Picking Up On The Cues

May 12, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Communication necessarily involves empathy. To listen requires a silencing of the self. However, to understand requires tools contained within the self. This opens up a paradox: how to listen and translate at the same time. Non-verbal communication often enhances face-to-face interactions. Literature gives any number of wonderful scenes enhanced by non-verbal cues. As I think about and develop an understanding of non-verbal communication for today's post, I am going to focus on three works. First, a quote by Plutarch regarding Caius Gracchus, then a scene from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and, finally, a scene from the 2016 film Arrival.

Plutarch spends quite a bit of time discussing communication in the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. He claims that a real understanding of character comes not through actions alone, but through the way a man uses words, interacts with others and his style of living. Plutarch often notes that temperance is a trait common to many of these great men, but what temperance is, remains to be seen. Plutarch indicates that abstaining from excess – in all aspects of one's life – is a necessary attribute of temperance. This is proven through the detail provided regarding style of food, sleep, and dress, among other things. But most importantly, temperance can be shown in a man's speech and public behavior. Plutarch's favorite exchanges involve senators who spoke their minds but held their tempers.

Plutarch's frustration with political corruption is apparent when he notes that senators have become afraid to vote according to their conscience. He gives exceeding praise, however, to those men who risk their support by offering thoughtful discussion of a new idea. In the following long quote, Plutarch describes the scene of the senate, brimming with corruption. Caius Gracchus, after having witnessed his brother's brutal death by senators in the senate chamber, proceeded to win a popular vote. He too decided to support the populace and not necessarily the wealthy senators. His action speaks loudly.

Plutarch writes: “While he was arguing for the ratification of this law, his behavior was observed to show in many respects unusual earnestness, and whereas other popular leaders had always hitherto, when speaking, turned their faces towards the senate house, and the place called the comitium, he, on the contrary, was the first man that in his harangue to the people turned himself the other way, towards them, and continued after that time to do so. An insignificant movement and change of posture, yet it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.” In this single, dramatic action, Caius demonstrates the way in which speech succeeds better when directed at the party one wishes to address, regardless of prior custom. In other words, body language is a form of presence, a form of signification that transfers audibly.

Dostoevsky describes an extremely awkward moment in Brothers Karamazov in which the action of bowing can be seen as a form of speech. Upon Alyosha's entrance into the monastery, his family meets with Zosima, the elder. Generally, an elder warrants great respect. In this case, however, Alyosha's family is unable (or unwilling) to demonstrate appropriate respect. Whether or not they believe in a higher order (though they all verbally claim to) does not matter. What matters is Dostoevsky's description of their awkward introduction, which speaks volumes.

Dostoevsky writes: “The elder Zosima came out accompanied by a novice and Alyosha. The hieromonks rose and greeted him with a very deep bow, touching the ground with their fingers, and, having received his blessing, kissed his hand. When he had blessed them, the elder returned the same deep bow to each of them, touching the ground with his fingers, and asked a blessing of each of them for himself. The whole ceremony was performed very seriously, not at all like some everyday ritual, but almost with a certain feeling. To Miusov, however, it all seemed done with deliberate suggestion. He stood in front of all his fellow visitors. He ought – and he had even pondered it the previous evening – despite all his ideas, just out of simple courtesy (since it was customary there), to come up and receive the elder's blessing, at least receive his blessing, even if he did not kiss his hand. But now, seeing all this bowing and kissing of the hieromonks, he instantly changed his mind: gravely and with dignity he made a rather deep bow, by worldly standards, and went over to a chair. Fyodor Pavlovich did exactly the same, this time, like an ape, mimicking Miusov perfectly. Ivan Fyodorovich bowed with great dignity and propriety, but he, too, kept his hands at his sides, while Kalganov was so nonplussed that he did not bow at all. The elder let fall the hand he had raised for the blessing and, bowing to them once more, invited them all to sit down. The blood rushed to Alyosha's cheeks; he was ashamed.” Custom has been cast aside on a whim, or perhaps an emotion. Either way, Miusov's very quick change of mind affects the entire room, who follows his example. All of this seems to be driven by an inability to set ego aside.

Likewise, in Arrival, Professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), is the only one able to set aside her ego and, miraculously, her fear. This film offers an excellent look at all aspects of communication. Since Louise Banks tries to communicate with aliens, she is forced to start at the very beginning of language, but even determining what is the beginning may seem confusing. In a very dramatic scene, she removes all protective gear and shows her bare hand to the aliens. This hand on the wall gives them a visual indication of one defining characteristic of humans. We use our hands for everything even down to our greetings. In presenting her bare-skinned hand, her face (without a helmet) and her eyes, she makes an offering. This gesture is simultaneously weak and strong. Weak because she has taken a chance on being misunderstood (in addition to the idea of alien contamination, etc.); strong because she boldly announces her ability and desire to communicate. And, of course, the aliens respond enthusiastically. This position recreates the very paradox of communication itself: how to listen and translate at the same time, how to be simultaneously open and closed (or weak and strong). 

These three examples illustrate some of the potential forces which can block or affect communication. In the first, Caius balances custom with his desire to actually speak to the people. Knowing that the senators would not approve, knowing that his abrupt change could be mistaken or disliked, he bravely took a chance. In Dostoevsky's hilarious scene, Miusov throws both custom and respect out the window on a whim. It appears that his fragile ego will not stand the idea that, in this spiritual world, even novices receive signs of great respect. Perhaps, he is intimidated by their spirituality. Perhaps he thinks all religion is hogwash. Either way, he instantly pulls back and refuses a proper introduction, which influences the next person's bow, and on down to the last member of the party, causing great anguish for the young Alyosha. Finally, Arrival depicts the courage necessary to step as far outside of oneself as possible in order to listen to another's language. To make meaning of these cues, is the next part of the story.

The simplest sentences can be bungled and confused between two people who speak the same language. These three examples exhibit the hilarious, intimidating, nervous or frightening experiences that may accompany communication. Our world depends upon understanding. These three examples substantiate why we might want to attend to the non-verbal aspects of communication in addition to the words.

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Alyosha in Brothers Karamazov

February 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In “Philebus”, Socrates and Protarchus attempt to understand unity. Socrates states, “The one and many become identified by thought...They run about together, in and out of every word which is uttered...This union of them will never cease, and is not now beginning, but is an...everlasting quality of thought itself, which never grows old.” In other words, the idea of unity is an ancient one – older even than Plato's writings and Socrates himself. So it is not surprising that Dostoevsky also grapples with forms of unity in The Brothers Karamazov. In the Epilogue, Alyosha (also Alexei) and the schoolboys grab hands and vow to never forget their friend Ilyushka. This action strongly resembles Jesus Christ with his disciples. Alyosha says to his friends and disciples, “You are all dear to me, gentlemen, from now on I shall keep you all in my heart, and I ask you to keep me in your hearts, too! Well, and who has united us in this good, kind feeling, which we will remember and intend to remember always, all our lives, who, if not Ilyushechka, that good boy, that kind boy, that boy dear to us unto ages of ages! Let us never forget him, and may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages of ages!”  After this proclamation, all the boys join in and reinforce Alyosha's words. What strikes me with interest is the way in which Dostoevsky wrote this scene. He has all boys join in as if one voice, then occasionally separates out a single voice. It is important that at times the voices are indistinguishable. For example, the boy who yells “Karamazov, we love you!” is possibly Kartashov's, but not definitively.  The others join in again as one mixture. Only Kolya and Alyosha are singled out as individuals. Part of this is due to the fact that the narrator never introduced the other boys to the reader. They have always existed for us as a group. The religious metaphor is obvious, but I am curious about the idea of one among many and how the many become one. Certainly, they have agreed upon a pact, but also, this decision (if we can call it that) was led by Alyosha. Kolya strongly reinforces Alyosha's idea, and therefore, the others all follow along. In my mind, then, Alyosha and Kolya rise slightly above the others in their importance, which makes it difficult for me to label them as a single, unified body.

From the beginning of the novel, the narrator has always claimed that Alyosha was intended to be the hero of this novel. He says this despite the fact that no one will not believe it. He writes, “But suppose they read the novel and do not see, do not agree with the noteworthiness of my Alexei Fyodorovich? I say this because, to my sorrow, I foresee it. To me he is noteworthy, but I decidedly doubt that I shall succeed in proving it to the reader. The thing is that he does, perhaps, make a figure, but a figure of an indefinite, indeterminate sort. Though it would be strange to demand clarity from people in a time like ours. One thing, perhaps, is rather doubtless: he is a strange man, even an odd one. But strangeness and oddity will sooner harm than justify any claim to attention, especially when everyone is striving to unite particulars and find at least some general sense in the general senselessness. Whereas an odd man is most often a particular and isolated case”. After I finished reading the novel, I realized how closely Alyosha aligns with another great Dostoevsky character. The main character in the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is also odd, unique, different, and therefore, separate. In this story, the narrator desires that everyone laugh at him, and in return he gives only love and forgiveness. Alyosha too gives love and forgiveness. At times Alyosha's family embarrasses him (as in the scene in front of Zosima), but he forgives all of their irrational, eccentric and immoral actions. Alyosha never waivers in his love. He grants acceptance and love to all. For this reason, the narrator names him as the hero of the story.

Just after Ilyushka dies, the narrator notes, “They all [the boys] stopped at the big stone. Alyosha looked and the whole picture of what Snegiryov [Ilyushka's father] had once told him about Ilyushechka, crying and embracing his father, exclaiming: 'Papa, papa, how he humiliated you!' rose at once in his memory. Something shook, as it were, in his soul.”  In other words, something from deep within Alyosha forces him to stop these boys and mark the importance of the moment. It is different from his reaction to his own father's death or even Dmitri's trial, for example. This created community, this unity, marks an important change. It forces him to create a bond from a moment of suffering. Once he proclaims that they must all remember, they have something more important than friendship: unity. Even though it is noted that they will all go their separate ways, and may err or get in trouble, Alyosha demands that they recognize how goodness once filled them. Their unity is not one of similarity. They are unified solely through past experience, which now must be recalled by memory alone. Or, as Socrates states, they are unified in thought only.

Yet this unity is not an ideological one, not one of reason, but more closely resembles passion. Dostoevsky masterfully crafts each character, and Alyosha is a good example. He is reminiscent of Christ, but not the same as Christ. Alyosha does no teaching in this novel, rather he forgives everything of everyone. In a similar way, the group of disciples functions both as a unity and as individuals. The many strings converge into one large knot, which also allows Dostoevsky to conceive of many issues in one plot. At the heart of Alyosha's complexity is his ability to love without judgment. Dostoevsky's point may have been in the direction of proving that universal love and forgiveness is possible. Furthermore, Alyosha's brand of forgiveness steps slightly away religious realms, and also divorces it from the realm of logic. The world is far from ideal, but is a very human mix of passion and love.

It seems to me that The Brothers Karamazov clearly calls for love, kindness and forgiveness to an extent not currently seen in society. For this reason Alyosha is the chosen hero. Everyone loves him, but he is also considered an oddity in the community. It is unclear to me, however, if Dostoevsky believes that Alyosha's brand of forgiveness is able to be repeated, or if it should remain rare. Setting Alyosha as the hero, though, suggests that the reader must learn something from him. In a way, we even enter Alyosha's path of learning.

One of Alyosha's greatest struggles comes after the death of Zosima, Alyosha's religious mentor. As Zosima's body decays, the smell allows others to gossip about his failings. The idea that Zosima was flawed greatly disturbs Alyosha. The narrator writes, “Alyosha considered this rueful day one of the most painful and fatal days of his life. If I were asked directly: 'Could all this anguish and such great perturbation have arisen in him only because, instead of beginning at once to produce healings, the body of his elder, on the contrary, showed signs of early corruptions?' I would answer without hesitation: 'Yes, indeed it was so.' I would only ask the reader not to be in too great a hurry to laugh at my young man's pure heart. Not only have I no intention of apologizing for him, of excusing and justifying his simple faith on account of his youth, for instance or the little progress he had formerly in the study of science, and so on and so forth, but I will do the opposite and declare firmly that I sincerely respect the nature of his heart. No doubt some other young man, who takes his heart's impressions more prudently, who has already learned how to love not ardently but just lukewarmly, whose thoughts, though correct, are too reasonable (and therefore cheap) for his age, such a young man, I say, would avoid what happened to my young man, but in certain cases, really, it is more honorable to yield to some passion, however unwise, if it springs from great love, than not to yield to it at all.” Simple faith and great love – are these desirable qualities in humanity? Alyosha's teachings become important to the reader also.

I keep returning to the idea of witness. Alyosha hears and sees terrible acts, but never participates. A boy bites his finger to the point of bleeding, and his response is to wonder at what wrong has been committed against the boy. Also, Alyosha is the only one who never suspects Dmitri as the murderer, despite the facts. Alyosha sets an example of a different type of reason, something empathetic, something unreasonable in contemporary society. Grushenka says that one “should love for no reason, like Alyosha”.  We often speak of heartbreaks, but I wonder if in this novel, it is as if the mind must break and the heart heal.

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