Thursday, May 1, 2014

The expulsion of the perspicacious reader by the triumphant narrator - Chernyshevsky and the censor

Now do you understand?  You still don’t?  You’re a fine one!  Not too bright, are you?  Well, then, I’ll have to spoon-feed you.  (4, xxxi, 310)

The narrator of Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? is berating his idiot reader, always referred to as “the perspicacious reader,” for failing to understand why the revolutionary Rakhmetov has been introduced into the novel in so much detail if he is only to be used in a single scene.

“How dare you speak to me so rudely?” exclaims the perspicacious reader, addressing himself to me.  “I’ll complain about you and I’ll spread the word that you’re an evil person!”  (310)

This is another chapter with a title: “A Conversation with the Perspicacious Reader Followed by His Expulsion.”

The novel is full of direct addresses to the reader, mostly insults and harangues.  Russians loved Tristram Shandy.  “I speak arrogantly to the vast majority of readers, but to them alone…”  (Preface, 48-9).  At first the joke seems to be that the perspicacious reader is the conventional reader of fiction, deft at outguessing conventional plots.  Since the first third of What Is To Be Done? makes use or is a parody of a conventional plot, a virtuous woman trying to avoid a loveless arranged marriage, the narrator enjoys mocking his own devices and mocking the reader who enjoys such clichés.  “As a novelist I very much regret that I  wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville”  (119), that sort of thing.  The perspicacious reader is not actually so perceptive, that’s the joke.

There’s something else going on, though.

I remind myself that Chernyshevsky was writing the novel from prison, that he was writing a novel because he was forbidden to write essays, and that any publication had to pass through two levels of Czarist censorship, a prison censor who might forbid a manuscript to leave the prison, and the regular censor who could forbid or alter what was published in magazines.  Occasionally I wondered if Chernyshevsky was literally writing in code.  I mean, “from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours,” what is that?  But I do not really think there is that kind of code.

The overthrow of the Czar obviously cannot be mentioned.  Rakhmetov spends a “quarter of his time” on reading and weight training, while “[t]he remainder he devoted to matters of concern to others or to no one in particular” (284).  Michael Katz identifies odd lines like this as a reference to revolutionary activity.  I quote another example yesterday, which said Rakhmetov had “vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time” – what awkward phrasing.  But it is purposeful.  The next time Rakhmetov returns he will not have to vanish again.  He will bring the revolution with him.  “Probably.”

The Rakhmetov chapters are particularly coded, and it is only after them that, as I mentioned above, the narrator decides to “expel” his perspicacious reader.  I began to see this reader differently.  I imagined Chernyshevsky in his cell, writing his book, thinking – how could he not – of a single reader, the prison censor, or of a group of censors.  “’I’ll complain about you’” – to whom?  They are the readers who are supposed to be professionally perceptive, and they are the ones Chernyshevsky needs to deceive.  Or convert.  Or bore so much they rubber-stamp his text.  I don’t know.  Whatever he was doing, it worked.

This is another story the novel tells, the duel between the narrator and the censor.  I am likely over-interpreting half of it and failing to see the other half.  But paying attention to how the narrator mocks, goads, and subverts the censor makes the novel a lot more interesting, and even artful, in its way.


  1. Perspicacious reader as censor. I like it; it makes a good deal of sense. He draws the perspicacious reader's attention to the overtly novelistic failings of his novel, calling them idiots for not appreciating what he's doing with form, and maybe--as you suggest--drawing their attention away from what he's doing with content, or at least subtext. Maybe. It's a good theory. The vague hints toward revolution, statements that make no sense in the context of the Vera story, can be put down to NG simply being a bad writer. Yes, good stuff. Especially given how over the top looneytunes raving he is in these addresses to the perspicacious reader.

  2. But this is great stuff, this his hilarious stuff! This is post-modern, man.

  3. It really gets pretty wild. Too bad it's not better written, the conceptual side is pretty rich. Add in the dream sequences, the parody, the characters who appear with fanfare then drop out of the novel, the revolutionary business that is never mentioned yet constantly mentioned.

    It's all so interesting that it leads people to develop arguments that the bad qualities of the book - the clumsy writing, the thin characters - are deliberate. Parody, misdirection, something like that. I am highly sympathetic to this argument, even though it has trouble surviving the experience of actually reading the novel.

    I can extend the idea a step. Perhaps Chernyshevsky is sometimes thinking of the censors as his only readers. That must have been a risk, that his manuscript never leaves the prison.

  4. It does come off as bizarrely post-modern, or it did to me. He was constantly breaking the fourth wall and doing all sorts of weird things. But I'm not going to say he did the bad parts of the writing on purpose--I think he just cared about his message more than he did about writing convincing characters.

    I love the idea of the censors as possibly the only readers he would ever have. That must have been a very convincing probability to him; it's only easy to forget for we who never worry about censors. I'm rather surprised they did let it through; Czarist censors must not have been very perspicacious!

  5. Yeah, I think Ch. had no idea how to write characters. A post-modernist will then find some good conceptual reason for terrible characters, but to Ch., what he had was good enough. He wasn't Flaubert.

    This novel has me wondering more about how the Russian censorship worked. A bit of Notes from the Underground was censored that sounds, from Dostoevsky's description, if anything supportive of the state, but it seems that the censors in 1864 were being extra vigilant about hidden messages - because they had screwed up with Chernyshevsky!

    I have now read several versions of the publication of What Is To Be Done?, and the fact is that no one is completely sure how it got through all the barriers.

    1. I like that, Chernyshevsky forcing the censors to up their game, making them so paranoid they become even more diligent in snuffing out innocuous passages. Keep sticking it to the man!

    2. These were the same guys who let Das Kapital through because "few people will read it, and even fewer will understand it."

      There's a book "Diary of a Russian Censor" which probably has a bunch about how the system actually worked. This censor was an interesting person, an educated serf who had been freed after significant social pressure on his owner. Unfortunately, I still haven't read the whole thing.

  6. What Is To Be Done? may have stuck it to the Man more than any novel in history, even if it only did so with a fifty year delay.

    Those censors were in some sense right about Das Kapital, weren't they? They overrated understanding.

    I will have to look for the book by the censor, or at least read something about it. Thanks for that.