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The Crystal Palace in Russian Literature (2)

I think the general assumption is that Chernyshevsky’s use of the Crystal Palace as the basis for his utopian vision riled Dostoevsky so much that he then included in the polemic against rational egoism in Notes from Underground (Russian text here). But by the time What is to be Done? was published, Dostoevsky had already visited Sydenham himself, and written about the Palace in his travelogue Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (publ. Feb. 1863), so his negative response to it was already documented:

Сити с своими миллионами и всемирной торговлей, кристальный дворец, всемирная выставка… Да, выставка поразительна. Вы чувствуете страшную силу, которая соединила тут всех этих бесчисленных людей, пришедших со всего мира, в едино стадо; вы сознаете исполинскую мысль; вы чувствуете, что тут что-то уже достигнуто, что тут победа, торжество. Вы даже как будто начинаете бояться чего-то. Как бы вы ни были независимы, но вам отчего-то становится страшно. Уж не это ли, в самом деле, достигнутый идеал? – думаете вы; – не конец ли тут? не это ли уж и в самом деле,”едино стадо”. Не придется ли принять это, и в самом деле, за полную правду и занеметь окончательно? Все это так торжественно, победно и гордо, что вам начинает дух теснить. Вы смотрите на эти сотни тысяч, на эти миллионы людей, покорно текущих сюда со всего земного шара, – людей, пришедших с одною мыслью, тихо, упорно и молча толпящихся в этом колоссальном дворце, и вы чувствуете, что тут что-то окончательное совершилось, совершилось и закончилось. Это какая-то библейская картина, что-то о Вавилоне, какое-то пророчество из Апокалипсиса, в очию совершающееся. Вы чувствуете, что много надо вековечного духовного отпора и отрицания, чтоб не поддаться, не подчиниться впечатлению, не поклониться факту и не обоготворить Ваала, то есть не принять существующего за свой идеал… (гл. 5)

A city with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the world Exhibition… Yes, the Exhibition is astounding. You feel a terrible force which has united all these numberless people here, from all over the world, into a single herd; you become aware of a colossal idea; you feel that something has already been achieved here, that there is victory, triumph here. It’s even as if you begin to feel afraid of something. No matter how independent you are, for some reason you feel terrified. ‘Hasn’t the ideal already been achieved?’ you think, ‘isn’t this the end? isn’t this already in fact “a single herd.” Aren’t you forced, in fact, to accept this as the full truth and grown numb once and for all? It’s all so solemn, triumphant and proud that you begin to gasp for breath. You look at these hundreds of thousands, these millions of people obediently streaming here  from all over the earth — people coming with a single thought, peacefully, insistently and silently crowding into this colossal palace and you feel that something final has been accomplished, accomplished and brought to a close. It’s a kind of biblical scene, something from Babylon, some kind of prophecy from the Apocalypse being fulfilled before your very eyes. You feel it would require a great deal of eternal spiritual resistance and repudiation not to surrender, not to succumb to the impression, not to bow down to fact and not to idolize Baal, that is, not to accept what exists as your ideal… (Winter Notes, Chapter 5)

It’s pretty clear from this that the problem, as far as Dostoevsky’s concerned, is exactly what Chernyshevky celebrated: the universalism the Crystal Palace represents. Not only is Dostoevsky prepared to be (or create) the ‘single voice’ raised against the idea of the Palace, but the thing he suggests that is most terrible about it is the possibility that no-one might raise a voice against it. But what’s curious about his description is the way Dostoevsky lumps the Crystal Palace in with the other memorable sights he sees in London: alcohol abuse in Whitechapel and prostitution in the Haymarket. He sees them all as manifestations of the worship of Baal, but the way he conflates apparently different things here is interesting. It’s not that he views the Crystal Palace as a place of debauchery, as, for example, George Gissing does in The Nether Worldin fact it seems to be quite the opposite, and yet there a connection between them that I think goes beyond the overt one of the loss of religious faith.

A little over a year after Winter Notes appeared, and with Chernyshevsky’s novel firmly fixed in the public imagination, Dostoevsky published part 1 of Notes from Underground, and here he is evidently responding to Chernyshevsky’s image:

Тогда-то, – это все вы говорите, – настанут новые экономические отношения, совсем уж готовые и тоже вычисленные с математическою точностью, так что в один миг исчезнут всевозможные вопросы, собственно потому, что на них получатся всевозможные ответы. Тогда выстроится хрустальный дворец. Тогда… Ну, одним словом, тогда прилетит птица Каган. Конечно, никак нельзя гарантировать (это уж я теперь говорю), что тогда не будет, например, ужасно скучно (потому что что ж и делать-то, когда все будет расчислено по табличке), зато все будет чрезвычайно благоразумно. (ч. 1, гл. 7)

And then – it’s still you speaking – new economic relations will come into being, all ready-made and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that in a single instant all possible questions will disappear, precisely because all possible answers to them will have been provided. Then the crystal palace will be constructed. Then… well, in a word, those will be our halcyon days. Of course, there can be no way of guaranteeing (and this is me speaking now) that it won’t be, for example, terribly boring (because what will there be left to do when everything has been calculated by tables), but then everything will be extremely rational. (Notes from Underground, pt. 1, ch. 7)

He uses the image to make apparent connections that are not openly stated in What is to be Done? The idea of everything being ‘calculated with mathematical precision’  relates more to Chernyshevsky’s 1860 essay The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy than to his novel — although to be sure his superhero Rakhmetov is a pure embodiment (insofar as one can say such a cardboard cut-out can be an embodiment of anything) of the theory of rational egoism — but in Chernyshevsky’s work the Crystal Palace appears to have little to do with this, being, as I said, an expression of sexual equality. Dostoevsky’s novella throws that aspect out of the window — though the position of women in society remains a preoccupation in Notes from Underground and throughout his career — and in doing so demonstrates the potential of the Crystal Palace as a symbol of the rationalist utopia which is largely untapped in What is to be Done?

Clearly, the underground man is not Dostoevsky, and neither, perhaps, is the narrator of Winter Notes, but there is a different emphasis in the two texts (despite Marshall Berman’s tendency to treat them as though they are a single work — he even quotes Winter Notes when he is talking about the underground man). They may coincide in their horror at the finality and universalism of the Crystal Palace — and therefore its inhumanity:

В хрустальном дворце оно [страдание] и немыслимо: страдание есть сомнение, есть отрицание, а что за хрустальный дворец, в котором можно усомниться? А между тем я уверен, что человек от настоящего страдания, то есть от разрушения и хаоса, никогда не откажется. (ч. 1, гл. 9)

In the crystal palace it [suffering] is inconceivable: suffering is doubt, negation, and what sort of crystal palace would it be where doubt was allowed? But I’m convinced that man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. (pt. 1, ch. 9)

but the suggestion in Winter Notes of a connection between the Crystal Palace and depravity and vice seems absent here, even if the underground man himself is no stranger to debauchery, as part 2 shows. In Crime and Punishment, the direct connection reappears, in the form of a seedy tavern called the Crystal Palace, but the moral questions surrounding alcohol and prostitution in that novel are far from straightforward. Overall, I think this suggests there is more to Dostoevsky’s references to the Crystal Palace than just his argument with the nihilists. My plan is to compare his Dostoevsky’s treatment to representations of the Crystal Palace in English literature to get to the bottom of this. But that, as they say, is for another day.

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  1. Robin Harris

     /  May 17, 2010

    My books are in store so I cannot find a reference for you, but some critics see Dostoevsky as a prophet warning of an atheist totalitatian future, “…so solemn , triumphant and proud that you begin to gasp for breath.” The Crystal Palace was symbolic of the frightening potential of this triumph of the human will. There is no doubt the expirience of visiting the Great Exhibition had a profound effect upon him. It has always intrigued me, so I was interested to read your thoughts. Will try to post again if I find something.

  2. Thanks for this. The idea of Dostoevsky as a prophet of totalitarianism is usually based on his ‘anthill theories’ of the one tenth ruling the nine tenths, leading to absolute slavery, as described by Shigalev in Demons and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. My assumption has been that there’s an implicit link between this and the Crystal Palace in Dostoevsky’s thinking, but if there’s something that makes it more explicit, I’d be interested to know. The Crystal Palace certainly had a very profound effect on Dostoevsky, in a way that was quite different to how most others saw it (even John Ruskin, with his ‘giant cucumber frame’ comment, was only negative on aesthetic grounds).

  3. Hello Sarah, I’m writing a novel which uses the crystal palace, or the idea of it, as a metaphor of both achievement and decadence, as well as the fact that it burnt to the ground.

    Really pleased to see someone writing about it academically, one of the first examples of it I found in fiction was through D’s ‘NfU’.

    Are you aware of this quote from the letters of D H Lawrence which I find really interesting but also alluringly strange:

    ‘I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the Hallelujah Chorus.’

    The context is simply a venting of his anger at the hypocrisy of many a philanthropic society lady (and gent) who were eager to help the poor but only in their own condescending fashion, the ends failing to justify the means etc.

    Anyway, I’d love to read the paper or full journal article if you have a citation?

  4. Thanks so much for this. I’ll look forward to reading your novel – please do keep me informed! I’ve not come across this reference from DH Lawrence before – please could you let me know when the letter was written, and to whom? My own article is still in the planning stages, it’s one of the things I’ll be working on in the next few months, but I’ll let you know when it’s going to be published.

  5. Ian Leith

     /  February 28, 2011

    Hi Sarah. This is tantalising since nobody seems to be sure which Crystal Palace he is talking about: did he mean the 1862 Exhibition [on the site of the V&A] or did he mean the second Crystal Palace re-erected at Sydenham after 1854? It is not at all clear – each could have been visited but one was still called the Crystal Palace and the other, entirely of brick, was not. Does anyone know his London itinerary? Ian

  6. Hi Ian,
    there seems to be very little information about Dostoevsky’s itinerary in London – apart from what he wrote in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, he wrote only one letter while in London (or at least, only one has survived), and that was to make arrangements for a visit to Italy.
    Some critics have suggested Dostoevsky was confused – that he visited the 1862 exhibition in Kensington, but thought it was the Crystal Palace. This seems unlikely to me – as you say, the former was built entirely of brick, and my impression is that by this time the image of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham was quite well known, even in Russia, where it was much discussed. But he certainly conflates the two (Turgenev does something similar in his novel Smoke). That, of course, doesn’t mean Dostoevsky didn’t visit Sydenham, but, sadly, I don’t think it’s provable.

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