Letter 12: “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I am beginning to wonder if I should send my master’s degree back to National University and ask for a refund.  Your essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky” is the third one in this book written about an author that I know by name, but have not read.  You wrote a rather unfavorable review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time; I have only read his short story, “A & P.”  You wrote about Kafka’s unorthodox sense of humor; I know the basic premise of Metamorphosis, but haven’t read it yet. 

Now you add Dostoyevsky to my list of unread authors.  But this time, it’s not for a lack of trying.  About fifteen years ago, I attempted The Brothers Karamazov.  I think I got about fifty pages into it before giving up.[1]  I was supposed to read Crime and Punishment for one of my master’s courses.  But I must confess that I Sparknoted my way through it.  See, it was my last academic class and I had already read Madame Bovary and The Awakening during the first three weeks of the four-week course on Psychological Realism.  So I had one week to read the 400-page Crime and Punishment.  I was in the process of writing my term paper on a scene in Madame Bovary, and only needed to write an online discussion board post for C&P.  I was also in the middle of writing my thesis, which seemed to be the higher priority at the time.  So given the circumstances, I felt justified in relying on the summary of the book rather than the book itself.[2]  But I digress.

I remember enjoying what I read of both The Brothers K and C&P.  The language was so very rich, like biting into a thick fudge brownie.  That linguistic richness made for slow, sometimes arduous reading – probably why I never made it more than fifty pages in – but I believe you when you say it is worth the effort.  When I am done reading your books, I promise I will read one of Dostoyevsky’s books.

In your essay about Joseph Frank’s work, you highlight the fact that Frank does not merely offer a literary criticism of Dostoyevsky’s writings.  He goes into the cultural, ideological, and philosophical beliefs that undergird Dostoyevsky’s books.  Dostoyevsky led a fascinating life and wrote during a fascinating time in Russian history, and that is reflected in his literature.  Frank’s series of books are equal parts biography and criticism.  For how can you truly separate a man’s writing from the world from which he comes?[3]

Reading this essay made me genuinely interested in reading FMD’s books.  But more importantly, it got me thinking about your works, Mr. Wallace.  What are the cultural, ideological, and philosophical beliefs that undergird your writings?  What was your world like as you grew up and went to school and began writing?  Who were the great influences who helped shape your worldview? 

You had an incredibly unique perspective on the world around you.  You had an ability to peel back the surface and see things and people for what and who they really are.  You found the irony and sometimes the comedy in the ordinary and banal.  And then you had a way of using exactly the right words to say exactly what you wanted to say.  Your economy of words[4] is unparalleled.  Where did all of this come from?

I guess I’ve got some extra homework to do.

[1] But to my defense, I was young and naïve.  I had not even switched my major to English Literature yet.

[2] Just please don’t tell my professor* or my students.  I don’t want my grade retracted, and I don’t want to be seen as a hypocrite.

*I purposely left his name out just in case someone felt the need to take the moral high ground and turn me in.

[3] Although the literary school of New Criticism seeks to do just that.  Their mantra is “The text alone.”

[4] A phrase that seems an oxymoron given the length of some of your books.

Letter 11: “Consider the Title”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

It is probably because I grew up going to church and attended parochial schools from kindergarten through high school, but every time I see the title of this book, and the essay it is named after, it reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies.”  So reading your essay for the second time now, I am left wondering, did you mean for the title to be an allusion to the biblical text?  If so, what were you getting at?  Or am I just reading too much into it?

The passage from Matthew 6 reads:

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (New King James Version).

Jesus’ words speak of not worrying and knowing that our needs will be provided for.  The birds of the air and the lilies of the field don’t worry about where their next meal will come from.  They don’t worry their bodies or clothes or homes or even their futures.  They just live their lives as birds and lilies.

But “Consider the Lobster”?  Are you trying to say that they too, like the birds of the air and lilies of the fields haven’t a care in their undersea world?  Well, that is until they are scooped up by a fishing boat and thrown into a pot of boiling water, only to be dipped in butter and enjoyed by some tacky-shirt-wearing tourist.

Is the possible allusion a call back to the simpler things in life?  That life is more than Lobster Festivals and tourist destinations?  Perhaps if we focus on the truly important things of life, we might find more joy and contentment.  We might find more peace and tranquility, and not need the help of a professional therapist or a cocktail of prescription medications to do so.  There is peace to be found in this world, and I have a sneaky suspicion it’s not going to be found standing in line to be served a meal from the world’s largest lobster cooker.

Or is the title an admonition to, in the midst of gorging oneself in fun and frivolity of the Lobster Festival, stop and Consider the Lobster.  The animal at the center of this extravaganza is unwillingly sacrificing itself in the name of human gluttony.  This peaceful scavenger is plucked from the bottom of the ocean and then cooked in a plethora of ways to satisfy our delicate palates.  If one were to actually consider what is done to the sea insect and the reasons why it is done, one might think twice about standing in that line for fresh-cooked lobster.  Are you saying we need to consider the implications of our pursuit of leisure and entertainment?  Are you saying we need to find other, less destructive means of placating our need for peace?  Does standing in a long line under the hot sun to pay way too much for the flesh of freshly killed crustacean really bring tranquility?

Perhaps I’m on to something here.  Maybe we need to slow down and enjoy the simpler things in life.  Maybe we ought to consider the consequences of our pursuit of peace and happiness.  Maybe there are more important things than Lobster Festivals and Gourmet Magazines.

Is that what you were getting at?  Or am I reading way too much into it?

I wish you were here to answer questions like this.

Letter 10: “Consider the Lobster”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I have never eaten lobster, and I hereby vow to never eat a lobster.

It’s not because of all the PETA propaganda about the cruelty of boiling them alive.  I honestly just don’t like seafood.  Sure, I’ve had a few dishes that I enjoyed: fish tacos from a street vendor in Ensenada, some grilled mahi-mahi, even some well-blended tuna salad.  But as a rule, I’m just not a big fan of seafood.  So reading a rather detailed description of lobsters trying to climb out of a pot of boiling water as they are cooked alive, or the alternative of stabbing them in the head to avoid the trauma[1] of being boiled alive, sort of sealed the deal for me.  I will never eat lobster.

As I read “Consider the Lobster,”[2] I couldn’t help but notice the veritable smorgasbord of ironies and contradictions.  Like how it was not until sometime in the 1800s that lobster was considered a snobbish delicacy.  As you mention, the enjoyment of these “giant sea insects” was left for the destitute and institutionalized (237).  Eating too much lobster – the probable goal of some of the Maine Lobster Festival’s patrons – was actually considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Or the irony that the claws of lobsters in holding tanks are bound so that they don’t tear each other apart before being plopped into pots of boiling water.  Footnote 8 furthers the point by telling us that chickens are debeaked, cattle dehorned, and swine de-tailed for the same reason.  We don’t want our food hurting or killing each other before we get a chance to, now do we?

Or my favorite irony of all is that this essay was originally written for Gourmet magazine.  A correspondent sent to write about the grand experience of the Maine Lobster Festival spends over half the article discussing the physiological and philosophical debate about whether lobsters are able to feel pain, and if the physical sensation of pain transfers into the existential experience of suffering.  I wonder how the editors and readers of Gourmet felt about that.

While the majority of the essay focuses on this debate, it was actually Footnote 6 that caught my attention.  Within the context of the Maine Lobster Festival, you make some rather interesting comments about the idea of tourism.  The tourism industry allows us access to some of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world, places that the average Joe might never see or experience otherwise.[3]  But as you point out in Footnote 6, tourism is “to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you” (240).  Our very presence in these locations – especially en masse – spoils the inherent beauty and wonder of the place.

I can remember a few vacationing experiences in which this proven to be true.  A few summers ago, my wife and I spent a week in Kauai.  One of my favorite experiences of the vacation was a guided kayak trip up a beautiful river.[4]  After about an hour or so of paddling, we pulled our boats onto the river bank, and then hiked a mile or two to the “Secret” Falls.  A secret that is apparently shared by a handful of tour companies and visited by hundreds of people each day.

Or on another morning of this same vacation, we went snorkeling at Poipu Beach.  We arrived early and shared the waters with only a handful of people.[5]  About the time we were tired of swimming and taking pictures of the colorful fish and got out of the water, the tour buses began to arrive.  The beach and waters were soon swarming with people slathered in sun block and wearing all shapes and forms of swimwear.  Looking back on that morning after reading “Consider the Lobster,” I wonder how the fish – the main attraction at a snorkeling beach – responded to the hundred of people now invading their home.  I have a feeling that my wife and I and the three other families who were there early saw a whole lot more fish than those who poured off the buses.

We want to experience the world, to see all its natural beauty and splendor.  Yet the more we visit and the more we snap photos, the more damage we cause.  We leave our mark, often a lasting and negative one.  I can’t think of how we might be bettering these beautiful landmarks by visiting by the thousands every year.  Surely our high-rise hotels and souvenir stands are doing no one any good, except perhaps the owners and investors.

Which makes me wonder if that – in part – is the point of your essay.  When we tread upon these “tourist destinations” and park our RV’s and take our hundreds of digital pictures, perhaps we are “boiling the lobster alive,” so to speak.  Whether the lobster is actually capable of experiencing pain, or whether that pain translates to actual suffering, is not the point.  The point is, the lobster is dead, dipped in butter, and headed for our stomachs.  These natural wonders – like the lobster – are merely victims of our insatiable appetites.

[1] The trauma for the cook rather than the lobster.  The idea of dropping a live lobster into a pot of scalding water and watching it squirm and scratch the sides of the pot as it tries to escape leads some gourmet chefs to simply stab the crustacean in the head.  Apparently this is a less distressing method of killing the lobster.

[2] By far my favorite essay thus far.

[3] And the Industry allows us to look like complete jackasses while enjoying the natural wonders of the world.  The Industry is more than willing to sell us all kinds of hokey hats and sweatshirts to wear while on vacation, and we are usually stupid enough to buy things that a person in their right mind would only wear while on vacation.

[4] What made the trip so memorable was not the scenery, but the conversations with our tour guide, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.

[5] The fortunate thing about the three-hour time difference between California and Hawaii is that we never slept past about six o’clock.  So we were on the road to see the sights pretty early each morning, and thereby avoided most of the crowds.