March 2008


I recently finished Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina (the 2001 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is masterful), which was one of the most interesting books I’ve read for a couple of reasons: 1) It took me several months to read entirely because I started reading in the summer when I had the time to devote to it (all 864 pages), and school interrupted the process, forcing me to wait roughly 7 months before I could finish the last of it; and 2) the book itself is fascinating, albeit tragic and almost perplexing at parts.

I’ll try not to spoil the book for anyone who’s interested, and certainly the book itself is an incredible read, jumping through so many spheres of life in the late 19th century that it’s almost mind-boggling. You get a view of the aristocracy in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as rural life in Russia and life abroad in Europe. You see life through the elite, through the very poor, and through the fallen (I think this of Nikolai Levin’s portrayal especially).

But I have to say, I was disappointed with the ending.

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Bill Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher raised an interesting point a few days ago on a common point of grammar: double negatives. The very interesting point he makes is whether or not the word “no” in double negative constructions – his example is the Rolling Stones’ line “I can’t get no satisfaction” – is not truly signifying negation but rather an intensifier.

What he means is that “no” here is functioning differently than its literal usage. To support his case, Vallicella turns to a subset of adverbs called intensifiers – words that modify an adjective or adverb in order to intensify or emphasize the content. When we give our condolences to someone who is grieving by saying, “I am very sorry for your loss,” very functions as an intensifier. Vallicella contends (and I happen to agree) that there are some such adverbs which do not add to or change the content of the adjective or adverb they modify; he gives the example of saying something is “absolutely true,” which I find somewhat contentious*, but I can think of other examples which take the general principle: “absolutely perfect,” for instance. (“Perfect” is an absolute adjective here; we should always stray from saying that something is more perfect than something else or the most perfect such-and-such. Therefore, “absolutely” merely emphasizes the absolute nature of “perfect” but does not materially change the meaning.)

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