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The Dostoevsky Labyrinth

Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by R. W. Rotsel
Ardis, 249 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Dostoevsky and His Devils

by Václav Cerny, translated by F. W. Galan, with an afterword by Josef Skvorecky
Ardis, 77 pp., $2.50 (paper)

When Dostoevsky was a cadet in the Academy of Engineers—the story runs—he designed a nearly perfect fortress, but forgot the windows and doors into and within the place. A guide to the novels: the reader is dropped into the novelist’s claustrophobia, and it must be said that the enormous amount of Dostoevsky criticism since 1880 makes the walls thicker. The task of tunneling one’s way out of his labyrinth is exhausting, and there is disappointment (if there is also relief) in discovering that, after all, the great artist was often, like Balzac and Dickens, also a journalist who skids into a phantasmagoria of the topical and au courant.

This is a phrase of the Czech critic Václav Cerný: all the critics have their phrases. We are helped for a moment and then we are forced to discard: the âme slave was the first to go; it was followed by Dostoevsky as the key to the Russian character; we hesitate over the surely conventional theory of Dostoevsky as the product of medieval Russia in collision with capitalism. Too many “ideas” occur to us. The root of the trouble is that the artist, the man in the act of writing, is lost—he was before anything else an inventing artist. As Mikhail Bakhtin put it in his well-known and difficult book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, which first appeared in Russian in 1929 and was expanded in 1963.

The subject is not a single author-artist, but a whole series of philosophical statements made by several author-thinkers—Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor and others…. The critics indulge in polemics with the heroes; they become their pupils, and they seek to develop their views into a completed system.

Such criticism is concerned with ideology alone and not with the evolving storyteller, at home in the slipshod but struggling against it, and autobiographical to the point of apotheosis.

For the biographer who sticks for the moment to the early pre-Siberian Dostoevsky, as Joseph Frank does in The Seeds of Revolt, the ground is clearer. (There are three volumes still to come.) The great novels are not yet here to obscure the man whom Siberia enlarged and transformed. We are able to see the young man painfully growing. The story has gradually become well known, but it still contains its mysteries and Mr. Frank’s very long book can be called a work of detection and collation at its scrupulous best. Every detail is considered; evidence is weighed and fortunately the author has a pleasant and lucid style, unleadened by the fashionable vice of fact-fetishism. He brings a clearer focus and perspective to things that have been often crudely dramatized, especially in Dostoevsky’s childhood and youth, and we have a more balanced and subtler account of this period than we generally get.

There is no prophetic assumption, for example, that Dostoevsky’s father was a rough, miserly, flogging, lecherous brute like the older Karamazov. The home itself could not be the source of Dostoevsky’s knowledge of abandoned or lethargic poverty. Childhood was happy, if youth was not. The anxious father was ambitious, energetic, strict, but thought constantly of his children’s piety, education, and future; the mother was deeply loving. The boy had his father’s energy and determination and dash. Where was the flaw that made both father and son unstable, jealous, envious, and instantly suspicious? When one looks at Dr. Dostoevsky’s past one sees how powerfully he was influenced by the dream of rank and advancement; even his narrow religion was the dreaming sort of dissident Puritanism which urges the family up the social ladder. This was very much a nineteenth-century dream. The worm in the heart of Dr. Dostoevsky’s success in achieving rank in the lowest grade of the Russian nobility was the knowledge that he had been merely admitted to the new service “aristocracy” invented by Peter the Great and could never become part of the traditional gentry, in fact or in his attitudes.

The crowded Dostoevskys lived very much to themselves. They dwelled in the legend—perhaps it was a fact—that their forebears in the sixteenth century belonged to the old Lithuanian gentry class. Their history has a suggestive religious aspect. The ancient Dostoevskys were scattered and divided in nationality and creed.

The Orthodox Dostoevskys, however, falling on hard times, sank into the lowly class of the non-monastic clergy. Dostoevsky’s paternal great-grandfather was a Uniat archpriest in the Ukrainian town of Bratslava; his grandfather was a priest of the same persuasion; and this is where his father was born. The Uniat denomination was a compromise worked out by the Jesuits as a means of proselytizing among the predominantly Orthodox peasantry of the region: Uniats continued to celebrate the Orthodox rites, but accepted the supreme authority of the Pope. Dostoevsky’s horrified fascination with the Jesuits, whom he believed capable of any villainy to win power over men’s souls, may perhaps first have been stimulated by some remark about the creed of his forebears.

The debate about reason and faith would have had an ancient edge and force to it if it ever occurred in the doctor’s small apartment in his hospital. The Dostoevskys differed from the real gentry in a more important respect. The real gentry had become merely lax in religion and tended to be skeptical Voltaireans. Aristocrats like Tolstoy and Turgenev had had no religious education. But for Dostoevsky:

The very first impressions that awakened the consciousness of the child were those embodying the Christian faith…. Dostoevsky was to say that the problem of the existence of God had tormented him all his life…it was always emotionally impossible for him ever to accept a world which had no relation to a God of any kind….

If aristocrats like Turgenev’s mother flogged their sons, the domineering doctor never once struck his children. Whether he flogged his serfs when his new status allowed him to own land and he bought a poor estate in the country is not really known; but he sent his elder sons to a private school in order to shelter them from brutality: up until then he had been their strict schoolmaster. He saw they were taught Latin and the indispensable French well.

Yet if the childhood was happy, it lay under a lid: the strain of the father’s anxiety for rank and success became hysterical after his wife’s death. He had awakened a deep love of literature in his children, yet still pursuing conventional status, sent Feodor to the Academy of Engineers against the boy’s will. The academy was a great drain on his pocket and the father was so beside himself that he had a stroke when Feodor failed to be promoted in his first year. Feodor became extravagant and wanted, in his turn, to cut a “noble” figure, and we get the first signs of duplicity and guilt in the sanctimonious begging letters to the father.

At this point Mr. Frank deals with Sigmund Freud’s famous essay on the Oedipal nature of Dostoevsky’s conflict with his father. Freud believed Feodor had become parricidal and, in fantasy, homosexual; and that his epilepsy now occurred as a discharge of the guilt he felt when his father, now deep in drink, was murdered by his serfs. (Dostoevsky’s silence on this subject is extraordinary, and indeed the murder did not, in any case, become known until long after his death. It had, for respectability’s sake, been hushed up.) Freud’s case was easily demolished by E.H. Carr in his Life published in 1931. Mr. Frank agrees with Carr and believes that Dostoevsky’s disease did not appear until just before his imprisonment in Siberia or just after. If he was mentally ill in adolescence this is likely to have been so because, like his father, he had little control of his nerves and his temper.

In the ambivalence of Dostoevsky’s relations with the father he resembled, and in his fluctuations between resentment and filial piety, Dostoevsky had his first glimpse of the psychological paradox. He came to seek “self-transcendence, a sacrifice of the ego,” and, says Mr. Frank, “whether one calls such a sacrifice moral masochism, like Freud, or more traditionally, moral self-conquest,” is a matter of terms.

We move on to the early struggles of the writer and a far closer view of the literary scene than the foreign reader is usually given in other Lives. Russian culture in the 1830s was moving from German Romanticism and Idealism toward French Realism or Naturalism. The effect of George Sand, Balzac, and Victor Hugo on young Dostoevsky was enormous (he translated Eugénie Grandet) and in Russian, of course, so was the effect of Pushkin and Gogol. We move on to the conflict with Belinsky who had praised Poor Folk and to the interminable debates on socialism with or without free will and Christian faith that lead us eventually to the Petrashevsky conspiracy, the climax of the trial at which Dostoevsky declared, “Socialism is a science in ferment, a chaos, alchemy rather than chemistry, astrology rather than astronomy.” Mr. Frank goes on to quote from the Memoirs of Alexander Milyukov, who suggests that there was a small Populist wing in the Petrashevsky group and that this is where Dostoevsky may possibly be placed.

The account of the Petrashevsky meetings is given at great length, and if Mr. Frank is not vivid—others have been—his account is gripping as a piece of detection among ideas. For “What are your convictions? What are your ideas?” set the note of discussion in the many “circles”—satirized at the time by Turgenev—that are characteristic of a society where there is no freedom of the press. Dostoevsky wandered in and out of these discussions, occasionally bursting out with emotional attacks on the tsarist bureaucracy, but in the main he simply floated giddily among the Radical speakers. Only one political question preoccupied him passionately: the emancipation of the serfs. The tsar himself was hesitating in the matter.

But there was a change in Dostoevsky when the extraordinary, dramatic figure of Speshnev appeared among the drab and circuitous intellectuals. A few years earlier in his life Dostoevsky had been bowled over by the perfect aristocrat: Turgenev (“I love him”). Speshnev, too, was an aristocrat; wealthy, cultivated, traveled, cold, and strong. His melancholy feminine appearance fascinated (Semenov remarked that “he could well have served as a model for the Saviour”). He was to become the model for Stavrogin in The Devils.

There is the report of Dostoevsky’s doctor, who found the novelist irritable, touchy, ready to quarrel over trifles and complaining of giddiness. There was nothing organically wrong, the doctor said, and the trouble would pass. “No, it will not,” Dostoevsky said, “and it will torture me for a long time. I’ve taken money from Speshnev”—500 rubles in fact—“and now I am with him and his. I’ll never be able to pay back such a sum, and he wouldn’t take the money back; that’s the kind of man he is. Now I have a Mephistopheles of my own.”

Speshnev was a sinister example of “the double” who brings about catastrophe. The money, of course, was meaningless to Dostoevsky, the perpetual borrower, living the hard life of an unsuccessful writer; it was the will of the man that was irresistible. It drew him toward what he abhorred—some form of revolutionary activity. What appalled him, Mr. Frank argues, was that he had, in his unstable way, lost his moral freedom. Later in life he told his second wife that but for the providential accident of his arrest he would have gone mad! The strange thing is that living for contradictory extremes, Dostoevsky was one of those neurotics who recover their health and even their serenity when disaster at last occurs.

Mr. Frank’s first volume stops with the arrest and trial. The last hundred pages deal with the novels and stories Dostoevsky had written up to this point. If we except The Double and White Nights, these belong to the Dostoevsky few people read, for although there are flashes of talent, they are derivative of Gogol, Hoffmann, Sand, clumsy in construction, garrulous and tedious. Mr. Frank is conscientious in his hunt for signs of a developing moral insight, but I am afraid his exhaustive summaries of the stories and the examinations of the characters do not make the tedious less so. In one Hoffmannesque tale of incest and demonic possession, The Landlady, one does see (as Frank says) a new theme emerging: the crushing of the personality under traditional Russian despotism and, in the portrait of Katerina, there is his first study of masochism. (Katerina says, “My shame and disgrace are dear to me. …it is dear to my greedy heart to remember my sorrow as though it were joy and happiness: that is my grief, that there is no strength in it and no anger for my wrongs.”)

When one tackles these stories, one has to admit there is a certain mastery and even a tenderness in evoking masochistic sensuality. But one also sees how this derives from literature. He had not read the Gothic novels in vain; he was a great borrower and already an expert in pastiche and parody. Netotchka Nezvanova is Russified George Sand and is for me, though not for Mr. Frank, unreadable. It has the turgid air of obsessive conspiracy which certainly became a characteristic element of Dostoevsky’s genius, but here the artist is cramming too much in. The one thing I miss in Mr. Frank’s reading is a real response to Dostoevsky’s comic irony, although he does praise the brilliant hack’s pastiches of the bedroom farces of Paul de Kock.

Dostoevsky was surely, from the beginning, a master of dialogue and situation, and one of the great comic wits. His morbid insight into psychological contradiction, his habit of seeing the conflict of inner and outer life, not only as a quest but an imbroglio, are constantly attended by the sardonic spirit when he reached the height of his powers. And it is in this, rather than in his religious or moral utterances, whether they are subtle or overweening, that one feels the iron quality of forgiveness which elsewhere is sentimental.

Without art,” Dostoevsky once wrote, “man might find his life on earth unlivable.” And, one must add, he might find the novelists and, above all, a certain kind of academic critic, hard labor. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics the originality of this great Soviet scholar’s work is obscured by a structuralist prose so opaque that one has to translate to oneself as one struggles on. An inventor of awful words in Russian—“characteriology” for example—he has been a great trouble to his apologetic translators. But he does understand that Dostoevsky is creating his own means as an artist. For him Dostoevsky is the inventor of a new genre, the polyphonic novel. His characters are not the author’s voiceless slaves but “rather free people who are capable of standing beside their creator, or disagreeing with him, and even of rebelling against him.” There is a plurality of voices inner and outer, and they retain “their unmergedness.”

He goes on:

Therefore the hero’s word is here by no means limited to its usual functions of characterization and plot development…. The hero’s consciousness is given as a separate, a foreign consciousness….

The traditional European novel is “monological,” a thing of the past, and if Dostoevsky’s novels seem a chaos compared, say, with Madame Bovary, so much the worse for the tradition. Man is not an object but another subject. As for Dostoevsky’s ideas, they are

artistic images of ideas: they become indissolubly combined with the images of people (Sonya, Myshkin, Zosima); they are freed from their monological isolation and finalization, becoming completely dialogized and entering into the great dialogue of the novel on completely equal terms with other idea-images (the ideas of Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov and others)….

Dostoevsky’s principle as a novelist is simultaneity. There is no doubt that Bakhtin exactly describes the originality of Dostoevsky: one has indeed the impression of being among people whose inner lives are dangling at the ends of their tongues. The lasting defect is that so much self-dramatization drives one into the ground. Not all tongues are equal. Polyphony suffers from the excess of voices. Only in The Brothers Karamazov, where the effect is of theater, has Dostoevsky really brought them to order. Where Bakhtin becomes most stimulating is in his remarks on Dostoevsky’s shameless indulgence in literary genre: the detective novel, the story of adventure, parody, pastiche, boulevard farce, grotesque, and melodrama. Dostoevsky has prolonged periods of seeing life as an enormous scandal or as a revival of the ancient folk traditions of Carnival in which the types are contemporary and not mythical.

At this point Bakhtin takes a long, effusive, learned flight into the history of the scandalous Carnival tradition and is immensely suggestive. It is delightful to see a scholar going too far. I am surprised to read that these scenes in which—to use Bakhtin’s metaphor—the drawing room becomes a public square are thought by many critics to be artistically unjustified. Surely, no longer? They are at the height of his comic achievement. This kind of scene is organic, nothing invented in it (as Bakhtin says), though when he says such scenes really go back to the “underworld naturalism” of the menippea of Petronius and Apuleius, I enjoy the scholarly trapeze act but I don’t believe a word of it.

In his short essay on The Devils, Professor Cerný, a distinguished Czech scholar, breaks out in the drastic manner of one who has endured political persecution and is going to have his say pungently and fast. He would, I’ve no doubt, have little interest in Dostoevsky as an expression of Christian goodness and forgiveness. He finds now, he says, that the wicked men and women in the novels are more important and attractive than Dostoevsky’s drooping saints. His appalling villains are “desperately brave and prophetic.” They embody modern man’s sin of pride. And although The Devils is a rickety satire, hastily thrown together and “full of rubbish,” it is a cartoon, apposite to our times. It asserts one thing clearly: that “socialism without God” cannot be humane. This is a spirited essay but I find it odd that he has nothing to say about the mastery of Dostoevsky’s portrait of the dilapidated old liberal Stepan Trofimovitch—but there it is: one more critic ignores the humane force of Dostoevsky’s comic imagination.

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