of God that it invents as if it were already there. Let me take an event--a crime, for every event in Dostoevsky is a crime--at random. Dmitri Karamazov's supposed parricide will be our event and beginning, the place from which--yes--we leap. Dmitri Karamazov has expounded to no end his desire and even intention to murder his father. Then there is of course the seizure of his withheld inheritance that would, short of the profound satisfaction of simply killing the vile man, be Dmitri's motive. But it becomes clear as Dostoevsky goes on that, for Dostoevsky's world in the same sense as for Kafka's, modern law attempts to substitute a motive for what has actually occurred, preempting a firsthand and factual witnessing with causes on which the jury agrees are sufficient. If the lie is already implicitly its own punishment, then all punishment also has the form of a lie. The law makes word into deed, wish into act, certainty into truth. The two worlds differ in that Kafka's is narrated by the letter of the law itself, from the "perspective" of bureaucracy (but which has, like a digital piano programmed to be out of tune, the man estranged from civil society as its subject). On the contrary, Dostoevsky gives voice to a Russian people that, out of a hysterical worldliness and Francophilia, has invented a system of right that will--and that eventually does--ruin it. It is to wrong as the seed of all right that our novelists must return.
5. Thus and therefore the law at its core invents the guilt that it finds by assimilating motive to act and decreeing that want is identical to fact. But Dostoevsky claims--or, better, intervenes in order to say--that Christianity already fabricated the same connection before the advent of modern law, and that therefore at the heart of law is the Christian practice of salvation. Christianity in itself already connects thought and action, a wish and its fulfillment, but not in the form of the "thought-police." No: "love," precisely the love of God, not authority or the divine fiat of God Himself, is the Christian feeling that reflects one's word and promise--that I, Dmitri Karamazov, will kill my father--already into the godlessness of the real and makes of them the same. Here we have Kant's moral law within and starry skies above, which together kill God by believing in him.  Love is the minus that binds the heart of being, the cogito of thought, and the world of dreams, madness, and doubt, this trinity of trinities. Why? Here we bear on the secret of Dostoevsky's logic. If I express a wish in public, as Dmitri Karamazov does, then this wish is as good as fulfilled, because the very idea of a wish to be fulfilled is Christian. The content of every wish is the love of God before God, because wishing begins with the concept of a God that wants to be and so immediately is. God is the first and last wish. Why? Here we bear on the secret of Dostoevsky's logic. If God is, then He is because He has taken away His ability not to be. When God decides to be, He destroys the very possibility of what we might call a non-wish, of a state of being (Zustand) that I would imagine without wanting. Christianity is only worthy of consideration for both art and philosophy at the point where love and evil merge in the form of a wish. And in this dual image of Christianity, art and philosophy, if only for an instant, are the same. So the devil says in the chapter that Dostoevsky appoints to him, "By some pre-temporal assignment, which I have never been able to figure out, I am appointed 'to negate,' whereas I am sincerely kind and totally unable to negate." This inability to negate is itself a negation of the devil's negativity, which means that the devil will always have fulfilled his role as potentate of negation. And later on, he adds, "There's a secret here, I know, but they won't reveal this secret to me for anything, because then, having learned what it's all about, I might just roar 'Hosannah,' and the necessary minus would immediately disappear and sensibleness would set in all over the world, and with it, of course, the end of everything, even of newspapers and journals, because who would subscribe to them?"

6. Chekhov, we know very well, once said that if a gun appears onstage, it must be fired. He neglects to mention that it has already been fired by being there; the lasting piece of art will refuse to let the gun go off.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

unpublished story: Me and Martha

I was having this problem. Every night I would go to sleep, and I would wake up just a little while later having to pee. In my sleep I would fight it, resist what I knew, or rather felt I could not deny. And then I would get up and do it, wash my hands, and go back to bed beside Martha, my wife--wash them so that, touching her, I wouldn't contaminate her with what went on above the toilet, for sometimes after my piss, staring at my dun-colored penis, I would become aroused and let semen coat my hand. So I'd be deep in sleep, and there, again, would be a piss honking in my dream. It got to the point where I would scream on mere instinct, less from frustration than from such a brutal and indelible pain that I hope none of you ever must endure, including the most awful among you. In any case, it was a problem about which I couldn't complain, because to the rest of the world, which suffers from inanition and sadness and so doesn't count a rogue piss among its problems, my overeager spleen bore no resolution.

So one night I cut off my penis. That's right, I just cut it off. There I was in the kitchen, and I hadn't even had to pee, and there it was, too, flopping on the floor like a child in gym class, I mean the real gymnastics element, somersaults and so on. I'm doing whatever happens right after you cut off your penis, and here comes my wife, hollering and yammering about look, you cut that thing off. And so she tells me, I knew you would do this. I always thought you were close to this point, not quite a nadir but a simple act of closure. You were never meant to survive past a certain phase of adulthood, nor did you know how, nor did you want to. And if only I were as much of a lunatic as you are--as irresponsible, empty and poor in human emotion as you are--perhaps I could understand you, though I have to add that I understand why and wherefore you have done this, cut off this soft excess and let it go cold on the floor. But now you repudiate all I could have done for you, every move, silent but unoppressed, that I could have made to try but fail to heal you, even before I have done it, even before it was possible to do, and even before I wanted to do it. To conclude, I have never wanted anything for you but this.

So there I was, out on the floor, with my wife hollering and trying to save me, and then on the phone, probably with our therapist, saying that her husband, Brian, had cut off his penis, and what did this signify. You need to tell him what you want out of this relationship, our therapist said, because he is the kind of man to whom not much means a whole lot besides a day spent in the emergency room. So I lay there and assumed my punishment. 

unpublished story: Train

My mother always told me do not fall halfway asleep on a train holding a part of you you cannot control. She has lived for a long time. Now she lives apart from my father and arranges furniture and decorative fruit in her own apartment. When I was nine she took away a train-set my father had bought me and disassembled it. Where is your father now, she said, and shook me. She apologized. This is before she asked me whether I had sexual thoughts. We snapped the railroad back together and used it. She and my father had a dinner party that night. My parents were actors. I am a very good doctor. I do not believe in acting. When I was fifteen my mother kissed me in the backseat of a moving car. She didn't take it too far beyond that. I remember the unimpeachable age of my mother. She said that she felt like a teenager again. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

unpublished story c. 11/09: The Squirt of my Breathing


I took myself in the room where no smell could flow, and my boyfriend gushed from room to room in hopes of me. I smuggled our solar television-radio--conjoined like a weird meat--in with me, in around this small room with my hands all over it, and together, my radio and me, under the sheets we watched game shows. 

My boyfriend comes from the South, where they don't produce much good except inviolable boys like me, rough and unquietly pious, who turn out like him, only worse--better, sometimes. I give everyone a chance: you can see how he might strut his intelligence nicely. I distribute chances like I am setting a forest on fire. 

I let a whiff of that room melt in: oh, how sweet. Nothing at all. Goddamn. I broadcasted Book TV because that is what I like to watch when I have a lot of energy so that I will not become too excited about my life. The lack of smell strung me out on mothery vibes, and I thought of how my neighbor always laments her kids don't stink. But I could feel the quake of my boyfriend's stomp, the stiff shake of a foot or two on rotted plank, and I knew what was coming. I had babysat before, and as I've said, those kids do stink to high heaven from legs down. 

I plucked at my novella of a sex as he entered. I showed it to him. What do you think of this? I said, it points to Alabama. He sat down on the end of the bed and told me a story recently taken place a mile away that had grown elemental for him, sliced the rare sockets of his heart, he said. I scoffed. He lay back and I pushed him erect with my foot. I turned up the volume control on my television-radio and watched sports play themselves out. I readied wavy straights of cocaine on the face of the TV, so as things turned out I could only pay attention to the radio: behold, it's my first time to sneak a thing up my nose, and had I not been so rutted and dumped I might not have bothered. 

I breathed the long sigh of living unhigh when finally a chunk was firmly stuck, peering out the coast of a nostril. My nostrils look like a private beach: tight, flaky and overflared. They give way to my gruffly mustached upper lip, the crust parked in around there. By this time my boyfriend was halfway finished with his story. Are you finished? I asked. He was talking about this little colored kid flattened in the street, this jaunty green Honda leaving him for meat. The kid was already some sort of fucked--eyes poked close, talking garbled--before today he was mashed into wide black and gray. There was something in there caught up with my boyfriend's childhood, a young man's memory. The volume of sports was maximum. This reminds me of my sister, I said, have you met my sister? My boyfriend took himself out of the room he was so mad at that. I guess I was supposed to hold in the great, winsome things I have to say. I changed the channel. 

Now the device was mute and I watched the score of the game. I could hear the beat of my bloodstream. I looked at my window and nothing much was going on in there. I took in breath after breath so that I could have all of the oxygen. I spent my time in that room making myself not get too worked up over the big questions: the abhorrences of men I admire, the impending endings of my life. I gave these questions a chance to answer themselves until I heard my neighbor going at it again, chasing those little things around the world for a bath they wouldn't have, taking a hand from under her skirt to ease those plump uncut children into the basin to which they belong. The yelling was so strange and exuberant I could not hear the commercials between plays. Control the behavior of your children! I called. The noise--none of it--had no point. I picked up the phone and for a long time I heard the squirt of my own breathing. After awhile someone picked up with a long and slow hello. I asked for the police, but an ambulance came instead. 

unfinished story c. 09/10: Airwaves

Sheppard drove his family through the thick and dead air of the south, through the highway snaking by towns that used to consider themselves nowhere. That air, brutal in heat but nonetheless a current, stirred in their minivan and whipped at Hicks when he put his window down, which he did when--not often, this--he was too numb to the hiss of the internal air to let it continue, too numb to the burden of tending it as well, and numb, though he loved them ferociously, to his family's restless noise, which circled around him as vultures do who intend to torture their prey with the mere threat of their presence, and which in turn drowned in its volume--this sound being the two boys bashing their action figures together, and Gran-Momma Steward uttering hushabies one after the other, and Rosie Baby being silent--which drowned out, once again, the pop radio stations for which he had to search anew with each infelicitous shift in airwaves, tenderly rotating the dial until a sexy electronic croon filtered in. They were moving to the south--not moving, but subjected to the scrutiny of moving, for of course moving, to the ones who move, means the will to move, which these Sheppards, for reason mainly of the effort it invokes, had not. They were moving from Orlando to Alabama. (Others will object that Orlando is already the south--nearly as south as the latter lets itself get.) Sheppard's law firm demanded his transfer to Alabama, remanded him and therefore the Sheppards in general to its deep and green luster, after the loss of a case which, however potent his involvement, was not after all his fault. Nissan was too suit-strong, too busy internally, to sue with success, however stalwart Sheppard had been--which indeed, in disposition, Sheppard had been, to the salvation of no one, including Sheppard himself.

The summer was at war with the earth, dry and defeated, and to walk around outside was to feel the pressure of an impending explosion, a landmine approaching--to be, as a southerner, held under the regime of heat. The Sheppards did their best to ignore this late-August conflict--they sang as one, played games that faded with the day--this heat which shimmered not unlike, of course, a wave, taut and cruel in how it disgusted those who lived it with even themselves, with how they smelled and how it made them afraid of their own bodies, how it made the outside, the sun and its arsenal, a medium between this inside and that one, places to hide: refuge, respite, rest. And the rest stops, too--and the motels, too kitschy to be sketchy, too banal to be funny--were stricken with liquidy heat. This summer did not suck at the south, did not drain it, but swallowed it and then, the sun agape and impatient as always, longed for more.

Sheppard stood outside of the rest stop and looked at his children, sweat beginning to tickle his shoulders from a mere moment in the heat. His t-shirt would stick to his dampening skin if he stood for a minute or more, and so he pulled at its middle, and used it to fan at his chest, the dense hair now vaguely wet like a sponge which mops up water but is itself wet . His two boys were playing with sticks over by the creek which ran through a small trench abutting the parking lot, small boscages there kicked about by a swift but generous wind. He mopped at his forehead, at his thin and thinning hairline, with the back of his hand and sighed, knowing that he had to gather his boys, and soon; Saturday was halfway done, and Sheppard was due in the office on Monday morning, which was a different, more impersonal kind of moving--a change, he expected, in neither content nor workaday form.

"Boys," he said, then clicking his tongue at them. The heat stuck around everyone like an aura. Truckers were smoking near him, laughing at any syllable-- grunt, suggestion of a sound--struck up between them. One snorted, and that was enough to get them laughing, and then they coughed up, all at once, a surround of smoke like a tiny see-through mist, seeming to shield the heat, making it a rumor to them, for they seemed impervious to it, as if behind this scrim it did not exist. 

"Boys, quit," he said, and added, "Boys, there's liable to be snakes."

The creek didn't lap but was folded, almost pleated in surface, the skirt of the earth; smooth, tiny spikes were what passed for ripples; its cold was not a contrast to the day but a contradiction. No fish lived. The boys didn't splash but smacked at the water, and one of them, Abe, would cup this frigid water with a hand and apply it to his face, to the nascent acne, the fringes and beginnings of hair, its cracking and cracked texture. Indeed he was young for his age, teenaged as he was, but the water was such a danger to the day--a defense against the depth of its heat--that anyone with skin and a sensibility would have done the same. 

"Boys," Sheppard said, greedily smoothing his fat, Jewy hair. 

The younger boy, Nigel, did the same as Abe, made a scoop of his hand and sunk it in the water, and then applied it, without knowing why, to his face. 

unfinished novel c. 08/08: New Dog City

Every night I lie at my master's bedside. 

Literally every night. There is not one night I do not lie at my master's bedside.

Usually I cannot sleep because I have no clothing to keep me warm. 

I stare at the ceiling fan while my masters sleep in their warm and comfortable clothes. 

By "my master" I meant "my two masters."

They are life partners.

Bandit and Sweetie.

A lesbian couple.

I am not involved in their lovemaking. But I may often view it.

"Rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh rargh," they tell me. But before I leave the room, sad and dejected, they are clawing at each other.

So I can stand in the doorway and watch. 

About 68% of the time, I watch.

Most of the time I am in the living my room or I am enjoying my dinner. 

For dinner I usually have meat or vegetables. 

Sometimes I am treated to my masters' food.

I tire of meat and vegetables. Sometimes I want a "square meal."

My supper is usually pre-broiled or pre-steamed. My supper comes from a bag.

Sometimes I rifle through that bag when I am hungry.

My masters fuck a lot.

When they fuck well you would like to see it.

They run around the bedroom and growl at each other.

They bite each other.

Because there is no way for them, actually, to fuck.

They use strap-on dildos. I have witnessed it.

I laughed, it was funny to see, and they told me to leave. 

At least I think they did.

But they did not know I was laughing. 

Why well they do not know how to laugh.

They run around and jump on each other and bite and snap and fake-out.

I have named myself Sean.

My tag I cannot read. 

My masters are angry a lot. 

I cannot understand them but I know they are very angry.

We all get angry sometimes. It is understandable.

Sweetie and Bandit are both mutts, I think.

How do I know this well after a certain time you just know.

They frequent rallies and demonstrations for mutts. Or well I have accompanied them and it looked like that.

I believe there is a lot of pro-mutt paraphernalia decorating their apartment. 

Bandit and Sweetie are gracious masters.

Still, I want to pluck their eyeballs out, I want to smash them both with a suitcase.

And I can.

There are suitcases all over. 

Both of my masters are attorneys for the ACLU. 

It's kind of annoying.

I don't care how far left you are.

Language is not instrumentalist.

The fuck. 

By the way, let's just assume that, even though my speech occurs on a level separate from theirs, time has adapted me to the signs and symbols of New Dog City.

And let's just assume I know the name of New Dog City because well I just do.

No, actually ha ha I'm kidding, it's a name "we the people" have invented for this place. 

It is a fitting name.

If you could see New Dog City you would agree.

My masters go to work and they wear pantsuits.

They look great.

I want to burn them alive.

When they go to buy new pantsuits they take me along.

I would like a pantsuit because I am cold often.

I believe they feel that my skin is suitable insulation and that I do not need clothing.

When they take me to buy pantsuits with them or whatever at the place where you can bring people I say, "Please, buy me this. I want this. I am very cold all the time!" 

They bark at me very loudly. It's embarrassing, really. I believe this is their way of laughing at and consoling me.

I do not feel consoled. 

Instead, I feel the distance growing between me and the clothes I desire.

Sometimes they chain me up outside of the clothing store when they feel I am being bad. 

I do not feel wanting to be less cold is bad behavior.

What a strange world we live in, I think.

Bandit has udders.

I have seen Sweetie bite her lover's udders.

Bandit's eyes are engulfed in black. Her body is dotted with it, black.

Sweetie resembles a deer.

She is heavyset and slow, but beautiful. 

Bandit's voice is high-pitched. Sweetie speaks very little.

Sweetie feels overpowered by Bandit, I think. 

Sweetie feels very sad and alone much of the time.

I want to kill myself. I want to choke on my chicken and my vegetables and die.

I want to throw up on the floor.

For a few weeks now on a daily basis I throw up on the floor.

I laugh and start to eat it.


"We the people" are talking outside. 

In New Dog City.

We are standing amongst a gang of dogs in McCarren park.

The dogs think we are playing.

We are actually have an intellectual discussion.

"The seventh Harry Potter book is the best of the Harry Potter books," Sandra says.

I am deeply in love with Sandra. Our owners are good friends, and because of that there's some brother-sister space I'd like someday to overcome.

It is also because of Sandra, in addition, of course, to the coldness, that I cannot fall asleep most nights for a long time.

We are drinking beers.

"The epilogue of the seventh Harry Potter book is the worst epilogue ever," Michael says.

Michael is cool. He and Sandra used to date. 

It's hard for me to really imagine Michael and Sandra together.

This is before I knew either of them.

Imagining it turns me on and nauseates me.

When I think about it I hate Sandra and I masturbate and want to love her forever.

"Let's not talk about Harry Potter," I say.

"Why not?" Sandra asks.

"I guess we can."

"But really why not?"

"It's just that we talk about Harry Potter a lot lately."

"I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," Michael says.

"I'm actually not. I only want to talk about Harry Potter."

"Ha ha ha ha ha."

"All I want to talk about for the rest of my life is Harry Potter. Books, movies, everything."

This isn't even Sandra at her best.

unpublished story c. fucking who cares: Shabbos


I start out by bringing to the fore what had gone unerupted, the song stringing its last dense welt to the closing note, and finally, a shocked child behind drawn blinds, wailing into his bedclothes, under the duvet now, and the mother downstairs   preparing for Shabbos (so blind), unaware that the sun has vanished and waiting over a pair of candles, torturing herself by enforcing a limit on ritual as the night cools, as the wind picks up through the open window behind her, and scatters, rather twists her hair with caution, turns it between soft digital whips and the candles go out before they're lit; the matches won't strike; the boy upstairs continues his awful display, throwing his limbs about the bed until he's remitted from between the sheets, not wrapped in them but mundanely bundled, like a normal day's waking, until he starts with his eyes at the wall, and not noticing the mirror behind him he wipes his eyes and plunges out of bed, decamping now from that torpid war-zone of his own invention; indeed, this is what you would call acting out, the wayward alarm of that toil at which we hinted, the hint of life, the soured and shopworn grease of a grief his mother will go on to deny, despite the cuts, the veracity of his open wounds, the scars already forming--and this boy, thirteen yesterday, but younger today for all of his petulance; his mother waits for the wind to calm, less sated than ready; and the ramshackle house, which bends here and there with the first undressing of a rain, the first garment pulled of a storm, not even a threat but a curse, a curse on her androgynous name, and yet a name spoken softer than prayer, than the Amidah and the rocking which animates it, and the shuffling, a menace, which follows without regress; the wind stops, and the house collapses like its brother, but not without a word; not without a scream, a protest, a pitiful act of resistance, do I pray for the demise of her house