A Chat with Tatyana Kovalevskaya about Dostoevsky on the Dignity of the Human Person

This week Chloe Papadopoulos sits down with Tatyana Kovalevskaya to talk about her recent book, Fyodor Dostoevsky. On the Dignity of the Human Person. (Ф. М. Достоевский. О достоинстве человека), published by Dmitri Bulanin in 2020 [link].

CP: Congratulations on the publication of your book! Tell us a little about it. What do you hope your intended readership (university students) will gain from this volume?

TK: Thank you! Before we start, I would like to thank the North American Dostoevsky Society and you for the opportunity to have this conversation. I am very pleased and honored to have this opportunity to speak about my book. Primary inspiration for it came from a Dostoevsky conference where attendees stressed the need to take Dostoevsky scholarship beyond the professional community, to bring it to a wider audience. And I think that a student’s book is the best way to do it. It has been my impression recently that professional scholarship has been largely focusing on articles as the most convenient form of conveying one’s ideas, and this is understandable. On the other hand, articles may not be the best scholarly medium for a student audience or for a wider general audience. My previous experience with a student’s book has been quite positive, I designed the textbook, History, Literature, and Culture of Great Britain, and wrote it with two of my colleagues, each of us being responsible for one of the titular aspects. It has become quite popular both with students, who use it as a general reference point, and with larger audiences; it has since has gone into its third edition. As I mostly teach courses on Dostoevsky to international students at the Russian State University for the Humanities, I decided to attempt a bilingual textbook. I believe that teaching literary works should start with very precise textual evidence, yet it should always aim to arrive at an overarching interpretation of a text. And in my book, I strove to present a general perspective, to outline the key problems that Dostoevsky was focused on, and to guide students to see the development of the writer’s thought throughout his career, yet I always gave specific textual evidence for every interpretative claim.

A bilingual book, I think, works for all audiences: for those who are native speakers of Russian or are fluent in it, for those who are only beginning to study the language, and for those who have no Russian at all. I also wanted the book to provide some historical and literary context, so it opens with a brief and basic introduction to Russian history and literature (I would like to thank Galina Shebaldina, a historian at RSUH, for going over the introduction and checking it for accuracy). The focus is on the most important and far-reaching historical events and literary phenomena such as, for instance, the Schism, Petrine reforms, or, if we talking literature per se, Pushkin’s so-called St. Petersburg myth. This is the kind of information that makes it easier to appreciate some aspects of Dostoevsky’s works.

CP: Your book covers an impressive breadth of Dostoevsky’s works, from Poor Folk to Brothers Karamazov. Can you tell us a little about this selection and its pedagogical implications? Are there any other works you wish you could have included?

TK: First of all, I wanted to show the running themes of Dostoevsky’s works: human dignity and human hubris, and humans’ cognitive, epistemological limitations that should make us be very careful in our judgments. I also wanted to showcase Dostoevsky’s remarkable consistency as a thinker. The main thing Dostoevsky champions throughout his works, from Poor Folk and up to The Brothers Karamazov, is the recognition of universal human dignity in all of us, and we cannot deny the universal relevance of this message. For Dostoevsky, this recognition stems from acknowledging the image of God in all humans. Consequently, what stands in the way of that recognition is human hubris, a person’s desire to elevate himself (it is almost exclusively himself) to the place of God and thereby deny that universal humanity to his fellow humans. This is why Raskolnikov does not want to be a trembling creature (that word is both an insult and an indication of his created nature) and speaks of the old pawnbroker as a louse, thus entirely dehumanizing her. Dostoevsky was certainly a religious writer, but I think that one does not need to be generally religious or specifically Orthodox Christian to appreciate his message of our universal shared humanity and of the grave dangers entailed by human hubris.

Another thing that becomes evident as we read several of Dostoevsky’s works in sequence is his very special poetic device, his habit of giving an idea or an image a twist that surreptitiously changes it into its direct opposite. These twists range from starkly obvious to barely perceptible. Take, for instance, the onion story in The Brothers Karamazov where a little onion represents a single good deed that might become a person’s salvation. Yet there is another onion in Notes from the House of the Dead, where a robber complains to his father that he murdered a man and only found on his victim a single onion that’s worth a mere kopeck. He gets a stunning piece of wisdom, if we might call it that, in response, “Fool that you are! an onion is worth a kopeck. If you had killed a hundred peasants you would have had a hundred kopecks, or one rouble.” (This is Constance Garnett’s translation. I think she beautifully renders Dostoevsky’s ideas and concepts.) The same object symbolizes the ultimate human hope and the ultimate human depravity. That is quintessential Dostoevsky. Anything can be twisted to become its polar opposite. Dostoevsky combines firm belief in good and evil as metaphysical landmarks in human life with a clear understanding that not only do these opposites sometimes merge in  earthly existence, but that evil can so subtly masquerade as good that it takes a very sharp ear to distinguish between the two. Dostoevsky is very conscious of humans’ epistemological limitations, and this is why he teaches us a lesson that has always been, and still is important today. In Dostoevsky, choosing the right path is the fundamental task of human existence, and choice means judging the value of options we are faced with; we cannot abolish choice, so judge our options and choose we must. But before we do that, we must also realize our own epistemological limitations and consider every option in a variety of its possible manifestations. We may discover that things that seem similar to us are fundamentally different, while things we thought to be radically opposite may be the same. In The Devils, Shatov claims that the Russian people are the God-bearing people, and Dostoevsky later would state something very much to that effect in A Writer’s Diary. But if we look closer, we will see that Shatov’s idea of a god as “the synthetic personality of the whole people” is closer to Rousseau. In The Social Contract, the latter states that pagan gods represent the identities of their respective peoples (consequently, every war is religious in nature and comparative mythology is utter nonsense). Rousseau has always been Dostoevsky’s ideological adversary (Karen Stepanyan wrote beautifully about it), and while Shatov’s idea looks like  Dostoevsky’s, it is, in fact, its direct opposite. (I would like to make a parenthetical disclaimer here; this is a very controversial topic, but it also means that whatever we think about Dostoevsky’s own views, we at the very least judge them for being what they are and not for what his characters’ opinions are. One of the reasons I include Notes from the House of the Dead in the book is to show that Dostoevsky could be far more realistic in his views of the Russian people, “narod,” than his later works could lead readers to believe.) In Notes from Underground, we have the reverse. The Underground man claims to be arguing against a mechanistically determined world (a point of view largely associated at that time with positivist philosophy or, rather, the non-theistic religion of Auguste Comte) and claims to be advocating absolute and unconditioned freedom. A closer reading shows, however, that he only wants to replace the tyranny of the laws of nature with the tyranny of his own unrestrained will. Other people still end up slaves to a force outside their control, be it the laws of nature, or the Underground man’s arbitrary volition. Through a cunning use of rather unexpected references to scholastic theology (which Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, though, spotted immediately after Notes was published), we can see that both the Underground man and positivists proceed from the same idea of denying God and they disagree solely on what should come in His place: it is laws of nature for positivists and the Underground man’s own unbridled will for him.

And that brings me to the works I wish I had included: The Double that deals with the topic that was so widely used by Dostoevsky, and The Adolescent where one of its characters describes an imagined church scene from Faust where the devil’s song sounds “side by side with the hymns, mingling with the hymns, almost melting into them, but at the same time quite different from them.” This phrase embodies that poetic device I outlined above and it would also make it possible to expand the literary discussion into other artistic media, such as music. However, as Kozma Prutkov said and Gleb Belyaev translated, “No one will embrace the unembraceable.” Additionally, I think it is a good thing to give readers room to ponder some of Dostoevsky’s works entirely on their own.

CP: Your book strikes a balance between introducing the reader to the historical specificity of these works and some of their timeless truths. Which of these do you think students, particularly in Russia, tend to be more drawn to and interested in exploring in their coursework?

TK: I would say that, the world over, people are drawn to the universal, but they want to see it as part of their own time which definitely increases the immediate relevance of the universal in their own lives. That’s the appeal of the classics, they are classics because, among other things, they are in some way relevant for all times and places. This is why we see so many films and stage performances where novels and plays of the past are situated within the director’s own time. Akira Kurosawa, for instance, set The Idiot in 1950s Japan. I haven’t seen Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2013), but I would very much like to see how the story of a 19th-century Russian official translates into the story of a 21st-century British office worker. Yet very universal truths are sometimes embodied in very time-specific or culture-specific stories, so the success of each particular endeavor to present Dostoevsky as part of another time and place is up for debate, but the trend itself is very emblematic of why people turn to classics and what they want to find there.

CP: Speaking about the importance of geographical locales in The Idiot, you write that in Dostoevsky’s novels there is “not a single superfluous detail (ни одной лишней детали). Everything has meaning, everything is directly related either to the novel’s inner or outer plot (всё связано либо напрямую с внешним, либо с внутренним сюжетом романа)” (212). Given the breadth of works and topics that you address across the volume, how did you grapple with representing the significance of such an abundance of meaningful details?

TK: I guess you need to pick and choose. There is no other way. Even annotators of Complete Collected Works are unlikely to cover every little detail. But that’s also part of the attraction. It’s not too much fun to study something that offers no cognitive challenge. With Dostoevsky, no matter how much you say, no matter how much other scholars and students say, there is still so much left to discover, and that’s also a huge part of the charm. There is always room to explore on your own, there is always space to go further.  

CP: Absolutely! In the book, you provide a comprehensive overview of the most frequently studied and analyzed themes in Dostoevsky’s works (faith, literary types, genre, to name a few), but you also bring in less commonly studied topics (the representation of women, for example). Where does your own research agenda fit into the book and what new perspectives do you offer your reader?

TK: My own research focuses on what today would be called a transhumanist impulse in the European mindset in general as it has been enshrined in European literatures and philosophies. It would be interesting to go beyond European cultures and see what the ultimate driving force is in Chinese or Japanese culture, in Mesoamerican cultures, basically, anywhere in the world, but that would take scholars fluent in the relevant languages and traditions. I can speak with any relative certainty about English, German, and Russian literatures and their related mindsets, and that drive is certainly there, ranging from the desire to become immortal to appropriating divine powers to simply becoming non-human as in a vampire, a werewolf, or even a zombie. (I think that would explain a spate of works on these subjects in today’s pop culture.) I think that this perspective affords new takes on a variety of works from Beowulf to “The Battle of Maldon,” to those of Shakespeare and certainly of Dostoevsky. In Dostoevsky, we can find two takes on the subject, what he saw as the right transhumanist path and what he saw as the wrong one. Dostoevsky expounds the right one in the notes made during the vigil over the body of his newly-deceased first wife. In those lengthy jottings, he presents his religious anthropology and states that human beings are destined for a universal unity of humanity in God, specifically in Christ, in some distant hereafter, when those humans will even no longer be what we call human today. In his fiction, that transhumanist drive mostly takes the form of a wrongful desire to become a deity in one’s own right, to become the defining power of the universe, and that drive ultimately leads Dostoevsky’s characters to disaster for the reasons I described above. So that’s what I like to think of as my little contribution to Dostoevsky studies.

CP: And a wonderful contribution at that! Finally, the cover of your book features a work of sculpture by the Italian artist Matteo Pugliese. Can you comment on the choice of this particular work? How do you conceive of it within the context of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre?

TK: Thank you for bringing up this topic. I am happy to be able to once again thank Signor Pugliese for generously granting me permission to use the image of his sculpture called “The Grand Élan” (Grande Slancio). I think it perfectly embodies Dostoevsky’s principal message, humanity’s breakthrough towards its true destiny. And simultaneously, it combines both traditional and modern forms and so stresses the enduring significance of any art, and Dostoevsky’s art as well, that can take on new forms without losing its core message.

Tatyana Kovalevskaya is a graduate from Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU). She holds a PhD from Yale University and a D.Sc. in Philosophy from MSU, awarded for the doctoral dissertation Self-Deification in European Culture. She holds the rank of Full Professor in the European Languages Department at the Institute of Linguistics, Russian State University for the Humanities, and is the author of over 90 books, articles, and translations, including Self-Deification in European Culture (2011), History, Literature, and Culture of Great Britain (with Fairuza Vagizova and Yevgenia Semenyuk; 2012, 2017, 2020), Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (2013), The Accursed: A Parable Novel (2015), Mythological Transhumanism in Russian Literature: Dostoevsky and the Silver Age (2018), and Robert Louis Jackson’s Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form (2020)

Chloe Papadopoulos is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. She received an H.B.A. and an M.A. in Russian Language and Literature at the University of Toronto, where she specialized in nineteenth-century Russian literature. Her current research focuses on reform-era historical fiction, drama, and the plastic arts, and their contemporary reception in newspapers and the periodical press. Chloe serves as a graduate student representative on the Readers Advisory Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society.

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