A Chat with Anna Berman on Dostoevsky and the Family Novel

On the blog today Kate Holland interviews Anna Berman about her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood.

siblings-in-tolstoy-and-dostoevskyCongratulations on the publication of your book! Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky joins a venerable series of works comparing the two great nineteenth century Russian novelists. How did you conceive of the idea of comparing the two in this way? And how did you become interested in the problem of the family novel?

Well, I actually came to this all through siblings.  When I was an undergraduate at Brown University I decided to write my senior thesis on siblings in War and Peace because it was a way to focus on all my favorite scenes in my favorite book.  As I started into the project and my adviser pushed me to engage with the scholarly literature on Tolstoy, I noticed that none of the discussions of family in his works dealt with siblings (they were all about husbands and wives or parents and children). I only really started reading Dostoevsky during my MPhil at Cambridge, and I was very surprised when I read The Brothers Karamazov to discover that most people discuss family there in terms of Oedipal struggle and focus on the theme of parricide. Few people had written about the brothers as brothers.  So my MPhil thesis ended up being on siblings in BK… and by the time I finished writing it, I knew that I desperately wanted to write a dissertation that explored the role of siblings in the two authors together.

Tell us a little about your book. What questions are you asking in it? Would you say it has an overarching narrative?

Basically, my book is looking at the role that siblings play in the art and thought of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  I start with exploring each author’s conception of the literal sibling bond—for both it plays a very positive role—and then the overarching narrative is exploring how they move from their ideas about siblinghood within the family to their more abstract ideals of universal brotherhood.  I am trying to show that there is a link between these two things; their views of the literal sibling bond shape their broader, philosophical ideals.

One of the main arguments of your book is that vertical family bonds such as parent-child are replaced by lateral ones, such as between siblings. How does this play out in Dostoevsky’s novels?

Scholars have been very right to focus on the importance of parent-child relationships in Dostoevsky’s works and to look at the theme of the breakdown of the transmission of values from fathers to sons in his late works.  What I’m trying to add to this picture is that as the fathers fail, brothers fill in.  So, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov, Zosima gets his ideas from his brother Markel.  And he passes them on to Alyosha, who in some ways is like a son, but whom Zosima sees as his brother come back to him at the end of his way.  He literally tells the story of his life to a group of monks, whom he is calling “brothers.” Fyodor Pavlovich is failing in just about every way imaginable as a father, but Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha reach out to each other with love and support.

What role does Freud play in your book? Do you find him helpful in any way as an interpreter of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s family novels?

Ah Freud… I know many people think it is outdated to write about him, but I studied with a psychoanalyst, Juliet Mitchell, who has done brilliant work on siblings, and under her influence, I have found that Freud still has a lot to teach us.  He was one of the greatest theorizers of the family in the twentieth century and we are still living in a world that was deeply shaped by his views.  So yes, I do find him useful.  What Freud himself wrote about Dostoevsky was wildly inaccurate (Joseph Frank has detailed this quite thoughtfully), but I think his ideas about love and family can still offer insights into Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds.  In my chapter on the first half of Dostoevsky’s career, I look at the way he constructs love triangles, and there we find an interesting slippage between the roles of brother and lover that Freud can speak to.  But I do not only use Freud; I try to put him in dialogue with other thinkers whose works prove relevant to understanding the human problems Dostoevsky is raising.

What do you think is the critical pay-off for thinking about Dostoevsky’s works as family novels? How does it change the way we read them?

A focus on siblings shifts our attention from what I believe is sometimes an over-emphasis on romantic relations and allows us to see the more stable, sustaining kinship love that Dostoevsky actually valued more strongly.  Passionate love is dangerous in Dostoevsky’s works, while sisters and brothers provide each other with true emotional and spiritual support.

What do you think is different about the evolution of the family novel in Russia compared to other national traditions?

This is a GREAT question, and it’s actually the topic of my next book.  For the new project I’m looking comparatively at the family plotlines we find in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel.  So my full answer to this would probably be several hundred pages long.  The family novel as a genre began in England in the eighteenth century and originally came to Russia from there (broadly speaking, the Russians credited the English with writing the family and the French with writing love and adultery).  Yet as the Russians were reading the English, the differing historical conditions and status of the family in Russia caused them to diverge strongly from their English models and to create radically different family plots.

Just to give one example: the English honored primogeniture, which meant that all property went to the oldest son.  In plot terms, this means that in English novels only one brother can have a marriage plot that culminates in settling down on the family estate and producing an heir (the English family ideal).  And as a result, the English wrote very few novels that feature a significant pair of brothers.  In Russia, estates were split among all the children, and as a result, we find many more significant brother-brother relationships in Russian novels.  One of my arguments is that the Russians think of the family more laterally, while the English are more focused on vertical issues of origin and descent.  And with that, maybe I will save the rest for book number two!

What did you conclude about the similarities and differences of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s conceptions of universal brotherhood?

For both authors universal brotherhood is the ideal, but how you get there looks different because they have such different conceptions of the family.  Tolstoyan family is rooted in close family bonds and shared associations; his characters have typically grown up together and their connection comes from such shared intimacy.  So the challenge for him is to actually break down the bonds of family a bit to leave room for expansion.  Dostoevsky, on the other hand, had his idea of the “accidental family” (created partly as a response against Tolstoy).  His characters were often raised separately and only come to know each other as young adults.  So for them, the family bond is not something learned in childhood, but requires what he calls “active love.”  In this sense, it is easier for his characters to get from loving a sister or brother they just met to loving someone “like” a sibling to loving all of mankind; all these things require the same active love, which for Dostoevsky is predicated on faith.

In your analysis of brotherhood in The Brothers Karamazov, you differ from many other scholars by affording a principle role in your argument to Smerdyakov. Can you tell us a little bit about Smerdyakov as a testcase of Dostoevsky’s model of brotherhood?

This actually relates to the previous question.  The Karamazov brothers come from different mothers (except Ivan and Alyosha) and they were mostly not raised together.  So they only come to know each other as young adults and their love must be based on the “active love” Dostoevsky calls for in the novel.  Olga Meerson has argued that: “The chief taboo in The Brothers Karamazov is the idea that Smerdiakov is the fourth son of Fedor Pavlovich—or more precisely, an equal to the other brothers in his blood-sonship.”  I am suggesting that it’s not a taboo to see Smerdyakov as a brother, but a test: can other characters—and particularly Smerdyakov’s legitimate half-brothers—recognize him and love him as a brother despite all the negative things we learn about him?  He is the first step from the blood family to a wider, universal brotherhood. When Smerdyakov’s brothers fail to love and acknowledge him, they fail to enter this wider brotherhood. And the reader is implicated in this test as well; the narrator tries to make us believe that Smerdyakov is not worth of our attention or of anyone’s love.  So in a sense, this contributes to Dostoevsky’s point that all are guilty for all. We have all failed to see Smerdyakov as part of our human family, so even we the readers share the guilt for the act he commits.

And finally, just to be mischievous, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? And why?

Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say it in this particular blog, but the answer is unequivocally Tolstoy.  Dostoevsky I admire deeply, and I will never tire of studying him, but his psychology is much more foreign to me.  All these characters on the edge of a brain fever fascinate me, but Tolstoy’s characters feel more real and I think I appreciate the fact that they inhabit a world closer to my own.  So I would turn to Dostoevsky for philosophy and ideas, but Tolstoy remains closer to my heart.


Anna Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: The Path to Universal Brotherhood (Northwestern University Press, 2015) is her first book. She has published articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian opera, the relationship of science and literature, and the family novel as a genre. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Reader’s Advisory Board.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Putting Dostoevsky in Context: an Interview with Deborah A. Martinsen and Olga Maiorova

We sat down to chat with Deborah Martinsen and Olga Maiorova about their new book, Dostoevsky in Context. First, congratulations on the publication of your book! I enjoyed reading Dostoevsky in Context a great deal, and will definitely be assigning excerpts from it to my students in the future.

Q. Tell us a little about your book. How did it come about? What is the premise behind it?

DAM: When Cambridge decided to add Dostoevsky as its first non-English language author in their “In Context” series, the editor approached Robin Feuer Miller.  Robin passed the baton to me.  I quickly realized that for such a huge project I needed a partner and immediately thought of Olga, a great literary scholar whose historical knowledge is much deeper than mine.  Olga agreed, and we compiled the table of contents together.  As we explain in our Introduction (which is largely Olga’s work), the volume’s focus on the broad social and intellectual contexts of Dostoevsky’s era allows us to read his works from our own perspective while understanding them as part of Russia’s nineteenth-century history.

OM: In-context study of Russian writers has always been on my research radar, and this is why I was so excited (and grateful!) when Deborah invited me to collaborate on this volume. And of course I was flattered to be working with Deborah Martinsen, a leading Dostoevsky scholar. In a way, our volume pursues a rather conventional approach to Dostoevsky: many generations of scholars have examined his work in historical and literary context. But our volume seeks to go beyond this approach by offering not so much a textual analysis in context (which is traditional), as an in-depth analysis of the contexts themselves, exploring them systemically from Dostoevsky’s perspective.  We also wanted to bring the most recent scholarship on the cultural and historical contexts into the field of Dostoevsky studies.  As time passes, historians, anthropologists, and, of course, literary scholars continue to discover new or overlooked aspects of life in the Russian Empire, and we sought to examine these emerging contexts to facilitate a better understanding of Dostoevsky.  And last but not least, we wanted to bring together in one book the various contexts that were relevant for Dostoevsky, thus introducing readers to the multi-dimensional world he inhabited, both in his everyday life and in his artistic imagination.

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Q. Your book examines Dostoevsky’s works in their historical and cultural context, and as a result its chapters are less about Dostoevsky and more about the age in which he lived- a huge topic! How did you choose which subjects to cover?

DAM: One of my aims was to convey to non-specialist readers that Dostoevsky was involved in Russia’s journal culture from the outset to the end of his career:  he wrote feuilletons in the 1840s, was an editor in the 1860s (Time, 1861-3; Epoch 1864-5), and published his mono-journal Diary of a Writer first as a column in The Citizen, a weekly he edited in 1873-4, then as an extremely popular independent journal in 1876-77, with issues in 1880 and 1881. Like other writers in Russia, Dostoevsky also published all of his fictional works in “thick journals.” He published his semi-autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead  in Time (1861) and Notes from Underground (1864) in Epoch.  He wrote the stories “The Meek One” (1876) and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877) for his Diary.

As a journalist, Dostoevsky was interested in all the major questions of his day, which helped us to choose the other topics.  With generous support from Columbia’s Harriman Institute and University Seminars, we were able to organize a workshop for volume participants at which we discussed the vital question of how to establish the right balance between context and the writings of Dostoevsky.  We also discussed what was missing, after which we invited a few more contributors and asked a few workshop participants to expand their articles to include missing topics.

OM: Another criterion for selecting what to cover was a series of relatively recent advances in our understanding of Dostoevsky’s time. Eye-opening studies of major cultural, social, and political institutions in the Russian Empire – the monarchy, the press and the law, the diversity of religions and the ecclesiastical policies governing them, the hierarchy of ranks, travel writing, suicide, women’s work, gambling, and the perception of children, to mention just a few –  all this new work pointed us toward contexts in which Dostoevsky’s work should be re-examined. In other words, it was the outstanding research of our contributors and, more broadly, recent developments in our field that helped us navigate through the project.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book?

DAM: I love every part of the volume.  Olga and I read and edited every single article, and I learned so much.

OM: I assign various sections of the book to my students and, as we move from chapter to chapter in our discussions, I find every one of them becomes my favorite.

Q. How do you think reading Dostoevsky with this contextualizing information changes or shifts readers’ understanding of his texts?

OM: Different readers may benefit from our volume in different ways. For general readers, we hope the book makes it possible to enjoy Dostoevsky’s novels on a deeper level. We all understand Crime and Punishment better if we know, say, the cultural mythology of Petersburg, where the story is set, or if we learn about the religious beliefs held by the common people in the 19th century. So for the general audience, our book simply expands the horizons. For high school and college instructors who do not specialize in Russia, our volume offers insights into the historical context of Dostoevsky’s age that they can incorporate in their teaching and thus exercise their analytical skills more creatively by using a broader set of materials.  We hope the volume will be of some use for Russianists as well, since it serves as a forum where historians and literary scholars encounter each other in mutually enriching exchanges. At least for us as the editors working across the disciplines was extremely rewarding and refreshing. As the product of an interdisciplinary team of scholars, our volume aims to facilitate further dialogue across the disciplines.

Q. Your volume is intended for a generalized readership, but what books would you recommend to those who desire further reading?

OM & DAM: We have compiled a list of recommended reading in the volume itself and hope it will be of some help. But here we would mention the five-volume biography by the late Joseph Frank — a book that dramatically advanced the study of Dostoevsky during the past three decades and that is now available in a hefty one-volume edition. Without Frank’s beautifully written and exciting monograph our work would not have been possible.

Dostoevsky in Context was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016 and is the first Russian entry in their “Literature in Context” series.


Deborah Martinsen is Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Slavic Department at Columbia University. From 2007-2013, she served as President of the International Dostoevsky Society.  She is author of Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (2003) as well as articles on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov. She is editor of Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (1997; in paper 2010) and co-editor with Cathy Popkin and Irina Reyfman of Teaching Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Belknap (2014).

Olga Maiorova is an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan; her previous publications include From the Shadow of Empire: Defining the Russian Nation Through Cultural Mythology, 1855-1870 (2010), edited collections of works by A. K. Tolstoi, Leskov, and Pisemskii, and numerous articles on Russian writers and thinkers ranging from Herzen and Leontiev to Dostoevsky and Goncharov.

This interview is part of a new feature on The Bloggers Karamazov. If you have recently published work on Dostoevsky and would like to be interviewed on our blog, please let us know!

A chat with Lonny Harrison on his new book about the Dostoevskian psyche

Lonny Harrison is an incoming Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. His book, Archetypes from Underground: Notes on the Dostoevskian Self, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in May 2016.

Harrison cover (f).inddQ. Archetypes from Underground gives its readers a new way of understanding Dostoevsky’s characters. Why do you think we need a new way of reading them?

There are so many ways of reading and understanding Dostoevsky. Like many others, I am interested in the psychology of his characters: the dreamers, criminals, murderers, thieves, the downtrodden and abused, visionary prophets and amoral nihilists, the list goes on… Dostoevsky’s great talent was his facility to dramatize the emotional and psychological lives of such a diverse cast along with their weighty psychic load. But I have always been unsatisfied with the clinical approach, that is, treating them like patients in therapy. From the Vienna school—Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, and others—to more recent studies, there is a whole industry that thrives on analyzing Dostoevsky-as-psychologist. While that can be productive, I prefer the classic studies by Nikolai Berdiaev and Vyacheslav Ivanov, who treated Dostoevsky’s writing in mythic terms, which is more the way I see them. We should remember that Dostoevsky wrote, “They call me a psychologist: it is not true, I am only a realist in a higher sense,” and also, “My idealism is more real than their realism.” One of the things I do in this book is bring a new definition of Dostoevsky’s underground. In brief, the underground is the realm of the unconscious, or it can be “conscious inertia” as the Underground Man calls it. I write about the underground as a transformative principle. It is the nexus where the unconscious meets the conscious mind, causing friction that erupts into clusters of ideas, or patterns of action and behavior. These patterns that emerge are the archetypes themselves. So reading Dostoevsky from an archetypal perspective opens his works to a better understanding of the dynamic qualities of his characters and situations, all responding to the crisis of modernity and the problem of the modern self.

Q. What exactly do you mean by archetypes? What are Dostoevsky’s main archetypes?

Dostoevsky stated on several occasions that he was interested in creating character types. He thought Mr. Golyadkin in The Double was his first and most important underground type; later in the preface to Notes from Underground, he said, “types such as the creator of these notes not only could, but are bound to exist in our society.” Already in these works, however, it is apparent that he means something more than social-cultural types. Even in his earliest writing in the 1840s, that is what sets him apart from the Natural School. As a realist writer, he worked with social-cultural types, but as a “realist in a higher sense,” he worked in the realm of archetypes. From the underground type to the Karamazovan nature, Dostoevsky’s types are archetypes. In fact his final novel is the culmination of a whole cluster of archetypes he had been writing about all through his works. In the preface to The Brothers Karamazov, the hero Alyosha Karamazov is called an “odd man out”—an atypical hero, indeterminate, undefined—yet one who bears within himself the heart of the whole. Looking at the archetypes in characters like the Underground Man and Alyosha and his brothers brings to light the fact that, contrary to popular belief, archetypes are not fixed patterns, but very dynamic expressions of the ever- evolving psyche in its myriad forms. Dostoevsky’s stories are embodiments of the cycles of myth that code the experiences of the average human psyche in its dialectical phases of development. All archetypes have a positive and favorable side that points upward as well as a partly negative and unfavorable, partly chthonic side that points downward. Dostoevsky’s underground is the territory of this downward-pointing dimension, the subterranean, the unconscious. Its opposite is the upward-pointing process of transformation, numinous experience, and discovery of authentic self, which is also his terrain.

Q. Is this binary ever overcome?

Yes, in a sense it is, inasmuch as it works as a catalyst for the coincidence of opposites that produces transformation. We have to recognize that the idea of ego transcendence is so important in Dostoevsky. One doesn’t always think so when we read about the doubles, devils, criminals, etc., that are so frequently met. There are no perfect saints either, of course. Prince Myshkin is not the Christ figure some have made him out to be, and Alyosha confesses that he, too, possesses the earthy Karamazovan nature. But what sets them apart is that Dostoevsky makes them vehicles of the transformative process of the psyche. More than others, they overcome the qualities of egotism that bring chaos to the lives of most of the characters around them. You might ask, so what is ego transcendence, what does it look like? Well it is a variety of things; for one, it is the moment of epiphany, a sudden insight, or fleeting, ecstatic vision. These moments abound in Dostoevsky. The story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is based on just such a transformative vision in a dream (although the lived experience in the dream seemed to occur over a span of eons). It also relates to the concepts of direct experience, spontaneity, and “living life” [zhivaia zhizn’], terms Dostoevsky frequently employed. It is probably encapsulated best in the sermons of Alyosha’s spiritual mentor, the elder Zosima, which give the experience of inner illumination of authentic self its most direct expression. Actually the passage where Zosima is lying in state and Alyosha, holding vigil, has his dream about the miracles at the Wedding at Cana, simply abounds with archetypal imagery, symbols of alchemy, and mystical transformation.

Q. What question(s) first inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been interested in the idea of doubles in Dostoevsky for a long time. It led me to the principle of the complementarity of opposites, which harkens back to ancient and medieval sources like Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Western esotericism. Berdiaev was the first to write about it in Dostoevsky. Following the thread, I found that Dostoevsky’s doubles, and many of his themes more broadly have a lot in common with the work of C.G. Jung. In fact they shared several common sources. Both Jung and Dostoevsky drew on German Romanticism, especially Schelling and Carus, for whom the psychology of the unconscious resonated deeply. I also became interested in the idea of the modern self, especially reading Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and A Genealogy of the Modern Self by Alina Clej. I was intrigued by the idea that the self as we know it is not a static thing, that it has an evolutionary heritage, and I saw Dostoevsky’s writing as occupying an important place in that heritage. I wanted to write about the notion of self in Dostoevsky in order to help in our understanding of the modern self in all its fascinating complexity. I was tantalized by the same questions that seem to tantalize and taunt his characters: What drives them? What do they believe? Who are they? Where is their soul? So I began to think to myself, what is the Dostoevskian self?

Q. Dostoevsky’s books are riddled with doubles. Can we be sure that a single Dostoevskian self exists?

That’s exactly it. There is no monological self in Dostoevsky. That’s why I see the Dostoevskian self as an archetypal patterning. The double is the principle of the unconscious mind meeting the conscious mind. It’s a catalyst for transformation. So I’m mostly interested in how Dostoevsky’s fiction signifies the archetypal source of self, residing in the unconscious. It has potential to inhibit self-awareness and cause personal destruction—in characters like Mr. Golyadkin, the Underground Man, or Stavrogin, but also to enhance self-knowledge and achieve self-integration, as Myshkin, Alyosha, or the Ridiculous Man begin to do.

Q. What were your favorite parts of this research?

I really enjoyed working on Chapter 3 “Dostoevsky’s Underground,” and Chapter 4 “Dostoevsky and the Shadow.” They get to the heart of the matter. They combine several of the most interesting ideas that I was researching, like Dostoevsky’s efforts to revise The Double in the 1860s, which he abandoned in favor of writing Notes from Underground. Moving from Dostoevsky’s underground to the notion of the shadow, I study his trademark archetype Karamazovshchina, which translates roughly as “Karamazovism.” I also examine feminine archetypes such as the Earth Mother and femme fatale for these chapters. Other topics are the epidemic of moral and psycho-ideological illness that Dostoevsky believed had infected the Russian intelligentsia, a travesty he paints with apocalyptic imagery, but also countered with the so-called “Russian idea”. The essential point regarding Dostoevsky’s later writing is its nation-centeredness. He locates the ideal of brotherhood and transcendent, unifying love, and harmony in the Russian narod—a subject he writes extensively about in Diary of a Writer. I also like some of the creepier imagery he uses to represent the underground, like spiders and insects, or the decomposition of consciousness that goes on in the post-mortem socializing of Dostoevsky’s macabre tale “Bobok”. I always have to laugh when I read it. As a literary study of the mind and consciousness, Dostoevsky is at his best, using the fantastic and grotesque to stage his “higher realism.” It just doesn’t get any better than that.

To learn more about Lonny Harrison’s research, check out his faculty profile page. You can also follow him on Twitter @lonnyharrison

This interview has been cross-posted on the UT Arlington liberal arts news website.


This interview is part of a new feature on The Bloggers Karamazov. If you have recently published work on Dostoevsky and would like to be interviewed on our blog, please let us know!