The Princess Irene and Curdie Series by George MacDonald

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from a 1920 edition.

I have such a fascination with MacDonald and must say work through some thoughts on The Princess Irene and Curdie Series which I just finished for a book group I attended, today. It’s the season of monsters and goblins, so why not?

George MacDonald influenced a slew of fantasy writers including C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Charles Williams. (He’s known as the Grandfather of the Inklings.) He also had a close relationship with Lewis Carrol. Scholars often compare the structure of Phantaste (published in 1858) to Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland which was published in 1865, which means Carrol likely borrowed from MacDonald. Phantaste was C.S. Lewis’ first introduction to MacDonald and was also one of his favorite books.

Tolkien was not as impressed with MacDonald as was Lewis, (Lewis called MacDonald “his master”). However, The Princess and the Goblin, the first book of the Princess Irene and Curdie series, influenced the goblins in Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings that are the basis of The Lord of the Rings.

Spoiler Alert!

Monsters play a major role in many of MacDonald’s tales. In The Princess and the Goblin. the goblins are your standard European sort. They live inside the mountain. They are greedy and want to overthrow the king and marry his daughter (8 year old Princess Irene) to a goblin in order to secure the kingdom. Their plans are thwarted by Curdie, a young miner who knows his way around the inside of a mountain.

We are told that the goblins may have been human beings that fled to the safety of the underground because they were persecuted by a cruel king many years ago. Perhaps they had been overworked miners? Whatever the case, they make alls kinds of excuses for why it is better to remain underground, despite the fact that a benevolent king now rules. They have been underground so long that they are no longer human.

The goblins have monstrous pets that play a larger role in The Princess and Curdie but there is an interesting scene in The Princess and the Goblin when Princess Irene intends to visit her mysterious great great Grandmother but comes upon a monster that resembles a cat with very long legs. It scares her so badly she runs away and gets lost. She has to overcome her fear in order to find her great great Grandmother, who represents divinity.

According to Roderick McGillis, MacDonald believed that it was only when individuals were able to fully recognize the chaos of evil that they were able to be open to the certainty of divine protection.

Forgiveness plays a major role in Lilith and several of MacDonald’s other books, but the Irene and Curdie series is much more vindictive. Perhaps the vindication is metaphorical? The goblins have all drowned at the beginning of The Princess and Curdie but Irene is gone, too, and everything feels dismal to Curdie. He would have preferred everything remain the same – goblins and all.

Curdie has grown lazy and mindless as young men tend to do. He shoots one of Irene’s great great Grandmother’s white pigeons and “wakes up”. He feels so badly about his mindlessness that he seeks out the great great Grandmother whom he has never met and isn’t even sure exists except through Irene’s testimony. He wants to repent and receive her forgiveness.

He receives her forgiveness and learns to move forward through life with trust. As in The Princess and the Goblins, this involves overcoming his fear of one of the goblin’s monstrous pets that still remain even though the goblins are gone. In this case, it is a dog creature named Lina that may have once been a woman.

The illustration doesn’t adequately represent the fearsomeness of the monster. It’s dog-like, but has two sets of fangs and is extremely ugly. It can easily dismember men and animals. It doesn’t like to be feared, but it is ferocious and has become Curdie’s fierce protector. Part of this protection includes gathering a team of 49 fellow “Uglies” that seek violent, ferocious vengeance on the enemies of the king on behalf of Curdie. It’s brutal, especially for a kids book.

MacDonald felt that both individuals and societies were either getting better or they were getting worse. The way to get better usually requires something like Curdie’s repentance. Most of us have to do this over and over again. But that is much better than the route the goblins took. The morally depraved monsters are in need of the purification of fire, but we know from Lina that they are also redeemable.

But what are we redeemed from? Ourselves?

At the end of the series, Curdie and crew defeat the evil-doers. Princess Irene marries Curdie who, it turns out, has royal blood. They do not have children and are eventually replaced by a king who becomes greedy and does so much mining for gold that his kingdom becomes even worse than the one Curdie & Irene helped defeat and the earth gives and the kingdom falls into the gold mines and is destroyed.

Extremely moralistic tale and harsh way to end a children’s novel, but we do seem doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Happily ever after stories rarely end up happy. And it’s true! If we aren’t constantly vigilant about our thoughts and actions, we fall prey to power, greed, fear and the stuff of the ego.

Perhaps MacDonald is saying that we’re all in Dante’s Purgatorio in need of constant purification until we are finally completely consumed by the fire like Lina and never seen again? (Sounds like ACIM.)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

I recently watched Tim Burton’s, Sleepy Hollow just after reading Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  Burton and his writers have an interesting take on the tale. It’s entirely different.

In my interpretation of Irving’s telling, Ichabod Crane is an awkward but ambitious school master. Usually his ambitions are set on food and so he makes sure to get in good with all of the neighborhood women who make fantastic dutch meals and cakes. He eventually sets his sights on the lovely Katrina Van Tassel, whose father is the wealthiest man in the town. The possibility of marriage sets off great visions of being a vast land owner. He is love stricken because he’s in love with the idea of what marrying Katrina will get with him. He’s not in love with Katrina.

Another very important fact about Ichabod Crane is that he’s enamored with Cotton Mather’s book, History of New England Witchcraft, which provides antidotes to the devil’s trickery. He considers it his Bible. Because Crane is so superstitious, he is spooked even more easily than the superstitious dutch villagers. This is particularly disturbing since Ichabod Crane is the village educator!

During Irving’s tale, there are no actual slayings by the Hessian Headless Horseman. This is all portrayed as village legend. Crane doesn’t actually “see” the Headless Horseman until he challenges Brom Bones for Katrina’s hand in marriage which leaves the identity of the headless horseman in the legend subject to interpretation. But one thing is certain, while the horseman has no head at all, Ichabod Crane spends way too much time inside his head!

Burton turns the legend entirely upside down. Ichabod Crane becomes Constable Crane who comes to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the slayings of several citizens. It’s no longer a legend but a detective story and Crane is the detective.   Rather than being overly superstitious, Constable Crane is overly rational which clashes with the village folks superstitious tendencies. As far as they are concerned, what he deduces rationally is already obvious. Rather than being scared out of town, Crane saves the day, but not before finally accepting the wisdom of the old ways.

Perhaps Burton is saying that today’s propensity for rationalism is yesterday’s superstition? Although in different ways, both rationalism and superstition are totally in our heads.

Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam

I watched a movie recently called “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam”. It wasn’t a great movie as far as movies go, but I learned a lot I didn’t know.

Omar Khayyam was a Persian Muslim in the 11th century. He was a mathematician who laid down many of the principles of Algebra which were later adopted by Europeans. He was also a famous astronomer and created a calendar that is more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that we use today. It is also said that he proved, long before Galileo, that the universe does not revolve around the earth.

What he became best known for, however, is his poetry. I had read The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in college and was taught that it was a perfect example of hedonism. I didn’t question this interpretation at all until I watched The Keeper and re-read the poem.

It is clear from his Rubaiyat that Khayyam was not a religious man. He didn’t believe in a God that passed out rewards and punishments or any kind of divine intervention whatsoever. Life is for living so live it! Quit focusing upon eternal salvation in the future.

I recently made a fairly intensive study of Nietzsche who is also very often cited as promoting hedonism. But read Nietzsche carefully and you realize that an undisciplined hedonism is not at all what Nietzsche is prescribing. What Nietzsche is prescribing is a sort of mysticism. To understand this, you have to understand the term “mysticism” without all of its modern-day prejudices.

Nietzsche said “God is dead” and he was absolutely right as far as I’m concerned. But he wasn’t the first to make this claim. Read the famous medieval Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. Both basically make the same statement. God cannot be known so any discussion about God (for or against) is nothing more than an idea. Eventually, all ideas die when they are no longer of use to society and this includes our ideas about God.

Thomas Merton, a more recent Christian mystic, had no trouble whatsoever with Nietzsche’s statement that God is dead. If you truly want to know God, you have to be willing to kill him. The Buddhists have a popular saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. What you are being asked to kill is an image.

For both strict rationalists and faithful believers, this is very difficult to understand. Believers ardently and faithfully uphold their image of God by claiming their image is God. Disbelievers claim there is no God and thereby likewise uphold the image the ardent believers have made. Nietzsche realized this and writes of a madman who runs into a crowd screaming “God is Dead”. The madman realizes the people cannot understand – that he has come too early. If the crowd had been a religious crowd they would have been outraged by this claim. But the crowd did not attack, they just looked at him blankly like he was crazy. The madman was exclaiming “God is Dead” to those who claimed not to believe in God. Those who claim there is no God unintentionally uphold the very idea of God they claim to oppose so they do not yet know that God is dead even though they claim there is no God. Nietzsche warns us in no uncertain terms: we have been a slave to the Christian faith for far too long and now we should refuse to become a slave to reason.

Omar Khayyam was Muslim. He did not put his name on this Rubaiyat (a form of poetry that is comprised of four lines, three of which rhyme) because what he was writing was extremely controversial at the time. He spoke out against religious hypocrisy and promoted behavior that was considered sinful. Yet he never denied the existence of God. You cannot deny or affirm what cannot be known rationally and to think everything can be understood rationally is a religion all it’s own.

A few verses from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (I have Edward Fitzgerald’s rendering):

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.


I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And after many days my Soul return’d
And said, “Behold, Myself am Heav’n and Hell:”
Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow of a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all Your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.


What is, is! Our piety, hopes of Paradise, and thoughts of reward and punishment won’t change what is. So accept life at face value and live in the Now! This isn’t undisciplined hedonism. It’s mysticism.

The next verse reminded me of Nietzsche’s discussions about how we need to move away from our worship of Apollo and turn to Dionysus:

You know, my Friends, how bravely in my House
For a new Marriage I did make Carouse;
Divorced old barren reason from my Bed,
And took the daughter of the Vine to spouse.

For “Is” and “Is-not” with Rule and Line
And “Up and Down” by Logic I define,
Of all that one should care to fathom, I
Was never deep in anything – but Wine

Apollo is the god of reason. Dionysus is the god of wine and ecstasy. Reason is important and valuable, but we cannot experience ecstasy through reason or the images we create. We experience ecstasy through the living of life itself on its own terms.

The Castle by Franz Kafka

I read The Castle because Thomas Merton had highly recommended it in connection with with Camus. In Myth of Sisyphus, Camus devotes a chapter to “Hope and the Absurd in Kafka”. But it is Camus’ The Plague where Merton makes the comparison. He says that both The Castle and The Plague “deal symbolically with the relation between the inscrutable powers that influence man’s destiny without his being able to understand them.” Merton seems to take it for granted that K. has been summoned by the Castle. But I’m not so sure I agree.

For me it was difficult to tell whether K. was actually summoned by the Castle or if he, for whatever reason, decided he wanted to leave his hometown and find a new place to live so made up the summons. He clearly has no intention to go back home and frequently says he plans to make the village his home. It’s very ambiguous. Whatever the case may be, he is given the run around and cannot penetrate The Castle no matter how hard he tries.

Merton says that Kafka is speaking about religious alienation: “man’s struggle to bridge the gap between himself and a realm of utterly inaccessible transcendence.” The problem is that man attempts to “imagine and understand grace in terms of hierarchic organization, that is to say, in terms of “law”‘. For anyone who understands the New Testament, it is clear that this involves a contradiction that is beyond any solution. But for anyone who knows church history, it is also clear that the contradiction is in fact, inevitable. They cannot understand grace in any other terms.”

For Merton, the hero of The Castle is Amalia. She refuses an insulting summons from the Castle and she and her family are disgraced by this refusal. The Castle is always to be obeyed but she chooses to do what is “wrong” (yet she is in the right). She is Sisyphus. “She refuses unquestioning obedience to an arbitrary and revolting command. Her act is precisely the kind of choice which Camus describes as “revolt” against the arbitrary and the absurd, in affirmation of one’s personal life, one’s own authenticity and existential truth.” A significant point: it is not the Castle that ostracizes Amalia’s family, it is the villagers. Also, Irving Howe points out that part of what makes Amalia heroic is that she does not challenge the Castle’s dominance or criticize it. She simply refuses to have any connection with it. She is sustained by suffering and a quiet resolve. (Olga calls Amalia’s refusal “the original cause” of the family being despised. (Original sin that creates the fall?)

K. is “the stranger” to the village. He doesn’t understand the internal workings of the society and is constantly bungling his efforts to get into the Castle. The administrators of the Castle seem to be unsure what it is he has come to the village for but because they never make an error, they assume he is there to do land surveying, as he says. But rather than employ him, they do what they can to keep him somewhat complacent while giving him the runaround. On the one hand, he is standing against the system. On the other, he’s trying to figure out how to become a part of it. He’s no hero like Amalia is a hero. But that he wants to reach the heart of The Castle puts him in stark contrast to most of humanity that prefers comfort and complacency to struggle.

Max Brod was a friend of Kafka’s who pieced the book together after Kafka’s death. He, like Merton, put a strong emphasis on the religious aspects. He said the Castle represents a wish “to get clear about ultimate things” with the recognition that it is impossible to get clear about ultimate things because the world will not yield to lucidity.

Kafka wrote, “Man cannot live without permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, and at the same time that indestructible something as well as his trust in it may remain permanently concealed from him.” K. searches for a way to penetrate the castle, completely exhausts himself, but his lifelong quest does not lead to a conclusion.

Kafka was Jewish so it is possible the book could also have to do with being displaced from your home and trying to fit into a totally different culture. There are many instances where it is clear that people don’t really want him in the village but simply tolerate his being there. Even the Chambermaid claims that K. is lower, socially, than she is. But at the same time, several people look to K. to help them break out of the system.

It could be specifically about a Jewish experience, but this experience has now become common within all of modern man. Irving Howe writes, “No other writer of our century has so strongly evoked the caustral sensations of modern experience, sensations of bewilderment, loss, guilt, dispossession. These are sensations known to millions of people quite unaware of Kafka’s writings and without any claim to philosophical reflection.” Robert Atler says that the distinctive quandaries of Jewish existence have become quandaries for all mankind. Kafka merely recognizes them. (He’s not out to convert anyone.)

I found the book to be incredibly tedious in parts which was very likely intentional on Kafka’s part. When K. falls asleep during Brugel’s advice, I thought I might fall asleep, too! It just went on and on and on and on… And you never know, is Brugel offering something of value? Should I be paying closer attention to his ramblings? Or is this just more of the same old runaround K. comes up against at every turn?

The book actually ends mid-sentence. Max Brod said he once asked Kafka how he intended to end the book and Kafka replied:

The ostensible land surveyor was to find partial satisfaction at least. He was not to relax his struggle, but was to die worn out by it. Round his deathbed the villagers were to assemble, and from the Castle itself word was to come that though K.’s legal claim to live in the village was not valid, yet, taking certain auxiliary circumstances into account, he was to e permitted to live and work there.

So Kafka never intended to have K. reach the castle.

Just a few quotes I found interesting:

After Freida has allowed K. to look through the peephole at Klamm (the Castle authority), the landlady chastises him: “But just tell me, how did you have the face to look at Klamm? You needn’t answer, I know you think you were quite equal to the occasion. You’re not even capable of seeing Klamm as he really is; that is not merely an exaggeration, for I myself am not capable of it either.” (This from a woman who was summoned by Klamm so apparently has slept with him.)

The Mayor: “Is there a Control Authority? There are only Control authorities. Frankly, it isn’t their function to hunt out errors in the vulgar sense, for errors don’t happen, and even when once in a while an error does happen, as in your case, who can say finally that it’s an error?”

K. to the teacher: “…but that I had other things to think of than polite behavior is true enough, for my existence is at stake, which is trheatened by a scandalous official bureaucracy whose particular failings I needn’t mention to you, seeing that you are an acting member of it yourself.”

Olga to K. on getting official appointment in the Castle: “…let us say someone like that [someone wanting to seize an opportunity for Castle promotion] goes in for the examination, for years he waits in fear and trembling for the result, from the very first day everybody asks him in amazement how he could have dared to do anything so wild, but he still goes on hoping – how else could he keep alive?” (Kierkegaard?)

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

I recently watched the movie “Steppenwolf” which presented the novel, Steppenwolf, as one long drug trip after another and perhaps that is what it was. But if Hesse had been involved in Buddhist meditation and Jungian dream interpretation (he knew Carl Jung personally), I’m not sure it is completely accurate to conclude the book is about a drug trip even though some of our best literary works come to us via the drug trips of authors.

In the intro. to my copy of the book, Hesse says Steppenwolf has been more misunderstood than any of his other novels. In fact, he says it has been violently misunderstood by those who are most enthusiastic about it – especially his younger readers. He wrote this book about his problems when he was 50 and the younger individuals who read it tend to completely misunderstand it. And as for those of us who are his age now when he wrote the book, he wants us to know it is not about a man despairing, but a man believing. “May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary – to healing.”

It’s like a dark night of the soul, like in Martin Scorcese’s After Hours. The imagination is heightened in our dark nights. But dark nights are always cleansing if we allow them to be.

The person who introduces the story Haller left to him says, “I have no doubt that they are for the most part fictitious, not, however, in the sense of arbitrary invention. They are rather the deeply lived spiritual events which he has attempted to express by giving them the form of tangible experience.” He goes on, “I see them as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but a sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.”

Haller said, “Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage would in our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, everyone doesn’t feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.”

The rest of the book is Harry Haller’s records which doesn’t play out as a formula. It isn’t 2+2=4. It’s the realization that the self is comprised of onion layers, not a Cartesian split self between lived experience and rational understanding (wolf and man). Rather, the self is comprised of an infinity of selves which is the same as saying there is “no-self”. Instead of thinking in terms of Cartesian dualism, he comes to understand himself in terms of an onion where layer after layer can be pealed away until at last there is nothing (or everything).

Kafka Short Stories

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 and died at the age of 40 (1924) by starvation (he had tuberculosis which made it painful to eat). He came from a middle class Jewish family in Prague.

According to Joachim Neugroschel, in the nineteenth century, traditional absolutes were being replaced with scientific and technological absolutes. With this shift, the concept of “nature” and “natural” shifted.

Neugroschel writes, “For Christianity and European civilization, “nature” has always been something to overcome, conquered, tamed, domesticated – subdued and subjugated for human use. The West draws an artificial line between “nature” and “human” or “man-made” – as if a beaver’s “natural dam” and an engineer’s technological dam were not subject to the same physical laws, the same “natural” laws.” But “natural” was also used to uphold the ethical. Some forms of behavior were attacked for being natural while others are upheld, like men’s dominion over women, Europe’s domination over the rest of the world, the nuclear family, family values, etc. To make things more confusing, “unnatural” is considered to be a put down. Fascism saw itself as lending mother nature a helping hand by killing anyone that the fascist state declared unnatural.

Kafka uses “nature” in an almost sort of divine sense. His protaganists very often have to pay a terrible price when they go against “nature” (like Gregor Samsa turning into a bug). The punishment is as severe as the punishment meted out by a vengeful deity in a Greek tragedy.

So the question becomes, how natural are these systems that have been deemed natural? Kafka wants to expose the destructive basis of systems but at the same time wants to restore things back to their “natural” order in some way.

My favorite stories in The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) are: “The Judgment”, “The Metamorphosis”, “In the Penal Colony”, and “A Report for an Academy”.

Kafka wrote “The Judgment” when he was 29. I think the story has to do with the changing times. The father held the punitive patriarchal role of the family, but the mother has died which has subdued him somewhat and the son has stepped in and assumed increasing responsibility of the family business. It seems to him the natural progression. But as the son has become more powerful, the father has become less powerful and sees this as a threat. The father is hugely judgmental, critical, says his mother’s death was harder on him than on the son and ultimately condemns his son to death. The minute the father starts lashing out at his son in this way, the son immediately cowers and reverts back to the original father-son relationship with father as all-powerful and son at his mercy. The son obeys his father and throws himself over a bridge.

Psychologically speaking (which would only be a very shallow interpretation) it is extremely difficult in households with controlling, judgmental parents for children to establish their own power and control. The individual is subjected to the judgment of the parent which declares the individual non-existent until he judges him as existent. Even as an adult, it is very difficult to establish a sense of self-mastery when the value of individual existence is left up to an authority figure.

In “The Metamorphosis”, the father has lost a lot of money which has depleted his strength and so the son has stepped in to become the sole income earner of the family and does a good job. This increases the power of the son and decreases the power of the father. When the son becomes a bug, the father’s power slowly increases and rapidly increases when he lodges the apple in Gregor’s back that leads to Gregor’s death.

“In the Penal Colony” has a slightly different theme, but I think it’s in the same ballpark. An officer has been maintaining an inhumane, elaborate execution system that his previous Commander built. People are judged as guilty without being able to defend themselves and without even being told that they have been judged. The apparatus works by writing the nature of the crime into the skin of the judged over and over again. By the 6th hour the judge finally realizes that he has been judged (enlightenment comes) and likewise recognizes the judgment. The officer explains the observance of the judge at this point as an almost spiritual experience. But a new commander is now in place and he is not in favor of this execution system. So the officer is trying to talk the traveler into telling the Commander that it is a beautiful system. The traveler says he can’t do this so the officer tells the condemned man to get off of the apparatus and places himself there instead. The apparatus malfunctions and stabs the officer through the forehead. There is no spiritual experience that takes place – no look of enlightenment. The expression the officer had before he was on the apparatus is the same as in death.

I think this story could be understood on many different levels. But what I keep seeing in Kafka’s stories is this idea of judgment. In a patriarchal system, the father who is head of the household and a Commander of a penal colony hold similar positions. They both function very much like the traditional abstract punitive God. In all of these stories, there is the sense that a new understanding is taking hold but this new understanding cannot be understood by those who still exist within the patriarchal system. (Gregor in “The Metamorphosis” can’t make himself understood, Georg in “The Judgment” realizes his father is senile and so cannot understand Georg.)

In “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis”, a shift is taking place that is disallowed by the power structure currently in place. In both stories, the father figure is waning (God is dying), but in a last burst of energy, manages to denounce the son and the son accepts this denouncement and dies. The old system remains in place, however tentatively. But clearly, this system is nihilistic rather than life giving.

“In the Penal Colony”, a new system is likewise taking the place of the old. A more humane view is replacing the previous, inhumane view.

God, in a patriarchal system, represented a deity who could give or take on whim. Disobedience was punished and very often, the punished didn’t know what it was he was being punished for. The same is true in the family structure. A child is affected for life by the punitive judgments of the father in a patriarchal household. It’s as though this judgment is being written over and over again into the child so that it is always with the child through adulthood and until death. The child must walk a slippery slope into adulthood because what he perceives to be the natural progression is perceived by the father as disobedience. This is true of patriarchal societies as well.

But in “In the Penal Colony”, the commander is dead. (God is dead) and has been replaced. There is a young officer fanatically trying to uphold the system that his Commander put in place, but he knows the system is no longer powerful. His apparatus is in disrepair and he suspects that it is scheduled to be destroyed altogether. But he is still a part of the system and cannot go on without it. As though the Commander (a potential father figure to the young officer) is judging him from his death bed, the officer intends to place himself on the apparatus and his judgment is simply “Be Just”. But rather than have this written on his body and having enlightenment come to him at the 6th hour, the apparatus malfunctions and he is killed immediately.

What does it mean to “be just”? Especially if God (the patriarchal system) has died or is dying and the system that had been based on this God is now malfunctioning?

In “A Report to an Academy”, and ape has become human and is making a report to a scientific academy. He was caged and pinned down and realized there was no way out. His only choice was to be stuck in a zoo or to become human. He decided it would be better to become human so he learned to imitate humans (which he found to be quite easy) and became so successful at it that he was able to perform on the Vaudeville stage. His only freedom existed in becoming something he wasn’t. The ape says, “I repeat: there was no attraction for me in imitating human beings; I imitated them because I needed a way out, and for no other reason.” At night he comes home to a half-trained female ape. But during the day, he doesn’t want to see her because her gaze has the madness of a bewildered trained animal that only he can see. He can’t stand to look at that gaze because it pains him too much.

This is another story that can be understood on many levels. But I think it still has to do with the idea of judgment. In a patriarchal society, it isn’t enough that we exist, we have to justify our existence in some way. And if we can’t justify it, then we die, either figuratively or physically. At the end of the story, the ape says, “In any case, I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report.”

So another question: Does modern man truly live? Or does he simply report? Is he just more data to add to the formula Dostoevsky talks about in Notes from Underground? We’ve gotten rid of the punitive God, but are we now caged by our reason?

Notes from Underground – Dostoevsky

Walter Kaufmann is a renowned Nietzsche scholar. He is credited with having cleared up all of the mess around the mistranslations of Nietzsche’s books that made people think he was in favor of Nazism. (Nietzsche’s sister had added white supremist language to some of his unpublished works and then published them with her additions after he had gone insane and was under her care.)

Kaufmann says the heart of Existentialism is “the refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life.” He says Dostoevsky’s Part 1 of Notes from Underground is the best overture for Existentialism ever written. All of the major themes from Kierkegaard to Camus can be found in this text.

It is one of the most revolutionary and original works of literature. There is nothing even remotely similar in the long past of European literature. But it is in Christianity where we first find man’s depravity and the dark side of man’s inner life as set against the background of original sin. Rousseau talked about depravity, but he turned against original sin and affirmed the goodness of man, blaming all depravity on society rather than the individual. Depravity could be abolished through the creation of a good society, ruled by the general will. But what Dostoevsky says in Notes from Underground is that a good society cannot get rid of the depravity of man. The book is a polemic against Rousseau and the whole tradition of social philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Hobbes and Locke to Bentham, Hegel, and John Stuart Mill.

The man in the Notes doesn’t believe in original sin or God and he doesn’t think man’s self-will is depravity. Man’s situation is only perverse from the point of view of rationalists and those who value neat schemes above the rich texture of individuality.

Kaufmann says that Nietzsche read Notes from Underground in 1887. Nietzsche wrote: “I did not even know the name of Dostoevsky just a few weeks ago… an accidental reach of the arm in a bookstore brought to my attention L’esprit souterrain, a work just translated into French . . . The instinct of kinship (or how should I name it?) spoke up immediately; my joy was extraordinary.”


My cryptic summary…

From what I can gather, the underground man, not surprisingly, lives underground and is listening to what man says through the cracks in the floor. He claims he is writing his notes because he wants to experiment with being totally open and not be afraid of the whole truth. He thinks Heine is right that all autobiographies will be full of lies. But Heine makes his criticism of those who write to the public. The Underground Man knows he will not have readers.

The Underground Man says that he did not know how to become anything: “neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.” In the 19th century, an intelligent man cannot become anything; It is only the fool who can become something.

The man has tried to become an insect several times but the reason he can’t even become an insect is because to be too conscious is an illness. It’s a disease. The problem is the too intense consciousness of one’s own degradation which makes you feel as though you have reached the last barrier (a wall) and that there is no escape and no way to become anything else. Two plus two is four and that’s that. Nature has nothing to do with your wishes or whether you like her laws or dislike them. You have to accept her as she is and all of her natural conclusions. But this creates an ache because the more you don’t know, the worse the ache.

Modern man thinks his advantages are prosperity, wealth, freedom, peace and so on. But surely there must exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his great advantages? A most advantageous advantage? Because in truth, man is ready to act in opposition to all of the laws, in opposition to reason, honor, peace, prosperity and all the excellent and useful things for the most advantageous advantage.

Logically, it seems that mankind would become softer through civilization. That he’d be less bloodthirsty and less inclined for warfare. But man is willing to distort the truth intentionally and is willing to deny the evidence of his sense in order to justify his logic. The only gain of civilization for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of the senses – and absolutely nothing more. In this way, man comes to find enjoyment in bloodshed.

Even if man is able to see more clearly and reasonably than in barbarous ages, he has yet to be able to learn what reason and science dictates. Yet modern man is fully convinced that he will learn when he gets rid of old bad habits and when common sense and science have completely re-educated human nature. And let’s say he does learn and everything becomes extraordinarily rational, then won’t life become frightfully dull? In boredom, they will start sticking themselves with golden pins and will be thankful for the golden pins!

Of course, there will be those who will want to get rid of rationalism altogether. And what is annoying is that these people will even find followers because man has always preferred to act according to his choice and not according to dictates – even the dictates of reason.

“One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy – is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.” These people who claim that reason should dictate our behavior – what has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is independent choice, no matter what that independence may cost him and wherever it may lead.

Reason is an excellent thing – there is no disputing that. But reason is nothing but reason and only satisfies the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole human life, including reason and all its impulses. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning and there are likely some things it will never learn. Human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and even if it goes wrong, it lives. Very often and even most often, choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason.

“…if man is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity, perpetual – from the days of the Flood to the Schleswig-Holstein period. Moral obliquity and consequently lack of good sense; for it has long been accepted that lack of good sense is due to no other cause than moral obliquity … one may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational … The whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving that he is not a piano key! It may be at the cost of his skin, it may be by cannibalism! And this being so, can one help being tempted to rejoice that it has not yet come off, and that desire still depends on something we do not know? … Good Heavens gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will be a case of twice two makes four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that! “

Modern man wants to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense, but how do they know this is possible? And is it desirable to do this anyway? How do they know that such a reformation will be of benefit to man? It may be a law of logic, but not a law of humanity. Perhaps the only goal to which mankind is striving has nothing to do with what is attained (which must always be expressed as a formula: 2+2=4), but with life itself. As positive as twice two makes four, such positiveness is not life, it is the beginning of death. Consciousness is infinitely superior to twice two makes four because once you have mathematical certainty, there is nothing left to do or understand.

Modern man boasts of consciousness, but isn’t sure of the ground of consciousness or how the mind works. Man’s boasting may be sincere, but it lacks modesty and is full of lies.