At Tikhon's, starring Kobe Bean Bryant.

Posted on Sat 14 January 2012 in Uncategorized by Aaron McGuire

I consider myself a relatively well-read man, at least when it comes to Russian literature. I haven't kept up with my reading as much as I used to before college (which seems to be the case with any literate math and science major), but I've become really fond of picking up my old favorites and reading a few chapters every now and again as a reminder of why I loved them. That and short stories, which is the reason I've had a quite unfinished post on Popovich through the eyes of Solzhenitsyn bouncing around in the 48 Minutes of Hell drafts page for at least a month now. I'll finish it, someday. I promise. This is all relatively beside the point. I love Russian literature. I love the cultural sensibilities at play in many of the Russian greats, and the general cossack voice that seems to lend itself to the limits of character complexity and motivations that lie at the heart of work operating at the apex of literature.

Alex and I would both attest to having spent many long hours discussing amongst ourselves the best NBA analogues to some of the characters from our favorite novels. Who's the NBA's best representation -- both rhetorically and in their aesthetic realization of the character's themes -- of War and Peace's Pierre Bezukhov? Solzhenistyn's Ivan Denisovich, or even Cancer Ward's Oleg? Gogol's incarnation of the poshlost, in the knavish Chichikov? Lermontov's Pechorin, Goncharov's Oblomov, Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin. All incredible characters -- are there any NBA analogues, of their ilk? There are, for some. Some are reaches. And others are Eddy Curry. But that's beside the point -- one could frame relatively entertaining and insightful posts around the eternal search for an analogue of each classic character I described, if they'd like. Someday, we may do that.

Today, though? Let's talk about Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin and Kobe Bean Bryant.

• • •

Last night, in a mostly ignored tweet, Doug Hastings stated -- in his usual semi-rhetorical way -- that it was almost irresponsible to analyze Kobe Bryant without discussing Stavrogin. I read the tweet, laughed, and immediately felt that I'd read the defining description of Kobe Bryant's approach to the game. I'll explain that in a bit, but assuming most of our readers haven't read Dostoevsky's Demons in the last year, I'll attempt to explain who Stavrogin is. Necessarily, there will be some spoilers (though I won't spoil "At Tikhon's", as that's one of the greatest reveals in all of literature) and if you're planning on reading it and can't handle being spoiled I'd proceed with caution.

Stavrogin may be the most intrinsically talented and intelligent individual in any Dostoevsky novel. Russian literature doesn't tend to have "perfect" characters, but on paper, Stavrogin fits the bill. Strikingly handsome and brilliant, Stavrogin is desired by every character in the book, for a time. He's the town's most eligible bachelor, the smartest man in the book, and (to the young nihilists upon whom the book is based) a lightning rod who they eternally desire as their leader. He doesn't necessarily want to lead, but the nihilist masses see him and his talent and believe him to be their savior. He has a face that -- to quote the book -- "reminded some people of a mask" in its perfection. It couldn't be that handsome, he couldn't be that talented, he couldn't look and feel like such a sterling specimen of a man. But he was all those things. On paper, in appearance, and in all ways of summarizing a person before you really get to their soul. Unfortunately, the soul is a tricky thing.

"Today as before, I'm still capable of wishing to do something decent and I derive some pleasure from this, but the next moment I want to do evil things and that also gives me pleasure."

-- Stavrogin to Dasha, p. 690

Stavrogin was a severely flawed man. As flawed as a man that fits all the descriptions above could possibly be. His talent insulated him from the concept of empathy, leading him to spend much of the novel exhibiting a complete and utter lack of a conscience. Or, really, a soul. There are conflicting periods in the novel -- some where, as he describes, he wishes to be decent and some where he wishes to be evil -- and in the end paint him to be a deeply contradictory individual. He shows both kindness and wickedness. He tells the nihilists he won't allow them to murder his friend to make a political statement, then stands idly by as they do so. He feels pain at his wife's suffering, then has her murdered. He is a classic Byronic hero, in a warped sense -- talented and perfect on paper, but bored of life. Completely indifferent to the friendships of others and driven to ennui and disrepair by the world that exists on a level lower than his potential.

Stavrogin shows no ability to make relationships, and no ability to cash in on his talent and potential in any way beyond his reputation. In a sense, one could effectively summarize that aspect of Stavrogin as a lack of motivation to assimilate with the less talented. Stavrogin never met a single person in Demons who he felt was his equal. Everyone was lower-class, a subhuman compared to Stavrogin's on-paper excellence. This lack of empathy and lack of ability to do anything but assert his own superiority when faced with interacting with lower-tier citizens reflects on his actions, but also on how he lived his life. Stavrogin takes on ridiculous, unnecessary feats just to see if they would affect his countenance and force him to feel. Stavrogin's extraordinary abilities desensitized him to normal stimulation. Stavrogin felt he needed to go one step further, for his own sake -- he couldn't simply duel someone he wronged, he had to fire intentionally in the air to mock his dueling parter's poor shot, then shrug and leave without shooting his dueling partner as he wallowed in his failure. He couldn't simply have an affair, he had to kiss the wife of a nobleman in front of the nobleman's face, at a party. He couldn't simply mock his heritage by marrying low, he had to marry a mentally challenged slave.

The acts of Stavrogin aren't acts of bravery or courage -- often, as in the duel (where he was nearly hit three times and intentionally missed his own shots as an inexplicable and mocking joke), they're the acts of foolishness and completely detached from reality. But foolishness isn't the right word for his primary motivator -- for Stavrogin, they're acts of curiosity. A man who feels he is above God -- as Stavrogin says in his culminating confession -- attempting to find his philosophical limits and his stance on good versus evil. And disturbingly discovering he had no limits to his depravity, no personal line between good and evil. He could not bring himself to feel as a rule, only for the most absurd of his sins could he come close to approximating what it was like to feel. Stavrogin did great things, and he did terrible things. And the scariest part, perhaps, was that he had no real motive behind them. He simply did them to see if he could ever do anything to affect himself.

• • •

As a person, Kobe is not Stavrogin. Nor anything close. Stavrogin is a depraved and challenging character, and in making this comparison, I'm in no way trying to make a personal judgment on Kobe's head or heart. He is not Stavrogin. But in his game, there are aesthetic similarities. And in the philosophy that guides his decisionmaking, the similarities would be (as Hastings said) somewhat irresponsible to ignore. As a basketball player, Kobe is similarly talented to Stavrogin. Molded from a young age to be a basketball star, Kobe's spent his entire life in pursuit of excellence for his talent. And psychologically, that slightly differentiates him from Stavrogin. Because Stavrogin is good enough that he needs not pursue anything tangible, or any validation of his skills. But this isn't to say Stavrogin is absent a pursuit of his own -- in his previously described attempts to find his limits, Stavrogin discovered he could not feel.

In his fruitless pursuit of empathy, and in pursuit of humility, Stavrogin squanders his talents and commits remarkable sins. They are sins that make his final confessions the out-of-place final chapter of Demons (banned in the original Russian but was eventually unearthed and re-added by Dostoevsky researchers) -- titled "At Tikhon's" -- one of the most disturbing chapters in all of literature. Stavrogin's sins cannot be properly assessed within his moral code, until one realizes he never really had one. As an aesthetic complement to Kobe Bryant, you can't do much better than the unconscionable self-obsession of Stavrogin and his lack of human empathy. Kobe is not a player opposed -- on its face -- to winning "the wrong way." He doesn't mind taking half his team's shots, because he has no patience or time to spare for those of lesser talent. You watch Kobe play, and for every time a teammate shanks one of his perfect passes (as Kobe is a gifted and talented passer, despite his distaste for showing it), you can see in his mind the wheels turning. The mental note. The sense that -- for the rest of the game -- Kobe feels he can't rely on that player, even if the player worked hard and the miss was in no way their fault. Because they missed. In his mind, Kobe doesn't miss an important shot. A shot off one of his passes is important, to Kobe, and a player who misses it is a persona non grata.

Curious of what I mean? Look at some tape. Watch Andrew Bynum, and how quickly Kobe decides to stop passing to him every time he misses the ball. Watch as Kobe takes on ridiculous feats -- not in pursuit of feeling, as with Stavrogin, but simply because he desires the challenge. Kobe is notorious for playing through injury, and at this point, the parallel between his injury habits and Stavrogin's detachment from reality is too ripe to pass up. Kobe is essentially blowing up his future body in pursuit of revisiting his younger days. He's taking up too many possessions, playing too many minutes, and has no motivation to assimilate with the less talented Lakers around him in a coherent offense. He and his fans are desensitized to the reality of his injuries -- to the terrible arthritis he will live with for the rest of his life, the balky knee that will require incredible feats of medicine to stay healthy as he gets older, the tear in his wrist that would normally require serious surgery -- all in yet another attempt to challenge himself. To continue winning and scoring and being all-caps KOBE despite his age and the gradual decline of his game. The desire to beat father time, to leave the game on his own terms, to take as many shots as he possibly can even when it hurts the team.

Kobe's motivations, while generally malleable towards winning, have never been solely about the rings or the scoring titles. It's been a story written about Kobe, about winning on his own terms. A man whose career was solely about winning would never have let his game 7 meltdown versus the Suns happen. He wouldn't continue to take completely inefficient possessions and ignore the incredible second options the Lakers have always provided him that he more than any Laker fan seems to properly value. In a close game, you aren't playing the Lakers. You're playing Kobe, by himself, because winning isn't nearly as important as winning on his own terms. He has no conscience about the shots he takes and the damage he does to his body, because to him, this is a challenge. It's Kobe versus an army of imaginary haters, Kobe versus his body, Kobe versus Jordan. These are the standards Kobe Bryant often seems to hold himself to, in the game of basketball. This is his legacy, though he doesn't care much for it. Kobe doesn't care where you place him on a top ten list, really -- he cares only insofar as he wants to prove those that dislike him wrong. That's as far as he'll go.

• • •

Stavrogin ends the novel proper in a manner that, to the reader, continues to make him as inscrutable as a character could possibly be. In short? He kills himself. For a man so devoid of emotion, so lacking in human empathy, so impossibly detached from the world around him -- doing that really makes little sense. There are two primary ways to understand it. Either Stavrogin kills himself in one final self-destructive pursuit of something that makes him feel, or he kills himself because he's been lying on his face the whole time. Stavrogin does in fact feel. And his sins -- too weighty to disclose here, the reveal too important to the novel for me to spoil it for you -- finally weighed upon his soul enough that he could no longer live with himself.

When Demons was first brought to America, it was brought by Constance Garnett (an object of my loathing, but that's a subject for another day) under the title The Possessed. The Russian title is actually "bez-ii", a word that is loosely translated as a plural form of "evil spirit." The problem with the original translation is that it ends up completely changing the meaning of the novel -- the characters in the book are simply not possessed by forces external, and it's silly to think so. To think that is to utterly misunderstand Dostoevsky's point. Rather, the characters themselves are the possessors. They are the ones whose ideas and depravity possess the minds of the men that follow them. They are the ones to come up with their own philosophy, and they are the ones responsible for their own actions.

Kobe Bryant is not an equivalent to Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, and they are not comparable on most levels. There is no need whatsoever to list off Kobe's sins, or even attempt that comparison. Because as a person, Kobe could never reach the complex and inscrutable level that Stavrogin arrives at as a character. But in his game, and in his utter lack of respect for his own future -- as a human being, not as a basketball player -- the parallel both to Stavrogin and the novel itself becomes noteworthy. Kevin Harlan can yell about Chris Paul having no respect for human life all he wants. He'll be right -- Paul's empathy is similarly lacking, for better or for worse. But Chris Paul's lack of empathy will never come anywhere close to the philosophical purity of a player like Kobe, and in his late-career return to his prime 2006-2007 game, Kobe seems intent on reminding everyone who the reigning king of detachment is. It is he, and no matter what kind of new talent enters the league, not a soul will ever match him.

Kobe's self-obsession and his desire and need for an eternal challenge will be his real legacy. And the way he has taken the Jordan dichotomy and altered it to fit his designs points to the original flaw in the title -- it is not Kobe who is possessed by his own designs, but Kobe who is the possessor of others. He has full ownership of all that he's done, and the mindset he's brought to this league. He is the one who has, to some extent, remade the league in his image. And he is the one who, when all is said and done, succeeded. At what cost? Good question, especially if you're one of his fans. Because worrying about his health is something that even I (a man who doesn't much like Kobe) have been partial to do. But please, don't kid yourself.

If he cared about that, do you really think he'd be playing on that wrist right now?

I am afraid of showing greatness of soul. I know that it will be another sham again—the last deception in an endless series of deceptions. What good is there in deceiving oneself? Simply to play at greatness of soul? Indignation and shame I can never feel, therefore not despair.

-- Nikolai Stavrogin's suicide note.