The Ancient Past: Oakland, California in 1987

The text which follows is that of another of a bunch of old letters, written some 26 years ago, found at the bottom of my desk drawer not long ago.

Dear Friends:

This last weekend was a busy one.  During the weekly telephone call from my doting parents, my sister Patricia, who left the city of Oakland rather than allow me to speak with her with raised voice 50 feet away in Jack London Square, & who refused to allow me to enter her house last Christmas, got on the phone and said hello.  A letter from Mike Girard arrived which encouraged me to write but to stop translating.  And this morning, Monday morning, a postcard arrived from Trudy Markiw.  The big event, nonetheless, was my starting on the last 70 pages of the Struve biography.

Dear friends, you have a correspondent here who is chatting about his present poor chances of success due to a persistent pattern of failure.  On each of a series of episodes I have so acted as to question my own judgement; when I see the news of the latest maniac who has gone berserk and killed a relative or two and a batch of innocent bystanders I feel no phlegmatic assurance that I accept myself, like myself, am proud of myself enough to be essentially different from the poor wretch, the latest spectacular victim of a mental disorder for which I have no explanation and must admit myself subject to.

Imagine you started training to run the quarter-mile in your young adulthood, when you did it in sixty seconds.  That’s not very near championship time, you know — 44 seconds in the world record — but it shows promise.  Ah, those hateful words.

And so you begin to bring it down: 58, 56, 54 seconds.  Months go by, and you get to enter a big track meet, where they’re going to have a large number of people watching the quarter-mile.  54 seconds will be creditable, 52 will be excellent, and 50 flat might win.

And you do it in sixty seconds.  You don’t know why.

In just that way, faithful reader, I myself operate below par, I know, but I don’t know why.

I have gotten tired of looking for an answer and have now taken to burdening you, the reader, with my reflections on my resentment at my lack of success in explaining my failure.  Then, if I do explain my resentment of my lack of success in explaining my failure, I have accomplished something, modest though it may be.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

The bare paradox does not give full flesh to my squirming efforts at consciousness: unsuccessful at meaningful interpersonal relationships, not able to say why this is so, I string together an account of the peregrinations of my easily-misled mind and offer it to you, useless as it is.  This letter, for example, began as an effort to explain in a friendly nonthreatening chatty way (now when I say “nonthreatening,” I mean not threatening to me, the writer) why it is I stick to translating the Struve biography despite Girard’s advice.  I also wanted to write a sort of report on the meaning of Struve, addressed to my father, sort of, in explanation of what ten years for occasional effort in the history of Russian science had brought me.  The first three words went on the page last night — “Dear friends:”  (do you mind if I count the colon as a word?)  — but only after I tried mentally to pull myself hand-over-hand in awareness of the moment, that is egotistically turned away from the subject and became conscious of the perceiving being, that I could continue.

An image returned to mind as I sat before the blank page, an image of the ‘Mauer’ before which the normal man can simply say “pass”, as in a game of cards; the German edition of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground  is on the desk before me, and that image seemed à propos.  I am before a wall, and it appears the more to be a self-imposed obstacle3, the more I try to get over, around, or through it.

The image comes from the old book, in pre-1930s Gothic script difficult even for the reader fluent in German, which I got from Mr Cunningham’s practice of virtually giving away good books for a song [I believe in this case $1], and I just read something there about it.

The very title of the book,  Aus dem Dunkel des Großstadt, in German, has a meaning quite distant from the English of Notes from the Underground, and it seemed silly for me to give you what the interesting passage said by translating into English from a German translation when a short walk would bring me to the library where surely a good English-language version would be available.  You see there was an obstacle there, like getting your time down in the quarter-mile, which an effort to overcome should have been able to handle easily.  At the library the card catalogue showed four, five, maybe half a dozen copies — do you know they listed the Notebooks [the rough working drafts of all ol’ Dosty’s best novels have been published in annotated, scholarly form] — for Notes from the Underground ?   Embaras des riches . . . 

Well, the fiction shelves didn’t have the copies listed for that location, and the literature shelves — Oakland library is big, big enough to have separate rooms for borrowers interested in reading fiction, a working-class word, and for their fellow-citizens who want to read literature, the same thing described by a word of the leisure class — the literature shelves didn’t have any copies of the book itself either, but did have so many books about Dostoevsky’s writings mixed in among books he wrote, that one of the former had the passage I wanted.  Have I then overcome the obstacle?

No, because I bore you with all this verbiage about how I found it.  But see here, the commentator, professor of linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, provides a better context than I could have.  From Dostoevsky: Essays and Perspectives (Berkeley, Univ of California Press, 1970), pp. 37-39:

It is in Section II that the ontological critique begins.  The initial premiss, we learn, is that consciousness is a form of sickness.

I assure you, gentlemen, that to be too acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.  It would have been quite sufficient for the business of everyday life to possess the ordinary human consciousness, that is to say, half or even a quarter of the share which falls to the lot of an intelligent man of our unhappy nineteenth century

— ah, Dostoevsky, however ‘unhappy’ the 19th century was, the 20th was worse (& especially for Russia!); let us hope the 21st can even get back up to the level of the 19th.

who, besides has the double misfortune of living in Petersburg, the3 most abstract and premeditated city in the world . . . .  It would have been quite sufficient, for instance, to possess the sort of consciousness with which the so-called plain men of action are endowed. . . .

‘Intensified consciousness’ has already compelled the Man from Underground to a realization that he is a blackguard, a damnable admission for a sensitive, intelligent man; ‘as though it were any consolation to the blackguard that he actually is a blackguard.’  Just then we seem to be drawn abruptly into what looks like a side track, which soon seems to become the major issue.  At the root of the malady of modern man is is his own major discovery, the laws of Nature.

. . .  what hurt most of all was that though innocent I was guilty and, as it were, guilty according to the laws of nature . . . .  For I should most certainly not have known what to do with my magnanimity — neither to forgive, since the man who would have slapped my face, could most certainly have done it in obedience to the laws of nature; nor to forget, since even though it is a law of nature it hurts all the same.

One aspect of the predicament of conscious man is that his existence is unbounded, and purposive activity becomes difficult or impossible.  The ‘stone wall,’ an image representing the circumscribed ordinary consciousness, is the theme of this section.

That’s the image I got: Mauer is German for wall.

Before such a stone wall such people, that is to say, plain men and men of action, as a rul capitulate at once.  To them a stone wall is not a challenge, as it is, for instance, to us thinking men, who, because we are thinking men, do nothing . . . .  No, they capitulate in all sincerity.  A stone wall exerts a calming influence upon them, a sort of final and morally decisive influence, perhaps even a mystic one.

The Man from Underground can never at any stage be taken absolutely seriously, but, in the light of what has gone before, it would seem that he is as serious as he ever can be when he says:

Well, that sort of plain man I consider to be the real, normal man, such as his tender Mother Nature herself wanted to see him when she so lovingly brought him forth from the earth.  I envy such a man with all the strength of my embittered heart.  He is stupid — I’m not disputing that.  But perhaps the normal man should be stupid.  How are you to know?  Which brings us round to another fact of a paradox already discussed: the conscious man of great sensibility is no man at all — but a mouse.  I grant you it is an intensely conscious mouse, but it’s a mouse all the same, whereas the other is a man . . . .

One further paradox: men of advanced consciousness have elaborated the laws of Nature, precisely what constitute the ‘stone wall’ which seems to have such a calming influence, to be so categorical to the mentality of the plain man. ‘When, for instance, it is proved to you that you are descended from a monkey, then it’s no use pulling a long face about it: you just have to accept it.’  When the Man from Underground asks: ‘Is it not much better to understand everything, to be aware of everything, to be conscious of all the impossibilities and stone walls?’ we glimpse the tragedy of the situation, for there would never have been any stone walls or mathematical impossibilities if scientific man had not dreamt them up:

To reach by the most irrefutable logical combinations the most hideous conclusions on the eternal theme that it is somehow your own fault that there is a stone wall, thoug again it is abundantly clear that thit is not your faulty at all, and therefore to abandon yourself seriously to doing nothing silently and gnashing your teeth impotently, hugging the illusion that there isn’t really anyone you can be angry with; that there is really no object5 for your anger and that there perhaps never will be an object for it . . .

That’s the image, dear reader, that describes my predicament quite well, complete with the well-informed commentary of Richard Lord.  It is my usual practice, or it has been, to end my comments more or less at the point where I describe how I feel, but with five pages already written I would like to elaborate on the applicability of the Russian novelist’s image to the would-be historian of the use of science in Russia, that is to yours truly.

I realize that I create the obstacles that have defeated me.  Wanting to do something, setting my heart on something, even and especially something reasonably to be expected of someone of my ability, triggers an infallible mechanism within me which deprives me of that which I seek.  The more I try, let us use as an example, not to be vain the more I protest excessively that I am not vain.  It chills me to see people with whom I went to grad school, or to undergrad school, in positions of honor, trust, and responsibility while I procrastinate getting a job teaching junior-high mathematics.

Away with promise!  To hell with might-have-beens!  The very act of setting down to write calmly about the place of Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve in the development and use of Western European science by the Russian government in the course of the nineteenth century is good enough to ensure that I don not accomplish such a task.  Whatever gets written is so much compensation, limited to a statement — no, to a transparent rationalization — of why I did not succeed.  And that awareness is all that my present life holds possible.

One thing Girard said that is acceptable: write a million words or so, and you are a writer.  A successful writer — I utterly deny.  Banal, mediocre, overly precious and mannered, sure — a matter of indifference, as Seidel honestly advises — but expressed.  Written down.

And so it is with the translation.  However outdated this Soviet study of the greatest observational astronomer of the nineteenth century, its reproduction is the activity which best forwards my aim to study the transmission of science eastward.  Writing on that subject, because I no longer trust my judgement, is quite a waste of my readers’ time.  Did you really want to know the opinions of a failure on one of life’s successes?  Enh, isn’t that what all we historians are . . . ?  Ah, I mis-spoke; count me only as a would-be  historian.  On my way to learning how to express my self, I re-express Madame Sokolovskaia’s opinions.  Let us suppose it is indeed a dull book; the subject matter is crucial.

Why crucial?  Well, you see, astronomy is a prestige science, one that can assist the defense of the realm only in a peripheral way.  While during the first half of the nineteenth century the military preparedness of the Russian empire declined steadily with respect to the progressive, industrializing Atlantic coast countries of Europe, the astronomy — the research contribution by residents of said Russian empire — was world rank.  Then when the modernization of Russia began in earnest during the reign of Alexander II (1855-1881), the astronomy of the empire got worse.

If the above paragraph is true, then we have a case study of the counterproductive bankrolling of a prestige science, to the detriment of authentic scientific consciousness, by a backward, reactionary government which flattered itself on its advancement of science in the tradition of Catherine the Great, viz., posing as progressive while failing effectively to respond to the challenge of its Atlantic-coast rivals.

But can I prove it?  What does “prove it” mean?  I am only capable of telling you that that’s my opinion and explaining why it’s my opinion.  Most fundamentally of all, it’s probably my opinion because, schizophrenic of the psycho-dynamic variety (the diagnosis according to the Harvard Medical School) and manic-depressive (according to a number of California and Massachusetts psychiatrists) as I am, I tend to see the truth in the opposite of the received opinion.

Since my own judgement is just what an honest appraisal of my past behavior leads me to question, I believe my stance on my specialty may well be mistaken for self-serving reasons.  Look once [Guk mal, say the Germans] at the received opinion: Alexander Vucinich in the first two [the 2013 editor comments: pioneering historian of Russian science Alexander Vucinich died in 2002; there are only two volumes] volumes of Science in Russian Culture charts a monotonically increasing scientific sophistication of Russia during the nineteenth century.  The most rapid increase in scientific studies resulted from the 1860s Reforms, but there are not two different levels, there are no leading or lagging sectors.  He describes science in Russian culture, so the accomplishments of the Baltic German community get only passing mention.  The first full-length scholarly biography [Cynthia Whittaker, The Origins of Modern Russian Education, 1984] of the longest-serving Minister of Education to the Russian throne during the 19th century credits S.S. Uvarov with great success in laying the foundations for the qualitative leap in the modernity, sophistication, and thoroughness of scientific studies during the following Great Reforms.

A second reason you should not be convinced by my arguments is, that I can barely read the source material.  Seventeen years of reading Russian and it’s still a piecemeal process.  There’s another example of my hugging my chains, my selecting something I’m not particularly good at to devote my life’s work to.  Vucinich and Whittaker have breath-taking footnotes, my friends.  They have read the correspondence of thirty or forty second-rank figures just for colorful anecdotes; for each statement they make about the major figures they discuss, they have no trouble running through half a dozen extant biographies.  Their books are many orders of magnitude richer in source materials than anything I could possibly compose.

Bereft of good judgement, wading in the shallows of the available sources, deeply imbued with a stringent psychic requirement that I fail, my writing is strictly autobiographical.  The translating is a record of what (little) I know about the transmission of science from Western Europe to Eastern Europe prior to the establishment of the Marxist political system.  My contribution is strictly belles lettres : beautiful letters about the flowers I’ve sniffed while on my journey.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
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