Dostoevsky from the Top Down or the Bottom Up?
While reading all these books, I had the help of two significant secondary sources – all along the way, Joseph Frank’s five-volume Dostoevsky, and at the end, after having finished all the original Dostoevsky writing, Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. These two works represent two significant, and significantly opposed ways of reading Dostoevsky – the one “top down” and the other “bottom up.” In this post, I’ll talk about Frank’s reading, in the next’s Bakhtin’s.
I set out on all of this for something like 3 reasons: (1) I had read some Dostoevsky books (Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov) before and liked them but did not fully understand them (and obviously still don’t), (2) for Christmas my father gave me volumes 1-2 of Joseph Frank’s five-volume Dostoevsky, and (3) around that time I read an essay by David Foster Wallace called “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” in which he described having read all of these books as well as the biography in parallel.
So in a lot of ways, my reading was shaped by Frank’s ideas, especially at the outset. Frank’s reading conducted through the lens of intellectual history. He even says at the beginning of the first volume that his interest in Dostoevsky arose not from any specifically biographical or literary interest (he wasn’t, at the time, a literature professor), as much as his realization that Dostoevsky’s life dovetailed nicely with the advent of several different 19th century intellectual movements, and also with some really important historical events. The idea is that telling the story of Dostoevsky’s intellectual journey (along with some biography) would help us understand his works better, but also understand what happened in the second half of the 19th century, especially in Russia.
Frank’s readings of individual pieces of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, are then, we might say, “top-down.” Frank generally begins with the context in which a piece was written, describing the intellectual climate of that year, the major players’ current relationships with one other, what had been published in that timeframe in what journal, and what had happened in the realm of politics or international relations then.
Now there is a particularly shallow way that biography of this sort can happen. Watching any given episode of Behind the Music, for example, will lead you to reductive explanations about the origins of this or that song premised on stories about the lead singer’s girlfriend at the time, or who had a fight with whom at what club. A lot of people seem to enjoy this sort of thing – I don’t think E! or those magazines at checkout at the grocery store would even exist if they didn’t. People seem to like reductive analyses of celebrities that make them feel like they are their friends. I don’t, but a lot of people do seem to like that sort of thing.
Frank’s biography, though, is not shallow in this way. He has clearly done his homework. I suppose beyond the 7500 pages of Dostoevsky reading I did, I should also count the 2500-3000 pages of the Frank biography that I read. He has definitely taken the time to reconstruct a lot of aspects of Russian social history that were probably far from obvious when he began writing. He has spent the time to elucidate the characters and projects of important writers like Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, to some extent Leo Tolstoy, and also important members of Dostoevsky’s family and social circles, like Apollon Maikov, Dostoevsky’s two wives (Maria, who died of tuberculosis, and Anna), his parents (both of whom died early, his father possibly having been murdered by his servants) his brother Mikhail (who also died early in life) and his children (two of whom died in childhood). These are not trivial portraits or hagiographical simplifications: he quotes extensively from letters, journals and manuscripts to demonstrate his claims. He’s also given us great insight, of course, into Dostoevsky himself, especially as regards what Frank always seems to see as his great intellectual project: the contestation of nihilism, socialism and atheism from an eastern-orthodox-but-somewhat-liberal perspective. From time to time, Dostoevsky’s more strictly “personal” life figures in too. Great attention also is paid to his political life, especially his 1849 conviction and subsequent exile in Siberia.
In another way, though, I did find the project shallow. Well, not shallow – there is plenty of detail – but still reductive. There was a relative lack of imagination regarding the more stylistic, rhetorical or textual aspects of Dostoevsky’s creations that ended up in too much direct line-drawing from certain real life personages, on the one hand, to characters that appear in the novels, on the other. I don’t quarrel with the line-drawing per se though. It seems plausible, in many instances anyway, that Dostoevsky had certain intellectual opponents in mind when he created certain characters. This seemed most clearly true with the Underground Man (Notes from Underground), Roskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), and Stephan Verkovsky (sp?) (Demons).
But the crucial experience always thought Frank missed in this line-drawing exercise was what Dostoevsky does once he begins to create a character with such a person in mind. Frank’s usual explanation is something like this: Dostoevsky begins writing a book designed to show the shortcomings inherent in so-and-so’s worldview. He creates a character that gives credible voice to that worldview. In so doing, he was so effective that the character becomes larger than life, and more sympathetic than he might have even intended. The words of the character are very powerful, but the experiences of his life (it’s almost always “he”, by the way) end up belying the illustration given of the character. That’s what Frank always says the project is – show a character, and then show how their life is impossible.
I understand how this is a plausible reading. Thinking about The Brothers Karamazov can make this clear. Ivan gives very powerful voice to a very pained form of atheism. He makes some logical arguments that persuade the reader in some ways. The “grand inquisitor” himself does this to Jesus. But Jesus just kisses him on the cheek and walkis away. Ivan receives a similar response from Alyosha. The refutation in both cases is implicit. Alyosha’s life (having pancakes with students who he’s reconciled) is seen to be better and more sustainable than Ivan’s (spiraling towards psychotic “brain fever” and being visited by the devil).
The overall problem I have with Frank is that as informative as all the intellectual history is, Frank ultimately transforms Dostoevsky’s novels into polemical pseudo-essays or position papers. He misses what seems distinctive about Dostoevsky’s art, or, as Bakhtin’s title puts it, the “problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” More on that in the next post.