The Petersburg Feuilletons

All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,

If Adolph Hitler were here today, they’d send a limousine anyway.

-The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”

What, you may ask, is a “feuilleton”?  Apparently it comes from French, but, what was surprising to me was it also passed muster with Word’s Spell Checker, which means that perhaps I’m behind the curve on this one.  Here’s what it says at

feuil·le·ton (fy-tô) n. 1. a. The part of a European newspaper devoted to light fiction, reviews, and articles of general entertainment.  b. An article appearing in such a section. 2. a. A novel published in installments. b. A light, popular work of fiction. 3. A short literary essay or sketch.  [French, from feuillet, sheet of paper, little leaf, diminutive of feuille, leaf, from Old French foille, from Latin folium; see bhel-3 in Indo-European roots.]

Dostoevsky wrote several of these – there are four translated in Dostoevsky’s Occasional Writings (ed. and trans. David Magarshack, 1963).  Apparently the authorship of the first one in Magarshack’s book is contested.  Frank, in fact, is sure Dostoevsky did not write it –

A feuilleton of Plescheev’s was mistakenly included as one of Dostoevsky’s in the 1922 volume, but the error was corrected in the later [Russian] publication… Unfortunately, this mistake continued to be perpetuated in English.  David Magarshack prints the Plescheev fueilleton in his volume… and assumes it to have been written by Dostoevsky (Frank 218).

I actually broke my rule and read a bit of the Frank before reading the relevant Dostoevsky text, mainly because I needed to read Frank even to figure out what the “Petersburg Feuilletons” were in the first place.  Perhaps because of this note, while reading the first feuilleton, I found its tone unfamiliar and its content less interesting.  Reading the second one, I was much more sure it was Dostoevsky’s.  It’s roughly the feeling I’ve gotten before at concerts – you listen to the opening act, think it’s not that good, but are not really sure of that until you hear the headliner.

Just like the dictionary definition implies, feuilletons are the sorts of things you might read today in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section.  But the interesting thing about Dostoevsky’s own contributions is they’re pretty clearly subversions of the genre.  Granted, I have not read widely in the Petersburg News of the 1840’s – in fact, obviously, these are the only four pieces I’ve read – but you can still tell that something very specific is being subverted – the dimensions of the genre become clear as result of the satire, a real testament to its effectiveness I suppose.

There’s an underlying angry sarcasm throughout these pieces.  I suspected that while reading it; Frank confirms my suspicions.  Consider the final sentences of the second feuilleton:

…It is true, Gogol’s book created a great deal of noise at the beginning of the winter.  What is particularly significant is the consensus of opinion about it among almost all the newspapers and periodicals whose opinions usually clash with each other.

Sorry, I forgot the most important thing.  I remembered it all the time while talking to you, and then it slipped my memory.  Ernst is giving another concert.  The takings will be in aid of the Society for Visiting the Poor, and the German Philanthropic Society.  We need not even mention the fact that the house will be full, we are quite sure it will (Magarshark 21).

Sarcasm is one of those things it’s hard to demonstrate by cherrypicking quotations – it’s more of a gestalt issue – but the abrupt shift of topic at the end of the essay, shifting from a serious discussion of Gogol’s “Dickensian charm” (21) towards a dismissive note about a philanthropic concert, one it seems clear Dostoevsky will not attend – perhaps that proves my point.

Another distinctive quality about the feuilletons, an apparent nod to the expectations of the genre, is the use of the first-person plural.  Indeed, today you can sometimes find that in The New Yorker, and I suppose often on editorial pages of various newspapers.  The question of what it does seems interesting.  In the case of an editorial board, it serves to highlight the fact that such editorials are speaking for the entire editorial board.  And then there is sometimes the suggestion that “we” includes some sort of in-group that stretches beyond the author, to include those familiar with such cultural goings-on as are being discussed in the piece itself.

Dostoevsky, though, seems to deploy it as an instrument of satire.  Consider the start of the second feuilleton, and note the first-person plural:

But as far as public interests are concerned… Not that we don’t have any.  Of course we have.  We all love our country ardently.  We love our native city of Petersburg, we love to have some fun, if any should come our way.  In short, we have a great many public interests.  What we are really interested in, though, are circles.

It is indeed a well-known fact that the whole of Petersburg is nothing but a collection of an enormous number of small “circles,” each one of which has its own constitution, its own rules, its own laws, its own logic and its own oracle.  This is, in a way, the creation of our national character, which is still a little shy of social life and prefers to stay at home.  Besides, for social life one must possess a certain art, one must provide so many conditions for it-in short, it is much better at home.  One feels more natural there, much more at rest, one needs to possess no art for it (Magarshark 11).

To this point, “we” are speaking.  “We” are making a commonplace observation, the sort of thing that characters in novels always say about the comfort of their normal social environment, the meaning it creates, the shared context it generates, and so on.  But then there is a shift, from “we” to “you,” in the very next paragraph:

In a “circle” you will always receive a prompt answer to your question, “What’s the news?”  The question immediately assumes a private meaning and is answered either by some piece of gossip or a yawn or by something that makes you yawn cynically and patriarchally.  In a “circle” you can live to the end of your useful life happily and without worry between gossip and a yawn, up to the very moment when influenza or malaria pays a visit to your domestic hearth and you bid a stoic and indifferent farewell to it in happy ignorance of what has been happening to you and why it has all been happening…. (Magarshack 11-12, emphasis added)

Having moved from the first person to the second, Dostoevsky begins to develop explicitly what has thus far only been implied by his tone: namely, that a life based exclusively on a social circle is shallow and allows well-off individuals to maintain their ignorance through their entire life, through the creation of “private meaning.”  You know neither “what has been happening to you” nor “why it is has all been happening.”  I’m reminded of Radiohead’s robot voice from OK Computer – “calm, fitter, and more productive, getting on better with one’s associate employee contemporaries.”  In short, social life of this sort allows you to stop thinking about the world, and replace “the world” and its public meanings with “your world” and its private meanings.  Global pandemics, oil spills, housing crises, terrorist networks, systems of oppression and destruction that make up the involuntarily joined “circles” of most of the world’s populations – well, who needs that when you’ve got a regular salon you can attend on Tuesday evenings?

But, Dostoevsky goes on, this creates a problem for “your” character:

It is, no doubt, pleasant to spend your life in this way, but in the end one cannot help feeling hurt and vexed by it all.  I, for example, feel vexed with our patriarchal circle because it always produces a man of a most insufferable character.  You know this man very well, gentlemen.  His name is legion.  He has a good heart but nothing else besides (Magarshack 12-13).

And now, note the full-on shift to the first-person singular (“I, for example…”), which, we can assume, is the non-ironic, honest voice of the author speaking full-throatedly about his own vexation at the “insufferable” people such a social system generates.

This is another one of those moments when I stop and say – “hey, our world’s like that too.”  You will no doubt yawn cynically at such a broad observation.  But it is worth recognizing that, for a really rather large group of people in our world, today’s “influenza or malaria” can “pay a visit to your domestic hearth” without them having any understanding of why this has happened.

And I’m not talking about the poor people on the news you see crying outside the house of a murder victim, not understanding what happened because of their (very understandable) confusion.  No – I’m talking about the upper classes of the United States, who can experience “shock” and “outrage” when many eminently predictable results of various social decisions we’ve made without actually thinking about them in any level of sophistication.  To wit – did we ever have a vigorous public debate about deep-sea oil drilling?  Did any of the republicans now trying to lay this at the feet of Obama ever vote against allowing the drilling to happen in the first place?  What about the citizens of the gulf states?  Did they do anything to oppose the policies that are now “destroying our beaches?” or where they too busy taking their “circle’s” claims about Barack Obama’s citizenship, his latent socialism or whatever to stop and give a crap about the environment at any time prior to the oil literally washing ashore?

And lest you think you’re exempt if you’re not a red-state moron:  you were probably too busy checking Facebook, reading your own “personalized” news feeds, listening to “your” Pandora selections, and so on, to care whatsoever about broader trends in the world at any level of sufficient depth…

We have started to believe that there is something inherently preferable about remaining within one’s circle, as if it’s a sign of technological savvy and consumerist sophistication.  Consider cell calling plans where you have a “circle” or people you can call for free.  Or Facebook, where we always profess to be “creeped out” by anyone who we have not already selected as our “friends” to know anything about us.  Heck, we’re even scared when people who are our friends read our profiles.  We call it “stalking.”  And how many of us even answer our phones anymore when it’s a number we don’t recognize?  How many residents of our larger cities answer the door when someone presses their buzzer and they weren’t expecting a friend?   We all expect everything to be socially predictable, pre-sorted, packaged, franchised.  We hold reality at arm’s length until it’s been manipulated into a form we are prepared to acknowledge as comfortable.

“Well”, you reply, “I’m an intellectual; not all circles are bad.  Circles can facilitate interesting discussion and experience as long as they focus upon the right things.”  Dostoevsky’s condemnation is totalizing – you do not escape his wrath:

In some “circles,” though, the members conduct heated debates about matters of importance.  A number of well-educated and well-meaning persons gather with enthusiasm, fiercely banish all innocent amusements, such as gossip or preference (this is not true of literary circles, of course), and with quite incomprehensible animation discuss all sorts of important subjects.  Finally, having discussed, talked about and solved a number of problems of general importance and having reached a unanimous decision, the entire “circle” lapses into a state of irritation, into a kind of unpleasant state of limpness.  At last they all suddenly get cross with one another, a few harsh truths are uttered, and a few harsh and bold personalities come to the fore, and in the end it all peters out, calms down, acquires a full measure of common sense and gradually gathers once more into the innocuous “circles” of the first category described above (12).

In other words, as intellectually satisfying as it might be, from time to time, to engage in rigorous debate and argument amongst a group of friends (present company excepted of course), little comes of it.  An “unpleasant state of limpness” sets in, people have a few more drinks, start talking about “lighter” topics, and then, all of the other arguments already raised would apply.  Intelligent dissent devolves into polite socializing.

Franks attributes Dostoevsky’s critique of the “circles” of Petersburg as a criticism of a lack of political freedom.  Citizens of Russia, he suggests, only fulfill the duties of their social life because it was not safe to have a political life in Czarist 1840’s Russia.  Maybe so.  Again, I have to give Frank the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questions of history.  I can understand how political repression could give rise to that sort of apolitical social life.

My question is – WHAT’S OUR EXCUSE?  “We” western upper-and middle-class Americans live in a time and a place where we have access to the largest wealth of information, and material resources ever known to human kind.  Are we solving the world’s problems?  Creating monumental art?  Engaging in groundbreaking philosophical debate?

No – we are updating our Facebook statuses.  We have supposedly meaningful discussions about our calling plans.  We text.  We express opinions about Starbucks vs. Caribou, even, which Starbucks franchise is better than which other Starbucks franchise.  We obsessively share photos of each other looking at our phones and documenting recent acts of consumerism.  We identify ourselves by the brand names to which we feel the most allegiance.  But, and here I just have to quote Dostoevsky directly:

“I… feel vexed with our … circle because it always produces a man of a most insufferable character.”

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5 Responses to The Petersburg Feuilletons

  1. Nate says:

    Of course, Dostoevsky turned out to be wrong, didn’t he? The intellectual circles of Russia ended up being quite politically effective, at least some of them. This was the intellectual society that produced several generations of theory-crazed anarchists and revolutionaries, who managed to assassinate two Tsars and take down the empire.

  2. Josh says:

    I suppose that depends what you mean by effective. They certainly ultimately brought about change… but progress and improvement? Also, it wasn’t really this generation that did those things.

  3. Nate says:

    Yeah, I’m not defending the changes brought about, but the critique seemed to be that a Russian intellectual culture focused on theorizing was all talk, no action, and that did eventually turn out to be false.

    That said, I can’t tell how totalizing his critique was meant to be. On first reading this post, I didn’t realize how early these articles were. I was kind of picturing the post-exile Dostoevsky, rejecting his past revolutionary involvements, but this is before that. At the time, Dostoevsky was still a reformer and a member of the Petrashevsky Circle (thank you, Wikipedia). So perhaps this article is a form of self-critique, but it could be that he’s only critiquing the circles he viewed as ineffectual. Hard to say.

  4. Josh says:

    It’s definitely pre-exile, yes – I’m not sure of the overall arc of the story, but I had the sense that the Feuilletons were Dostoevsky’s attempt to generate some sort of radical critique that he didn’t think the current circles were capable of. I’m guessing that post-exile, he was probably more interested in letting people know just how dangerous radical intellectuals could be (that’s just a suspicion based on my previous reading of _Demons_, which, granted, I barely understood…

  5. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote – Original Positions

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