Stumptown, 29th Street 

It’s 6:30AM at Stumptown Coffee Roasters and I’m feeling pretty good about myself. Fellow caffeinators include an Aryan Winklevossy stock broker bro (complete with stupidly large headphones and a creaming, oozing pustule on his face) and a hipster advertising-guru (bad hair, bad mustache, Warby Parkers, bad teeth). Comfortable in their natural habitat, these specimens and others like them are nursing coffees, texting and consulting their positively enormous, clunky MacBooks Air. But my own smugness is derived from the fact that for the first time, my computational device is smaller, faster and sexier than the other kids’ on the playground. With the purchase of an iPad, a long-borne internal crisis of masculinity has been subdued. I now proudly swing my little e-phallus around like an inappropriate chimp at the zoo, who in harassing other primates, kindly grants your child a premature introduction to the nuance of mammalian mating rituals.

My new iPad is amazing. Then again, my standards are rather low. Previous interactions with Apple gadgets have been largely confined to email, Facebook, word processing, ordering takeout and watching reruns of Girls (yes, because the new season started last Sunday). I admit I had allowed my 2010 MacBook Air to degenerate to the point of three broken keys, no functional email application, a faulty trackpad and an operating system that turned loading New Yorker articles into an opportunity to leisurely make a cup of coffee and grab a shower while I waited. Now? I’ve got the ability to read, read, read all the articles, magazines, newspapers without (a) blinding myself by trying to read them on my iPhone (b) waiting for e-naiads to fetch data from ether-abyss at the end of the Styx, and (c) becoming really anal about my coffee routine.

As you can see, getting sucked in isn’t difficult. The ability to multitask on the Apple tablet satisfies the urge to have all things in one place (and never leave my apartment?). But there are additional layers of seduction. Take a newspaper app for example: once you’re inside the New York Times, you have to up your game as you wade through a news source. Formatted with an infinity scroll (dangerous), a litany of political flummox, cultural event reports, humor pieces, foreign affairs analyses and a weekly weather forecast all cohabit within a paper-thin aura of mutual exclusivity. This is no great revelation; one naturally expects of variety, visual chaos and even paradox from the format of a newspaper or magazine. Try and run a direct correlation between gender fluidity on the runways in NY fashion week and the rise in traffic deaths in 2016, you’re either a conspiracy theorist, or writer for Freakonomics.

For me, the best literary media are those which make good on the carnivalesque capital embedded in sheer information overload. The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” hopelessly saturates the reader in its own in self-referentiality while showing the different shades of experience from a single week in the city. But my absolute favorite is Harper’s infamous Index, a reliable and diarrhetic informational source, at once useful, useless, humorous and heartbreaking. In January, the Harper’s Index was uncharacteristically bleak, as the various tidbits of information all seemingle pertained to a post-election malaise. Appalling figures on immigration and asylum seekers in the United States tenebrously move to a seemingly inconsequential figure on the number of emojis acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (176, to be precise) and other fun facts: Harvard’s endowment is over one million per-cent of the average wage of a campus cafeteria worker. A café in Indonesia nearly doubled the price of its iced coffee after the owner poisoned her husband with it. It took ten hours for the official Canadian Immigration site to crash on the day after the election. 360,000 registered female voters lacked proper voter identification in Wisconsin, where it only took 27,000 votes to secure Trump’s lead in November.

A paradox lies not so much in the presence of swathes of information, but rather in our ability to process and potentially care about it. Though I personally find reading the paper enjoyable, I also get amusement from the fact that some see a newspaper or magazine as a lazy Sunday’s project – that reading one is somehow a relaxed or even simple activity, when in fact one is juggling information at the same time that they are checking email, petting the dog, using the loo, drinking coffee, planning for the future, freaking out about the future, applying for a Canadian visa, designing an underground bunker, etc. The carnival is indeed chaotic, as the waves of analyses, facts and figures erupt into a noise.

Hyperbole aside, some articles are obviously less important and even forgotten (I’m liable to remember absolutely nothing about New York Fashion week). Others remain at the fore of our minds as we follow a series of events in the next day’s paper, and the next, and so on (Trump’s debacle with Bannon, for instance). The middling sort pop in and out intermittently; some are anecdotal (the economy of wild sheep hunting in Montana), some intentionally fleeting (the stock indexes), others confirm the intransigence of a feature of society (the American opioid epidemic). In reality each article can be categorized on its own terms (on the assumption of course, that one doesn’t just get their news from Facebook) according to the sensibilities of the reader, allowing them to form subjective linear connections, means of understanding, methods of emotional distance – opinions, basically. The subsidy doesn’t come in the form of simplification or mere organization, but rather by means of compartmentalization – all the facts and figures (or at least the experiences we had of taking them in) co-exist simultaneously and in separate corners of the mind. In the end, the apparent paradox fades away as our minds turn the cacophony current events into a manageable (though still intense) polyphonic hum.

I’m not sure about you, but I rarely feel as if I have to go through such a process of synthesization when I’m reading a novel. More often, I find myself spending time deconstructing something seemingly unified to try and make it more complex or multi-linear. For centuries, the manifestations of formal unification in the novel have continually expanded, and no more so than in the twentieth century: we have the unreliable narrator in Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire; the spectrum of Proustian memory throughout In Search of Lost Time; the indistinguishability between language and symbol in Eco’s Name of the Rose; the expansion of realism in Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s not that these these books are unchallenging to read, simplistic or single-minded in any way. Indeed the nuance and frustrations of human emotion and behavior are paramount for all these authors. But there’s a certain nucleic conformation of consciousness, a common body of knowledge and understanding that ties the threads of these novels together. One might go so far as to say that there’s a certain vertical organization, whereby the characters, stories and actions are constructed in relation to an overriding facet or piece of knowledge: Humbert Humbert and Lolita’s negotiation of taboo sexuality, Marcel’s engagement of time, “Aristotle” as an idea in Eco’s monastic world, the overarching question of culpability in Capote’s trial.

img_0053If there was ever an exception, it would be found in Dostoevsky, an author whose prized technique was in the pitting of all ideas and none against one another in all of his novel. So clinical, multi-voiced and anti-authorial is his style in The Brothers Karamazov, that he was heralded progenitor of the “polyphonic novel,” one of the apexes of literary realism. So fixed is each brother’s experience and worldview, that tension and drama derive not from the clash or injury between the brothers and their ideas, but absolute absence of synthesis between them at any point in the novel.

Polyphonic though it may be, it’s no fugue or invention; it contains no points of imitation, no cadence, no recapitulation. More like a group of articles in the Times, the Karamazovs are almost unrealistically autonomous characters, embodiments of the idealistic orientations, simultaneously perfect and irrefutable in their own logic, irreconcilable at the point of confrontation. The open-ended dialogue to which the reader is but a witness. Indeed, for philosophers such as Mikhail Bakhtin there is no room for the reader in the space confined by dialogical “agitation and cacophony.” Sigmund Freud went so far as categorize the brothers’ apparent separation as the four complements of a higher unity: the effeminate and ascetic Alyosha, the hedonistic and masculine Dmitri, the skeptical and cerebral Ivan, and the criminally insane Smerdyakov.

Even the stage-time afforded each of the brothers differentiates them from one another. If one charts the dialogues between the brothers, Alyosha is nearly omnipresent in nearly every interaction, save two chapters where Ivan and Smerdyakov are alone. Conversely, each of the brothers gets a chapter alone, except for Ivan, who is forced to contend with Smerdyakov’s insanity. Alyosha spends a great deal of time listening, and Ivan spends most of his time talking; Alyosha is the familial broker while Ivan is the deaf automaton, self-exclusionary in his rationality.


For the ardent Dostoevsky fan, The Grand Inquisitor epitomizes Dostoevsky’s trademark approach. Frustration and a pathological need for self-affirmation push Ivan to recount a fictional encounter between the Spanish inquisitor and Christ, recently returned to earth. The essence of the passage is clear, as the Inquisitor rejects Christ’s return for fear of the nullification of the church’s purpose on earth. Ivan is trying to shake his brother. But rather than describe any emotional state that either Ivan or Alyosha reach, Dostoevsky allows the inherent malice by presenting the full logic his rational objection to a benevolent God. No value judgment is placed on Ivan – the reader infers the stakes of the matter by simply witnessing answers given to questions posited by Alyosha.

The metaphor of this seeming intransigence is summed up in the chapter’s famous use of a kiss. Indeed, the exchange of two kisses in the chapter alone sum up the entirety of Karamazov. Banished from Spain by the Inquisitor, the imprisoned Christ grants him a kiss before his departure, a kiss which “glowed in Inquisitor’s heart, though the old man clung to his ideas.”

I meant to end it like this. When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

When Ivan pushes his younger brother towards renunciation, Alyosha grants the second kiss to Ivan on the lips.  

“And the old man?” asked Alyosha. 
“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

“And you with him, you too?” cried Alyosha, mournfully. 

Ivan laughed. “Why, it’s all nonsense, Alyosha. It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student, who could never write two lines of verse. Why do you take it so seriously? Surely you don’t suppose I am going straight off to the Jesuits, to join the men who are correcting His work? Good Lord, it’s no business of mine. I told you, all I want is to live on to thirty, and then… dash the cup to the ground!”

“But the little sticky leaves, and the precious tombs, and the blue sky, and the woman you love! How will you live, how will you love them?”

Alyosha cried sorrowfully. “With such a hell in your heart and your

head, how can you? No, that’s just what you are going away for, to join them… if not, you will kill yourself, you can’t endure it!” 

“There is a strength to endure everything,” Ivan said with a cold smile.

“The strength of the Karamazovs- the strength of the Karamazov baseness.”

“To sink into debauchery, to stifle your soul with corruption, yes?”

“Possibly even that… only perhaps till I am thirty I shall escape it, and then-

“How will you escape it? By what will you escape it? That’s impossible with your ideas.”

“In the Karamazov way, again.”

“‘Everything is lawful,’ you mean? Everything is lawful, is that it?”

Ivan scowled, and all at once turned strangely pale.

“Ah, you’ve caught up yesterday’s phrase, which so offended Muisov- and which Dmitri pounced upon so naively and paraphrased!” he smiled queerly. “Yes, if you like, ‘everything is lawful’ since the word has been said, I won’t deny it. And Mitya’s version isn’t bad.”

Alyosha looked at him in silence. 
“I thought that going away from here I have you at least,” Ivan said suddenly, with unexpected feeling; “but now I see that there is no place for me even in your heart, my dear hermit. The formula, ‘all is lawful,’ I won’t renounce- will you renounce me for that, yes?”

Alyosha got up, went to him and softly kissed him on the lips.

“That’s plagiarism,” cried Ivan, highly delighted.”

No resolution ever arrives, as there is no explicit tension. Much like the morning news, it’s for you to infer, balance, decide. But the extent to which this is possible isn’t really down to the process of the reader’s judgment, but rather the extent to which Dostoevsky crawls inside the mind of the character he creates, exposing them in the totality of their internal logic. Not one of the Karamazov brothers is ever presented in a manner in which his own view of the world does not make total and complete sense. Even with Ivan, whose moral and political views resemble Dostoevsky’s own, is totally divorced from any value judgment.

Dostoevsky was not unaware of the gravity of implications in The Grand Inquisitor. In his own journals he confronted his own similarities to Ivan, though positing that while agrees with Ivan, he would “use other words” to express his views. Ivan and Alyosha are not even really “characters,” but personifications of their own ideas. So worried was Dostoevsky about inferring any true “meaning” onto Ivan and Alyosha’s famous encounter, that he wrote of being fearful of writing further chapters in which Ivan and Alyosha might confront each other at all. Indeed, Fyodor Karamazov’s lingering question about a kiss granted by Zosima the Priest earlier in the novel: “Was the kiss symbolic of something?” Zosima’s return later in the novel treads carefully not to find any means of “responding” to either incident. Of the nature of any sequel to The Grand Inquisitor, Dostoevsky writes:

“As an answer to the negative side, I am offering a sixth book, ‘A Russian Monk.’ As such, I tremble: will this be a sufficient answer? All the more trembling because the answer here is not a direct one, not a point-by-point response to any previously expressed position in The Grand Inquisitor or prior, but only an oblique response so to speak, in an artistic picture.”

While Freudian and Marxist scholars have engrained the significance of the Karamazov brothers into the history of literature, psychology and social science, Dostoevsky’s bone dry account of the clash of ideals in Tsarist Russia was significant even in his own time. In May 1880, Dostoyevskty was invited to read The Grand Inquisitor to members of the Royal household, mangy of whom embraced his final novel with enthusiasm. But as Dostoevsky’s magnum opus was simultaneous heralded as “redemptive” and “revolutionary,” some of the Tsar’s greatest opposers latched on, hearing not a meditation on intellectual differentials, but a call to arms. The ecstatic response of a group of students at the University of St. Petersburg to a reading of The Grand Inquisitor in 1879 saw the censorship of the chapter, and a forbearance of publication or public readings.

Not dissimilar to our own time, the intentional distance of journalism from value judgments can often spark not only intense responses, but a variety there of. Divorced from the context of the growing constitutional crisis between the emancipation of the serfs and the 1917 Revolution, one can read The Brothers Karamazov with ignorance, blissful only up to the point you can stand to read an entire 19th century Russian novel and keep track. In Alyosha’s seeming perfection of character, one forgets Dostoevsky’s leftist political leanings, his objection to religion and morality more generally. One forgets the deterioration of millions of lives in his lifetime. One forgets the four years he spent in a Siberian labor colony. Contrary to later politically minded writers like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Boris Pasternak, there is neither any element of allegory nor of the “exposé” or tabloid-esque value judgments, now dated and reducible to temporal context. Like a news source, Dostoevsky imprint of his time is clean, reliable and thus all the more tragic for its endurance.

I read Karamazov and I wonder if I yearn for a more obvious dissonance or clash? Is the interaction between Alyosha and Ivan somehow sterile because of the distance between opposing voices, viewpoints? One feels the weight of synthesis, trying to bring together such segregated ideas – ideas, which for Dostoevsky take the place of sensibilities, emotions, feelings.

Some scholars have argued that capturing the true essence of Dostoevsky’s style is fruitless – the nebulous territory which Mikhail Bakhtin labelled as “cacophony” within “polyphonic” landscape is so divorced from the artistic and closer to the journalistic that literary methods almost inevitably fall flat.

img_0052“The plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness and the genuine polyphony of full-valued voices are in fact characteristics of Dostoevsky’s novels.”

“Dostoevsky merges opposites in spite of the age-old traditions of an aesthetic which required a correspondence between the material and its treatment, which took for granted unity and, certainly, homogeneity and kindredness of the structural elements of a given work of art. He issues a decisive challenge to the basic canon of the theory of art. His task is to overcome the greatest difficulty facing the artist: to create a unified and integral work of art from heterogeneous, profoundly foreign materials of unequal value. This is why the Book of Job, the Revelation of St. John, the New Testament texts, St. Simeon the New Theologian, and everything that feeds the pages of Dostoevsky’s novels and lends the tone to one or another of their chapters is combined here in a unique way with the newspaper page, the anecdote, the parody, the street scene, the grotesque, and even the pamphlet.”

(Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics)

But Bakhtin’s musical analogy is no accident – polyphony as a concept encompasses any musical representation with multiple voices moving simultaneously, though not in tandem. But just as personal autonomy is variable and mutable in literature, so is the independent voice.

More often than not, we think of polyphony in terms of the unifying threads that tie a piece together. Our job is to pick it apart, figure out how renaissance fantasias and baroque fugues are put together, how we can put various components into neat little teleological boxes of form, proportion, direction. Despite given the title ricercar, works designed to “search” (from the Italian ricercare: “to search out”), that which is sought is determined by the tool used to get there: a single unifying theme, sometimes only six notes in length manages to comprise 15 minutes of music. A fugal subject, though alterable in length, tonality or clarity still is confined by a very strict set of assumptions. First, it must repeat itself and build itself to encompass an entire musical landscape. Conversely, the if the landscape has been predesigned, the composer must decide on a subject which can be adequately cultivated, like a horticultural scheme for medieval garden. In addition, any material unrelated to the subject is necessarily presented not only conjunctively, but in a mode of consonance, conforming to whatever the subject’s current manifestation might be. The object is to learn to listen to it in sequence, follow the voices, learn how they agree with each other and converse, take delight in the symmetry, harmony, perfection.

But some of the earliest examples of polyphony sought not to bring things together, but precisely the opposite. One need look no further than the Montpellier Codex to see standard 13th Century procedure of combining unrelated poems and melodies not just to obfuscate a clear message, but allude to a conflict.


The other morning I went out to amuse myself and found a pleasant shepherd girl joyfully occupied without her shepherd boy. I happily sat down beside her and gently asked for her love. She said “Oh no, my Lord, I have a lover, Robin, fair and gay to my liking. For he is so comely and fair and knows so well how to play the bagpipe that I will always love him and never leave him.” 

Yesterday morning I found a shepherd girl wandering without her shepherd boy. I went up to her in the little meadow and took her in my arms. She pulled back and said: “I prefer Robin who loves me more.” When I kissed her she said: “Get away from me!” But I didn’t leave off for that. When I had caressed her, she promised me her love and said: “My lord, fair gentleman, I love you more than Robin.”

Ite missa est [“Go forth, the Mass is ended.”]

The humorous effect isn’t abnormal for a 13th Century French motet. But in listening to the L’autre jour par matinet/Hier matinet/Ite Missa Est, one might not get the sense of humor at all – it’s an important distinction that the delivery of the material in the motet is not what makes it humorous, but rather the subject matter. One girl sticks with her boyfriend Robin because he plays the bagpipes really well, and the other is seemingly cruising strangers in a field when she gets bored looking after her sheep without her boyfriend Robin to keep her company. (But let’s be honest, none of this would be an issue if Robin I and Robin II weren’t in fact busy cruising each other in the next field over. Shepherd girl II has got it figured out. Shepherd girl I needs to wake up.) And yet there are no gimmicks, musical games in the motet that give it away. One has to listen to the text closely, bring them together in order for the joke to be heard.

In other cases the effect can be more somber. In Pierre de la Croix’s Aucun ont trouve/lonc tans/Annunciantes two characters sing of their respective joys in falling in love, but don’t use the same language at all. Listening to them simultaneously, one hears that the voices are that of a man and a woman, but there is no indication that they are in fact in love with each other. The plainsong tenor, taken from a chant for the Annunciation of Christ’s birth, is usually associated with an expression of joy. But here the the joys the characters feel in their own self-fulfilment in love run contrary to the traditional notion of selflessness which Mary displays in accepting the burden of pregnancy. The differentials between the rhythms are such that none of the voices carry the same rhythmic scheme – the top voice meanders in subdivisions comparable to works from the early 20th century.


By comparison, the work of a composer like Guillaume de Machaut plays with intentional obfuscation and confusion far more directly. Machaut’s music was truly peculiar, even Dostoevskian, because of the total removal of vocal stratification, variations in timbre, and differences in the speeds of textual delivery – he organized polyphony on the basis of making the voices as equal as possible. Each of three characters in Machaut’s De triste cuer/Quant vrais amans/Certes je di talk about the relationships between how to write music and mediate their love lives. The first simply writes his music, while the other two consider whether how is better or worse to put one’s heart into their music. Comparing the woes of love to Christ’s torments or Darius’ wrongs at the hands of Alexander the Great, the erudition and similitude of the poetry is stratified by disjoining the coordination of their poetry, in favor of harmonic coalescence. Their verses start and end at different times, and despite ending their poems with the same refrain, the implications are completely different. The first character begs forgiveness for writing his song at all, while the other two almost defend the extent to which their own songs have proven good or ill.


Like Dostoevsky, Machaut’s polyphony dispenses with the linear development of thoughtsplitting a poem into several distinct weltanschaungen (wordviews). If the three sections were presented one after the other, Machaut’s poem poses a problem, a solution, and another solution, resembling in form the juxtaposition of contradictions of authority found in the statements found in medieval quaestiones, an antecedent to our modern essay. From the outset the perspective splits as the use of the word “I” for all three voices shows not just the internal dialogue of a character, but the counterpoint of perspective: the poet is at once the subject and the two-fold object of commentary. The effect static, multifaceted, and yet without contradiction – a snapshot of a quandary. Just as faithful Alyosha does not heed the enlightened despotism of his brother Ivan or vice versa, none of the voices are affected by another. Machaut and Dostoevsky both subvert the sequence of cognition and human growth, and segment it into a scheme unbound by time or duration.

img_0055I love my iPad. It allows me to read Dostoevsky, listen to Machaut and flip to the New York Times. But as a reader, I’ve found that the looking at the news is no longer a case of taking in information and making a decision from a newssource. Increasingly, reading the news means having to look for enough factual information from as many as three or four sources to try and piece together a story unburdened by partisan or advertorial analyses. As ridiculous as some of the facts are, the Harper’s Index feels as reliable and solid as any, as I can rearrange facts, observe, correlate. It’s not so much that I’m a proponent of “objective” journalism – objectivity is naturally farcical, a fool’s errand. That said, I can’t help but notice a certain crisis in how Americans consume their news. Writer Kevin G. Barnhurst has been writing for years about the decline of descriptive journalism and the rise of analytical journalism. What if the analyses are wrong? What are they leaving out (or adding in!)? Especially now, with an administration in such dissarray, it’s often hard to tell what is descriptive and what is analytical – Trump’s speeches alone are so filled with errors and poor grammar, that an unannotated transcript of his speech does almost no good, while an edited speech highlights the inconsistencies without revealing any matter of intent on the President’s behalf (despite the issue of his transparency being at stake a significant proportion of the time).


I see media maps like these floating around the internet and I despair as the colossus of information and confusion has blown up the synthesizing exercise times ten. A single news source alone isn’t sufficient to foster something like Bakhtin’s “cacophony.” Newspapers, like many of their readers, are increasingly prisms of homophony, almost intransigent entities incapable of listening. Indeed, the existential bizareness of the American political sphere is that the different voices yammer on the news, confirm x-group’s political perspective, and yet they exist without paradox. The country is so sufficiently screwed that we’ve moved past the surreal Sartrean confusion, and even past the Orwellian fear about despotism. We’re in a strange free- floating existential angst, a abnormal reality akin to a Russian novel or a theoretical  medieval paradigm. Our lives go on, though the government and media wobble and slog it out. More and more, it feels as if there’s an expectation for us as Americans to “be” personifications of the moral views we “ought” to have. Where you shop, what you read, where you live are now as much symbols of political autonomy as a vote. Three millenials at the same table are separated by values, connected only by the coffee we drink. We’re on our computers, likely looking at different worlds within the internet. It’s rather bleak to think that we might just have reached a sad reality – that we merely embody the news we read – that we’re a country of Karamazovs singing Machaut.

Parker Ramsay is an organist and harpist studying at the Juilliard School in New York City. Read more posts of his at and follow his page on Facebook

2 thoughts on “Stumptown, 29th Street ”

  1. Enjoyed your post, although a little old fashioned myself, do blogging and spend too much time online, however like to read my books not from a tablet but on paper the old way. 🙂


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: