Being, shall we say, terminally unhip – I too had an angst canon, though the bulk of it came out of the late 1800s rather than the late 1900s. Specifically, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov. Yet, the connections with your canon are there, no? Instead of a murderous Manhattanite, there’s the axe-wielding Raskolnikov killing old women in St Petersburg.
My adolescent mindset was less full of contempt, more fearful (Raskolnikov has both in spades). Very exercised and isolated by an unnamable romantic and sexual obsession. And further obsessed by the fantastical, whether that be in video game, novel, film. My first foray outside of that (excluding works set by the school curriculum) were works by Dostoyevsky and Sartre.
These are books, as you pointed out of your canon, that depict what might be called mentally ill characters. Certainly those in breakdown. Bit o’ the delirium tremens. But I think, at least in regards these characters, what drew me in wasn’t directly to do with those flashes of ‘madness’. What both Sartre and Dostoyevsky’s work did that gripped me was how they portray the drama of thinking. Thinking at its most extreme and intense. At some points, yeah, into breakdown. But they’re works wrestle with reality and religion in a direct, thrilling and frightening way. Perfect for the adolescent, because these questions have to be asked again and again by each new person of each new generation. It’s at this time, one hopes, that you’re doing the business of examining first principles. Why this, why that, why anything?
I don’t have a religious background, barring the vague education, prayers and hymns that comes with attending a C of E school in south east England. In my family, God is a word that comes at the end of an exclamation, Heaven is the go-to place for the dead, and the go-to explanation of what death is should a child ask. It wasn’t that my family were atheists; they simply didn’t think about it. In contrast, religion is rarely vague in Dostoyevsky; it is fervent, feverish. Thought itself is deeply felt. Ideas can break you and others. It can make you break others. And there was something deeply arresting about that: the back and forth of ideas, the exchange of views. Dostoyevsky takes ethical questions, turns them up to 11: if there is no immortality, isn’t everything permitted? what if you murdered someone? what if Christ came back? what if the Devil appeared to you?
Woolf puts it best when she writes in her essay “The Russian Point of View” that ‘the novels of Dostoyevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in.’ Around this time, I studied Hamlet and I remember the appeal of that character; my own identification with him – all of them: these men, Raskolnikov, Roquentin, Ivan Fyodorvitch, Hamlet, these gyres of thought, oscillating one way, then the other. To be or not to be. Right? Not that suicide entered my adolescent mind, or would have even quite understood that thought, or felt the numb force of it. But these books are about thought that has consequences. About how thinking is dangerous.
Dostoyevsky is essentially about the danger of ideas. Look what ideas make you do to your fellow man. How you reason your way out of religion and feeling. Now, he was also super conservative – deeply concerned about nihilism, liberalism, utilitarianism etc. But there is one thing he pinpoints in Raskolnikov that has its appeals to the adolescent (and not just in those years, for many) mind. The desire to be Napoleon – to be beyond good and evil, or rather for you to able to litigate what’s good and evil entirely off your own bat and for yourself. To be exceptional. How your decisions don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else’s. Like Gregory House, right? And that is dangerous.
On feeling revisions or reversals: Crime and Punishment also had a slightly different hue when re-reading it a few years ago for my university degree: it was a fuck ton darker. The episodes with Svidrigailov, specifically his dreams with the very young girl who winks provocatively loomed way larger and scarier in my mind this time round. I think it slipped my mind or went over my head.
One writer I’ve done a particular reevaluation of is Kafka – I recall attempting to read The Trial, oh a long time ago, and remember the creep of boredom sneaking in. I didn’t get it. There was that feeling that somehow my eyes weren’t tracking the words; that bad sign that either the book isn’t quite holding your attention, or your attention is being undercut by sleep deprivation/despair/hunger. I’m sorry to say, reader, I gave up. Which is a pretty rare occurrence for me (re: books anyway). And it’s not as if The Trial is on-the-surface difficult. But anyway, I returned to Kafka via The Castle only to find that actually he was great (of course), and entirely reversed my position.
And I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out, and give it an initial direction.
500 words on that. Go.