**spoiler alert** In many ways a play to be studied rather than produced or merely read, The Coast of Utopia distills a century or so of scholarship a...more**spoiler alert** In many ways a play to be studied rather than produced or merely read, The Coast of Utopia distills a century or so of scholarship about the foment that preceded the Russian revolution from the 1830s on, mostly using Alexander Herzen (a skeptical Socialist) as a lens. Like Invention of Love, Stoppard uses a few nonrealist tricks here, such as the Ginger Cat (an ominous stand-in for the impersonal, world-devouring forces of History. met by several characters at a costume party), a structure that reveals the characters' interests and concerns without regard to how events ordered themselves in time, and an imaginary dinner involving Marx, Kossuth, Louis Blanc, Mazzini, Herzen, and several other instruments of 19th century nationalism and/or Socialism. Completely gone are the information games Stoppard played in, say, The Real Thing or Hapgood, in which essential facts are left out and introduced at leisure. The Coast of Utopia is more of an ars politica, summing up in various characters a couple of different approaches to political action.
I was fortunate enough to see the first part of the trilogy here in NYC when it went up in 2006/2007 at Lincoln Center. By far the most indelible performance was Billy Crudup's as Vissarion Belinsky. He was sweaty, seedy, and committed, and channeled the real Belinsky's fervent enthusiasms and social ineptitude, combining them with a heartbreaking disappointment and hopefulness, along with the prescient clarity with which VB foresaw Russia's place in world literature. Ethan Hawke wasn't as good as Bakunin. His voice was hoarse from shouting most of his lines, but he might just have been sick or something.
The first play, Voyage, follows literary critic Belinsky and the anarchist propagandist Michael Bakunin with forays into the lives of Nicholas Stankevich (an early popularizer of Hegel) and Alexander Herzen (a Socialist publisher and, later, memoirist) as they discuss the possibility of reform in the hopelessly behind Tsarist state. For this group of people, both in the play and in history, the freedom to discuss and propose reforms was the altar upon which they sacrificed their lives and sometimes those of their families. Bakunin was forever filching money from his parents and friends to fund the agitprop that he carried out in France and Germany. His actual opinions changed almost weekly, but the remarkable quality about him (both in this play and according to primary sources) is the boundless enthusiasm and commitment that he brought to everything he did, even if it contradicted his stated goals of only a few weeks prior. Most of the play takes place on the Bakunin estate during a visit of Belinsky's which left the two angry at each other, Bakunin because he was jealous of his sisters' affection for the awkward Belinsky, and Belinsky because of the unforgivable way that Bakunin treated him while he was visiting. The play ends with Bakunin's family watching the sun set on their estate as his father announces that it is about to be confiscated by the Tsar for Michael's participation in the short-lived Second French Republic of 1848.
The second play, Shipwreck, is slightly more linear; it follows Herzen and his circle of friends (which included the German poet Herwegh and his wife, Emma; the Marxes; Bakunin, as always; and his own growing family.) They participate in the uprisings that led to the Second Republic, each in his or her own way. (George Herwegh, hilariously, has a servant pack him and his wife some sandwiches and pies for the picket. Reminds me of a couple Sarah Lawrence students I used to know...) What collapses the salon-like atmosphere of the Herzen household is Herwegh's seduction of Natalie Herzen using radical openheartedness as a pretext. This development alongside the failure of the Second Republic show Herzen (if no one else) how easily people give their own personal sovreignty to the vanguard in exchange for attention. He forgives his wife, but soon thereafter, there's an exchange that reminds one strongly of Hannah's speech about the afterlife in Arcadia:
HERZEN Natalie died, three months ago . . . We lost Kolya. He was drowned at sea, my mother with him, and a young man who was teaching Kolya to speak. None of them was ever found. It finished my Natalie.
BAKUNIN My poor friend.
HERZEN Oh, Michael, you should have heard Kolya talk! He had such a funny, charming way . . . and he understood everything you said, you'd swear he was listening! The thing I can't bear . . . (he almost breaks down) . . . I just wish it hadn't happened at night. He couldn't hear in the dark. He couldn't see your lips.
BAKUNIN Little Kolya, his life cut so short! Who is this Moloch . . . ?
HERZEN No, not at all! Kolya's life was what it was. Because children grow up, we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too. We persuade outselves that the universe is modestly employed in unfolding out destination. We note the haphazard chaos of history by the day, by the hour, but we think there is something wrong with this picture. Where is the unity, the meaning, of nature's highest creation? Surely those millions of little streams of accident and willfulness have their correction in the vast underground river which, without a doubt, is carrying us to the place where we're expected! But there is no such place, that's why it's called utopia. The death of a child has no more meaning than the deah of armies, of nations. Was the child happy while he lived? that is a proper question. If we can't arrange our own happiness, it's a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us...
The final play, Salvage, concerns itself with the reordering of the Herzen household following the death of Natalie and Kolya, but juxtaposes against this tragedy Herzen's work on his seminal newspaper, The Bell, and the eventual emancipation of the serfs, due in no small part to his agitation from London. His children grow up. It's the weakest of the three plays, in my opinion because a lot of the spark of life here is between and amongst Bakunin, Belinsky, and Herzen, their sniping at each other, their arguments, and their ideological shifts. Once Belinsky is dead and Bakunin imprisoned, the play deflates a little as Herzen reconciles himself to the realities of political change and the practical matters of having to ally himself with people he doesn't entirely sympathize with (Marx, for one, who he finds insufferable here - who knows what the historical Herzen thought.)
Explaining why I love this trilogy despite its warts is a little difficult. I feel like America's situation, in politics and culture, is analogous in some ways to Russia's in the 1850s, paralyzed as we are by oligarchy, stubborn bureaucracies, a sometimes authoritarian government, and divisive internal conflicts over what our indigenous values really are. What I love most about 19th century Russian thinkers, and what I think differentiates them from English and French writers of the same period, as well as (probably) us, is that lacking what they understood as a Russian sense of identity was kind of an advantage - they had a more plastic idea of what they COULD be than maybe anyone else. Belinsky notes in TCOU that no one respects a writer like a Russian, because Russians needed their writers to tell them what they were. Russian litterateurs wrote as if there was something at stake, because Tsarist oppression and censorship meant that telling the truth was far more dangerous than lying.(less)
Need to reread this to find out whether Vronsky is less smugly obnoxious than Levin or more obnoxious. I liked Levin better when I read it in high sch...moreNeed to reread this to find out whether Vronsky is less smugly obnoxious than Levin or more obnoxious. I liked Levin better when I read it in high school.(less)
It can't have been easy to do. If you wanted to be Robert Frank, you would wake up one day and:
Step 1: Learn Russian, French, and German. Throw in som...moreIt can't have been easy to do. If you wanted to be Robert Frank, you would wake up one day and:
Step 1: Learn Russian, French, and German. Throw in some Old Church Slavonic. Step 2: Read oeuvre of Belinsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Herzen, Bakunin, George Sand, Voltaire, Rousseau, Fourier (ugh) and many, many others, in addition to the many critical works written about Dostoevsky. Reading everything by FD alone would be tough - the guy barely did anything but write for most of his life, since it was his sole means of subsistance. Step 3: Obtain volumes of Tsarist police reports on Dostoevsky as well as Soviet books of criticism (probably not that easy to do in 1979!) Step 4: Read all those, too. Step 5: Put it all together.
I admire him for the huge effort he put into his biographies. But it must be said, this book shows its age. It spends a fair amount of time toward the beginning painstakingly refuting Freud's transparently self-serving interpretation of FD's work and childhood. Frank second guesses himself sometimes, particularly when going over the details of Dostoyevsky's father's murder. What is absent is much consideration of the themes of FD's early novels in terms of the later criticism of them. We get an excellent picture from this book of what FD's brothers thought, as well as Belinsky, Maikov, and Petrashevsky, but it would not have been awful to discuss Poor Folk and the feuilletons in terms of later reflections on his early politics by Sartre and any of the thousands of thinkers who have been impacted by FD's works. There have to be documents relating to the Petrashevtsy that are available now and would've been impossible to access when Frank wrote these five books, his magnum opus. I find it hard to believe that this is still the comprehensive FD biography, given all the water under the bridge since it was written.
Anyway, this volume covers Dostoevsky's childhood and young adulthood as a kind of Christian Socialist (a type he gives a sly nod to at one point in The Brothers Karamazov.) It traces his Christian roots and his devotion to the Church, so odd to his Westernized peers; his nightmarish schooling at the College of Engineers; his life as a flaneur and radical in the Palm-Durov and Petrashevsky circles, up to his imprisonment. It's not perfect but it is very, very good. (less)
Contrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called...moreContrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called something like "cattle-roundup-ville", the moments of religious ecstasy and moral clarity are heartbreaking in their frequency - it's hard not to wish that one had such bizarre events going on around one in order to prompt such lofty oratory.
The story involves Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha, and Smerdyakov, four brothers with a rich but notoriously lecherous father, Fyodor. All four brothers were raised by others, Fyodor having essentially ignored them until others removed them from his care. In the beginning of the book, Alyosha is in the monastery, studying under a famous elder name Father Zosima; Dmitri has just left the army and stolen a large sum of money from a government official's daughter, who he has also apparently seduced, all while pursuing a lawsuit against Fyodor for his inheritance and canoodling with his own father's intended, the local seductress Grushenka; Ivan, the intellectual in the family, has just returned from (I think) Petersburg. Dmitri is violent and impulsive, referring to himself as an "insect," and gets into fistfights with Fyodor several times. Smerdyakov works for Fyodor as a lackey, having gone to France to learn to cook at some point in the past. It's unimaginably more complicated and digressive than all this, and just trying to follow this crucial sum of three thousand rubles through the story is almost impossible. But anyway, Fyodor is killed and much of the book hinges on which brother killed him and why.
When I first read this book in high school, my teacher (who was a devout Catholic, a red-faced drunk who wore sunglasses to class, and the most enthusiastic reader of Russian literature imaginable) asked everyone who their favorite brother was. Was it Ivan, the tortured skeptic? Dmitri, the "scoundrel" who tortures himself for every wrong he commits but can't help committing more? Or Alyosha, the saintly one who always knows the right thing to say? (Certainly Smerdyakov is no one's favorite.) At the time I went with Ivan - I was in high school, after all, and his atheism and pessimism were revolutionary to me.
But now Ivan seems rather selfish and callow, and I can't help siding with Dmitri, the one Dostoevsky uses almost as a case history of conscience. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky gives his characters all the space to talk like gods, clearing pages upon pages for their reasoning and dialog. Dmitri fumbles with Voltaire and is clearly not overly literate, but in some ways that's apropos, because his main problem is the constant internal conflict between his desires and his ethics which is only partly resolved when he chooses to become responsible for not only what he does, but also what he wants.
The most famous passage in the book, Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, is, to me, far less interesting than Zosima's meditations on the conflict between justice and the collective good. The elder Zosima is a kind of Christian socialist who grapples with the typical mid-19th century Russian issues of how to build a equitable society without the extremes of coercion that the Tsar used to turn to, while also ensuring public morality and avoiding the kind of massacres that characterized the French Revolution (an event that seems to have been even more traumatizing for Russians than it was to the French due to the enormous cultural influence France had there at the time.) Zosima's answer is unworkable and in some ways naiive, but the discussion is well worth it, moreso than Ivan's somewhat simplistic dualism of Christ vs. the Inquisitor. Dostoevsky was a cultural conservative in the sense that he was constantly renewing his commitment to the obligations imposed on Russians by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, he was committed to the pursuit of joy through kindness and community and a kind of interpersonal fair dealing in a way that transcends his political concerns and is inspiring to see articulated in the lives of people who are as confused as the rest of us.
It's a huge, messy book, but so worth the effort. It took me about three months to read carefully, though my reading has been flagging lately, as well. I read this while listening to Hubert Dreyfus's accompanying lectures at Stanford on existentialism and this book which are available on iTunes U, and even when I felt his readings overreached, it was a good way to reread a tough and subtle work like this. (less)