Poison and Medicine

Anton Chekhov’s short stories tend to feature ordinary characters in commonplace situations. In spite of this, these stories proffer a palpable, though often intangible, profundity. On close inspection, this profundity seems to reflect the fact that Chekhov’s stories, though on their face commonplace, address issues which are deeply philosophical, and which strike upon fundamental questions of human nature. My Wife is no exception.

Middle-ranking official and former engineer Mr. Ansorin is married to Ms. Natalie Ansorin; their marriage has descended into cold indifference marked by only sporadic hostility. They, along with Bragin, a fat, oafish man who was once handsome, and Sable, a friendly country doctor with a taste for good food, and drink, organize a committee aimed at bringing relief to a local village struck by famine. Ansorin, however, encounters a pervasive malaise, which only gets worse as he, a man of means, funds the relief effort.

Ansorin eventually finds that his discomfort stems not from his actions, which are, no doubt, admirable, but from his motives. Continue reading

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The Philosopher

“I know dusk / And dawn, rising like a multitude of doves. / What men have only thought they’d seen, I’ve seen,” [1, p. 89] writes the late-1800s French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in a quote elevated by his latest translators, Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock, to their edition’s back cover.

It is telling that Harding and Sturrock choose this quote. These scholars characterize Rimbaud’s style as one infused by “a disordering of all the senses” (Rimbaud’s words) “often with the aid of alcohol and drugs” (their words). Rimbaud was only 15 when he abandoned his native Charleville for Paris, where he was arrested for not paying his train fare. By 17, he had been taken in more stably by Paul Verlaine, a young leader of Paris’ so-called Parnassian school of poets, whose wife and in-laws Rimbaud then taunted by demanding the removal of a picture from one of their walls and by “vandalizing an ivory Christ” [1, p. xxv], and, later, through the developing homosexuality of his relationship with Verlaine. Under the protection of another poet, Théodore de Banville, Rimbaud allegedly “slept in his boots, smashed the china and sold the furniture” [1, p. xxvi], and also stripped in front of an open window and threw his clothes onto the roof. Rimbaud later joined the avant-garde Zutistes’ circle, who “convened for regular drinking sessions in a hotel overlooking the Boulevard St Michel” [1, pp. xxvi-xxvii]. By 21, famously, Rimbaud had abandoned poetry forever, travelling around Europe and eventually settling as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at 37.

Rimbaud’s “disordering”, Harding and Sturrock write, was most of all one of the self itself, which in his poetry “is wilfully distended and distressed, offering the maximum surface area to which unusual information… can adhere” [1, p. xxiv].

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This “meme” used to be visible in the library’s basement floor outside the darkened, locked door of a graduate student carrell.

Just how Rimbaud’s poetry achieves its striking character is perhaps too subtle to write down. Surprising insight, though, might be gained through the eliminative materialist ideas of the modern philosopher Paul Churchland. Continue reading

Great Expectations and Supermen

Dickens, Nietzsche, and the science of a better life

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One of the most memorable scenes of Great Expectations, as illustrated in the original 1861 text

Pip, of Dickens’s Great Expectations, was set to have a normal childhood and to lead a happy existence, albeit a humble one, until Estella came along. He had a job ready for him in Joe’s forge; he had a father-figure, a mentor, and a friend, in Joe; he had a faithful friend, even a prospective romantic companion, in Biddy. He took happiness even from—indeed, only from—the simplest of things.

For example, in their nightly eating of bread and butter by the hearth, Pip and Joe shared in an amusing ritual.

In our already-mentioned freemasonry as fellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, it was our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices, by silently holding them up to each other’s admiration now and then,—which stimulated us to new exertions.

They did all this while trying to avoid the wrath of Pip’s tyrannical older sister. The reader comes to look back with fondness on a time when avoiding Mrs. Joe’s temper was the greatest of Pip’s troubles.

Everything changes when Pip meets Estella, the gorgeous but ice-hearted daughter of Miss. Havisham, a reclusive, mysterious old rich woman, at a mansion in the nice part of town.

Over a game of beggar my neighbor: “He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”

Back home, Pip broods over his hands and his boots.

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favorable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

Thus begins Pip’s obsession with becoming a “gentleman”. He’d like to wear the finest clothes; to become literate and read the best books; to associate with the most refined of people. Life in the kitchen and forge was good enough for Pip, until it wasn’t.

Yet when Pip comes into a fortune and starts a new life in London, all is not always splendid. Worse than his daily troubles and trifles is the fact that his once-easygoing relationship between Joe becomes stilted and forced. Back in rural Kent, now-gentlemanly Pip has dinner with his uncultivated companions:

Soon afterwards, Biddy, Joe, and I, had a cold dinner together; but we dined in the best parlor, not in the old kitchen, and Joe was so exceedingly particular what he did with his knife and fork and the saltcellar and what not, that there was great restraint upon us.

And their easygoing relationship of the past seems distant and inaccessible.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hubble might like to see you in your new gen-teel figure too, Pip,” said Joe, industriously cutting his bread, with his cheese on it, in the palm of his left hand, and glancing at my untasted supper as if he thought of the time when we used to compare slices.

Despite all the frills of life with London’s upper crust, Pip can’t help but wonder at times, “with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge.”

Great Expectations gives rise to a question I myself have considered quite a bit: is it necessarily better to eat better food, to see better plays, and to dine with people who have better manners? Or might one rationally opt to gain pleasure from baser sources? If a college student gains as much pleasure from Burger King as a chef does from French haute cuisine, is not the student better off in this regard? Is Pip wise to pursue a life of excellence, at the expense of the simple things which once gave him pleasure? Continue reading

Ruminations

Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi informs math and life.

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A page from Rumi’s Mathnawi.

“It’s very perverse, what you’re doing,” Professor Vyacheslav Shokurov said, one afternoon in his office chair, with a skepticism characteristic of the mathematician. “One usually begins with examples – examples not treatable by the existing theory. One then develops new theory.”

Shokurov peered at me for an instant, and then lifted his hands from his lap. “But you’ve developed the theory first. And now you go looking for examples.”

My mathematical research had been stalled for about two weeks, for exactly this reason. Continue reading

A Fragile Truth

My four-week psychiatry rotation at Western State Hospital landed smack in the middle of peak general election season. And, oddly enough, these two experiences have yielded remarkable similarities. In both cases, I have been forced to entertain various versions of the truth.

Many of the patients here at Western State are psychotic. Our known and stated goal, then, is to return these patients to reality-based thinking. Only then might they qualify for discharge. This exercise has presented philosophical challenges. Certainly, sometimes, our job is easy. One of our patients, who signs her forms as Michelle Obama Prince Harry Elizabeth Queen Zealand, communicates with Russia, Germany, Berlin, Jerusalem, East Germany, West Germany, South Germany, and Russia, by radio, television, and satellite, including the satellite in the backyard of her palace, which she built, and in which we currently reside. Another patient, though, gave me pause. Continue reading

A Portrait of Mental Illness in a Young Man

“I . . . committed sins of impurity, father,” confesses Stephen Dedalus, the character whose tumultuous coming of age is chronicled in James Joyce’s beautiful A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, during a moment of particular anguish.

Stephen confronts intense dread when he, after having visited brothels, learns from his religious leaders the torments awaiting sinners like him in hell. Stephen’s first thoughts are of overwhelming regret: “Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done those things? … Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after time, and, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holiness before the tabernacle itself while his soul within was a living mass of corruption.” [1, p. 137] Stephen’s agonies take on aspects of vivid delusion: “And the glimmering souls passed away, sustained and failing, merged in a moving breath. One soul was lost; a tiny soul: his. It flickered once and went out, forgotten, lost. The end: black cold void waste.” [1, p. 141] Stephen even experiences hallucinations, which soon give way to physical symptoms: “He sprang from the bed, the reeking odour pouring down his throat, clogging and revolting his entrails… He stumbled towards the window, groaning and almost fainting with sickness. At the washstand a convulsion seized him within; and, clasping his cold forehead wildly, he vomited profusely in agony.” [1, p. 138]

Stephen’s eventual confession ushers in a period of religious bliss, which, nonetheless, soon begins to develop characteristics of a neurotic obsession. “Gradually… he saw the whole world forming one vast symmetrical expression of God’s power and love. Life became a divine gift for every moment and sensation…” [1, p. 149] the narrator declares. Stephen begins dividing his day into periods of prayer, constantly saying rosaries and devoting each day of the weak to repentance for one of the respective seven deadly sins. Stephen also undertakes the repression of his senses, “striving also by constant mortification to undo the sinful past rather than to achieve a saintliness fraught with peril. Each of his senses was brought under a rigorous discipline.” [1, p. 150] Stephens penance soon acquires an obsessive character, as “[h]is confession became a channel for the escape of scrupulous and unrepented imperfections.” [1, p. 152] Stephen finally becomes miserable and isolated. “To merge his life in the common tide of other lives was harder for him than any fasting or prayer… His soul traversed a period of desolation in which the sacraments themselves seemed to have turned into dried up sources.” [1, p. 152]

Stephen later, happily, develops into a mature and profound man. These difficult periods constitute pivotal milestones in his growth. That’s why it could strike us as unsettling to entertain the prospect of attributing these thoughts to Stephen’s suffering of a mental illness. Continue reading

I Have a Unique Coffee Mug

I’ll attempt to explore a few of the subtleties surrounding the word unique in English.

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I’ve drunk too many of these, and this post is how you can tell.

I’ll begin with an exploration of words like the same and different. Sentences containing these words will prove a fertile initial testing ground.

First, an observation. Consider the sentences:

  1. Every coffee mug in my department is brittle.
  2. Every coffee mug in my department is the same.

Though these sentences appear structurally similar, their predicates are deceptively different. Continue reading