The Dostoevsky Project – My Final Thoughts

The library was deserted during the break. I entered with a keycard and took a novel by Dostoevsky down from the shelves. I placed the book on a table and opened it and then leaned down into the splayed pages, reading and breathing. We seemed to assimilate each other, the characters and I, and when I raised my head I had to tell myself where I was (Don DeLillo, “Midnight in Dostoevsky”).

In my high school Great Books class – still one of my most memorable intellectual experiences, even if it was also one of the most frustrating – we were told to ask three questions of a book: (1) what does it say? (2) is it true? And (3) if it is, what of it?If you think about these questions, they’re pretty big.They also imply some intellectual naivety, as though you can just pick up a book with a group of your peers and decide such things.Actually, that naivety is awesome.The premise of the whole Great Books idea was just that – you could assemble a group of peers, talk about books, figure out what they say, whether they speak truth and whether that truth is important for our lives.Now that I think about it, it’s sort of depressing both the simplicity of that project and its almost total absence from contemporary life.Literature is either left, one the one hand, to the “experts” (i.e., literature and cultural studies departments) as something beyond the realm of the layperson, or, on the other hand, it’s left un-discussed, as a private and unevaluated experience of an individual, who is either “entertained,” “engaged,” “amused,” “satisfied,” or not.

This happens across the board in culture, not just for books: movies, music, television, and food even.We either defer to people who have been professionally “trained” to understand these things, or (more often) we develop extremely inarticulate and individualistic opinions about them, opinions which are by their very nature beyond the possibility of discussion.Hence the ubiquity of “so good”, as in:


A: What do you think of the new Starbucks hibiscus refresher?

B: It’s so good.

A: I didn’t really like it that much.

B: Oh, but it’s so good.

Note the impossibility of conversation at this point. That wouldn’t bother me so much with food and drink (though really it does, I’m just pretending to be reasonable to make a rhetorical contrast): but when it comes to actual products of culture, we are just as likely to stop at “so good.” We let the simplest of adverbs coupled with the simplest of adjectives determine the entirety of what we have to say.

One of the things I loved about my Great Books class is that this answer was unacceptable. I remember quite clearly the day we read Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” It’s got overly simplistic analogies and maddeningly reductive pro-atheism arguments, sure, but I was 17, and well, at least they were arguments. I remember two members of my class saying over and over “I just don’t agree, I’m a Catholic.”There was no elucidation, no elaboration – more or less, they were saying “God is so good” in the face of Russell’s claims.But ultimately the discussion moved somewhere.“So good” is a monological stance, a declaration that one would rather not have a conversation.It’s not a defensible (or even stable) position in a dialogue.


If you and a group of peers are actually discussing something, “so good” doesn’t cut it. The thing is, “a group of peers actually discussing something” is far more difficult than it appears. In my own English classroom, it generally takes the better part of a year for a class to understand what’s possible in this format.At first, almost all the students have a very authoritarian view of knowledge. They want me to tell them what the book “means,” which things in it are “important,” what will be “on the test” (though they soon discover there won’t be any tests). A lot of them also embrace “so good” here. Well, really, since it’s required reading and they’re in high school, it’s “so bad” or “so boring” or whatever.

In early discussions, repeated interventions on my part are required to center the discussion on the first of the “great books” questions – “what does it say?” They want to move right away to “is it true?” quite often, or they want me to tell them “what it says.” Or they discover two alternative readings of one passage, and they actually don’t know what to do. Then of course relativism manifests itself: “we both must be right.” The idea that you could resolve a question of textual meaning by appeal to context-based evidence is not a natural or obvious one.

In short, dialogue is hard. Obviously there’s a lot I could say here about the broader cultural causes of this: an advertising industry that gets us to develop preferences before we know how to talk (“so good” is really, more or less, a declaration that one has no words to describe one’s preference), in which industry’s self-interest it is to keep us from being able to have dialogues about things. “Social” media sites that work hand-in-hand with the socially retarded phenomenon of “so good” – these sites really aren’t social in any obvious sense of the word. They’re about groups of people all conducting monologues. Posting on someone’s wall is, more or less, the internet equivalent of being in a room crowded with your friends and acquaintances, and shouting at the top of your lungs to one person on the opposite side of the room so that everyone else can hear you. Or think about the taboo about “politics” on Facebook: whenever anyone says anything “political” they must introduce it with a disclaimer, act like they don’t care all that much, and then if any argument starts, well, leave the thread as soon as possible, or propose some hokey “middle of the road” compromise (“Both parties miss the mark, why are we all so divided?” or the like). The mechanics of Twitter are worse: there aren’t “friends”, you either “follow” people, or they “follow” you. There’s no equality, at best, there’s two people with megaphones shouting at each other, group first-person dictatorship.


What does all this have to do with Dostoevsky? The experience of dialogue obviously permeates these books. So does the middle place I’ve described between “expertise” and “so-good”-ism. Strange as it may seem now, Dostoevsky took himself to be writing for the public, not just for experts. His novels exhibit a huge blend of “lowbrow” genre and plotting, but also rarified academic and religious discourse. The novels often involve the intersection of people from both worlds. The Karamazov family itself represents this blend: father Fyodor is an unrepentant sensualist – what does he love about Grushenka? “A certain curve of the body” – more or less, “so good.” Dmitri really operates in a similar vein, though contains a bit more of a moral twinge, some desire to render his conduct “honorable” (like Stravogin before him). Ivan is the consummate mentally addled intellectual, the would-be “expert,” and Alyosha is the inevitable youngest sibling that has to reconcile all of this. What’s universal about The Brothers Karamazov is that we all have moments of each of these ways of being, each of these tones, and in a way, we all regulate them internally: we are all Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha all in one. [Though, something I’ve actually thought very little about – where are the women? This family, at least during the main action of the book, consists of four adult men. I’m sure there’s something to say about how femininity manifests itself in them anyway. This seems most apparent to me in the character of Alyosha…]


In what follows, I’ve selected The Brothers Karamazov as the handiest exemplar of what I’m trying to say, mostly because I’ve finished reading it most recently. I suspect you could say what I’m about to say about the characters in the other novels too – this feels more like something that’s about Dostoevsky in general than just TBK.


Dostoevsky was writing for a popular audience, one that was at least capable of asking things like “What does it say? Is it true? What of it?” Or one that he hoped could be brought to ask such questions. Dostoevsky crafted his books such that a reader would have to be drawn into dialogue about life’s deepest questions: the existence of God, the relative importance of morality, the possibilities and limits of the political. So on the one hand, Dostoevsky wants to show his readers the importance of dialogue. We can quote Martin Luther King Junior’s “Too long [have we] been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue” (Letter from Birmingham Jail), or again “Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths,” we could say, Dostoevsky wanted his readers to feel that tension. He sought to create it on the page.


To continue with the Karamazovs: the great failure of Fyodor and Dmitri is their inability to participate at all in dialogue. If you think about the great moments of the book involving their characters, Fyodor’s “scandal” in the opening sequence at the monastery, or Dmitri’s manic search for 3000 rubles, in each of those scenes, monologue prevails. It’s quite often a highly comic sort of monologue, and made me laugh a lot.But it is monologue. The other characters are made either to fall in line, or become insurmountable obstacles to Dmitri or Fyodor’s will. Think of the poor peasant who supposedly wants to buy the parcel of land Dmitri has travelled so far to acquire: Dmitri simply cannot talk to him. Partially it’s because the peasant is drunk and distrustful, but it’s also because of a total lack of dialectical imagination on Dmitri’s part. Or think of how angry Fyodor becomes when Smerdyakov begins to speak of atheism. He’s fine so long as he’s managing the conversation, but once things beyond his understanding (or things with which he disagrees) present themselves, he grows intolerant, becomes violent (and so does Dmitri, which is how the sequence ends in Dmitri threatening to kill Fyodor).


Characters like Fyodor/Dmitri (they are, in a way, doubles) fill the pages of all of Dostoevsky’s novels. The old men in both The Insulted and the Humiliated and The Adolescent, for example, the uncle from Uncle’s Dream, and others. They all seek unfettered access to sensual pleasures, and try to use their wealth to keep these pleasures in play. Their problem is an almost total lack of ability to participate in the “great dialogue” of life. Characteristically, they are relatively untroubled by this, and though their lives are apparently limited, they seem unaware of those limitations, sort of like Nietzsche’s master-moralist lion, who, when asked if lambs are inherently good, replies that they are all tasty. They miss the point in one way, but on their world view, there is no point anyway. The “sensualist” character is though, by and large, a caricature in Dostoevsky. They are the “old buffoon” types; their foibles are never treated seriously. There’s not really a way, at least on Dostoevskian terms, to treat them seriously anyway. To compare the Dostoevsky oeuvre to another “great dialogue,” they’re like The Republic’s Thrasymachus. There’s no reasoning with him – if justice is not “the will of the stronger,” he will eventually just get up and leave.


If too little dialogue is limiting and renders one a caricature though, in Dostoevsky (I don’t say for Dostoevsky – because I think this is more a lesson I’ve pulled from these characters than one D. himself was trying to teach), in Dostoevsky, a bigger problem is too much dialogue. Here we can look to Ivan Karamazov, the Underground Man, Roskolnikov, Stravrogin, or the adolescent himself. The act of dialogue, once begun, does not yield an unambiguously positive result. In his introduction to Bakhtin’s book, C. Wayne Booth writes that Bakhtin’s intellectual sympathies lie more with Kant than Hegel. The same might therefore be said of Dostoevsky, at least in the sense that in many of these characters, an overly active sense of reason leads them into contradictions they cannot escape, not a great synthesis of reason as the “rose in the cross of the present.” In other words – like I’ve said about my English classes – dialogue is hard. In fact, too much of it, or dialogue too intensely pursued by a certain kind of person, can result in catastrophe.


One of the most poignant aspects of The Brothers Karamazov, for me anyway, was Ivan’s gradual descent into total madness. I do not think, contra Joseph Frank, that this is meant as some sort of simple reductio ad absurdum of his worldview. It is a very frank and brutal portrayal of what a person with a certain kind of a mind can become under extremely trying circumstances. Ivan is not monological: all of his great thoughts are thoughts that demand (and fail to receive) the validation he desperately craves. There are three great “Ivan moments” in the novel – the first, the argument had before Dmitri arrives in Zosima’s cell, about the journal article he’s just published, about the separation of church and state. He is not content just to have offered his ideas, he needs the others in the discussion to hear them, offer criticism, and then (he hopes) be swayed by them.


The scene at the monastery, though, is really just a prologue to Ivan’s eventual fall. The second great Ivan moment comes in his meeting with Alyosha at the inn. Ivan is not happy with his vision, he’s not self-satisfied when he completes the recitation of his Grand Inquisitor “poem.” He needs Alyosha to hear it. As he narrates this story, he becomes more and more unwound and overrun with the sensations he is trying to illustrate. He speaks for paragraphs and paragraphs, paragraphs even run to 4-5 pages at a stretch. But the Grand Inquisitor is both internally a dialogue (between Jesus and the Inquisitor) and externally a dialogue (between Ivan and Alyosha). Both internally and externally, the dialectician does not receive what he wants (or what he thinks he wants anyway). The Inquisitor’s verbal maneuvers are answered nonverbally, as Jesus kisses him on the cheek. Ivan’s desires are answered by Alyosha’s disarming remark that though he thinks he’s vilified Jesus, he’s actually glorified him.


The last great Ivan sequence is the most devastating. After three conversations with Smerdyakov, in the last of which, when Smerdyakov finally confesses, Ivan is finally pushed over the edge, and has what it seems fair to call a psychotic break. He is so addled, so confused and so agitated that what was latent until now becomes manifest. Ivan’s dialogue turns completely inward – and here, really frighteningly for someone who knows a little of what this feels like, Ivan’s dialogue turns into delusion. He is so wracked with self-doubt, so desirous of approval, so needing the voice of another, that he creates that voice. Of course, creating that voice is often the task of good writing – to manifest the reality of another’s thoughts with your words. Nowhere has the closeness of creativity and madness been more deftly illustrated. Put another way – too much empathy becomes indistinguishable from insanity. One even wonders whether Dostoevsky himself didn’t experience this closeness from time to time. The epileptic episodes must have come close, or felt something like this.


Anyway, Ivan’s inner voice, which until now has only been implicitly split, tears itself open, and when he enters his house, the devil, a petite man dressed in drably fashionable, if out of date clothing, appears. The whole time, Ivan seems to know and also not to know that the devil is not “real.” He recognizes that he is his own creation, but he still cannot escape the devil’s condemnation and criticism. The devil scorns him for his previously intellectual creations such as “the geological catechism” (I found the detail of the proper name of Ivan’s earlier failed intellectual project especially chilling). He is horrifyingly trapped in this dialogue, like in a dream you can’t wake up from – a sensation I feel most acutely when I have an actual fever, like with the flu. Unlike his older brother Dmitri, Ivan has no recourse to monologue, and, it turns out, being trapped in dialogue is much more dangerous than being trapped in monologue.

[While I write this I’m listening to Sonic Youth’s “Rain King,” which actually occupied a spot on Daydream Nation similar to Ivan’s dialogue with the devil – about three-quarters of the way through, a nihilistic low point, with screaming dissonance and a muddied soundscape that probably took me 10 times to really hear my way through:


I need three years to clear these thoughts, hey

I’d like to say I knew one true thing

it feels like years and all I’ve done is fought,

and not turned up anything

Little black, take roll and roll, over my bed

I’m waiting here for some reality crease,

Just one big dead end in my head,

and not a moment of peace.


It’s a testament both to Sonic Youth and Dostoevsky that both of these experiences actually do create that anxiety and “mystic terror” (the phrase is the narrator’s from The Insulted and the Humiliated) at least in me.]


These characters are not just illustrations of the “failures” of certain intellectual projects. These characters are terrifyingly vivid depictions of minds turned in on themselves, of what happens when introversion finds no external validation, and in a way, all the “great questions,” as someone in TBK calls them, all melt into one: how do you escape yourself?


For me, what is the most touching moment in all of The Brothers Karamazov (maybe in all of Dostoevsky, I have not thought it all the way through) comes at the conclusion of Ivan’s dialogue with the devil. Alyosha sits next to his brother and comforts him. He puts his hand on his arm and waits with him while he calms down. Here again, Ivan’s verbalized terror and anxiety are answered nonverbally [this moment is echoed in Bloom and Stephen’s handshake in chapter 17 of Ulysses]. Alyosha does all he can to contain his brother’s feelings with his touch, not with verbal sparring. Soon after this, Ivan is in the hospital with “brain fever,” which is more or less how the book ends for his character. Dostoevsky had planned a second volume, and you wonder what he had in mind for Ivan.


It seems too dialectically neat to suggest that Alyosha is the answer to the overly monological Dmitri and the overly dialogical Ivan. But in a lot of ways, that is how the novel feels. Alyosha has an intuitive mastery over non-intellectual (but not unintelligent) way of caring for others. His presence is understated in most scenes, because the word, the main mechanism through which a character is felt in a novel, is not his main method of connection to others. What’s strange about this conclusion is I’m sympathetic a distinction Bakhtin makes, between “dialogical” and “dialectical.” A “dialogical” novel is one that airs the polyphonic nature of multiple different perspectives and ways of life; a “dialectical” novel is one that works its readers towards some view about the superiority of one of these perspectives, or perhaps, how one of these perspectives can be synthesized out of the others. That, again according to Bakhtin, lapses back into the “monological” novel, as it subordinates a group of perspectives to one of them.


So I don’t want to read this novel (or Dostoevsky’s work as a whole) as testimony in favor of Alyosha, or Myshkin (The Idiot), or whomever. That’s not to say it doesn’t sound like a plausible reading. But I don’t think Alyosha’s presence is ever invoked as a validation of his worldview. He doesn’t exert narrative control over the novel (even though he is quite often the person the camera follows around to different people’s homes in the town). Alyosha is given the last words of TBK, but it’s more in the nature of a countermelody that arises at the end, than as a dialectical synthesis of his brothers’ experiences. I guess there’s no need to be ideological about this though: if Dostoevsky ends up portraying Alyosha’s life as the best of the three, that certainly a possibility.

The dialectical argument would be like this, in reductive, pseudo-Hegelian fashion:

THESIS: Dmitri’s life is monological and emotional.

ANTITHESIS: Ivan’s life is dialogical and rational.

SYNTHESIS: Alyosha’s life is both dialogical and emotional.

There are problems with this. The main one that occurs to me is that Ivan is not fairly described as “rational.” To be sure, his ideas are often rationalistic, inclining towards atheism and science. But he does not believe these things coldly. All three Karamazov brothers have emotional qualities. And though “monological” and “dialogical” appear opposed, I don’t know if it’s really fair to call Alyosha dialogical either. He seems to me much more quiet, restrained, unwilling also to engage in argumentation. He occupies some sort of space apart from argumentation. In a way, he’s like Thrasymachus too, but instead of getting up to leave in anger, he remains there, with an omnipresent care and concern. But he’s largely silent.


So perhaps accepting that all three are “emotional” – we could characterize them as follows: Dmitri is sensualistic, Ivan is intellectual and Alyosha is… is what? “Religious?”That doesn’t feel right. I guess the word I keep coming back to is that Alyosha is caring. Not “caring” in the simple sense of caring what someone else thinks about you, or caring about the deficit, or something like that. “Caring” in the sense of something that orients a worldview and governs one’s entire bearing. To “care” is to be present for everyone else at all times, to take on and encompass their emotions.


Using Bakhtin’s terms, we can say this is a polyphonic novel with three dominant themes: sensualism, intellectualism and care. Those themes sometimes locate themselves in the character they were introduced first with, and they sometimes are transposed onto other characters. These moments of narrative counterpoint are sometimes the most revelatory: one that comes to mind is when Alyosha actually repeats Ivan’s words about not accepting God’s world, just hours after he hears Ivan share it. The reader is forced to reckon with Ivan’s ideas felt through the experience of Alyosha’s temperment. Or when Grushenka affirms Alyosha’s faith. The themes are modulated into different forms when they turn up in different characters, much the way a melody might be passed around an orchestra from strings to woodwinds and then back again. The interplay of character uncovers aspects of themes that are not apparent from their first introductions.


It’s tough, sitting on the other side of 7,500 pages of Dostoevsky reading, to find anything pithy that sums up the entirety of my experiences. That’s maybe why Frank ends his biography with a simple description of Dostoevsky’s funeral procession.


Well – here’s a try. I was recently taking an online Myers-Briggs personality test, and it said (to no one’s surprise, since it’s how I always come out when I take this test) that I was an INTJ (among whom was also both Martin Luther and Adolf Hitler). Introverted, intuiting, thinking and judging. The introversion, intuiting and judging are all like 50-60% higher than the average member of the population. But the “thinking” is only 1% higher. For the Myers-Briggs test, the opposite of “thinking” is “feeling.” When I clicked through to see some famous people of both types, I found on the INFJ list (the one I’d be on if I tilted 1% in the other direction) none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky. But maybe he was close to that line just like I am. He repeatedly deployed the concept of the “thought-feeling,” especially in private correspondence often quoted from Frank. And I have always been frustrated when, in the sort of shallow conversations one has about personality types, I am forced to choose between “logic” and “emotion.” I feel the emotional power of logical conclusions very strongly, sometimes so much so they can reduce me to tears; conversely, I think through the logical structure of emotions, trying to place my tears under some sort of intellectual rubric. But neither the thinking nor the feeling ever seems truly primary.


I am right there with Roskolnikov hiding behind the door as the painters discover the dead bodies, with Dmitri Karamazov at the fence of his father’s house, with the Underground Man in his garret, but so also am I there with Alyosha as he mediates among the children in their rock-throwing dispute, or sooths his brother’s mania.What Dostoevsky perhaps showed me more than anything is that thought and feeling are always both present at our greatest moments of mental struggle, that they both assert themselves in ways I, at least, can only hope to be able to reflect on after the fact, but when I’m there in the moment, it’s all fear and trembling.

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