Why I’m suddenly interested in Dostoesvky

February 6, 2011

My family heritage is half Slavic and half British Isles and Scandinavian.

Shame about being a Pole persecuted by the Reds … shame about being from a background of collectivism, while living in a society where a manufactured democracy and a complete artificial squelching of collectivist thought by McCarthyism and the corporate state war machine are our reality.

Chris Hedges says Notes From Underground is probably the most important piece of literature an American today can read. But I’ve always had an aversion to Russian literature, to reading Tolstoy or Chekov or Dostoevsky (except for Notes, which was assigned reading in my freshman humanities class at Colorado School of Mines and had an impact on me), the roots of which I am just now, in my mid-forties, starting to recognize. The reasons Hedges thinks reading Dostoevsky today is important are probably related to why I as a post-McCarthyist American have this aversion to Russian writers and culture, and have been brought up to see Russia itself and the communist bloc (both pre- and post-USSR) as this big, white, nondescript Siberian blah-blur of unAmericanism, not interesting, not applicable, not what we want to be.

The conceptions of democracy, that America is a democracy that needs to re-find its roots, are fiction. The United States was a Republic until after the Civil War, run by white men, hardly a democracy as we are educated. The Founding Fathers thought that a democracy would be a terrible idea. Historian Sean Wilentz’s Rise of American Democracy tells the story of how democracy didn’t come to exist in the U.S. until the 20th century, and Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom looks at the notion of freedom and the political rhetoric of freedom and how they haven’t matched reality in the U.S. These are things that I have started to learn from my wife, a historian and someone who reads a lot more than I do and thus someone to whom I am fortunate to be married.

We don’t even read any more in this country. I don’t want to pretend that I’m an exception to that … I average about 10 books a year, which may be more than some, but is not a lot of reading, and a lot of that is non-“literary” e.g. I am probably not learning a lot about the illusions and delusions of American democracy in my current read of Keith Richard’s autobiography, although I think reading that is just as useful as reading Dickens or Dostoevsky. In any case, I would like to turn over a new leaf. Certainly, I have among my many underpursued pursuits, being a writer is something I have taken a stab at in various ways (a smattering of published things, an unrevised novel manuscript, a few college writing courses, a couple of failed applications to the CSU MFA program, some technical journalism jobs) and an undertaking that, second only perhaps to lack of focused, has been hampered by lack of reading. So I am not well-read, to clarify.

But, I understand there is something out there. I can feel good writing, I think, when I read it, and I know when truths that don’t often see the light of day are made to squint into the flashlight like I think Hedges is suggesting Dostoevsky makes happen. So as a reasonably naïve, politico-centric American whose depression and disillusion are at least partially related to an expired subscription to a mythology that is embedded in the American cultural experience, perhaps following the advice of someone smarter and more well-read than I am (and someone who has had the balls to write in the 21st century) is indicated.

Now, there are so many contradictions and hypocrisies built into the way I live that I think studying history and good writing as a tool for shining a flashlight on those paradoxes and follies is the best I can hope for at this point – after a long time of weird entrepreneurial misfires. For example, how hypocritical is it for me to be asking the defense department for money to research a water treatment technology that can aid and abet the military industrial complex, while making snide comments against same on Facebook? How inconsistent is it to berate Fox’s superbowl coverage with its disingenuous soundbyte-group-reading of the Declaration of Independence and its Super Infomercial for the military-industrial complex, then enjoy the Bridgestone Tire ad where the beaver saves the guy’s life (or for that matter to watch it at all)?

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