Friday, June 2, 2017

Russian dolls # 2. Five minutes are worth priceless treasures

Those who frequent my blog know that I consider The Idiot to be Dostoyevsky's most moving novel. The extraordinary personality of the main hero, Prince Mychkin, cannot leave anyone indifferent. His "idiocy" is a kind of divine wisdom wrapped in a remarkable clumsiness and a disarming humility. Several "stories within a story", those "Russian dolls" that I wrote about recently, shed light on the deep springs of this quasi-Christic figure.

Let us begin with a double narrative in which Mychkin speaks about the feelings that a person sentenced to death experiences in his last moments. The first one can be found at the beginning of the novel (Book 1, II). Mychkin has just arrived in St. Petersburg. He is waiting in the lobby of the home of General Epantchine, whose wife is a distant relative of the prince. He enters into conversation with the servant who opened the door. They begin talking about the death penalty, which had been abolished in Russia. But the prince has come from abroad. The servant asks: “Does it exist over there?’ – ‘Yes, I saw an execution in France, at Lyons’ (…) – ‘By going to the gallows?” – ‘No, they always cut off people’s heads in France.’ – ‘What did the fellow do? yell?’ – ‘What do you think? It’s lasts a split second. They put a man inside a frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery - they call the thing a guillotine - it falls with fearful force and weight - the head springs off so quickly that you can’t wink your eye in between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold - that’s the fearful part of the business.(*)

In the rest of the narrative Mychkin's attention is fully focused on what the condemned person experiences and feels. “…when that man stepped upon the scaffold he cried - he did indeed, - he was as white as a bit of paper. Isn’t it a dreadful idea that he should have cried…” The servant replies: “Well, in any case it is a good thing that there’s no pain when the poor fellow’s head flies off”. But Mychkin goes on: “you made that remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad plan after all? (…) Now with the rack and tortures and so on - you suffer terrible pain of course; but then your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have plenty of that) until you die. But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at all - but the certain knowledge that in an hour,- then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now - this very instant - your soul must quit your body (…) and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point – the certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on the block and hear the iron grate over your head – then - that quarter of a second is the most awful of all.

Then, Mychkin does not hesitate to assert that: “I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. (…) The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may yet escape until the very moment of his death (…) But in the case of an execution, that last hope - having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die, is taken away from the wretch and certainty substituted in its place!

Moments later, Mychkin is in the Epantchines’ parlor. His relative, Elizaveta Prokofievna, and especially her three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaide and Aglaïa, badger him with questions. Mychkin begins to speak about a man who “had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted” (Book 1, V). One should remember that Dostoevsky himself, sentenced to death for his participation, albeit minor, in the revolutionary circle of Mikhail Petrachevsky, was the object of a mock execution. It was announced that their sentence had been commuted while the firing squad was already taking aim. An event that would make an indelible impression on him.

Now Mychkin, continuing his narrative, emphasizes the terrible trial experienced by the man during the minutes that elapsed between the proclamation of the verdict and the announcement of the commutation. “Twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die (…) He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience (...) He seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions - one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around (…) He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? (…) The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, ‘What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!’ He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it.

The prince interrupts his narrative and Alexandra, the elder daughter, interjects: “You probably wish to deduce (…) that sometimes five minutes are worth priceless treasures. All this is very praiseworthy; but may I ask about this friend of yours, who told you the terrible experience of his life? He was reprieved, you say; in other words, they did restore to him that ‘eternity of days.’ What did he do with these riches of time? Did he keep careful account of his minutes? – Oh no, he didn’t! I asked him myself. He said that he had not lived a bit as he had intended, and had wasted many, and many a minute...

Then the conversation continues. Although Adelaide asks him to suggest a subject for a painting, Mychkin resumes the account of the execution by guillotine, insisting even more on what is going on in the mind of the condemned: “… the brain is especially active, and works incessantly - probably hard, hard, hard - like an engine at full pressure. I imagine that various thoughts must beat loud and fast through his head - all unfinished ones, and strange, funny thoughts, very likely! - like this, for instance: ‘That man is looking at me, and he has a wart on his forehead! and the executioner has burst one of his buttons, and the lowest one is all rusty!’ And meanwhile he notices and remembers everything. There is one point that cannot be forgotten, round which everything else dances and turns about; and because of this point he cannot faint, and this lasts until the very final quarter of a second, when the wretched neck is on the block and the victim listens and waits and knows - that’s the point, he knows that he is just now about to die, and listens for the rasp of the iron over his head.”

What is Dostoevsky trying to tell us with these "stories in a story"? First of all, and undoubtedly, he is saying something to us about himself and the terrible experience which he had to endure himself. But also, and above all, he is shedding light on the personality of his hero, Prince Mychkin, a man capable of true and profound compassion, a man vulnerable to the extreme, incapable of condemning and ready to give his life to save the one who is lost, a man of reconciliation and forgiveness. In short, a man in the image of Christ.

Another time I will tell about other "stories in a story" that abound in The Idiot, but that's enough for now.


(*) All the quotations from The Idiot are taken from the English translation of Eva Martin, eBook on

Monday, May 22, 2017

Russian dolls

Everybody is familiar with those famous "Russian dolls", the "matriochkas" (or, more correctly, matriochki)… figures of decreasing size, which fit into each other. Obviously they are subject to multiple symbolic meanings. I personally see in them an image of the various levels of consciousness which exist in the human being. Inner unity is seldom reached in a man; his will is often divided, his consciousness obscured or torn. Dostoevsky has made of this complexity of the human heart one of the essential features of his novels. It is particularly evident in the figure of the "double", whether in a single character – like Goliadkin, in The Double – or in two characters who are like flip sides of the same being – like Mychkin and Rogozin, in The Idiot.

But it seems to me that the brilliant Fyodor has made use of another literary device to express the interlocking nature that can characterize human consciousness. This is particularly the case of souvenirs buried in the memory, souvenirs that an event or a word can trigger and bring to life. When opened, a Russian doll reveals another; so it is with Dostoevsky – the heart of a character, once opened, shows him in a new light. The attentive reader of Dostoevsky's great novels will no doubt have noticed how often the author begins to tell a "story in the story." It may be narratives spoken by one of his characters, or a revealing dream, or still a vast digression, as a close-up shot of an event whose detailed account is not essential to the coherence of the novel, but which opens it up to new meanings.

After a long period during which I "abandoned" my favorite author, I wish to return to those "Russian dolls" concealed in Dostoevsky’s novels. To open the series, here is a remarkable passage(*) from the first of the "great" novels of his maturity, Crime and Punishment.

In the hours preceding his crime, Raskolnikov is agitated. He walks randomly. The idea of going home disgusts him. He enters a tavern, grabs something to eat and drinks a glass of vodka, something he has not done in a long time. He finally decides to go back home, but on the way, completely exhausted, he leaves the road, enters the bushes, and falls asleep on the grass. Then, he "has a frightful dream."

The narrative of this dream covers seven or eight pages. Rodia Raskolnikov sees himself, at seven years old, in a small town walking with his father. They go to the cemetery where his grandmother and his younger brother, who died at the age of six months, lie. On their way, they pass a tavern where people celebrate and get drunk. In front of the tavern, there is a large cart, to which powerful draft horses are usually harnessed.
Raskolnikov, by Ilya Glazounov
But it is a puny, old mare that is harnessed here. Drunken peasants come out of the tavern and the whole gang pile into the cart, with a barrage of shouting and laughter, then of whips on the back of the poor animal, by three raging men. The child sees it all. “Father, father, he cried, father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!” The father exhorts him not to look at these drunkards and tries to draw him away, “but the boy broke free from his hand, and ran over to the little horse”. But the relentless abuse of the frail mare that falls and tries to rise again continues mercilessly, with the ongoing outburst and laughter and with a kind of murderous hatred. The executioners eventually complete their deadly play wielding iron bars. “… the poor boy is beside himself, he cries out and fights his way through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kisses it, kisses the eyes and kisses the lips…. Then he jumps up and flies in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka [the driver]”. But his father seizes him and takes him far from the crowd. “Father! Why did they… kill… the poor horse! he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest”.

It is then that Raskolnikov wakes up. It is as if the dream has stirred his consciousness. While for several weeks he had planned the murder of the usurer, whom he considered a worthless being, he is now "broken". “Good God! he cried, can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open… that I shall (…) steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood… with the axe… Good God, can it be?” And he persuades himself that he “will not do it”.

Basically, by recounting Raskolnikov's dream, Dostoevsky wants us to understand that this man is neither some kind of beast nor a monster. His crime will be the result of an ideological fit. Rodia would be the victim of this monstrous cynicism which had developed within a fringe of the Russian intelligentsia, engendered by nihilistic notions that Dostoevsky would depict in The Demons.

After his dream, Raskolnikov was convinced that he would not be capable of murder: “I knew that I could never bring myself to it, No, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it!” But everything changed after the chance meeting with Lizaveta, the sister of the usurer, a few words of whom with a merchant catch him by surprise. “He had learnt, he had suddenly quite unexpectedly learnt, that the next day at seven o’clock Lizaveta, the old woman’s sister and only companion, would be away from home and that therefore at seven o’clock precisely the old woman would be left alone (…) he felt suddenly in his whole being that he had no more freedom of thought, no will, and that everything was suddenly and irrevocably decided”. Here then is the man, however capable of compassion and to whom violence is repugnant, who in a flash will become an assassin. Mystery of the human heart...


(*) Crime and Punishment, 1st part, chapter 5. English translation by Constance Garnett, on

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


Crossing of the Red Sea, by Aurore (20eth century. France)

By happy circumstances, this year, the Passover will be celebrated at the same time by Christians, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Jews. A sign? In any case, a call for more mutual respect, friendship and love.

Pilgrims of Emmaus, by Arcabas
Holy Easter !
Sainte et belle fête de Pâques !
חג פסח שמח
Άγια Πάσχα !
Святая Пасха !
Santa e bella Pasqua !


Friday, April 7, 2017

Next year in Jerusalem !

I am back from a second journey to Israel – the previous one was in 2013. I would simply like to share some images, without the slightest apologetic pretention. It was a two- phase journey: a “traditional” pilgrimage week, with a group of Christians, followed by four days with my Israeli cousins.

Jerusalem. The Old City, buried under the weight of levels of history and religion. But it is a living city, as well. Alleys, crowded with legions of tourists, Arabs wearing keffiyeh or niqab, Jews with side curls, caftans and large hats, Ethiopian monks wearing their long cassocks, yeshiva students with a black velvet yarmulke, Franciscan priests in brown garb, policemen, soldiers, male and female, with a gun on shoulder. People pass each other with little, if any, communication, except for the merchants who badger you and extol their products.


The Christian Holy sites, the Holy Sepulchre, the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, etc. The swarming crowds and the surrounding din make any attempt for recollection a vain pursuit. But there is a one notable exception, the Basilica of the Agony, in Gethsemane, where an attentive Franciscan friar enforces the silence and where the dimmed light, around the rock, is an invitation to prayer.

The landscapes of Galilee, green and flowery, as spring arrives, evoke the settings of biblical stories. Then there is the Sea of Tiberias and, in the distance, the Golan Heights, which lead one to think of clearly less peaceful places… 

Yes, the Kotel. To those who persist in calling it "the Wailing Wall", I advise you to go there on a Thursday morning. People gather there to celebrate bar mitzvah (mitzvoth, because there are many of them), in a climate of amazing joy and fervor. At the Kotel, I brought - and wore - the kippah offered to me on my previous trip by the father of my cousin's wife. He is a 90 year old man, polyglot, bright and cheerful as a child. At the moment he offered me this kippah, he said to me: "I attend the synagogue out of loyalty to my parents." 

The Dead Sea, whose level is alarmingly low. Its shores are disappearing and its banks subsiding. Will the pipeline project bringing water from the Red Sea ever materialize? Led by a French native Israeli guide, we visit Masada and Qumran. 

Tel Aviv, bustling and yet relaxed. The splendid campus of the University, with the Diaspora museum. The Sarona district – an agricultural colony founded in the 19th century by the Templar Society of Christoph Hoffmann – a weird set of German-style, nicely restored houses, amidst high offices buildings. This neighborhood is now a fashionable area.

Rehovot, where, four years ago, I visited the famous Weizmann Institute. This time, I discovered the remarkable kibbutz of Machon Ayalon. There, from 1946 to 1948, members of the Haganah, six meters underground, manufactured millions of 9 mm bullets, right under the nose of the British Mandate authorities. 

On the way back from the Dead Sea, our Israeli guide told us that he made his alyah twenty years before, just “to see”, and that he decided to stay in Israel. He added that several of his companions returned to Europe. They came with too many preconceived ideas and too idealistic a vision. "They could not bear to see that Israel is a country like any other". Perhaps. But that country seems to me quite different from others. I feel plenty of enthusiasm and vitality among its inhabitants... Something very different from our “depressive” Europe. Next year in Jerusalem? I hope…


Friday, February 24, 2017

Beauty multiplied by four

The more I listen to music, the more I regard the string quartet as the summit of classical music. Two violins, a viola and a cello, and the miracle happens: unity in diversity, a family whose members are very different, but who share the same features. A family where the smallest is the greatest, supported by the others.
A string quartet is like a whole orchestra, more intimate, but no less powerful. It is the opposite of stardom: even if the first violin often has a leading role, he is (almost) never “the” soloist, who takes center stage.
The string quartet is an art that does not abide mediocrity: accuracy, unity, listening and mutual attention are constantly required.
My musical tastes are rather decided: I like something or I do not like it, open-minded with regard to period or composer. Some musical styles annoy me or tire me out, the “galant” style, for instance of Lully, Rameau, etc. Others bore me, like a number of second-class Baroque musicians (musique “au kilomètre” - “music by the yard”), and I am closed to quite a few composers of the 20th century. But a string quartet seldom leaves me unmoved.
Even if the premiere string quartets are probably those of Boccherini, it is Joseph Haydn who gave this musical form its first reputation for excellence. After him, you have to lay out a large red carpet for the greatest: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Then there are Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schumann, and even Tchaikovsky and Ravel, not to mention Dvořák, Janacek, Shostakovich and others.
I would gladly add to the list works which are not strictly string quartets, but which can be regarded as similar to them, as the sublime D 956 Quintet of Schubert, with a second cello, or Mendelssohn’s opus 20 Octet in which the instrumental configuration is doubled (four violins, two violas and two cellos). Then there are piano quintets as well, like the famous D 667 Quintet, “The Trout” of Schubert, etc.
The quartet ensembles are numerous. There are great “historical” quartets, like the Hungarian Quartet, the Quartetto Italiano, the Borodine, the Hagen or the Amadeus… and plenty of others. Among the more recent, my favourites are: the Alban Berg Quartet, the Emerson Quartet, the Jerusalem Quartet, the Pražák Quartet, the Quatuor Ébène…
If you want to listen to music, nothing is worth more than a good CD, with a good player (especially good loudspeakers). Yes, You Tube does give access to a very large number of works, but with very uneven sound quality. There, too, you need to listen with good loudspeakers or good headphones.
Here are some of my “first choice” You Tube links.
* Complete collection of the Beethoven quartets, by the Quartetto Italiano: nine hours of listening! An historical interpretation… perfect!
* The last five quartets (12 to 16, + Groβe Fugue) of Beethoven, by the Alban Berg Quartet. Masterful! Difficult works, sometimes austere, but brilliant.
* The last four quartets and the D 956 quintet of Schubert, played by various groups: Amadeus, Orlando, Hagen, Pražák and Julliard. The video image is not always perfect, and the sound recording varies from one piece to the next, but the set is worth it.
As a musical conclusion, let me suggest to you a brilliant and delightful quartet, the opus 96 of Dvořák, known as the “American Quartet”, played by the excellent Czech group, the Pražák Quartet. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole piece, go to the 7th minute for the splendid second movement, “lento”.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

America as I love it

Norman Rockwell, Going and coming
Frank Capra, It's a Wonderful Life
This is neither about Obama, nor Clinton, nor Trump… It is about America as I dream of it, as it speaks to my heart and to my memory. I see it through movies, songs, books… The list would be too long, but… a few names immediately come to mind: Frank Capra, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen… Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, John Steinbeck, John D. Salinger… Gershwin, Bernstein, Jessye Norman, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder… 

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech
Why do I want to evoke this now? First, a few days ago, I was reading an article – I don’t remember where – about fundamental freedoms. It was illustrated by a Norman Rockwell painting. Rockwell was a man who succeeded in showing us America as we love it. I regard him as a genuine artist, a painter rather than an illustrator, as he was usually depicted. Rockwell (1894-1978) is especially known for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, which he illustrated for more than forty years (1916-1960). If you type his name on Google images, you will be able to admire many of his works.

Then, one or two days later, haphazardly on the Internet, I watched a video that illustrates what, in my mind, makes for the superiority of American pedagogy, at least that of the major universities. It offers a masterly presentation of a work by Beethoven, the third movement of his 15th string quartet (op. 132). A musicologist, a certain Robert Kapilow, speaks to an audience at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He analyzes in very lively manner, with the help of a real (and good) string quartet, this movement, Heiliger Dankgesang (Sacred Song of Thanksgiving), in which Beethoven expresses his gratitude to "the divinity" for his recovery from a serious illness. What a talent!

These are only two small examples, but this is the America we love!

Norman Rockwell, The Runaway

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize

For those like me who grew up in their youth with the songs of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary or Leonard Cohen, we can only rejoice that the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Bob Dylan. This is a good time to remember that songs are first of all words, words of poetry ... of literature. And Dylan was a true poet.

I can't help but think that certain will say, « Not another Jew… ».  Yes, and what may be less well-known, Dylan wrote a song, dripping with irony, which speaks of the never-ending hostility that surrounds the State of Israel  and, more broadly, the Jewish people. It's called Neighborhood Bully, from his album « Infidels », published in 1983. Here's the text.

Neighborhood Bully

Well, the neighborhood bully, he's just one man,
His enemies say he's on their land.
They got him outnumbered about a million to one,
He got no place to escape to, no place to run.
He's the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,
He's criticized and condemned for being alive.
He's not supposed to fight back, he's supposed to have thick skin,
He's supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.
He's the neighborhood bully.

The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land,
He's wandered the earth an exiled man.
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn,
He's always on trial for just being born.
He's the neighborhood bully.
Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized,
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad.
The bombs were meant for him.
He was supposed to feel bad.
He's the neighborhood bully.
Well, the chances are against it and the odds are slim
That he'll live by the rules that the world makes for him,
'Cause there's a noose at his neck and a gun at his back
And a license to kill him is given out to every maniac.
He's the neighborhood bully.
He got no allies to really speak of.
What he gets he must pay for, he don't get it out of love.
He buys obsolete weapons and he won't be denied
But no one sends flesh and blood to fight by his side.
He's the neighborhood bully.
Well, he's surrounded by pacifists who all want peace,
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease.
Now, they wouldn't hurt a fly.
To hurt one they would weep.
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Every empire that's enslaved him is gone,
Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon.
He's made a garden of paradise in the desert sand,
In bed with nobody, under no one's command.
He's the neighborhood bully.

Now his holiest books have been trampled upon,
No contract he signed was worth what it was written on.
He took the crumbs of the world and he turned it into wealth,
Took sickness and disease and he turned it into health.
He's the neighborhood bully.

What's anybody indebted to him for?
Nothin', they say.
He just likes to cause war.
Pride and prejudice and superstition indeed,
They wait for this bully like a dog waits to feed.
He's the neighborhood bully.

What has he done to wear so many scars?
Does he change the course of rivers?
Does he pollute the moon and stars?
Neighborhood bully, standing on the hill,
Running out the clock, time standing still,
Neighborhood bully. 

And, for good measure, here's the very young Dylan (21 years old), doing Man of Constant Sorrow, a song from his first album (1962). Enjoy !