Dostoyevsky’s Gambler on the French and the Russians

Dostoyevsky‘s The Gambler, contains, like some of his other works, sweeping portraits of character types; in this quasi-autobiographical work, among others, those of a particular nationality.

First, then, the gambler, Alexey Ivanovitch, on the French:

De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over. A Frenchman is not often naturally polite. He is always polite, as it were, to order, a little out of the ordinary, then his freakishness is most stupid and unnatural, and is made up of long accepted and long-vulgarized traditions. The natural Frenchman is composed of the most plebeian, petty, ordinary practical sense–in fact, he is one of the most wearisome creatures in the world. In my opinion, only the most innocent and experienced–especially Russian young ladies–are fascinated by Frenchmen. To every decent person, the conventionalism of the established traditions of drawing-room politeness, ease and gaiety are at once evident and intolerable.

Then, by way of contrast, on the French and the Russians :

You simply take for granted that I don’t know how to behave with dignity, that is, perhaps I am a man of moral dignity, but that I don’t know how to behave with dignity….Yes, all Russians are like that; and do you know why? Because Russians are too richly endowed and many-sided to be able readily to evolve a code of manners. It is a question of good form. For the most part we Russians are so richly endowed that we need genius to evolve our code of manners. And genius is most often absent, for, indeed, it is a rarity at all times. It’s only among the French, and perhaps some other Europeans, that the code of manners is so well defined that one may have an air of the utmost dignity and yet be a man of no moral dignity whatsoever.

And finally, in a revealing passage, given Dostoyevsky’s own troubles with gambling, on the Russians again:

Hearing what I had lost, the Frenchman observed bitingly, even spitefully, that one ought to have more sense. He added–I don’t know why–that though a great many Russians gamble, Russians were not, in his opinion, well qualified even for gambling.

“In my mind,” said I, “roulette is simply made for Russians.”

And when at my challenge the Frenchman laughed contemptuously, I observed that I was, of course, right, for to speak of the Russians as gamblers was abusing them far more than praising them, and so I might be believed.

“On what do you base your opinion?” asked the Frenchman.

“On the fact that the faculty of amassing capital has, with the progress of history taken a place–and almost the foremost place–among the virtues and the merits of the civilized man of the West. The Russian is not only incapable of amassing capital, but disputes it in a reckless and unseemly way. Nevertheless we Russians need money, too,” I added, “and consequently, we are very glad and very eager to make use of such means as roulette, for instance, in which one can grow rich all at once, in two hours, without work. That’s very fascinating to us, and since we play badly, recklessly, without taking trouble, we usually lose!”

Is it just me or does it seem like novelists these days don’t offer–as often at least–such sweeping generalizations of nationalities and ethnic types?

Note: Excerpts from 1996 Dover edition of The Gambler; translation by Constance Garnett.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)

Reflections on Translation – I: Accepting and Assessing Translations

Like any reader with a sufficiently long career, I have read many works in translation. In doing so, I have been aware of the distance between the author and myself, of being subject to the same constraints as any other reader of translated works is. Still, I have never ceased to be surprised when I hear someone tell me that they have read a work–known only to me in English–in translation, in a language I would not associate with the author. The most dramatic instance of this astonishment came while talking to an Austrian graduate student who told me he had read Orwell in German; I found it utterly bizarre that anyone could read Orwell in German. I had the tables turned on me when I told a Russian friend I was  reading Dostoevsky, and was greeted with the perplexed inquiry, “You’re reading him in English? How can you do that?” Indeed. How could I do that? But my incompetence in Russian meant it was the only option available to me, and so, I’ve had only one window into that entire body of literature, one that has enriched me in more ways than one, an interaction with which has been subject to limitations I’ve acutely been aware of. I have come to reconcile myself to this shortchanging with my awareness that my engagement with those works is still unique because of my particularities as a reader. It’s a minor blessing, but it will do for now. (I find my relationship to Russian literature especially poignant in its limitations because I’m aware that as a young man my father read many Russian novels  in English translations and then later, went on to learn Russian well enough to speak it–or so I am told–reasonably fluently; I often wonder whether he went back  to reread those same works in Russian.)

I grew up bilingual, so I’ve had a chance to bridge this sort of gap. In high school in India, we read the short stories of the Indian novelist Premchand in Hindi. Later, after moving to the US, and during a trip back to India, I picked up a collection of Premchand’s short stories–translated into English. The temporal distance between my first exposure to Premchand’s shorts and this one was too great; when I read them in English, I was aware of a difference, but it was not one I could adequately describe or articulate. I was merely cognizant of the fact that I was reading distinct works and was unable to make any sort of critical assessment of the quality of the translation.

I have a chance to conduct this experiment again; I own three of Premchand’s novels in the original Hindi, and plan to pick up translations in English on my next trip to India. I have often found myself groaning at the quality of the subtitled translations of Indian cinema; if  more than one established translation of Premchand into English can be found, I intend to make those rough expressions of discontent more formal, to finally be the kind of snob that is able to say “I prefer X’s translation to Y’s.” I say this with all due humility: my fluency in Hindi is debatable; I am aware of the indeterminacy of translation; but still, it’ll be nice to be able to turn the tables, to go from being the one on the outside, being told of my separation from the translated work, to being the one on the inside, informing others of theirs.