Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Every man, whoever he is, must bow down before the Great Idea - some of the ideas in Devils - Oh, how that book tormented him!

“My friends, all of you, everyone: long live the Great Idea!  The eternal, infinite Idea!  Every man, whoever he is, must bow down before the Great Idea.”  (III, 7.3)

This poor fellow, Stepan Trofimovich, died three days later.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Great Idea is some kind of return to the principles of Russian Orthodox monasticism.  I do not think that he is quite there yet in Devils, but the cloud of concepts is forming.  This man is dying in the company of a young woman who is an itinerant Bible peddler.  He is trapped by his fever in a village of lakeshore fishermen who make their living gouging travelers waiting for the ferry – they have cast down their nets and become fishers of men!

Michael Katz tells me in the introduction that Devils came out of a proto-novel to be titled Atheism.  The deathbed conversion of this rationalist character – he is some kind of Turgenev-style Superfluous Man – is one remnant of that idea.  Other characters embody different ideologies; I can imagine how some of them were at one point meant to be varieties of atheism, although that notion recedes in the novel Dostoevsky actually wrote.

For example, there are the Chernyshevskians, rationalists who were out to replace the useless reformers of Turgenev’s generation by establishing bookbinding cooperatives and so on.

A book lay open on the table.  It was the novel What is to be Done?...  Oh, how that book tormented him!  (II, 4.2)

Stepan Trofimovich is studying Chernyshevsky in order to defeat his followers’ arguments.  His son, a psychotic revolutionary nihilist, offers  to “’bring [him] something even better,’” which could mean anything.  Could mean, literally, nothing.

The overflow of ideas, of points of view, is, for good readers of Dostoevsky, one of the great strengths of Devils, but presents a real intellectual difficulty.   It would take a lot of work to chase them all down, sort, and absorb them.  Many later writers and critics happily ignore the competing ideas, pulling out the ones they like.  Neither William Faulkner nor the French existentialists had much to do with Dostoevsky’s religious ideas, and they got plenty out of him.  László Krasznahorkai engages with Dostoevsky’s religious side.  I don’t understand it there, either.

Since it is such a strength of Dostoevsky to allow so many voices and perspectives, even ones he loathes, it was a surprise to see how vicious the famous caricature of Ivan Turgenev is.  Sure, he goes after Turgenev’s cosmopolitanism, his ameliorism, sure, sure, but also – this is what shocked me – his prose!

There was always a gorse bush around somewhere (it had to be a gorse or some other plant one needed a botanical dictionary to identify).  And there was always some violet tint in the sky, which, of course, no mortal had ever seen before; that is, everyone had seen it, but on one knew how to appreciate it, while “I,” he said, “looked at it and describe it for you fools, as if it were the most ordinary thing.”  The tree under which the fascinating couple sat had always to be of some orange hue.  (III, 1.3)

Dostoevsky is attacking Turgenev for paying attention to literary art.  This is going to be trouble for me, however inventive his man-sized love spiders.

There is a landscape late in Devils, a rarity in Dostoevsky:

The old, black road, rutted by wheels and bordered by willows, extended before him like an endless thread; to the right lay a bare field where the grain had long since been harvested; to the left – bushes and a wood beyond.  And in the distance – in the distance lay the scarcely visible line of the railway running off at a slant, with smoke rising from a train; but no sound could be heard.  (III, 7.1)

There is not much beauty in Dostoevsky’s Russia.  Not much of anything beyond the constant stream of speech, howls, whimpers, and hysterical laughter.  “’Oh, what a torrent of other people’s words!’” a character shouts (II, 5.3), in what turns out to be another dig at Chernyshevsky (“You’ve even got as far as the new order?  You poor creature!   God help you!”).  Strictly speaking no more words than in any other novel of the same length, yet that is what I come to the book to see, that torrent of half understood words, all somehow made Dostoevsky’s own.


  1. You're right - Dostoyevsky's novels are so full of ideas, it's very easy merely to pick out those that are useful to you, and to discard the rest. Guilty as charged, m'lud. I understand and, to a great extent. sympathise with Dostoyevsky's attack on utopian idealism, the belief that strict rational thought and action could create a perfect world, and so on. But I never could follow Dostoyevsky towards that Christian monastery he kept pointing us towards.

    Quite often, Dostoyevsky would give his own views (we know they are his own because he states them elsewwhere in his own voice) to characterss who make those views appear foolish - e.g. Shatov's statement of Russia's spiritual mission to save the world. Dostoyevsky must, at some level, have recognised the foolishness of this sort of nationalist spirituality: he could hardly have presented it as absurd otherwise. Later, in Ivan Karamazov, Dostoyevsky presents a character whose viewpoint is opposed to his own, but who is intelligent enough to understand the contradictions inherent in his own viewpoint: "the Grand Inquisitor" chapter may be a sort of response to Ivan's views, but what is striking is that Ivan has written it himself. And the Devil that torments Ivan later in the novel tells Ivan nothing that he doesn't already know.

    I can't help seeing Dostoyevsky as a similarly conflicted character: he has his views, yes, but, aware as he is of teh counter-arguments and, indeed, the absurdities of his own views, he is prepared to give his views to characters who will make them sound foolish; and he is prepared to give views contrary to his own to intelligent characters who will express themselves with the greatest force. Perhaps in the end it doesn't matter much which views are right and which are wrong: what impresses is the febrile intensity with which these issues are addressed.

    A friend of mine tells me that when he reads the Russians, he gets the impression that ideas aren't just ideas to them - that they are actual, tangible entities. In DOstoyevsky, especially, the boundaries between ideas and emotions and states of being seem to disappear.

  2. Your essay on this novel was the least guilty I have ever seen. You really covered the ground of the book.

    I had real trouble following Dostoevsky's arguments against himself in Devils, unlike in Karamazov, but there I was re-reading and here merely reading. With this level of complexity, I should be happy I got anywhere.

    It may be the most extraordinary thing Dostoevsky does, actually. It is so rare. Your psychology of FD sounds right to me.

  3. You have to bear in mind that Turgenev was unforgivably nasty to Dostoevsky when the latter was just starting out; the story is told here. I don't think D. can be blamed for retailiating.

  4. Dostoevsky's patience in exacting revenge is extraordinary.

  5. I'm not a good enough reader to know how serious you're being when, Tom, but did you equate self-satisfied nature descriptions and gloating about finding le mot juste with "literary art"? I think AOG's Dostoevsky's "febrile intensity" is just as literary and just as art as any special color of sky in Turgenev.

  6. Fairly serious. As James Wood complains about Nabokov, I fetishize the visual. Febrile intensity is literary, but easier to do. Getting the sky right - almost no one can do that.

    If you remove "self-satisfied" (also "nature")and "gloating" you'll be pretty close to my position.

  7. Huh. It's probably my lack of knowledge of plant species and inability to appreciate the visual that's getting in my way. That kind of very exact description, especially of nature-as-a-thing-to-look-at, always made me think "this is what everyone who doesn't read much thinks literature is about, but it's so much more!" But apparently people who've closely read a lot more than I have also think this is the core of what literature is about.

  8. Ha ha ha - I think that people who don't read much literature think it is full of Big Ideas and debates about ethics and so on, the stuff they did in Western Civ, assuming they were old enough to have taken such a class.

    I am a Ruskinian critic - sure the Madonna and Child up front look all right, but have you not seen a rock before? Get your rocks right!

    1. Hehe. I am a proponent of good fiction with big ideas and themes, and for this I admire the fiction of authors like Milton, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy (I have never read Tolstoy, but because Tolstoy deals with big ideas I felt it was good to include him).

      But you are right. Literature isn't so much about big ideas as it is about an experience of beauty.

      I am not a Ruskinian/Wildean aesthete, because I don't put emphasis on beauty only. But I am an aesthete in the Miltonian sense, I love beauty in literature, and I love ideas. I love content and style. That is.

  9. For big ideas, those three writers are exemplary.

    I would add that the experience of ugliness is also part of what literature is about.