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Friday, May 27, 2016

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Yes, this is the first time I've read Dostoevsky, even though when I was college, it seemed like everyone was taking a class on one or another of his books every quarter and then writing a thesis on him. I kept my distance from all that, just as I kept my distance from the Jane Austen enthusiasm, only to discover soon after college that Austen was in fact as good as the enthusiasts claimed. So sometimes Miss Self-Important is wrong, or too quick to dismiss. When I happened upon this old Commentary article by Gary Saul Morson a few weeks ago, I decided now was the time to be wrong about Dostoevsky. And I was, but not as much.

Here's the thing: Austen is for young women. Not exclusively, since no excellent novelist is so narrow, but I suspect that the greatest direct pleasure and edification to be gotten from her major novels will occur between the ages of 18 and 28. After that, you can still appreciate the wit, craft, morals, and aesthetics, but it no longer has immediate application to your life. (Come at me, geezers!) So Austen's popularity among college students is fitting. But what about Dostoevsky? Who is Dostoevsky for?*

Here is who Dostoevsky is not for: mothers. No one among his collegiate enthusiasts mentioned to me that Dostoevsky assiduously collected lurid stories of child abuse because they tested the limits of Christian faith, and he put this collection to use in his novels. Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you. So even though this was a great book in some cosmic sense, I think the main thing I will remember is the one not particularly important line from Ivan's Grand Inquisitor speech about a Turk tickling a baby to make him laugh and then shooting him. I will not quote it here, in the unlikely case that you too happen to suffer from the defect of faint-heartedness.

The book is about other things, like the Russian obsession with the decay of the aristocratic order with its nobility of character (of both the actual nobles and the peasants, for we must not forget the subtly-named peasant Platon in War and Peace) into cold, bureaucratic stupidity on one hand, and boiling, revolutionary stupidity on the other. And Christianity.

Maybe someday, once I've re-hardened my heart, I'll go back to the Grand Inquisitor passage because it was important to Arendt, and the book will work on me more effectively. But for now, all you get is this half-hearted post and no further interest in reading Dostoevsky.

*I don't mean to leave this hanging as some great unknown. It's pretty easy to answer. Dostoevsky is for young men alienated from modernity having a theological-political crisis. So, young men who read books.

15 comments:

Pudge said...

I would expand the boundaries of the Dostoevsky-loving community to include all people who love Ideas in a dormroom/armchair philosophy sort of way but who lack a taste for subtlety. Developmentally, this naturally includes young men who read books- but it also includes people of all ages and genders who might corner you at a party. (And I say this with love as a Dostoevsky completist who prefers Tolstoy, that old fox.)

Miss Self-Important said...

I prefer Tolstoy too. But why is Dostoevsky especially unsubtle? Tolstoy's carping on the myth of the noble peasant (most absurdly in "Three Deaths") isn't done with an especially lighter touch than Dostoevsky's attacks on the Enlightenment. I guess it is true that I didn't find anything in TBK that struck me as a really new or original criticism, but as a depiction of how enlightenment produces people who "love humanity" while hating every individual member of it, it was good.

Pudge said...

Far be it from me to argue that everything Tolstoy does is subtle; he can be so heavy handed that even Dickens would blush (e.g. "The Kreutzer Sonata"). But unlike Dostoevsky, Tolstoy does also exhibit great subtlety. At his best, Tolstoy's characters are fully realized, whereas at his best Dostoevsky's characters are talking heads espousing/exhibiting a particular worldview. Again, I don't say that as a criticism of Dostoevsky. He does what he does masterfully. But his particular skillset has its strongest appeal to those who read literature for the ideas and the psychology rather than for the subtlety of observation. I would much sooner recommend Hesse to a Dostoevsky enthusiast than I would Sebald.

Alex said...

I've become faint-hearted too, so it may just be getting older, not just motherhood. I am aghast and appalled at all suffering in the world, which I really just didn't think about even two years ago. And I watch very few movies, but if they bother me, I just turn them off or leave the room.

Miss Self-Important said...

Pudge: That's a good point, there were no full characters in TBK, just elaborated types. Maybe the boy Kolya, but then he decides to take the sainthood road.

Alex: I don't know about all suffering. I think I respond about the same as before to news of far-off or long-ago famines and earthquakes and things like that. I will still watch movies set in suffering. Isn't that pretty much all dramas? But child torture is much more painful now.

Ben A said...

Another thing no one mentioned to me is that after you have a baby, your capacity to read about little children suffering, especially at the hands of adults, falls precipitously. And moreover, the treatment of children in literature (or movies, or any representation) becomes disproportionately memorable. I think this is what is meant by "faint-hearted," which it is very uncool to be because it impinges on one's sense of detachment and irony, but which is a deficiency that can apparently be acquired in mid-life after many years of impeccable detachment and irony. No one mentioned any of this to me, but now I am mentioning it to you

This is completely accurate. Fatherhood flipped some neurological switch. I was once utterly desensitized, but now find the fictional accounts of harm to children intolerable. Even the *threat* of harm as a plot device fills me with rage -- at the author.

You know the passage in the Brothers K about the general and his wolfhounds? I found myself thinking "this book would be better if in the next page some avenger beat the general to death with a tire iron." I nominate Withywindle for the Liam Neeson/Doestoyevsky mash-up.

Withywindle said...

I am ignorant … how does Liam Neeson get into this proposed mash-up?

I generally have a diminished tolerance for unhappy books and movies as I grow older. Having Shirebourne probably accentuated the process.

Ben A said...

Sorry -- via the "Taken" franchise.

Helen Andrews said...

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for uplift, I can tell you, Russians aren't really into that . . . But what I do have is a particular sense of mysticism. Mysticism acquired from a lifetime of epilepsy. Mysticism that makes me a nightmare for innocents like you. If you commit some mundane sin right now, that'll be the end of it. I will not hunt you down or make a Christ figure of you. But if you maintain the burnish of moral purity, I will look for you, I will contrive imaginative tortures for you, and I will kill you."

Withywindle said...

I didn't even know those movies existed. I really have been drifting away from the current scene … there's a new mash-upper on the scene; I will fade, diminish, and head westward to Valinor ...

Miss Self-Important said...

Ben A: But doesn't this phenomenon make the entire Lifetime TV network improbable? Everything on it is treacle targeted at middle-aged women, who are mostly mothers, and yet all the movies are about terrible things happening to children. Is it aversion coupled with morbid fascination that parents feel?

Helen: Well, yes. But, you could, even as a Christian, not take children to be the exemplars of innocence in the first place as Dostoevsky does. Augustine didn't, for example. And so you could consequently not become obsessed with their torture. I don't know if you would de-Rusify yourself that way, but are other Russian writers so fixated on child torture?

Withywindle said...

There's probably an article to be written about when child-torture became the definition of depravity. The Slaughter of the Innocents isn't really done in detail, is it? Shakespeare has some good bits--Arthur in King John, MacDuff's children--"Did Heaven look on, And would not take their part?" But I don't actually know what else there is in the Tradition before Dostoevsky.

We will leave the article-writing to someone childless.

Helen Andrews said...

I think Dostoevsky’s fixation on children might be a Russian thing. His other favorite Christ figures—fools—are also distinctively Russian.

The Turks with bayonets are a reference to the real-life Bulgarian atrocities of 1876, right? The same ones that got Gladstone all worked up? Well, you have to go a fair few pages into his famous pamphlet before he mentions anything about children, and even then he always refers to “women and children” without emphasizing the latter. He seems more outraged about lawlessness and maladministration—priorities as British as Dostoevsky's are Russian.

“If that infant could speak to you, it would say, ‘Why do you heed my infant cries and demands? It is impossible for you to see from my pathetic actions of body, but I have been conceived in iniquity.’” “If anyone were offered the choice of suffering death and becoming a child again, who would not recoil from the second alternative and choose to die?” I think we might fairly call Saint Augustine an outlier on the subject of children.

Ben A said...

Mysticism acquired from a lifetime of epilepsy.

This is really the best possible Taken/Dostoevsky mash-up.

Some thoughts

1. The Lifetime network. This pushes me to admit that something human is alien to me. My limited exposure made me think that "that man is a louse" was the central motivating moral concept. If child-endangerment is co-equal that's a puzzle. I don't understand how that can appeal to parents. Maybe child endangerment provides the most efficient shorthand for how wrong, wrong, wrong that man is?
2. It does seem that the trope of harm-to-children, like other moral extremes -- torture, rape, or tropes of "a fate worse then death" -- has increasingly entered into mainstream culture. The prevalence of these horribles tracks the shittiness of the genre linearly (Hey, George RR Martin!). But it seems to me something more is at play than the mainstreaming of previously pulp genres. You don't see the villains in Doc Savage or Sax Roehmer or Dornford Yates pulling these stunts. Hypothesis the first: conservation of moral outrage. We want to express moral judgement, but as the targets of legitimate moral opprobrium decrease writers need to amp up the judgment against the few uncontested targets. Hypothesis the second: we're simply jaded, and so only direct engagement of the limbic system generates reliable audience engagement. (it's porn, essentially)
3. Specifically within the context of "Rebellion," harm children serves a particular logical role -- defusing one side of the free will defense of theodicy. I don't recall too many kids set upon by dogs in Crime and Punishment. Sonya fits Helen/Liam Neeson's line about the wages of moral purity, but it's not a child abuse plot.

Miss Self-Important said...

Helen, Withwindle, Ben A: Philippe Aries, if he is still to be credited, does argue that childhood innocence (and therefore the particular heinousness attached to harming children) is a modern invention, arising in the 16-17th centuries (so, logically, several centuries later in Russia). In the Middle Ages, there wouldn't have been much distinction between torture and child torture. If that's true, then Augustine is not an outlier so much as a exemplar of a pre-modern view of children. But I don't know, that's obviously an overly simplistic view since there are pre-moderns who took children to be innocent.

Ben A: Yes, "that man is a louse" is another recurring theme of Lifetime movies. But I do think some of the appeal is the storified depiction of mothers' greatest nightmares - kidnapping, illness, death. I guess if you spend a lot of time worrying about these things, maybe there is something cathartic in seeing it worked out (or happening to other people's but not your own children) on TV. Or maybe it's like porn. I really don't know.

It's also possible that we require higher doses of violence and sex and whatever else to arouse our emotions to levels that could once be reached within the limits of the Hays code. But I'm more skeptical of that explanation..