Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dostoevsky & the Nechaev affair

In what Dostoevsky calls a feuilleton article, one of the essays in A Writer's Diary, Dostoevsky explains his own understanding of the infamous Nechaev affair, his affiliation with The Petrachevsky Circle and the influence of the Nechaev affair ( a good link here) on his important work The Devils. This article called One of today's falsehoods opens with an indictment of those who have tried to explain away the causes of the Nechaev affair by analyzing the impact of political activism amongst Russian students. Quoting this article, Dostoevsky takes umbrage at the writer saying that "an idiotic fanatic such as Nechaev could find proselytes only among the idle and underdeveloped and not among young people involved in studies".

To Dostoevsky, this is a distortion of reality, for to him the Nechaevs ( a link) of this world are not weak willed or uneducated or lazy or ill but are on the other hand quite well educated and motivated. Any attempt to give their political or moral ideology a cover or any attempt to explain their politics amounts to a betrayal of ancient and time tested values, which to him basically amounts to ignore Russian- ness, the very moral fabric of Russia. This attempt to explain how some students could be swayed by a persuasive ideology tantamounts to exonerating an entire society of its moral culpability and laying blame, in a very perverted way on young people.To Dostoevsky, this article in The Russian world absolves young people of blame and does not permit critical attitudes toward the youth.

It is indeed unthinkable for Dostoevsky to consider the possibility of the planners of the Nechaev affair to be other than diligent and ardent, who might incidentally possess good hearts. Not all Nechaevs are idiots or fanatics, yet among the Nechaevs "there can be creatures who are very shadowy, very dismal and mishapen, with a thirst for intrigue and power of most complex origins, with a passionate and pathologically premature urge to exprress their personalities". It is not always that these people are monsters or have had a complete education in a university. Even after all this, such people might be only scoundrels. Dostoevsky reminds here of what Pyotr Verkhovensky says in the devils that I am a scoundrel, not a socialist.

In the article, Dostoevsky enumerates his involvement in The Petrachevsky Circle, his imminent death at the hands of a firing squad, a miraculous reprieve and subsequent exile to Siberia ( one that he wrote as Memoirs from the House of the dead). Dostoevsky rationalizes the existence of this circle, tracing his own influences, particularly Belinsky, the orientation of the entire group and the ideology of not just a Russian Utopia but one that is universal. He is however quick to remind himself and the reader that he was only infected and not possessed of this visionary raving and was able to save himself of this illness. After the sentencing, Dostoevsky says that what liberated him and like minded people from the circle was the direct contact with the people, the brotherly union with them in common misfortune, the awareness that we themselves had become as they, equal to them and even placed on the very lowest of their levels. The real harm is any ideology that does not recognize the Russian tradition, in the legacy of ideas, "in the notion of a high status of a European, unfailingly with the proviso of disrespect to oneself as a Russian".

One of the bad influences on youth, one that can ultimately lead them to become Nechaevists is the complete disregard for their traditions, lack of respect for Christ and Christianity and a mocking intonation and indifference for russia's cause. Another aspect is the desire to emigrate, to work to turn into a common European man and work in a free country( here he points towards America). Towards the end of this article, Dostoevsky warns against the tendency for callous behaviour and forgetting the real direction and cause of Russia. All in all an interesting piece but one , as I keep reading the diary , I find less and less surprising.

The Devils, barring a few hundred pages and on second reading now, seems so listless. As Nabokov rightly says, it is bereft of any real beauty that can mark it as a great novel though it has great possibilities as a play. The Verkhovensky-Nechaev character is easy to understand now and the whole ruckus that is raised in the devils is easier to fathom. I personally think that Dostoevsky might secretly have modelled Shatov on himself though Kirilov is another possibility. But one must concede that by creating Stavrogin, Dostoevsky essentially saves his novel from becoming another pamphlet novel. The character of stavrogin is deliberately obscure and yet by ascribing hallucinations in clear consciousness to him, Dostoevsky absolves him of much blame.

It is indeed bewildering that Dostoevsky writes what he does in this article in a way that smirks of an ideological insistence, in a belief in the superiority of his country and people and values which later on in Europe took messianic proportions, lead to holocausts and the uprootment of millions and in the nineties saw his Slavs create torture and concentration camps. Dostoevsky takes a moral viewpoint and denies his opponents of theirs and in this competing ideology dehumanizes his opponents. He creates weak characters for them in his novels, gives them indefensible positions and also makes them ill, hysterical and usually epileptic, which in his grander scheme perhaps negates even the little good that they might have done in the past.

It is not enough to read one or two works by Dostoevsky but his entire oeuvre and see the thread of an inner passion run through all of his novels. It goes without saying that he has as much of a right to espouse an ideology as the Necheavists have. Through the medium of his novels and what Bakunin claims to be Dostoevsky's unique creation, the polyphonic novel, Dostoevsky has created a great assembly of characters who voice different opinions and espouse numerous ideologies. These competing political creeds are for all to see and think and yet where Dostoevsky fails sometimes is in the insistence of the moral superiority of one ideology over another unless of course one is simply calling for the extermination of another.

Perhaps Dostoevsky was a prophetic writer and foresaw much of what convulsed his dear country and in a way he created in his novels a unique atmosphere for dialogue, for an ideological debate, for those considerations which perhaps the Russian and indeed no other literature had seen or produced. In that we must stay hushed for it is easy to criticize. Dostoevsky's involvement with politics, an active one, is indeed credible no matter whether he adopts a Shatov. To understand his real politics, reading his diary is essential. More later.


Alok said...

have you seen this pamphlet written by Nechaev? It makes appearances in many of his works in different forms... I haven't read the Writer's Diary though I have read parts of Joseph Frank's biography (this particular volume) and he quotes profusely from his diary/feuilleton.

I agree with Nabokov that Dostoevsky's novels function more as drama and less as novel. Basically he just writes a sequence of scenes and confrontations among his various characters and in between them he gives a sort of their histories but i believe that a beautiful and coherent structure is just one of many aspects in a novel. What I like in Dostoevsky is his ability to capture "extreme" psychological situations (like in the episode of Stavrogin's confession for example). Normally realist novelists portray psychology just as a means to explain a behaviour or an action.. dostoevsky's psychology is much more mysterious and deeper, actually it is even religious like peering into a soul. More like Pascal, Kierkegaard and modern existentialists and less Austen or Tolstoy or Turgenev. This "literature of extremes" fascinates me very much, it is also what draws me to German literature a lot.

Alok said...

Dostoevsky takes a moral viewpoint and denies his opponents of theirs and in this competing ideology dehumanizes his opponents. He creates weak characters for them in his novels, gives them indefensible positions and also makes them ill, hysterical and usually epileptic, which in his grander scheme perhaps negates even the little good that they might have done in the past.

i don't think it is necessarily true that characters who are opposed to him ideologically are weak. in fact you yourself contradict by citing Bakhtin in the next para. most of those revolutionaries are stirring characters, some of the greatest and most unforgettable ever...

but yes there is always this belief in his works that human beings are fallen creatures and enlightenment & rationality are just illusions, often expressed almost literally as epilepsy and temporary madnesses and all sorts of hallucinations.

to a large extent he does seem to be prophetic figure... now that all the ideological systems seem to have failed to delivered what they had promised

Kubla Khan said...

I am glad that you have pointed out my contradicting position for Dostoevsky does inspire some. Inspite of what one says, the great scheme of his writing remains unrivalled.

i am not sure of what the religious stance of his writing for sure means though i agree that to a great extent, he is able to psychologize and convey a sense of helplessness, a sense of impending doom. he remains the warner writers par excellance. i might agree with your reading of the epilepsy etc

Dostoevsky's writing conveys to me always a kind of dense atmosphere, of something terrible that has or is about to happen, of darkness ( literal). for the reader, the epilepsy and the histrionic is as real and forceful as the ideology or the rain and the fog.( i can never forget the duel or the shatov murder in the devils, it stays etched even though it has been so many years.......i remember the fog, the night....) this is in contrast to Turgenev or say even in A. Karenin where moral disaster is conveyed in a healthy way or in less subversive dramatic, religious, ideological ballistic thrusts.

Kubla Khan said...

Oh, thanks for the link. I had.