Rasputin III: The Murder of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin


“They tried stabbing him, poisoning him, beating him, shooting him five times, and they even tried drowning him,” a history teacher said, “but a Russian peasant named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin refused to die.”

This provocative introduction to a chapter in Russian history was brought to us by our history teacher, and it left a class of boys in a sophomore World History class spellbound. That teacher went onto detail how this Russian peasant climbed the ladder of Russia’s otherwise strict class structure to provide some influence on the Romanov empire. He described how Rasputin’s reputation for having mystical, healing powers precipitated an ascension into power in the empire. The teacher concluded his presentation saying that some believed Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin’s powers bordered on the supernatural and that this speculation led some to call him “The Mad Monk”. 

We didn’t know any of this. We didn’t know that the subject of world history could be this interesting. Listening to this man spool out the story of Rasputin, many of us realized that history is a collection of stories, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller, it could be riveting. He laid that provocative description out there, and he spent the rest of the class detailing the life of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. As interesting as the tale of Rasputin’s rise to infamy was, we couldn’t wait for him to conclude the provocative “the man that couldn’t be killed” introduction. It sounded like a real life tale of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger, or any of the 70s/80s horror movies in which the bad guy could not be killed.   

“The truth of Rasputin’s murder,” counters author Joseph T. Fuhrman, “was not as amazing as the mythology that has surrounded it.”

RasputinWhile it may be true that all of the attempts to kill Rasputin occurred in the manner our history teacher detailed, it is not true, as my history teacher’s verbal commas suggest, that they all occurred on separate occasions.

It is true that Rasputin was stabbed on one occasion, by a woman without a nose, but that did not prove fatal. He was shot at five times in the course of one night, but two of those shots missed, and two of them penetrated locations that would not have been immediately fatal to any other mortal. It is also true that the conspirators, who would take his life on this fatal night, did try to poison Rasputin, but it’s conceivable that they failed give him a lethal amount of that poison. When the poison failed to produce the immediate results they desired, they panicked, and they began shooting at him, and he did survive, but it wasn’t the real life Freddy Krueger/Jason Voorhees-style resurrection my class of sophomore World History students imagined. It was more about the location of the shots, on Rasputin’s body, than anything supernatural, or mystical. One of the bullets, Fuhrmann notes –citing autopsies performed on Rasputin’s body– passed through Rasputin’s stomach and liver, and another passed through his kidney. Neither of those bullets proved to be fatal, as they wouldn’t have on any other mere mortal, but they would’ve … given enough time.

In the intervening minutes that occurred after the first shot –that went through his stomach and liver– Rasputin did manage to regain his feet and make a move on his assailant, but all Rasputin ended up doing, was grab his assailant’s shoulder and tear an epaulet off his uniform. He did not, as some speculate, reach up and begin choking his assailant. He grabbed his assailant’s shoulder, tore the epaulet off, began grumbling the assailant’s name, and fled into the snowy night.

While attempting to flee, Rasputin was shot at four more times, two missed, one struck him in the back and traveled through the kidney, and he dropped. The other, the fifth and fatal shot, went through his forehead. Some have it that that final shot occurred from a distance, but the autopsies suggest it was delivered execution-style, due to the gun residue located at the entry point on Rasputin’s forehead. Some autopsies suggest that there was water in Rasputin’s lungs that would suggest that he was alive when he hit the water, as his assailants attempted to drown him after the shooting, but Fuhrmann suggests that the greater evidence disputes that notion and suggests that Rasputin was dead before he hit the water. 

As for my history teacher suggesting that they tried beating him to death, the evidence derived from the post-mortem examination suggest that the bumps and bruises Rasputin received all occurred as a result of the beating his body received after death. The execution-style gun blast to the forehead ended the story of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, but the mythology surrounding the man was just beginning. 

The shock we experience when we hear that Rasputin was difficult to kill speaks to this very human fear we have of how easy it is to kill a person. Movies and TV shows leave the impression that when a person shoots at us, the bullet always hits, it almost always finds our most delicate and vulnerable locations, and we’re dead within milliseconds. The good guys run behind bunkers, amid a flurry of bullets unharmed. The good guys reload and take out eight with eight shots. This happens so often, in the movies and TV, that we’re almost conditioned to believe that good guys are hard to kill bad guys aren’t. When a story, such as Rasputin’s, show that a bad guy is just as capable of surviving an errant shot, we immediately assign supernatural qualities to the survivor.  

Our teacher also told us that Rasputin’s presumed dead body was thrown in the water, with a stone tied to him, and that the Russians dragged the lake and found the ropes and the stone, but they never found Rasputin’s body. This is not true, as it turns out, but it added a necessary ingredient to the “he who never lives can never die” narrative our history teacher was building. I still don’t know if my teacher was such a great storyteller that he wanted to avoid the facts of his narrative, or if he believed what he was telling us, but the captivating details led me to do some research on Rasputin later that night. 

To those of us who love great stories, and the mythology that grows around them, it was disappointing to learn that Rasputin’s body was as vulnerable to those agents that cause death as anyone else’s. We consider it much more interesting to speculate about the differences between history’s good guys, and bad guys, and how history’s bad guys escape that which the rest of us are more susceptible. On a certain level, we all know that none of this is true, but it’s more interesting, and fun, to speculate and mythologize an otherwise normal, albeit brutal tale regarding one’s demise by leaving out key details.

The Parables of History

“Those who don’t study history, are doomed to repeat it,” George Santayana said to give history teachers a gift that keeps on giving. 

“All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that,” a cynical student of history might say, when learning of Santayana’s quote, in conjunction with some of history’s greatest failings. They might use this mindset in response to the Romanovs’ involvement with Rasputin. “We’re not as hyper-religious as those in the Russian Empire were at the turn of the century, so we’re not going to be as vulnerable to a charlatan who states that he knows scripture backwards and forwards, who states he has God’s ear, and thus gains a Svengali-like hold on the minds of the citizens.”

“As opposed to the messages in modern media, history is replete with charlatans, both religious and non,” that history teacher might respond. “It’s also replete with victims who fail to learn from the mistakes made in history and proceed to repeat the same mistakes when the next charlatan comes along with different promises of something bigger and better. If your takeaway from this lesson is that a charlatan follows a uniform code of conduct, or that you can locate a charlatan by spotting a cross in their ensemble, you’re more likely to become one of history’s next victims.”

“How could they have been so stupid?” will still be on the lips, and in the minds, of these cynical students reading through the history of the Romanov Empire, just as it will be when they learn of the lead up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Now that we know the outcome, we can’t help but feel superior to those who ignored, or misread, the tea leaves that led up to the great deceptions in history.

Are we superior now, after learning history’s lessons, or will future students of history be shaking their heads, and condemning our generation, for missing all of the undeniable signs of inevitability that led to the terrorist attack on 9/11/01? “How did your generation’s leaders fall for all that?” these future students may ask. “There were so many signs. How could they have been so stupid?”

“All I can tell you,” we may say to that member of another generation studying our history, “is that you have the advantage of hindsight. You weren’t there.”

Other than the rise to influence that Grigori Rasputin attained in the Russian Empire, and the healing of Alexis Romanov at the miracle at Spala, Rasputin’s name is etched into history by the manner in which he was murdered, and the mythology that surrounds it.

The Mythology of the Mad Monk

The lone mythology of the murder of the “Mad Monk” that Fuhrmann willing entertains is the idea that the British Secret Intelligence Service (the BSIS) either organized the plot to kill Rasputin, or they encouraged it. He states that what lends this speculation plausibility is the idea that Britain may have believed that Rasputin was influencing Nicholas II to end Russia’s participation in World War I (WWI).

“Rasputin was not doing this,” Fuhrmann writes, “but Britain may not have known this, and Britain needed (WWI adversary) Germany concentrating at least some of their forces on Russia, until the United States would enter the war.” Fuhrmann further states that “Britain’s Military Intelligence, Section Six, (MI6), promised to publish its files on Rasputin’s murder, but it decided to delay it, we can assume, to avoid cooled relations between Moscow and London.”

Those who portray Rasputin as a towering figure that loomed over the Russian Empire may be putting too much weight in the characterizations put forth by Rasputin fans, and those who seek to characterize the man as a monster for the benefit of their monster stories.

In our mind’s eye, we picture Rasputin as being about 6’5″ with broad shoulders, but objective reporters state that Rasputin was 5’9” and relatively thin. We might also project some scintillating intellect with Svengali-like powers of manipulation on Rasputin, but while some suggest he was not an illiterate peasant his whole life, he died having never achieved what observers would call a well-educated background. Those same reporters will concede that he did make the most of that limited education however. They will report that far from being detached from tangible possessions, or status, Rasputin accepted and showed off gifts from the Romanovs and their loyalists with child-like glee. Witnesses characterized this glee as similar to that which a dog may display after receiving treats for performing tricks, and like that dog Rasputin never recognized that the treats were laced with unintended condescension. These objective historians will also report that if Rasputin ever towered over the Russian Empire, in the manner some historians suggest, it was dealt a hefty blow when the girl without a nose stabbed him. Favorable renditions claim that Rasputin recovered, and they leave it at that to further the mythology surrounding him. Rasputin did recover, but it took a considerable amount of time in which Rasputin could be found wounded, sick, frail, and paranoid from that point forward. In the time he spent healing from his wounds, Rasputin was deeply affected by it. Witnesses suggest he was scared, even paranoid, and in that state of mind, he lost whatever influence he may have had at one time. Even if all of these objective reports are true, it could still be stated that Rasputin achieved a position that was light years above the station his friends and family in Pokrovskoye ever knew.

The Politics of Grigori Rasputin

Reflecting on the life of Grigori Rasputin, some historians suggest that he was nothing more than a “right place, right time” opportunist who wasn’t as proactive in shaping his story as others suggest. Fuhrmann refutes that, to some degree, by stating that Rasputin exhibited a politician’s ability to make connections, and that he was particularly adept at choosing those connections that would prove most conducive to advancing him into an influential position.

He also managed to persuade those in power, in a political manner, to change his name from Rasputin to Rasputin-Novyi, or “New Rasputin”. The modus operandi for doing this, according to Fuhrmann, was that the name Rasputin carried some negative connotations within the Russian Empire of the day. Rasputin further managed, as some “more adept” modern politicians have done, to persuade those in the Empire to deem it “unethical” for anyone to use his true name. Rasputin later stated that it was never his idea to change his name, but Fuhrmann states that the name change was made as a result of Rasputin’s petition to Tsar Nicholas II. Rasputin also managed to have the Tsarista Alexandra refer to Rasputin, in the letters she wrote of him, with a capital ‘H’ on the pronoun him, a convention of the English language most reserve for God. Thus, it could be said, Rasputin did have some hand in manipulating the legacy we know today, in that he knew how to manipulate his perception in ways the modern culture will when they attempt to soften perceptions of criminals and terrorists with more pleasing terms, even if those calculated manipulations tend to appear inconsequential at the time.

Rasputin’s Legacy and the Clash of History with Subjectivity

“If I die, or you abandon me,” Rasputin is reported to have told Nicholas II, “you will lose your son, and your crown in six months.” 

This has been regarded as an ominous prophecy by Rasputin, based on the fact that the Romanov rule would end seventy-five days after Rasputin’s murder. If one dissects the timeline, however, they realize that once the one that plagued the empire was out of the way, the excuses for the failures of the ruling family would be gone too, and the Romanovs would then become the center of the focus for any of Russia’s failures.

Reading through Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s excellent book Rasputin: The Untold Story, the numerous internet sources on the subject, and watching the Rasputin documentaries on Bio and Discovery, one cannot help but realize how much speculation and uncertainty looms over the events that occurred in the life of Grigori Rasputin. The author/researcher needs to choose between the varying versions of the tale of the man’s life, and they have to sift through the varying opinions of those near contradictory versions.  

The question regarding whether Rasputin had some influence on the Russian empire is uniformly accepted, but how much he had has been a source of speculation ever since. Some regard him as an opportunist who seized upon a vulnerable empire, and others suggest that he was a savvy man, in a political sense, in that he manipulated some of the most educated, most influential people of his day as well as any manipulator in history has.

“No figure in modern history has provoked such a mass of sensational and unreliable literature as Grigori Rasputin,” writer Colin Wilson states. “More than a hundred books have been written about him, and not a single one can be accepted as a sober presentation of his personality. There is an enormous amount of material on him, and most of it is full of invention or willful inaccuracy. Rasputin’s life, then, is not ‘history’; it is the clash of history with subjectivity.”

The Beginning: Part I: Rasputin Rises

Part II: A Miracle at Spala

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.  2013. Print.

http://www.amazon.com/Rasputin-Untold-Joseph-T-Fuhrmann-ebook/dp/B00E9CSSNG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388534025&sr=8-1&keywords=rasputin

Rasputin II: A Miracle at Spala


“How could they have been so stupid?” students of history say when they learn of the conclusion of some of history’s greatest stories, and her victims. “How could they not have known?”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it can lead us to believe that we are smarter than the greatest minds in politics, history, and sports. Hindsight can lead us to call the brightest minds and most celebrated figures of history stupid, incompetent, and inept.

“How could the Romanovs fail to see Rasputin for what he was?” students of history will ask as they page through the fall of the Russian Imperial family, the Romanovs, and their association with the “Mad Monk” Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. “All the signs were there. Why did they ignore, or fail to grasp the totality of what Rasputin was on about?” 

There may be some moments in their brief history together, when a student of history sympathizes with the Romanovs, but for the most part, they will key in on those moments when the Romanovs proved most vulnerable to the “Mad Monk’s” displays of “other worldly” powers of healing to launch himself into a powerful, and influential, position in the Russian Empire and say, “All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that.”

As stated in the previous entry Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises, most historical figures are “right place, right time” opportunists defined by their ability to take advantage of windows of opportunity in their era, and for those who would go on to achieve infamy, the ability to take advantage of people in their most vulnerable moments. Adolf Hitler, it could be said, never would’ve risen to power were it not for the vast vulnerabilities in Germany, in the aftermath World War I and The Depression, and an illiterate peasant from Pokrovskoye, named Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, may never have risen to historical status were it not for a sick, young child.

A Sick, Young Child

In Joseph T. Fuhrmann’s book Rasputin: The Untold Story, we learn that Rasputin’s window of opportunity occurred when Tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexis suffered a serious attack of hemophilia that began at a hunting preserve in a Russian village called Spala on October 2, 1912.

“This particular attack,” Fuhrmann writes, “was not life-threatening, and Rasputin never “cured” or “healed” the Tsarevich (son of the Tsar) of his hemophilia on this, or any other, occasions. The Tsarevich Alexis Romanov had hemophilia the day he was born, until the day he died.” 

In the space of all of the men of medicine attempting to alleviate Alexis of the pain of the symptoms of this particular attack, however, a peasant from Pokrovskoye stepped forward and did something to provide the boy some temporary relief, and that something that he did would eventually enshrine the name Rasputin in history.

As the author writes numerous times throughout the book, it’s impossible to know with absolute certitude what that something was. We can speculate from accounts witnessed and recorded by friends of the empire, and we can sort through the accounts put forth by family members, and others in the empire, but for the most part we are left to speculate, because the Romanovs were so isolated from even the surrounding communities of the Empire, that all historical accounts of this era can only be characterized as speculative. The very idea that Alexis was sick was a state secret that the Romanov family kept hidden from the rest of the country. It is the speculation of what Rasputin did, however, that has made the story of Rasputin so intriguing for so many, for near one-hundred years.

How Did He Do it?

Did Rasputin drug the young Tsarevich to health? Was it an hypnosis technique that Rasputin is purported to have studied throughout the course of his life? Was there some form of auto-suggestion that Rasputin used to manipulate Alexis’ mind in a manner that no one in the age knew, so they assigned supernatural, and/or mystical qualities to Rasputin’s actions? Or, did he, in fact, possess those mystical powers that he claimed to have since childhood, and that he ended up using on the young Tsarevich?

Some claim that Rasputin may have had a friend inside the empire who administered drugs to the young Tsarevich, and that Rasputin knew enough about the effects of the medicine to have its effects coincide with Rasputin’s arrival.

Some claim that an auto-suggestion technique employed by Rasputin, calmed the notorious nerves of the mother, Alexandra, and that she conveyed such assurances to her son Alexis, who then calmed to a degree that his blood calmed and the issue temporarily passed. Modern science also talks about how the power of prayer, the placebo effect, and meditation can calm a person and lead to the patient, like the Tsarevich, to believe that they are healing. If Alexandra believed Rasputin could cure Alexis, and she conveyed this belief onto Alexis, Rasputin’s ability to heal Alexis could prove to be greater than those of all the other doctors involved.

Others suspect that Rasputin benefited from some other form of incidental coincidence, or intended coincidence. Those that suspected Rasputin of intentional coincidence, claim that he may have known more about the illness hemophilia than anyone else in the empire, doctors included, and that he knew the precise time to make an appearance in accordance with a lessening of pain to have “the cure” attributed to his presence.

Others claim that the time Rasputin spent mourning the death of his cousin Dmitry led him to ostracize himself from those in his village, and that he sought the comfort of horses. While gaining the favor of horses, and their owners, Rasputin learned what we now call horse whispering techniques to calm horses, and that he employed these tactics to calm the Tsarevich Alexis, and thus relieved him from some of the more painful symptoms of hemophilia.

For his part, “Rasputin never claimed to have worked miracles on the boy.” He kept what modern readers would term a political distance from self-aggrandizement, and he allowed those around the incident to fill in the blanks for him. “He claimed that God, alone, could perform miracles. He insisted that his healings were nothing more than manifestations of God’s will,” and by saying such things Rasputin remained in good stead with the Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, who never stated that Rasputin was a saint, or anything more than human, but they did believe that he had spiritual gifts that were made apparent during the miracle at Spala. They also, we can assume, asked the question what’s more important engaging in the debate of Rasputin’s role in the health of their son, or the health of their son? The one thing they knew was that when Rasputin was near their son, he suffered less.

Why was Rasputin Chosen?

The Romanovs met Rasputin on a number of occasions prior to the incident at Spala, and as Fuhrmann points out they were afforded a number of opportunities to see “the real” Rasputin firsthand. If that’s true, why did they keep him around? Why was Rasputin afforded the chance to “heal” or “cure” Alexis in the first place? If there were that many men vying for the position of Holy Fool in the Empire, how did a semi-literate peasant from Pokrovskoye rise to the top? Some speculate that by the time that the incident at Spala occurred, the Romanovs reached a point of desperation, and that they viewed Rasputin as their last, best hope. Then, when Rasputin proved to be a healing agent in the years that followed, they felt they had little choice but to keep him in the empire and close to the young Tsarevich. 

As stated in the previous entry Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises, Rasputin was characterized as an illiterate to semi-literate peasant, with no formal attachments to religion, or formal education, and some would suggest that these characteristics would forever lead Rasputin and the Romanovs down separate paths. Others would suggest that it was these very characteristics that led Rasputin to gain entrance into the Empire.

As with every aspect of this story, some of the answers of why the Romanovs continued to have some faith in Rasputin lies in conjecture, some in speculation, but knowing human nature the way we do, we can speculate that a “more normal” citizen of St. Petersburg, with “equivalent mystical powers” but a more sensible haircut, and a normal temperament, may not have been regarded for this particular position in a serious manner. We can assume that the Romanovs wanted someone who had a mysterious air about them, someone who looked a little more bedraggled, and wild. They wanted someone who fit their perceptions of what it took to fit the role of Holy Fool in the empire.

Rasputin, as witnesses suggest, often smelled like a goat, his hair was famously unkempt, he did not bathe often, picked his nose in polite company, criticized and seduced women in public, and often had food in his beard, but he also had a “Blazing gaze in his magnetic light colored eyes,” and people stated that he could dilate his eyes at will. Rasputin, it could be said, fit the mold of the “Holy Fool” the Romanovs sought, as if by central casting.

One can also guess that the Romanovs chose Rasputin to stick around, to “heal” their son based on the same unintended condescension that leads some to believe that the uneducated are superior in spiritual mediums, and more in tune with God than those focused on more formal training. The Romanovs were given to the very natural speculation that those not attuned to standardized measures of intelligence, are attuned to something different, something greater, and something their more normal citizens would never be able to understand. One can also guess that some degree of privileged guilt caused Alexandra, and Rasputin’s eventual followers, to assign superhuman, spiritual qualities to Rasputin in the same manner the modern day American attaches exotic and spiritual characteristics to children, the indigent, and those with characteristics deemed foreign to our experience. It’s an unintended form of condescension that derives from the guilt of the haves when dealing with the have nots, and if the have nots play it in a strategic manner, as Rasputin did, the process can provide benefits to both parties involved.

Fuhrmann provides the impression that had Tsar Nicholas II been in total control of the interaction between Rasputin and the empire, Rasputin may never have achieved influence he did in the Empire. Nicholas’ philosophy of life, Fuhrmann writes, was guided by the “Classic Russian acceptance of fate (sudba), God’s will, or the force that ruled the cosmos.” Nicholas saw to it that Alexis’ fate was not unnecessarily precipitated, but Nicholas was not one to believe that he, nor any other human, could control fate in any manner. Tsarista Alexandra, however, was not guided by the same beliefs. She was more prone to believe in what she saw as proactive measures. She believed that fate could be controlled, and altered, through prayer, and she believed that what God needed to work his miracles was a spiritual conduit, in the manner she believed a illiterate, bedraggled peasant could best provide, and it was probably Alexandra’s belief that Rasputin fit this somewhat unintended, unspoken, and condescending mold.

Most readers who have had a near-death experience with their child will find some sympathy with Alexandra’s desperation to save, or at least relieve her only son of pain. Readers might extend further sympathies when they learn that Alexandra knew her genes caused her son, the Tsarevich Alexis, the heir to the throne, this severe case of hemophilia. They might further sympathize with Alexandra’s desperation after the Empire’s doctors informed her that there was little they could do to ease her son’s suffering. They might sympathize with Alexandra’s desire to keep Rasputin around after the “Miracle at Spala”, and they might forgive her for being so grateful to the man for what she believed he did for her son that she ended up allowing Rasputin to influence her mind on matters of grave importance in the empire to the point that she allegedly shared Rasputin’s opinions with Tsar Nicholas II and compelled him to follow through with them. There will be great sympathy for the Romanov family when the reader finds out how their story turned out, but when it comes to the subject of Rasputin, they will still say, “All right, but I wouldn’t have fallen for that.” 

Previous: Part I: Rasputin Rises

Next: Part III: Rasputin III: The Murder of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.  2013. Print.

 

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises


“Do you know that I shall soon die in terrible pain?” Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin is reported to have said, after being stabbed by a girl with no nose, and before being assassinated. “But what can I do? God has sent me to save our dear sovereign and Holy Russia. Despite my terrible sins I am a Christ in miniature.”

At this point in Russian history, the name Rasputin became synonymous with evil. The mere mention of his name caused such suspicious dread among the subjects of the Russian Empire that they dared not pronounce it. They believed, as writer Meriel Buchanan wrote, “That by doing so they brought down ill luck on their heads.” When the inevitable subject arose, they referred to him as ‘The Unmentionable,’ ‘the Nameless One’, and they did so in whispers.

“Reports of Rasputin’s life are not ‘history’; they are the clash of history with subjectivity.” –historian Colin Wilson. 

The manipulative eyes of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin

The manipulative eyes of Grigori Efimovich Rasputin

Whether history or not, the reports of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin would prove to be such a source of speculation and intrigue that they would secure for him an influential role in the Russian Empire, and a place in history. As the prolific English writer and historian Colin Wilson, writes the eye-witness accounts, and second hand reports, are so varied with subjectivity, and agendas, that it’s difficult to know the absolute, irrefutable truth of any of them.

One could say as much with just about every historical figure, but the details of the Rasputin story are so debatable, and so fraught with folklore, that any writer reporting on him should be required to write qualifiers such as “alleged” or “according to sources …” before each report. While that may provide the author of such a piece some latitude in his reporting, it does not provide for very smooth reading. With the idea that every writer wants a compelling read coupled with factual accuracy, the best thing we can do is cite sources, footnote quotes, and provide quality attribution. The author of the book Rasputin: The Untold Story, Joseph T. Fuhrmann does this well without too much distraction. Fuhrmann also lists off some probabilities regarding the various incidents, and their various testimonials, and he attempts to prove, and disprove, them all as possibilities.

There are a number of stories regarding Rasputin’s short life, but three launched him to his current, infamous stature in history. The first, called the Miracle at Spala, occurred in a small village called Spala, in which Rasputin was alleged to have cured the Tsar Nicholas II’s son of hemophilia; the second was Rasputin’s resultant influence over the Tsar Nicholas Romanov’s actions leading up to, and throughout, the portion of World War I Rasputin survived; and the last concerned the alleged reports of Rasputin’s murder.

A Special Child

Some accounts of the Rasputin story –which includes a much talked about movie– state that Rasputin was inspired to become what he became as a result of the death of a twin brother. Fuhrmann, asserts that it was not the death of a twin, or even a brother, named Dmitry, but a cousin named Dmitry, that changed the life of Grigori Rasputin. This would prove to be a minor distinction in that the other retellings match Fuhrmann’s assertion that it was the death of Dmitry that caused Rasputin feelings of depression and alienation that would mark him for the rest of his life. The incident that led to his cousin’s drowning also caused what could be termed a natural speculation in Rasputin regarding why his life had been spared in the incident. This speculation led Rasputin to the unnatural, or supernatural, belief that he had been spared as a result of God’s special purpose for him.

Rasputin’s mother would encourage, or propagate, this speculation, informing Rasputin that he had been endowed with mystical gifts from birth. His mother would claim that a comet rippled across the sky at the moment of his birth on January 10, 1869.

“A shooting star of such magnitude that had always been taken by the God-fearing muzhiks as an omen of some momentous event,” she is quoted as saying.

Fuhrmann writes that there is no record of any comets on the date of Rasputin’s birth.

Rasputin’s mother can be forgiven for such speculation, as Grigori would prove to be the one child of nine, and an alleged other sister, to survive infancy. One could speculate that with such sorrow inflicted upon a young woman, losing seven, perhaps eight children, Rasputin’s mother couldn’t help but assign a certain degree of specialness to the one child who survived the conditions that took the others. The others, who surrounded Rasputin in his youth, should not be afforded the same latitude, for they would encourage the belief that the young Rasputin was gifted with the ability to read minds, and/or “see things that others could not” without the heartache to influence it.

This fervent belief in a grand design for his life, led Rasputin to believe that he was not just special in God’s eye, but that he was so special that he was above God’s judgment.

Fuhrmann asserts that Rasputin’s belief in religion may have been deep, and humble, at one time, but he began to “embrace the dark side, regarding it as a trial sent by God” over time. Rasputin didn’t see temptation as a trial of personal morality, in the manner a mere mortal may, but as a test sent by God to His chosen one. Rasputin made claims that his sexual encounters were sins he took upon himself, to relieve others of such weight.

After having relations with two girls, who happened to be sisters, –one twenty, the other fifteen– Rasputin informed their mother: 

“Now you may feel at peace. The day of salvation has dawned for your daughters.” 

“At least those two girls, (and the other reported sexual conquests) were willing,” writes Fuhrmann, as were the two nuns that Rasputin audaciously kissed publicly, but one girl was not. This girl charged:

“That Rasputin took her to his cellar and raped her.” Rasputin “Told the young girl, at the end of that episode, that there was no sin in what they had done; and that they had simply been celebrating the Holy Trinity.”

Rasputin statements about taking sins upon himself, and the declarations he made after these sexual trysts, may seem ostentatious manipulations to some, and they may have been, but they may have also been influenced by Rasputin’s loose adherence to the beliefs of a Russian sect called Khlysty.

The Khlysty and Sexual Spirituality

Khlysty was an underground, anti-church sect that engaged in sexual trysts as a ritualistic exercise. It involved dancing in a whirling motion until one got so dizzy that they fell to the floor. Once on the floor, the participants were instructed to engage in sexual intercourse with the person closest to them. Their goal, in performing this ritual, was to procure a “transcendental energy flowing through the arc” to achieve a peculiar and extreme religious state. They called this moment a spiritual frenzy that they believed would bring all participants closer to God. They also believed that by attaining the “dark knowledge” of sinning one could become more familiar with the nature of sin, and this level of familiarity would then allow them to purge it from the heart and be saved.

That Rasputin disavowed any participation in this Khlysty sect throughout his life, may have had something to do with the fact that it was outlawed in Russia at the time. This illegality led to its members being either arrested, or killed, and if Rasputin showed any allegiance to this outlawed sect, it would inhibit his ability to become influential later in life. It may have also had something to do with the fact that Rasputin regarded himself as a leader and not a follower. Rasputin was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church his entire life, but he didn’t view himself as a follower of the religion, but a leader that was never officially ordained by a church. He would, instead, develop his own following, that some believe was influenced by the Khlysty, without, Fuhrmann stipulates, the sexual portion of the Khlysty’s ritual.

This is not to suggest that Rasputin refrained from sexual activity with his followers, but he considered that sexual activity to be a more tangential aspect to his religion than did the Khlysty. Rasputin was a married man for much of his life, but he and his wife recognized the adultery, and flagrant sexual activity, as something Rasputin was forced to endure to relieve his followers of the dark knowledge of sin.

The teaching that sexual activity was, at least, a tangential part of the path to learning sin and receiving redemption from its knowledge –coupled with the fact that he gained quite a female following– has led many historians to speculate that his followers, a majority of which were female, may have been attracted to the quality of his leadership by way of his alleged large sexual organ. The theory being that with his endowment Rasputin could provide greater assistance to those female followers seeking to learn the depths of dark knowledge through greater states of ecstasy, and its subsequent spirituality.

The theories abound on whether this holy relic still exists, and if it does, what happened to it. One theory has it that those Russian soldiers who were called to the scene of Rasputin’s murder, stripped the dead carcass of Rasputin’s body bare, soon after death, and began measuring the enormous artifact with a brick. It was then alleged to have been cut off and stolen from the scene by a servant who preserved it in formaldehyde, after which a group of a Russian women then preserved the holy relic in Paris throughout the 1920’s, until it could be displayed, in a proper fashion, in an Erotica Museum in Saint Petersburg where it now rests, and is now regarded with great respect by a group of Rasputin’s devotees. The author Fuhrmann claims that the museum’s explanation, and all other explanations regarding its veracity, have never been proven to satisfaction.

Dispelling the Myths of the Mad Monk

The author goes through many of the debatable aspects of Rasputin’s life to prove the many things that he was not. He cannot be called a “Mad Monk”, for example, because he was never ordained as a monk. He was, at his pinnacle, nothing more than a starets, which was an informal title given by followers to one who advises or teaches. Fuhrmann also points out that Rasputin was not illiterate on the day he died, as many have suggested in a narrative that suggests that he was nothing more than an “illiterate peasant who rose to some of the greatest positions in the Russian Empire”. Fuhrmann writes that Rasputin received no formal education, but he did learn how to read, though never to the point that one regard him as well-educated.

In some portrayals of Rasputin, some speculate that his malevolence was intentional, and that he was the monster that many paint him as in their monster stories. Others suggest that Rasputin loved the Russian Empire as much as any of his fellow countrymen, and that he always had the best intentions when he advised the Romanovs. With his education, and his experiences in life, Rasputin just wasn’t qualified to be an adviser, as many of the Tsar’s advisers warned him. The fact that the Tsar took Rasputin’s advice over his more qualified advisers on some matters, and that that eventuated in the fall of the Russian Empire, is as much the fault of the Tsar’s for falling prey to the mystique of Rasputin, as it is Rasputin’s, if not more so.

For all that Rasputin was not, however, the one thing that can be stated about Rasputin, without refutation, is that he was a “right place, right time” mystical charlatan. In Rasputin’s Russia, Ouija boards, mystics, and holy men were nothing new, but when combined that with the strides that the rest of the world was making in science and medicine in that era –manipulating God’s power as it were– even the educated class was beginning to wonder how much of a leap it would be for one man to now manipulate God’s power in mystical ways. It was the first era in which electricity began to be manipulated in a safe manner; it was the first era in which automobiles began to roll off assembly lines; and it was also an era in which numerous other tremendous leaps in man’s ingenuity with respect to harnessing God’s power for everyday use began to occur. Learned men understood the principles of physics these ingenious men were manipulating, but most of the rest of the world just stood by in silent awe struggling to understand how these incomprehensible leaps could be made in the outside world. So, when Rasputin stepped into this chasm of confusion, at the right place and time in history, to “cure” or “heal” an ailing young boy of his hemophilia, he did so to an awed audience that was just beginning to believe that it wasn’t as far-fetched as previous generations may have believed for one man to harness God’s healing powers.

Next: Part II: A Miracle at Spala, Rasputin III: Rasputin’s Murder 

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. Rasputin: The Untold Story. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. 2013. Print.

Krauthammer on Churchill: The Indispensable Man


One of the goals of every writer should be to have those that read his work regard him brilliant. Another goal, and a far more difficult and impressive one, is to have the reader think brilliant thoughts while reading that work. Whether or not Charles Krauthammer’s new book Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics accomplishes the former is relative to the reader, but in my humble opinion, the books definitely accomplishes the latter.

Book%20Cover_0In the second chapter, following the requisite intro, and the requisite chapter describing the author’s days of youth –playing baseball– Charles Krauthammer posits the notion that Time Magazine got it wrong when they nominated Albert Einstein “Man of the Century”. Einstein may have been vital, argues Krauthammer, and he is “certainly the best mind of the century”, but Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill “carried that absolutely required criterion: indispensability” in the 20th century, and to the 20th century.

One thought this reader had, while reading, is that provocative, bar stool discussion would have it that no person had a more prominent effect on the 20th century than Adolf Hitler. While that is arguably true, a question to that provocative notion should be, were the lessons of Hitler’s evil transgressions more transcendent than Winston Churchill’s efforts to, as Krauthammer later describes it, “slay that dragon”?

Hitler was, of course, indispensable to any study of the 20th century, in that he illustrated much of what’s wrong with human nature, and he gave us a template for how we should treat countries after war (after World War I). Though evil can take many forms, Hitler provided students of history a model of unprecedented evil that we can now use as a guide to detect evil, based on the precedent he set. We will hopefully no longer allow an evil despot to rise to such levels of prominence in their country that they would be in a position to coerce its citizens to do such evil things to one another. With all these lessons and precedents regarding absolute evil, students of the 20th century say that Hitler has to be the man of that century.

It’s a provocative notion, and it would probably give Hitler the stature, and historical value, that he sought all along. How many men, and how many precedents of the 20th century, will be cited more often than those Hitler provided humanity for centuries to come? Young people, involved in bar stool discussions, love such provocative notions, for they provide all listeners the impression that the provocateur is intelligent with such shock and awe proclamations. Most of us love such impressions, when we’re younger. As we age, and move past the desire to be perceived as intelligent, we actually become more intelligent, and we realize that most provocative thoughts should go through careful examination and attempts to disprove. The final conclusions we reach may not be as provocative, or as memorable, but as we age, and read, we realize that being right is more valuable than being memorable or provocative. There is no doubt that the lessons evil men leave behind are monumental in history, but too often these provocative conversations leave out the dragon slayers that should, at least, be considered as prominent, if not more so.

To say that Winston Churchill hasn’t already achieved a prominent place in history would be foolish, as most historians continue to rank him in their top five most prominent figures of the 20th century, and most left-leaning historians will rank him in their top twenty. Does he deserve even greater prominence than we’ve already allowed, however?

One of the reasons Churchill is not higher on the list, I would submit, is that hindsight has proven that he was so obviously correct in his doomsayer predictions about Hitler. The idea that all of his warnings were so obviously on the mark, however, makes it almost boring to declare him the most prominent person of the 20th century.  It’s an of-course statement that causes readers to yawn over the headline, when a more prominent listing of others, such as Einstein, prove far more provocative, compelling, and newsworthy.

Churchill was, as Krauthammer writes, “A 19th century man parachuted into the 20th,” but “it took a 19th century man –traditional in habit, rational in thought, conservative in temper– to save the 20th century from itself.” Yawn. Such lines don’t play well on the cover of a magazine to suggest that Churchill was right about Hitler, and thus he should be nominated the Man of the Century for speaking out and saving us. Especially when compared to the exciting, and revolutionary, bullet points a writer can compile with points about Einstein’s accomplishments.

Before dismissing the obviousness of Churchill’s warnings, one has to examine what he was up against while still in the British Parliament. Most of the British Parliament, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, dismissed Churchill’s warnings. They did not want to view Hitler through Churchill’s simplistic, black and white lens. Churchill’s warnings were viewed as the impulsive, irrational, and the unreasonable views of a war hawk. Neville Chamberlain has been viewed, by right and left historians as one of the obvious fools of the 20th century, but is it a glaring headline that Churchill should be viewed as the most obvious hero of the 20th century, no, because it is just so obvious. It doesn’t require any creativity to back up. It just is what it is, as we now say.

Churchill suggested that the year’s delay between the Munich Pact and what he deemed an inevitable war worsened Britain’s position, in direct opposition to Chamberlain’s assessment. (Editor’s note: Chamberlain would later declare that that year allowed the British to bolster their troops, and that the British military was not prepared for war during the previous year.) In that year, between Munich and World War II, Chamberlain also exhausted the possibility of diplomacy with détente, blockades, and anything and everything the world could use to achieve “peace in our time”. To refute the Chamberlain claims, Churchill stated Hitler could have been removed from power by a grand coalition of European states to prevent World War II from happening in the year in question.

That suggestion, that in some cases waiting too long can worsen one’s position, would rear its ugly head before Hitler’s body even went cold, when U.S. General George S. Patton’s warned General Eisenhower about Russia. Eisenhower, presumably recognizing that Patton’s warnings were not unfounded, responded that Americans were simply too war-weary to make any moves against Russia. The suggestion would later haunt the world in the 21st century, with Iraq in 2003, in a manner some would suggest the reverse of the Churchill suggestion, saying that we acted too impulsively, and the suggestion will probably haunt nations around the world for many more, because the human instinct is to avoid war at all costs, no matter how black and white, and simplistic, and obvious the need for action becomes.

In later writings, “Churchill depicted Chamberlain as well-meaning but weak, blind to the threat posed by Hitler, and oblivious to the fact that (according to Churchill) Hitler could have been removed from power by a grand coalition of European states. Churchill suggested that the year’s delay between Munich and war worsened Britain’s position, and criticized Chamberlain for both peacetime and wartime decisions. In the years following the publication of Churchill’s books, few historians questioned his judgment.”{1}

It may appear redundant to call an historian a hindsight historian, since history is documented in hindsight. Some historians document the facts of the era while others provide hindsight commentary to historical events that were not as clear to the historical figures of the day, but these historians provide the unlimited omniscience that hindsight provides. Hindsight historians may document Churchill’s warnings as obvious now, but most hindsight historians will not tell you how popular Neville Chamberlains “peace in our time” efforts were at the time.

Another question those that believe Hitler’s quest for power was so obvious that it’s now redundant to talk about, should ask themselves how obvious it was to Neville Chamberlain at the time. How obvious was it to the British Parliament, the isolationists in America, and the world at large. Much like today, Churchill was regarded as a war hawk, and presumably a fear monger when he spoke of what he believed to be Hitler’s aspirations. Some have said that Churchill is almost solely responsible for the meetings that occurred at Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam with FDR and Stalin that eventually won the war for the allied forces. 

We’ve all read hindsight historians document that America shouldn’t have been “so stupid” as to allow the attack on Pearl Harbor, when so many signs pointed to its eventuality. It’s easy for them to look at the decade preceding the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, to declare that we were obviously naïve in trying terrorists as criminals rather than wartime adversaries. It’s also easy for them to write that that the call to war in Iraq, in 2003, was impulsive based on our inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What’s not so easy, however, is for those figures that were involved in the present tense of history to stick their neck out and speak out against the conventional wisdom of their day and declare that it’s “weak and blind” to continue to follow the conventional line of thinking. Hindsight historians now slightly diminish Churchill’s role in 20th century, because it is now so obvious that Hitler was the epitome of evil. To read through an objective telling of the history, however, it obviously wasn’t so obvious to some at the time.

As Krauthammer wrote in Things That Matter:

“And who is the hero of that story?  (The story of the 20th century’s ability to defeat totalitarianism, and leave it as a “cul-de-sac” in the annals of human history.)  Who slew the dragon? Yes, it was the ordinary man, the taxpayer, the grunt who fought and won the wars. Yes, it was America and its allies. Yes, it was the great leaders: FDR, de Gaulle, Adenauer, Truman, John Paul II, Thatcher, Reagan. But above all, victory required one man without whom the fight would have been lost at the beginning. It required Winston Churchill.”{2}

Krauthammer, Charles.  Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.  New York, New York:  Random House, 2013.  Print.

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?


Those of us who are always on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years. Critics appear to be enjoy using the term than they are in properly applying it to the product they are reviewing. The question that those of us driven to the source would have for Joyce, if he were still alive, is: Were your final two works the most erudite, most complicated pieces of fiction ever written, or were they a great practical joke played on the literature community to expose these reference makers and your elitist, scholars for who they are?

James Joyce

James Joyce

Readers who seek to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have all heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Some literary scholars list the books as some of the most difficult, most complicated works of fiction ever created. Some of us have attempted to tackle them as the challenge that they are, others have attempted to read them for entrance into their subjective definition of elite status. Most are confused and disoriented by the books, but some have the patience, the wherewithal, and the understanding of all of the references made, and languages used, in these books necessary for total comprehension. Those readers either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift to the havenots, who openly admit that they don’t understand these books.

I don’t understand either of these books, and I have gone back numerous times to try to further my understanding. Some have said that Ulysses is the more palatable of the two, but I have found it to be too elliptical, too erratic, and too detail-oriented to maintain focus, and I have purchased three different aides to guide me through it. Some of those same readers readily admit that Finnegans Wake is ridiculously incomprehensible.

Most people enjoyed Dennis Miller’s tenure as an announcer on Monday Night Football, but most of those same people complained that they didn’t understand two-thirds of the man’s references. I didn’t keep a journal on his references, but I’m willing to bet that at least a third of them were Joycean in nature. Miller stated that his goal, in using such obscure references, was to make fellow announcer Al Michaels laugh, but any fan who has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif he gains by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite. There are, today, very few references more obscure than those who recall the work of James Joyce, a man who described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation. The import of the reference was that Kaufman wanted to be a comedian’s comedian, in the manner that Joyce was a writer’s writer. He wanted to perform difficult and complicated acts that the average consumer did not understand, and the very fact that they didn’t “get it” was what invigorated him. He wanted that insider status that an artist uses to gain entrée to the “in the know” groups. After achieving some fame, audiences began laughing with Kaufman in a manner that appears to have only bored him, and he spent the rest of his career trying to up that ante. By doing the latter, we can guess that there was something genuine about Kaufman’s path in that he was only trying to entertain himself, and his friends, and if anyone else wanted on board that was up to them. Perhaps, Joyce and Kaufman shared this same impulse.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those who get it) and the havenots. When Mike Patton formed the band Fantomas, he never did so with the illusion that he was going to unseat the Eagles Greatest Hits, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, atop the list of greatest selling albums of all time. He knew, or should’ve known, that he was playing to a very select audience.

What is the audience for such difficult subject matter? Most people seek music, as either background noise, something to dance to, or something to tap their finger to. Most people read a book to gain a little more characterization and complication than a movie can provide, but they don’t want too much characterization, or too much complication. Most people only buy art to feng shui their homes. Most people don’t seek excessively difficult art, and those who do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by the individual. The audience for the difficult generally have such a strong foundation in the arts that they reach a point where their artistic desires can only satiated by something different.

Yet, different can mean different things at different times to different people. Different can be complicated, and discordant, but it can also be limited to style. At this point in history, it’s difficult to be different, in a manner that cannot be called derivative of someone or something, so most people seek whatever separations they can find. When the latest starlet of the moment twerks in a provocative manner, has a construction worker find her pornographic video, or accidentally has her reproductive organ photographed, we know that these are incidents created by the starlet, and her people, to get noticed after they have exhausted all other attempts to be perceived as artistically brilliant and different.

There are also some other artists who are different for the sole sake of being different. This is often less than organic, and it often disinterests those of us seeking a true separation from the norm, because we feel that this has been thoroughly explored to the point of exhaustion. Andy Kaufman created something organically different that can never be completely replicated, in much the same manner Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Patton, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David did. Can it be said that James Joyce’s final two books were different in an artistically brilliant, and cutting edge manner that all of these artists’ creations were, or were James Joyce’s writings more symbolism over substance? Put another way, was Joyce a substantive artist who’s true messages need to be unearthed through careful examination, or was he simply twerking in a provocative manner with the hope of getting noticed by the elite scholars of his generation after exhausting the limits of his talent in other works?

Judging by his short stories, James Joyce could’ve written some of the best novels in history. Those who say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot. Those who defend his final two works would probably say that I am judging Joyce’s final two works by traditional standards, and that they were anything but traditional. They would probably also argue that the final two works sought to shake up the traditional world of literature, and anyone that dared to take up the challenge of reading these works. They would probably say Joyce sought to confound people, more than interest them, and if they did concede to the idea that the final two works were different for the sole sake of being different, they would add that he was one of the first to do so. Those who defend his final two works say that they are not as difficult to read, or as complex, as some would lead you to believe. These people suggest that reading these two works only requires more patience, and examination, than the average works. Anyone who states such a thing is attempting to sound either hyper intelligent, or hyper erudite, for it was Joyce’s expressed purpose to be difficult, complicated, and hyper-erudite.

To understand Ulysses, one needs an annotated guide of 1920-era Dublin, a guide that describes the Irish songs of the day, some limericks, mythology, and a fluent understanding of Homer’s The Odyssey. If the reader doesn’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, they may not understand the parodies, or jokes Joyce employs in Ulysses. Yet, it was considered, by the Modern Library, in 1998, to be the greatest work of fiction ever produced.

“Everyone I know owns Ulysses, but no one I know has finished it.”  —Larry King.

To fully understand, and presumably enjoy, Finnegans Wake, the reader needs to have a decent understanding of Latin, German, French, and Hebrew, and a basic understanding of the Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements. The reader will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an. They also need to understand the English language on an etymological level, for one of Joyce’s goals with Finnegans Wake, was to mess with the conventions of the English language.

Some have opined that one of Joyce’s goals, in Ulysses, was to use every word in the English language, and others have stated that this is a possibility since he used approximately 40,000 unique words throughout the work. If this is true, say others, his goal for Finnegans Wake, was to extend the confusion by incorporating German, French, Latin, Hebrew, and other languages into his text. When he did use English, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce sought to use it in unconventional and etymological ways to describe what he believed to be the language of the night. He stated that Finnegans Wake was “A book of the night” and Ulysses was “A book of the day”.

“In writing of the night, I really could not, I felt, use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious. I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again . . .  I’ll give them back their English language. I’m not destroying it for good.” —James Joyce on his novel Finnegans Wake.

This use of the “language of the night” could lead one to say that Joyce was one of the first deconstructionists, and thus ahead of his time by destroying the meaning of meaning in the immediate sense. Those obsessed with James Joyce could interpret the quote, and the subsequent methodology used in Finnegans Wake, to mean that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of communicating an idea, bored him. He wanted something different. He wanted to explore language, and meaning, in a manner that made his readers question their fundamentals. Readability was not his goal, nor was storytelling, or achieving a best-seller list. He sought to destroy conventions, and common sense, and achieve a higher realm of perfect, in which timeless abstractions cannot be communicated to those who adhere to common sense. This makes for an interesting conversation on high art, and philosophy, but does it lend itself to quality reading?

“What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality,” Joyce is reported to have told friend Arthur Power,  “For to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.”

In the modern age, there is much discussion of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. That particular discussion revolves around economic distinctions, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those who “get” his works, and those who do not. Those who get it usually prefer to have deeper meanings shrouded in clever wordplay. They usually prefer symbolism over substance; writing over storytelling; and interpretation over consistent and concretized thoughts.

The two schools of thought between the haves and the havenots can probably best be explained by breaking them down to the Hemingway manner of writing and that of Joyce. Hemingway wrote clear and concise sentences. Hemingway stated that his methodology was to write something that was true:

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”—Ernest Hemingway.

Putting Joyce’s final two works through the Hemingway school of thought, one could say that Joyce’s methodology was: Some of the times, it’s more interesting to make it false and let others define it as true. 

“Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating? … Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk.” —James Joyce

Those of us who have had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker know that sooner or later a declarative distinction will be made if we stubbornly insist that we are not wrong. “You don’t get it, and you probably never will,” is something they will say in a variety of ways. We all know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those who aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing us, but even the polite snobs give us a vibe, a look, or a chuff that is intended to let us know our place.

“Well, what do you think of it then?” is the response some of us have given, after being backed into an anti-intellectual corner by deep thinkers.

If they are an anti-social, elite intellectual snob, they will say something along the lines of: “I simply choose to think deeper!” It’s a great line, and it purportedly puts us stubborn types in our place, but it’s a self-serving non-answer. Those of us who are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking? Pushing deep thinkers deeper will often reveal a lack of substance beneath their piles of style, and the careful observer will find that the results of their deep thinking is no deeper than the deep thinker cap they wear to the pub.

A number of attempts at reading Joyce have led me to believe that he probably didn’t have much substance beneath his piles of style, so he muddied the waters of his message with puns, songs, gibberish, abstractions, foreign languages, and overly complicated complications. He did this, in my opinion, to conceal the fact that when compared to his colleagues, he didn’t have all that much to say. If that’s true, he was definitely artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake dropped on our culture, such as the transcendental sound of the thunderclap that announced the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

What about the mirthsome giggles we have had in social gatherings with the catchphrase:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Or the ever present: 

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed!  Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?”

If you just read those sentences three or four times, and you still have no idea what it says, and you just went back to read them again, because you want to be a have that “gets it”, you’re not alone. If these passages were merely anecdotal evidence of the difficulty involved in reading Finnegans Wake, that would be one thing, but these difficulties litter just about every sentence of every paragraph of the book, as evidenced by the exhaustive assistance provided at the site Finwake.com for readers who have no idea what this writer is going on about. 

Finnegans Wake is reported to be in English, but it’s not the standard version of English where words have specific meaning. The “language of the night” was intended for linguists who are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking. James Joyce made references intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day who may not have Joyce’s wealth of knowledge of history, or the manner in which the meaning of the words in the English language have changed throughout history.

“What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear.” —James Joyce

James Joyce was a stream of consciousness writer who believed that all “mistakes” were intended on some level that superseded awareness. In the 500+ page book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce found 600 errors after publication. He was informed of some, if not all of these errors, and he was reported to have fought his publishers to keep them in. Later editions were written to correct many of these errors, and provide readers “the book in the manner Joyce had intended.” If Joyce didn’t believe in errors, however, how can those who corrected them state that the corrected edition is the definitive edition that “Joyce intended”?

“The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” –James Joyce

Throughout the seventeen years Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, he began to go blind, so he had a friend named, Samuel Beckett, take dictation over the phone to complete the novel. At one point in this dictation setting, someone knocked on Joyce’s door.  Joyce said, “Come in!” to the knocker, and Beckett wrote the words “Come in!” into the narrative of Finnegans Wake. When this error was spotted by Joyce, and the confusion was sorted out, Joyce insisted that Beckett, “Leave it in!” On another occasion, when a printer’s error was pointed out he said, “Leave it. It sounds better that way than the way I wrote it.”

There are three different versions of the text: The first and second are the editions that Joyce submitted for publications with all of the errors intact. The third edition has the errors that the editors located, and the 600 corrections that Joyce spent two years locating, corrected. Some would have you believe that first two editions are the definitive editions, but you have to be a Joyce purist to appreciate them.

Can it be called anything short of egotistical for an author to believe that his subconscious choices and decisions, are somehow divine? If, as Joyce said, and Picasso later repeated in regard to his paintings, mistakes are portals of discovery, then we can say that’s great, and incredibly artistic in the process of creation. To leave it in the finished product, however, and subject your readers to the confusion, just seems narcissistic. “Here’s what I was thinking at the time,” Joyce is basically telling his readers. “I don’t know what it means, but this is a higher plane of thinking than simple conscious thought. Isn’t it magical? Maybe you can make some sense of it. Maybe you can attribute it to your life in some manner.” This method of operation may say something profound about the random nature of the universe, but when we’re reading a novel we don’t necessarily want to know about the randomness of the universe, unless it’s structured in a manner that leads us to your statement. 

Not everyone can write a classic, and some realize this after a number of failed attempts. Once they arrive at this fork in the road, they can either write simple books that provide them and theirs an honest living, or they can grow so frustrated by their inability to write classics that they separate themselves from the pack through obscurity. The advantage of creating such an alleged contrivance is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder can assign their own relative beauty to it. Some would say this is the very definition of art, but others would say even that definition has limits. Some would say that the most obscure painting is art, because they “see it”, where others see only schlock for elitists to crib note to death, until meaning is derived.

James Joyce is considered the exception to this rule, fellow writers have told me, and if you are going to attempt to write an important novel in the 21st Century, you had better be familiar with him. I’ve tried, and I now believe that I’m destined to be a havenot in the Joycean world … even with Ulysses. The question that arises out of these ashes is, am I going a long way to becoming more intelligent by recognizing my limits, or should it be every aspiring intellect’s responsibility to continue to push themselves beyond any self-imposed limits to a point where they can finally achieve a scholarly understanding of difficult material? If this is a conundrum that every person encounters when facing challenges to their intelligence, is Ulysses, or more pointedly Finnegans Wake, the ultimate barometer of intelligence, or is it such an exaggerated extension that it had to have been a practical joke James Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that they are when they “get it” just to get it. Do they really “get it”, or are they falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never intended to be “got”?