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.

Finding Raskolnikov on the Dialogic Blog Trail

by Robin Feuer Miller

A young man succumbs to the unfinished ideas in the air; viruses travel through the world in the same way as ideas; words are germs; infections spread in the stifling urban heat; the dirty water cannot cleanse body or soul but instead becomes a breeding ground for more viruses of all kinds. So far I am the oldest person to volunteer to contribute to this blog—a space already positively radiant with postings from some of the most creative Dostoevsky scholars in the world—I am, moreover, even at my advanced age, a Twitter virgin, a Snapchat ignoramus, and an Instagram idiot. But it is abundantly clear that Dostoevsky would hungrily pursue all these forms of communication; he would be a shameless multi-tasker, and he would surely relish reading the postings on “The Bloggers Karamazov.”

Sitting down to read them from top to bottom, thus taking the most recent and reading back to the first—in a weird kind of inverse dialogue—has made Crime and Punishment come disturbingly alive in new ways. The novel has wiggled out of its words on the page and literally entered the air, permeating anew the readers of these blogs; we are re-infected and discover that we have not built up any immunities to the contagion this work can engender. Frankly, @RodionTweets and the subsequent posts are more immediate and effective in conveying the essence of the novel than any visual representations of it, which, however exciting to watch, broadcast a more unified voice than the odd and compelling multi-voiced chorus that sounds out from these virtual collections.

Velký_dialog_(1966),_laminát,_drát,_textil,_lak,_145x190x83_cm

Velky dialog (1966) by Karel Nepraš

In the virtual space allotted to me here, let me follow the backwards dialogic trail of these Crime and Punishment posts so far, beginning (that is ending) with Robert L. Belknap (the recently deceased and beloved teacher of many of us) and ending (that is beginning) with Katia Bowers, to whom—along with Kate Holland, Brian Armstrong, Sarah Hudspith,Sarah J. Young, Jennifer L. Wilson, and Kristina McGuirk—we and Dostoevsky owe so much. You have collectively reinvigorated (or re-infected) us; the hot summer air of those weeks in St. Petersburg one hundred and fifty years ago are reincarnated in the sweltering summer of 2016 in locales all over the map.

Through the keen lens of Deborah Martinsen’s notes and recollections of Bob Belknap we learn that Bob considered Razumikhin to be “racy, snappy, generous, arrogant, fun” and not unlike Dostoevsky himself. (These adjectives evoke Bob pretty well too.) Both Dostoevsky and his character were given to translations: Dostoevsky’s first work was a rough translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, and Razumikhin proposes to Raskolnikov that they translate part of Rousseau’s Confessions—a work important to Balzac and with which Dostoevsky polemicized for most of his life, especially within the pages of our novel at hand. Bob, in his posthumous book, Plots, considers the meaning of translation in its broadest possible sense:

Plot summaries deserve serious theoretical attention. . . Like a translation, a plot summary tries to represent a text, a set of black marks on a page . . . Indeed, some argue that the summary of a book is the plot of the book, with all the burden of significance and power that implies; others argue that the only proper summary of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the book itself, that summary is impossible (p. 7).

The same argument is frequently made about translation.

Deborah identifies the essence of what made Bob such a great classroom teacher: “He did not tell us or show us what to think, he made us think by making us experience the texts he was teaching.” In this too, Bob reflects the writer to whom he devoted most of his scholarly life. Of all Dostoevsky’s works it is perhaps Crime and Punishment which most irresistibly, most inexorably draws its readers into its vortex. All our blogs so far attest to this fact in one way or another. How many of you, like me, have had a student say that reading the novel allowed him to feel what it was like (or, in one frightening case, to want) to commit murder? We teachers of Dostoevsky’s works frequently find ourselves engaged in startling, atypical classroom discussions when his words are “in play.”

Deborah tackles Dostoevsky’s frequent use of the phrase “new word”, highlighting Porfiry’s chilling insight that Raskolnikov’s “new word” –that which “truly belongs to you alone, to my horror—is that, in the end, you permit bloodshed as a matter of conscience, and if you’ll excuse me, you’re actually quite fanatical about it.” She highlights Porfiry’s insight, but I, and perhaps others of you, have consistently glided over it, even despite repeated readings of the novel. How does Dostoevsky achieve these repeated instances of having his readers fail to notice the most significant details? Or, rather, we each notice our own significant details. Like Raskolnikov, who expresses his fear of them from the outset, we are undone by “the trifles” looming unseen before us.

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My  tiny edition of Crime and Punishment (RFM)

When Kristina McGuirk describes how twitter provides Raskolnikov a medium for talking to himself, she takes us back full circle, as do a number of the other bloggers, to Dostoevsky’s original conception of narrating his novel in the first person. The tweets she and others forge are bone-chilling, reducing the novel to a distilled new essence Dostoevsky would have savored. I am reminded of a tiny edition (summary really—with black and white drawings; image to the right) that I possess of Crime and Punishment: an edition handed out to soldiers in World War II. It slips into the front pocket of any shirt and is barely noticeable. Katia Bowers describes how she envisioned creating an ending for the twitterized version of the novel to rival another “amazing” twitter account: @MayorEmanuel. Had Dostoevsky been writing his Diary of a Writer today, we can be sure his insights, like Katia’s, would be littered with websites, twitter hashtags, and other such forays into the virtual air. Katia, like Kristina, in trying to tweet Raskolnikov, comes up against narrative truths: “it’s difficult to build narrative force without access to the 3rd person narrator’s tools and tricks.” These tweets allow in the inner experience of [re]creating Dostoevsky’s character.

And something even more significant happens: Katia tells us, as Rodion’s tweets “go out, they mingle with other tweets in readers’ feeds, become lost, are retweeted out of chronology.” A living, vibrating air-born hybrid is created that changes by the moment and becomes eerily close to some kind of . . . dare one say it . . . collective consciousness. Jennifer Wilson’s blog seems to build on Katia’s, though of course, in this inverted dialogue, it actually precedes it chronologically. She describes how poverty fractures the self, and thus Dostoevsky’s “characters rarely use words to say what they mean, but rather to express how they would like to be understood.” Her analysis of “pauper’s pride” shows us how powerfully social contexts are woven inextricably into intimate individual perception. She “shows” us this in a concrete way, because she is describing the challenge of attempting to tweet the pain of the irritating yet tragic Katerina Ivanovna. We are thus boldly and actually confronted by the myriad obstacles that Dostoevsky himself “stepped over” in creating his novel.

Brian Armstrong’s ruminations about “higher twitter realism” seem to encapsulate the experiences others have described above, but of course his post too comes before theirs. Inspired by Carol Apollonio’s address at the International Dostoevsky Symposium earlier this summer, Brian asks, “How do we know that the conversation in Porfiry’s office happens just as the narrator reports?” Or, as Carol asked more broadly in her presentation, “What happened?” The twitter modality seems to highlight these broadly ontological considerations, coaxing them out of the dark corners we generally choose not to discuss with any text.

Kate Holland’s post offers both a trenchant analysis of the challenges of tweeting Part III of the novel as well as some significant theoretical insights into the genre of twitter (if we may call it a genre) more generally.   She describes the project as requiring three different modes of translation: direct transcription, transposition of narrative voice, and creative manipulation of the story by the actual “addition of thoughts which might be conceivable ascribed to Raskolnikov.” For her—for all of us—the hardest part “to get used to was adaptation, or ‘filling in’ gaps which the text intentionally leaves opaque.” What is this but a bold, new, stark way of experiencing the novel and testing out its ideas in a way far more personal than what we do in more traditional critical writing, which is itself, like summary, a form of translation?

Our blog has the title “The Bloggers Karamazov.” How would one tweet that novel? How would we deal with its time (a narrator-chronicler in the present, events, presented somewhat out of chronology, 13 years previously in August, November), its multiplicity of primary characters, its preoccupation with evidence?   Sarah J. Young describes how these virtual projects, whether digitally mapping St. Petersburg or tweeting Raskolnikov, “force us towards completeness and to following our reading to its logical limit.” She points out that traditional forms of interpretation allow us to be less consistent and, basically, more tentative in our conclusions. So the result of this process has been for her, and for other tweeters of Raskolnikov, “closer readings” than they have ever done before. The tweets en masse have forged a new, virtual Raskolnikov, a complex, self-contradictory composite formed by all who participated. Taken as a whole, they constitute Raskolnikov’s actual words and perceptions made “new.”

Sarah Hudspith candidly expressed her excitement that the tweeting project offered her the chance to (re)write part of a novel with which she had had a life-long love affair. Her insight takes reading and writing about what we read to a whole new level. One of my favorite courses that I offer is entitled, “Chekhov’s Stories on Stage.” Students have an opportunity to recast Chekhov’s stories into a dramatic form. But the creation of Raskolnikov’s tweets offers an even more dramatic, intimate challenge and suggests that we would do well, as teachers, to engage our students in similar activities. They would then, in Belknap-fashion, experience the novel more fully. And the responses to it modelled through such a project come close to the inner heart of why we read in the first place and what reading can teach us both as individuals and as members of society.


Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities and Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University. Her most recent books include Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (2007) and The Brothers Karamazov: The Worlds of the Novel (2008).