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A Modern Reader #1: Friending Dostoevsky

Originally published by The Rumpus

We all have reading habits. We read in bed, at the table, on the train. Perhaps you read standing up in your kitchen, waiting for your pasta water to boil. As modern readers, what we read and where we can read it constantly expands.

I read periodicals (my mailbox flooded with subscriptions to a weekly, a monthly, and two quarterlies), blogs (political and literary, and neverending), recently published books that are "making waves," and great tomes that I should have read in that Russian (or Romantic or Post-Modern) literature class that I didn't take. Those last ones—most recently Brothers Karamozov and The Anatomy of Melancholy—sit on my bedside table/desk where I try to push through them every night. Eventually, they skulk onto the "haven't finished it, probably never will" shelf, where Infinite Jest and Being and Nothingness await their arrival.

I am inundated with text.

Somewhere between the latest essay on The MillionsLapham's issue on Arts & Letters, and Dickens, I attempt to strike a balance between expansive, surface knowledge and specialized expertise, between books and books about books, between being hip to the times and quick to pull out a reference to Rousseau. This column, “A Modern Reader,” will collect the miscellany of my shelves and screens into a coherent selection.


Last week I read Elif Batuman's The Possessed. I haven't read 90% of the novels she refers to. Truthfully, I picked it up from the table at my neighborhood bookstore hoping Batuman would give me a primer on the Russian literature I've never read. (Okay, I’ve read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. It was beautiful. He describes a son departing his parents' home as a bird flying away from the mushrooms on a damp log. I've maybe read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In high school.) The buck—or ruble?—stops there. Batuman, alas, was not a stand-in professor.

Between Yasnaya Polyana, St. Petersburg, and Palo Alto, Batuman’s narrative focuses on her summer in Samarkand. Where?, you may ask, like I did. A city in Uzbekistan where Batuman spent a summer learning the Uzbek language, for a professional goal that would never materialize: teaching Uzbek. She did learn about obscure Near Eastern writers, like Alisher Navoi, Adib Akhmad Yugnakiy, and Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur. Even in the secluded valleys of the Caucasus Mountains, we find great poets.

The most captivating chapter recounted the story of Empress Anna Ioannovna’s House of Ice, a castle made of ice where the Empress made two of her dwarf jesters spend the night. Batuman weaves together her trip to St. Petersburg, the novelist who wrote about the House of Ice, and the idiosyncrasies of Russian rulers (see Peter the Great’s curiosity cabinet). Batuman’s admiration for Russia shines: “It’s true that Russia subjected its writers to an unusual degree of state control; consequently, it’s also true that nowhere in the world has literature been taken more seriously.”

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, her references are broad but precise. She recalls Engels about free will, Foucault on the verisimilitude of books, Girard’s mimetic desire, etc. Her book offers charming historical nuggets: Dostoevsky’s gambling problem forced him to pawn his watch, so he and his wife never knew what time it was. But, ultimately, her adventures and academic misadventures made me grateful that I haven't applied for graduate school.

The latest issue from Cabinet arrived a few weeks ago. (I got to it once I finished Harper's.) This quarter the Brooklyn team, led by Sina Najafi, examines Friendship. In an interview with Angie Hobbs, a Senior Fellow in the Public Understanding of Philosophy, we learn about the dense philosophical history of friendship, from Socrates through Carol Gilligan. Hobbs illuminates the contradiction “of whether friendship is a nurturing environment for virtues, or whether it’s profoundly subversive.” Friendship can make an individual a better citizen, or it can divorce him from society when his devotion and loyalty to the friendship trumps other moral paradigms. Montaigne posits that if his friend asked him to burn down a house, he would.

I was most struck by Adam Smith's expectation that capitalism would liberate friendships to be "deeper, more profound" experiences "free from all transactional aspects." Adam Smith was a little short-sighted. The Wealth of Nations describes the economic conditions at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; colonization, stock markets, and nation-states were beginning to solidify, and Smith wrote what he saw. Just as he was unable to foresee multinational corporations, Smith did not suspect this new thing called "capital" would grow to pervade our lives. As Hobbs says, “the mercantile sensibility seems to have infected the way people think and act about all relationships.”

In another article, Svetlana Boym examines a unique friendship between political scientist, Hannah Arendt, and journalist, Mary McCarthy. For more than twenty-five years, the women were friends, Arendt fleeing to McCarthy’s house in Maine after her husband died, McCarthy writing the eulogy at Arendt’s own funeral. Boym defines friendship as “an elective affinity without finality, a relationship without plot or place in our society, an experience entirely for its own sake.” Through nuanced anecdotes of their friendship, we learn about Arendt’s private life, but Boym also takes us through Arendt’s philosophical view of friendship as an intellectual exchange: “In such a deep friendship, we multiply, create, and discover our actual and potential self, not fall back stubbornly into the claustrophobia of our supposedly ‘true self.’” 

Of course, any contemporary glance at “friendship” must include a look at social networks, and this issue has many references (direct and oblique) to the peer-mediation agency commonly called Facebook. In a personal and percipient essay, Mark Dery, a journalism professor at NYU, laments the accessibility of Facebook, how vague names from your past reinsert themselves into your life: “Maybe my definition of ‘friend’ is anachronistic, founded on the superannuated assumption that we reach out to people with whom we feel (or felt) some affinity; that our social networks grow organically, rooted in a mutual desire to connect (or re-connect) and twined around common interests or consonant sensibilities.” Online social networks mutate that glowing word, “mutual.” The most basic process of “requesting a friend” isn’t mutual; reading profile updates at three in the morning isn’t mutual; looking at vacation photos of your high school girlfriend isn’t mutual. Rather than real engagement, the Facebook platform consists of anticipation and reflection: Come to my party next Friday, here are photos of my party from last Friday. Just as Adam Smith could not predict how capitalism would transform our relationships, neither could Mark Zuckerberg et. al. foresee the impact of “social networking.”

The most endearing segments of Batuman’s The Possessed depict her friend Luba, a Russian émigré who attends Stanford with our author and joins her in St. Petersburg. When Luba arrives, Batuman gushes, “We were so excited!” Friendship, that fickle affinity, courses through our lives, virtual and real.

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