Dostoevsky's Democracy

Dostoevsky's Democracy

Nancy Ruttenburg
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Dostoevsky's Democracy
    Book Description:

    Dostoevsky's Democracyoffers a major reinterpretation of the life and work of the great Russian writer by closely reexamining the crucial transitional period between the early works of the 1840s and the important novels of the 1860s. Sentenced to death in 1849 for utopian socialist political activity, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock execution and then exiled to Siberia for a decade, including four years in a forced labor camp, where he experienced a crisis of belief. It has been influentially argued that the result of this crisis was a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and reactionary politics. ButDostoevsky's Democracychallenges this view through a close investigation of Dostoevsky's Siberian decade and its most important work, the autobiographical novelNotes from the House of the Dead(1861). Nancy Ruttenburg argues that Dostoevsky's crisis was set off by his encounter with common Russians in the labor camp, an experience that led to an intense artistic meditation on what he would call Russian "democratism." By tracing the effects of this crisis,Dostoevsky's Democracypresents a new understanding of Dostoevsky's aesthetic and political development and his role in shaping Russian modernity itself, especially in relation to the preeminent political event of his time, peasant emancipation.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2892-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    Just as he was preparing to write the penultimate book of his last novel,The Brothers Karamazov, and suffering from poor health, F. M. Dostoevsky received an invitation to address the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature at their June 1880 celebration of the poet Alexander Pushkin. The significance of this three-day event was by no means confined to what it purported to be: an occasion to bring together the nation’s most prominent writers, artists, actors, journalists, editors, and intellectuals to pay tribute to a celebrated poet of an earlier generation. Instead, as with all such events in nineteenth-century Russia...

  5. PART I Building Out the House of the Dead
    • 1. “Why Is This Man Alive?”: The Unconsummated Conversion
      (pp. 31-41)

      The story of Dostoevsky’s “mock execution” at the sadistic pleasure of Tsar Nicholas I is bizarre and therefore notorious. Arrested in April 1849 for his participation in the Petrashevsky circle, a group dedicated to discussion of European revolution and the possibilities of Russian reform, specifically the emancipation of the enslaved peasantry, the twenty-seven-year-old writer languished in the Peter and Paul Fortress until December 22.¹ On that day, after eight months of near-solitary confinement and still ignorant of the results of an interrogation completed two months earlier, Dostoevsky and fifteen other prisoners were roused from their cells at daybreak and brought...

    • 2. The Disarticulation of the Autobiographical Self
      (pp. 41-50)

      The circularity imposed on the text by the prefatory narrator, by which the ending of Gorianchikov’s memoir entails a return to its postscript located in the introduction, mimics the circularity characteristic of conversion narratives. ThatNotes from the House of the Deadconforms in some respects to the narratological profile of the conversion narrative is evident in the following description included in John Freccero’s discussion of St. Augustine’sConfessions, which he identifies as the paradigm for all such narratives:

      When any narration claims an identity between the narrator or authorial voice and the protagonist, some provision must be made for...

    • 3. Opposites That Do Not Attract (the Bezdna and Poetic Truth) and Opposites That Do (Estrangement and Conversion)
      (pp. 50-61)

      In place of the central syntactic moment at the core of the conversion narrative where beginnings and endings, linear evolution and circular identity, coincide,Notes from the House of the Deadpossesses a substitute structure equipped with its own tautological coherence: thebezdna. This is the word Gorianchikov uses to denote both themultitudeof surpassingly strange events, utterances, and personalities that shock him throughout the period of his incarceration, and the profoundabyssof class difference which constitutes their inexhaustible source. The insuperability of the abyss is attached to its enormity and thus to the reliability of that flow...

    • 4. The Dostoevskian “As If”: Self-Deception in Autobiography
      (pp. 61-72)

      How does one track the impact of self-deception upon the representation of the self in a first-person narrative? If the pilgrim is not yet the poet, although he claims to be, where does the reader begin to apprehend that discrepancy? One place to begin is with Gorianchikov’s representations of the genesis of his estrangement, not for the purpose of questioning its authenticity but in order to understand the flexibility that self-deception, with its manifold strategies, lends the narrating voice in autobiography. InHouse of the Dead, this flexibility permits the text to eschew its own bookishness and to function as...

    • 5. The Narrator’s Eclipse
      (pp. 72-82)

      Gorianchikov’s most concentrated effort at a “graphic understanding” of crime and punishment occurs in the prison hospital, where the exchange of guards posted in the corridor outside the ward awakens him, causing him to overhear Shishkov’s appalling confession. Before this event, bedridden, he had had the leisure and opportunity to conduct some pointed inquiries: “I wanted . . . to know absolutely all the degrees of sentencing and how they were carried out, all the nuances of their execution, the convicts’ own view of all this; I tried to picture to myself the psychological condition of those going to punishment”...

    • 6. Dostoevsky’s Poetics of Conviction
      (pp. 82-90)

      By specifying Gorianchikov’s crime as the murder of a wife out of jealousy in the first year of marriage, the prefatory narrator announces the absolute centrality of “Akul’ka’s Husband” to Gorianchikov’s memoirs. He hints at a fearful symmetry: as he himself personifies (and thus externalizes) Gorianchikov’s executioner within whose malignity is directed inward upon the self, he announces Shishkov as the double’s double, an embodiment of Gorianchikov’s inner executioner who targets the other—the “beaten people,” the “people without a tongue,” the Russian people.109Our perception of this symmetry relies on our acknowledgment of the discrepancy between the prefatory narrator’s...

  6. PART II Building Out the House of the Dead
    • 1. The Chronotope of Katorga
      (pp. 93-96)

      The sequential sentences Dostoevsky received on 22 December 1849 in Semenovsky Square with their two scenarios of punishment—the sentence of death commuted to exile and penal servitude—transformed his life radically in the space of an afternoon. Although the writer’s death did not literally occur, one may speak of three experiential variations on it that disallow our thinking of death here as a mere figure: mock execution,mort civile, and the compensatory idea of conversion, death leading to rebirth, which Dostoevsky invokes in his letter to his brother on the eve of exile. In part 1 we examined the...

    • 2. Exception, Equality, Emancipation
      (pp. 96-105)

      Russian political modernity may be said to begin in 1855, midway through Dostoevsky’s decade of exile, with the transition from the repressive regime of the infamously autocratic Nicholas I (itself launched in 1825 by the rebellion of enlightened aristocrats known as the Decembrists) to that of the “Tsar-Liberator,” the liberal and reform-minded Alexander II.18To this transition we owe the irony that the crime for which Nicholas had condemned the writer to penal servitude in December 1849, his desire for peasant emancipation, had become the cornerstone of Alexander’s reformist agenda and was a fait accompli when Dostoevsky returned to western...

    • 3. Ontological Ambiguity in the Space of Exception: Katorga as Medium
      (pp. 105-115)

      The archetypal function of the sovereign’s creation of a state of exception, as both Carl Schmitt and Agamben after him maintain, had been to “trac[e] a threshold” between what is inside the juridico-political order and what is outside, between “the normal situation and chaos,” and, as such, it was “essentially unlocalizable,” a “zone of indistinction.”⁴⁷ At the same time, of course, “definite spatiotemporal limits” can be and, in the course of history, have been attached to this zone. Thus, Agamben argues that modernity’s ultimate attempt to put the state of exception in “the foreground as the fundamental political structure,” “to...

    • 4. The Ontology of Crime: Testimony/Confession
      (pp. 115-139)

      Gorianchikov identifies crime as the fundamental mystery of life in the house of the dead in the opening chapter of his memoir. From the outset, it is implicitly but unmistakably a problem associated with the other and with the unintelligibility of the other, primarily the peasant. Even though we have just read the prefatory narrator’s account of his crime—“he murdered his wife while still in the first year of marriage, murdered out of jealousy”—Gorianchikov gives no indication in his initial observations of his fellow inmates that the problem of crime they collectively exemplify pertains to him, or that...

    • 5. The Flesh of the Political
      (pp. 140-169)

      InNotes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky creates an artistic image of a particular experience of selfhood in which the subject finds himself in a space and a time between a former existence that is dead to him and a future existence that has not materialized. He has been rendered ane to—neither this nor that—for an incalculable period, and cannot know positively if he will ever return to what he was or become something else altogether, something inconceivable. His anxiety recalls the scene of mystical loathing that Myshkin described to the Epanchin women. His sentence...

    (pp. 170-196)

    In the passage from “Bookishness and Literacy” cited at the conclusion of part 2, Dostoevsky identifies the populist discourse and practice of the liberal Russian elite as a prime example of “bookishness” (knizhnost’), an official discourse of power and knowledge. “Literacy” (gramotnost’), in contrast, describes another type of knowledge altogether: unarticulated and unprogrammatic, inseparable from experience and lodged in the flesh and blood, this alternative knowledge underwrites the integrity and vitality of an abject and illiterate culture.² Uniquely possessed by the illiterate peasantry, “literacy” is the non-text–based cultural logic of genuine Russianness, that which makes the peasant from Taganrog...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 197-250)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-262)
  10. Index
    (pp. 263-275)