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A bit of a slow month, but here’s what I read this March:

John Ashbery. I spent several days near the start of this month in a retirement home in Iowa City—not, as you might imagine, the most enthralling place. But I was able to use the opportunity to read, in fairly concentrated doses, both Shadow Train and A Wave, Ashbery’s 11th and 12th books. The former consists entirely of four-by-fours: sixteen line poems split into four stanzas of four lines apiece. Ashbery often shines in long poems, which are naturally suited to his kitchen sink approach, but here the enforced brevity suits him well. The best pieces here are finely honed daggers—“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” and “Farm Film” especially—and overall it is among his most consistently rewarding volumes. A Wave is even better. It’s Ashbery’s best book so far, from the mixed feelings of “At North Farm” to the self-querying of the title poem. Though it’s been some time since the last installment, I do intend to finish what I started with my series of posts exploring “A Wave” in depth.

Denis Diderot. I found the Penguin Classics edition of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream in my local used bookstore and snatched it up. When a discussion group to which I belong decided to discuss the meaning of the Enlightenment today, I took the opportunity to read this volume. I was amply rewarded. In contrast to the stultifying, dogmatic optimism being peddled under the name of the Enlightenment by the likes of Steven Pinker, Diderot reminds us of the movement’s skeptical core and of the intellectual excitement of thinking through new ideas for oneself. Rameau’s Nephew is hilarious, a dialogue in which it is relentlessly unclear which character, if either, speaks for the author, as a genial moralist comes face to face with a thoroughgoing comic nihilist. For my money, though, it’s D’Alembert’s Dream that’s the real gem here. In it, Diderot—through the figure of the dreaming D’Alembert—works out the consequences of a fully secular, materialistic understanding of the world. As a reader, I could feel the intellectual ferment, the froth of thought. It is a useful solace in an age where the public face of atheism—for all it calls itself “skepticism”—is rank dogmatism that recommends offloading all the business of one’s thinking to approved experts. Diderot shows us a better way.

Stanisław Lem. My wife very kindly bought me Lem’s Solaris. I’m rather a fan of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (it’s between him and Yasujiro Ozu for my favorite), and while Solaris is one of his lesser films, that speaks more to his other films than to Solaris itself. Lem’s book is the basis of the film, so I knew roughly what I was in for, but Tarkovsky took enough liberties with it that it was a new experience. It’s an enjoyable book, but a deeply flawed one. It reminded me why I tend not read sci-fi: the writing is simply not very good for much of the book, especially at the beginning. What’s more, I found that the book consistently raised issues that it left frustratingly unresolved—not so much in terms of plot (though there was some of that) than in terms of the philosophical issues the plot raises. My issue is not with ambiguity itself, but with the fact that Lem did not probe the issues deeply enough to at least clarify the contours of this ambiguity. For instance, the appearance of the “visitors” raises deep issues of realism and idealism: what would it be to encounter not the external world but a world limited by our ideas—ideas that, of course, always fall short of reality. But Lem never satisfactorily addresses this. Most aggravating for me, though, was the mythology of science that ran through the book. I’m currently a graduate student studying philosophy of science, and I simply did not recognize anything of the human activity I study in Lem’s descriptions of the science surrounding Solaris. I hope to write a more extended post on this, so I’ll save the details for later.

As usual, I am in the middle of many books. In addition to continuing to wade through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, I’ve been reading Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m working my way through John KeatsSelected Poetry (Oxford World Classics) and Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems (Borzoi). I’ve also been working my way through Hackett’s collection of Karl Marx’s Selected Writings.

Tonight, I finally got a chance to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a theater, rather than merely on my computer. I first watched the film back in college—it was, I think, the film that sparked my serious interest in film as an artistic medium—and find that now, seven or eight years later, my perspective on it has substantially changed, though my love for it hasn’t.

On previous viewings, I identified most with the Stalker, even though, as an atheist, my beliefs aligned most with the Writer (at least, the beliefs he expressed in his early laments about the boringness of natural law and of triangles). And I took this to be the attitude of the film: its commentary on society is expressed fairly directly through the Stalker. Even now, I think it is probably true that Tarkovsky himself finds his views most reflected in those of the Stalker. On this viewing, however, I came to see more critique of the Stalker within the film.

The first indication that the Stalker is not above reproach is the film’s opening scene, in which he is shown reducing his wife to tears, to the point where she ends up writhing on the floor. There is a basic disconnect, a basic selfishness that is revealed here. My younger self was inclined to forgive it because I saw the private importance, to the Stalker, of his trips to the Zone (the source of his wife’s grief). Today, while I may still forgive it, though less thoroughly than before, I am more struck by the Stalker’s inability to connect with another human being, an inability that carries throughout the film.

In the Zone, the Stalker tells the Writer and the Scientist about his mentor, Porcupine. Porcupine’s brother died in the Zone, and shortly thereafter, Porcupine hanged himself. Before doing that, however, he entered the room in the Zone that satisfies one’s inmost desires, and was rewarded with a large sum of money. While the Writer’s musings throughout the film are largely comical and spiritually empty, his take on Porcupine is, I think, entirely accurate. Porcupine entered the room hoping to help his brother, but this was a superficial desire: ultimately, he wanted money more, and the room gave him what he truly desired. It was his inability to live with that piece of self-knowledge that drove him to suicide.

The Writer makes this point in response to the Stalker’s claim that his motivation in taking people to the Zone is to bring them happiness: that the meaning in his life comes from aiding others in this way. But this rings hollow: he goes to the Zone for himself. Bringing others is only an excuse. This is not to say that he does not want to desire to help others, but the overwhelming sense I get from the film is that this is an abstract desire, and not what really drives him. And so, while he says he cannot enter the room himself because it is not the proper role for a stalker, I am inclined to agree with the Writer that it is actually fear that keeps him from entering: fear of what he will discover about himself.

In stark contrast to this stands the wife. At the end of the film, we see her having overcome her distress, taking on a very nurturing role toward the Stalker. As he wonders who he can take to the Zone in a world where all have lost the ability to believe, she offers to go with him, and the viewer can feel the genuineness behind her offer. The empathy she displays is not a trickle-down effect of an abstractly believed ideology, but a spontaneous result of her love, despite everything, for her husband. I come away from this thinking that, while it may be true that the Stalker is one of God’s fools, it is the wife who seems the model of humanly attainable happiness—happiness, as she well knows, intermixed with a good helping of sorrow, but happiness nonetheless. In a film where every other adult character is, in his own way, overcome with despair, in her the vigor of life has not yet been snuffed out.