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Dostoevsky Today

Introduction: Dostoevsky Today

Sarah Young

Taken from: Dostoevsky on the Threshold of Other Worlds: Essays in Honour of Malcolm Jones, ed. Sarah Young and Lesley Milne (Ilkeston: Bramcote Press, 2006), pp. xiii-xx

‘Why should we read Dostoevsky today?’ is a question many lecturers face from students in one form or another. Does Dostoevsky’s world of religious visionaries and cynical revolutionaries, of meek, kind-hearted prostitutes and hysterical femmes fatales, of brutal sensualists and sexual innocents, of aspiring Rothschilds and Napoleons, of melodrama, scandal and the grotesque, of hallucinations, devils and doubles, of dialogues with and indictments of the ‘progressive’ ideas ‘in the air’ in the mid-nineteenth century and the ever more forceful assertion of the Russian and in particular the Russian Orthodox ideal – a world which at first glance seems in many ways so remote from our own, from which everything ‘normal’ has apparently been removed, and which frequently, in spite of the all too often overlooked humorous aspects of his work, makes for painful reading – have a relevance today which continues to justify critical attention and his place on university syllabi? While the very question of ‘relevance’ may occasionally, and not without justification, cause scholars and teachers to throw their hands up in despair, it is not simply the product of a political agenda, or the sign of a utilitarian approach which increasingly dominates in the contemporary world, not least in education, but is a major factor in our work. Would we continue to read and study Dostoevsky in such numbers if he were only of historical interest? If the profound spiritual and ethical dilemmas he dramatizes in his writings, the ‘accursed questions’ he addresses with such terrifying urgency, did not still exercise us now? If his ‘fantastic’ evocation of Russian (and not only Russian) reality did not strike a chord today? If the foundations of not only the modern, but also of the postmodern world were not perceptible in his works? If he had not inspired responses in so many later, and great, writers and thinkers?

The multi-faceted and ambiguous nature of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre – that which has resulted in the author being harnessed in support of the most diverse ideological positions, which meant, for instance, that The Devils could be deemed sufficiently reactionary and anti-revolutionary to be stocked in the pre-Revolutionary Tbilisi seminary library, where it was read by the young Stalin as a blueprint for revolution and terror1 – led Mikhail Bakhtin to develop many of his ideas on dialogue, polyphony and carnival, which he later applied to other areas of literature and linguistic theory, initially, to borrow Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky’s formulation, ‘whilst looking at’ Dostoevsky. The fact that these ideas played a fundamental role in the development of later theories of narrative, intertextuality and culture shows Dostoevsky’s importance not only as an acute commentator on human nature, but also as an experimental writer, and his continuing (although frequently indirect, for he is often only mentioned by theorists in passing) impact on literary scholarship as a whole.

While Dostoevsky’s continuing presence in and influence on the literary world is evident, for example, in the fiction of Victor Pelevin (in which the post-Soviet world of gangsters and oligarchs proves just as Dostoevskian as the Terror of the 1930s), in the creative responses to the author’s life and works of J M Coetzee’s novel The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden (written before 1981, but only now achieving the recognition it deserves), and in new translations of his works in recent years, for example those by David McDuff and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which have brought Dostoevsky alive again for a new generation of readers in the English-speaking world, his cultural impact extends far beyond the written word. Theatrical productions, art exhibitions and installations based on Dostoevsky’s life and works are a regular feature of cultural life in Russia’s two capitals; the Dostoevsky Memorial Museum in St Petersburg is now frequently cited as the most popular literary museum in the city; and Dostoevsky walking tours of Petersburg habitually attract far greater numbers than those dedicated to other writers connected to the city.2

Moreover, in addition to the Russian film scores and operatic reworkings of Dostoevsky’s texts discussed here in Arnold McMillin’s contribution, the wider film community has frequently turned to Dostoevsky. Passing hastily over the 1958 Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov, directed by Richard Brooks, which now retains mainly curiosity value for the pre-Star Trek appearance of William Shatner, the high point of Dostoevsky adaptations perhaps remains Akira Kurasawa’s version of The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951). More recently we have seen Karoly Makk’s The Gambler (1997), which intertwines the novella with the perennially fascinating story of Dostoevsky’s quasi-Faustian pact – the author as gambler – with the publisher Stellovsky, and his romance with Anna Grigorievna. Rob Schmidt’s Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (2000) reworked Dostoevsky’s novel in a contemporary American setting, while the same novel was given a more traditional treatment in a 2002 BBC production. The merits of turning Dostoevsky into sanitized heritage costume drama may of course be endlessly disputed, but in spite of the inevitable simplification, not to say in many cases bowdlerization, which occurs in such productions, the fact that reading, as Robin Feuer Miller emphasizes in her essay in the current volume, is in decline – and not only in the West but also in Russia – suggests that film and television adaptations now have a significant role to play in introducing classic texts by ‘off-putting’ writers like Dostoevsky to a new audience, whatever the reservations of (we) purists.3 Vladimir Bortko’s epic adaptation of The Idiot for Russian television in 2003, whilst not untypically for Dostoevsky, both in print and on the screen, dividing critics and viewers alike, achieved large audiences and generated a huge amount of press coverage, suggesting that, one way or another, his pre-eminent position within Russian culture is not in doubt.4

For much of the twentieth century, Dostoevsky’s enduring legacy was perhaps his prophecy of totalitarianism, a perennial topic on which Vladimir Tunimanov’s article in this collection sheds new light, but what of today, following the collapse of the Soviet system? Many of the social problems he addresses repeatedly in both his fiction and non-fiction – crime, poverty, gambling, alcoholism, child abuse, the breakdown of the family – remain pressing concerns. His indictment of materialism – most forcefully expressed in The Idiot – has perhaps even greater resonance now than it did when he was writing, and it is in the concomitant loss of fundamental values, and in the matrix of faith and its absence which underlies his entire mature oeuvre, that Dostoevsky’s relevance is most clearly visible today. While for many years, following the Revolution, and during the Cold War for the West in particular, the fundamental, and most prescient, opposition in Dostoevsky’s works may have seemed simply to be that between religious belief and atheism/socialism/utilitarianism, now, in the post-9/11 world, the ground has shifted somewhat; the danger arising out of the secularized world’s loss of faith today comes not from extreme forms of that loss of faith, but rather from extreme forms of faith itself. However, although Dostoevskian radicalism and revolutionism – and their real-life twentieth-century counterparts – and twenty-first-century religious fundamentalism and terrorism may be far apart in terms of content, reversing the polarities of faith and unbelief to which we have grown accustomed, they pose a threat for the same reason: both are totalizing (monologic) ideologies, which admit neither doubt nor dialogue. In this context, the role of the ‘crucible of doubt’ in forging Dostoevsky’s own religious beliefs and his representation of spiritual questions in his novels, about which Malcolm Jones has spoken and written so eloquently, becomes more central than ever to our understanding of the author’s works. To this we can add questions of torture, imprisonment and political prisoners, raised primarily by House of the Dead but also present implicitly in many of his other works, the clash between the Christian and Muslim worlds (as well as that between East and West) he addresses in Diary of a Writer, and the eternal question, ‘Whither Russia?’ In the geo-political, as well as the spiritual and ethical, realities of the early twenty-first century, in other words, reading Dostoevsky has as much to offer as ever. He is, as Robin Feuer Miller says, always a timely writer.

It is for this reason that Dostoevsky not only retains his cultural importance, but also remains such an exciting subject for research. His ‘broadness’ means that there is always new scope for interpretation, and new angles, going far beyond the confines of literary theory and criticism, from which to approach him,5 so that there seems little danger of him going out of fashion. However, this certainly does not signify complacency, and in fact, the last two or three decades, and in particular in the last fifteen years, with the greater freedom of Russian scholars to contribute to, and indeed set the agenda for, debate, have seen Dostoevsky studies flourish as never before. The publication of a new Complete Works,6 with excellent notes and essays, edited by Vladimir Zakharov, demonstrates the strength of Dostoevsky scholarship in Russia, while the on-line concordance of Dostoevsky’s works,7 behind which Professor Zakharov was once again the driving force, has become an invaluable resource for many researchers. The development of the resource centre at the Dostoevsky Museum in St Petersburg has been an equally welcome addition.8 Long-standing annual conferences at that museum and at the Dostoevsky museum in Staraya Russa, and the triennial symposium of the International Dostoevsky Society provide a fascinating forum for discussion and argument (not to say, on occasion, scandal), and have created a world-wide scholarly community which has in itself contributed much to the strength of the subject. Meanwhile, publications dedicated to Dostoevsky, from journals (the International Dostoevsky Society’s Dostoevsky Studies) and almanacs (Dostoevskii i mirovaia kul’tura (Dostoevsky and World Culture), published by the Petersburg Dostoevsky Museum), to series (IRLI RAN’s Dostoevskii: Materialy i issledovaniia (Dostoevsky: Materials and Research); IMLI RAN’s new series of collections of essays under the editorship of Tatyana Kasatkina, and the regular appearance of one-off collections and monographs,9 both ensure that debate continues to develop and testify to the centrality of the field within Russian literary studies.10

While a large range of interpretative and theoretical approaches remains the norm, undoubtedly the most important development in Dostoevsky studies in recent years has been the focus on religious interpretations. Although always an important topic, the study of the religious foundations of Dostoevsky’s work has been given fresh life by Russian scholars well versed in Bakhtinian poetics – several of those represented in these pages prominently among them – and embraced by many in the wider Dostoevsky community, leading, among other things, to analysis of his use of biblical and liturgical sources, the role of Christian and more specifically Orthodox motifs such as hesychasm, holy foolishness and kenosis, and the image of Christ in his works.

This is one of several areas to which Malcolm Jones, to whom this volume is dedicated, has made a significant contribution. His long engagement with writings on religious themes, both within Dostoevsky studies and beyond, alongside his extensive knowledge of theology and the Bible,11 and his sensitivity and alertness to the subtleties of the text, have now resulted in a new monograph, Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience,12 bringing together and developing several years’ work on the topic, but the religious context of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre is also a central theme in Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin (1990).13 In this book, Malcolm demonstrates the possibility of combining different factors – most prominently the Christian, the psychological, the narratological, the intertextual – into an overarching theory which not only elucidates and connects many aspects of Dostoevsky’s novels by developing Bakhtin’s theories, but has also become a model and starting-point for many subsequent analyses, making it surely one of the most regularly cited monographs on Dostoevsky, particularly since its translation into Russian in 1998.

As the breadth of the frames of reference of Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin suggests, religious themes are far from being Malcolm’s sole preoccupation, and he has throughout his career addressed many other issues within Dostoevsky studies, in particular relating Dostoevsky to the tradition of European philosophy, be that in the guise of German Idealism, psychoanalysis or deconstruction, as well as writing on numerous other authors, thinkers and cultural figures, including, not infrequently, subjects far beyond Russian literary studies.

It therefore befits both the range of Malcolm’s work, and the nature of Dostoevsky studies as a whole, that the essays collected in his honour here cover such a broad spectrum of topics and methodologies, covering not only literary themes and narratological analyses, but also responses to Dostoevsky by other writers and in cultural production more broadly, as well as the author’s own intellectual milieu. The scope of interpretative possibilities in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre is demonstrated by the radically different approaches brought to ostensibly similar themes, encompassing both the familiar, for example, the fantastic (Zakharov and Catteau), and Petersburg (Vetlovskaya and Harrington), and the new, notably music (Thompson and McMillin), and education (Miller and Zohrab). Meanwhile, five very different essays focusing on Crime and Punishment, from minute details to the broader picture, from its literary origins to its effect on the reader, indicate the potential for variety in the examination of a single novel,14 while other contributions, for example those by Neuhäuser, Thompson, Tikhomirov and Kasatkina, cover multiple texts, elucidating Dostoevsky’s artistic, philosophical and theological development, and drawing our attention to some of the many points of contact between his works.

The essays in Part I explore the patterns of symbols and ideas at the basis of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world. Rudolf Neuhäuser and Boris Christa concentrate on the encoding of the text on very different levels, the former relating to the differences between Dostoevsky’s use of longer and shorter genres, the latter introducing a new means of orientation around Crime and Punishment by clarifying an area which is generally opaque for the contemporary reader. Jacques Catteau and Valentina Vetlovskaya both examine the literary substructure of Dostoevsky’s novels, demonstrating the development of the author’s response to Pushkin. Like Vetlovskaya, Alexandra Harrington and Erik Egeberg emphasize the importance of setting in Dostoevsky; the implications of the Petersburg text are related here not only to his predecessor but also, by Harrington, to one of his most important twentieth-century heirs. In both these essays the impact of the city on the characters is emphasized; this feature, moving to an entirely different location, is seen from a different angle in Egeberg’s contribution, which shifts attention from the individual to interpret the significance of the collective in The Gambler.

In Part II, Dostoevsky’s dialogues come to the forefront. Richard Peace examines the poetry of one of Dostoevsky’s close contemporaries, a name we all know but whose work is much less familiar, and indicates the connections between their writings. John McNair, in charting the curious relationship between Dostoevsky and Pyotr Boborykin, and Irene Zohrab, in her exploration of a debate on English public schools, shed further light on the literary atmosphere of the times, taking us into the preoccupations and mores of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, in one case relating to one of its worthier pursuits, in the other somewhat less so. Arnold McMillin broadens the picture in an essay on musical interpretations and adaptations of Dostoevsky’s fiction, while in Sarah Hudspith and Vladimir Tunimanov’s contributions, the ethical foundations of the author’s work are clarified through the responses of other writers.

Part III focuses on the reader’s dialogue with the text, and in particular its ethical implications. Robin Feuer Miller addresses issues of contemporary readership and the role of educators in her discussion of teaching Crime and Punishment, while Deborah Martinsen demonstrates how the underground man’s strategies for dealing with his ‘audience’ become part of his (shame-based) relationships with others. Robert Belknap and Horst-Jurgen Gerigk both examine the manipulation of the reader in Crime and Punishment, the former in relation to the series of oppositions the novel establishes, the latter in relation to the possibility of a new ethic.

The essays in Part IV turn to the religious themes which play such a major part in Dostoevsky studies today. Both Boris Tikhomirov and Tatyana Kasakina concentrate on Dostoevsky’s use of biblical quotations. Tikhomirov’s commentary on Dostoevsky’s references to children in the New Testament elucidates the process of exegesis in the author’s writing, leading to the creation of his unique theology, while Kasatkina examines the reader’s role in the reception of these quotations; both she and Diane Thompson, who explores musical motifs in Dostoevsky’s final three novels, confirm the importance of the Christian substructure in his narratives. In common with Thompson’s essay, the contributions by Vladimir Zakharov and myself show the different forms the religious aspect of Dostoevsky’s work can take; Zakharov demonstrates how it is manifested in the key concept of the fantastic, while I focus on the question of religious experience, to suggest a broader search to clarify our understanding of the theological and philosophical underpinnings of Dostoevsky’s novelistic world.


1 See Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen (London: Penguin Viking, 2004), p. 22.

2 My thanks to the historian Timofei Kruglikov, who regularly conducts Dostoevsky and Pushkin tours in St Petersburg, for this information.

3 Indeed, when it comes to teaching Dostoevsky, a topic of great importance for many of us, film adaptations/interpretations can provide a useful starting-point for discussion.

4 Some time ago, a friend told me of a newspaper report about a monument in Petersburg to hairdressers who had continued to work during the siege of Leningrad; the inscription on the monument was Dostoevsky’s immortal line, ‘Beauty will save the world’. Subsequent canvassing of friends and colleagues in the city suggests (hardly surprisingly) that the story was apocryphal (?), yet it is somehow entirely fitting: it harnesses Dostoevsky himself to the rumour-mongering with which his novels are filled, and is a supreme example of double-voiced discourse, the use of the quotation in its very inappropriateness participating fully in Dostoevskian poetics; it is also, in its knowingness (whether as a story or as an actual inscription on an actual monument), indicative of his unique place in Russia; it is not only his characters and the atmosphere of his works that have become part of the cultural landscape, but the entirety of his novelistic vision.

5 Debate on Dostoevsky over the years has been enriched by contributions from scholars in as varied fields as psychoanalysis, neurology, law, criminology and, most significantly, theology.

6 F M Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii: v 18-i tomakh (Moscow: Voskresen’e, 2004).

8 See the museum’s website for details of books, manuscripts and other materials in the collection. The companion site is a fascinating catalogue of illustrations of Dostoevsky’s works. Mention should be made here of the extraordinary achievement of staff at the Dostoevsky Museum, including Natalya Ashimbaeva, Vera Biron, Boris Tikhomirov and Natalya Chernova, in developing the museum.

9 Including, but by no means limited to, the publication in the last five years of: Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1971-1881 (Princeton: Princeton University Press; London: Robson, 2002); Richard Freeborn, Dostoevsky (London: Haus Publishing, 2003); Bruce French, Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’: Dialogue and the Spiritually Good Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001); Sarah Hudspith, Dostoevsky and the Idea of Russianness (London: Curzon Routledge, 2004); Robert Louis Jackson, ed., A New Word on ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004); Malcolm Jones, Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience (London: Anthem, 2005); T A Kasatkina, O tvoriashchei prirode slova: Ontologichnost’ slova v tvorchestve F M Dostoevskogo kak osnova ‘realizma v vysshem smysle’ (Moscow: IMLI RAN, 2004); T A Kasatkina, ed., Roman F M Dostoevskogo ‘Idiot’: Sovremennoe sostoianie izucheniia, Moscow, Nasledie, 2001); Efim Kurganov, Roman F M Dostoevskogo ‘Idiot’: Opyt prochteniia (St Petersburg: Zvezda, 2001); W J Leatherbarrow, A Devil’s Vaudeville: The Demonic in Dostoevsky’s Major Fiction (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005); W J Leatherbarrow, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Deborah Martinsen, Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2003); George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, eds., Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); James P Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002); Sarah Young, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting (London: Anthem, 2004).

10 It is not, however, all good news; while in Russia and North America Dostoevsky is still a major force in undergraduate and postgraduate studies, as well as among scholars, in British universities the climate is somewhat different. The retirement of a number of prominent nineteenth-century scholars, not least Malcolm Jones and Richard Peace, has left a large gap which seems unlikely to be more than partially filled. Not only are fewer postgraduates in Britain studying nineteenth-century literature, but at undergraduate level as well, the traditional literature syllabus, which for so long formed the backbone of most Russian degree courses, is gradually being supplanted by more ‘popular’ options – again, the decline of reading comes into play here – such as history, cultural studies and film. Nevertheless, the fact that when Dostoevsky courses are offered to students, they generally prove extremely popular, even among reluctant readers, should give pause for thought. And the presence of the British (by birth or university affiliation) contributors to the current volume, and of several more academics working in Britain who write on Dostoevsky and participate in conferences and symposia on the author, suggests that all is not yet lost.

11 Knowledge he is always happy to share; I am particularly indebted to Malcolm for his generosity in respect of this aspect of my work.

12 See note 9 for full publication details.

13 Malcolm V Jones, Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

14 The fact that such a sizeable proportion of the contributors to this collection have chosen to address Crime and Punishment also suggests that, having been somewhat neglected in comparison with the large volume of scholarly work devoted to The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov in recent years, this novel is now returning to forefront of critical attention.

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This work by Sarah J. Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at sarahjyoung.com.

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