The Double Gets a Double: Dostoevsky Student Rotten Tomato Reviews

Students in Greta Matzner-Gore’s course Literature and Philosophy: Dostoevsky at the University of Southern California reviewed Richard Ayoade’s 2013 adaptation of The Double. Here are some excerpts of their work.

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——————–Movie Info——————–

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“Eisenberg plays Simon, a timid, isolated man who’s overlooked at work, scorned by his mother, and ignored by the woman of his dreams (Wasikowska). The arrival of a new co-worker, James (also played by Eisenberg), serves to upset the balance. James is both Simon’s exact physical double and his opposite—confident, charismatic and good with women. To Simon’s horror, James slowly starts taking over his life” (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_double_2013).

 

——–Critic Reviews for The Double———

1.5/5 stars 

This Movie Makes Me Feel Like Golyadkin

By Leo Houts

The Double by Dostoyevsky is funny, self-aware, and centered around Golyadkin, an idiosyncratic civil servant who is gradually driven insane by issues both in his psyche and his environment. It is called The Double because Golyadkin meets a person with the same facial features, name, and even clothes as himself. This double (Golyadkin Jr.) begins working at the same place Golyadkin does, and is more successful both socially and in work.

The Double by Richard Ayoade, on the other hand, is neither funny nor self-aware. It sacrifices the humor of Golyadkin’s pathetic character for an awkward antihero with a love interest (Simon) played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg plays Simon with the same confidence that Golyadkin Jr. has, maybe because like Golyadkin Jr., Eisenberg’s character is the exact double of a pre-existing person, in this case every past role Eisenberg has ever had. […]

If you are the kind of person who enjoys indie films about shy antiheroes, maybe you will like this film. If you are the kind of person who likes good writing and acting, you probably will not. If you are a fan of the original work by Dostoyevsky, I am sorry.”

 

3/5 Stars

“Richard Ayoade’s The Double is Great But It’s Not the Book, Literally”

By Lauren Foley

“The uncanny riddles Richard Ayoade’s film adaptation of ​The Double,​ transforming the classic Fyodor Dostoevsky novel into an otherworldly mix of science-fiction, horror, and dark comedy. Although foundationally similar, tonally, Ayoade creates a new beast from Dostoevsky’s original work, fracturing what Dostoevsky fans have come to know and love from the original work. With new character names, settings, and plot points (amongst other changes), ​The Double​ has been through quite a transformation on its way to the screen. […]

Ultimately, if you are a fan of the novella you might be able to gain something from the film– you just might not like it all that much. But, on its own, it’s worth a watch for its impeccable set design, world building, plotting, and performance by Jesse Eisenberg. You might just not be as fond of the editing, and Mia Wasikowska’s performance. Nonetheless, I recommend you give it a try– at least just to have some fun.”

The Double’s Double

By Connor Valore-Kemmerer

“They say if your doppelganger ever appears that you’re doomed to die; Dostoevsky’s novella The Double finds itself in this situation with the release of a film called The Double, directed by Richard Ayoade. You might say a book can’t die, though try googling “The Double” and look at the results—I’ll bet most of them are related to Ayoade’s adaption, not the novella. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as either the movie captures the themes and ideas of the novella, or you don’t value what the novella has to offer. Given that we’re fans of Dostoevsky, however, we’ll assume the ideas of the novella are worth passing down, meaning it can only be replaced if those ideas are preserved. Does Ayoade’s adaption do this? The short answer is yes and no. […]

If it was only inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Double, I would praise it for inspiring viewers to seek out the original ideas that motivated its creation. Like in the novella, however, Dostoevsky’s The Double finds itself being replaced by Ayoade’s The Double, and while this would be fine if the cores were the same, the similarities are mostly skin deep. The “personality” of the film is preferred by society over the “personality” of the novella, which is at risk of being discarded. As someone who values this original “personality,” I have to give Ayoade’s The Double a rating of 3 stars, not because it fails as a film, but because it fails as a proper adaption. An excerpt of a poem by Marie Laurencin feels appropriate: More than exiled, dead; more than dead, forgotten.”

 

3.5/5 Stars

The Double”: An Adaptation Lost in Translation?

By Ashwin Bhumbla

“Fans of the original will be delighted by the sense of place Ayoade gives to the film, an effort that lives up to the gloriously laid out setting of the novella. The sickly greens and dull yellows of the office building, the dim, grey apartments, the unrelenting darkness of the movie’s unnamed city are all definitely not St. Petersburg, but the similarities are there. We see the “messy green walls of [Golyadkin’s] little room” reflected in the hallways of the data company. The “murky, grey autumnal day” of the novella’s beginning is instead replaced by near constant darkness. While the minimalist design almost certainly is owed in part to budget constraints, it proves to be the appropriate artistic choice. A standout scene of the film is when we see Simon’s room for the first time. As he walks in we hear the door creak. We can hear and feel the constant shaking of the walls of his cramped, under-furnished apartment. The faucet shudders and moans as he pours out water into a dusty glass and that cup is the only thing we see him partake in as he watches a television show on the tiniest TV screen known to man, perhaps a modern replacement for Golyadkin’s own “small round mirror” […] The ending, like that of the original, will leave viewers scratching heads and discussing for some time. Ayoade is to be commended, taking a story one might think is unadaptable and not just adapting the plot, but adapting the feel and presence of the novella into an entirely different medium and work of art all his own.”

#NotMyGolyadkin: A Review of The Double (2013)

By Maria Camasmie

“A fan of the novella would notice quite quickly, from the first scene even, that Simon James is by no means comparable to our beloved Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin. As a fan myself, I was most delighted by The Double’s profoundly perplexing main character, Mr. Golyadkin—his paranoia, his delusions of grandeur, his obsession with status, and of course, his bizarre propensity to hide in corners. Simon James is an ordinary man in a bizarre world, while Golyadkin is a bizarre man in an ordinary world. […]

[T]he fundamental difference between the two protagonists generates a fundamental difference between the works themselves—where the original novella navigates a man’s complex and often irrational relationship with his own personality and the world around him, the film adaptation explores the reactions of a helpless, ordinary man to inexplicable events brought onto him by the outside world. Though the storylines are similar, the experience of the original novella is much more internal, while the film adaptation only scratches the surface.”

5/5 stars

How Ayoade Put Dostoevsky’s Classic in a Time Machine

By Blake Amann

“Ayoade’s adaption of Dostoevsky’s novella The Double is an extremely innovative way of translating Dostoevsky’s environment from the page to the screen and modernizing the central philosophical question of struggling with one’s identity. Ayoade’s picture, also called The Double, brilliantly employs a very dystopian-like setting in order to match the rigid, bureaucratic society that was present in the life of Golyadkin in St. Petersburg. The setting’s boring coloration and strict organization in the office area spotlights the ideal of fitting in and matching societal expectations that is key to social success in 19th century St. Petersburg. Additionally, Ayoade’s film takes place in a city that has no daylight, drawing even more parallel to the dark mood of St. Petersburg, which Dostoevsky describes in his novella as ‘pregnant with colds, agues, quinsies, gumboils, and fevers of every conceivable shape and size.’”

 

A Mad, Mad World

By Skyler Melnick

“Am I asleep? Am I dreaming?” Dostoevsky’s protagonist asks himself upon peering at his double (49). Throughout the manic stream of the novella, Golyadkin wavers, doubts, suffers, and fantasizes, feeling as though he is “neither dead nor alive, but somewhere in between” (23). In a similar fashion, Richard Ayoade’s film adaptation, ​The Double​ (2013), cultivates an absurd, dreamlike tone of inbetweenness through the use of constant oppressive noises, disorienting lighting, deadpan dialogue, and a hurried protagonist trying to catch up with a fast-paced environment. These visual and formulaic choices generate a similar manic, dreamlike tone to that of Dostoevsky’s novella, but reverse the core thematic essence from an unraveling man to a more stable, albeit troubled man in a deranged society. I give the film five twinkling stars on account of its superb sustained tone, an unusual pairing of bleakness with whimsy. It deviates from the novella in its thematic reversal, but retains the essence of madness and bleakness, resulting in a surprising, yet timeless translation: a piece of inbetweenness, a film where dream and reality, death and life, a man and his shadow are not separated, but swing back and forth like a pendulum, intertwined, leaving the viewer both shocked and empathizing.”

Call for Papers: The Cities and Towns of and in Dostoevsky (Istanbul, Oct 2020)

The Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society is pleased to announce its Second International Symposium, to be held in Istanbul (Turkey), October 19-22, 2020.

The Symposium will be organized in collaboration with:

  • Institute of Literature of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences
  • National Museum of Literature (Sofia)
  • The Community of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Istanbul (Bulgar Ortodoks Kilisesi Vakfi, Istanbul)

The topic of the Symposium is:

The Cities and Towns of and in Dostoevsky

The symposium’s program will be orientated toward the following problems:

  • The question of the space in Dostoevsky. The specificity of the town’s space in Dostoevsky.
  • Topics on topoi in the novels of Dostoevsky: the hierarchy of topoi, “privileged” topoi, and the typology of topoi.
  • Dostoevsky as a writer of the city/town. The phenomenology of the city/town in Dostoevsky: the street, the bridge, the square, houses, slums and cabins, taverns, hotels, and parks. The question of real and “imaginary” cities/towns.
  • The Russian cities/towns in Dostoevsky: Moscow, Omsk, Semipalatinsk, Novokuznetsk, Tver etc. and the Russian ways of Dostoevsky.
  • European cities/towns in Dostoevsky: Dresden, Geneva, Florence, Naples, London, Ems, etc. and the European ways of Dostoevsky.
  • St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky.
  • Constantinople and the Holy Land in Dostoevsky.
  • Topics on “Space and Time,” “On the threshold” and “On the eve,” and Dostoevsky on the eve of his 200-year anniversary.

Specialists of various fields are invited to participate in the Symposium: including literary scholars, linguists, philosophers, architects, anthropologists, theologians, psychologists, and others.

The official languages of the Symposium are Russian and English.

Presentations should last no more than 20 minutes and will be followed by 10 minutes of discussion.

Applications and abstracts (up to 2000 characters, including spaces) must be submitted to the following e-mail address: symposium2020@bod.bg

Deadline for the submission of applications: 31 December 2019.

The number of participants at the Symposium will be limited to 40.

The registration fee will be 130 Euros for participants and 80 Euros for guests, respectively. The registration fee includes: abstract publication, paper publication, coffee breaks, cultural program, and excursion.

The cultural program of the Symposium will include sightseeing in Istanbul as well as one-day-trip to the Princes’ Islands, concluding with a celebratory dinner.

Accommodation and travel expenses are to be borne by the participants.

Venue for the Symposium: The Building of the Bulgarian Exarchy (Istanbul – Şişli, 124 Abide-i Hürriet Caddesi Str.).

Organizing Committee of the Symposium: Emil Dimitrov (Sofia, Chair), Hulya Arslan (Istanbul, Vice Chair) Stoyan Assenov (Sofia), Philip Kumanov (Sofia), Basil Liase (Istanbul), Kader Hasanova (Istanbul), Ivan Zelev (Sofia), Rosanna Casari (Bergamo, Italy), Anastasia Gacheva (Moscow), Jordi Morillas (Barcelona, Spain), Pavel Fokin (Moscow).

Program Editing Committee: Emil Dimitrov, Philip Kumanov, Nina Dimitrova (Sofia), Аlessandra Elisa Visinoni (Bergamo, Italy), Alexander Kochetkov (Niznyi Novgorod, Russia).

The Social Board of the Symposium includes eminent and popular scientists and cultural activists in Bulgaria and Turkey.

The Program Committee will review the submissions and decisions will be announced by March 1, 2020.

All information about the symposium will be updated in a timely manner and available on the website of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society: https://bod.bg/bg/

We look forward to seeing you in Istanbul!

This is the second International Symposium organized by the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society. A writeup of the first appears here on Bloggers Karamazov: ‘To Uncover the Secret of the Person, While Preserving the Secret as a Secret’ – A Review of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society’s International Symposium “The Anthropology of Dostoevsky” – check it out!

Call for Papers: Havoc and Healing (Uppsala, March 2020)

Call for Papers

Havoc and Healing: Insights into Human Action in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Conference at Uppsala University, 26–27 March 2020

In the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, human action is frequently destructive, leading collectively to war and individually to murder or other forms of social and familial disruption. Concomitantly these authors offer some of the most incisive psychosocial insights available in cultural discourse into the motivations and dynamics of such behavior.

Focusing on Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, this conference will examine the full complexity of these insights, explicit in philosophical statements and implicit in the embodied human experience of the fictional characters.

Keynote speakers:

Robin Feuer Miller, Brandeis University
Donna Tussing Orwin, University of Toronto

We welcome paper proposals on topics such as (but not limited to):

  • Depictions of war, crime and injustice
  • Depictions of family, domestic happiness and discord
  • Existential questions such as free will and the existence of God
  • The relation of these questions to such formal aspects as narratorial and textual structures
  • The question of “polyphony”: Without adducing the writer’s presumed position, does the novel in question privilege certain standpoints over others or do several standpoints remain equally valid?

The general format is a 20-minute presentation followed by 10 minutes for discussion. However, participants may propose another time-frame or format, e.g. a roundtable discussion on a particular topic. The conference will be held in English.

There will be no conference fee. Participants are expected to book their own accommodation and travel. Suggestions of hotels in Uppsala will be provided in due course.

Please send your paper title, an abstract (150–200 words) and a short bio (100 words) to the organizers Julie Hansen (julie.hansen@moderna.uu.se) and Torsten Pettersson (torsten.pettersson@littvet.uu.se) by January 10, 2020. Notification of acceptance will be given by the end of January.

This conference is organized with support from the Department of Modern Languages at Uppsala University (www.uu.se).

Dostoevsky papers and events at ASEEES 2019!

The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies is holding its 51st annual convention in San Francisco, November 23–26. Once again, the conference offers a rich selection of panels, roundtables, and individual presentations on Dostoevsky’s works and thought. The list below is divided into two parts: Part I features panels and roundtables that focus primarily on Dostoevsky; Part II lists panels and roundtables where Dostoevsky’s works or legacy feature prominently in at least one presentation. We hope you can join us in San Francisco to hear about the fruits of another year’s work on Dostoevsky!

 

Panels with a Principal Focus on Dostoevsky

Sunday, November 24

Philosophy and Form throughout Dostoevsky’s Creative Corpus

2:30 to 4:15pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

When discussing Dostoevsky’s famous claim (“I am only a realist in the higher sense, that is, I depict all the depths of the human soul”), Robert Louis Jackson points out that “it is no surprise, against a background of an age dominated by German romantic aesthetics, to find Dostoevsky positing art as a form of philosophical inquiry <…> and the object of philosophical inquiry is simultaneously the object of poetic creation” (Dostoevsky’s Quest For Form. A Study of His Philosophy of Art, 13). The goal of this panel is two-fold. First, we aim to address the ways in which philosophy and poetics are inextricably interwoven throughout Dostoevsky’s oeuvre: from the influence of Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy of Identity on the early novella White Nights, to The Brothers Karamazov’s specific conception of love as informed by the author’s readings of the Gospels and patristics. Secondly, we will examine, by means of close-reading, Dostoevsky’s “quest for form” in its metaliterary dimension, looking at how, in Crime and Punishment, the concept of form is encoded on the phonemic level and builds up into the novel’s potential master trope. We envision the two approaches—one foregrounding the philosophical context of Dostoevsky’s creation, the other privileging the texts’ formal features— as compatible rather than contradictory. Given the broad scope of works that our panel touches upon, we hope to identify both shifts and consistencies across Dostoevsky’s corpus, from his early, pre-exile works to his final novel.

Papers:

“Reason and Aesthetic Knowledge in Dostoevsky’s ‘Belye nochi’” – Kit Pribble, UC Berkeley

“‘Form Won’t Run Away’: Patterns of Paranomasia in ‘Crime and Punishment’” – Semyon Leonenko, UC Berkeley

“‘He That Loveth Not Knoweth Not God’: Praxis, Theory, and Spiritual Knowledge in The Brothers Karamazov” – Braxton Boyer, U of Toronto (Canada)

Discussant: Julian W Connolly, U of Virginia

Chair: Lindsay Marie Ceballos, Lafayette College

 

The North American Dostoevsky Society: The Idiot Approaching Modernity

4:30 to 6:15pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

This panel marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Idiot with three papers focused on the novel’s relationship with modernity. The first paper examines the novel’s situation in the modern through its engagement with philosophy, both its involvement in contemporaneous debates and its grounding in Enlightenment humanistic discourse. The second paper looks at illness in the novel and, in particular, the way modern medicine is portrayed as both a reflection of its time and a future-looking projection. Finally, the third paper, reflects on technology in the novel, in particular the relatively new field of photography, and its implications for social stratification. Looking at reflections of modernity such as philosophical debate, medical science, and photography in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, these three papers engage in a broader discussion about the place of the human as both individual and as part of a broader collective in Dostoevsky’s work and in modern life.

Papers:

“Can Idiots Become Human?” – Brian Arthur Armstrong, Augusta U

“Modernity and Medicine in The Idiot” – Brian R. Johnson, Macalester College

“‘It’s All One Big Fantasy’: Memory, Identity, and Modernity in The Idiot” – Katya Jordan, Brigham Young U

Discussant: Kate Rowan Holland, U of Toronto (Canada)

Chair: Susan McReynolds, Northwestern U

 

Tuesday, November 26

Dostoevsky and Philosophy

8:00 to 9:45am, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

In 2002, James Scanlan wrote that the “idea of treating a great writer as a philosopher will be unsettling to both writers and philosophers.” It may seem that such “philosophical ghostwriting,” as Scanlan describes it, will do injustice to the literary text; it may also seem that such ghostwriting will fail to be philosophically rigorous. Nonetheless, the influence of philosophy on Dostoevsky and of Dostoevsky on philosophy remains. This panel aims to further investigate those influences in an attempt to do justice to both Dostoevsky’s thought and writing. In particular, each panelist will focus on the reception of Dostoevsky’s work by Russian philosophers: Mjør and Ceballos will focus on the early twentieth century reception and Ivantsov on the Leningrad Underground of the 1970s and 80s.

Papers:

“The Making of a Philosopher: Dostoevsky through the Lens of Rozanov, Bulgakov, and Shestov” – Kåre Johan Mjør, Western Norway U of Applied Sciences (Norway)

“Overcoming Existentialism: The Reception of Dostoevsky by the Members of the Leningrad Religious-Philosophical Seminar” – Vladimir Ivantsov, Williams College

“Philospher of the Spirit: Racial Typologies in Merezhkovsky’s L. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” – Lindsay Marie Ceballos, Lafayette College

Chair: Lyudmila Parts, McGill U (Canada)

 

Dostoevsky and The Gospel of Luke

10:00 to 11:45am, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

We have seen renewed scholarly interest in the religious and theological dimensions of Dostoevsky’s fiction in the past few decades. It is not surprising that methodological approaches and assumptions vary widely, although one frequent assumption is that Dostoevsky should be read in a Johannine context, whether because of marks he made in his copy of the 1822 edition of the new Russian Synodal Bible or because of the importance of John in Russian Orthodoxy. When other Gospels are cited, they are often used episodically or as part of broader Synoptic context. However, it is the claim of this panel that Luke – author of a Gospel and Acts – warrants special attention because of Luke’s pragmatic approach to issues vital to Dostoevsky, including social justice and the challenge of overcoming enmity with one’s neighbors. Our panelists will each work with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamzov, and they will focus on the Lukan concern with incarnational realism (Contino), terrestrial time (Parlin), and the neighbor (Wyman).

Papers: 

“The Gospel of Luke and Incarnational realism in The Brothers Karamazov” – Paul Joseph Contino, Pepperdine U

“Luke, Acts, and Active Love: The Validity of Terrestrial Time in The Brothers Karamazov” – Maxwell Parlin, Princeton U

“An Ideal ‘Thou’: The Concept of Neighbor in The Brothers Karamazov” – Alina Wyman, New College of Florida

Discussant: Michael Mikhailovitch Ossorgin VIII, Fordham U

Chair: Michael Mikhailovitch Ossorgin VIII, Fordham U

 

In Honor of Joseph Frank: Comparative Approaches to Dostoevsky Through the Lens of Belief

12:00 to 1:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

In this panel, dedicated to the memory of acclaimed Dostoevsky scholar, biographer, and comparatist Joseph Frank (1918-2013), whom most of the panel participants knew personally and whom all panel participants admire and use in their work, panelists employ comparative approaches to examine the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, as focused through the lens of belief. The trained comparatists delivering papers, Arpi Movsesian, Monika Greenleaf, and Sara Pankenier Weld, take a comparative angle to investigating their individual topics of holy foolishness, performance, and theodicy as they juxtapose Dostoevsky’s writings with those of major figures of the Anglophone tradition, namely William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and Vladimir Nabokov. Though united by their shared focus on Dostoevsky, the collective scope of the papers also encompasses a range of periods; genres such as drama, poetry, and prose; and disciplinary approaches, such as religious studies, performance studies, and philosophy – all of which enrich their analysis and the scope of the panel. The papers’ commonalities and shared focus on belief ensures a coherence and cohesiveness to the panel, as does the subsequent discussion guided by the remarks of discussant Martha Kelly, who brings her expertise on religion and poetics to the panel. The comparative scope of the panel and the attention to a broader religious and intellectual context represented by all panelists represents an homage to Joseph Frank, who himself embodied a broadly comparative perspective and a depth of insight into literary, cultural, philosophical, and religious history, as the panel organizer and chair will highlight in a brief introduction.

Papers:

“Performing Faithfully: Shakespearean Fools in Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead” – Arpi Movesian, UC Santa Barbara

“Two Cruel Talents: The Interplay of Constriction and Kata-Strophe in the Scenic Art of Dickinson and Dostoevsky” – Monika Greenleaf, Stanford U

“Theodicy and Faith in an Ethical Universe: Dostoevsky and Nabokov on the Suffering Child” – Sara Pankenier Weld, UC Santa Barbara

Discussant: Martha M. F. Kelley, U of Missouri

Chair: Sara Pankenier Weld, UC Santa Barbara

 

Book Discussion: “Approaches to Teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,” Edited by Michael Katz and Alex Burry

12:00 to 1:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific C

A volume of essays is currently in preparation for the MLA Series called Approaches to Teaching (edited by Michael Katz and Alex Burry). This roundtable will allow five of the contributors to share their ideas about how to teach the novel in the college or secondary school classroom. The approaches vary widely. A roundtable will enable the presenters to gain valuable feedback from the audience as they prepare their essays; it will also provide suggestions and ideas to the audience as to how they might approach the book in their various classrooms.

Roundtable Members: 

Katherine Bowers, U of British Columbia (Canada)

Kate Rowan Holland, U of Toronto (Canada)

Ani Kokobobo, U of Kansas

Susan McReynolds, Northwestern U

Chair: Michael R. Katz, Middlebury College

 

Panels Featuring One or More Papers on Dostoevsky 

Saturday, November 23

Dark Waters and Monstrous Illusions in Russian Literature and Culture

12:00 to 1:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 12

Literature, film, fine art and other acts of cultural production have long mediated our relationship with landscape. Following Karine Gagne and Mattias Rasmussen’s call for an “amphibious anthropology” that directs our attention to the confluences of land and water (Anthropologica 58: 2, 2017), this panel explores cultural production in the Russian tradition that mediates our relationship to ‘amphibious’ land-and-waterscapes. The papers on the panel, however, add engagement with the dark, the uncanny, the monstrous to this conversation. How does water act as a conduit for the otherworldly and what does this dynamic reveal about amphibious landscapes within the bounds of Russian cultural production?

Papers:

“Go I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What: The Russian Folktale in Uncertain Waters” – Barbara Henry, U of Washington

“Watery Creatures: The Fantastic and the City in the Petersburg Text” – Katherine Bowers, U of British Columbia (Canada)

“Making Kin with Swamp Monsters: Zinovieva-Annibal’s ‘Chudovishche’” – Alec Brooks, Memorial U of Newfoundland (Canada)

Discussants:

Brittany Rae Roberts, UC Riverside

Colleen McQuillen, U of Southern California

Chair: Jenny Kaminer, UC Davis

 

Future Visions, Unseen Dimensions, and Dreamscapes in Russian Literature

4:00 to 5:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 5, Sierra G

Papers:

“‘Novel Voyages’: Fantastical Travel through Time and Space in the Early Nineteenth Century” – Stephen Andrew Bruce, Columbia U

“Of Imaginary Machines and Mundane Futures: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Literary Interface and the Perception of Reality through Alternative Literature” – Alejandra Isabel Otero Pires, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“‘Higher Matter’” The Fourth Dimension in Anderi Bely’s Petersburg” – Olga Zolotareva, Princeton U

“Overcoming Linear Perspective in Dostoevsky’s ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’” – Olga Stuchebrukhov, UC Davis

Discussant: Irina M. Erman, College of Charleston

 

Imperial Culture in the Soviet Imaginary

4:00 to 5:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific H

In The House of Government, Yuri Slezkine writes, “The Bolsheviks… ended up raising their children on ideas that were the very opposite of those they wished them to have (or thought they did, some of the time). The parents lived for the future; their children lived in the past.” [1] Slezkine points to an apparent paradox in the foundation of Soviet culture: those who set about remaking society enthusiastically embraced the literary culture of the previous era. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, nineteenth-century literature and culture continued to be incorporated into party-line cultural policy and production, and claimed as an inheritance with equal vigor by the Marxists of Literaturnyi kritik and representatives of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, such as Anna Akhmatova. The works and biographies of authors from Pushkin to Dostoevsky to Chernyshevsky were put to a variety of symbolic uses, institutionalized and reconceived in complex ways. This panel will explore the reception and reframing of nineteenth-century culture in the Soviet period in the context of cultural memory, institutions, and ideological texts. Papers will consider the reconfiguration of powerful nineteenth-century cultural concepts such as the “intelligentsia,” as well as the role of memorializing institutions such as literary house museums in shaping cultural memory at different historical moments.

[1] Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 955.

Papers:

“The Soviet Masses as Polufabrikat: Grigorii Pomerants and the Meaning of “Intelligentsia” and “Narod” in 1968” – Pavel Khazanov, Rutgers, the State U of New Jersey

“A Space Outside the Present: The Literary House Museum and Memorialization in the Soviet Union” – Brett Roark Winestock, Stanford U

“Reshaping Russian Imaginaries: Literary House Museums in the Post-Soviet Era” – Kathleen Macfie, UNC at Greensboro

Discussant: Christine Elaine Evans, U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Chair: Ludmilla A. Trigos, Independent Scholar

 

Soviet Film Adaptations: Soviet-Western Encounters through Film, 1930-1972

4:00 to 5:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 11

This is the first in the series of three panels on film adaptations produced in the Soviet and post-Soviet period, 1930-2017. Our first panel examines Soviet-Western encounters through studying film adaptations made between 1930 and 1972: Soviet film adaptations of Western literature, such as the Soviet Winnie the Pooh, and vice versa, Western attempts to adapt Russian literature to screen, as in the Hollywood adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The panel is interested in the conversion “from foreign to native” system of beliefs that happens in the course of cross-cultural film adaptations. The focus is on the Soviet vs. Western (Disney, Hollywood) divide, and the way film adaptations attempt to bridge cultural gaps.

Papers:

“Every Sound is Shrill: Sergei Eisenstein, Adaptation, the American Landscape” – Dustin Michael Condern, U of Oklahoma

“Filming the Criminal Mind: Josef von Sternberg’s and Lev Kulidzhanov’s Adaptations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment” – Rita Safariants, U of Rochester

“Naïve Absurdity in the Soviet Winnie the Pooh” – Sabina Amanbayeva, Oklahoma City U

Discussant: Elena Konstantinovna Murenina, East Carolina U

Chair: Maria Mayofis, NRU Higher School of Economics (Russia)

 

Sunday, November 24

Expanding the Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose Canon

12:30 to 2:15pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 12

In recent years, North American scholarship on nineteenth-century Russian prose has become increasingly focused on a shrinking number of authors, namely: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Goncharov. The aim of this panel is to reintroduce the figures around these “literary giants,” men and women who played an integral role in shaping Russia’s literary landscape. Gabriella Safran’s paper examines Aleksei Pisemskii’s novel People of the 40s to address issues of cultural appropriation and the materiality of print culture. Greta Matzner-Gore looks at the scientific writings of a range of non-canonical writers that had a crucial shaping influence on authors like Gogol, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky. And Anna Berman focuses on the novels of Evgenia Tur to explore how her depictions of courtship, marriage, and the family complicate our ideas about the classic Russian approach to these topics. Together the papers address a variety of Russia’s central literary concerns, demonstrating how expanding the range of authors we consider to more accurately reflect what people were reading in the period gives us a clearer picture of Russia’s literary tradition.

Papers:

“Aleksei Pisemskii’s People of the 40s, Cultural Appropriation, and Paper” – Gabriella Safran, Stanford U

“The Science of Early Russian Realism” – Greta Nicole Matzner-Gore, U of Southern California

“Evgenia Tur and the Non-Canonical Marriage Plot” – Anna A. Berman, McGill U (Canada)

Discussant: Anna Schur, Keene State College

Chair: Valeria Sobol, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

 

Nationalizing Russian Literature: How Literary Institutions Shaped the Canon in the 19th Century

4:30 to 6:15pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 12

This panel, bringing together Russian, European and American scholars, seeks to reestablish the sociological perspective in the studies of 19th-century Russian literature and culture. Using recent theories of nationalism and canon formation, the speakers will explore how various institutions (theatre, book publishing, school, Academy of Sciences) modernized the notion of literature and its practice according to the most cutting-edge ideology of nationalism and unification. The panel also stresses reciprocal and unexpected influences between social and literary institutions.

Papers:

“Staging Theatre History: The Origin Myth and the Struggle for Autonomy in Russian Imperial Theatre” – Andrey Fedotov, Lomonosov State U (Russia)

“Constructing Russian Nation in the Age of the Great Reforms: Alexander Ostrovsky and the Canon of Russian Drama” – Kirill Zubkov, Higher School of Economics (Russia)

“Classics for All?: Book Publishing and the Popularization of Dostoevsky in Late Imperial Russia” – Raffaella Vassena, U of Milan (Italy)

“How Russian Novel Came to School: Curriculum and Literary Canon in Late Imperial Russia” – Alexey Vdovin, NRU Higher School of Economics (Russia)

Discussant: Jeffrey Peter Brooks, Johns Hopkins U

Chair: William Mills Todd III, Harvard U

 

Monday, November 25

Cognitive Approaches to Russian Literature II

10:00 to 11:45am, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 12

Our panel tests recent findings in cognitive science (psychology and philosophy) by applying them to established works of Russian literature. Inasmuch as these works denote acceptance by wide audiences, they constitute valid data for assessing so-called human universals.

Papers:

“Rates of Foreign Influence in the Russian Tradition: An Application of Psychology to Literary History” – Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

“Ivan Karamazov’s Fuzzy Feelings: The Cognitive Possibilities for a Non-Euclidean Mind” – Milica Ilicic, Columbia U

“The Cognitive Psychology of Belief, Piety, and Fantasy: From Fictive to Actual Inquisitors, Zealots, and Visionaries” – Jerry Piven, Rutgers, the State U of New Jersey

“Possibilities of Cognitive Approach to Biographical and Historical Novels of Evgeny Vodolazkin” – Amina Gabrielova, Purdue U

Discussant: Brett Cooke, Texes A&M U

Chair: David Powelstock, Brandeis U

 

Violence, Crime, and Suicide: The Ethics of Representation in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

3:45 to 5:30pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 4, Pacific I

Scholars across disciplines have increasingly turned to exploring the ethical implications of literary forms of representation as a way of reexamining traditional narrative categories. The study of the intersection of narrative and ethics has produced many works that question the essentially positive value of fiction-reading, or that investigate the possible encounters novels enable with lives different than our own. Focusing on the representations of suicide, trials, and violence, this panel seeks to bring the Russian nineteenth-century novel into this conversation by examining the intersections of narrative and ethics in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who stand out for their use of literary forms to question and explore the implications of the ethics of their fiction.

Papers:

 “Dostoevsky and Thanatotic Contagion” – Amy D. Ronner, St. Thomas U

“Fictional Defendants and Real Readers: The Ethics of Literary Trials” – Erica Stone Drennan, Columbia U

“‘Что ж, хоть и чужой, все надо жалость иметь’: The Ethics of Representing Alterity in Early Tolstoy” – Thomas Dyne, UC Berkeley

Discussants:

Alex Spektor, U of Georgia

Deborah A. Martinsen, Columbia U

Chair: Irina Paperno, UC Berkeley

 

Tuesday, November 26

Post-Soviet Film Adaptations: Redefining Russian and Soviet Literary Classics in 1990-early 2000s

10:00 to 11:45am, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: LB2, Salon 11

This is the second in the series of three panels on film adaptations produced in the Soviet and post-Soviet period, 1930-2017. Our second panel focuses on the renewed attempt to re-interpret Russian and Soviet classics through film adaptations in the post-Soviet period, 1992-2015. The panel shows how post-Soviet filmmakers approached time-honored Russian literature by Pushkin and Dostoevsky, and the Soviet classic, “Quiet Flows the Don” by Mikhail Sholokhov, and re-interpreted these works for the new, post-Soviet period. The papers examine new beliefs about history and the canon implicit in the filmmakers’ revisions and also trace new film techniques in the updated films.

Papers:

“Making of a Dream: An Animated Film Adaptation of Dostoevsky’s ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’” – Irina Karlsohn, Dalarna U (Sweden) / Uppsala U (Sweden)

“Proshkin’s Post-Soviet Projection of Pushkin’s Prose: Catherine the Great in the film ‘Russkii Bunt’” – Amanda Fairchild Murphy, Nazarbayev U (Kazakhstan)

“Reclaiming Soviet Classics: Desire for Repetition or Change?” – Irina Makoveeva, Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE)

Discussant: Milla (Lioudmila) Fedorova, Georgetown U

Chair: Sabina Amanbayeva, Oklahoma City U

 

Cosmic Dreams and Communal Nightmares: Russian Science Fiction and Horror

12:00 to 1:45pm, San Francisco Marriott Marquis, Floor: 5, Sierra G

This panel explores the spaces and influences of 20th-21st century Russian science fiction and horror literature: from the utopian dreams of space exploration and collective world-building to their nightmarish disintegration within the Soviet kommunalka and into post-Soviet reality. The first paper discusses the phenomenon of collective vampirism within the utopian society on Mars in Bogdanov’s “Red Star.” The second paper analyzes Petrushevskaya’s engagement with Poe in her short story “Chocolates with Liqueur” as a manifestation of what the author terms the domestic gothic. Finally, the third paper notes the influences of Russian Cosmism on Pelevin’s parodic revisioning of the Soviet space race in “Omon Ra.”

Papers:

“Communal Vampirism in Alexander Bogdanov’s ‘Red Star’” – Irina M. Erman, College of Charleston

“Transforming Poe and the Domestic Gothic in Petrushevskaya’s ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’” – Meghan Vicks, U of Colorado at Boulder

“Viktor Pelevin’s ‘Omon Ra’ and Russian Cosmism – Ritsuko Kidera, Doshisha U (Japan)

Chair: Oksana Husieva, U of Kansas


Thanks to Vadim Shneyder, North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board member and Assistant Professor at UCLA, for compiling the list!

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.

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):

dostoevsky-and-the-riddle-of-the-self

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.

What Can Prince Teach Us About Dostoevsky?

by Fiona Bell

Prince was not a fox.

Well, he was sexy. But within Isaiah Berlin’s paradigm, at least, he was an unmistakable hedgehog. And his big idea – that Christian love will save us – is Dostoevsky’s.

But their paths to God could not have been more different. For Prince, spirituality entails the uninhibited expression of the ego. Dostoevsky, however, views the ego’s destruction as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. This essential difference explains the artists’ contrasting narrative styles and approaches to sexuality. Dostoevsky offers many voices but only supports one self-abnegating vision of spirituality. Prince shares only his own voice but reveals countless – often erotic – paths to God. This strange comparison is (besides the obsessive preoccupation of a Prince superfan) an exciting way to reexamine the role of the self in sexuality, spirituality, and authorship.

For Prince, “funk is about rules.”[1] It’s ordered, harmonic, and – in his case – undeniably monologic. In his first five albums, Prince played every instrument on each track. And while he needed a band for live performances, he was not exactly known for his musical dialogism. In fact, Prince’s resistance to teamwork is a subplot of the movie Purple Rain. Having alienated his band with his diva behavior, The Kid descends into depravity and performs the sleazy single, “Darling Nikki.” Though The Kid learns his lesson by the end of the movie, reuniting with the band and performing a triumphant “Purple Rain,” Prince himself apparently didn’t. Throughout his career, he cycled through dozens of bands, constantly inviting and ousting members, appreciating virtuosity but rarely permitting another artist to rival his own supremacy. The result is a body of work that is stamped with Prince’s voice, touched by others but never defined by them.

Even on a lyrical level, when Prince simulates dialogue, he simply emphasizes his ingrained monologic tendencies. The outro of his 1987 song “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is a great example:

Can I see you?
I’ll show you
Why not?
You can think it’s because I’m your friend I’ll do it for you
Of course I’ll undress in front of you!
And when I’m naked, what shall I do?
How can I make you see that it’s cool?
Can’t you just trust me?
If I was your girlfriend you could
Oh, yeah, I think so
Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet
Would that get you off?
Then tell me what will!
If I was your girlfriend, would you tell me?

Several times in this excerpt – “Oh, yeah, I think so,” or “Then tell me what will!” – the speaker supposedly responds to a comment his love interest has just made. But by omitting her voice, Prince privileges his own monologic desire over the lovers’ dialogue. Such moments are reminiscent of Dostoevsky in A Writer’s Diary or the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground, when the narrator imagines a skeptical reader’s response and responds to his criticisms preemptively. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” leaves the listener with a similar impression of the speaker’s desperation.

Yet, as Bakhtin noted, it makes sense for love songs to be monologic. What else can the poet do but describe their own desire? Prince hinted at this truth – with his characteristically sly smirk – in a 2004 performance of “Cream,” telling the crowd: “I wrote this while looking in the mirror.”

Of course, Dostoevsky’s work is famously dialogic. His prose, unlike Prince’s music, is characterized by a cacophony of unorchestrated voices. For that reason, any expressions of intimate experience – either sexual or spiritual – belong to his characters, not necessarily to him. Thanks to this dialogism, Dostoevsky is able to describe unconventional sexualities without directly endorsing them.

Still, the author saw a moral danger in writing about sexuality. He once attempted to solve this problem by suggesting that art neutralizes reality, and therefore nullifies the threat of sexuality: “Here reality has been transformed, having passed through art, having passed through the fire of pure, chaste inspiration and through the poet’s artistic thought.”[2] Part of art’s value is its ability to sanitize the world’s depravity.

Prince certainly doesn’t pretend that the eroticism in his music isn’t his own. His characteristic monologism leaves no room for doubt. That’s what makes Prince’s music so uniquely vulnerable. It’s also what prompts some people to wrinkle their noses: they’re encountering someone’s naked sexuality, unable to attribute the strangeness to anyone but the artist himself. The intensity of listeners’ responses – discomfort and awkwardness or, equally, excitement and arousal – demonstrates that sexuality isn’t always neutralized when it’s turned into art, as Dostoevsky suggested.

In his oeuvre, Prince gives us a vivid, realistic portrait of sexuality, with its sanctity, its unpredictability, and its contradictions. Even though his music itself is monologic, within this single perspective he manifests a type of dialogism that Bakhtin would appreciate. Prince adored love without sex, but he also saw the beauty of sex without love, or, rather, sex as an expression of universal love. In his view, the selfishness of erotic love was not at odds with the selflessness of Christian love. Both were sacred, and they fed into one another. In his 1996 cover of the Bonnie Raitt song, “I Can’t Make U Love Me,”  Prince adds this recitative interlude: “In this bedroom/church, U can guess the offering.”

Some of Prince’s dirtiest lyrics appear alongside his most heartfelt religious appeals. In “Controversy,” he recites the entire Lord’s Prayer. “Darling Nikki,” the fifth track on the 1984 album Purple Rain, was the impetus for the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which censored music deemed unsuitable for children. The song is sultry and raw, with unambiguous lyrics about masturbation and a one-night stand. But the track ends with gospel-style vocals, which, played in reverse, are: “Hello, how are you? / Fine, fine, ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon / Coming, coming soon.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Prince doesn’t believe that suffering improves the soul. Instead, he views sex as a healing force for the “I,” the “you,” and the world. This force is chaotic, joyful, powerful, and – to draw on another Bakhtinian idea – carnivalesque. Prince channels this force in his music, joyously challenging the established understanding of sexuality in American culture. Though music composition was an Apollonian act for Prince, his dancing was an unconfined, Dionysian release of energy. Zadie Smith has written about the ephemerality of Prince’s style: “It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.”[3]

Bakhtin formed the idea of the carnivalesque in opposition to monologism. And indeed, Prince’s belief in the ordered nature of funk is at odds with the carnivalesque mode, which necessitates the renunciation of order and assimilation into the crowd. Still, Prince managed to evoke the carnivalesque in his monologic music, just as a street performer is both a leader and member of the crowd. The best example is his performance of “Gett Off” at the 1991 VMAs, where he appears in a Boschian, pornographic hellscape, clad in a lace-patterned, assless suit. Prince flaunts his backside with self-assurance and a smirk, seeming to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, the silliness of sexuality in general. At one point in the song he promises to “Strip your dress down / Like I was strippin’ a Peter Paul’s Almond Joy.” Yes, the candy bar. To my mind, there’s no better evocation of the carnivalesque’s obsession with the body, its mixture of satanic and Christian elements, its riotous humor, than this performance.

According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque mode generates fearlessness, as the crowd laughs in the face of the establishment. This is exactly the spirit of Prince’s music: he laughs at racism, at homophobia, at all the world’s evils. He gives his audience permission to do the same. But his collaborators and his listeners are only free to defy convention because Prince has already bared himself. And his greatest wish is that others would follow suit, as he expresses in the famous lines from “Controversy”: “People call me rude, I wish we were all nude / I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules.” Prince was the leader of a widespread carnival, empowering others – especially the Black and queer communities – to be just as vulnerable as he was. This is the enduring power of his music.

Although dialogism is associated with tolerance, Dostoevsky’s overall depiction of sexuality is not very accepting. He portrays the simultaneous holiness and sinfulness of a single human being, but rarely celebrates it. In fact, Dostoevsky’s most indisputable heroes – Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov, and children – don’t even experience this dissonance. His characters’ sexualities are ultimately at the service of his greater point about salvation.

By contrast, Prince’s work suggests that the ideal discourse on sexuality is an unabashed, monologic expression of a “Dirty Mind.” In his own way, Prince makes an even stronger argument about God than Dostoevsky does. By accepting all the aspects of his consciousness – through a monologic exploration of the self – Prince learns how to accept everyone else. His vision of Christian love relies on the construction, not the destruction, of the self.

Later in life, Prince’s self-acceptance was shaken and, consequently, so was his tolerance for others. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he stopped singing swear words and erased many sexual lyrics from his oeuvre. The queer community was understandably upset in 2008 when he denounced gay marriage.[4] Many Dostoevsky scholars experience a similar disappointment upon reading the author’s writings on Jewish people and women. Yet, we continue to cherish these artists for the same reason that they believed God wouldn’t give up on humanity: their striving is so heartfelt.

Prince’s unfinished memoir is being released by Penguin Random House on October 29th. I’m so excited for another chance to witness his joyous, fervent, smirking struggle for transcendence.

Notes

[1] Piepenbring, Dan. “The Book of Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 Sept. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/09/the-book-of-prince.
[2] Fusso, Susanne. Discovering Sexuality In Dostoevsky. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2006. Page 6.
[3] Smith, Zadie. “Zadie Smith: Dance Lessons for Writers.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Oct. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/29/zadie-smith-what-beyonce-taught-me.
[4] Hoffman, Claire. “Soup with Prince.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 Nov. 2008, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/24/soup-with-prince.


Fiona Bell recently completed an MSt degree in Russian at Oxford University, after earning her B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is currently working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulyanovsk, Russia. In Fall 2020, she will enter Yale University’s PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures, where she plans to focus on Russian theater and performance studies.