Reading: February 2021

2021-04-11

In February, I read two more short books and several articles. I also read several tutorials about the Go programming language, but I’ll write about Go another day.

Books

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson

This was a fun monster story. I haven’t read it before, but everyone knows the basic outline already. There’s a respectable doctor, Jekyll, and an evil man, Hyde, and they have a vague but awful connection. Or at least, that’s what Stevenson initially leads us to believe, but we discover that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. (Cue creepy music.)

Nevertheless, the book surprised me. First, I expected Hyde to be larger—a more physically obvious monster than Jekyll. Stevenson, however, imagines Hyde smaller than Jekyll because Hyde represents all of the evil that Jekyll has successfully repressed most of his life.1 Although Hyde murders someone, we don’t fear him because of his physical strength. We fear his warped character. Second, I expected to learn more specifics about Hyde’s evil nature. But in good Victorian fashion, Stevenson gives us no details. Jekyll has desires that disgust him—they seem sexual, but we can’t be sure—and Hyde indulges in these evil desires fully. That’s all we learn.

Stevenson cleverly makes Hyde scary and creepy by not describing him. Over the course of the book, we hear again and again that Hyde freaks everyone out, that they can see how evil he is, but also that he won’t look straight at others and others don’t want to look straight at him. When someone manages to look at Hyde, they still can’t identify why he looks so evil.

[Hyde] is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scare know why.…He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment (9).

Confession

Leo Tolstoy (translated by Peter Carson)

Last month, I enjoyed Peter Carson’s translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He also translated Tolstoy’s Confession for the same volume. Since it’s short, I decided to read it too. I’m glad I did, though I find Tolstoy less interesting as he becomes more religious. (Also, I can’t stand when Tolstoy glorifies simple, pure peasants.) But I enjoyed two parts of Confession. First, early in the book, Tolstoy describes what he calls “a void” at the center of many religious lives. I think he captures something common and important: people can be absolutely proper in their external devotion to religious life but also absolutely untouched by what their religion demands of them. (Maybe this should be no great surprise? Maybe this is true about people and all sorts of principles?) Second, at the end of the book, Tolstoy vividly describes a horrifying dream that he has when he reads a draft of Confession three years after he first wrote it. He dreams that he is on a bed that hangs above a chasm. He begins to slip off the bed and towards the chasm, but he is saved as one rope binds him firmly to the bed. I’ll quote the final paragraph. The quotation is long, but the writing is remarkable. (I think the ninety-page book was worth reading for the four-page dream. I wonder if the dream is equally powerful if you don’t read the rest of the book.)

I can’t even make out anything there down below, in that bottomless chasm above which I am hanging and into which I am being pulled. My heart contracts and I feel terror. It’s terrifying to look there. If I look there I feel that I’ll at once slip off the last cords and perish. I don’t look, but not to look is even worse because I am thinking of what will happen to me now when I come off the last cords. And I feel that I am losing my last strength from terror and slowly slipping lower and lower on my back. Another minute and I’ll come off. And then a thought comes to me: This cannot be true. This is a dream. Wake up. I try to wake up and I can’t. What am I to do, what am I to do, I ask myself and wake up. Above me too there is infinite space. I look into this infinite space of the heavens and try to forget about the abyss below, and indeed I do forget. The infinite space below repels and terrifies me; the infinite space above attracts and strengthens me. I am still hanging above the chasm on the last cords that haven’t yet slipped out from under me; I know that I am hanging but I only look up and my terror passes. As happens in a dream, a voice is saying, “Watch this, this is it!” and I keep looking more and more deeply into the infinite space above and I feel that I am calmed; I remember everything that has happened and I remember how it all happened: how I moved my legs, how I hung there, how I was terrified, and how I was saved from the terror by starting to look up. And I ask myself, “Well, and what next? I am still hanging.” And I don’t so much look around as feel with my whole body the point of support on which I am being held. And I see that I’m no longer hanging or falling but am being held firmly. I ask myself how I’m being held; I feel, I look, and I see that under me, under the middle of my body, there is a single cord, and that “looking up I am lying on it in the most stable equilibrium, and that it alone was holding me before. And here, as happens in dreams, the mechanism by which I am being held appears to me very natural, understandable, and unquestionable although if I’m awake this mechanism makes no sense. In the dream I am even surprised that I didn’t understand it before. It turns out that at the head of my bed there stands a pillar, and the strength of this pillar goes without question although there is nothing for this thin pillar to stand on. Then from this pillar a loop of rope has somehow been let down very cleverly and at the same time very simply, and if you lie on this loop with the middle of your body and look up, then there can’t even be a question of falling. All this was clear to me, and I was glad and calm. And someone seems to be saying to me, “Watch, remember.” And I wake up.

Articles

(I will briefly summarize these articles here. I’m still figuring out what I want to do with these monthly reading notes.)

Sex as a Pedagogical Failure

Amia Srinivasan

I read this article for a second time because I read a story about allegations that a professor had inappropriate relationships with multiple students.

Srinivasan argues here for one negative and two positive claims. Negatively, Srinivasan argues that we should not focus on consent when we criticize or regulate sexual relationships between students and professors. She gives two reasons: first, this may inadvertently demean young people, usually women, by assuming that they are incapable of consent; second, if we focus on consent, we may ignore the more significant harms of such relationships. Positively, Srinivasan argues that when a teacher has sex with a student, the teacher violates their ethical obligations as a teacher and that even consensual sex between teachers and students will often reinforce patriarchy in ways that harm the student.

Racism, Moralism, and Social Criticism

Tommie Shelby

I read this because someone I respect praised Shelby’s work on racism. I like the article, and now I want to read more of the debate between Shelby and Haslanger on racism as ideology. Shelby argues for a political and institutional model of racism as opposed to a moral and person model. He also argues that we should explain racism primarily as a kind of ideology, and he conceives of ideology as something that can involve implicit, unconscious, or loosely connected assumptions, beliefs, and judgments. As with racism, Shelby considers ideology from a social rather than an individual point of view.

John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle and Free Speech: Expanding the Notion of Harm

Melina Constantine Bell

I don’t remember why I read this. I’m surprised that I did because I’m not sympathetic to utilitarianism or Mill on freedom of speech. In any case, Bell argues that we should regulate speech using John Stuart Mill’s principle of harm instead of looking to considerations of offense. That is, Bell believes that we should limit speech when it is harmful but not necessarily when it is offensive. Bell also explains that some forms of speech (e.g., racist, sexist, or homophobic insults) are both harmful and do not express genuine opinions. Therefore, Bell thinks we are justified in regulating such forms of speech both because they are harmful but also because they don’t contribute anything postive to life through discussion.


  1. As Jekyll explains late in the book, “The evil side of my nature…was less robust and less developed than the good…And hence…it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll” (55). ↩︎