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Chris Bertram has very good taste. My few dissents: Mac over PC, Eliot over Yeats, there's nothing "annoying" about High Fidelity, and Manet over Monet either way. I don't also don't think the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky comparison can be made without some further specification of what we're talking about. Tolstoy is, I think, the more consistently excellent author, but Dostoevsky soars to much higher heights of human achievement. Sometimes I feel that since a novelist is supposed to be writing novels not snatches of prose, that Dostoevsky's genius-mixed-with-crappy-parts technique is cheating -- Anna Karenina is, I think, a much better fully-realized work than, say, The Idiot -- but on the other hand, the good parts of Dostoevsky just contain such a large portion of what needs to be said about humanity that it seems churlish to deny him.

July 6, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 6, 2005 9:24:03 PM


"Anna Karenina is, I think, a much better fully-realized work than, say, The Idiot"

Are you comparing best to best here, in your opinion? I vastly prefer Tolstoy, though The Idiot was the first piece of challenging literature I remember reading at 12-13, so I have an affection for it.

Haven't read the book High Fidelity, but the movie just seemed another variation on the "wise woman/silly resistant immature man" theme, which is a good theme (see Spiderman), but one I am very tired of.

Let us see:everybody chooses bebop, but they only list two swing saxmen;50's Coltrane is the best jazz ever...Kundera....like late Schoenberg...tried Whitman again recently, seemed lugubrious, so Emily...Sargent portraits are to stare...I suppose Schubert, though don't much care for 19th century classical.

And of course Brando, but "Out of the Past" is my number one all-time favorite movie.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 6, 2004 2:35:20 PM

Cezanne considerably before Manet or Monet. And I think The Last Supper before The Last Judgment, if only because TLJ works best within the much larger thematic/artistic context of the Sistine Chapel.

Also: Tastes Great.

Posted by: Kriston | Jul 6, 2004 3:08:48 PM

"Chris Bertram has very good taste."

Nah. He has borderline acceptable taste. He gets lots of obvious ones right, but he gets lots of obvious ones wrong too:

"Wilco or Cat Power? Pass"

And Matthew writes:

"Tolstoy is, I think, the more consistently excellent author, but Dostoevsky soars to much higher heights of human achievement."

'Consistently excellent authors' are a dime a dozen. Dostoyevski, on the other hand, is something really special.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 6, 2004 3:10:32 PM

Not having any Russian, I have long wondered whether Dostoevsky is the heaving, clunky stylist he seems to be or whether the translations I have read (mostly Constance Garnett in the cheap editions) are to blame. Anyone out there with the linguistic chops to have an opinion?
And while I prefer Johnny Cash to Bill Monroe myself, I'm not sure you can give Cash the palm over someone who invented a whole genre of music.

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jul 6, 2004 3:13:04 PM

Ah, nothing like a good bout of pretension on a Tuesday. I sent this to all my friends.

Posted by: Amanda | Jul 6, 2004 3:27:54 PM

Dostoevsky is a heaving clunky stylist in Russian. It's actually more pronounced in Russian because the language itself is less heaving and clunky than English. But I still prefer him to Tolstoy, for the reason that Matt cited.

Posted by: sophia | Jul 6, 2004 3:42:40 PM

Pardon my Pharisian self, but there's something I don't get about literature: If what you want is entertainment, aren't there media ( music, movies, games ) that offer far more entertainment possibilities?

If what you want is information about what needs to be said about humanity, aren't social sciences, history and even philosophical essays more efficient ways of getting the same information since it's presented in a way which, because of its greater directness is easier to examine critically?

When one uses metaphors or characters-as-archetypes, it can sometimes be difficult to know if a certain detail is relevant to the greater message ( as well as its relative importance to the other elements ), if it's a plot device or if it's just there to set the mood. E.g.: How much importance should we give to the fact that in The Stranger by Camus, he kills an Arab on a beach? Does the "Arab" part matter? Does the "beach" part matter? What does the intense heat refer to?
With vague propositions, interpretations can tell more about the interpreters than about what's being interpreted ( see also, the Bible ).

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jul 6, 2004 4:30:00 PM

After "what needs to be said about humanity" there should be "or what it was like to live in a certain period/place/condition".

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jul 6, 2004 4:32:14 PM

Tchaikovsky or Chopin? Tchaikovsky--Are you saying you agree? Can you even compare the two? And I was begining to respect your opinion.

Posted by: Noone | Jul 6, 2004 4:33:28 PM

False dilemma: entertainment or information. That is the attitude of a philistine.

People who turn to literature (or other forms of "high" art) have a taste for something a bit grander: the aesthetic sublime, which transcends mere entertainment or information gathering. It is something more akin to seeking a religious experience. Many forms of "low" art also provide this experience as well, but perhaps not so much as the greatest of the "high" forms.

Posted by: blah | Jul 6, 2004 4:37:07 PM

I'm not sure if Dostoevsky "soars to much higher heights of human achievement," more often than Tolstoy, if ever. His prose is so weighed down with self-conscious gravitas (not to mention hundreds of pages of the same existentialist riff on how life is dreary) that I think Tolstoy wins, if only for the occasional flashes of humor.

I'll totally agree with you about "Anna Karenina". That book rocks.

Posted by: Alan | Jul 6, 2004 4:53:12 PM

False dilemma: entertainment or information. That is the attitude of a philistine.

Not only false but also maximalist, and incompletely maximalist at that. If we agree to the unsupported assumption that books or art just are less entertaining than music/movies/games, couldn't we say that those are then trumped by even more entertaining activities: sex, drugs, x-treme sports, and crime?

Posted by: Kriston | Jul 6, 2004 5:07:13 PM

I'm just annoyed that most of his "Pass" answers are to match-ups involving women: Liz Phair/Aimee Mann, Willa Cather, Flannery O'Connor, Diana Krall/Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris/Lucinda Williams, etc. What, this dude doesn't read female authors or listen to female vocalists? Chump.

Posted by: Crossword | Jul 6, 2004 5:08:52 PM

Thanks Blah ( for the answer and the correction on the names of millenia old groups of the Mid-East ).

So, when would I know I'm in front of high art, of the aesthetic sublime? If I rely on others around me, they could be engaging in posing, if I rely on my own emotions, well, I've had ( sober )experiences where I was quite enthusiastic about an idea or an object's ( or person's ) attractiveness only to think later that the elation wasn't warranted.

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jul 6, 2004 5:09:12 PM

"85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?"

Is this serious? Who in his right mind eats peanut butter?

And as for anchovies, 3 words: boquerones en vinagre.

Posted by: 6bulls6 | Jul 6, 2004 5:11:45 PM

Another idea is that one learns about oneself by the experience of reading a work of fiction.

Unfortunately, the Universities that a century ago neglected writers such as Clemens, Melville,etc., now make them mandatory, to the detriment of English majors who now 'must' read 'great works' of fiction.

It's also noteworthy that neither D or T went to the University of St.Petersberg writers workshops to 'learn' how to write.

They both had very different motivations, but they shared a determination to heard.

Isn't that what any GOOD writer needs, anyway?

Posted by: The Dark Avenger | Jul 6, 2004 5:25:34 PM

So, when would I know I'm in front of high art, of the aesthetic sublime?

How do you know when you have fallen in love?

Posted by: blah | Jul 6, 2004 5:26:55 PM

"So, when would I know I'm in front of high art, of the aesthetic sublime?"

"The value of an affect derives not from its intensity but from its duration." One the few Nietzsche epigrams at the top of my head.

Speaking of Nietzsche, who I think liked Doestoevsky, but nobody's perfect.

(Not actual quotes.)
Assertion: "Without God, all things are possible"
Dostoevsky:"The horror, The Horror!"
Nietzsche: "Whoopee! Free at last!"

Dostoevsky just sophomore despair and nihilism to me. Boring. No offense to his fans.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 6, 2004 5:31:57 PM

"Anna Karenina is, I think, a much better fully-realized work than, say, The Idiot"

All fully-realized works resemble each other; each less-than-fully-realized work is less-than-fully-realized in its own way . . .

Posted by: rea | Jul 6, 2004 6:12:27 PM

Thomas Mann or Aimee Mann?
Thomas Mann or Michael Mann?
Jackson Pollock or Michael Jackson?
Lester Young or Neil Young?
Mickey Rourke or Mickey Mouse?
T.S.Eliot or Eliot Spitzer?
Dick Van Dyke or Rip Van Winkle?
George Washington or Denzel Washington?
Elvis Costello or Abbott and Costello?
Doctor Johnson or Lyndon Johnson?
Bugs Bunny or Bugsy Siegel?
Jane Austen or Austin, Texas?

Get a life!

Posted by: S. Anderson | Jul 6, 2004 6:33:34 PM

Gogol is better than either.

I scored 27 "pass" which covered both "Who?" and "Hate both of 'em". If I'd included "Who cares?" I'd get up to 50 "pass".

Talking to my family we concluded that I am a demographic of one. That's why my political judgements are so consistently on the money.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 6, 2004 6:48:20 PM

It would be churlish of me to mention it, but today I saw a bumper sticker which said "Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks coffee."

Posted by: Slothrop of Boulder | Jul 6, 2004 6:50:14 PM

4. Cats or dogs?
18. Hot dogs or hamburgers?
66. Blue or green?
74. The Music Man or Oklahoma?
75. Sushi, yes or no?
83. Bus or subway?
85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
97. Anchovies, yes or no?

And the answers to these questions tell us that someone has "very good taste"?

"2. The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises?"

Is The Great Gatsby a "fully-realized novel"? Hardly.

Is The Sun Also Rises a "fully-realized novel"? Hardly.

Does it make sense to put the two novels in some idiotic competition? Hardly.

Posted by: 6bulls6 | Jul 6, 2004 6:55:42 PM

Russian literature is the Gephardt of literature. Anyway, most of those seem like old folks questions to me, but definitely Twain over Melville, George Jones over Monroe/Cash, Ghost World (especially the comic book) over Election, and, on the old folks question of Eames/Noguchi, definitely the chair. Those tables do not have scripts as to how to interact with them properly, by my lights. Also, jeez, Chinatown over B&C in a landslide--'70s beats '60s in the crime/noir category, hands down.

I don't quite get what's at issue in the Grosse Point Blank vs. High Fidelity. Regional thing? Age thing? Urbs vs. Burbs? What's going on there?

Posted by: spacetoast | Jul 6, 2004 7:32:33 PM

But really it's prolly a question of the lesser regarded The Long Goodbye vs. Chinatown, though they are in the same "alienated individual gets knocked around" category.

Posted by: spacetoast | Jul 6, 2004 7:44:07 PM

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