Without faith in a Christ as god-man, and the life after death Christianity promises, Dostoevsky believed, humanity is doomed to squalid, cruel disorder. No other intellectual system based on atheism, however well-functioning in practice, even in a sort of utopia where everyone is enthusiastic about wanting to help everyone else be happy and good, can possibly succeed; without the prospect of Heaven, and judgment, humankind inevitably breaks down to debasement. He saw this all around him in mid-19th century Russia, in the government, the rulers, the behavior and mores of the aristocracy, dissolution of the family (as he perceived it), and the desire to turn away from Russian-ness and emulate the culture of Western Europe.
At the same time he seemed to feel that none of the disorder in Russia was ever going to be reparable. That the the peasants (recently freed serfs, after the 1860s) were always going to be a somehow incomprehensible other, even as they supposedly possessed the purest highest form the the Russian soul.
I’ve been delving into Dostoevsky for a few years now on and off, reading and then listening to audios of the major novels; I’ve gone from not being able to read him at all in my younger days, to finding him as absorbing and rereadable as Henry James or Tolstoy. I had to discover how to read him, and retune myself to the higher emotional pitch he demands — not even Tolstoy prepared me for the high hysteria of a Dostoyevsky character. His people start out at 11.
But it was just this past couple of weeks that I read his big novel The Adolescent (or A Raw Youth as an earlier English translation calls it), which was his next to last — written between Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. According to the introduction, it was not well received at the time of publication and tended to be overlooked since.
There was a lot to it that made it a tough read — some flatness to characters, a ridiculously melodramatic plot turning on possession and purloining of a compromising letter. (Does the word ‘purloin’ ever get used anymore except with the word ‘letter’ in the same sentence–and barely even then.) But from it I got what seems to be my clearest understanding yet of what Dostoevsky was on about, and in a way that connected more directly than before with my own moral preoccupations, uncertainties and dreads.
This post has been in draft form for well over a week, and I’ve kind of lost track of it, because I was working on a short story with my writers group–trying a form I’m very unaccustomed to attempting, and especially after a year when any creative impulses I might have had were buried against the onslaught of my elderly parents’ emergency.
I’m now stuck into George Steiner’s first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, An Essay in Contrast, (the title always makes me think The Beatles or The Stones, why do we have to pick?), as well as an audio of The Double.
Also just finished Peter Pomerentsev’s nonfiction book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. which contains nothing that would contradict any of Dostoevsky’s points about Russia and humanity, each chapter setting out a story of frightening dangerous absurdity, Pomerentsev’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to London, and he went back as an adult to work in television, wanting to make documentary films about the post-Soviet social upheavals. Through interviews with various players, both Russians and foreigners who worked in Russia during those years, he shows us, from the point of view of suicidal models, crusading lawyers, shameless oligarchs, unsuspecting entrepreneurs, and brash social climbers, a perspective on the decades following the fall of the SU that’s fascinating in it’s horror and horrible in its fascination.
Once in a while I think about picking up a different sort of book and taking a break from dwelling on Russia, my obsession with it sometimes feeling like a half-open scab I keep picking picking picking. There’s a weird pain-into-pleasure I experience as I read Russian literature or books about Russian life and history. Nothing else feels as inviting to me now, anyway. It’s not that I need to “get to the bottom of it” but this immersion is filling some kind of need in me for the squalor, ugliness, human cruelty, occasionally leavened by a spiritual light that I myself don’t believe in, delivered in a beautiful and meaningful package of prose fiction. The way everything in all these books not just goes up to 11, but seems to start there and go up into ever more shrill, sublime human places that seem otherwise invisible to fictive worlds of other languages and cultures, just keeps pulling me. The other day I even listened to some Mussorgsky.
And rewatched the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina, which is now on Netflix, and which has always struck me as being a great adaptation, and a visual treasure with a well-chosen cast, look, and feel.
I especially admire how the film is staged, literally, on a stage–and behind the stage, to illustrate how performative is the society from which Anna tries to rebel.