The Utility of Fantasy and Practice in Reading Dostoevsky

By Craig Verniest

 On Wednesday, November 3, 2021, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed guest lecturer Dr. Caryl Emerson, as part of its Fall Colloquia series “Dostoevsky at 200.” Emerson, emeritus professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is arguably the world’s foremost expert on the Russian philosopher, linguist, and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote extensive analyses on (amongst other topics) Fyodor Dostoevsky’s use of prose and dialogue. Her knowledge of Bakhtin’s literary criticism and the contemporary scholarship on Dostoevsky’s writings was on full display Wednesday evening, where she delivered a lecture aptly titled “Dostoevsky between Theory and Practice, Fantasy and Terror.”

These central themes of theory, practice, fantasy, and terror guided Emerson’s presentation and her focus on how one should best approach Dostoevsky’s literary output and the religious, secular, metaphysical, and materialist (or naturalist) ideas that emerge throughout his writing. To draw out these themes, Dr. Emerson concentrated on questions such as the necessity of possessing religious belief in appreciating the logic of a believer like Dostoevsky and the benefits of analyzing Dostoevsky from the standpoints of theory and practice. Bakhtin himself offers us a prime example from which to view the application of theory in literary analysis, given his development of several ideas that have carried significant weight in the study of Dostoevsky’s works, including “dialogue,” “polyphony,” and “double-voiced words”.

By dialogue, Emerson asserted, Bakhtin meant to advance the concept that, within the textual world, “no utterance ever acts alone”—every thought spoken into existence acts as a whole solely through the response that is evoked by the initial thought, such that interactions between two or more characters always depend on and function as a discourse, as a give and a take. Similarly, polyphony signifies the existence of several different voices within a text, such that Dostoevsky’s writings lack a singular, dominant narrative voice, thereby providing space for a multiplicity of voices to influence the narrative and, particularly, the reader’s perception of it. Third, Dostoevsky’s novels extensively use double-voiced words: words are not owned by the person or character who emits them, but rather, the meaning of a word is created by the person who “receives” it, given that different “receivers” can and do interpret words based on varying sets of criteria. This idea also functions similarly to the concept of dialogue, as the significance of words is also seen as containing a discursive element.

Ultimately, we can see the utility of applying theory to practice through Bakhtin’s scholarship. His focus on discourse and communication between characters, augmented by Bakhtin’s understanding of the existential cosmovisión of Russian Orthodox Christianity as a world in which humans are constantly aware of the presence of each other, allows Bakhtin to conclude authoritatively that Dostoevsky uses the narrative space of his writing as “a scene for the trinitarian interaction between two interlocutors and a third, the Holy Spirit.” Through forms of linguistic and literary theory, we are able to gain a stronger understanding of how Dostoevsky works to pursue coexistence and interaction within his works. He wants to enact, to work through, coexistence and interaction on the narrativistic level, on the rhetorical level, on the “intratextual” level, and on a level in which the contemporary Russia depicted in Dostoevsky’s novels engages with the contemporary Russia that Dostoevsky inhabited. Dostoevsky is well known for having included “the sensationalist phenomena of contemporary Russia to introduce themes of patricide, child abuse, etc., in a theme common of 19th century literature and pulp fiction” in his writings, demonstrating his use of 19th century literary devices as a way to comment on the philosophical debates that emerged from such sensationalist phenomena.

As Emerson argued, themes of fantasy and terror also remain central to Dostoevsky’s work. His use of the “sublime” is undeniable, particularly in relation to literary elements of absurd, “carnivalesque” scenes and characters, the biblical or Apocalyptic—seen most demonstratively in characters’ reactions to depictions of Christ in various forms—and forms of “fantastical” realism, such as Paul Contino’s “incarnational realism” or Robin Feuer Miller’s “natural/animal realism” addressed in previous lectures. Emerson reviewed recent scholarship from Dostoevsky scholars Lynn Ellen Patyk and Yuri Corrigan to see how Dostoevsky exhibits depictions of external terror and internal terror, respectively. According to Patyk, Dostoevsky centered the literary device of verbal provocation—in which characters invoked thoughts, remarks, and topics of discussion with the intent of surprising and often undermining their opponents—to voice what might be considered controversial, sometimes even despicable, opinions through equally despicable, morally corrupt characters. In doing so, Dostoevsky becomes a master of external terror, one who gave voice to ideas about terrorism, sadism, and the fear of being attacked by an external Other. Corrigan looks at how Dostoevsky utilizes the trope of a traumatized hero who has experienced deep psychological wounding and a helpless childhood in order to deprive the narrative of a hero who maintains a private, responsible, secure self. He argues Dostoevsky’s heroes fail to do so because of the presence of an interior, divine Other: a “depth” in which the heroes—Aylosha (initially) and Myshkin act as two prime examples—are modern individuals cut off from tradition and their origins and fail to recognize that they must look inwards to confront their self and their capacity for divine action, even divine identity.

The lecture culminated in several conclusions on the utility of theory, practice, fantasy, and terror. After examining several failures of the theoretical approaches of Bakhtin—an overemphasis on words over visual scenes, bodies, and silence, to name one—Emerson argued that a good way to work around theory is to determine whether a theoretical position fits with the way in which you feel and respond to a narrative while reading it. Instead, we should ask ourselves two main questions: “what is the world created by the author? And why am I interested in reading this novel?” Thus, while theory can assist in one’s interpretation and understanding of a text, no single theory can claim complete authority of a subject. Therefore, it is better to work by practice than through pure theory. Additionally, Dostoevsky voiced and arguably held a variety of controversial opinions throughout his career, many of which would be recognized as outright ethnic and religious prejudices, both by current standards and the standards of his time. While understanding that there is no single convincing argument for this debate on how we treat writers morally and ethically for the ideas they put on paper, Emerson notes that it would be best to acknowledge and avoid internalizing those elements of terror in his novels that play too heavily into the prejudices that he expressed.

Finally, Emerson closed with two takeaway lessons for the audience. First, recognize that Dostoevsky engages in performances, not confessions, of belief: he is more concerned with engaging with different beliefs, representing them literarily, and having the reader work out his beliefs and the meaning of his writing, than telling the reader what he believes himself. Second, understand that, for Dostoevsky, the body was a center of imperfection and pain: he worked through issues of bodily pain by trivializing, by making comedy, out of his pain, in order to better understand his body, and through that, himself—a lesson on both self-reflection and self-actualization that many of us should apply when trying to understand our bodies and how they function as part of our beings. Ultimately, in the manner of someone who has dedicated their entire career to the practice of the ideals of the humanities, Dr. Emerson reminds us of the undeniably human element of our work: “Hang on to fantasy—what you can think of, dream up, interpret; and, practice, “what do I want this idea to do for me?”

Craig Verniest is a first year M.A. student in History.

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