Two Views on the Beautiful

Sarah recently posted a facebook thing that gave voice to a view of the beautiful. I am calling that view ‘grunge’. In contrast to that view I offer the operatic. Below is the graphic Sarah used to convey the opinion I am calling ‘grunge’ and two quotes, one from Karen Blixen and the other from Dostoevsky, that I am associating with the operatic view. The first view, grunge, suggests that what is claimed to be beautiful is in actual fact not beautiful but shit, the proclamation of beauty is just a lie. The second view, basically says: ‘isn’t shit beautiful.’ This is noteworthy because the view that Sarah put forward stands in contrast to her poetry work which accords with the second view.

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Roskolnikov’s ‘New Word’

In Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment the central character Raskolnikov (the murderer) writes an article that is the first sign that the police investigator finds of his guilt. Below is the argument of that article as presented by himself, in person, to the police investigator. This presentation is the machine at the heart of the novel. The novel can be read as an exploration of the definition of that machine.

Raskolinkov makes an attempt at being an extraordinary person by pronouncing a ‘new word’. That ‘new word’ is the article presented in the following quote – that is, it is the articulation of the criminal origins of all law. The reason that he kills the old money lender and her sister is the principle outlined in this article – the assertion that law is criminal itself and thereby justifies its own transgression. The plot that arises from this act can be understood as the “beautiful and edifying” “public penances” that are the self-inflicted punishment of those that cannot bear the consequences of founding a new law yet make the attempt anyhow.

The question presented by the novel seems to be: Is this an articulation of the limitations of law – that it cannot be done away with, that it cannot be built again on grounds that are not criminal, that is, that it cannot recognize its own partiality? Or, is the novel itself the presentation of Raskolinkov’s ‘new word’ and that the punishment he inflicts upon himself represents the re-founding of law precisely on the basis of its partiality? This second possibility would see his punishment as being a necessary estrangement the ‘extraordinary man’ has from the experience of his own mastery.

The key to the answer to these questions seems to lie in the interpretation of Raskolinkov’s ‘redemption’ in Siberia. Answering this question could be a way of articulating that Nietzsche’s fear of the ‘ultimate man’ is unfounded at an absolute level. This is a topic that I have been interested in because, to put it crudely, it seems to suggest that a lack of stupidity is a problem for modernity and this, at least at the empirical level, is erroneous.

The other consequence of such an investigation would be to provide some comment on the possibility of positive political action that is not simply self-interested against the assertion that political engagement holding a rigorous claim to universality must by definition always be negative.

Here is the quote:

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The People Smuggler: “He is something of a poet”

In light of the current mood for denouncing and punishing the craft of the people smuggler I found the following passage interesting. Although it relates to the smuggling of vodka, tobacco and other useful items into a prison in Siberia I believe that it does till have some relevance.

“Incidently, smuggling is by its very nature something of a special crime. Can one believe, for example, that money and gain are of only secondary importance to a smuggler? And yet precisely this is the case. The smuggler works passionately, with a sense of vocation. He is something of a poet. He risks everything, faces terrible dangers, employs cunning, inventiveness, gets himself out of scrapes; sometimes he even acts according to some kind of inspiration. This passion is as strong as the passion for cards. In the prison I knew one convict who was outwardly of colossal proportions, but so gentle, quiet and resigned that it was impossible to imagine how he could ever have ended up in prison. He was so lacking in malice, so easy to get along with that during his entire stay in prison he never once quarrelled with anyone. But he came from the western frontier, had been sent to prison for smuggling and had of course not been able to restrain himself, but started to smuggle vodka into the prison. How many times he had been flogged for this, and how he feared the birch! And the trade in illicit vodka brought him only the most meagre returns. The only person who made any profit from the sale was the entrepreneur. The curious fellow loved his art for its own sake. He was as tearful as an old woman, and how many times after he had been flogged did he repent and swear never to smuggle again. He would sometimes master himself courageously for a whole month, but in the end he was always unable to hold out any longer… It was thanks to characters such as him that there was no shortage of vodka in the prison.” p 41. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead.

The legality of an act does not necessarily dictate its value. In fact one might say that in any act both good and bad are entwined.

The smuggler is motivated only secondarily by money, for Dostoyevsky the primary motivation is like gambling, risking all in acts that are only reasonable from the point of view of pure inspiration. It is the relation to the other that is the primary consideration, the respect shown for the law in the challenge of it. Just as the gambler hopes that the laws of probability might overlook his lucky streak the smuggler hopes the law might show a similar blindness. It might also be said that a motivation operates on a positive level – the satisfation of the desires of others. Undoubtedly there is the corruption of money and self-gain but there is a specific form to the activity; it is not simply murder and theft. This remains true regardless of the money to be scored, if only for the fact that in relative terms the punishment of getting caught is always proportional to the possible returns of the venture.

The same is true in the business world; success is not the result of simple theft and murder but of pursuits shaped by respect for the laws of others and their own desires. At the same time it is always in the interest of business to be the first into a market that until its incursion was protected by the boundaries of the law in order to reap the rewards of wealth.

In terms of concern for individuals, there is no difference between business and crime, one is merely assailed to a more significant degree by the state then the other. Both remain antagonistic to law as they chase the glory of breaking limits in quests to fulfill the desires of others.

Perhaps the danger that must be watched for is the equation of the state with one group or another. A state beholden to the criminal is just as bad as a state beholden to the businessman. According to the reflections of some Russia and America may have reached a degree of equality in this regard, or at least heading towards it.

There always needs to be somebody to create the limits that are to be transgressed. If they are absent both desire and others become irrelevancies and crime and business can only be simple murder and theft. People smuggling is as good a sign of a healthy state as is a diverse marketplace.