Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Dostoevsky and Turgenev

Dostoevsky's relation with Turgenev can at best be described as turbulent. It is fair to say that both were brilliant but dissimilar writers and had different political ideologies, with Dostoevsky adopting a more slavophilic stance. Their meeting outside Russia was fictionalized in The Devils and Turgenev's character was lampooned unfairly perhaps as Karmazinov in the same work by Dostoevsky. In fact, Cherneshevsky, considered as the real ideologue of the Russian revolution was not spared either, with his great novel What is to be done satirized and lampooned as Merci in The Devils. Turgenev was aristocratic and his political ideas, it seems to me were more euro centric and mature, in contrast to Dostoevsky who had more nationalistic fervour and saw in Russia a possibility of grandeur, based on the cultural and moral superiority of the Slavic people. Dostoevsky was not the only exception. Those were turbulent times in Russia, political winds were changing and yet, Dostoevsky was more in favour of autocracy and the Russian church, hating socialists, disbelieving God but devoted to Christ. Both writers wanted change, albeit in different ways and this is clearly reflected in their important and lesser known works.

Turgenev's break from Dostoevsky was complete in his work Smoke, which Dostoevsky attacked vehemently. The question of emigres, especially political emigres, their life and opinions and their various stances were beautifully reflected by Turgenev in a way that represents such people in all ages. It is important not to get carried away with the fervour of one's opinions and that was something that Turgenev did not allow to happen in his works. On the other hand, Dostoevsky let the characters in The Devils literally run amok, with the work ending in numerous murders. Dostoevsky had a deep suspicion of revolution, seeing as he did in it a reversal of passionate Russian nationalism, for he was more inclined towards the concept of Mother Russia, as an object of worship in itself. The character of Pyotr Verkhovensky is dealt with very unsympathetically and Dostoevsky, it seems to me was unsure what he should do with Stavrogin, who remains enigmatic, unapproachable and vastly more unknown than Ivan Karamazov.

What Turgenev would achieve in a few pages, Dostoevsky would take hundreds to do. Of course, Dostoevsky was brilliant in building up a characters and other numerous unimportant characters and their intertwined relations and his morose, morbid and psychological insights and those are without comparison , but It seems , on second or third reading of his novels that some of his more favourite characters are actually quite confused, ready to throw away their whole life's work or ideology at a whim. We must never forget that these novels are novels of ideas and the inner motives are mostly political and psychological and some characters are driven by various motives. Dostoevsky however, as cleverly pointed by numerous critics and by Nabokov also, gave multiple dimensions to his characters, making them look and feel physically unwell also, which sometimes absolves them of blame partly blame. Some of his famed creations were epileptic, melancholic and morose and he makes them organically ill, a distinction which Turgenev clearly maintains in his work.

Turgenev's Bazarov for instance is a more stable ideologue for in the end, he is not much of a nihilist. He calls for negation but not more annihilation, a departure from the grand inquisitor. Bazarov's friend settles for family life, Bazarov could have got married and so on. There is a climate of doom that surrounds the Dostoevsky hero or heroes and it clearly reflects his own preoccupations. Turgenev's Sketches, a great work on its own, even in the desperate situations that he finds the serfs in, Turgenev gives them a sense of hope, and in the landscape he describes a possibility of change but he never subscribes to a religious dimension or hopes that a religious falling back on could lift his country out of that morass. Turgenev is truly anti-iconic but not icon breaking while Dostoevsky strives to let say even a Verkhovensky sit stupefied in the Devils when a half-wit mystic solves problems by making people drink sugary tea!

Turgenev's Virgin Soil, in this respect is a true masterpiece. In this novel he achieves in a few hundred pages of exquisite brilliance a sum total of his aesthetic, moral and political philosophy and nowhere do his characters appear lazy, shallow and uncertain. To them he imparts hope and resonance and they are never fanatical. Yes, Dostoevsky's characters are fanatical for it appears that he might himself have been of a less tolerant nature, especially with regards to Europe, the Caucasian questions and other minorities within Russia. However, to be honest, Dostoevsky's characters bring with them more than a whiff of what being Russian meant then and what it might mean now. Who would not want to know Smerdykin, Lebyatkin or all the other people who all play a part in the intrigue that one finds the novels mired in. In his brilliant Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics, Bakhtin introduces the concept of a polyphonic novel, one that he argues did not exist before and one that was born with Dostoevsky.

The present political climate in Russia, with an autocratic democracy, political opponents languishing in jails or as emigres, journalists being killed in Russia or outside, the driving force seems to be the same kind of slavophilic nationalism, Russian superiority, xenophobia that brings fascism and intolerance. It is a moot point how the two great writers would react now. The purpose of this post is just to reflect on these issues between the writers and not make a case for either one as that is an academic and frankly facile job. Both the novelists are great in their own ways and if one employs the criteria of a writer who is actively political, as I think writers should be, then they are a cut above the rest. Their fiction is an indicator of how they reacted to the Russia of their times and produced works that will never die. It is my desire to write more about what Bakhtin so beautifully describes in the work mentioned earlier as it enhances one's understanding of not only what the writers were in their essence but also allows the dilettante reader to form some ideas. I am reading Dostoevsky's A writer's Diary these days which prompted this post and have also been revisiting Turgenev's timeless Sketches. More to follow soon, I hope.


Alok said...

Very informative and well-written entry. Looking forward to further posts...

btw, Have you read the essay on Turgenev by Isaiah Berlin? It is collected in his "Russian Thinkers" along with other essays on russian intellectuals and writers of 19th century. He gives a very clear and lucid exposition of political controversies of Turgenev's time and shows how tragic it was for Russia that thinkers like Turgenev were sidelined by both left-wing (Chernyshevsky, Belinsky) and right-wing critics (like Dostoevsky). This led to more and more autocratic rule by the Czar and ultimately to the revolution. The humane liberalism that Turgenev stood for could never really prosper. May be what is happening there now has something to do with the same tradition.

In fact reading Berlin's essay reminded me of how relevant all those discussions and debates are for our time too. Besides Berlin I will also recommend a collection of essays by Aileen Kelly. I think it is called "dispatches from the other shore". It contains wonderful essays on chekhov and also Herzen and Bakhtin. I haven't read anything by Herzen and Bakhtin but these essays are really great introduction to their works and thought.

Kubla Khan said...

I have read the Berlin essays yes but not the Kelly book. i intend to. you are quite right in saying that this debate is extremely urgent even now. things don't change. Turgenev spent years away from Russia and was thus sidelined. extreme opinions won.

interesting how these days, public debate is spurred on by polemicists like Hitchens and Amiss, who unfortunately are not even good writers. these writers sabotage facts in the interest of ideology.
relevant this debate is.

I would dearly recommend you to read Bakhtin and look forward to exchanging more views on Russian lit. which is my earliest literary infatuation.

Zuma's colored balls said...

its a great and balanced essay, though i think you seem to favor turgenev's politics a wee bit more. you say writer's should be actively political (to earn the distinction of being a cut above the rest). why?

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Zuma

thanks. there is nothing like passive art, each act is a step, an affirmation of things. art for arts sake does not usually exist. taking sides is not the issue, the only issue but to participate, to revivify with words, to resurrect what might be lost in the streets. for this is not just true for writers but cinema etc. this is not to appear different, as you feel, but to make your own art medium as a vehicle of change, protest or rebellion.

it is easier to know where one is in relation to a ideological writer, for we, even if we don't admit, have our prejudices. what kind of coffee you drink, as Bargouhti writes, determines your politics. this might seem extreme but there is some truth in it.

Zuma's colored balls said...

One Mr. Wilde may beg to disagree; i think ;-)....

more seriously, i tend to agree with you from a positivist perspective.. art normally is as you say - your lover's quarrel with the world, a vehicle of change, all that. what I have always wondered about, though, whether this is normatively necessary? is it not enough to write beautifully? will the readers pleasure not suffice as the object of art?

Also, have not so many artists, writers, directors let their ideology interfere too strongly with their work, reducing the status of their work from high art to mere propoganda?

I have nothing against someone's worldview subconsciously manifesting in their work - that is inescapable probably; but i often wonder whether it compromises creativity to consciously have an agenda while writing, shooting or painting... are you not thereby, closing your eyes to other possibilities, other interpretations, maybe your contrary experiences? A lot of our experiences in life, say yours or mine, may not validate particular theories and philosophies we hold dear, or may even contradict our basic them...are we then to shut them out completely from our works, as if they do not exist? or otherwise make caricatures of them, like your russians?

Kubla Khan said...

I think i agree with your last remarks, our experiences contradicting our opinions etc. that is undeniable sometimes.

i have never shied away from recognizing a'thing of beauty', a beautiful passage etc, even if i might not agree with its essential thrust. take for eg, Genet. in his novels, there is a certain elaborate celebration of homosexuality and erotic acts described in a mesmerizing prose. i think, maybe hastily, that no one has written more beautiful prose than Genet( and i have to read a lot yet) so even if these experiences are not central to my own, yet, the beauty of his expression gives them a meaning that is sufficient for me. however, it is also fair to say that whatever Genet did and wrote was political and his homoerotic acts were acts of resistance.

i cannot comment on whether some one uses art to propagate things. if considered, then everything is propaganda in one way or the other. what is considered cheap propaganda is generally what we differ from. however, if a writer avowedly subserves himself to an ideology and refuses to accept the general truth( which should be based on facts, not substantiated only by numbers) then that poses a problem.

in this case, writers like Handke pose a problem who has consistently refused to recognize the sufferings and genocide of one group. he may write good prose but he also is affirming something. whether he is an agent of propaganda, one cannot say.