Dostoevsky on the Soul. An exchange between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev, part 1

by Caryl Emerson

On February 21, 2019, two Princeton PhDs, Yuri Corrigan (Boston University) and Denis Zhernokleyev (Vanderbilt University) came back home to discuss their diverging views on Dostoevsky and the inner life.  I was moderator of the event.  Yuri’s monograph Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self had been published in 2017;  at the time, Denis was rehauling his 2016 dissertation, Beholden by Love: A Study in the Apophasis of Dostoevsky’s Poesis, into a hard-hitting theological alternative to contemporary secular studies of the Russian novelist.  Since our February forum, the distance between the Corrigan and Zhernokleyev positions has become subtler, more precisely drawn, and mostly more public, thanks in large part to the appearance in print of several essays by each party and to lively personal exchanges at the International Dostoevsky Symposium in Boston last July.  In August, Katia Bowers expressed an interest in the prehistory of this debate for Bloggers Karamazov, so Denis and Yuri enlisted me to reconstruct that initial forum.  I fumbled around in my files, but could find little of substance written down beyond the presentation notes of the two participants.  However, having happily remained something of a mentor to both of these gifted young scholars, a huge number of e-mail threads leading up to the event came to my aid.  With the help of that record, I try here to provide some backstories to this professional agon.

CE+RLJ Boston IDS 2019

The author with Robert Louis Jackson, Boston, July 2019

Among the many great things about our Slavic field is its smallness.  Faculty old and young all know one another and have read one another;  access to everyone at all ranks is without serious obstacle.  The graduate students working on Dostoevsky who gathered in Boston encountered four generations of scholars, from newly-minted PhDs to the 95-year-old Robert Louis Jackson, enmeshed in that close personal conversation that we associate with the Russian literary tradition itself (Dostoevsky rewrites Gogol, Solzhenitsyn responds to Tolstoy, Prigov performs Pushkin).  But the Denis-Yuri debate was unusual in that it was lateral, between members of the same generation in real time, and although ideological, off to the side of the mainstream Dostoevsky wars.  Its fault line was not where one might expect.  For this was not the familiar secular-sociological-progressive Dostoevsky pitted against the religiously or metaphysically inclined.  Neither Denis nor Yuri is a civic critic, materialist, positivist, ‘atheist’ or politicized secular cultural critic.  Viewed from the larger perspective of the humanities today, they share quite a bit of common ground.  On August 9, 2018, at work on his review of Yuri’s book for SEEJ, Denis wrote me:  “I’ve just finished reading Yuri Corrigan’s book on Dostoevsky and I absolutely love it! [ . . . ]   Although I have some reservations about the moves he makes,     [ . . . ] the man is reading the right books.”  The resultant review—which Denis shared with Yuri pre-publication, and which appeared in SEEJ vol. 62.4 (Winter 2018), pp. 747-748—was indeed appreciative, calling the monograph “a most original reading of Dostoevsky’s major novels.”  As Denis identified the paradox that Yuri had chosen to address (p. 747):


Yuri’s book

On the one hand [ . . . ] Dostoevsky affirms the notion of the resilient self.  On the other, Dostoevsky’s avowed commitment to the Christian ideal of selfless love suggests that he ultimately understands the self as something that needs to be renounced.  Yuri Corrigan in Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self  resolves the contradiction by arguing that, for Dostoevsky, the ability to overcome the self depends on the very highest development of personality.  Only an “abundance” of self can lead one to freedom from anxiety over-self-preservation.

Yuri (Denis concluded) saw the primary concern of a Dostoevskian narrative to be subjectivity itself.  Characters are seen as mimetically real (not figural or symbolic), vulnerable, and needful of our empathy.  Above all, individual heroes (and their author) strive to restore a personal wholeness that has been violated.  Denis did flag certain puzzling points.  He noted the relative absence of sustained attention to Notes from Underground in a study of the Dostoevskian ‘self,’ a rather too cursory treatment of Crime and Punishment, and the unconventional thesis that “Dostoevsky’s religious conversion during the Siberia years does not constitute a break with his early Romantic worldview but its expansion” (748).  The status of Romanticism, especially in the person of Rousseau, was problematic for Denis and incompatible with rigorous, religiously informed reading.  Still, it took several months—and considerable communication beneath the visibility bar—for the lines to be drawn.

Yuri did not like Denis’s review, and he let Denis know.  Yuri sensed under its “false advocacy” a deeper principled polemic at work, even, he said astutely, some scarcely concealed contempt, and he was curious to probe it.  Denis, equally forthright and generous, sent Yuri several pages of notes that he had compiled for me (and for himself) while working on the SEEJ commission, little of which he ultimately included.  There were good reasons for excluding them:  intricate and unforgiving, Denis’s detailed exegesis came from a whole other cosmos, and required far more contextualization than was appropriate for a brief review.  Yuri loved these longer notes, which concealed nothing and went out on many tantalizing limbs.  At this point, privy to these conversations, it became clear to me that this was an agon, and these two scholars were in it for the right reasons.  Uninsultable, fearless, borrowing ideas from no one, they were working on a great creative mind from the bottom up and out of their own deeply held, closely nurtured convictions.


Yuri Corrigan (left) and Denis Zhernokleyev (right)

From August to October 2018, the three of us conducted a sporadic correspondence on Dostoevsky.  My personal interest in their escalating exchange was fueled by the fact that both Yuri and Denis resisted the canonical Bakhtinian thesis that Dostoevsky’s heroes were ‘idea-persons’ functioning in the here-and-now with little need of real bodies or a personal past.  But they were clearly revising Bakhtin toward very different ends, and I was intensely curious to see where each would end up.  Yuri’s was the more straightforward path.  Among his central concepts is the traumatic wound (usually inflicted on a child, consciously or unconsciously) and so humiliating to the victims that they suffer a sort of amnesia.  There is no therapy, whether Freud’s or Bakhtin’s, that can ‘talk away this wound’—although the sufferer, terrified of the indwelling ‘howling’ of the wound, tries mightily to escape its mute pressure by erecting barriers against it, outsourcing agency to another person or group, or softening the sting of consciousness in outward dissipation or distraction.  But all is in vain.  Only an inward turn will permit the hero to move beyond painful memory, beyond false fantasies of autonomy, to merge with the deeper divine will and to make of oneself a conduit.  Corrigan’s exposition leaves some questions tantalizingly open.  Is a wound imposed exclusively by lived experience (Raskolnikov as a child witnessing the beating-to-death of a mare; Alyosha Karamazov recalling his frantic keening mother under the slanting sunbeam, or later forced to endure the disgrace of his Elder in death)?  Or is the wound also in some principled way ‘structural,’ that is, in our postlapsarian state are all humans wounded by definition, to be saved only by renunciation and confrontation with the Holy Spirit?  (Again, the processes here are clouded and cruel.)  Either way, Yuri argues, successful Dostoevskian heroes must learn to embrace their own private space and undergo lonely, inwardly-directed quests through their traumatically severed pasts to find deeper anchor in a divine transcendent.  Such inner isolation, perhaps requiring that words be silenced, was never a priority for Mikhail Bakhtin.  As Alina Wyman has documented in her excellent 2016 study of active empathy in Scheler, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky, Bakhtin ignores our need for radical aloneness or for private spaces inaccessible to others, since he considers the ‘self,’ such as we can sense it at all, to be a transit point, an intersection of communicating selves each external to the other.

Denis, for his part, felt that Bakhtin had gotten a great deal right in his Dostoevsky book.  Nevertheless he lamented the fact that the Bakhtinian defense of ‘outsideness’ or ‘outwardness’ had been misunderstood by a secular readership, which can imagine nothing more complex for polyphony than endlessly tolerant, expanding dialogic utterances among speaking selves on the ground, all destined for some sort of comfortable co-existence in Great Time.  Dostoevsky’s intent, Denis insisted, was not to reassure us.  What the ‘outward move’ really means is far more frightening—and this is the core message of his book-in-progress, Dostoevsky’s Apophatic Novel.  Its first task is to define negation in a more rigorous way.  Apophasis does not mean merely saying no;  its purpose is to negate fraudulent views of reality.  For Dostoevsky’s evolving poetics this entails rejecting Rousseau, along with all other sentimental-confessional routes to self-knowledge.  Denis sees this beginning to happen in Notes from Underground, and thus, contra Yuri, Dostoevsky’s worldview and method do break apart in the early 1860s.  While reinforcing this traditional topology, however, Denis alters it fundamentally by putting forward a new view of the tragic, and by devising a theological model for the great novels that draws on Saint Augustine and Søren Kierkegaard.

Portions of Denis’s theses on The Idiot began to appear: «Настасьин бунт: Протест как метафизическая категория у Достоевского» (in Достоевский и мировая культура 5, 2018); “Mimetic Desire in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot with Continual Reference to René Girard” (The Dostoevsky Journal 20, 2019).  Both dealt with the nature of Nastasya Filippovna’s rebellion—for hers is no ordinary wound.  These essays found a sympathetic audience among senior Dostoevsky scholars in Russia open to religious readings, such as Tatiana Kasatkina.  But there was another prong to the Zhernokleyev argument.  For several years, while Yuri had been probing the vulnerable Dostoevskian psyche and its panic-stricken outward projections, Denis had been developing his critique of a ‘feuilletonistic’ approach to the empirical world.  The feuilletonist is a hopelessly aesthetic figure, voraciously visual, primed for the latest random scandal, insatiable as regards generating and disseminating fake news.  In an e-mail to me on December 6, 2018, Denis lamented “the potential of the feuilletonistic to become totalitarian,” noting that in its current incarnation, Facebook and Twitter, the feuilleton was just as untrustworthy and out of control as Lebedev’s rantings in The Idiot.  In the face of this growing technological horror, he wrote, his own reading of Dostoevsky was becoming ever more “sumptuously Johannine.”  This meant that he was taking the Apocalypse not symbolically but with deadly seriousness and finality, as Russians had long done with their beloved Gospel of John.  Denis was preparing a dark critique of the “secularization of goodness,” so characteristic of modern thinkers from Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant up to the confused philanthropy of our present day.

Meanwhile, preliminary segments of Yuri’s ambitious new book project, an inquiry into Dostoevskian themes in contemporary world literature, were appearing in print or moving into the pipeline:  “Donna Tartt’s Dostoevsky:  Trauma and the Displaced Self” in Comparative Literature 70:4 (2018), “Dostoevsky on Evil as Safe Haven and Anesthetic” (SEEJ 63.2 2019).  On October 26, 2018, Yuri’s Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self received a glowing, full-page review by Oliver Ready in the TLS.  Identifying its major theme as Dostoevsky’s “consistent picture of the damaged human subject” for whom “the dread of personal memory has a false bottom,” Ready concluded by declaring the book “eloquent testimony to the flourishing of North American scholarship on Russian literature over the past several decades.”  He lauded those younger scholars who, rather than look ‘beyond the text,’ were showing “just how much remains to be discovered within it.”  This was wonderful confirmation.  But as is often the case after the pleasure of positive feedback wears off, Yuri began to fret the corners that he might have cut    ‘in the tenure rush’ and the ideas that were insufficiently developed, which turned out to include some of the reservations voiced by Denis.  For his next oral presentation, Yuri would return to Crime and Punishment and push his argument further on the ground of that crucial threshold novel.

The next phase of the debate occurred at the ASEEES Annual Convention in Boston in early December, 2018, where both Yuri and Denis delivered papers.  Several days after the conference ended, on December 14, Yuri wrote me about his “fascinating conversations with Denis at ASEEES.”  In the ‘real’ review of his book—those pages of unofficial personal notes—Yuri had found “many productive and interesting misunderstandings [ . . . but] luckily, Denis warms up under fire and we found ourselves in a real heart-to-heart, almost a Shatov-Kirillov chronotope.”  Still, he added, “there was something ironic and funny about being categorized as a secular thinker [like all the rest] when I’ve spent so much energy and time trying to be secular enough for the academic world.”  Yuri closed his note with the thought that overall this was “a great conversation to have,” which might at some point be formalized and carried further in Princeton.

So what was at stake, by the time Denis contacted Michael Wachtel, Chair of Slavic, about the possibility of a Princeton continuation?  “Dear Michael,” Denis wrote on December 12, “as you might have heard, Yuri Corrigan’s very interesting book on Dostoevsky is making a splash in the Dostoevsky world.  In August I wrote a long, unofficial review of Yuri’s book for Caryl.  Eventually this document made its way to Yuri.  After a passionate conversation between Yuri and myself in Boston, it is obvious that we disagree on Dostoevsky fundamentally but in an engaging and fruitful way.”  Michael agreed that Princeton was a ‘good platform’ on which to share the debate.  Without repeating what is already in print and without giving away too much of what is still in gestation, let me summarize the state of the agon as it was presented publicly in February 2019.  Along the way and at the end, I will offer some general conclusions of my own.

Continued in Part 2

CARYL EMERSON is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University.  Her work has focused on the Russian classics (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), Mikhail Bakhtin, and Russian music, opera and theater.  Recent projects include the Russian modernist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950), the allegorical-historical novelist Vladimir Sharov (1952-2018), and, together with George Pattison and Randall A. Poole, co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought (forthcoming 2020).

YURI CORRIGAN is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. His first book, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2017; Bloggers Karamazov interviewed Yuri about his book in November 2017Yuri serves on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society and was the primary organizer of the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium in 2019.

DENIS ZHERNOKLEYEV is Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature at Vanderbilt University. He works on 19th-20th century Russian literature and religious thought, Realist Aesthetics, Theories of the Tragic, and Mikhail Bakhtin. He is currently working on a book manuscript Dostoevsky’s Apophatic Novel.

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