Dostoevsky on the Soul. An exchange between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev, part 2

by Caryl Emerson

This is the second post in a two-part series on the agon between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev and picks up in the middle of the narrative. To read Part 1, click here.

YuriHeadshot2018

Yuri Corrigan

On February 21, in Princeton, Yuri presented a variant on his ASEEES paper, “Nihilism as Refuge:  Rethinking the Philosophical Dostoevsky,” which significantly expanded and refined the thesis of his 2017 book, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self.  He opened with the suggestion that “our notion of Dostoevsky as a theorist of the personality might be enriched if we begin by approaching Dostoevsky as a psychologist first and a novelist of ideas second.  I’ll focus my comments on Crime and Punishment as a test case.” Psychology means innerness, not ideology and not inter-personal communication. Both Joseph Frank and Bakhtin, in focusing on outside stimuli, had failed to engage sufficiently the pathological Dostoevsky.  Of course Raskolnikov did have an idea, but he wasn’t sure what it was;  he had cobbled it together long after some other buried, inaccessible inner pressure had pushed him to commit the crime.  Yuri suggests that the murder was committed not toward an idea or in order to prove a new word (say, the right of an extraordinary man to act ‘above the law’) but rather away from something, in order to distance himself from a dangerously personal hidden thing.  Raskolnikov rushing into crime was escaping the ‘demands of deep interiority’:  “the subliminal, dynamic, vital, and unplumbed unconscious energies, memories, and agencies (the что-то that clamors oppressively from within).”  But to stifle the noise within is horrendously difficult.  Yuri posits three ‘highly efficient methods’—in effect, distractions—that Dostoevsky perfected for keeping the suffering subject firmly in the shallows of consciousness.  The first is violence.  Do something so awful that all your attention, fear and anguish are absorbed by it.  The second is ideology.  Embrace a ready-made impersonal doctrine that pretends to be cold, logical, irrefutable, and this will keep all attempts at independent thinking at bay.  The third is addiction:  lose oneself in emotional, sexual, or collective excess.  These three methods—which, we note, taken together cover a disturbingly broad spectrum of everyday human activity—function as an ‘anaesthetic’, a drug that works on the surface of a person, preventing any sustained inward movement of consciousness.  Not until his scene with Sonya on the Siberian riverbank does Raskolnikov break through to his real self, when he “wasn’t thinking of anything,” that is, not actively keeping anything at bay.  He becomes, in Yuri’s words, “the first of Dostoevsky’s characters to face this force (the Holy Spirit) and to survive.  The second will be Alyosha.  Myshkin doesn’t survive it.  Neither does Stepan Trofimovich.”

At this point in his presentation, for all the secular psychoanalytic precision of the externally inflicted wound and the subject’s reasonable desire to repress it, Yuri opened the door to a metaphysical, overtly religious level of existence.  “Where Dostoevsky the psychologist meets Dostoevsky the theologian,” Yuri said, “is in the way that the self becomes broken open toward mystical experience.  What Dostoevsky drew from his earlier writing is that God enters into the self through a wound in the psyche;  the experience of being wounded in childhood opens the self toward a deeper form of inwardness.”  The key to forming a durable personality, Yuri later explained, was to be not over-wounded, and of course not unwounded (or unwoundable) like Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, but to be sufficiently wounded, just enough so that the transcendent “energies of the Holy Spirit can find their way into the self through the wound.” Dostoevsky believed that modern ideology was “overhasty medication” that cut short this painful and necessary process.

Denis Zhernokleyev (SF)

Denis Zhernokleyev

If Yuri fleshed out his book and refined his earlier ASEEES paper, then Denis, who was still on the upward slope of finalizing his book and shifting ground every month, did a major overhaul of his.  At ASEEES he had delivered a provocative paper on “Apocalyptic Perversity in Dostoevsky.”  The perverse in the title was there largely to satisfy the organizing rubric of the panel;  what Denis in fact argued was for a distinction, or actually for a conflict, between the ethical and the religious.  In those crucial post-exile years, Denis insisted, Dostoevsky renounces the first for the second.  Of course Dostoevsky never renounced the moral:  as we learn from the Gospel of John, our innate sense of the moral is from God and made manifest in Divine Grace.  The Johannine formula holds that human nature on its own is “morally insufficient.”  In Denis’s exposition of Dostoevsky’s position, then, what is wrong with the ethical is that it tries to get around the need for God.  The ethical is easily secularized because it understands morality as natural.  The source of this idea is Rousseau:  connect with Nature, connect with Beauty, and your soul will progress and flourish.  Denis sees the whole tragedy of The Idiot tied up in its investment in (and parody of) a Rousseauistic worldview, with earnest detailed confessions premised on the false assumption that reliable inward experience is graspable as pictures and narratable as stories.  This entire complex of aesthetic practices Denis calls ‘sentimental,’ and he would submit it to a severe critique.  At this point in the agon, I recalled the watershed between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  Not only the person of Rousseau but the entire Romantic cult of nature and ‘natural ethics’ had been precious to Tolstoy throughout his life. He insisted on the normalcy of goodness, if only State and institutional Church would leave us alone.  It gave me a jolt when, in an e-mail from December 6, Denis had casually called Leo Tolstoy our ‘greatest Russian secularist’.  Tolstoy, sunk in a search for God for decades, sworn enemy of the materialists and naturalists, a secularist!  But from the angle of Rousseau and sentimental (that is, sensually addictive) stimuli, the label made sense.

Denis made another controversial foray in his ASEEES paper, in defense of Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky.  By no means did he endorse everything Bakhtin said;  wholly unacceptable, for example, was Bakhtin’s unwillingness to confront the Underground Man’s cruel manipulation of Liza.  But on the ‘idea-person,’ Bakhtin was correct.  By claiming that Dostoevsky strips his heroes of their pasts and reduces their presents to the occasional terrifying deed surrounded by a huge amount of talk, Bakhtin (an experienced Classicist, steeped in Greek tragedy) grasped that for Dostoevsky, characters were less ‘real people’ than they were coordinates of metaphysical realms.  When they speak, they tell us about their collapsing world.  Denis notes that as modern sentimental readers and devotees of Rousseau, we want to gape, eavesdrop on, identify with, reach out to, weep on behalf of these fictive heroes—but none of that is appropriate here.  That’s the route of ethics, which strives to improve life with small kindnesses while continuing in the same groove, and above all while trying to talk one’s way out of crippling guilt.  Ethical approaches are pleasurable to engage, aesthetically motivated, essentially God-free, and as soon as we give in to them, we falter on Dostoevsky’s divinely difficult path.  Denis believes that Bakhtin hinted at all this in his 1929 Dostoevsky book, but he could not go much further than hint.  Not only was Bakhtin’s Soviet culture officially atheist;  his medium was words, and his Dostoevsky book claimed to study not value-laden ideology but the workings of words.  Since the core difficulty of the religious path is precisely its ineffability, Dostoevsky somehow had to speak persuasively about ‘that which cannot be talked about’.  Thus the cunning purity of the apophatic approach.

Several months later at Princeton, Denis revived both these themes in his presentation “The Invisible Soul in Dostoevsky.”  It opened on a comparison between Dostoevskian and Tolstoyan characters.  Tolstoy’s heroes we see, touch, hear, feel.  Dostoevskian heroes remain  “ungraspable to our imagination. . . . We cannot even see the face of Nastasya Filippovna whose photograph Myshkin tries to describe for us in some detail.”  Why is this?  The familiar answer is that Dostoevsky depicts not the outward world of objects but the inner world of the soul, the ‘landscapes of the unconscious,’ or in Corrigan’s phrase ‘the psychic wound.’  Denis challenged this psychologically realistic reading of Dostoevsky by arguing that “the soul—the person—for Dostoevsky is a priori indescribable and therefore, aesthetically speaking, unimaginable.”  His goal as a novelist was “to initiate the reader into the reality of the ungraspable,” that is, into “a mode of being in the world that refuses to reduce reality to any form of objectively available image, be it the outward world of the physical appearance or the inward world of the soul.”  His method was apophatic.

Yuri had spent some time distinguishing his approach from both Freud and Jung.  Denis, for his part, spent time explaining apophasis (Greek for negation, an unsaying or undoing (apo: away from;  phasis: assertive speech).  There are parallels with the icon, which trains us in an alternative form of seeing and distances us from familiar patterns of recognition.  This might seem like defamiliarization, but “contrary to the ostranenie of the Formalists, which is an aesthetic device intended to re-energize the mimetic mode of imagination, apophasis is an altogether anti-mimetic attitude.”  Of course there is inwardness in Dostoevsky, Denis admits, “even infinite inwardness, and thus profound suffering.”  But this suffering is and must remain ineffable, ungraspable, both for the characters and for the reader.  “The desire to engage suffering aesthetically (or mimetically), through language and imagination, constitutes in Dostoevsky the greatest temptation.”   It is the “temptation of secular (Rousseauian) salvation, which believes that suffering can be objectively grasped—or remembered, or communicated, or confessed—and thus can serve as the reliable ground on which to erect a sentimental metaphysic.”

The rest of Denis’s paper consisted of close readings of passages from Notes from Underground, “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” and The Idiot.  In each, confessions run riot and tantalizing (or sadomasochistic) pictures abound.  The point of them is to seduce the reader, as Ivan Karamazov tries to seduce his younger brother with a feuilletonistic reel of cruel human acts, and as Nastasya Filippovna would seduce the world with her bewitching suffering face.  But Denis is after even larger game.  Why would Dostoevsky insist on discrediting our instincts toward empathy and understanding?  Because, Denis ventures,

by equating suffering with truth, the sentimental metaphysic not only places truth intimately close to human experience, but it inevitably suggests that truth, in some fundamental sense, is the product of the human experience (this is the Romantic view).  Thus truth becomes a natural phenomenon and enters the purview of psychological realism.  Within this natural economy of suffering, justice (the ultimate alleviation of suffering) is no longer a prerogative of the divine (supra-natural) realm (Grace).  It is now a prerogative of the suffering self, which is believed capable of adequately assessing an imbalance of justice and thus of knowing how this balance could be restored, or at least improved.

Again, doing without God’s grace is taken by Denis to be Dostoevsky’s most feared outcome.   Sentimental confession, with its sinking-inward of attention, is everywhere its vehicle (for all that it might occasionally mimic acts of prayer).  At the end of his paper, Denis was more explicit about the dangers of “withdrawing into inwardness”—Yuri’s signature move.  As Dostoevsky shows elsewhere, Denis argued, to retreat into yourself tends to lead to demonic doubling, not to spiritual awakening or Revelation.  Self-knowledge of the sort that Yuri hints at and holds out to his trapped sufferers and ‘psychic fugitives’ is simply not available to the post-Notes (post-Rousseau) Dostoevsky.  The authentic saint of this second stage, Denis insists, is Sonya Marmeladova, resilient, indifferent to her own wound, utterly outward in her thoughts and gestures—in Valentina Izmirlieva’s wonderful phrase, ‘radically hospitable” in body and spirit.  Sonya can offer herself to others because she is a source;  she is not, like Raskolnikov, a seeker.  Seekers will always be undone before they are transformed.  In Crime and Punishment, Denis argues, Dostoevsky decisively returns to the “medieval, sacramental anthropology of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions insists that self-knowledge is not naturally acquirable and must be ultimately received as revelation.”  For both Rousseau and Augustine, in Denis’s view, the problem of self-knowledge constitutes the threshold that divides secular from religious metaphysics.

These two positions, ‘psychological-sentimental’ and ‘apophatic’, provoked lengthy and heated discussions at the Princeton forum, engaging many of the issues raised above.  I took no notes on it, but thinking back and consulting the epistolary prehistory of the two participants, one theme might suggest its texture.  For several of us, the bomb in the closet was Yuri’s expanded exegesis of Crime and Punishment—the chapter he wished he had included in his book.  Not only did it demolish the foundational Bakhtinian reading of Raskolnikov as an ‘unselfish’ disembodied and historyless idea-person;  almost more important, the Helpers in this story turn out to be disablers.  Razumikhin, ‘the one wholesome loving normal person in Dostoevsky’s world’ (as I’ve long been wont to call him), when looked at from the perspective of Raskolnikov wounded and hell-bent on escaping knowledge of his wound, is in fact an Arkady, best friend of Vasia Shumkov.  The loyal Razumikhin is loving only if we assume that Raskolnikov is sick and helpless in the ordinary visible sentimental ways, and the help that he needs is sympathy.  Razumikhin’s reasonable practical ministrations are designed to keep his friend there, in the same sick spot.  And Sonya!  Svidrigailov!  Even made wiser by Carol Apollonio’s insightful revisionist readings, it seemed to me that Yuri’s interpretation did more than collapse that old familiar binary, Raskolnikov flanked on one side by a saint and on the other a lost fallen sinner.  He opened up the possibility that both these flanking figures are to some extent crutches.  Each is a place for Raskolnikov to fly to as long as he hates and disrespects himself, and that he will do, for as long as he looks outward.  Of course Sonya is the more complex enabler.  As Yuri notes, she is there temporarily to help the hero bear his burden, until he is prepared to partake of divine energies, somewhat like Alyosha does for his brother Ivan at the end of Brothers Karamazov.   Sonya is willing to become Raskolnikov’s soul until he is sufficiently strong to cultivate one himself.  But sooner or later these concerned outer persons, with all their outer good works, must give way and withdraw—otherwise they will “stifle the divine energies that are unleashed by the wound.”

I recalled what Yuri had written me back in August, as he was rethinking those novels he wished he had dealt with in more detail in his book.  “The whole of C&P is about how to fend off the energies of the Holy Spirit that find their way into the self through the wound, all the strategies of fending off God [italics in the original],” he wrote.  “Those strategies inevitably fail as the self is taken over from within (and maybe the personality is built into a sufficient conduit only through the struggle with this force).  That’s why the epilogue has never, in my view, been properly appreciated.  It’s not about repentance at all, it’s about being broken down from within, and thus transformed.  This is what I want to get across in the new book: Dostoevsky is crucial for our time (an age of extreme externality) because his novels are tutorials on how to discover and bear the weight of interiority.”

To this, Denis had a ready counter-argument.  We cannot, and should not, ‘put ourselves in the place of Raskolnikov’s consciousness’, because Dostoevsky’s characters are not human beings for whom wellbeing is a goal or a virtue.  They are carriers, novelistic filler, and must suffer by definition.  Back on August 10, fresh from writing the Corrigan review, Denis had shared with me his darker thoughts on this matter, which began with an inquiry into the very concept of ‘self’ for Dostoevsky.  Yuri’s basic idea, Denis wrote,

is that Dostoevsky is a psychologist, who is hyper-aware of trauma but nevertheless believes that traumatic experience can be organized and dealt with towards some sort of ‘positive’ psychological experience.  [ . . . ]  For Yuri, Dostoevskian characters correspond to real people and therefore represent robust individualities, with their own autonomous psyches.  Overall, subjectivity for Yuri is a scary but ultimately a reliable sort of thing.  Along with Bakhtin, I disagree with such an approach.  In my view, characters in Dostoevsky are not real selves but mere ontological coordinates, fragments of the self (the reader’s self) whose existence is assumed but never presented in the book.  The novel does not describe anything, including psychological landscapes.  They remain fragmented, quagmirish, never trustworthy.  Hence my thesis.  The only self that exists for Dostoevsky and the one he addresses as a totality is that of the reader.  The Dostoevskian novel is born as a new poetic format designed to work with the reader, not merely describe the traumatic experience of a character.  The self that Dostoevsky really cares for is the self that wrestles with his novel.

If we drop the expectation that Dostoevsky’s characters are ‘real people’ and accept what Bakhtin entirely correctly in my view calls ‘coordinates,’ we arrive in Crime and Punishment with two potentialities:  Sonya as ‘radical outwardness’ and Svidrigailov as ‘radical inwardness.’  Contrary to Yuri’s assumption that all Dostoevskian characters are afraid of their inwardness, Raskolnikov is not afraid of his inwardness. Goodness me! He loves it! Though he struggles to piece his inwardness together, he is remarkably resilient in attempting to get there. The endpoint of Raskolnikov’s inwardness, the horizon that lures him forward into the inward plunge is Svidrigailov. [ . . . ]

But the ultimate end of that inwardness is nihilistic nothingness.  Sonya is the alternative potentiality. She is radical outwardness, to the point of complete self-destruction.  She gives herself to the world completely, and the phrase “she has loved much” is not a sarcastic mocking of her prostituting of herself.  She is the icon, or the mode of the iconic. The icon is complete outwardness;  the icon is there precisely to help the self-escape itself.

Denis concluded his note with a disclaimer.  “To be fair to Yuri,” he wrote, “there is some sense of the ‘beyond’ in his reading of Dostoevsky.  It is the beyond of the self that happens when Alyosha reaches the completion, or fullness, of the inward experience.  The confession becomes possible only when the self brings itself outward before God.  Only God, as someone who is there radically outward and sees, as Bakhtin puts it, the ‘back of our head,’ possesses the full picture of our self and can give it back to us as grace.  We receive our self only within the radically outward movement.  Liturgical.”  Yuri was prepared for this move.  Picking up on Denis’s lines “Raskolnikov is not afraid of his inwardness.  Goodness me!  He loves his inwardness,” Yuri countered: “Denis!  He’s terrified of his genuine inwardness.  What he loves is his false diversionary inwardness, the decoy.”  Scraps of this rich subtext surfaced in February at Princeton.  But only scraps.

~~~

At the time, I remember my surprise when most participants in the Princeton forum thought that Yuri’s paper was ‘not all that opposed’ to Denis’s position.  True, Yuri had been out a long time.  His 2008 dissertation on Chekhov was legendary in the department as the product of a mind that wanted to arrive first at its own conclusions without allowing categories to leak in from secondary sources (the factoid here:  Yuri had read through all of Chekhov’s 600-plus short stories in Russian, chronologically, before settling on a topic).  Denis, on the other hand, was a personality still familiar to the department, especially in his adeptness, as seminar participant and undergraduate preceptor, at identifying Christian subtexts in the Russian tradition.  His 2016 dissertation defense had been the first in living memory conducted by a PhD candidate with an MDiv from a distinguished Divinity School, and thus by a person who knew the sacred texts as thoroughly as did Dostoevsky (and more thoroughly than all of his professors).  That was the expertise we expected from Denis.  And here was Yuri Corrigan with his sophisticated socio-psychological thesis, built out of Dostoevsky’s lesser-known works as well as his world-famous ones, also ending on the Holy Spirit.  Neither had talked about justice, the exploitation of the urban poor, the iniquity of prostitution or rape, the deceptions of utopian socialism or the oppression of one class by another.  Doesn’t this mean they are ending up in the same place?  This, for me, was one of the most valuable lessons of the Princeton forum, and of its prehistory and aftermath.  Similar to the careless habit in Soviet times of referring to “the West” as if it were one homogenous body of beliefs, languages, prejudices, and policies, so in our secularized academy the God Function taken seriously often catapults a critic into some blurry, mystical, all-of-a-single-kind category where rigorous logical thinking is presumed to have been replaced by superstition, blind belief or unreliable religious reflexes.  But surely the religious or metaphysical side of things is just as complex, precise, multi-voiced and non-compatible with itself as is the social, political, and materialistic.

Both Yuri and Denis acknowledge that Dostoevsky is a metaphysical novelist and a theist with a passionate religious agenda.  Where they differ, first, is in the primary addressee.   Is Dostoevsky inviting us to listen in and empathize while he addresses Raskolnikov, real-life Petersburg personality, or is he addressing the reader’s own anxieties and fantasies of escape on a metaphysical level, using Raskolnikov as foil?  Closely connected to this question is the second difference, tied up with the possibility of self-knowledge and thus of self-healing.  Here there are overlaps as well as cosmic dissimilarities.

The Cartesian worldview is rejected by both, since it effectively deletes the faculty of ‘soul’ from the personality.  Both pay homage to the Christian metaphysics of Augustine and Kierkegaard.  As Yuri describes his debt:  Augustine seeks God in the ‘depths of the psyche’ and these depths begin as psychological before becoming divine;  Kierkegaard adds an element of trauma when he notes that we make this irrational journey inward in a state of terror.  As regards Rousseau, Yuri considers himself (and Dostoevsky) a stern critic of that thinker, not an advocate.  Rousseau holds that we own our own interiority, that we are capable of saying everything about ourselves and can unwrap and reveal our true story.  Dostoevsky rejects that self-confident egoism, which occupies the shallows of our consciousness, beneath which is our truest self, first felt as an unknown darkness and then as the living God.  Our memories are at best mere footpaths to this territory.  But Denis—whose critique of aestheticized secularism is more radical—reads Yuri’s project otherwise.  He argues that Yuri’s real, if hidden, progenitor is in fact none other than Rousseau.  The Augustinian idea of the person is Trinitarian from the start, and therefore non-reducible at any point to psychological self-awareness.  It is for this reason that Denis insists Rousseau’s sentimental Confessions cannot be understood (as it so often is) as mere ‘post-Enlightenment Augustine’.  There are residual Augustinian traces in Rousseau, of course, but the abyss between apophatic revelation and feuilletonistic self-display is far too wide to bridge.

A final difference is one of timing.  When, in the trajectory of our rebirth, does God (as stern taskmaster, invisible truth-bearer, or ineffable Terror) come to our aid?  For Denis, an ‘apophatic’ theorist, Dostoevsky starts with this indescribable Presence and wraps his symbolic heroes (as well as his real-life readers) around it, forcing us to confront the fact that the human mind, our deepest interiority, cannot know itself.  For the psyche-based, more ‘sentimental’ Yuri, Dostoevsky teases his heroes with hope.  He pulls them painfully inward, forces them to confront and unwrap their buried past, watches them struggle, eventually cuts off all routes of escape, and—likewise—challenges the survivors to confront the untellable and to live with what cannot be known.

Can both be right?  Fortunately, the study of literature is not a progressive science but an accretive one.  The health of the humanities (and we would like also to believe, the health of the human race) rests on the need to keep an abundance of right answers in circulation, and as many great novelists being read and re-read as the world can bear.

old guard for BK

The author and members of the “old guard” of Dostoevsky scholars at IDS 2019 in Boston.
From left: Caryl Emerson, Robert Louis Jackson, Robin Feuer Miller, Gary Saul Morson, William Mills Todd, III


CARYL EMERSON is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University.  Her work has focused on the Russian classics (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), Mikhail Bakhtin, and Russian music, opera and theater.  Recent projects include the Russian modernist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950), the allegorical-historical novelist Vladimir Sharov (1952-2018), and, together with George Pattison and Randall A. Poole, co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought (forthcoming 2020).

YURI CORRIGAN is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. His first book, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2017; Bloggers Karamazov interviewed Yuri about his book in November 2017Yuri serves on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society and was the primary organizer of the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium in 2019.

DENIS ZHERNOKLEYEV is Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature at Vanderbilt University. He works on 19th-20th century Russian literature and religious thought, Realist Aesthetics, Theories of the Tragic, and Mikhail Bakhtin. He is currently working on a book manuscript Dostoevsky’s Apophatic Novel.

Dostoevsky on the Soul. An exchange between Yuri Corrigan and Denis Zhernokleyev, part 1

by Caryl Emerson

On February 21, 2019, two Princeton PhDs, Yuri Corrigan (Boston University) and Denis Zhernokleyev (Vanderbilt University) came back home to discuss their diverging views on Dostoevsky and the inner life.  I was moderator of the event.  Yuri’s monograph Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self had been published in 2017;  at the time, Denis was rehauling his 2016 dissertation, Beholden by Love: A Study in the Apophasis of Dostoevsky’s Poesis, into a hard-hitting theological alternative to contemporary secular studies of the Russian novelist.  Since our February forum, the distance between the Corrigan and Zhernokleyev positions has become subtler, more precisely drawn, and mostly more public, thanks in large part to the appearance in print of several essays by each party and to lively personal exchanges at the International Dostoevsky Symposium in Boston last July.  In August, Katia Bowers expressed an interest in the prehistory of this debate for Bloggers Karamazov, so Denis and Yuri enlisted me to reconstruct that initial forum.  I fumbled around in my files, but could find little of substance written down beyond the presentation notes of the two participants.  However, having happily remained something of a mentor to both of these gifted young scholars, a huge number of e-mail threads leading up to the event came to my aid.  With the help of that record, I try here to provide some backstories to this professional agon.

CE+RLJ Boston IDS 2019

The author with Robert Louis Jackson, Boston, July 2019

Among the many great things about our Slavic field is its smallness.  Faculty old and young all know one another and have read one another;  access to everyone at all ranks is without serious obstacle.  The graduate students working on Dostoevsky who gathered in Boston encountered four generations of scholars, from newly-minted PhDs to the 95-year-old Robert Louis Jackson, enmeshed in that close personal conversation that we associate with the Russian literary tradition itself (Dostoevsky rewrites Gogol, Solzhenitsyn responds to Tolstoy, Prigov performs Pushkin).  But the Denis-Yuri debate was unusual in that it was lateral, between members of the same generation in real time, and although ideological, off to the side of the mainstream Dostoevsky wars.  Its fault line was not where one might expect.  For this was not the familiar secular-sociological-progressive Dostoevsky pitted against the religiously or metaphysically inclined.  Neither Denis nor Yuri is a civic critic, materialist, positivist, ‘atheist’ or politicized secular cultural critic.  Viewed from the larger perspective of the humanities today, they share quite a bit of common ground.  On August 9, 2018, at work on his review of Yuri’s book for SEEJ, Denis wrote me:  “I’ve just finished reading Yuri Corrigan’s book on Dostoevsky and I absolutely love it! [ . . . ]   Although I have some reservations about the moves he makes,     [ . . . ] the man is reading the right books.”  The resultant review—which Denis shared with Yuri pre-publication, and which appeared in SEEJ vol. 62.4 (Winter 2018), pp. 747-748—was indeed appreciative, calling the monograph “a most original reading of Dostoevsky’s major novels.”  As Denis identified the paradox that Yuri had chosen to address (p. 747):

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

Yuri’s book

On the one hand [ . . . ] Dostoevsky affirms the notion of the resilient self.  On the other, Dostoevsky’s avowed commitment to the Christian ideal of selfless love suggests that he ultimately understands the self as something that needs to be renounced.  Yuri Corrigan in Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self  resolves the contradiction by arguing that, for Dostoevsky, the ability to overcome the self depends on the very highest development of personality.  Only an “abundance” of self can lead one to freedom from anxiety over-self-preservation.

Yuri (Denis concluded) saw the primary concern of a Dostoevskian narrative to be subjectivity itself.  Characters are seen as mimetically real (not figural or symbolic), vulnerable, and needful of our empathy.  Above all, individual heroes (and their author) strive to restore a personal wholeness that has been violated.  Denis did flag certain puzzling points.  He noted the relative absence of sustained attention to Notes from Underground in a study of the Dostoevskian ‘self,’ a rather too cursory treatment of Crime and Punishment, and the unconventional thesis that “Dostoevsky’s religious conversion during the Siberia years does not constitute a break with his early Romantic worldview but its expansion” (748).  The status of Romanticism, especially in the person of Rousseau, was problematic for Denis and incompatible with rigorous, religiously informed reading.  Still, it took several months—and considerable communication beneath the visibility bar—for the lines to be drawn.

Yuri did not like Denis’s review, and he let Denis know.  Yuri sensed under its “false advocacy” a deeper principled polemic at work, even, he said astutely, some scarcely concealed contempt, and he was curious to probe it.  Denis, equally forthright and generous, sent Yuri several pages of notes that he had compiled for me (and for himself) while working on the SEEJ commission, little of which he ultimately included.  There were good reasons for excluding them:  intricate and unforgiving, Denis’s detailed exegesis came from a whole other cosmos, and required far more contextualization than was appropriate for a brief review.  Yuri loved these longer notes, which concealed nothing and went out on many tantalizing limbs.  At this point, privy to these conversations, it became clear to me that this was an agon, and these two scholars were in it for the right reasons.  Uninsultable, fearless, borrowing ideas from no one, they were working on a great creative mind from the bottom up and out of their own deeply held, closely nurtured convictions.

 

Yuri Corrigan (left) and Denis Zhernokleyev (right)

From August to October 2018, the three of us conducted a sporadic correspondence on Dostoevsky.  My personal interest in their escalating exchange was fueled by the fact that both Yuri and Denis resisted the canonical Bakhtinian thesis that Dostoevsky’s heroes were ‘idea-persons’ functioning in the here-and-now with little need of real bodies or a personal past.  But they were clearly revising Bakhtin toward very different ends, and I was intensely curious to see where each would end up.  Yuri’s was the more straightforward path.  Among his central concepts is the traumatic wound (usually inflicted on a child, consciously or unconsciously) and so humiliating to the victims that they suffer a sort of amnesia.  There is no therapy, whether Freud’s or Bakhtin’s, that can ‘talk away this wound’—although the sufferer, terrified of the indwelling ‘howling’ of the wound, tries mightily to escape its mute pressure by erecting barriers against it, outsourcing agency to another person or group, or softening the sting of consciousness in outward dissipation or distraction.  But all is in vain.  Only an inward turn will permit the hero to move beyond painful memory, beyond false fantasies of autonomy, to merge with the deeper divine will and to make of oneself a conduit.  Corrigan’s exposition leaves some questions tantalizingly open.  Is a wound imposed exclusively by lived experience (Raskolnikov as a child witnessing the beating-to-death of a mare; Alyosha Karamazov recalling his frantic keening mother under the slanting sunbeam, or later forced to endure the disgrace of his Elder in death)?  Or is the wound also in some principled way ‘structural,’ that is, in our postlapsarian state are all humans wounded by definition, to be saved only by renunciation and confrontation with the Holy Spirit?  (Again, the processes here are clouded and cruel.)  Either way, Yuri argues, successful Dostoevskian heroes must learn to embrace their own private space and undergo lonely, inwardly-directed quests through their traumatically severed pasts to find deeper anchor in a divine transcendent.  Such inner isolation, perhaps requiring that words be silenced, was never a priority for Mikhail Bakhtin.  As Alina Wyman has documented in her excellent 2016 study of active empathy in Scheler, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky, Bakhtin ignores our need for radical aloneness or for private spaces inaccessible to others, since he considers the ‘self,’ such as we can sense it at all, to be a transit point, an intersection of communicating selves each external to the other.

Denis, for his part, felt that Bakhtin had gotten a great deal right in his Dostoevsky book.  Nevertheless he lamented the fact that the Bakhtinian defense of ‘outsideness’ or ‘outwardness’ had been misunderstood by a secular readership, which can imagine nothing more complex for polyphony than endlessly tolerant, expanding dialogic utterances among speaking selves on the ground, all destined for some sort of comfortable co-existence in Great Time.  Dostoevsky’s intent, Denis insisted, was not to reassure us.  What the ‘outward move’ really means is far more frightening—and this is the core message of his book-in-progress, Dostoevsky’s Apophatic Novel.  Its first task is to define negation in a more rigorous way.  Apophasis does not mean merely saying no;  its purpose is to negate fraudulent views of reality.  For Dostoevsky’s evolving poetics this entails rejecting Rousseau, along with all other sentimental-confessional routes to self-knowledge.  Denis sees this beginning to happen in Notes from Underground, and thus, contra Yuri, Dostoevsky’s worldview and method do break apart in the early 1860s.  While reinforcing this traditional topology, however, Denis alters it fundamentally by putting forward a new view of the tragic, and by devising a theological model for the great novels that draws on Saint Augustine and Søren Kierkegaard.

Portions of Denis’s theses on The Idiot began to appear: «Настасьин бунт: Протест как метафизическая категория у Достоевского» (in Достоевский и мировая культура 5, 2018); “Mimetic Desire in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot with Continual Reference to René Girard” (The Dostoevsky Journal 20, 2019).  Both dealt with the nature of Nastasya Filippovna’s rebellion—for hers is no ordinary wound.  These essays found a sympathetic audience among senior Dostoevsky scholars in Russia open to religious readings, such as Tatiana Kasatkina.  But there was another prong to the Zhernokleyev argument.  For several years, while Yuri had been probing the vulnerable Dostoevskian psyche and its panic-stricken outward projections, Denis had been developing his critique of a ‘feuilletonistic’ approach to the empirical world.  The feuilletonist is a hopelessly aesthetic figure, voraciously visual, primed for the latest random scandal, insatiable as regards generating and disseminating fake news.  In an e-mail to me on December 6, 2018, Denis lamented “the potential of the feuilletonistic to become totalitarian,” noting that in its current incarnation, Facebook and Twitter, the feuilleton was just as untrustworthy and out of control as Lebedev’s rantings in The Idiot.  In the face of this growing technological horror, he wrote, his own reading of Dostoevsky was becoming ever more “sumptuously Johannine.”  This meant that he was taking the Apocalypse not symbolically but with deadly seriousness and finality, as Russians had long done with their beloved Gospel of John.  Denis was preparing a dark critique of the “secularization of goodness,” so characteristic of modern thinkers from Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant up to the confused philanthropy of our present day.

Meanwhile, preliminary segments of Yuri’s ambitious new book project, an inquiry into Dostoevskian themes in contemporary world literature, were appearing in print or moving into the pipeline:  “Donna Tartt’s Dostoevsky:  Trauma and the Displaced Self” in Comparative Literature 70:4 (2018), “Dostoevsky on Evil as Safe Haven and Anesthetic” (SEEJ 63.2 2019).  On October 26, 2018, Yuri’s Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self received a glowing, full-page review by Oliver Ready in the TLS.  Identifying its major theme as Dostoevsky’s “consistent picture of the damaged human subject” for whom “the dread of personal memory has a false bottom,” Ready concluded by declaring the book “eloquent testimony to the flourishing of North American scholarship on Russian literature over the past several decades.”  He lauded those younger scholars who, rather than look ‘beyond the text,’ were showing “just how much remains to be discovered within it.”  This was wonderful confirmation.  But as is often the case after the pleasure of positive feedback wears off, Yuri began to fret the corners that he might have cut    ‘in the tenure rush’ and the ideas that were insufficiently developed, which turned out to include some of the reservations voiced by Denis.  For his next oral presentation, Yuri would return to Crime and Punishment and push his argument further on the ground of that crucial threshold novel.

The next phase of the debate occurred at the ASEEES Annual Convention in Boston in early December, 2018, where both Yuri and Denis delivered papers.  Several days after the conference ended, on December 14, Yuri wrote me about his “fascinating conversations with Denis at ASEEES.”  In the ‘real’ review of his book—those pages of unofficial personal notes—Yuri had found “many productive and interesting misunderstandings [ . . . but] luckily, Denis warms up under fire and we found ourselves in a real heart-to-heart, almost a Shatov-Kirillov chronotope.”  Still, he added, “there was something ironic and funny about being categorized as a secular thinker [like all the rest] when I’ve spent so much energy and time trying to be secular enough for the academic world.”  Yuri closed his note with the thought that overall this was “a great conversation to have,” which might at some point be formalized and carried further in Princeton.

So what was at stake, by the time Denis contacted Michael Wachtel, Chair of Slavic, about the possibility of a Princeton continuation?  “Dear Michael,” Denis wrote on December 12, “as you might have heard, Yuri Corrigan’s very interesting book on Dostoevsky is making a splash in the Dostoevsky world.  In August I wrote a long, unofficial review of Yuri’s book for Caryl.  Eventually this document made its way to Yuri.  After a passionate conversation between Yuri and myself in Boston, it is obvious that we disagree on Dostoevsky fundamentally but in an engaging and fruitful way.”  Michael agreed that Princeton was a ‘good platform’ on which to share the debate.  Without repeating what is already in print and without giving away too much of what is still in gestation, let me summarize the state of the agon as it was presented publicly in February 2019.  Along the way and at the end, I will offer some general conclusions of my own.

Continued in Part 2


CARYL EMERSON is A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University.  Her work has focused on the Russian classics (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), Mikhail Bakhtin, and Russian music, opera and theater.  Recent projects include the Russian modernist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950), the allegorical-historical novelist Vladimir Sharov (1952-2018), and, together with George Pattison and Randall A. Poole, co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought (forthcoming 2020).

YURI CORRIGAN is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Boston University. His first book, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2017; Bloggers Karamazov interviewed Yuri about his book in November 2017Yuri serves on the Executive Board of the North American Dostoevsky Society and was the primary organizer of the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium in 2019.

DENIS ZHERNOKLEYEV is Senior Lecturer in Russian Literature at Vanderbilt University. He works on 19th-20th century Russian literature and religious thought, Realist Aesthetics, Theories of the Tragic, and Mikhail Bakhtin. He is currently working on a book manuscript Dostoevsky’s Apophatic Novel.

Big Fat Books: Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov

On Saturday April 7, Boston University will host a one-day symposium: “Worlds of The Brothers Karamazov.” The symposium is part of an annual series on “Big Fat Books” run by the Department of World Languages & Literatures in which scholars from various disciplines and literatures present comparative approaches to a major text of world literature. Our keynote speakers this year are Robin Feuer Miller (“Dostoevsky Writ Small”) and Gary Saul Morson (“Six Theses on KARAMAZOV“). Their addresses will be followed by two panels of BU faculty (Comparative Karamazov West and East), and then by a student panel of close readings. Michael Katz (Middlebury College), William Mills Todd III (Harvard University), and Evgenia Cherkasova (Suffolk University Boston) will serve as chairs. There will be breakfast, lunch, and a closing reception. If you find yourself in the Boston area, please feel free to stop by for all or part of the proceedings. (See flyer for place, times, details.)

2018 KARAMAZOV flyer