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Women, beauty and other things

The ambiguous treatment of some of Dostoevsky’s major themes was high on the menu in the first session on Thursday. Joe Andrew gave a very interesting paper on the ‘woman question’ in The Brothers Karamazov, discussing how marginalized the female characters are – in the central family grouping there are no mothers, daughters or sisters (although of course memories of the mothers remain important), and those that are prominent are portrayed less than positively. This is in sharp contrast to Dostoevsky’s other major works, in which mothers and sisters play a very significant role, and in Diary of a Writer as well, women are often at the forefront of discussion. I am one of the people who considers Dostoevsky to be very enlightened about women (far more so than Tolstoy), so this retreat in The Brothers Karamazov is strange.

Wil van den Bercken paper on beauty, focusing mainly on The Idiot, equally showed what an ambivalent concept that is, in its incarnations as female beauty, the ‘beauty and prayer’ of the moment before Myshkin’s epileptic fit (which is also then beauty that turns into chaos and ugliness), the poor knight’s ideal of pure beauty, and so on. These conceptions of beauty, as Wil showed, are more prevalent than the moral beauty of Christ, which we tend to assume is the beauty that will save the world, in the mysterious phrase attributed to Myshkin. The paper didn’t go deeply into the religious conception, but that too is obviously problematized in the novel, however you interpret the Holbein  painting of Christ in the Tomb. Either it shows the ugly reality of death without resurrection, Christ without divinity, or it’s a fake (the painting was originally an anatomical study, not a religious work; Rogozhin has only a copy, not the real thing) behind which nothing stands – there is no unambiguously positive image of Christ in the novel to replace it.

There were three great papers in the afternoon. Nel Grillaert advanced a persuasive account of the strategies Dostoevsky used to ‘say the unsayable’, focusing on hagiographic devices of word-weaving in Zosima’s discourses. This was not only very interesting in its own right, but also thought-provoking for me because the quality of unsayability is relevant to the representation not only of the transcendent, but also of the traumatic. I think one of the sources of Shalamov’s power and originality is his attempt to address the unspeakable in his experiences without recourse to the unsayable of the transcendent, and in general I think the relationship between these two areas of experience that are resistant to representation is very significant.

Katherine Tiernan O’Connor gave a brilliant, detailed interpretation of the relationship between Notes from the House of the Dead and Dostoevsky’s re-writing of his labour camp experiences in the story The Peasant Marey, which I think answered a lot of the very perplexing questions about the latter text. Some of her analysis also dovetailed nicely with the conception I’ve been building about Gorianchikov’s inability to know the prisoners for a forthcoming article on Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Kennan (I wrote a little about this in my post about concordances).

Finally, Amy Ronner’s paper using the concept of therapeutic jurisprudence to reconsider Raskolnikov’s motives and confessions was highly entertaining and made me think again about his confession to Sonia. In one of my posts on prostitution, I suggested that Raskolnikov chose her as his confessor because she would have been considered an unreliable witness. I stand by that statement, but I think I viewed that as a cynical move by Raskolnikov. Now I’m not so sure. Perhaps it is an attempt to distance himself from the legal process because he recognizes that what he needs is not a judicial process but a therapeutic and redemptive one. I’d still suggest he’s very ambivalent about the whole process, and that none of the confessions he makes is straightforward, but I’ll leaved that for another time.

This will be my last update from Naples. There is one paper I’d quite like to hear today, but I’m all conferenced-out and am going to Herculaneum instead, then flying home tomorrow.

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