by Robin Feuer Miller
A young man succumbs to the unfinished ideas in the air; viruses travel through the world in the same way as ideas; words are germs; infections spread in the stifling urban heat; the dirty water cannot cleanse body or soul but instead becomes a breeding ground for more viruses of all kinds. So far I am the oldest person to volunteer to contribute to this blog—a space already positively radiant with postings from some of the most creative Dostoevsky scholars in the world—I am, moreover, even at my advanced age, a Twitter virgin, a Snapchat ignoramus, and an Instagram idiot. But it is abundantly clear that Dostoevsky would hungrily pursue all these forms of communication; he would be a shameless multi-tasker, and he would surely relish reading the postings on “The Bloggers Karamazov.”
Sitting down to read them from top to bottom, thus taking the most recent and reading back to the first—in a weird kind of inverse dialogue—has made Crime and Punishment come disturbingly alive in new ways. The novel has wiggled out of its words on the page and literally entered the air, permeating anew the readers of these blogs; we are re-infected and discover that we have not built up any immunities to the contagion this work can engender. Frankly, @RodionTweets and the subsequent posts are more immediate and effective in conveying the essence of the novel than any visual representations of it, which, however exciting to watch, broadcast a more unified voice than the odd and compelling multi-voiced chorus that sounds out from these virtual collections.
In the virtual space allotted to me here, let me follow the backwards dialogic trail of these Crime and Punishment posts so far, beginning (that is ending) with Robert L. Belknap (the recently deceased and beloved teacher of many of us) and ending (that is beginning) with Katia Bowers, to whom—along with Kate Holland, Brian Armstrong, Sarah Hudspith,Sarah J. Young, Jennifer L. Wilson, and Kristina McGuirk—we and Dostoevsky owe so much. You have collectively reinvigorated (or re-infected) us; the hot summer air of those weeks in St. Petersburg one hundred and fifty years ago are reincarnated in the sweltering summer of 2016 in locales all over the map.
Through the keen lens of Deborah Martinsen’s notes and recollections of Bob Belknap we learn that Bob considered Razumikhin to be “racy, snappy, generous, arrogant, fun” and not unlike Dostoevsky himself. (These adjectives evoke Bob pretty well too.) Both Dostoevsky and his character were given to translations: Dostoevsky’s first work was a rough translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, and Razumikhin proposes to Raskolnikov that they translate part of Rousseau’s Confessions—a work important to Balzac and with which Dostoevsky polemicized for most of his life, especially within the pages of our novel at hand. Bob, in his posthumous book, Plots, considers the meaning of translation in its broadest possible sense:
Plot summaries deserve serious theoretical attention. . . Like a translation, a plot summary tries to represent a text, a set of black marks on a page . . . Indeed, some argue that the summary of a book is the plot of the book, with all the burden of significance and power that implies; others argue that the only proper summary of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the book itself, that summary is impossible (p. 7).
The same argument is frequently made about translation.
Deborah identifies the essence of what made Bob such a great classroom teacher: “He did not tell us or show us what to think, he made us think by making us experience the texts he was teaching.” In this too, Bob reflects the writer to whom he devoted most of his scholarly life. Of all Dostoevsky’s works it is perhaps Crime and Punishment which most irresistibly, most inexorably draws its readers into its vortex. All our blogs so far attest to this fact in one way or another. How many of you, like me, have had a student say that reading the novel allowed him to feel what it was like (or, in one frightening case, to want) to commit murder? We teachers of Dostoevsky’s works frequently find ourselves engaged in startling, atypical classroom discussions when his words are “in play.”
Deborah tackles Dostoevsky’s frequent use of the phrase “new word”, highlighting Porfiry’s chilling insight that Raskolnikov’s “new word” –that which “truly belongs to you alone, to my horror—is that, in the end, you permit bloodshed as a matter of conscience, and if you’ll excuse me, you’re actually quite fanatical about it.” She highlights Porfiry’s insight, but I, and perhaps others of you, have consistently glided over it, even despite repeated readings of the novel. How does Dostoevsky achieve these repeated instances of having his readers fail to notice the most significant details? Or, rather, we each notice our own significant details. Like Raskolnikov, who expresses his fear of them from the outset, we are undone by “the trifles” looming unseen before us.
When Kristina McGuirk describes how twitter provides Raskolnikov a medium for talking to himself, she takes us back full circle, as do a number of the other bloggers, to Dostoevsky’s original conception of narrating his novel in the first person. The tweets she and others forge are bone-chilling, reducing the novel to a distilled new essence Dostoevsky would have savored. I am reminded of a tiny edition (summary really—with black and white drawings; image to the right) that I possess of Crime and Punishment: an edition handed out to soldiers in World War II. It slips into the front pocket of any shirt and is barely noticeable. Katia Bowers describes how she envisioned creating an ending for the twitterized version of the novel to rival another “amazing” twitter account: @MayorEmanuel. Had Dostoevsky been writing his Diary of a Writer today, we can be sure his insights, like Katia’s, would be littered with websites, twitter hashtags, and other such forays into the virtual air. Katia, like Kristina, in trying to tweet Raskolnikov, comes up against narrative truths: “it’s difficult to build narrative force without access to the 3rd person narrator’s tools and tricks.” These tweets allow in the inner experience of [re]creating Dostoevsky’s character.
And something even more significant happens: Katia tells us, as Rodion’s tweets “go out, they mingle with other tweets in readers’ feeds, become lost, are retweeted out of chronology.” A living, vibrating air-born hybrid is created that changes by the moment and becomes eerily close to some kind of . . . dare one say it . . . collective consciousness. Jennifer Wilson’s blog seems to build on Katia’s, though of course, in this inverted dialogue, it actually precedes it chronologically. She describes how poverty fractures the self, and thus Dostoevsky’s “characters rarely use words to say what they mean, but rather to express how they would like to be understood.” Her analysis of “pauper’s pride” shows us how powerfully social contexts are woven inextricably into intimate individual perception. She “shows” us this in a concrete way, because she is describing the challenge of attempting to tweet the pain of the irritating yet tragic Katerina Ivanovna. We are thus boldly and actually confronted by the myriad obstacles that Dostoevsky himself “stepped over” in creating his novel.
Brian Armstrong’s ruminations about “higher twitter realism” seem to encapsulate the experiences others have described above, but of course his post too comes before theirs. Inspired by Carol Apollonio’s address at the International Dostoevsky Symposium earlier this summer, Brian asks, “How do we know that the conversation in Porfiry’s office happens just as the narrator reports?” Or, as Carol asked more broadly in her presentation, “What happened?” The twitter modality seems to highlight these broadly ontological considerations, coaxing them out of the dark corners we generally choose not to discuss with any text.
Kate Holland’s post offers both a trenchant analysis of the challenges of tweeting Part III of the novel as well as some significant theoretical insights into the genre of twitter (if we may call it a genre) more generally. She describes the project as requiring three different modes of translation: direct transcription, transposition of narrative voice, and creative manipulation of the story by the actual “addition of thoughts which might be conceivable ascribed to Raskolnikov.” For her—for all of us—the hardest part “to get used to was adaptation, or ‘filling in’ gaps which the text intentionally leaves opaque.” What is this but a bold, new, stark way of experiencing the novel and testing out its ideas in a way far more personal than what we do in more traditional critical writing, which is itself, like summary, a form of translation?
Our blog has the title “The Bloggers Karamazov.” How would one tweet that novel? How would we deal with its time (a narrator-chronicler in the present, events, presented somewhat out of chronology, 13 years previously in August, November), its multiplicity of primary characters, its preoccupation with evidence? Sarah J. Young describes how these virtual projects, whether digitally mapping St. Petersburg or tweeting Raskolnikov, “force us towards completeness and to following our reading to its logical limit.” She points out that traditional forms of interpretation allow us to be less consistent and, basically, more tentative in our conclusions. So the result of this process has been for her, and for other tweeters of Raskolnikov, “closer readings” than they have ever done before. The tweets en masse have forged a new, virtual Raskolnikov, a complex, self-contradictory composite formed by all who participated. Taken as a whole, they constitute Raskolnikov’s actual words and perceptions made “new.”
Sarah Hudspith candidly expressed her excitement that the tweeting project offered her the chance to (re)write part of a novel with which she had had a life-long love affair. Her insight takes reading and writing about what we read to a whole new level. One of my favorite courses that I offer is entitled, “Chekhov’s Stories on Stage.” Students have an opportunity to recast Chekhov’s stories into a dramatic form. But the creation of Raskolnikov’s tweets offers an even more dramatic, intimate challenge and suggests that we would do well, as teachers, to engage our students in similar activities. They would then, in Belknap-fashion, experience the novel more fully. And the responses to it modelled through such a project come close to the inner heart of why we read in the first place and what reading can teach us both as individuals and as members of society.
Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University. Her most recent books include Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (2007) and The Brothers Karamazov: The Worlds of the Novel (2008).