Dissolution and Ducks Going to Moscow in Russian Literature

After a brush with Doctor Zhivago in sixth grade, I forsook Russian Literature. Recently, this embargo on Russian Literature was abrogated when I re-read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Amazed at all I had missed with the first reading of it, I have picked up several Russian classics that caught my eye. Included in this list are: The Brothers Karamazov, Notes From the Underground, several of Anton Chekhovs collected fictions, and War & Peace. So far, a major aspect of Russian literature is not, as Withnail puts it, “Always full of women staring out of windows, whining about ducks going to Moscow” (Withnail & I, 1987) but rather about men that have pawned their wife’s jewelry for vodka and have thus fallen into dissolution and lament their circumstances. 


Medieval Thought

Earlier this summer, I picked up Dante’s Inferno for the second time and read it cover to cover. There are several important themes, two of which are that: apparently only Italians are in hell, and that the punishment suffered by sinners in hell reflect or parody their own sins- a concept called contrapasso, or suffer the opposite. In the 5th circle of hell, sinners are confined to the River Styx. Those who were wrathful in life must fight each other whilst wading in the river  whereas while those who were sullen (repressed anger) must endlessly stay beneath the surface of the River Styx.

This system is curiously contrasted to the Rota Fortunae, or the Wheel of Fortune. Best illustrated by philosopher Boethius around 524 C.E., the Wheel represents one of the most important concepts during the Middle Ages in Medieval Europe. It refers to the mercurial disposition of fate, personified as Lady Fortune, a woman sporting a blindfold. Humans are tied to the Wheel and spun. This spin may either be up, where humans prosper, or down, where they are suffer as they are crushed beneath the spokes of the Wheel of Fortune.

It is interesting how these two systems contrast. Contrapasso inflicts suffering where due whilst the Wheel of Fortune is erratic and unforeseeable. However, these systems concern themselves with different states of existence. Where Contrapasso is only applicable after expiry, the Wheel of Fortune is pertinent solely during life.

In my favorite novel, A Confederacy of Dunces by J.K. Toole, Ignatius rails against the depravity of the 20th century whilst lamenting the loss of “theology and geometry, some taste and decency.” As a medievalist, he is a firm believer in Rota Fortunae. With the supremacy of renaissance and modern thought, Ignatius is convinced that “we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.”

Through the eyes of a person during the medieval period, they must have felt like “sinners in the hands of an angry God”. It’s little wonder that American preacher Jonathan Edwards  achieved such great popularity and acclaim hundreds of years in the wake of such beliefs. They must have felt little control over their lives and indeed their souls.

“Je Chanterai Pour Toi”

Kar Kar is a Malian singer who experienced a resurgence during the early ’90’s. He’s one of my favorite international artists.
Even if one doesn’t speak French, his smooth, melodic voice inspires calm and reflection.

The Book of Sand

I’m working my way through Borges’ “Collected Fictions” right now. By this time in my life, I’ve read hundreds of books, dozens of them excellent. However, this collection of stories ranks very high on my list of favorite books. The stories tell of labyrinths, infinite libraries, famous men and women, immortals, accursed fetishes, and duels. All this is written in perfect prose, punctuated by the most intellectual and fitting allusions.

Like many of the masterpieces I have read, Borges has developed his own writing style as distinct as that as J. Steinbeck, J.R.R Tolkien, or J.K. Toole.

Borges frequently talks about his other. It is a device in the style of Dante Alighieri (Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the author). Perhaps his best story is where the other Borges purchases the “Book of Sand”, an infinite book written in an unknown language and interspersed with illustrations. By and by, he becomes obsessed with this book. He studies it day in and out, puzzling over its illustrations and language. He realizes that this book’s existence is monstrous because of its unending nature. Everything must end. With this realization, he decides to hide the book in the vast national library in the hopes that it remains lost forever.

“Grunwalski est mort”


“la haine attire la haine” (La Haine 1995). Hatred draws hatred.

My favorite french film is “La Haine”. It details a day in the lives of three bonlieusards, Ali, Hubert, and Vinz. The film begins with riots, people burning cars and breaking into buildings (cue “Burning and looting” by Bob Marley These riots are in reaction to police brutality against a youth who happens to be a friend of Ali, Hubert, and Vinz. In the midst of the riots, a police officer loses his revolver.

Vinz hates the police for their brutality against his friend. When he finds the lost revolver, he takes it as an opportunity to take revenge against the police. His friend Hubert is more resigned, or accepting of events as they unfolded. He sadly watch the ghetto destroy itself (C’est l’histoire d’une société qui tombe et qui au fur et à mesure de sa chute se répète sans cesse pour se rassurer : “Jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien…”  L’important c’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage.)

Throughout this film, Vinz sees the destruction wrought by hatred. He fights skinheads, the police, and against his own hate. La Haine is darkly funny, but paints a stark picture of French society. Touches of absurdity mix with gritty realism in this critique of people, politics, and the thin line between heaven and hell. It gives carte blanche to no one and makes no individual or group out to be hero or villain. Instead it portrays people behavior as a reaction to others.

The Zahir

“The Zahir is a person or an object that has the power to create an obsession in everyone who sees it, so that the affected person perceives less and less of reality and more and more of the Zahir.” I admit it. I have a Zahir. Ever since my trip to Egypt during the winter of 2008, the Middle East and North Africa have been on my mind constantly. Since I studied in Morocco, my mind is often occupied with ways to return and prepare myself.

Although I have not lost any sense of reality, I have felt more and more preoccupied with Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture. I still awaken from sleep and believe I’m in Morocco.