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something else from Dostoevsky

November 15, 2009

From Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:

“In the compositionally expressed dialogues of Dostoevsky’s characters, there are also no separate thoughts or positions. They never argue over separate points, but always over whole points of view, inserting themselves and their entire idea into even the briefest exchange.”

Something reading Socratic Dialogue teaches, whether Plato’s or Dostoevsky’s, is that in human conversation, though often disguised as the arrangement and rearrangement of ideas or theses, something else is always at stake: “whole points of view”–the often disparate positionings, postures, stances of human lives toward ultimate reality, and the possible transformations or deformations of those positions. Such possibilities are always difficult to discern beforehand, because one is in one’s position, and to recognize the ways in which one’s position is not self-defining, and might therefore be re-defined, one would have to be somehow outside one’s position:

we might imagine a way of standing that leans beyond its stance, a habit of being-beyond-oneself, a readiness to unfold what unwonted gestures are called for, a readiness to respond to the voice of another.

Shatov appeals to this readiness that is at the heart of all human talking, trying to unsettle Stavrogin’s deeply disfigured and impermeable posture, trying to point with halting, hyperbolic gestures toward “something else“:

“I beg you to treat me with respect, I insist on it!” shouted Shatov, “not my personality–I don’t care a hang for that, but something else, just for this once. While I am talking … we are two beings, and have come together in an infinity … for the last time in the world. Drop your tone and speak like a human being! Speak, if only for once in your life with the voice of a man. I say it not for my sake but for yours…”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2009 11:08 am

    “the possible transformations or deformations of that position”

    This is a wonderful post. Especially this part: –Shatov appeals to this readiness that is at the heart of all human talking, trying to unsettle Stavrogin’s deeply disfigured and impermeable posture, trying to point with halting, hyperbolic gestures toward “something else“–

    I have never read anything about Shatov as insightful as that.

    I don’t have my copy of Demons around at the moment so I can’t exactly recall Stavrogin’s tone in asking Shatov whether he believes in God (is it the same conversation?) – however I do recall something in the way of a “gotcha” in his expectation of Shatov’s answer and in his hearing it as if the “I shall believe” is indicative in some final sense of the unworthiness (?) of Shatov’s path, of the fact that his words need not trouble Stavrogin – when it is really only the answer of an honest human being, someone who speaks with” the voice (and tense) of a man”, and a compelling answer at that, even prophetic when you consider how much more of an answer to that question is Shatov’s attitude toward his wife.

    In that last part you quote–“we are two beings, and have come together in an infinity … for the last time in the world”–Shatov creates the “threshold dialogue,” which is Bakhtin’s 4th characteristic of the Socratic dialogue, though unlimited, as he says, by “the historic and memoir forms of the Socratic dialogue.” But what mingling of genre can give Stavrogin pause? I think Shatov is aware that his “hyperbolic gestures” are often little more than an annoyance, an impotent excess, which makes him even more courageous in my mind.

    I wonder what the difference is in Stavrogin’s conversations with Kirilov in which Stavrogin does not have the upper hand, in which Kirilov knows him more than he knows Kirilov, and in which he is somehow less at ease, feeling the need, finally, to explain himself. Maybe it’s something about the fact that Kirilov has no expectation of Stavrogin, no want or need, and Stavrogin, knowing this, realizes that although he despises those who see “something else” in him, he would like it if Kirilov could see it.

    Wonderful post.

  2. Sebastian permalink
    November 15, 2009 11:39 am

    This is an amazing passage.
    Is the book this is taken from as good as this selection?

  3. November 15, 2009 11:40 am

    This may be a little excessive, but this also brought to mind something I tried to express in my Russian novel paper about the value of recognition – at the moment when Shatov runs upstairs to Kirilov’s for more tea or whatever for his wife and Kirilov says (I wish I had the book) something like “The way you came up those stairs . . . is good” and then Shatov says, to this most insignificant of statements, “What a man you’d be, Kirilov, if you ever gave up your . . .” Shatov recognizes a “something else” in Kirilov, recognizes it precisely because Kirilov himself does have some exceptional power of recognition which demands that the reader consider the possibility that the word “good” in his statement is not altogether different from the “perspective of the Good” at the end of each day of Creation.

    It’s just that we’re so used to the “finalized” character or event, or at least the finalized reading of a character that seems to be demanded by non-Bakhtin criticism (even by Ivanov) that we forget that things can be forgiven or that things didn’t have to turn out this way . . . what if someone just recognized? There is the constant recognition of the possible world-historical significance of Stavrogin that can distract from the moments when a different, no less important, kind of significance is revealed.

  4. rainscape permalink*
    November 15, 2009 1:36 pm

    I’d like to respond to more of what you’re saying/asking here, rimwell, but for now just wanted to agree enthusiastically with everything!

    I’m glad you’ve written this:

    But what mingling of genre can give Stavrogin pause? I think Shatov is aware that his “hyperbolic gestures” are often little more than an annoyance, an impotent excess, which makes him even more courageous in my mind.

    I agree–even “a daemonic excess,” like Socrates’ in the Republic. I’m especially glad because I felt like I had not got quite the right angle in what I wrote above … but in some way one needs to point to the fact that just because we see something laughable or ridiculous or melodramatic about Shatov at such moments that doesn’t negate his word and it doesn’t mean D is writing melodrama (both of which infuriating positions are represented by some critics, sometimes simultaneously!), but in the end makes what’s being said realer, more convicting, and more human, because “dialogized.” Especially when we laugh at him/with him and love with him/him when his wife shows up with her about-to-born baby.

    And yes! to this too. Very much:

    I do recall something in the way of a “gotcha” in his expectation of Shatov’s answer and in his hearing it as if the “I shall believe” is indicative in some final sense of the unworthiness (?) of Shatov’s path, of the fact that his words need not trouble Stavrogin – when it is really only the answer of an honest human being, someone who speaks with ”the voice (and tense) of a man”, and a compelling answer at that, even prophetic when you consider how much more of an answer to that question is Shatov’s attitude toward his wife.

    It’s Shatov’s “wavering” voice (already/not yet speaking) that allows the messianic idea he gets from Stavrogin about “the God-bearing people, the Russian Christ, etc.” (and something about the way he formulates these ideas makes it impossible to believe in them, because the faith imagined would not be able to abstract itself into such a formulations) transform itself into something else than it was for Stavrogin.

    And I love what you’ve said about how we hear that exchange with Kirillov. “The way you came up those stairs … is good.” (:

    To agree with your last point; as long as we read like this–

    “All the leading characters meet “by chance” in Varvara Petrovna’s drawing room. He transforms this convention of theatrical technique into a psychological necessity. His people are drawn to one another by love-hatred; we follow their approach and have a presentiment of the unavoidability of conflict. The orbits of these planets are calculated before hand and the points of intersection are determined” (Konstantin Mochulsky).

    –we’re not reading what D’s writing.

    Sebastian, yes, I actually think this is the realest, brightest, happiest and best of D’s novels.

  5. November 16, 2009 12:23 pm

    “It’s Shatov’s ‘wavering’ voice (already/not yet speaking) that allows the messianic idea he gets from Stavrogin about ‘the God-bearing people, the Russian Christ, etc.’ (and something about the way he formulates these ideas makes it impossible to believe in them, because the faith imagined would not be able to abstract itself into such a formulations) transform itself into something else than it was for Stavrogin.”

    My friend, I would almost trust my soul to the sensitivity and generosity that is displayed in that sentence. There is reading, and then there is whatever it is you do that makes “realest, brightest, happiest and best” a better recommendation of the worth of Demons than the mountain of criticism and commentary it has demanded.

  6. Sebastian permalink
    November 17, 2009 8:39 pm

    I was referring to Bakhtin’s work on Dostoevsky. Would you recommend it?

  7. rainscape permalink*
    November 17, 2009 9:42 pm

    eha! yes. I would.

    I’m also very pleased with a book by Victor Terras, Reading Dostoevsky, that I previously was unaware of, and, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life, which I’ve definitely looked at, however insufficiently, before. But Bakhtin is on a different level.

    Here’s some other clippings from Problems of D’s Poetics that I recently made–some sections that I think have a kind of clarity or appeal (I’m just now starting a paper on Devils, so I’ve been rummaging through the library for such things; and since I spent so much time typing them for myself, I’d be overjoyed if they prove enjoyable or useful to anyone else):

    A character’s self-consciousness in Dostoevsky is thoroughly dialogized: in its every aspect it is turned outward, intensely addressing itself, another, a third person. Outside this living addressivity toward itself and toward the other it does not exist, even for itself. In this sense it could be said that the person in Dostoevsky is the subject of an address. One cannot talk about him; one can only address himself to him. Those “depths of the human soul,” whose representation Dostoevsky considered the main task of his realism “in a higher sense,” are revealed only in an intense act of address. It is impossible to master the inner man, to see and understand him by making him into an object of indifferent neutral analysis; it is also impossible to master him by merging with him, by empathizing with him. No, one can approach him and reveal him—or more precisely, force him to reveal himself—only by addressing him dialogically. And to portray the inner man, as Dostoevsky understood it, was possible only by portraying him in communion with another. Only in communion, in the interaction of one person with another, can the “man in man” be revealed, for others as well as for oneself.
    It is fully understandable that at the center of Dostoevsky’s artistic world must lie dialogue not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Dialogue here is not the threshold to action, it is the action itself. It is not a means for revealing, for bringing to the surface the already ready-made character of a person; no, in dialogue a person not only shows himself outwardly, but he becomes for the first time that which he is—and, we repeat, not only for others but for himself as well. To be means to communicate dialogically. When dialogue ends, everything ends. Thus dialogue, by its very essence, cannot and must not come to an end. At the level of his religious-utopian worldview Dostoevsky carries dialogue into eternity, conceiving of it as eternal co-rejoicing, co-admiration, con-cord. At the level of the novel, it is presented as the unfinalizability of dialogue, although originally as dialogue’s vicious cycle. (252)

    Not types of peoples and fates finalized in an objectified way, but types of worldviews(Chaadev, Herzen, Granovsky, Bakunin, Belinsky, the Nechaev circle, the Dolgushin circle, etc.). And D understands worldview not as an abstract unity and sequence in a system of thoughts and positions, but as as ultimate position in the world in relation to higher values. Worldviews embodied in voices. A dialogue among such embodied worldviews, in which he himself participated. In the rough drafts, in the early stages of shaping his plan, these names (Chaadev, Herzen, Granovsky and others) are given directly, and then as the plot and the plot fates take shape, they are replaced by invented names. From the beginning of the plan, whole worldviews make their appearance, and only then the plot and the plot fates of the heroes (“moments” facing them in which their possibilities are most vividly revealed). D begins not with the idea, but with idea-heroes of a dialogue. He seeks integral voice, and fate and event (the fates and events of the plot) become means for expressing voices. (296)

    Personality does not die. Death is a departure. The person himself departs. Only such a death-departure can become an object (a fact) of fundamental artistic visualization in Dostoevsky’s world. The person has departed, having spoken his word, but the word itself remains in the open-ended dialogue. (300)

    Laughter is a specific aesthetic relationship to reality, but not one that can be translated into logical language; that is, it is a specific means for artistically visualizing and comprehending reality and, consequently, a specific means for structuring an artistic image, plot, or genre. Enormous creative, and therefore genre-shaping, power was possessed by ambivalent carnivalistic laughter. This laughter could grasp and comprehend a phenomenon in the process of change and transition, it could fix in phenomenon both poles of its evolution in their uninterrupted and creative renewing changeability: in death birth is foreseen and in birth death, in victory defeat and in defeat victory, in crowning a decrowning. Carnival laughter does not permit a single one of these aspects to be absolutized or congeal in a one-sided seriousness. (164)

    In D’s world all people and all things must know one another and know about one another, must enter into contact, come together face to face and begin to talk with one another. Everything must be reflected in everything else, all things must illuminate one another dialogically. Therefore all things that are disunified and spatially distant must be brought together at a single spatial and temporal “point.” And what is necessary for this is carnival freedom and carnival’s artistic conception of space and time. (177)

  8. December 19, 2009 11:23 pm

    “[O]ne needs to point to the fact that just because we see something laughable or ridiculous or melodramatic about Shatov at such moments that doesn’t negate his word and it doesn’t mean D is writing melodrama (both of which infuriating positions are represented by some critics, sometimes simultaneously!), but in the end makes what’s being said realer, more convicting, and more human, because ‘dialogized.'”

    In the spirit of your reading of Shatov, I just wanted to copy the following from the Diary of a Writer, which I just came across in Frank’s book, in which Dostoevsky gives some indication of how he ought to be read:

    “[N]ow, here, in the novel it is not I who am speaking in distressing colors, exaggerations, and hyperboles (although there is no exaggeration concerning the reality), but a character of my novel, Ivan Karamazov. This is his language, his style, his pathos, and not mine. He is a gloomily irritable person who keeps silent about a good deal. He would not have spoken out for anything in the world if not for the accidental sympathy for his brother Aleksey that suddenly flares up. Besides, he is a very young man. How else could he speak out on what he had kept silent for so long without this particular transport of feeling, without foaming at the mouth. He had strained his heart to the utmost so as not to break forth.”

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