Friends, do you like deep dives into the watery depths of the intersection of philosophy and wit? Do you like terrible puns? If so, you’ll love the new podcast The Readers Karamazov, a podcast in which hosts Karl Bookmarx, Søren Rear-Guard, and Friedrich Peachy dive into a great text to explore its ethical, philosophical, and literary dimensions.
I’ve already managed to expose the hidden identity of one of the hosts – friend of Dappled Things Asher Gelzer-Govatos. Since I know Asher is a bit of a wild card, I proposed an interview. Once he agreed, I tried to rattle him with an unreasonably aggressive line of questioning, but he didn’t even blink.
First off, what gives you the right?
Beck famously declared that he was “where it’s at” on the basis of having two turntables and a microphone. Well, we’ve got two to three microphones, and I have a turntable at home, so…
To give a real answer: The Readers Karamazov was started out of a shared desire to talk about literature in ways that often get ignored in current discourse. There’s a current strain of critical discussion that seems obsessed with asking the question of all literature: “what can it tell us about ourselves, about the present moment?” While there can be value in this sort of navel-gazing, ultimately it does a disservice to the variegated pleasures of great literature. We wanted a place where we could take literature seriously on its own terms… so we made one.
Who do you think you are?
We’re a collective of current/former graduate students of literature. We met in grad school and became good friends based more on similarities in temperament than any unified stance toward life. So: I’m much closer in my thought, probably, to most readers of Dappled Things than either Karl or Friedrich, my two co-hosts. I’m a Catholic convert, and, so far as this goes, I’m the “conservative” of the bunch – again, speaking more temperamentally than anything else. I value preservation and continuity in culture, rather than rupture. And, at least in official senses, I’m the most “religious” of the bunch, though both Karl and Friedrich have inclinations in that direction. Karl’s probably the closest to an “old school” leftist among us, concerned with materiality, labor, etc. Friedrich’s somewhere in between.
Despite our differences, we hold several important things in common. First, we have a love for literature. Maybe that seems obvious, but we’ve met plenty of literature scholars who sure seem to hate the thing they study – or only love a very narrow section of literature, and love it as a means to an end. We love literature as an end in itself, as a uniquely human production. The Roman playwright Terence famously said “Nothing human is alien to me,” and I’d say that’s how we all feel about literature. Because of this we’re not concerned with cramming literature into restrictive boxes. This is something, by the way, that both religious conservatives and the more extreme adherents of progressivism tend to struggle with: the temptation to consider only what immediate benefit literature brings to our side – whether that is its potential as an aid to conversion, or as a tool for political or identitarian struggle. The three of us are united in our opposition to these uses of literature.
Second, we all have a basically ironic or detached sensibility, I’d say. We take ideas seriously, but we like to hold them at arm’s length and examine them. This has its risks, of course – at some point you must choose! – but it also has the advantage of a certain fair mindedness, an ability to take in the whole while also inspecting the parts. It’s part of what drew us together as friends, and part of what made us think we’d do well working together in a podcast setting. Actually, a big part of the reason I suggested we start a podcast is that I was preparing to leave the town where we’d all lived together, and I wanted a vehicle for our continued friendship and intellectual discussions.
The pseudonymous names?
So the pseudonyms spring from a few different places. Most mundanely, on a practical level, my co-host Karl does not like attaching his own name to things, for various reasons, so pseudonymity lets him participate and maintain a certain privacy. I don’t have that same compunction, which is probably why it’s fallen to me to do most of the promoting of the pod (that and the fact that Karl very wisely does not have a social media presence).
On a conceptual level, we liked the idea of having personae that we inhabit in the world of the pod, figures that are very like, but not perhaps exactly like, who we are in our private lives. I’m like this in my teaching, as well: Asher the professor is much more excitable and outgoing than Asher the person. It’s not a facade or illusion so much as it is a sharpening of certain aspects of our personalities.
Also, of course, there’s the Kierkegaardian angle. I study Kierkegaard for a living, and am deeply indebted to his thought. I’ve always loved the literary aspect of his pseudonyms, the ways in which adopting a persona allows him to experiment with ideas and styles that, while not completely detached from his own ideas and personality, allow for a distance between them. In choosing our particular pseudonyms, we liked the grouping of our personalities as “the bastard sons of Hegel” – rebels against a too mechanical systematization of thought – so we chose personae based on the three most famous thinkers indebted to – but rebellious against – Hegel: Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche. As the Kierkegaardian in the group, I naturally lined up with him, and became Søren Rear-Guard, a nod to my role as the most conservative or reactionary voice in the group. Karl is a very material and dialectical thinker, so he gravitated toward Karl Marx, which lent itself quite naturally to the dumb literary pun: Karl Bookmarx. Our third host is a bit of a wild card, so he took up the mantle of that wild man of philosophy, Nietzsche. He’s also the optimist of the group, I think, so that turned into Friedrich Peachy. Basically, our pseudonyms are a mixture of highbrow philosophy and lowbrow jokes – Karl pointed out to me after I chose my name that it could also be construed as a butt joke, which only added to its appeal for me.
Was Brothers K a particular inspiration?
Yes and no. We started first with the idea of a literary podcast, then the pseudonyms developed, but we still weren’t entirely sure what direction we wanted to take things. We had brainstorming sessions about names for the podcast, in which we came up with reams and reams of ideas. As Karl and I talked about what books we wanted to tackle first – since Friedrich is currently MIA due to parental duties – we realized that we both wanted to focus on the intersection of philosophy and literature – twin passions for us both, and for Friedrich. Given that, we thought back to a name that Karl had come up with previously: The Readers Karamazov. We liked the snappiness of that, and the allusion of course, and thought it fit a podcast about philosophy and literature quite well.
Serendipitously, the name has added a layer of meaning to our pseudonyms as we’ve each taken on the role (a bit) of one of the brothers. Friedrich took on the role of Dmitri, the wild passionate one – more so because of the matchup with his namesake than anything else. Karl tends to be the rational, materially focused one, so it made sense that he would fill the Ivan role. And, both because Kierkegaard is the philosopher of the “leap to faith,” and because I myself am the most overtly religious one among us, I fell into the role of Alyosha, the novice monk. It’s not something that we talk up on the pod, necessarily, but it’s in the background.
And obviously we’ve aligned ourselves with the book by making it the first book we talk about. That came about mostly through Friedrich. Karl and I were talking about what book to start with, and he chimed in and said “Wait, we’re calling the pod The Readers Karamazov but we’re not starting with The Brothers K? That’s a terrible idea.” We decided he was probably right about that. Of course, it works on another level as well; critical consensus suggests that The Brothers Karamazov is not only one of the best, most important novels ever written, but one of the richest works of philosophical literature. And who are we to disparage critical consensus?
One thing we talk about in Episode 1 regarding Dostoevsky is the idea, developed through the critic Bakhtin, that Dostoevsky is a particularly dialectical or dialogical writer – that he brings a multitude of voices into his work and lets them talk to each other. That’s definitely one thing we aim at in the pod. We’re coming from fairly different perspectives, but we view that as a strength, not a weakness. Karl will narrow in on concepts that I would otherwise miss, and vice versa.
What kind of novels/writing do you foresee tackling in the future?
In order to cover a wide variety of books our general plan is, once we’ve finished off the behemoth that is The Brothers Karamazov, to alternate selections and go where our fancy takes us. We each have different period specialties in our day jobs as literary scholars, and wide ranging interests beyond that, so our choices should provide some good variety. Karl, who specializes in 20th Century American literature, including African American literature, wants us to discuss James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room next – a text that is definitely going to stretch me, and maybe some of our listeners as well. From my own specialty of 20th century British literature, I’m interested in tackling texts that fall outside the two poles of my traditional discipline: Modernism on the one hand, postcolonial literature on the other. I love both of those streams of literature, to be sure, but I’m more interested in the texts that fall between. As you know, my personal favorite is Muriel Spark, so I’m sure we’ll tackle a book of hers at some point. We’re definitely doing something by Iris Murdoch, who is fascinating thanks to her dual life as novelist and academic philosopher. Friedrich is a Victorianist, so he’s going to bring in an interesting group of texts that are sometimes neglected as being too straightforward or pat, but in reality have a richness to them that is exciting. I’ve been listening through some classic Victorian novels on audiobook recently, and loving them, so I’m excited for this. Expect something like Dickens’ Hard Times, Trollope’s The Warden, or George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.
Beyond our specialties, we’re all pretty omnivorous in our tastes, so we remain committed to going all over the place chronologically. We’ve discussed talking over Petronius’ Satyricon, Voltaire’s Candide, and many more. Anything that is notable for both its aesthetic excellence and its philosophical richness. Though we’re sticking to novels or pseudo-novels for now, we may eventually expand to include philosophical works of literary merit. My man Kierkegaard is big here, of course, as is Nietzsche, but also classics like the Platonic dialogs, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Confessions of St. Augustine. On and on. So many books!
Anything else to know?
I’ve been asked several times now whether it’s necessary to have read the books before tuning in. To clarify: absolutely not! We’ve designed each pod to stand alone and (hopefully) be interesting to the expert and non-expert alike. We talk plot basics so that everyone can get oriented, then dive into specific aspects of the text that have philosophical interest for us. For those who have read the book we’re discussing, we hope to go deep enough into specifics that they gain a new perspective through the episode – that we’ve given them a reason to go back and read the book again with fresh insights. For those who are new to a book, we hope to prick their interest so that they go out and read it!
Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska, where he lives with his wife and four kids. He has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. His academic work focuses on religion and philosophy in 20th Century British literature, particularly that literature’s interaction with the thought of Kierkegaard. He has academic work forthcoming in Religion & Literature, and his broader cultural writing has appeared in outlets such as Books & Culture, The Week, and The A.V. Club. You can follow him on Twitter @conceptofdredd, and can follow The Readers Karamazov at @thereadersk.