Thursday, January 07, 2010

Poor Folk

In its form, Dostoevsky's Poor Folk is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of notes and letters between Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobreselova, two people who live across each other, two poor folk. Devushkin is a copying clerk, he makes it known, very poor, nearly fifty, somewhat reclusive. Varvara is young, inexperienced, very poor and somewhat immature. Both live at the margins of society, impoverished, unhappy, poor folk. In these letters, we get to know them and all exchanges, which begin in winter and end in the autumn, reflect their daily worries. Dostoevsky, while depicting their outer states achieves a penetrating psychological analysis of their mental states and allows the reader to see not only their plight but also their reactions to that plight.

Devushkin is perhaps the forerunner of the later ideologues as it is clear that his thoughts are not yet sufficiently clear or organized for the usual sustained onslaught of thoughts and ideas that is so characteristic of Dostoevsky's more mature writing. Written before the Petrachevsky Circle days, the book was Dostoevsky's very focussed project and allowed him to gain a certain reputation vis a vis his critics notably Belinsky, who later lauded this novel. Devushkin lets Varvara know that while he is true to what he writes to her, he is also maturing his style in writing. The letters he lets her know are also an exercise in stylistics.

Devushkin and Varvara are extremely poor; any union between the two is always unlikely. They do have soft spots for each other but how can these poor folk actually dream together? Under constant threat of eviction, barely managing to meet ends, romance does look very superfluous here. Devushkin is at lengths to examine his thoughts, his thoughts are an answer, as Bakhtin analyses, in response to the thoughts of others. In a penetrating essay on this novel, Bakhtin examines the ground state, as it were, of Devushkin's more philosophical thinking. Devushkin is not a thinker, at least not yet, though he attempts to answer those questions that have not been asked yet, those assumptions which seem paranoid to the reader have been though through by Devushkin, but not sufficiently through. In comparison to the later protagonists, Devushkin is in the process of analyzing and coming forth with his answers, which Ivan Karamazov or Stavrogin are so emphatically clear about. Devushkin is also the first of a series of underground men, men who make their ideologies known in his other works.

Poor Folk is definitely unlike Dostoevsky's later works in that there is a palpable melancholy at work here; comedy and farce are not exaggerated, rhetoric is evident, so is the usual exhortation but the sadness, the sadness of poor folk.The letters are sometimes heart rending and usually very emotive. Towards the end, when Varvara decides to leave, decides to marry against her wishes, decides to leave the neighbourhood, to save herself and save herself from shame, Devushkin's last letter pleads her to reconsider her decision, to change her mind. However, the last sentences reflect that he is not too sure, has my style in writing improved he asks her, he is not sure. Devushkin, while not entirely the ridiculous man is clearly unimportant. In the bigger scheme of things, Devushkin just disappears. We also do not know whether Dobreselova found happiness.

Monday, January 04, 2010

cold and bitter

New year's eve was cold and bitter, it was wet and cold and so we decided to stay indoors, we decided to talk to each other and while away the few hours, instead of going out. You have stopped celebrating the new year, you said and I have stopped marking it, I thought, so we decided to while away some hours, amongst some talk of this and that, amongst some talk of you and perhaps some of me. You said that it was absurd to celebrate the new year, everything is still the same, all this revelry gets on my nerves, you said, it is absurd you repeated again, there is no point, it stays the same. Basically this life, you said, is senseless. We do pointless things and we know we do things pointlessly, you said and yet everyone continues to do and say pointless things, like now, you added, pointless. However, this celebration revelry is nonsense, waiting to jump up and down, waiting to shout at some hour when we know there is nothing to shout and jump about, everything is still the same, you said. I did not say anything, I continued to watch you as you spoke, I kept on looking at you, while you were so animated, pointing at invisible people and things, sometimes pointing at the window, outside, where it was so cold, bitterly cold and wet, I thought.

This taking stock of the old year drives me crazy, you said, this obsession with what we have done in the year gone by when we have done absolutely nothing, you said. This obsession with years, with dates is just crazy you said, nothing has changed. You were playing with the flames of some candles that I had lit, on the mantelpiece, while you were talking, I saw you were not aware of that, mildly singeing your fingers, as you looked here and there. I have done absolutely nothing this last year, you said, and I don't care, you added. You were now looking out of the window, at the High Street, people were rushing home and some were rushing towards the square. People are always going or coming from place to place, that is what happens always you said, nothing else. I did not contradict you, I kept on looking at you, the candle flames were throwing irregular shadows on the wall, near the window and I thought again how cold it was outside, so bitterly cold and wet, I thought.

To even talk about these things is a waste of time, you observed after some time. Everything will go on as it has before, we are merely observing the passing of some hours. Morning always makes me feel ashamed of what I say or even think about, you said. I nodded, as I looked at you, at how beautiful you looked, now that you had murdered the candles and extinguished the flames. Let's talk of something else, you said, thinking about life is such nonsense, everything is so senseless you added. I could not entirely disagree with what you said, I thought, and besides, the hours were passing by, and soon it would be time for you to go. I looked at you again, how listlessly beautiful you were looking, and I looked at the window again and was reminded of the outside, how bitterly cold and wet it was, I thought. And by now, I saw, it had started to snow.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Foma Fomich Opiskin

In Foma Fomich Opiskin we have the grand tyrant, master of the universe, king and audience rolled into one, king in the country of the blind. Dostoevsky's master stroke in The Village of Stepanchikovo sees Foma Fomich tyrannize the household that has given him refuge; from a jester, a court fool to master of his master, Foma Fomich's decree is law. Foma Fomich is a virtual god, Colonel Rostanev must do as he is told. If anything displeases Foma Fomich, he stops eating, punishes the servants and orders everyone around. What have I done to deserve this Foma, asks Rostanev; please Foma, please! The three days that we spend at Stepanchikovo with our narrator are filled with the most outrageous antics possible. It is bedlam but high bedlam. One is reminded of Gogol and those who are aware of the influence of the latter on Dostoevsky identify this Gogolian universe of comedy, farce, melodrama, parody and an insane display of nonsense from everyone in the Rostanev household.

Foma Fomich, a take clearly on Gogol's Akaky Akakevich, is what Bakhtin, in what I feel is the best book of literary criticism possible, Problem of Dostoevsky's Poetics, calls the carnival king. Everything being carnival, mennipean satire and Gogolesque farce, Foma Fomich starts annoying us before we have met him. We are like the narrator: our sensitivities are hurt but by the time the action closes, everyone including the reader feels a kind of tiresome revulsion at the goings on at Stepanchikovo though it cannot be otherwise. This world should be exactly like it is, tears and tragedy and bizarre comedy.

Stepanchikovo, like Poor Folk is from Dostoevsky's pre-Petrashevsky Circle days and we did not yet have the characters from his four famous works. Clearly these are not the days of the grand Inquisitor, these are the days of the carnival king. In Foma Fomich, Dostoevsky has numerous digs at Gogol, who he admired a lot but who he felt represented a certain kind of Slavic representation and beheld him as being responsible for a narrative in the Russian novel that Dostoevsky clearly despised. Foma Fomich, while not entirely Gogol is very nearly Gogol and yet Dostoevsky raise certain issues of social justice and sexual inequality. It can also be read as a piece of pure drama which the critics maintain it was originally intended to be. Foma Fomich is clearly not impressed with his valet's name: Vidoplyasov must find a new name, Falalei the servant must not behave like a villager and the other servant must learn French!

Rostanev is now considered to be first example of the ridiculous man, in comparison to say Turgenev's concept of the superfluous man. Some early Dostoevsky critics consider Rostanev to be a beautiful individual, a hero. However, Foma Fomich, who is the object of this post is a representation of a person who lacks awareness and is not able to understand the disparity between what he actually is and what he believes he is.In this world turned upside down, we retreat like the narrator and watch the action unfold at a safe distance. However, this mad world would not be worth visiting if the court was not held by Foma Fomich.

Saturday, January 02, 2010


I was thinking about the lovesickness of which we spoke last time in the fervent echo or the melancholy wake of the Song of Songs, the Poem of Poems, as if the poetical of the poetical, of all declaration of love had to do with this sickness of the other, if not of the foreigner in me, of another in me, outside of me, of the other who angers me and puts me out of myself, the other who puts me out of myself in me, of the other always both more ancient and more to come than me, whom I thus mourn as a mourning of me, as if I carried with me the mourning of me carried by the other, there where would thus begin an ageless hospitality, or of a hospitality of all ages, a hospitality which could only survive itself before its time, and of which the poem would say, in sum, from one to the other: I love you, I am sick of love from you, sick of love for you, for while wholly wanting, with all my desire, to die before you so that I don't see you die, for you know that one of us will see the other die, well then, while wholly wanting, with all my hopeless desire, to die first, I would also want to survive you, to have at least the time to be there to console you at the time of my death, to assist you so that you would not be alone at the time of my death: I would want to survive you just enough to help you, the time it will take, to bear my death." I love you" would thus signify this impossible grammar, a grammar that one can find at once tragic and comic, as time itself: I would want to survive you at my death, to survive me in you, to guard in me your mourning of me, etc. And this "I love you, and therefore I guard you/keep you in surviving you" is unforgivable, therefore I ask you for forgiveness there where it is possible to ask for and to grant forgiveness, there where only, you recall, it is unforgivable.

from Hospitality: Acts of Religion, Derrida

Friday, January 01, 2010