Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dostoevsky's polyphony

It is known reliably that Dostoevsky dictated the last great novels he wrote, dictated them to his wife Anna Snitkina whilst pacing up and down in his room, pacing back and forth in a long and productive period of frenzied activity, the products of which had seldom been seen in the European literary tradition. The novels of this period including the Karamazov story, The Devils and The Idiot made and gave us what is now called a polyphonic novel, a literary entity that took long to recognize and to differentiate from the standard monologic narrative. The great critic Mikhail Bakhtin, in his fascinating study on Dostoevsky's poetics calls the great writer's narration as Dialogic and his work as a great polyphony, the kind of which the European novel was not acquainted with.

Dostoevsky fascinates me for on side there is the predominant nationalistic Slav, up in arms, very rhetorical, very imperial and at times narrow minded to the point of being feeble minded. And then on the other hand we have the narrator who talks of theology and society, of crimes perpetrated in the heart and in the space of the physical world, of those gruesome things that constitute life everywhere, of a great cacophony of sounds and sights that we find in his novels. He does not describe nature ever nor is he one to describe the physical environment around his characters say in contrast to Turgenev. The most important thing that hits the reader is the dense physicality of dialogue, of words, of action suspended because of the dialogue itself, of a great scene set up before the reader, of a vague terror that is about to befall the main characters. The genius of Dostoevsky lies in making the reader see the dialogue virtually with a physical force, for what happens happens to the reader too, for we end up being instruments in this narration too.

Dostoevsky is the master of the scandalous scene, scenes that make the reader cringe in disgust at times. But these are powerful scenes, scenes of great enormity and import, for what is transpiring is of phenomenal importance, for what is happening is of a physical nature, the changes that are taking place inside the minds of his characters are spilling on to the pages of the text we hold in our hands. Thus we are in the midst of drama, each scandalous scene is great drama and we can say with ease that his great novels are filled with a succession of dramatic scenes, each making us think and change along with the characters and cringe and feel the pain of the happening moment. Thus his last great novels are only great drama for the narration leads to drama, to a scene of importance followed by a whimpering end, an anti-climactic denouement, they are written with a frenzied intensity, with dialogue in abundance, with verbosity of a kind that is frankly unrivalled in literature.

There is virtually no nature description in Dostoevsky unlike most other writers. As we get used to this dense world of drama and dialogue, we realize that any nature descriptions will be perverse, will be contrary to the task in hand, will run the risk of marring the narrative. Thus such outer descriptive narration will be an antinomical antithesis of the inner world that is being described, a world that gets formal expression through speech. This world of speech is thus laid out in front of us either through a narrator who knows things at first hand or through a narrator to whom things have transpired and who is now narrating the events to us through a certain perspective. This is indeed distinctive in Dostoevsky for it gives a certain degree of participation to the reader who in the case of such ambiguous narrative is a kind of participant in this ambiguous narration.

There is formal monologue in narration, a device that reaches a pitch in The Idiot when Ippolit reads out his explanation, thirty pages of monologue that stand out in all literature as the supreme example of a scandalous scene, the kind that Bakhtin describes as a scandalous-catastrophe. The reader along with the other cast is held hostage by a major or minor character, most or all of whom are either drunk or about to get drunk; someone or the other is about to denounce the other and create a public scandal, a public outrage or even a minor or major crime and all this happens so quickly and so openly that it comes as little surprise when the events are quickly forgotten and life resumed again, as if this scandal was the very thing needed. There is an abundance of such scenes in Dostoevsky, in all his great works including the whole of The Devils ( which is a succession of scandalous catastrophes, intrigue and terror), Karamazov Brothers and the fantastically written The Idiot, whose first part is perhaps the best that Dostoevsky ever wrote. The soiree scene at Nastasya Fillipovna's house is the scandalous-catastrophe at its manic best.

Bakhtin calls Dostoevsky's world as pluralistic. This is true for in his novels, the writer stands distanced from his created characters, who hold opinions and have values that are entirely different from those of the author. The novels are thus not author-centred but are independent of the author where multiple voices jostle each other for space to launch their own tirades and speak for themselves. This characterizes the polyphonic novel and is different to the monologic novel that is usually known to us. The nature of the discourses and the fact that Dostoevsky allows a contradictory stance and flavour to permeate all of his works creates a polyphony. If we read his private diaries, Bakhtin's thesis is correct for here we have a nationalistic militant Slav and in the novels we have a multi-variegated tapestry of colours, each brighter and not less vociferous than the other. However, this novel, so advises Bakhtin is not a philosophical novel or purely a mystery play or simply a novel of ideas but an ideological novel, wherein the hero has to live with some ideas and in the end becomes an idea.

In my future post of a similar nature on Dostoevsky, I will attempt to describe what Bakhtin calls the carnival in Dostoevsky and reflect on his heroes.


billoo said...

kubla, hello!
I've put a link up to something on Hannah's views on Israel. I hope you read it and comment on it.



Anonymous said...

hm, I would not agree that Dostoevsky has no nature description. Those descriptions are rare compared by the amount of dialogues and action, but they do exist especially when it comes to Mitja. Note the garden where he spends hours, the sad willow under which he waits for Alosha, the dense forest and the dry earth, stormy nights, mud where he goes to satisfy his lust, the clear sky when he decides to let his love be happy with another man etc. There are descriptions, but they are just underestimated.