Live Tweets from the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

by Vladimir Ivantsov

Below are summaries of selected papers. These summaries are based on live tweets from the IDS 2019 conference and only partially reflect the content of the papers delivered. All the tweets were collected from the hashtag #ids2019, with thanks to prolific conference livetweeters Dr Katia Bowers (on the Society account @DostoevskySoc) and Dr Brian Armstrong (tweeting on his personal account @wittstrong).

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Robin Miller and her Double!

Robin Miller gave a wonderful keynote on “Dostoevsky Writ Small.” (She was the first speaker of the first plenary session). Miller: The “raw life” of the animals, large and small, come to represent “the totality of the universe.” In The Brothers Karamazov “each small thing opens a portal … that creates an aura of the mystical, the fantastic,” into the whole of the universe … “these are the building blocks of Dostoevsky’s fantastic realism.”

Related to Miller’s talk was Zora Kadyrbekova’s paper on animal studies approach to The Idiot. She has argued that animals in the novel help lead or illuminate key themes in the novel and reveal or clarify a character’s moral/spiritual standing. Kadyrbekova: by calling a donkey a human Dostoevsky does not challenge the donkey’s species identity, rather he elevates that donkey to the level of a human, both capable of kindness and selfless service. Dostoevsky does not let the animal’s utility in the novel overtake their animalness, he respects animals’ subjectivity.

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Bakhtin on Love, from Emerson’s slide

Caryl Emerson’s keynote entitled “Bakhtin’s Dostoevsky and the Burden of Virtues” reconsidered the reading of Bakhtin in the Creation of a Prosaics book (co-authored by Emerson and Morson) predicated on Bakhtin’s theoretical understanding of the grace virtues faith, hope and love.

In his keynote, Vladimir Zakharov discussed the beautiful digitization project of Dostoevsky’s notebooks and manuscripts that is underway right now (you can check it out here: http://dostoevsky-archive.ru). Zakharov shares the great resource site from Petrozavodsk State University that has the digitized corpus of the Dostoevskys (not just FMD but also his brother, wife, daughter, etc.) as well as other Russian writers: http://philolog.petrsu.ru.

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Vladimir Zakharov’s keynote

In her paper “Metaphors in the House of the Dead and the Discourse of Peasant Liberation,” Cecilia Dilworth, drawing on Paperno, has made the point that the discourse around emancipation is characterized by particular narrative markers, including Christian imagery and resurrection from the dead. The emancipation language of resurrection did not just apply to the serfs being freed from slavery, but also to the Russian nation being freed from the barbarism of the past; and Notes from the House of the Dead should be read in this context, against the backdrop of emancipation discourse and its contemporaneous Russian cultural context.

Greta Matzner-Gore spoke on “Dostoevsky’s Poetics of Improbability and the Ending of Crime and Punishment.” Matzner-Gore: “the language and logic of statistical theory plays a significant role in the poetics of Crime and Punishment.” Greta has claimed that Dostoevsky chose so many coincidences precisely because they violated statisticians’ norms and laws. Hence, the controversial epilogue of Crime and Punishment does accord with the novel’s aesthetic structure because of its improbability.

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Satoshi Bamba’s paper

Satoshi Bamba’s paper placed the faces of The Idiot in the context of the physiognomic tradition. As Bamba observed, Bakhtin claims that Dostoevsky began not with ideas but with idea-heroes of dialogue (with voices), but we might add he also began with idea-faces.

Bilal Siddiqi spoke on “Materiality in The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov.” Siddiqi: Ivan Karamazov’s slipping away of reality is described through objects that are immaterial, imagined everyday objects. The breaking, missing, failure of everyday objects precisely by virtue of their everydayness signals to Ivan that he is losing his grasp on reality. The obtrusive object can be a source for awakening future events in Myshkin; examples: the pistol, the Chinese vase, and the knife. These objects and their function suggest that Dostoevsky is weaving into that novel a premonitory Myshkin who can see the future to some extent. Does this mean Myshkin carries with him an ability to see an unknown future truth? Perhaps.

For the full twitter narrative, click here. This Wakelet was created by Katia Bowers.


Vladimir Ivantsov is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Williams College. His research interests include Dostoevsky, his perception in Russian and world culture, and literature and philosophy (especially existentialism and posthumanist criticism). He is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.

Reflections on the XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium

compiled by Vladimir Ivantsov and Katya Jordan

The XVII International Dostoevsky Symposium took place at Boston University in July 2019. The Symposium is the triennial meeting of the International Dostoevsky Society; scholars gathered from all over the world for 5 days of papers and discussions of all aspects of Dostoevsky’s works. More information about the XVII Symposium can be found here and you can view the program here.

Here are some reflections collected from participants of the XVII Symposium:

Thanks to the two Russian museums that provided the exhibition. Feinberg’s colourful breakfast scene (1948) could be a Hollywood design for Little Women or Washington Square (no harm in that), while recent artists (Guriev and Zykina) envision Myshkin as a Byzantine Christ and St Petersburg as the desert of temptation. Khruslov’s shimmering Myshkin dominates Rogozhin like a powerful resurrection figure. From now on, Nastasya Fillipovna is Vil’ner’s proud, defiant, child! Thanks again.

– George Pattison

 

A luminous gathering, evidence that Bakhtin was right (!) — those who learn their basic vocabulary from great literature will never be entirely without hope or the ability to express it.   A huge thanks to the tireless organizers.

– Caryl Emerson

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An impromptu toast to Vladimir Zakharov during the opening remarks

This was the most intellectually stimulating Symposium I have ever attended. The plenary talks demonstrated the full range of possibilities for Dostoevsky scholarship: meticulous analysis of drafts; engagement both with the great moral questions and with the tiny detail; digital publication and textual analysis; the writer’s biography; the problem of paradox. The talks about digital analysis reminded me of how much fun this can be, and how much potential it offers for future readings.  And I am in awe of the resources that our Russian colleagues have posted online.

The book presentations were memorable—the authors had to talk extremely fast to share over twenty books within one short hour. Everyone left Thursday’s session smiling, in a congratulatory mood and with a long reading list. As is often the case, the most exciting parts of the Symposium were those animated exchanges during the question-and-answer period and the longer, deeper conversations that they led to.

Tuesday’s plenary session featuring Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson made me recall why I chose to study Dostoevsky, and inspired me to keep on reading, thinking, and talking to people about his works. Well actually, when I think about it, everyone did that. Fortunately, it is a job that will never be done.

– Carol Apollonio

 

The six days with colleagues in Boston have been fabulous; It is difficult to put hierarchy among so many good things that we have experienced during the days of the conference: conversations between us, presentations, smiles of complicity, toasts, good food, pub, Alumni Boston University castle the first evening, our last night in the restaurant on the top of the hub with all so radiant faces … And then Museum Of Fine Arts -Egypt, China, Renaissance, Impressionists, and even a corner with an entire chapel of Catalan Romanesque. My heart still vibrates from all these lovely impressions. Thank you for everything and CONGRATULATIONS for such a wonderful organization.

Warmly,

~ Tamara Djermanovic

 

Besides all those wonderful sessions and events, I would like to mention our tour to the MFA Boston. I was astonished not only by its wonderful collection of European art, but also by its terrific Asian collection, which is competable with Chinese national museums. I want to thank all colleagues, who organized this tour, and especially Anna Weinstein, who answered so many our random questions on our way there (cf. Sergey Kibal’nik’s anecdote about the drowning boy at the closing banquet).

Best regards,

~Xuyang Mi (Сюйян Ми)

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Robin Feuer Miller introduces a panel thinking about economics in Dostoevsky’s works: Vadim Shneyder, Jillian Porter, Jonathan Paine and discussant William Mills Todd, III

I would like to single out a particularly interesting paper I heard during Session 3A: Dostoevsky the Thinker (unfortunately I missed the first two presenters). Olena Bystrova of the Drohobych Ivan Franko State Pedagogical University gave a paper titled “‘На мгновение’ и ‘вдруг’ как слова-фиксаторы фотографического мышления Ф. Достоевского” [“For an Instant” and “suddenly” as Fixer Words in Dostoevsky’s Photographic Thought]. Dr. Bystrova prefaced her paper with a brief presentation about the city of Drohobych in Ukrainian Galicia near the Polish border, in which she discussed the city’s multiethnic and multiconfessional history and its traditional economic basis in salt production (the name of the region of Galicia may come from the Greek word for salt–halas). Among the famous people who called Drohobych home were the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz and the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko.

The main argument of Bystrova’s paper was that Dostoevsky’s responded to photography in his techniques for representing vision and time. To develop her concept of photographic thinking, Bystrova drew on the ideas of the Ukrainian poet and critic Maik Iohansen (1895–1937), who argued that the significance of photography lay in its capacity to fix an instantaneous moment in time.

Decades before Iohansen, Dostoevsky showed an interest in the capacity of the photograph to capture what is hidden, unnoticed, and momentary. At the same time, Dostoevsky contrasted the rarity with which a photograph—a fundamentally analytical technique—managed to capture a realistic likeness to the work of representational art, which could synthesize from a mass of impressions to reveal the truth of the whole.

Describing the scene in The Idiot where Myshkin breaks the Chinese vase, Bystrova claimed that Dostoevsky’s narrative technique consists of a series of verbal snapshots, sometimes tellingly divided by ellipses. Both “Suddenly” and “for a moment” are lexical markers of Dostoevsky’s photographic thinking according to Bystrova: “suddenly” marks the succession of individual photographic images, while the intermittent stillness of “for a moment” refers to the photograph’s capacity to fix an individual moment in time and break it out of the continuum of duration.

I thought this was a thought-provoking and compelling argument that demonstrated the sensitivity of Dostoevsky’s poetics to the most variegated historical developments.

Best,

~ Vadim Shneyder

 

At the opening reception, Bill Todd reflected with Gary Saul Morson on his review (nearly four decades ago) of two seminal monographs in the history of Dostoevsky scholarship: Gary Saul Morson’s own The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer and the Traditions of Literary Utopia (from U of Texas P in 1981) and Robin Feuer Miller’s Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (from Harvard UP in 1981). It’s amazing to think of the sustained engagement with Dostoevsky’s work and with each other’s work that they and many other scholars exhibit; it’s also an excellent source of inspiration. 

~ Brian Armstrong

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Armstrong’s photo of Morson and Todd in discussion

I was particularly moved by Professor Caryl Emerson’s keynote address. With her customary eloquence and grace, Caryl offered generous reflections on Bakhtin, virtue, and that difficult and necessary attitude toward love espoused by Dostoevsky’s Zosima—деятельная любовь. Caryl reminds us that dialogue requires patience, and her carefully measured words encourage us to “slow down to better see what’s there.” In times of unchecked aggression and unbridled violence, Caryl’s wisdom remains balm for the living.

~ Justin Trifiro

 

The International Dostoevsky Symposium in Boston was one of the great joys of the summer. Thanks to all who made it such a success. I learned much from each presentation. I was especially intrigued by Anna Bermans’s insight into the paucity of descendants in Dostoevsky’s fiction. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of a wonderfully imaginative and moving poem by Robert Hass in which he imagines “the great-grandson / Of the elder Karamazov brother who fled to the Middle West / With his girlfriend Grushenka.” The poem is entitled, “I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name is Dmitri.”

You can hear Hass read the poem here.  And can read the poem here.

~ Paul Contino

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Old and New Presidents of the International Dostoevsky Society: Vladimir Zakharov and Carol Apollonio

Я совершенно согласен с теми словами, которые произнёс Вильям Тодд в завершающий день Симпозиума: из всех прошедших именно этот отличался наиболее высоким научным уровнем. Я был впечатлен и докладами высокого научного уровня, и острыми, но благожелательными дискуссиями, и самой замечательной интеллектуальной атмосферой в Бостоне, которая сопровождала все дни конференции. Особо же мне хотелось поблагодарить Кэрол Аполлонио, за очень деятельную помощь и Юрия Корригана, который очень чутко откликался на пожелания (в том числе, технического характера), как и в целом американских коллег за проявленное ими замечательное гостеприимство. Было бы очень хорошо издать (в том числе, и в «устаревающем» бумажном формате) хотя бы избранные материалы этого Симпозиума.

~ Иван Есаулов (Москва)

 

ХVІІ Конгресс IDS был третьим форумом (после Неаполя и Гранады), на котором я присутствовал.

Могу с уверенностью сказать, что организация, выбор докладов и сопутствующая программа были безупречны.

Я чрезвычайно горжусь и доволен возможностью общения с представителями американской русистики и русской достоевистики. Я знал многих из них раньше, но познакомился с некоторыми из моих коллег сейчас.

Я искренне надеюсь, что наши встречи и сотрудничество продолжатся. Спасибо всем!

С уважением,

~ Проф. д-р Людмил Димитров (София)

Presenters (clockwise from top left): Denis Zhernokleyev, Benamí Barros
Garcia, Zora Kadyrbekova, Bilal Siddiqi, Katya Jordan

 

17 симпозиум IDS был замечательно организован, царила тёплая атмосфера дружбы и любви. Именно такие взаимоотношения между людьми проповедовал Достоевский. Их выразил и тост на прощальном банкете – «За любовь!».

Хорошо то, что каждый день начинался с пленарных заседаний: можно было прослушать много докладов ведущих достоеведов. Особенно понравились доклады Р. Фойер Миллер, К. Эмерсон, В. Захарова, Б.Тихомирова, Ю. Корригана, С. Алое, К. Аполлонио, Б. Барроса.

Очень понравились экскурсии.

Такие встречи вдохновляют на новые творческие достижения и открытия.

~ Галина Федянова, Тамара Баталова

 

Дорогие коллеги!

Бостонская конференция была действительно прекрасной, рабочей и дружеской. Программа была замечательной и секции организованны очень хорошо. Нам, конечно, открылась возможность поговорить со старыми знакомыми и, одновременно, познакомится с новыми коллегами. Техническая поддержка была на высоком уровне (напитки, еда, Интернет связь, экскурсия, музей и проч.). Новое прочтение романа «Идиот» показалось плодотворным (разные взгляды на один роман или на одну тему – это и есть суть симпозиума!). Мне очень понравились дискуссии, которые велись после каждого доклада, а общения и комментарии к докладам не раз продолжались в течение обеда и кофе брейка.

Спасибо организаторам!

~ Ясмина Войводич

 

More presenters (clockwise from top left): Deborah Martinsen, Greta
Matzner-Gore, Justin Trifiro, Sarah Hudspith, Cecilia Dilworth

 

[…] Особый интерес вызвал доклад К. Эмерсон, который ознаменовал существенные изменения в восприятии северо-американскими учеными концепции творчества Достоевского, выдвинутой в ранней книге М.М. Бахтина «Проблемы поэтики Достоевского» (1929): интерпретация произведений писателя вне религиозно-этических категорий была со стороны русского философа, как это явствует из его собственных позднейших свидетельств, вынужденным шагом, который, следовательно, напрасно добровольно повторяют некоторые современные исследователи, слишком доверившиеся постмодернистским представлениям о безусловной относительности бахтинского «диалога».

Больше всего секционных заседаний было посвящено, естественно, проблемам интерпретации романа «Идиот», и в центре внимания докладчиков зачастую оказывался его главный герой, князь Мышкин. В докладах была представлена и первоначальная тенденция восприятия этого героя как безусловного представления писателя о «положительно прекрасном человеке», и тенденция к дегероизации Мышкина, отчетливо проявившаяся в последние десятилетия изучения творчества Достоевского.

Все же в большинстве докладов звучало, как представляется, своего рода новое и во всяком случае более взвешенное представление об этом одном из загадочных образов Достоевского как о «положительно прекрасном человеке», который, тем не менее, все равно, хотя бы вследствие своей человеческой природы, не в силах разрешить трагические противоречия жизни, мучительно переживаемые другими его героями. Кое-что князь Мышкин все же оказывается способен сделать: заронить в душу каждого из них частицу добра и света, которые согревают их в минуты этих переживаний, – причем не только при личном общении с ним.

[…] Охарактеризовать все доклады, заслуживающие упоминания, к сожалению, невозможно, потому что все, что было в программе Симпозиума […] в том или ином отношении заслуживало внимания. Однако поскольку некоторые секционные заседания проходили одновременно, то и возможности прослушать их все не было. И это, может быть, единственный, хотя и исключительно вынужденный, недостаток Симпозиума.

Впрочем, если попытаться взглянуть на него критически, чтобы более целенаправленно работать на совершенствование этого замечательного форума в дальнейшем, то, наверное, далеко не все было так радужно и безоблачно. Очевидно, по-прежнему сказывалась во время работы бостонского Симпозиума одна и та же застарелая проблема в деятельности Международного общества Достоевского. Англоязычное и русскоязычное изучение его творчества – это, как и раньше, во многом параллельные миры. […]

Выступавшие с заключительными словами участники Симпозиума единодушно отметили, что он был организован великолепно и прошел на высоком научном уровне. Были высказаны также надежды на то, что грядущий в 2021 году 200-летний юбилей Достоевского будет отмечен и в России, и за рубежом достойно и содержательно.

Full text is forthcoming in Russkaia Literatura.

Полный текст будет опубликован в журнале Русская литература.

~ С.А.Кибальник

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Dostoevsky authors with their books!


Vladimir Ivantsov is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Williams College. His research interests include Dostoevsky, his perception in Russian and world culture, and literature and philosophy (especially existentialism and posthumanist criticism). He is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board. 

Katya Jordan is an Assistant Professor of Russian at Brigham Young University. Her research centers on cultural underpinnings of silence in Russian literature. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.

The photographs that appear in this post are from the personal collections of Carol Apollonio and Katherine Bowers, unless specified otherwise, and appear with the photographers’ permission.

Rodion Raskolnikov, Your Tweet Archive is Ready

by Katherine Bowers

Two years ago, on May 1, 2016, the Twitter account @RodionTweets sent its first tweet. Since then @RodionTweets has “live-tweeted” the events of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, broken into 140-character-or-less snippets, from its hero Raskolnikov’s perspective. The bulk of the novel’s events take place over the course of three intense weeks in the summer, and the bulk of Rodion Raskolnikov’s tweets similarly appeared in July 2016, but the account has continued to tweet the book’s epilogues, which spread over the course of nearly two years. Finally, on April 24, 2018, Raskolnikov’s new life began and the twitter account went silent.
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@RodionTweets was the brainchild of myself and Brian Armstrong, a kind of extension of our first experiment with Twitterature, @YakovGolyadkin. Both accounts were created through a process of tweet mining. For @RodionTweets we received permission from Penguin Classics to use Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment. Then one Dostoevsky scholar mined one of the novel’s six parts and Kristina McGuirk, my wonderful RA, did a round of edits and loaded the tweets into TweetDeck, scheduling them in to tweet out according to the timeline for the novel that Brian and I had mapped.

Rodiontweets-end-2As each part of the novel was tweeted out, we reflected on our experience in creating the tweets in a series of blog posts. Sarah Hudspith mined Part 1 and reflected on the divide between public and private online and the use of hashtags as a narrative device. In her discussion of mining Part 2, Sarah Young considered the way digital approaches to the novel (tweeting, digital mapping) expand our avenues for understanding and interpretation. Kate Holland’s experience mining Part 3 led to a new perspective on the novel’s narrative structure. Brian Armstrong discussed the insight he gained into empathy in both Crime and Punishment, Part 4 and The Double through the intensely close scrutiny tweet mining requires. Jennifer Wilson’s mining of the scandal scene in Part 5 led to her reflection on social status and projection, and how pain, humiliation and suffering impact them. And my experience mining Part 6 and the epilogues led to a new realization on my part about timing in the novel. The blog post you’re reading serves as the project’s final, final note: one last reflection on what we’ve learned from @RodionTweets.

Of course, the first thing we, as literary scholars, noticed was that twitterifying Dostoevsky raised a number of questions that made us see the novel’s narration and themes in a new light. You’ll notice this from the blog post topics above. We began, however, with a basic question: how do you break a novel that’s narrated in the 3rd person down into tweets in the first person? Where does the narrator’s voice go? The switch from 3rd person narration to 1st reverses Dostoevsky’s own narrative switch from the 1st person he originally planned on to the 3rd person the novel ended up with.

Rodiontweets-end-3One of the conceits of the project is that Raskolnikov tweets as if he keeps a constant feed of everything that goes through his head. This, of course, means that the account presupposes that no one else from the novel world is reading it. For example, Raskolnikov live tweets the murder on @RodionTweets, and if Porfiry Petrovich were to read this in his Twitter feed, the novel would likely have been much, much shorter! – although this point is well taken. This style also renders @RodionTweets more like those Dostoevsky protagonists who monologue or write zapiski and less like most (active) twitter users, who may do this kind of live-tweeting some of the time, but not all of the time. Furthermore, as we mined the novel’s text for tweets, thinking critically about what would be omitted from the twitter narrative and what would be emphasized, as well as what Raskolnikov would be tweeting about, we created a feed that both captures the novel’s tone and renders the work more real-feeling, or, at least, more contemporary.

This contemporaneity was a really unexpected yet rewarding result of @RodionTweets. Beyond the experience of Raskolnikov’s tweets periodically appearing in his followers’ twitter feeds, the serendipity of their timing or placement allowed for connections to be drawn between followers’ lived experiences and Dostoevsky’s novel. Followers remarked on the eeriness of @RodionTweets juxtaposed with twitter updates about the Turkish coup attempt or the odd resonance between @RodionTweets and the mood of many in post-Brexit Britain. One of the strangest coincidences was that Raskolnikov’s monologue leading to his confession took place at the same time as Trump’s speech at the RNC in Cleveland on July 21, prompting a flood of comments from followers experiencing the two feeds – RNC live tweeters and @RodionTweets – together; here are a few examples. While unintended when we conceived the project, these juxtapositions highlight the power of Dostoevsky’s novel and speak to the relevance of his hero’s psychology for the present.

The project, though, was not all serious. Beyond the geopolitical resonances and the literary analysis, it is a project based in Twitter, a medium that’s equally political squabbling and entertaining puns, jokes, and sarcasm. The spirit of the project is one part Dostoevsky, one part Twitterature, and it also encompasses @RodionTweets’s love of strange hashtags and sublime Twitter moments such as a Dostoevsky account interacting with his creation or a Shostakovich account liking some of @RodionTweets’s tweets. Or this, my favorite follower interaction with the account, which continues to crack me up nearly two years later.

So what now? We have archived the project here: @RodionTweets, parts 1-3; @RodionTweets, parts 4-6 + epilogues. The archives are complete and tweets within them appear in chronological order (so you can read them alongside the book). They have already been used in the classroom by some. Professors assign students to read part of the novel alongside the corresponding tweets and then discuss, or to generate their own tweets from a different character’s perspective (this last idea is an assignment Kate Holland has implemented in her Dostoevsky class). If you are using the project in your class, please let me know!

Rodiontweets-end-4

At the end of my blog post about tweeting Part 6, I concluded by saying that the epilogues on Twitter would be spread across 18 months and then Raskolnikov would fade away. Now, though, I think that statement needs some revising. The spring of 2018 feels far removed in many ways from the summer of 2016. Much has happened since then. But I think the drawn-out nature of the epilogue, and Raskolnikov sporadically appearing in our feeds, has perhaps made it seem more like he is one of us – a Twitter user who is sometimes active (the conceit being he somehow manages to get online from his Siberian prison camp…), but more often not. And perhaps this silence is simply because his life is full and he hasn’t got time for social media. In this sense, although @RodionTweets has gone quiet, I hope he is not forgotten, but lingers on as part of our network, somewhere on the edge of our consciousness.


Katherine Bowers is Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism and tweets about Russian lit and other things on @kab3d. She also edits Bloggers Karamazov and curates the North American Dostoevsky Society’s social media.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias, the blog of the NYU Jordan Center.

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.