Translating Crime and Punishment: A Conversation with Michael Katz and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, part 1

This past November two new translations of Crime and Punishment were published. Michael Katz’s translation came out with Liveright, a branch of W. W. Norton (link), with an introduction by Katz. Nicolas Pasternak Slater’s came out with Oxford University Press (link), edited and with an introduction by Sarah J. Young. In this series of posts, Bloggers Karamazov sits down with the translators to talk about the experience of translating Dostoevsky’s most famous novel.

 

BK: Why did you decide to translate Crime and Punishment? What speaks to you about this novel?

katz-coverMK: Norton Publishers asked me to recommend a translator, since they intended to commission a new translation of C&P. I nominated myself, of course. They asked me to submit a proposal and a sample of my work. In particular, they asked that I address the weaknesses of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s version (1992); I did so and endeavored to demonstrate in my sample how my version would be an improvement on theirs.

The novel is first and foremost an engrossing detective story: not a “whodunnit?” but rather a “why he dunnit?” The search for a motive or motives for Raskolnikov’s crime is intriguing as three strong characters vie for the hero’s allegiance and/or love: the examining magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich; the humble prostitute, Sonya Marmeladova; and the mysterious stranger, Arkady Svidrigaylov. Dostoevsky asks all the right questions: the nature of man, the existence of God, the meaning of faith, the importance of love. Although I may not agree with all of his answers, I find his search for answers meaningful.

pasternakslater-coverNPS: This is really two questions – why did I decide to translate, and why Crime and Punishment. The second one is simple – I agreed to translate Crime and Punishment because my publishers asked me to, and I jumped at the chance of translating one of the great monuments of European literature.

The first part of the question is more complicated. I translate because I am intrigued by style and language – and languages in the plural. Brought up bilingual, I found other languages (and the ways they work differently from English) a fascinating puzzle; I have collected languages the way other people collect stamps, and translated from several of them. The interest of carrying vocabulary and style across language barriers is what attracts me, and the way that this involves working both with the human element – ideas, stories, arguments, emotions – on the one hand, and the technicalities of vocabulary, syntax and style on the other. My formal training in Russian covered both aspects, first an advanced interpreter’s course in the British Navy, and then a degree in Russian literature at Oxford.  In line with this, my first job after graduating was with a language research unit, developing automated translation between Russian and English by computer (that was in the 1960s, when a computer was the size of a couple of rooms). All this was later echoed in my main career as a hospital doctor specializing in diseases of the blood: there was the human side, discussions and explanations with patients and their families, and the technical side, from physical examination of my patients to running their tests in the laboratory or looking down a microscope at their blood. After retirement I returned to my first love of translation, seeking a similar mix again.

One thing that speaks to me about the novel – apart from the kaleidoscope of strange characters and the piercing evocation of guilt and stress – is the vivid descriptions of the city and the way poor people lived. When my wife and I visited Petersburg ten or twelve years ago and did a sort of Crime and Punishment pilgrimage, visiting the places said to have inspired Dostoevsky, we passed a throng of destitute people by the roadside, trying to sell anything they had, from used bootlaces to a handful of plastic bags. It was a sad and startling sight; Dostoevsky knew that side of his city all too well.

 

BK: What is the most difficult part of the novel to translate and why? How does it feel to translate Dostoevsky into English?

NPS: The most difficult part of the novel to translate, but at the same time one of the most rewarding, is the dialogue. Almost all the characters in Crime and Punishment have an individual ‘voice’ which carries over from one episode to the next. I have tried to copy their distinctive voices as faithfully as I could, while making each character’s speech seem natural in English. At the same time, the colloquial speech, while sounding normal to the modern ear, must not be too colloquial – it would never do to have palpably twenty-first-century expressions intruding into this nineteenth-century novel. Yet nor does one want old-fashioned Victorian English. What the translator has to look for is a kind of neutral speech that sounds natural when spoken, without being too specifically redolent of England (or any other English-speaking nation, but I write as a British translator); one has to remember that the story is about Russia. – When Dostoevsky uses outspokenly lower-class or peasant expressions, it becomes even more difficult. Some translators have had recourse to Cockney (London) slang to render demotic Russian, and this sometimes works, though it can be treacherous. Regional provincial English is even more of a minefield, and best avoided I think.

MK: The hardest part to translate is the author’s dark sense of humor. It comes to the fore especially in the witty exchanges between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich. A good example is the entrance staged by Raskolnikov with his forced laughter at Razumikhin’s expense; Porfiry quickly grasps the trick and even comments on it. It is even more apparent in Dostoevsky’s novel Devils (1871-72), which I translated some years ago for Oxford World Classics. In that novel all political ideas were parodied as they were taken to the extreme, the result being that no character could really be taken seriously.

Translating Dostoevsky into English means living in his overwrought and emotional world for several hours a day. It is exhausting but exhilarating.

Dumala-bridge

click here for Part 2!


Michael Katz is the C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. His published research includes numerous articles and two books, The Literary Ballad in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1976) and Dreams and the Unconscious in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (1984). A prolific translator, he has made a number of works available for English language readers, including prose by Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Tur, Druzhinin, Artsybashev, Sleptsov, Jabotinsky, and others. His translations of Dostoevsky’s works include Notes from Underground (1989, 2nd ed. 2001), Devils (2010), and Crime and Punishment (2018).

Nicolas Pasternak Slater has a half-Russian background, was brought up bilingual, and studied Russian at school and university as well as during his military service. He spent most of his working life as a hospital doctor and came to translation after retirement. Besides Crime and Punishment (2017), his translations include Pasternak’s Family Correspondence (2010), Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time (2013), Pushkin’s The Journey to Arzrum (2013), Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2015), and, most recently, Chekhov’s The Beauties: Essential Stories (2018).

The cover image for this post is a screenshot from Piotr Dumała’s animated adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel (Zbrodnia i kara, 2000). You can view the full animation here.

Dostoevsky’s Drawings and Calligraphy

by Konstantin Barsht

The Drawings and Calligraphy of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Bergamo: Lemma Press, 2016) is an updated, deluxe edition of my earlier work, available for the first time in English (and Italian as well as Russian). It features numerous examples of Dostoevsky’s graphic heritage, including more than 100 portraits, several hundred Gothic architectural drawings, more than 1,000 calligraphic writings, and other forms of ideography. Based on extensive research, this volume asserts that this large body of graphic material forms part of Dostoevsky’s creative process, enabling him to move from image to word as he realized his literary ideas.

310_110The volume begins with the peculiarities of Dostoevsky’s education, namely his training at the Military Engineering Academy: the method of drawing he learned there became the foundation for creating his literary images.  Significantly, Dostoevsky’s drawings include portraits of the historical figures, literary colleagues, and relatives whom he thought about while writing: Peter the Great, Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Turgenev, Viktor Askochensky, Mikhail Cervantes, Voltaire, F. P. Haase, William Shakespeare, Roger Tichborne, Germaine de Stael, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Timofey Granovsky, Napoleon Bonaparte I, Gioachino Rossini, Mikhail Dostoevsky (his older brother) and Mikhail’s wife Emilia Fyodorovna, Dostoevsky’s own young son, Fyodor.  All portraits are identified in the Lemma Press volume, which also includes some self-portraits.

Chapter 3 describes the way Dostoevsky portrays characters in the novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov. A special chapter analyzing the interaction between words and images in Dostoevsky’s creative process discusses Dostoevsky’s fascination with physiognomy, properties of portraiture in verbal and figurative art, elements of gothic architecture, his “penmanship,” and features of narrative form and narrative ekphrasis in his work. The book includes an index of names, geographical locations, and Dostoevsky’s works, as well as 202 pages of high-quality facsimiles featuring the drawings in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts.

Ideography, a key component of Dostoevsky’s creative notebooks, vividly captures many changes in the external and internal conditions of the writer’s life.  Most importantly, his ideography provides an extremely precise and productive source of information about his creative process. The volume holds that Dostoevsky’s works can be studied only by consistently and systematically analyzing all the texts and languages involved in his fictional process. Far from being an offshoot of Dostoevsky’s world, the drawings he made during his writing can be seen as a cardinal axis along which he crafted the desired artistic form. It shows that the texts of Dostoevsky’s draft manuscripts were not written in a single textual language accompanied by drawings, but in several languages that form a complex hybrid of textual-graphic languages and ideography. Within the framework of this new understanding, all drawings and notations, all signs in Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, irrespective of their intelligibility or external aesthetic, are fundamentally of equal importance for his art.

When looking at these portraits, examining the ornamental Gothic compositions, or reading Dostoevsky’s polished calligraphy, readers can feel the intense mental struggle of feelings and ideas which drove the writer’s process of “contemplation with pen in hand” that then flowed out onto the pages of his novels – a glimpse into the Holy of Holies of Dostoevsky’s creative consciousness. This experience allows us to view his artistic world “from within,” in direct, visible form, just the way he created it. Although Dostoevsky was capable of more artistically successful drawings, he had no time to draw better: his thought moved swiftly alongside his graphic art and through it to artistic form. The image1ingenious novels that Dostoevsky created through the medium of these sketches – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, A Raw Youth and Brothers Karamazov – offer sufficient grounds for us to forgive the novelist for not completing some of his graphic sketches. The discovery of the world of images created by Dostoevsky’s hand helps us to better understand his works and to more profoundly assimilate the universal values found in them. Although separated from us by many decades, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky as writer and artist moves closer to us as we immerse ourselves in his graphic productions. At the same time, our ability to approach this classic writer of Russian and world literature as well as his works, makes it possible for us to understand ourselves better. This is why we should read Dostoevsky’s “graphic words” in the language in which they were written.


Konstantin Barsht is a Professor and Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has published more than 232 books and articles, including the following books on Dostoevsky’s work: The Story of the Timeless (about Dostoevsky’s Demons) (St Petersburg, 1994), Drawings in Dostoevsky’s Manuscripts (St Petersburg, 1996), and F. M. Dostoevsky’s Drawings. Catalogue, which appeared as vol. 17 of The Complete Works of F. M. Dostoevsky (Moscow, 2005). You can reach him on email at konstantin_barsht (at) pushdom (dot) ru.

Dostoevsky Panels and Papers at AATSEEL 2018!

AATSEEL is just around the corner!

As always, there’s lots to see, but make sure to carve out time in your schedule for Fyodor Mikhailovich. Here is a list of the papers and panels on Dostoevsky (including time, location, and who’s presenting). See you there!

(List compiled by Greta Matzner-Gore, Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California)

 

Friday, February 2

8:00-10:00 AM

 

Stream 3A: Mimesis in Russian Art and Aesthetic Theory (I)

Location: Declaration B

Panelist: S. Ceilidh Orr, Willamette University

Title: “Zachem eto u nas ne odinakovyi pocherk?”: Imitation and alienation in Dostoevsky’s copyist fiction

 

Saturday, February 3

8:00-10:00 AM

 

Stream 1B: Tolstoevsky: Dostoevsky and Internality

Location: Declaration A

Panelist: Brian Armstrong, Augusta University

Title: Undomesticating the Sublime in The Idiot

Panelist: Paul Contino, Pepperdine University

Title: Alyosha and Kolya: The Recovery of Internality in The Brothers Karamazov

Panelist: Yuri Corrigan, Boston University

Title: Transgression and Obedience: Dostoevsky on Evil, Before and After Auschwitz

 

1:15-3:00 pm

Stream 4B: Translation (II): Translation and Diaspora: Poetics of Translation

Location: Penn Quarter A

Panelist: Eugenia Kelbert, School of Philology, Higher School of Economics

Title: Translating Style: Dostoevsky in Emigration

3:15-5:00pm

Stream 1B: Tolstoevsky (III): Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: Religion and Literature

Location: Declaration A

Panelist: Jimmy Sudario Cabral

Title: Dostoevsky: Religion, Nihilism, and Negative Theology 

Panelist: Jesse Stavis, Bryn Mawr College

Title: The Prince and the Pauper: Resurrection, Crime and Punishment, and the Question of Conversion

Panelist: Maxwell Parlin, Princeton University

Title: Three Levs Nikolaevich: Tolstoy, Myshkin, Odoevtsev. Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House as Commentary to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

 

Russian Modernist Discourse and Perspectives

Location: Latrobe

Panelist: Lindsay Ceballos, Lafayette College

Title: De-Monologizing Early Symbolist Discourse on Dostoevsky

Sunday, February 4

8:00-10:00am

North American Dostoevsky Society

Location: Tiber Creek A

Panelist: Erica Drennan, Columbia University

Title: To America or Siberia? Binaries and Porous Boundaries in Crime and Punishment 

Panelist: Molly Rose Avila, Columbia University

Title: A Calligraphic Gaze

10:15am-12:00pm

Dostoevsky: Texts and Contexts

Location: Banneker

Panelist: Vladimir Ivantsov, Williams College

Title: “Awfully Fond of Children”: Children and the Exit from the Underground in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground

Panelist: Saera Yoon, UNIST

Title: Another Loveless Father: Grigory in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Panelist: Maria Whittle, University of California Berkeley

Title: Still Dreaming: Spatiotemporal Practice in Dostoevskii’s Belye Nochi

 

CFP – First Symposium of the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society

In collaboration with Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the National museum of Literature (Sofia), the Museum of Christian Art (Sofia), the Gorky Institute of World Literature (Moscow), the State Museum of the History of Russian Literature (Moscow), the Research Center of Vjacheslav Ivanov (Romе), and the Society of Akira Kurosawa (Japan), the Bulgarian Dostoevsky Society is organizing an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on the anthropology of Dostoevsky in reference to philosophical anthropology and European culture of the 20th century,  Russian religious-philosophical thinking and culture of the 20th century, and specifically on the novel “Idiot” (on occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel). The symposium will take place in Sofia on October 23-26, 2018.

The invitation is addressed to specialists from various fields of knowledge and research such as philosophers, specialists in literary studies, linguists, theologists, psychologists, psychoanalysts, etc. The official languages of the symposium are Russian, English and Bulgarian. Presentations, which should last exactly 20 minutes, will be followed by 10 minutes for questions and discussion.

Prospective participants should submit abstracts (up to 250 words) by e-mail to symposium2018@bod.bg by 31 January 2018. The organizing committee will get back to you with their decision at the beginning of March. The formal call for papers (in Russian and English) can be found here (and includes more information), and the preliminary schedule can be found here.

All those who work on Dostoevsky are warmly invited to consider participating in this symposium!

Dostoevsky and Russian lit panels at MLA 2018

Happy New Year to all! If you find yourself at the MLA Convention in New York City this week, please join us on Thursday, Jan. 4  for the presidential theme panel organized by the International Dostoevsky Society, “Dostoevsky and States of Insecurity.” Here are the details:

Session 150: Dostoevsky and States of Insecurity

Time: Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 5:15–6:30 PM

Place: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, “Midtown” Room

Program:

Presider: Carol Apollonio, Duke U.

“Sovereignty and Exception in Crime and Punishment: Dostoevsky with Carl Schmitt”(Ilya Kliger, New York U)

“Arkady’s Overcoat: Illegitimacy and Characterization in Dostoevsky” (Chloë Kitzinger, Rutgers, the State U of New Jersey)

“‘Like a Cat around a Hot Saucer of Milk’: Dostoevsky’s Destabilizing Descriptions of Perverse Sexuality” (Zachary Johnson, U of California, Berkeley)

You may also be interested in the  following Russian literature-related panels and papers:

 

Session 12: Revolution, Take 2: Exporting the Russian Revolution

Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, 12:00-1:15 PM (Hilton, Regent)

Participants include: Katerina Clark (Yale U.), Matthias Müller (Cornell U.), Darja Filippova (Princeton U.), Masha Salazkina (Concordia U.)

 

Session 289: Transatlantic Translations of Trans

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, 12:00-1:15 PM (Hilton, Midtown)

Participants include: Jessie M. Labov (Central European U.), Brian James Baer (Kent State U.), Vitaly Chernetsky (U. of Kansas), Sandra Joy Russell (U. of Massachusetts, Amherst), Kārlis Vērdiņš (Washington U. in St Louis)

 

Session 394: Alternative Pasts and Futures in Postsocialist Science Fiction

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Midtown)

Participants include: Jefferson J.A. Gattrall (Montclair State U.), Julia Gerhard (U. of Colorado, Boulder), Natalija Majsova (U of Ljubljana), Reed Johnson (U of Virginia)

 

Session 531: Meter, Rhyme, and Dialogue with the Other: Translating from Arabic, Russian, and Spanish into English, including a paper on translating Elena Fanailova

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 10:15 AM–11:30 AM (Hilton, Concourse C)

Participants include: Karen Emmerich (Princeton U.), Gregary Joseph Racz (Long Island U., Brooklyn), Sibelan Forrester (Swarthmore C), Mbarek Sryfi (U of Pennsylvania)

 

Session 636: Redefining Self-Translation, including two papers on Vladimir Nabokov’s translations of his own poetry and prose.

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Concourse E)

Participants include: Genevieve Waite (Graduate Center, City U of New York), Jean-Christophe Cloutier (U. of Pennsylvania), Michael G. Boyden (Uppsala U.), Adrian J. Wanner (Penn State U.), Julia Titus (Yale U.)

 

Session 654: Literature of Waste and Environmental Insecurity in Central and Eastern Europe

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 3:30–4:45 PM (Hilton, Hudson)

Participants include: Julia Vaingurt (U of Illinois, Chicago), Heather I. Sullivan (Trinity U), Colleen McQuillen (U of Illinois, Chicago), Christopher Harwood (Columbia U)

 

Session 697: Bad Translation, including the paper: “The Russian Crime and Punishment in the Argentine Seven Madmen; or, How Bad Translations Made Good Literature”

Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, 5:15–6:30 pm (Hilton, Concourse F)

Participants include: Benjamin Paloff (U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Bret Maney (Lehman C, City U. of New York), Ellen Elias-Bursac (American Literary Translators Assn.), Adel Fauztdinova (Boston U.)

 

Hope to see you there!


This list has been compiled by Chloë Kitzinger, a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers’ Advisory Board and an Assistant Professor at Rutgers.

Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser: Reading Dostoevsky in Contemporary America

by Justin Trifiro

The following piece derives from a talk delivered at the Jubilee celebration of the Russian major at the University of Montana. It is with hope that we approach the new year together and closer in spirit…

If Dostoevsky were alive and working today, he would be a fearless Facebook stalker and a better tweeter than Trump. A voracious reader of both foreign literatures and the Russian press, Dostoevsky was a seasoned practitioner in a vital human activity that persists in losing momentum and prestige in our postmodern condition: namely, the art of reading. (I hear the voice of Dostoevsky the Paradoxalist chiding me for the earlier comparsion to Trump the President, purportedly a man who has yet to read a book from cover to cover.) Ever an impassioned polemicist and fierce critical thinker, discussion and debate would increasingly become marked concomitant features of the mature Dostoevsky’s engagement with the written word. We come to know ourselves through storytelling.

To know a place is to take in its imagery, cautiously and attentively. To know a man is to reflect on his contours, both bodily and spiritual, to experience his rhythms and gestures as something radically Other and never wholly comprehensible. Knowing as a communicative process, as a motive force—this is the locus of Dostoevsky’s personal and artistic genius. In a letter to his beloved brother Mikhail (dating from August, 1839, shortly after the death of his father), the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky writes, “Man is a mystery [chelovek est’ taina]. The mystery needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted your time; I am engaged with this mystery because I want to be a human being [Ia zanimaius’ etoi tainoi, ibo khochu byt’ chelovekom].” Years later in April 1864, reflecting on the death of his first wife, Maria, Dostoevsky writes in his notebook, “Man strives on earth toward an ideal that is contrary to his nature [Chelovek stremitsia na zemle k idealu, protivupolozhnomu ego nature].” Robert Louis Jackson considers this to be the writer’s most important philosophical statement. We as autonomous creatures, shrouded in mystery and riddled with contradiction, are ultimately responsible for the cultivation and harvest of an ideal state of being, however curious and confounding the seasons may be.

The season of the world today is one decidedly conditioned by a pervasive sense of fear. This is nothing new. What perhaps most palpably distinguishes our current condition from former times is the astonishing advent of advanced modes of technology. Developments in the realm of social media are of particular gravity and consequence for the viability of interpersonal and cross-cultural relations. We are somehow simultaneously so close to and so far from one another. Some would say we are experiencing a season of shame as Pope Francis recently stated from the Vatican: “Such shame…derives from ‘all those images of devastation, destruction, shipwrecks, that have become routine in our lives.’” The world has probably always been at sixes and sevens, but today, in an image-saturated culture, we are bombarded with visual exigencies from all four corners. We are wounded birds, weary and battle-scarred. What happens to human beings and our collective potential to respond to each other sensitively and temperately when images of deformity and decay become routinized and instrumentalized in the service of deeply-rooted regimes of power and exclusion? Now more than ever we appear to be in need of the insulted and injured, the disenfranchised and misunderstood, the holy fools gracing this rock.

To look, or not to look—such is the concern. But there is more to this all too cozy formulation—how do we responsibly view scenes of unconscionable ugliness? Writing to his friend and frequent correspondent, Nikolai Strakhov, in June 1870, Dostoevsky emphatically states, “…man on the surface of the earth does not have the right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth…[…chelovek, na poverkhnosti zemnoi, ne imeet prava otvertyvat’sia I ignorirovat’ to, chto proiskhodit na zemle…].” He is writing in response to a piece recently published by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (with whom Dostoevsky had, well, complicated relations) on a public execution Turgenev witnessed in France. Dostoevsky himself faced public execution when he was led to the scaffold in 1849 for his participation in an underground socialist circle. At the last minute, Tsar Nicholas I had the sentence commuted to four years in a Siberian prison camp with a subsequent six-year term of military service in Central Asia. Dostoevsky survived his own death. In his later novels (most vividly captured in Prince Myshkin’s reflections on near-death experience in The Idiot), Dostoevsky returns again and again to the theme of facing one’s mortality, directly, without filters. He stages scenes of extraordinary violence and brutality demanding a moral choice on the part of the reader—do I keep reading or shut the book and donate it to Goodwill?

Man is a mystery, and he must be unraveled. This is a categorical assertion that bolsters the necessity for artistic depictions of violence in Dostoevsky’s work. Homo sum et nihil humanum (“I am a man, nothing human is foreign to me”). Terence’s quotation was elevated to a space of great praise during Renaissance humanism, but Dostoevsky questions its infallible merits. If I am a man, then I am capable of engendering tremendous pain and committing all sorts of egregious acts. If none of this is alien to me, then in a sense all is permitted. (It is no accident that Svidrigailov, traditionally viewed as one of the great villains in Dostoevsky’s fiction, utters this phrase shortly before committing suicide toward the end of Crime and Punishment.) It is evident that Dostoevsky considered savagery and barbarity to be immutable realities native to the human condition. As we are all capable of performing considerable injustices to ourselves and to one another, so too we are all responsible for taking a moral inventory of our thoughts, inclinations, and actions.

I have been discussing violence at length because it seems that its presence is endemic to the United States today. The systematic physical and psychological hurt done to minority groups (particularly black men and transgender folk); the vociferous evangelism against immigrants of various skin shades and creeds; the deplorable denigration of drug addicts and the mentally ill—this land increasingly distances itself from the pronoun “our” in favor of binary distinctions proceeding from the rupture of “us” vs. “them.” Terrifyingly, much of this misguided and misdirected vitriol operates from a top-down government apparatus that appears to be fundamentally unaware of the precarity of human life.

A few months short of Donald Trump’s election, Ani Kokobobo contributed a fine piece entitled, “How Dostoevsky predicted Trump’s America.” She writes, “As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, ‘Demons,’ written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers of about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages—largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos—resonate in our present climate.” She goes on to note how Trump’s lack of “impulse control” proved to be extremely effective in working up a mass of frustrated people and inspiring similarly aggressive behaviors from much of his constituency. Kokobobo notes, “When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming ‘Lock her up and ‘Kill her,’ or when Donald Trump—either wittingly or unwittingly—advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of ‘Demons.’”

Demons is Dostoevsky’s most overtly political novel, a work marked by narrative disarray, intercharacterological agitation, and extreme violence. This artistic statement may be as close as Dostoevsky comes to delineating what he perceives to be the alarmingly short step from socialist aspiration to totalitarian asphyxiation. Whenever Dostoevsky’s name is invoked as a prophet* to modernity or prophesier of the nightmare events of the twentieth-century, the novel Demons typically becomes an integral element of the conversation. The work pivots around a few major points, all of them pertinent to any discussion on some of the major issues plaguing contemporary American culture: the prevalence of a “herd mentality” before a concentrated, “educated” elite; the social ramifications of rumormongering; and perhaps most importantly what Sarah Pratt has termed “bystander (ir)responsibility”—that is, the neglect human beings so often exhibit before the plight of others. (*And here I must thank Robin Miller for reminding me that Dostoevsky is an eminently “fallen” prophet—one need only flip to any page in the Diary [and especially the Diary of the last years] to find much ugliness that is frighteningly resonant with the current administration’s agenda. Heroes are not angels, and men are hardly heroes.)

Toward the end of Dostoevsky’s life, the concept of obosoblenie would come to haunt the writer and inform much of his ethical thought and artistic creation. Obosoblenie, as a socio-cultural crisis in late Imperial Russia, is distinguished by a tendency toward isolation, the compartmentalizing of self. It is a marker of what Charles Taylor has termed the “buffered” individual stance of modern Western man. Centuries of Cartesian dualist and Kantian categorical conditioning have placed a premium on minds and the faculty of reason. Following Tayor (and borrowing a term from Max Weber), we live in a “disenchanted” world, one increasingly devoid of a sense of the ineffable. That which resides outside of phenomenological experience (I am thinking here of spirits and such) no longer holds ontic value as it did for our premodern ancestors. The world has become less mysterious, and so we no longer turn out and physically seek, but mentally fortify and turn inward.

Obosoblenie is a major thread comprising the fabric of what Leonard G. Friesen, in a recent study, has called Dostoevsky’s “orphan’s lament” ethic. This lament is overwhelmingly a clarion call signaling alienation and human disconnect. From Dostoevsky’s first work, Poor People (1846), to his final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), the theme of withdrawal, and its constitutive elements of loneliness, suspicion, and intemperance, defines the dissonance of a technologically-dependent universe moving at a breakneck tempo away from a primitive fraternity that is predicated on spontaneous, freely suggested interpersonal exchange. It is the crisis of our own age.

If there is anything approaching an answer to the fractured conditions Dostoevsky so presciently diagnosed, it may be found in the attitude of one of his most beloved characters, Father Zosima. The starets advocates a program of “active love” (deiatel’naia liubov’) as a balm for our collective grief. He stresses that loving one’s neighbor actively is hard work—this is because to love another being with tenderness and care is to expose oneself to the very real possibility of being let down, of potentially experiencing all kinds of hurt. To love another actively necessitates loving with a significant degree of uncertainty and vulnerability—it is an act of faith. This is why Ivan Karamazov claims it so much easier to love one’s neighbor when that neighbor doesn’t live next door. Diametrically opposed to the Christian conception of agape (marvelously announced in Kierkegaard’s command: “The first being I see upon opening my door, that one shall I love”), Ivan’s abstract love doesn’t dance—it insulates and atrophies. There is no mystery here, no faith.

We know a good deal in America in 2017, but we are not faithful. Dostoevsky paints a cosmos bereft of faith as one systemically ill, flawed at the root. Where knowledge is stationary, faith is in movement. In the twelfth-century, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “How then does faith differ from knowledge? In that even though it is no more in doubt than knowledge, we hold what we believe as a mystery, as we do not do with knowledge. When you know something you seek no further. Or if you do, you have not yet known.” Dostoevsky’s gift to the world is fundamentally Dionysian in spirit—it is an ecstatic quest that strives toward moral improvement. In the words of Zosima, “Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser.”


Justin Trifiro is a PhD student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California.

Commemorating the 140th Anniversary of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” at the Dostoevsky Museum in St Petersburg

by Vadim Shkolnikov

“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” comprises something like a Dostoevskian genealogy of morals.  When the story’s narrator, who has been driven to the brink of suicide and, as it would seem, utter indifference towards his fellow human beings, realizes that he still cannot extinguish an irrepressible spark of moral compassion for a suffering little girl, he sees a dream that fantastically unfolds the source this moral feeling.  In the process Dostoevsky takes us on a journey through time and space, to a distant planet where a beautiful people live in harmony and bliss—until we witness their shocking descent into the deceit, violence and suffering with which we are so familiar.  Yet in the end the narrator finally understands!

Dost exhibit 9The ongoing exhibit at the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, dedicated to the 140th anniversary of “Dream of the Ridiculous Man”—“Фантастические миры Достоевского” [The Fantastic Worlds of Dostoevsky]—presents a wide array of materials that aim to contextualize Dostoevsky’s artistic vision and illuminate its genesis.

Considerable attention is devoted to tracing the diverse forms of “the fantastical” throughout Dostoevsky’s writings: from the schizophrenia of The Double to the frivolity of “The Crocodile”; from Raskolnikov’s dream in Siberian exile to the satirical vision of the afterlife in “Bobok.”

The exhibit is, moreover, divided into visions of “paradise” and of “hell,” reflecting the duality depicted in “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”  The story is thus shown to resonate with a multitude of other works: literary, religious, and visual, including Dante’s Inferno, the bathhouse scene in Notes from the House of the Dead, and Hieronymous Bosch’s remarkable 16th-century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

There are various historical artifacts from Dostoevsky’s own time, including manuscripts and a scientific brochure on trichina, which Dostoevsky researched before composing Raskolnikov’s Siberian dream.

To top it all off, you can watch the 1992 animated adaptation of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.”

The exhibit runs through December 29. You can read a public domain English translation of “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” here.

Dost exhibit 7

The author, enjoying the exhibit!


Vadim Shkolnikov is a dotsent in the Department of Comparative Literature and Linguistics at the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg.  He is currently writing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and its (unintended) connection to Russian revolutionary terrorism.  And having now lived in St. Petersburg for a year, he feels that he has learned all there is to know apropos of wet snow!