A Chat with Yuri Corrigan about Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self

dostoevsky-and-the-riddle-of-the-selfToday we sat down with Yuri Corrigan, and asked a few questions about his new book, freshly out last month with Northwestern University Press, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self.

First, your title. The idea of a “riddle of the self” is such an evocative way of considering one of the core themes in Dostoevsky’s works. How would you articulate the “riddle of the self”? And what led you to this phrase?

For me, the riddle is: how was it that Dostoevsky could be so passionately for and against the idea of individual selfhood? And so passionately for and against the idea of collectivism? This is often taken as a paradox, but I prefer to think of it as a practical problem that Dostoevsky wanted to solve. So I start with a more visceral version of the riddle: namely, why are the borders between selves so porous in Dostoevsky’s writing? I look at the intense and invasive intimacies shared by his characters – the sense you get that these characters are both discrete selves and aspects of each other’s personalities – as a way of getting at the larger philosophical problem of individualism and collectivism that extends through Dostoevsky’s career.

I’m struck by your approach, excluding chapters focused on the two bulwarks of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre of self, Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment. Do you find that focusing more on the question of self in the other works changes the perception of selfhood in Dostoevsky as put forward in those two iconic texts?

It’s not so much that I exclude these works from my study (they both figure centrally in my analysis), but I find that if you use them as a point of departure in exploring Dostoevsky’s view on the self, they tend to draw you toward a specific narrative of Dostoevsky (as critic of the modern condition) that has been well established in scholarship and that I wanted to avoid. In my classes, I always start with the “ideological Dostoevsky” who belonged to a specific historical moment, to Russia’s cultural identity crisis amid the influx of European culture. This is the Dostoevsky who experienced a religious conversion in Siberia, who came back to Petersburg eager to find a cure for the various ailments of modernity – positivism, materialism, atheism, rationalism, and political radicalism – that were so prevalent in his day. And Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment are the go-to texts that bring these questions most readily to life, that show us the agony of the “modern self,” divided between its empirical and reflective dimensions, debilitated by self-consciousness and uprooted from all foundations.

There’s much truth to this narrative, but there are also a few problems with it that I kept running up against. First, I didn’t find the notion of modern mind/body dualism to be a robust enough paradigm, on its own, to illuminate the question of selfhood in the later novels. Another problem was that I didn’t fully believe the story I was telling students about the dramatic breach between early (psychological, social) Dostoevsky and mature (philosophical, ideological) Dostoevsky, with Siberian imprisonment and exile being the turning point. For one, Dostoevsky was always a champion of the inner dynamism of the self and was always an enemy to materialism and rationalism, which would become the galvanizing doctrines of the Russian revolutionary movement. So, in my book, I wanted to defamiliarize Dostoevsky’s meditation on selfhood by starting not with the ideological or philosophical concerns, but with the affective paradigms of selfhood from the early works, and then by watching these paradigms evolve as they take on philosophical breadth and resonance. This allowed me, I hope, to suggest new interpretations for both Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground, by placing them in the context of the project that Dostoevsky began in his twenties.

Your book spans the whole of Dostoevsky’s career, from his earliest works to his final novel. Did you find writing a book with such scope to be challenging? How did you approach the task?

It happened against my will and against my better judgment (to quote Mr. Darcy). After graduate school, I was reworking my dissertation on Chekhov into a book, and I started a side project – reading Dostoevsky from early to late and making notes as I went. A nice thing about reading Dostoevsky chronologically is that you get to watch him feeling his way forward, thinking aloud from work to work without being able to erase his steps. After a while, I started to see all the works as one big canvas on which he was thinking experimentally about the structure of the self, using variations on image, character, and plot. At the end of about a year and a half, I had a large word document full of raw impressions. Then I started reading the secondary literature, and then my argument started taking shape. And by then I was hooked.

What new insight can be gleaned from Dostoevsky’s early works? And which would you recommend for a new reader of them (and why)?

For me, the early works are the experimental laboratory where Dostoevsky built the psychological and narrative infrastructure for his later, more philosophical writing. For my specific approach, what makes the 1840s so important is the paradigm of collapsed interiority that he developed during this time (of characters engaged in desperate attempts to suppress the “howling” of the unconscious, the waves of “something” that keep lapping up unwantedly onto the shores of consciousness), and the kinds of intimacy that emerge as a result of the willful suppression of the inward. The key psychological insight we can draw from early Dostoevsky is that the suppression of an interior architecture leads to its externalization, to a process in which the geography of the personality becomes turned inside out and other selves become drawn in as substitutes for what can’t be accessed inwardly. Dostoevsky’s early works are populated by characters who can’t regulate themselves administratively from within, and who thus seek to lose themselves in the administration of another person (as Vasia does with Arkady in “A Weak Heart”), or who find themselves overwhelmingly drawn to someone whose memories and emotions they can substitute for their own (as Ordynov does with Katerina in “The Landlady”). In his early writing, Dostoevsky was learning how to build plots from these mechanisms – the collapse of the inward and the externalization of the self – that allow him to turn his stories and novels into exploratory maps of the psyche. It’s only in the later writing that the fear of the inward (the traumatic memories that send his early characters fleeing outward) gives way to a deeper, more overwhelming terror of something within and beyond the self, the indwelling energies of the “living God” that haunt and oppress the waking minds of Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, among so many other characters.

As for recommending early Dostoevsky to a new reader: there are some great reads from the 1840s – especially Poor Folk, and “White Nights,” and Netochka Nezvanova. And from the early post-Siberian period, I love The Insulted and Injured, for its amazing characterizations, readability, and unabashed sentimentalism.

Of all your chapters on the major novels, covering The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov, which has served to give you the most new insight into a text through your analysis (and how or why)?

An exciting moment for me was when my chapter on The Idiot started coming together after multiple failed attempts. I’d been working on Dostoevsky’s amnesiacs in his early works – especially Ordynov and Netochka Nezvanova – characters violently at odds with their own memories, who want to avoid the “something” that haunts them from within, and who thus turn the architecture of the personality outward, drawing others in as fragmentary dimensions of a collective self. With this in place, when I started reading The Idiot again, I was paying less attention to the philosophical trappings – “Prince Christ,” the “perfectly beautiful person,” etc. – and began to see Myshkin as the apotheosis of that same paradigm from the early works: a noble amnesiac haunted by suppressed thoughts and memories, who goes into convulsions when reminded of his childhood, and who is drawn to specific kinds of wounded and susceptible interlocutors as projective stand-ins for the parts of himself that he cannot bear to encounter inwardly. And these wounded interlocutors are drawn to him for the same reason. The whole of the novel, in this sense, becomes divided between the real world of others (the world of light, or “svet,” of Aglaya and the Epanchins), and the darker, projective world of the self where it’s impossible to distinguish between the faces of others and the suppressed undercurrents of one’s own inner life.

If you read the novel as a meditation on what happens to people and societies whose most intimate memories have been suppressed and lost, The Idiot can be seen as a major moment of convergence for Dostoevsky’s psychological, philosophical, political, and theological projects. The Prince’s heroic journey, in this light, becomes his attempt to move inward beyond the terrors of memory to encounter the menacing divine sources that are almost unbearable for consciousness to behold – as the only way to release Rogozhin and Nastasia Filippovna, and Myshkin himself, from being imprisoned in each other’s minds. Holbein’s painting of the abused and dead Christ, in this context, is both a personal and communal memory. It touches on something horrific in Myshkin’s own past while haunting and oppressing an entire civilization. The revolutionary desire to “execute the past” and “walk boldly on” (to quote Herzen) is therefore also a desperate flight from a traumatic memory that keeps being reenacted because of its suppression (and Nastasia Filippovna’s corpse becomes the latest victim of cultural oblivion). When Myshkin journeys into the tomb at the end of the novel in the hope of bringing the dead body in its depths to life, the psychology of collapsed interiority meets with Dostoevsky’s mystical and idiosyncratic version of Christianity (at the very back of our unconscious, beyond all our other memories, lies a brutalized and unredeemed Christ; and because we are in flight from that image, we cannot resurrect it, cannot draw on it as an infinite inward source), which meets in turn with his interest in Russia’s tormented position within modernity, as suffering from a collectively enforced amnesia.

Your conclusion situates Dostoevsky’s evolving discussion of the self within the broader context of late 19th-century Russia. Do you find that your study of Dostoevsky’s conception of the self has shifted your perception of self in other Russian novels? If yes, how?

It’s a great question, and I feel that there’s a bigger answer to it that would probably take some years to figure out and articulate. The major Russian writers of the 19th century share an interest in the “inner life,” the notion that so many of the problems that at first glance seem social, historical, political are actually, at root, symptoms of an inward malaise, dilemmas of personality. And yet there seems to be no agreement among these writers on what actually constitutes an “inner life.” Coming back to Tolstoy and Chekhov now, I’m struck by how little they shared Dostoevsky’s obsession with the unconscious. For Dostoevsky, the self, at its most capacious, is born from a wound in the mind that breaks and expands the personality from within, that allows for the possibility of a soul – an inner realm that opens up in its depths to something universal and transcendent. Tolstoy, it seems, was interested less in questions of depth and immanence, and more in questions of balance and authenticity, of fusion of self and world. For Chekhov, similarly, the self is less of an ocean and more of a balancing act of unresolvable dimensions, a perpetual contradiction that requires cultivation, grace, intelligence, and compassion to sustain. Tolstoy, who couldn’t accept perpetual contradiction as an ideal, wanted a unified and harmonious self that could be engaged in useful work, and one always feels with Tolstoy that there’s about to be some kind of moral realization that will rescue the self from its anguish. Dostoevsky, though he is so important to the psychoanalytic and medical tradition, was never much interested in health and balance. His goal is the excruciating reorientation of the self toward the good, the building of a self that could be robust enough to give voice to the exuberant, transcendent sources that lie in its depths – all of which can be hard to reconcile with daily life.

In your introduction you make the point that, “it would be difficult to find another writer so unanimously celebrated by hostile schools of thought” than Dostoevsky. You call for a new approach to understanding the concept of “self” in Dostoevsky’s works as so many disparate voices have muddled the waters. How do you situate your work within this critical paradigm (or perhaps mélange would be a better word)?

The vastness and richness of Dostoevsky scholarship does present us with a problem. So many brilliant thinkers have engaged with Dostoevsky over the years in discovering their own systems, adapting and twisting his novels in wonderful and creative ways (as was the case with Bakhtin, or Camus, or Berdyaev, or Girard, among many others), and this can be paralyzing for the contemporary scholar. If you feel that you have a new reading, how do you contextualize it in a vast sea of voices and perspectives? If you want to publish something and get a job, you probably have to focus on one current, build your argument around the psychoanalytic Dostoevsky, or the existentialist Dostoevsky, or the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky, or Dostoevsky the literary innovator, or Dostoevsky the postmodernist, etc. But then scholars start to talk past each other, to develop discrete idiomatic vocabularies that articulate similar insights without intersecting. So in my project I wanted to see how you could bring some of these currents together in addressing the question of selfhood, and I found that they intersected well around the problem of memory. All of Dostoevsky’s major novels are about going home, about confronting the distant and dreaded past. The underground man’s unhappiness turns to dramatic crisis when he stumbles disastrously into a meeting with his old “comrades” from school; Raskolnikov goes into hysterical panic mode when he finds out his mom and sister are coming to visit; Myshkin comes home to Russia after years away; Stavrogin comes home to stay with his mom; Arkady moves to Petersburg to be reunited with his family; the Karamazov brothers come home to see their dad. As a novelist, Dostoevsky worked with the energy emitted from these kinds of unwilling reckonings, which point his characters toward “something” inward that they would prefer not to encounter – something that, when faced head on and drawn upon actively, can also be redemptive and generative. Here the proto-psychoanalytic Dostoevsky (as pioneer of systems of repression and suppression, and of trauma avant la lettre) touches on the political or ideological Dostoevsky (as prophet of irrationalism, champion of cultural memory), who in turn touches on the religious Dostoevsky (for whom God, or Christ, was an infinite divine source that lies beyond what is innermost in the self).

What’s next for you and Dostoevsky studies? Has this book opened up any new avenues for you to pursue?

While working on the book, I kept thinking of contemporary writers who draw on Dostoevsky in exploring questions of selfhood in the post-religious world – writers like David Foster Wallace, Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, who are asking what is the inner life and how do we sustain and preserve it. So a second book came out of the first, looking to Dostoevsky as a guide for our own time. And it has felt more and more recently as if we’re living in a sci-fi version of one of Dostoevsky’s novels. The architecture of the self is actively being turned outward. Google searches are replacing our ability to remember things, and Google wants into our brain, is actively working on inventing an implant that would make the internet a literal extension of our cognition (which could seriously affect our minds’ ability to store memory). Mark Zuckerberg, having probably never considered Dostoevsky’s meditation on the nightmare of collectivism, of selves bound together without inward dimensions, works tirelessly with his corporate army to keep you (your depthless outward persona, your “face”) from leaving his network. Young people who’ve been over-parented and addicted to social media, and to the chemical surges that the “dings” from our phones generate in our brains, have not been given a chance to develop their own inward resources and therefore feel debilitating anxiety in trying to face the real world head on. These same people, lacking inward defenses, become easily coopted by ideologies, find themselves all too happy to repeat “other people’s words,” are drawn into the security of twitter mobs, and the most strident – pious and self-righteous – voices on Facebook and Twitter are the ones that enter most effectively into people’s bloodstreams.

And meanwhile, we in the humanities (if you’ll allow me to overgeneralize in a potentially obnoxious way), we who should have been the torchbearers for the “inner life of the mind,” have always been bound by a kind of unspoken allegiance to positivism, a discomfort with the metaphysical, an embarrassment even to use the phrase “the inner life,” which feels outdated and unfashionable. So who is going to help young people navigate and discover their inward geographies when many of them have lost recourse to the community-based or religious resources that used to address this terrain, and when their humanities professors keep telling them to look to external power relations for answers? That’s why I think we need the Russians more than ever, since, in watching the world around them hurtle toward violent cataclysm and civil war, they felt the crisis of nihilism and the corresponding thirst for a practical doctrine of selfhood – the question of what is the inner life, and how, and on what, can I build my own personality. Dostoevsky thought deeply and productively about what happens when the self is turned inside out, when external agencies invade our mind and think for us. And he gave us practical descriptions of how a self can acquire inward ground and breadth so that it won’t simply be taken over and commandeered by any stray force or agency that comes along. But as I mentioned above, Dostoevsky doesn’t really offer us a path to health; what he wants for us is a grounded and exuberant form of brokenness that is oriented toward the good. I don’t know how many of us are ok with being exuberantly broken, but I think it’s an option to consider, especially if it helps us manage the howling terror that longs, dangerously, to be anesthetized and replaced by something external.


Yuri Corrigan is Assistant Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self is his first book, published by Northwestern University Press in October 2017.

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