A Writer’s Diary – 1873

A wide range of themes were treated upon in 1873’s “Diary.”  Like I’ve said before, this reads a lot like a blog, even this one.  Sometimes it’s a review of a play, sometimes a travelogue, sometimes random complaints.  It would be hard to write about all of these as a unified whole, so I’ve picked three.  I picked two of them because they seem like there’s some tension between them – (1) the entry titled “Environment,” (2) the final entry: “One of Today’s Falsehoods” and (3) I should probably talk about “Bobok,” the only fictional entry for 1873.

(1) “Environment” sounds like a pretty straightforwardly conservative criticism of the view that criminals who commit crimes are not guilty of those crimes because they come from bad backgrounds.  D. seems to believe deeply that something is wrong with people who think poor people are less morally responsible than rich people, and deserve less blame for crimes they commit.  D formulates this view as follows (it’s in quotation marks in the original, to distinguish it from D’s own views):

“Society is vile, and therefore we too are vile; but we are rich, we are secure, and it is only by chance that we escape encountering the things you did.  And had we encountered them, we would have acted as you did.  Who is to blame? The environment is to blame.  And so there is only a faulty social structure, but there is no crime whatsoever (138).

Fairly straightforward conservative boilerplate, something we hear frequently in our own society: a criticism about the willingness of wealthy liberals to excuse crimes committed by members of the lower class, and the vague suggestion that such excusing is a condescendingly privileged gesture.  If you think about it, the view, as D summarizes it, has some structural affinities to Rawls’s discussion of the “natural lottery” and dessert in A Theory of Justice, specifically the idea that since none of us has earned either our social position or our natural talents, we are obligated to treat those things as a “collective social product.”  D’s would-be interlocutor lacks a meaningful account of blame; Rawls, similarly minded critics have pointed out, lacks an account of individual desert, instead replacing it with a socially-oriented account of “legitimate expectations.”

In fact, this criticism had already been advanced implicitly in several novels – certainly in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons.  Each of those books has one character who rants against the newly created jury system.  D suggests several times that peasants are just not ready to handle their responsibilities as jurors, and so are too quick to acquit based on appeals to “environment,” especially when they’re under the sway of a crafty lawyer:

“Backwardness, ignorance, the environment–have some pity,” the peasant’s lawyer insisted.  Yet millions of them do exist and not all hang their wives by their heels!  There ought to be some limit here… On the other hand, take an educated person: suppose he hangs his wife by her heels?  Enough contortions gentlemen of the bar.  Enough of your “environment” (145).

D makes a pretty straightforward, and to me obviously simplistic argument: there are some peasants who are not criminals, and there are some criminals who are not peasants.  Therefore, poverty is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for crime.  Therefore, the theory of “environment” is a flawed one.  This, of course, all sounds very straw-person-ish.  Who actually makes such an argument?  As if anyone (other than the imagined interlocutor of one of those Fox News court shows) would claim one’s social conditions are so completely determinate of one’s moral sense that no one can ever be guilty?

(2) Anyway – fine.  We can give D his indictment of such a radical theory of “environment”, even if no one ever actually advocates it.  What I thought was interesting, though, is when, in “One of Today’s Falsehoods,” D makes some arguments that seem much more sympathetic to the theory of “environment” vis-a-vis the forms of radicalism Demons criticizes.  “One of Today’s Falsehoods” is a response piece – D is answering some critic’s interpretation of Demons.

Demons was, among other things, a fictionalization of the story of one Nechaev, and his scholar-revolutionary friends, and their murder of a real-life Shatov (the Slavophile from Demons who changed his mind about the revolution and was murdered in a field outside of town).  According to D, the “basic idea” of this critic is “that if Nechaevs occasionally do surface among us, then they absolutely must be idiots and fanatics'” (280).

In other words – D’s critic says D’s account in Demons is wrong because it fails to see that the revolutionary leaders among us are merely “idiots and fanatics.”  Again, in other words – D’s critic sees the problem of revolution in non-“environment”-based terms: some people are just idiots and fanatics, and they infect the rest of us with their ideas.  In fact, Pevear and Volokhonsky, in justifying their shift in title from The Possessed (the traditional English title) to Demons, say that they meant to get English-language readers to understand that the underlining Russian title wasn’t meant to isolate the leaders who were “possessed” with terrible ideas or mental illness, but instead to point towards the “demons” – i.e., the not-necessarily personal source of the disorder in the system the novel depicts.

So D wants us to understand that revolution does not arise merely because there are “irrational actors” who stir the pot, and disrupt the normalcy that the rest of us are able to maintain because we’re not “possessed.”  This, I think, is exactly the reason why the story of the demoniac and the pigs serves as the epigraph for the novel: to show us how easy it is to transfer all of our blame for crime and disorder onto “a few bad apples”, when instead, there is a system that, as a whole, gives rise to the disorder depicted in Demons, an extraordinarily complex and multifarious system, one whose almost infinite inflection points (between characters, sides of characters, political and economic institutions, language choices, social circles, etc.) are themselves already inhabited by demons.  And again, what are the demons?  Those inflection points themselves – and the way to exorcise them, then, I suppose, D thought was the task of his art.  To draw them out in all their complexity, give a reader a sense of that complexity, and somehow dispel this “normal”/”abnormal” distinction that we help ourselves so easily to, and make us realize that it is in fact quite scary, as the gospel passage tells us, when the demons run off the cliff.  We want to replace the almost immediately, preferably with someone who is not us.  Instead, we need to open up the space when the demons are gone, and, for D. anyway, allow God into our hearts, and thereby the pave the way for a just, well-arranged and non-demon-possessed future.

So how can D, on the one hand, criticize “environment” and, on the other hand, show us the importance of what I’m calling a “system”?  I’m not totally sure, but I think there is space between these two notions.  “Environment” is the stale social criticism referenced in the excellent Wire quip about the “Dickensian aspect” of “these people’s” lives.  It sees the “causes of crime” as relatively static and few, and adopts a utilitarian solution for them: just make everything equal, or at least tepidly profess an interest in such equality, and everyone will be fine.  “System,” on the other hand, is the much more interesting (but problematic) form of social criticism that emphasizes the dynamic, and not always merely material causes of disorder – it draws together psychology, sociology, economics, religion, political science and creative writing to depict the core nature of social problems, even it if does, again to quote the same Wire character, “sprawl out out of control” and fail to “keep it simple.”  And the “solutions” it portends are far less self-confident or sanguine.  It may even be the case that it lacks such a solution, demonstrates its very impossibility.

(3) Now for somethinng entirely different: “Bobok.”  This is a brief, but disturbing short story, about a man who hears voices and has trouble sleeping.  He goes to a cemetery and lies down to sleep on a bench.  Somewhere between sleeping and waking, he starts to hear the voices of the dead there buried.  The metaphysical premise of the story (or at least of his delusions) is that the souls of the dead bodies communicate with each other, and in fact, do so just as they would have in life (this is similar, therefore, to the earlier D short story called “The Crocodile”).  The characters have trivial conversations, complain about each other’s habits, and exhibit the personality traits typical of their lot in life.  This apparently persists for some time, but as they have been in the ground longer, and their bodies decay, so do their voices.  they seem to die a second death.

The most chilling piece of the story is the explanation of its title.  One of the bodies, one that has reached an advanced state of decay, does not speak coherent sentences any longer.  Every so often, however, it says “bobok” (which means something like “beans”).  But to me, “beans” seemed less important.  What I heard was onomatopoeia – a mumbling corpse saying “bobok, bobok, bobok…”  I find the state of mind this decayed body is apparently in terrifying: it is still alive enough to make sounds, too dead to vary them into the normal phonemes that forms words, phrases, and sentences.  It’s neither dead nor alive, and seemingly trapped eternally in such a state.

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