Monthly Archives: December 2016

a colloquy regarding Vladimir Nabokov

 

 

 

At Elisabeth van der Meer’s awesome site on Russian literature,

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

there was a post the other day about Dostoevsky.

The following is an exchange between myself and another respondent to the post, based on an observation I made about Vladimir Nabokov.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2016

 

 

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Roger W. Smith:

This is a typical post for this site. Which is to say that it is extremely well — I should say, beautifully — written and very informative. And, it makes one want to go back and read an author one hasn’t read for a long while. It seems that everything essential has been said about Dostoevsky, with nothing superfluous. Critics write whole books and never get as close as this to the heart of the matter.

A couple of thoughts re Dostoevsky. I am wondering, is he not — as regards style — somewhat like a writer such as Balzac, in that he didn’t give a hoot about style, basically. it was the story and the characters that mattered?

An opinion that I have formed, not based on an extensive acquaintance with his works, is that Nabokov is overrated. Brilliant, but nonetheless, overrated. I recall reading critical writings of Nabokov in which he refers slightingly to Dostoevsky and seems to rank him much lower than contemporaries such as Tolstoy.

A final comment. The illustrations on this site are always chosen, one can see, with great care, and they enhance appreciation and understanding.

 

 

Benn Bell:

I would like to say that I agree with him that your article is an excellent piece. You already know that I love Dostoevsky and have read him extensively. But I must disagree with Roger’s comment on Nabokov and cannot let it go unchallenged. I have also read Nabokov extensively and I find the notion that he is over rated as a writer quite absurd. Between the two of them I would rather read Nabokov any day.

 

 

Roger W. Smith:

I have taken note of your comment and see why you might differ with me.

In response, I would be inclined to say the following.

I don’t know Nabokov that well, having read some of his stuff, e.g., “Speak, Memory,” “Despair,” “Pnin,” and “Lolita” (in part).

“Lolita,” frankly, left me feeling wanting, impoverished. I could not get into it.

I have also read, in whole or part, the following critical works of Nabokov: “Nikolai Gogol” and “Lectures on Russian Literature” (parts)

Does this make me an authority? No.

But, I got the feeling that Nabokov is:

— undoubtedly brilliant;

— somewhat superficial or arid in terms of the emotional depth of his works.

Regarding the second comment – so called superficiality – I feel that Nabokov does not have or achieve in his writings the emotional depth of a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, that his works do not strike the same deep chords. It seems to me, from my personal experience as a reader, that often one, while being impressed if not amazed by the pyrotechnics of Nabokov auteur and his ingenuity and linguistic ability, finds oneself left wanting more emotional nourishment from his works.

“looking for beauty”

DSCN0286.JPG

 

 

I just ran into a youngish woman on 60th Place in Maspeth, Queens, where I live.

I was taking an afternoon walk and at that moment was taking a photo with my camera of a beautiful tree in front of a house on the side of the street.

The woman said to me (I quote verbatim):

I like that you’re looking for the beauty in the world. … You’re looking for the beautiful moments, simple moments.

Then she high fived me.

Such a nice and perceptive comment.

— Roger W. Smith

     December 11, 2016

“Humanities 12, The Pre-Socratics, the Theory of Forms; Baseball”

 

 

 

“Humanities 12, The Pre-Socratics, the Theory of Forms; Baseball”

by Roger W. Smith

 

 

In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward, and forward, until we seem to be reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same. Ted Williams goes fishing, never to return to the ballpark, and falls asleep at night in the Maine summers listening to the Red Sox on radio from Fenway Park; and a ghostly Ted Williams continues to play the left-field wall, and his flat swing meets the ball in 1939, in 1948, in 1960. In the country of baseball, the bat swings in its level swoop, the ball arcs upward into the twilight, the center-fielder gathers himself beneath it, and Dixie Walker flies out to Willie Mays.

 

— Donald Hall, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball)

 

 

 

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At Brandeis University, a college with a heavy liberal arts orientation which I attended in the 1960’s, I took a year long course in my sophomore year: Humanities 12, “Nature and Value.” It was a philosophy course.

In the first semester, we studied the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers. In the second semester, we read the works of philosophers such as Kant and Hume.

Philosophy has never been my strong point. It leaves me confused and mystified.

The professor for the first semester, the course on the Pre-Socratics, was Peter Diamandopoulos.

Professor Diamandopoulos, who died recently, was at that time a rising academic star. He became dean of faculty at that time and went on to become a university president, serving successively as the president of Sonoma State University and then president of Adelphi University. Details of Diamandopoulos’s compensation package at Adelphi resulted in a conflict of interest investigation, which got wide publicity, and his removal from his post as president.

The second semester of the course was taught by an eminent philosophy professor, Henry David Aiken, who had just left a tenured position at Harvard and joined Brandeis in the fall of 1965.

I barely recognize Professor Diamandopoulos, a Greek-American who was born on Crete, from photos on the Internet, taken in his later years. When I took his course, he had a young, pudgy face and jet black hair.

I was at a complete loss in his course. To me, his lectures made no sense. There is one and only one thing that I remember from the course: that a Pre-Socratic philosopher was known for his observation that “whatever is, is.” Of course, I didn’t remember his name, but I Googled the statement. It was made by Parmenides of Elea, a Pre-Socratic philosopher from either the late sixth or early fifth century BC.

I had a sense of reductio ad absurdum when I heard the statement repeated over and over again by Professor Diamandopoulos.

Professor Aiken, whom I had for the second semester, seemed at times to be verging on mental instability. I cannot say this with anything like certainty. I had no knowledge of his actual mental or psychological state. But he acted histrionic while lecturing. He would pound the lectern and would be almost shouting in his high pitched, squeaky voice. Again, I had almost no idea of what he was talking about and did not understand most of the readings. (Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason was just words and was basically unintelligible to me. I should make it clear that this says nothing whatsoever about Kant and a lot about my own stupidity.)

Again, as was the case in the first semester with Professor Diamandopoulos, I remember almost nothing, except that the professor repeatedly used Aristotle’s phrase Zoon politikon (political animal). He said it again and again, pounding the lectern for effect each time.

At some point in the Humanities 12 course, we read Plato’s Republic, translated by Allan Bloom. It actually made some sense to me. We also read Plato’s Timaeus, which I found to be interesting and very well worth reading.

 

 

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An aside.

At the end of the second semester, there was a final exam, as usual. I had gotten a B in the first semester under Professor Diamandopoulos.

I did as well as I could – it was an essay exam. I was pretty good at writing answers to essay questions even when I knew very little, but this time I felt it was hopeless. I had learned hardly anything, had retained practically nothing, was just about as ignorant of philosophy at the end of the course as at the beginning.

In those pre Internet days, it would take a while to find out one’s final grade. We would put a self addressed postcard inside the blue book when we handed it in, with “EXAM GRADE _____ / “FINAL GRADE _____” printed in ink, to be filled in and returned by the grader.

A week or two later, the postcard came back, indicating that I had received an A for the second semester. Not even an A minus!

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t figure out how. As I recall, my grade on the midterm, which would have been factored in when calculating the course grade, was low.

I thought about it for a few days. I had a summer job on campus. I decided that there must have been a mistake and that I had been given someone else’s grade. So, I went to the department office. Of course, none of the professors was there, but I explained the situation to the department secretary. I said to her, in so many words: “I just got back my course grade for Humanities 12b. It was a straight A. I hadn’t been doing well all year. I’ll bet it was a mistake and that my exam booklet got mixed up with someone else’s. I don’t deserve an A, and I don’t want someone else to get a lower grade that they didn’t deserve when it was intended for me.”

The department secretary looked at me kindly and said, “I think you had best let the grade stand.”

 

 

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Which brings me to baseball. You may be wondering, quite rightly, how did he get there?

Well, although I was at a loss in philosophy, I did enjoy reading Plato. I remember learning about his Theory of Forms (also known as the Theory of Ideas).

I have, when engaged in idle speculation, sometimes thought about Platonic forms as they do or might apply to what I perceive in the world around me.

I have often thought of baseball teams as illustrating the Theory of Forms.

Baseball teams, as is well known, have identities — “personalities,” so to speak. I have thought this may have something to do with the stadiums they play in, e.g., Yankee Stadium, the corporate headquarters for an efficient, well oiled winning machine made up of ballplayers who function as cogs in the machine and interchangeable parts; Fenway Park, a cozy, quirky place for ballplayers with separate identities and non conformist personalities who sometimes screw up and don’t always win; and so on.

Anyway, I have thought about this more specifically in terms of the players’ POSITIONS.

Why is it that the Red Sox have always seemed to have great left fielders (but, not necessarily, great center fielders)? It seemed as if, when Ted Williams retired, there had to be another Williams caliber player to take his place. The Theory of Forms required it.

Why do the Yankees, who had one star after another in center field, never seem to have had a star left fielder?

Why do the Red Sox seem to have historically had bad fielding but good hitting infielders (second baseman after second baseman who couldn’t make the double play)?

The Dodgers an ace (or perhaps two at the same time) with future Hall of Famer credentials?

Why have the Mets never seemed able to find a good third baseman (at least until recently)?

And so on.

I am sure you get the point.

An interesting idea, or a stupid one?

You tell me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     December 2016