Wednesday, August 10, 2016

an exceptional resemblance to reality - Crime and Punishment's "Nighttown" chapter

In morbid states dreams are often unusually palpable and vivid, bearing an exceptional resemblance to reality.  The resulting picture may be quite monstrous, but the setting and the unfolding of the entire spectacle are so credible, and the details so fine and unexpected, while artistically consistent with the picture as a whole, that the very same dreamer could not invent them in his waking hours, were he even an artist of the order of Pushkin or Turgenev.  (I.5, 51)

I am quoting not a textbook but Crime and Punishment.  Dostoevsky is introducing the first of the many dreams in the novel – the first in a long series stretching through The Brothers Karamazov.  Much of what looks to me like Dostoevsky’s best writing, the most “fine and unexpected,” I find in the dream scenes.

Part of this first one is on the back cover of the new Penguin edition – axe murder on the front, but something more surprising on the back.  The feverish Raskolnikov, not yet a killer, is a child in his dream, revisiting a traumatic scene that may have happened to him, when he witnessed a drunk peasant beat his old horse to death.

Aside from the psychological relevance to Raskolnikov’s later decision to murder a woman, the scene is packed with elements that reappear throughout the novel.  The scene is even replayed much later in the book, with a woman, the prostitute Sonya’s mother, driven to despair by the cruelties and burdens of her life, breaking down in the street, like the horse, even if she is killed by untreated tuberculosis rather than a beating.  “The nag stretches out her muzzle, sighs heavily and dies” (55); “She gave a deep, deep sigh and died” (V.5, 408).  That sort of thing.

Maybe the dream sequence is too easy.  A writer can pile it full of any old junk, without constraint, and then loot it later.  An axe, flies, specific colors, a “horned headdress,” even a prophetic or coincidental name (the peasant who kills the horse has the same name as a nutcase who falsely accuses himself of Raskolnikov’s crime).  But in Crime and Punishment, the dreams keep coming, bleeding into the “real” world.  The most unusual thing about the horse dream is the first part I quoted, the announcement that the character is dreaming.  Usually it is harder to tell.

A minor character, Svidrigailov, is for much of the novel used as a stock villain, a plot device (eavesdropping, for pity’s sake), plus he serves the dual purpose of creating some phony sympathy for Raskolnikov by being even worse.  He is a melodramatic parody double of Raskolnikov.  At the climax of the novel, when we should be following Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky gives an outstanding chapter (VI, 6) to Svidrigailov, which I called his “Nighttown” chapter a couple of posts ago.  As in the chapter in Ulysses, Dostoevsky frees himself from the “reality” of the novel by pumping up the strangeness, especially by inserting a sequence of interlocking dreams which are only barely distinguishable from the “real” events.

Svidrigailov is in his oddly shaped little hotel room, preparing to do – well, something dramatic.  There are “strange, continuous whispers form the adjoining cell – at times, they were more like shouts.”  Through a crack, Svidrigailov eavesdrops –his recurring device – and witnesses a scene from some other parallel novel, one drunk man lecturing another.  “His friend sat in a chair, with the look of a man who desperately wanted to sneeze but couldn’t.”  All of this is, as far as I can tell, meant to be real.  The dreams have not started yet.

When they do, they pull in a number of elements from other dreams and scenes, plus some new imagery that strongly suggests Svidrigailov is working out his psychological expiation for some horrible crime that Dostoevsky has hinted at previously but otherwise not described.  An aggressive mouse, a drowned girl in a coffin, and so on, weirder and weirder, yet it is outside of the dream where Svidrigailov “looked at them [the flies] for a long time and eventually began trying to catch one with his free right hand” (479, Svidrigailov is often associated with spiders).

The difference between the dream and otherwise becomes arbitrary in this great chapter, just a convention of fiction.


  1. Interesting. Does an author invent dreams for the fiction or incorporate his own dreams in the fiction? Well, since there is no answer to that question, I will say this instead: Your posting reminds me that I am long overdue for a rereading of Crime and Punishment. I shall be looking at your postings as something like my "reader's guide" along the way. Thanks!

  2. That description of how even Pushkin and Turgenev couldn't invent the dream stuff reminds me of a near-identical line from the Devil in the Brothers Karamazov, who says even Tolstoy couldn't invent dream details.

    Of course, he is a dream...

  3. Ah, dreams … I love them in real life, generally hate them in literature. My aesthetic tends to be that the work itself should be the dream, the author and reader co-dreamers.
    I don’t recall the passage you quoted at the opening. The Garnett version has:
    "In a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have a singular actuality, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality. At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truth-like and filled with details so delicate, so unexpectedly, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer, were he an artist like Pushkin or Turgenev even, could never have invented them in the waking state. Such sick dreams always remain long in the memory and make a powerful impression on the overwrought and deranged nervous system."
    I think the description holds true of my dreams in general, but reject the idea that my brain is in a “morbid condition” or that I have a “overwrought and deranged nervous system”.
    At one point many years ago during a week’s vacation I started keeping a dream diary. I found that as I sat in bed writing the dream, more and more would come back to me and I would be filling notebook pages with the disjointed narrative that followed. I gave up the diary after a few days as it seemed to threaten becoming a more than full-time job.
    I read C & P in the early 70s and have forgotten all the other dreams but the horse dream stayed with me. That may be because I stole a version of it to insert in a short novel I wrote at the time: the protagonist dreams he is riding in a taxi when an old acquaintance appears in front of the cab and demolishes it with a crowbar.
    Thanks for posting the back cover – I’m now sure I never saw it before. Recognizably the same character from the front cover, but not my image of Raskolnikov: thanks to that Bantam edition, I’ve always been convinced R. looks like Albert Pinkham Ryder. Are the word balloons taken from the new translation?

  4. R.T., yes, it is some kind of paradox, especially given the passage saying no novelist could invent such things.

    It is hilarious - I had completely forgotten - that Ivan's devil basically repeats that passage in Karamazov! Maybe the narrator of C&P is the dream Devil. That would explain a lot.

    Bill, I think you hit why Dostoevsky's dreams work so well - the boundary between the whole work as dream and the dreams within it are not rigid. That effect you are looking for is not violated. You are right that the description really fits dreams more generally, not just those from morbid or feverish states.

    Yes, the word balloons are form Ready's text, with a tiny bit of artistic license.

    My Raskolnikov looks all too much like Dostoevsky, because that was the cover used on the old Signet I first read. At least the top hat on the new cover is accurate.

  5. DH Lawrence wrote in a letter in 1916 that he had 'gone off' FD. 'He has a fixed will, a mania to be infinite, to be God. Within this will, his activity is two-fold: a) To be self-less, a pure Christian, to live in the outer whole, the social whole, the self-less whole, the universal consciousness. b) To be pure, absolute self, all-devouring and all-consuming.' this comes out, he says, in Dimtri K. and Rogozhin, less so in Stavrogin. He develops this for some time, then: Stepan (Ivan) K, Pyotr Stepanovitch, Gavril: 'represent the last stages of our social development, the human being become mechanical, absolved from all relation. When [S (I)] talks with the devil, the devil is a decayed SOCIAL gentleman - only that. The mechanical social forms and aspirations and ideals, I suppose, are the devil.' OK, not entirely pertinent to your posts, but an interesting perception. I'm usually wary of dreams in novels: can be a lazy device, like Dickensian coincidences.

  6. Thanks for the longer excerpt.

    I guess I am more wary of non-dreams in novels. So-called "realism" is often the laziest of all devices.

    1. The difference between dream and non-dream within a novel is just semantics, sleight of hand on the part of the author. It is all the same level of "real," which is to say, not very. It's all narrative aimed at the reader. I personally like dream sequences in novels.

      I was rereading Nabokov on C&P last night. Man, did VN ever misread that book. I'd forgotten that VN stole the name Luzhin. I'll have to read C&P and The Defense again soon.

  7. What's the misreading? I might well disagree with you there.

    1. The answer might be too long for a blog comment, but essentially VN argues (this is his usual argument vs FD) that Raskolnikov's inner struggle is merely a kind of tasteless mental illness and that FD has no moral right to claim it as an inner struggle of faith, therefore FD wrote a shabby novel. It is not the kind of clear-eyed criticism VN applies to any other writer; he is blinded by vitriol in the case of FD. VN's central argument against C&P is about the scene where Raskolnikov and Sonya put their heads together and read the bible. VN places himself in the role of God and claims that FD has no "right" to put the two characters together in that scene, with the holy writ, and therefore FD has written a bad novel. It is very poor, shabby even, criticism. VN also attempts in the same lecture to equate FD with Stalin and Lenin. VN is boiling over with blind class rage here. It's entertaining to see VN bubble and spout so much hot air, but useless as literary criticism.

      (I deleted the previous version of this comment because in my haste I'd mixed up whose initials I was using.)

  8. Yes, then I must disagree - I find that "murderer and the harlot" sentence loathsome. Nor do I see "class rage," or anything close to "equate" (page number?). Nabokov's critical direction looks to me much as it always is, narrowly but usefully aesthetic.

    Is there a way to make a secular ethical criticism that is not taking the "role of God"? I am not sure what that means here.

    1. "equate" page 103. Stalin "loved babies" and Lenin "sobbed at the opera, especially at La Traviata."

      Nabokov is not making a secular ethical criticism of Dostoyevsky. "Neither a true artist nor a true moralist--neither a poet nor a sociologist--should have placed side by side, in one breath, in one gust of false eloquence, a killer together with a poor streetwalker, bending completely different heads over that holy book. The Christian God, as understood by those who believe in the Christian God, has pardoned the harlot nineteen centuries ago. The killer, on the other hand, must first be examined medically." (pg 110) This is absurd, of course, because "those who believe in the Christian God" know that God has also pardoned the murderer, and the gospels do not call for medical examinations prior to absolution. Nabokov also surely knows this, and his argument is a hash, not based on aesthetics but something else. His artistic argument seems to be a dogmatically incorrect theological argument. This is not the sort of critical thinking Nabokov applies to other writers.

      "the person who prefers Dostoevsky or Gorky to Chekhov will never be able to grasp the essentials of Russian litera ture and Russian life, and, which is far more important, the essentials of universal literary art." (pg. 254)

      The irony of course is that Dostoyevsky is one of the cornerstones of Russian literary life, and so widely read and influential as to probably be one of the cornerstones of universal literary art, despite Nabokov's protestations.

      I know Nabokov is one of WE's penates, but he really foams at the mouth over Dostoyevsky. I won't get into the class thing here, but I believe it to be true.

      I'm not really out to defend Dostoyevsky against Nabokov, as I generally prefer the latter's novels to the former's, but I do think Nabokov went off his nut a bit whenever he talked about old Fyodor. "I am very eager to debunk Dostoyevsky." Very eager indeed.

  9. Nabokov had problems appreciating novelists like Cervantes or Dostoevsky, writers who were not, so to speak, greatly concerned with things like beautiful, original prose or cogently exposed ideas; writers who instead wrote novels that ended up becoming "all things to all people", like the apostle Paul claimed to have done himself.

    By the way, FD's opinion of DQ is slightly better than VN's, "In the whole world there is no deeper, no mightier literary work than the Quixote. It is, so far, the last and greatest expression of human thought; [...] if the world were to come to an end and mankind were asked, 'Did you understand your purpose on earth and what conclusion have you drawn from it? mankind could silently hand over Don Quixote... The Quixote is the grandest and saddest book conceived by the genius of man."

    One can only guess what VN would have thought about Petronius, Apuleius or Rabelais if he found DQ to be a cruel and crude old book.

  10. No, "equate," no, that passage is hilarious. He's just going after the phoniness of sentimentality, not saying that Samuel Richardson was at heart a totalitarian mass murderer. Although that would also be hilarious, in its way.

    Nabokov has certainly lost the battle against Dostoevsky. The mention of Gorki, though, hints at the antique context of that debate.

    To the original point, though, if it's a misreading, I misread the book similarly. The hooker with a heart of gold is a bad device from the beginning, and Raskolnikov's spiritual, as opposed to psychological, struggles seem arbitrary.

    I take the late Dostoevsky novels as genuine religious novels, which means there are aspects of them that I will only be able to see from a distance.

    1. It's the "Hitler was a vegetarian dog-lover, too" argument. Nabokov is always funny, though.

      The struggle over "why be good? why not be a self-serving materialist?" is not arbitrary, but central to Christian spirituality. But I do agree that Dostoyevsky is a messy, disorganized writer. The Brothers Karamazov is a beautiful work of the irrational, a stunning disorganized mess.

      Nabokov on Dostoyevsky reminds me a great deal of Tolstoy on Shakespeare. "How can anybody like that crap? The sophisticated readers among us all know he's wretched." Fist shaking and a sense of self doubt.

  11. "the last and greatest expression of human thought" - that is pretty strong. A good book blurb. I wonder that Dostoevsky could have meant.

    "novels that ended up becoming 'all things to all people'" - yes, trouble for me, too. I generally need more help from the author.

  12. See, that's why I keep coming back to your blog: insight.

    I remember that when I was young I used to be pissed off by the 'open-ended', satiric movies of the late '60s and early '70s being broadcast to TV sets at the time (things like Casino Royale or Fellini's Dr. Antonio): Menippean movies. Menippean whatevers are an acquired taste; but, if Bakhtin was right, the polyphonic ambiguity of Menippean books allows them to become 'all things to all people', while leaving the job of finding their meaning to their readers.

    Javier Cercas recently wrote about this ambiguity, the "blind spot" at the center of some of the masterpieces of modern literature: is DQ crazy? Is Bartleby? What exactly is meant by the whiteness of Moby Dick? What is Josef K guilty of? Are there supernatural forces involved in the turning of the screw? Is Quilty just a figment of Humbert's guilty imagination? Is Shade a figment of Kinbote's imagination? How about Kinbote himself? Why is raining down bombs on people, during a regular siege, a more honourable way of doing things [-or killing horses and other animals, like we do, by the billions- than committing two murders]?

  13. Weird, this is just what I am trying to write about right now. Maybe not weird. Logical. Kinbote as a figment of Shade's imagination - that one has worried me enough to keep me up at night, metaphorically.

    A running theme of Wuthering Expectations is my attempt to become more comfortable with Menippean satire and more generally those powerful gaps in literature.

  14. I entirely agree with scott g.f.bailey about Nabokov and Dostoyevsky; this is spot on, and something that's occurred to me too:

    Nabokov on Dostoyevsky reminds me a great deal of Tolstoy on Shakespeare. "How can anybody like that crap? The sophisticated readers among us all know he's wretched."

    My rule of thumb is to listen to great writers when they're praising other writers and ignore them when they're attacking them. The latter is often fun to read, of course, but usually comes from hidden feelings of rivalry or just incompatible aesthetic views. The difference between a good critic criticizing a writer and a good writer doing the same is that from the former you learn about the writer being criticized, from the latter only about the writer doing the criticizing.

    As for dreams, they play a large role in Russian literature, presumably because they traditionally played a large role in Russian culture (I have no idea what things are like today in that respect). The sonnik, or book of dream interpretations (son in Russian means both 'dream' and 'sleep'), was one of the few books likely to be found in even a poor household where little reading was done. I could cite any number of works, from Sollogub's most famous book, the 1845 Tarantas, which includes a dream of a utopian future Russia, through Goncharov's 1849 “Son Oblomova” [The dream of Oblomov] (the first part of his famous novel to be published and in my opinion the best), Korolenko's 1885 “Son Makara” [Makar’s Dream] (the very poor Makar wants to escape his life of drudgery; in a dream he freezes to death, and when God confronts him about his few sins he says he had no other recourse and asks “Who then is guilty?” whereupon God weeps with pity), and Bely's 1905 Vozvrat: III simfoniya [The return: Third symphony] (a graduate student in chemistry can’t distinguish dream from reality and drowns himself); many of the books of Aleksei Remizov, perhaps Russia's best unknown (except to specialists) writer, are partly or entirely dream collections (I have a heavily annotated copy of his great 1927 Vzvikhrennaya Rus′ [Russia in a whirlwind], in which his dreams feature many prominent people and events in the Russia of the revolutionary years). So it's kind of like Orthodox Christianity: if you're going to read Russian literature, dreams and Orthodoxy both come with the territory.

  15. No, I'm sticking to my rule of thumb, which is to read great writers when praising and attacking. I learn a lot both ways. I learn a lot form incompatible aesthetic views.

    For example, the idea that Dostoevsky blocks scenes like a playwright has been really useful to me, more in C&P than in Karamazov, and I got that from Nabokov.

    Although here is a twist. From Stacey Schiff's Véra, pp. 177-8:

    "'I am too little of an academic professor to teach subjects that I dislike,' Nabokov protested, which may explain why Véra prepared much of his Dostoevsky talk for him. She wrote its first draft, at the very least."

    I may have been giving credit to the wrong VN. Scott, this may explain some of that tone you're hearing.

  16. I will continue to read all of it, and keep my eyes open for the writer's blind spots into which he might start yelling uncontrollably.

    I know almost nothing about Vera, so that's interesting. Maybe she wrote the first part of the lecture, the long composite sketch of an untrustworthy, damaged and immature sentimentalist, against whom the audience is prejudiced before a single word of Dosotyevsky's prose is introduced.

    I had no idea this conversation would develop the way it has. I'd assumed you would say, "Oh yeah, that lecture. A little cockeyed, what?" Perhaps my recent tendency to read literary criticism as memoir has something to do with this.

  17. This would be undergraduate course lecture as memoir. Some rhetorical moves are allowed in the classroom that would be inappropriate elsewhere.

    This is funny. It is, I'll note, 98% performance, which is why Schiff has a source for it:

    "Véra detested the work of George Eliot, which her husband defended on a private occasion. 'Now why did I marry you?' wailed Véra. He was no more indulgent than she when their judgments failed to coincide. 'Good heavens, how could you like that?'" (p. 132)