Dostoevsky on the Soul. An exchange between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev, part 2

by Caryl Emerson

This is the second post in a two-part series on the agon between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev and picks up in the middle of the narrative. To read Part 1, click here.

YuriHeadshot2018

Yuri Corrigan

On February 21, in Princeton, Yuri presented a variant on his ASEEES paper, “Nihilism as Refuge:  Rethinking the Philosophical Dostoevsky,” which significantly expanded and refined the thesis of his 2017 book, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self.  He opened with the suggestion that “our notion of Dostoevsky as a theorist of the personality might be enriched if we begin by approaching Dostoevsky as a psychologist first and a novelist of ideas second.  I’ll focus my comments on Crime and Punishment as a test case.” Psychology means innerness, not ideology and not inter-personal communication. Both Joseph Frank and Bakhtin, in focusing on outside stimuli, had failed to engage sufficiently the pathological Dostoevsky.  Of course Raskolnikov did have an idea, but he wasn’t sure what it was;  he had cobbled it together long after some other buried, inaccessible inner pressure had pushed him to commit the crime.  Yuri suggests that the murder was committed not toward an idea or in order to prove a new word (say, the right of an extraordinary man to act ‘above the law’) but rather away from something, in order to distance himself from a dangerously personal hidden thing.  Raskolnikov rushing into crime was escaping the ‘demands of deep interiority’:  “the subliminal, dynamic, vital, and unplumbed unconscious energies, memories, and agencies (the что-то that clamors oppressively from within).”  But to stifle the noise within is horrendously difficult.  Yuri posits three ‘highly efficient methods’—in effect, distractions—that Dostoevsky perfected for keeping the suffering subject firmly in the shallows of consciousness.  The first is violence.  Do something so awful that all your attention, fear and anguish are absorbed by it.  The second is ideology.  Embrace a ready-made impersonal doctrine that pretends to be cold, logical, irrefutable, and this will keep all attempts at independent thinking at bay.  The third is addiction:  lose oneself in emotional, sexual, or collective excess.  These three methods—which, we note, taken together cover a disturbingly broad spectrum of everyday human activity—function as an ‘anaesthetic’, a drug that works on the surface of a person, preventing any sustained inward movement of consciousness.  Not until his scene with Sonya on the Siberian riverbank does Raskolnikov break through to his real self, when he “wasn’t thinking of anything,” that is, not actively keeping anything at bay.  He becomes, in Yuri’s words, “the first of Dostoevsky’s characters to face this force (the Holy Spirit) and to survive.  The second will be Alyosha.  Myshkin doesn’t survive it.  Neither does Stepan Trofimovich.”

At this point in his presentation, for all the secular psychoanalytic precision of the externally inflicted wound and the subject’s reasonable desire to repress it, Yuri opened the door to a metaphysical, overtly religious level of existence.  “Where Dostoevsky the psychologist meets Dostoevsky the theologian,” Yuri said, “is in the way that the self becomes broken open toward mystical experience.  What Dostoevsky drew from his earlier writing is that God enters into the self through a wound in the psyche;  the experience of being wounded in childhood opens the self toward a deeper form of inwardness.”  The key to forming a durable personality, Yuri later explained, was to be not over-wounded, and of course not unwounded (or unwoundable) like Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, but to be sufficiently wounded, just enough so that the transcendent “energies of the Holy Spirit can find their way into the self through the wound.” Dostoevsky believed that modern ideology was “overhasty medication” that cut short this painful and necessary process.

Denis Zhernokleyev (SF)

Denis Zhernokleyev

If Yuri fleshed out his book and refined his earlier ASEEES paper, then Denis, who was still on the upward slope of finalizing his book and shifting ground every month, did a major overhaul of his.  At ASEEES he had delivered a provocative paper on “Apocalyptic Perversity in Dostoevsky.”  The perverse in the title was there largely to satisfy the organizing rubric of the panel;  what Denis in fact argued was for a distinction, or actually for a conflict, between the ethical and the religious.  In those crucial post-exile years, Denis insisted, Dostoevsky renounces the first for the second.  Of course Dostoevsky never renounced the moral:  as we learn from the Gospel of John, our innate sense of the moral is from God and made manifest in Divine Grace.  The Johannine formula holds that human nature on its own is “morally insufficient.”  In Denis’s exposition of Dostoevsky’s position, then, what is wrong with the ethical is that it tries to get around the need for God.  The ethical is easily secularized because it understands morality as natural.  The source of this idea is Rousseau:  connect with Nature, connect with Beauty, and your soul will progress and flourish.  Denis sees the whole tragedy of The Idiot tied up in its investment in (and parody of) a Rousseauistic worldview, with earnest detailed confessions premised on the false assumption that reliable inward experience is graspable as pictures and narratable as stories.  This entire complex of aesthetic practices Denis calls ‘sentimental,’ and he would submit it to a severe critique.  At this point in the agon, I recalled the watershed between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  Not only the person of Rousseau but the entire Romantic cult of nature and ‘natural ethics’ had been precious to Tolstoy throughout his life. He insisted on the normalcy of goodness, if only State and institutional Church would leave us alone.  It gave me a jolt when, in an e-mail from December 6, Denis had casually called Leo Tolstoy our ‘greatest Russian secularist’.  Tolstoy, sunk in a search for God for decades, sworn enemy of the materialists and naturalists, a secularist!  But from the angle of Rousseau and sentimental (that is, sensually addictive) stimuli, the label made sense.

Denis made another controversial foray in his ASEEES paper, in defense of Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky.  By no means did he endorse everything Bakhtin said;  wholly unacceptable, for example, was Bakhtin’s unwillingness to confront the Underground Man’s cruel manipulation of Liza.  But on the ‘idea-person,’ Bakhtin was correct.  By claiming that Dostoevsky strips his heroes of their pasts and reduces their presents to the occasional terrifying deed surrounded by a huge amount of talk, Bakhtin (an experienced Classicist, steeped in Greek tragedy) grasped that for Dostoevsky, characters were less ‘real people’ than they were coordinates of metaphysical realms.  When they speak, they tell us about their collapsing world.  Denis notes that as modern sentimental readers and devotees of Rousseau, we want to gape, eavesdrop on, identify with, reach out to, weep on behalf of these fictive heroes—but none of that is appropriate here.  That’s the route of ethics, which strives to improve life with small kindnesses while continuing in the same groove, and above all while trying to talk one’s way out of crippling guilt.  Ethical approaches are pleasurable to engage, aesthetically motivated, essentially God-free, and as soon as we give in to them, we falter on Dostoevsky’s divinely difficult path.  Denis believes that Bakhtin hinted at all this in his 1929 Dostoevsky book, but he could not go much further than hint.  Not only was Bakhtin’s Soviet culture officially atheist;  his medium was words, and his Dostoevsky book claimed to study not value-laden ideology but the workings of words.  Since the core difficulty of the religious path is precisely its ineffability, Dostoevsky somehow had to speak persuasively about ‘that which cannot be talked about’.  Thus the cunning purity of the apophatic approach.

Several months later at Princeton, Denis revived both these themes in his presentation “The Invisible Soul in Dostoevsky.”  It opened on a comparison between Dostoevskian and Tolstoyan characters.  Tolstoy’s heroes we see, touch, hear, feel.  Dostoevskian heroes remain  “ungraspable to our imagination. . . . We cannot even see the face of Nastasya Filippovna whose photograph Myshkin tries to describe for us in some detail.”  Why is this?  The familiar answer is that Dostoevsky depicts not the outward world of objects but the inner world of the soul, the ‘landscapes of the unconscious,’ or in Corrigan’s phrase ‘the psychic wound.’  Denis challenged this psychologically realistic reading of Dostoevsky by arguing that “the soul—the person—for Dostoevsky is a priori indescribable and therefore, aesthetically speaking, unimaginable.”  His goal as a novelist was “to initiate the reader into the reality of the ungraspable,” that is, into “a mode of being in the world that refuses to reduce reality to any form of objectively available image, be it the outward world of the physical appearance or the inward world of the soul.”  His method was apophatic.

Yuri had spent some time distinguishing his approach from both Freud and Jung.  Denis, for his part, spent time explaining apophasis (Greek for negation, an unsaying or undoing (apo: away from;  phasis: assertive speech).  There are parallels with the icon, which trains us in an alternative form of seeing and distances us from familiar patterns of recognition.  This might seem like defamiliarization, but “contrary to the ostranenie of the Formalists, which is an aesthetic device intended to re-energize the mimetic mode of imagination, apophasis is an altogether anti-mimetic attitude.”  Of course there is inwardness in Dostoevsky, Denis admits, “even infinite inwardness, and thus profound suffering.”  But this suffering is and must remain ineffable, ungraspable, both for the characters and for the reader.  “The desire to engage suffering aesthetically (or mimetically), through language and imagination, constitutes in Dostoevsky the greatest temptation.”   It is the “temptation of secular (Rousseauian) salvation, which believes that suffering can be objectively grasped—or remembered, or communicated, or confessed—and thus can serve as the reliable ground on which to erect a sentimental metaphysic.”

The rest of Denis’s paper consisted of close readings of passages from Notes from Underground, “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” and The Idiot.  In each, confessions run riot and tantalizing (or sadomasochistic) pictures abound.  The point of them is to seduce the reader, as Ivan Karamazov tries to seduce his younger brother with a feuilletonistic reel of cruel human acts, and as Nastasya Filippovna would seduce the world with her bewitching suffering face.  But Denis is after even larger game.  Why would Dostoevsky insist on discrediting our instincts toward empathy and understanding?  Because, Denis ventures,

by equating suffering with truth, the sentimental metaphysic not only places truth intimately close to human experience, but it inevitably suggests that truth, in some fundamental sense, is the product of the human experience (this is the Romantic view).  Thus truth becomes a natural phenomenon and enters the purview of psychological realism.  Within this natural economy of suffering, justice (the ultimate alleviation of suffering) is no longer a prerogative of the divine (supra-natural) realm (Grace).  It is now a prerogative of the suffering self, which is believed capable of adequately assessing an imbalance of justice and thus of knowing how this balance could be restored, or at least improved.

Again, doing without God’s grace is taken by Denis to be Dostoevsky’s most feared outcome.   Sentimental confession, with its sinking-inward of attention, is everywhere its vehicle (for all that it might occasionally mimic acts of prayer).  At the end of his paper, Denis was more explicit about the dangers of “withdrawing into inwardness”—Yuri’s signature move.  As Dostoevsky shows elsewhere, Denis argued, to retreat into yourself tends to lead to demonic doubling, not to spiritual awakening or Revelation.  Self-knowledge of the sort that Yuri hints at and holds out to his trapped sufferers and ‘psychic fugitives’ is simply not available to the post-Notes (post-Rousseau) Dostoevsky.  The authentic saint of this second stage, Denis insists, is Sonya Marmeladova, resilient, indifferent to her own wound, utterly outward in her thoughts and gestures—in Valentina Izmirlieva’s wonderful phrase, ‘radically hospitable” in body and spirit.  Sonya can offer herself to others because she is a source;  she is not, like Raskolnikov, a seeker.  Seekers will always be undone before they are transformed.  In Crime and Punishment, Denis argues, Dostoevsky decisively returns to the “medieval, sacramental anthropology of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions insists that self-knowledge is not naturally acquirable and must be ultimately received as revelation.”  For both Rousseau and Augustine, in Denis’s view, the problem of self-knowledge constitutes the threshold that divides secular from religious metaphysics.

These two positions, ‘psychological-sentimental’ and ‘apophatic’, provoked lengthy and heated discussions at the Princeton forum, engaging many of the issues raised above.  I took no notes on it, but thinking back and consulting the epistolary prehistory of the two participants, one theme might suggest its texture.  For several of us, the bomb in the closet was Yuri’s expanded exegesis of Crime and Punishment—the chapter he wished he had included in his book.  Not only did it demolish the foundational Bakhtinian reading of Raskolnikov as an ‘unselfish’ disembodied and historyless idea-person;  almost more important, the Helpers in this story turn out to be disablers.  Razumikhin, ‘the one wholesome loving normal person in Dostoevsky’s world’ (as I’ve long been wont to call him), when looked at from the perspective of Raskolnikov wounded and hell-bent on escaping knowledge of his wound, is in fact an Arkady, best friend of Vasia Shumkov.  The loyal Razumikhin is loving only if we assume that Raskolnikov is sick and helpless in the ordinary visible sentimental ways, and the help that he needs is sympathy.  Razumikhin’s reasonable practical ministrations are designed to keep his friend there, in the same sick spot.  And Sonya!  Svidrigailov!  Even made wiser by Carol Apollonio’s insightful revisionist readings, it seemed to me that Yuri’s interpretation did more than collapse that old familiar binary, Raskolnikov flanked on one side by a saint and on the other a lost fallen sinner.  He opened up the possibility that both these flanking figures are to some extent crutches.  Each is a place for Raskolnikov to fly to as long as he hates and disrespects himself, and that he will do, for as long as he looks outward.  Of course Sonya is the more complex enabler.  As Yuri notes, she is there temporarily to help the hero bear his burden, until he is prepared to partake of divine energies, somewhat like Alyosha does for his brother Ivan at the end of Brothers Karamazov.   Sonya is willing to become Raskolnikov’s soul until he is sufficiently strong to cultivate one himself.  But sooner or later these concerned outer persons, with all their outer good works, must give way and withdraw—otherwise they will “stifle the divine energies that are unleashed by the wound.”

I recalled what Yuri had written me back in August, as he was rethinking those novels he wished he had dealt with in more detail in his book.  “The whole of C&P is about how to fend off the energies of the Holy Spirit that find their way into the self through the wound, all the strategies of fending off God [italics in the original],” he wrote.  “Those strategies inevitably fail as the self is taken over from within (and maybe the personality is built into a sufficient conduit only through the struggle with this force).  That’s why the epilogue has never, in my view, been properly appreciated.  It’s not about repentance at all, it’s about being broken down from within, and thus transformed.  This is what I want to get across in the new book: Dostoevsky is crucial for our time (an age of extreme externality) because his novels are tutorials on how to discover and bear the weight of interiority.”

To this, Denis had a ready counter-argument.  We cannot, and should not, ‘put ourselves in the place of Raskolnikov’s consciousness’, because Dostoevsky’s characters are not human beings for whom wellbeing is a goal or a virtue.  They are carriers, novelistic filler, and must suffer by definition.  Back on August 10, fresh from writing the Corrigan review, Denis had shared with me his darker thoughts on this matter, which began with an inquiry into the very concept of ‘self’ for Dostoevsky.  Yuri’s basic idea, Denis wrote,

is that Dostoevsky is a psychologist, who is hyper-aware of trauma but nevertheless believes that traumatic experience can be organized and dealt with towards some sort of ‘positive’ psychological experience.  [ . . . ]  For Yuri, Dostoevskian characters correspond to real people and therefore represent robust individualities, with their own autonomous psyches.  Overall, subjectivity for Yuri is a scary but ultimately a reliable sort of thing.  Along with Bakhtin, I disagree with such an approach.  In my view, characters in Dostoevsky are not real selves but mere ontological coordinates, fragments of the self (the reader’s self) whose existence is assumed but never presented in the book.  The novel does not describe anything, including psychological landscapes.  They remain fragmented, quagmirish, never trustworthy.  Hence my thesis.  The only self that exists for Dostoevsky and the one he addresses as a totality is that of the reader.  The Dostoevskian novel is born as a new poetic format designed to work with the reader, not merely describe the traumatic experience of a character.  The self that Dostoevsky really cares for is the self that wrestles with his novel.

If we drop the expectation that Dostoevsky’s characters are ‘real people’ and accept what Bakhtin entirely correctly in my view calls ‘coordinates,’ we arrive in Crime and Punishment with two potentialities:  Sonya as ‘radical outwardness’ and Svidrigailov as ‘radical inwardness.’  Contrary to Yuri’s assumption that all Dostoevskian characters are afraid of their inwardness, Raskolnikov is not afraid of his inwardness. Goodness me! He loves it! Though he struggles to piece his inwardness together, he is remarkably resilient in attempting to get there. The endpoint of Raskolnikov’s inwardness, the horizon that lures him forward into the inward plunge is Svidrigailov. [ . . . ]

But the ultimate end of that inwardness is nihilistic nothingness.  Sonya is the alternative potentiality. She is radical outwardness, to the point of complete self-destruction.  She gives herself to the world completely, and the phrase “she has loved much” is not a sarcastic mocking of her prostituting of herself.  She is the icon, or the mode of the iconic. The icon is complete outwardness;  the icon is there precisely to help the self-escape itself.

Denis concluded his note with a disclaimer.  “To be fair to Yuri,” he wrote, “there is some sense of the ‘beyond’ in his reading of Dostoevsky.  It is the beyond of the self that happens when Alyosha reaches the completion, or fullness, of the inward experience.  The confession becomes possible only when the self brings itself outward before God.  Only God, as someone who is there radically outward and sees, as Bakhtin puts it, the ‘back of our head,’ possesses the full picture of our self and can give it back to us as grace.  We receive our self only within the radically outward movement.  Liturgical.”  Yuri was prepared for this move.  Picking up on Denis’s lines “Raskolnikov is not afraid of his inwardness.  Goodness me!  He loves his inwardness,” Yuri countered: “Denis!  He’s terrified of his genuine inwardness.  What he loves is his false diversionary inwardness, the decoy.”  Scraps of this rich subtext surfaced in February at Princeton.  But only scraps.

~~~

At the time, I remember my surprise when most participants in the Princeton forum thought that Yuri’s paper was ‘not all that opposed’ to Denis’s position.  True, Yuri had been out a long time.  His 2008 dissertation on Chekhov was legendary in the department as the product of a mind that wanted to arrive first at its own conclusions without allowing categories to leak in from secondary sources (the factoid here:  Yuri had read through all of Chekhov’s 600-plus short stories in Russian, chronologically, before settling on a topic).  Denis, on the other hand, was a personality still familiar to the department, especially in his adeptness, as seminar participant and undergraduate preceptor, at identifying Christian subtexts in the Russian tradition.  His 2016 dissertation defense had been the first in living memory conducted by a PhD candidate with an MDiv from a distinguished Divinity School, and thus by a person who knew the sacred texts as thoroughly as did Dostoevsky (and more thoroughly than all of his professors).  That was the expertise we expected from Denis.  And here was Yuri Corrigan with his sophisticated socio-psychological thesis, built out of Dostoevsky’s lesser-known works as well as his world-famous ones, also ending on the Holy Spirit.  Neither had talked about justice, the exploitation of the urban poor, the iniquity of prostitution or rape, the deceptions of utopian socialism or the oppression of one class by another.  Doesn’t this mean they are ending up in the same place?  This, for me, was one of the most valuable lessons of the Princeton forum, and of its prehistory and aftermath.  Similar to the careless habit in Soviet times of referring to “the West” as if it were one homogenous body of beliefs, languages, prejudices, and policies, so in our secularized academy the God Function taken seriously often catapults a critic into some blurry, mystical, all-of-a-single-kind category where rigorous logical thinking is presumed to have been replaced by superstition, blind belief or unreliable religious reflexes.  But surely the religious or metaphysical side of things is just as complex, precise, multi-voiced and non-compatible with itself as is the social, political, and materialistic.

Both Yuri and Denis acknowledge that Dostoevsky is a metaphysical novelist and a theist with a passionate religious agenda.  Where they differ, first, is in the primary addressee.   Is Dostoevsky inviting us to listen in and empathize while he addresses Raskolnikov, real-life Petersburg personality, or is he addressing the reader’s own anxieties and fantasies of escape on a metaphysical level, using Raskolnikov as foil?  Closely connected to this question is the second difference, tied up with the possibility of self-knowledge and thus of self-healing.  Here there are overlaps as well as cosmic dissimilarities.

The Cartesian worldview is rejected by both, since it effectively deletes the faculty of ‘soul’ from the personality.  Both pay homage to the Christian metaphysics of Augustine and Kierkegaard.  As Yuri describes his debt:  Augustine seeks God in the ‘depths of the psyche’ and these depths begin as psychological before becoming divine;  Kierkegaard adds an element of trauma when he notes that we make this irrational journey inward in a state of terror.  As regards Rousseau, Yuri considers himself (and Dostoevsky) a stern critic of that thinker, not an advocate.  Rousseau holds that we own our own interiority, that we are capable of saying everything about ourselves and can unwrap and reveal our true story.  Dostoevsky rejects that self-confident egoism, which occupies the shallows of our consciousness, beneath which is our truest self, first felt as an unknown darkness and then as the living God.  Our memories are at best mere footpaths to this territory.  But Denis—whose critique of aestheticized secularism is more radical—reads Yuri’s project otherwise.  He argues that Yuri’s real, if hidden, progenitor is in fact none other than Rousseau.  The Augustinian idea of the person is Trinitarian from the start, and therefore non-reducible at any point to psychological self-awareness.  It is for this reason that Denis insists Rousseau’s sentimental Confessions cannot be understood (as it so often is) as mere ‘post-Enlightenment Augustine’.  There are residual Augustinian traces in Rousseau, of course, but the abyss between apophatic revelation and feuilletonistic self-display is far too wide to bridge.

A final difference is one of timing.  When, in the trajectory of our rebirth, does God (as stern taskmaster, invisible truth-bearer, or ineffable Terror) come to our aid?  For Denis, an ‘apophatic’ theorist, Dostoevsky starts with this indescribable Presence and wraps his symbolic heroes (as well as his real-life readers) around it, forcing us to confront the fact that the human mind, our deepest interiority, cannot know itself.  For the psyche-based, more ‘sentimental’ Yuri, Dostoevsky teases his heroes with hope.  He pulls them painfully inward, forces them to confront and unwrap their buried past, watches them struggle, eventually cuts off all routes of escape, and—likewise—challenges the survivors to confront the untellable and to live with what cannot be known.

Can both be right?  Fortunately, the study of literature is not a progressive science but an accretive one.  The health of the humanities (and we would like also to believe, the health of the human race) rests on the need to keep an abundance of right answers in circulation, and as many great novelists being read and re-read as the world can bear.

old guard for BK

The author and members of the “old guard” of Dostoevsky scholars at IDS 2019 in Boston.
From left: Caryl Emerson, Robert Louis Jackson, Robin Feuer Miller, Gary Saul Morson, William Mills Todd, III


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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