Notes on Dostoevsky 2
It is possible to conjecture that during the 1840’s the young Dostoevsky went through an identity crisis, precipitated by the sudden reversal in his reputation. His first novel, Poor Folk, had been lavishly praised by the foremost critic of the day, Belinsky, and Dostoevsky had been heralded by influential voices as a great new presence in Russian literature. This praise had gone to the young author’s head, and he had allowed himself injudiciously to flaunt his talent and reputation. His next two works, however, The Double and The Landlady had been misunderstood and slated by Belinsky, and his reputation crashed. His enemies crowed, and he was ejected from the circle of writers around the leading journal The Contemporary which had published Poor Folk and supported him; a circle of writers who included Turgenev, and Herzen. It is reasonable to suppose that this effected his confidence in himself and in his identity as a writer.
Another factor that may have contributed to this identity crisis was the extremely repressive political atmosphere during the reign of Nicholas 1st. Petersburg was flooded with spies, disinformation was everywhere, and the dissemination of real information fraught with danger. Do you know, gentlemen, he writes in one of the Petersburg Chronicle feuillitons, the value of a man in our vast capital city who always has in reserve some piece of news no one as yet knows, and in addition, possesses the gift of telling it in a pleasant manner? Dostoesvky himself was a member of two revolutionary circles, the Petrashevsky group, and the much more politically dangerous Durov group. His political affiliations necessitated some degree of masking and counterfeiting identities.
During this period his work explores questions of self and identity, together formulating a conception of self that is absolutely unlike anything else in 19th century literature. The salient features of the self presented in the various works of this decade may be summarised as follows:
1. We experience ourselves in two areas: society and solitude.
2. The self we experience in society is not necessarily coterminous with the self we experience in solitude.
3. Both forms of self are more or less oppressive.
4. The shifting disconnect between social self and solitary self is experienced as anxiety about identity.
5. Both forms of self, but more especially the solitary self, are equated with narrative, with the ability to tell/imagine stories, in the forms of dreams or fantasies: the dreamer.
6. The way other people perceive us is often at odds with the way we see ourselves.
7. Our social self is fragmented or refracted through circles, with each different circle getting a different self. The possibility of it being discovered that different circles are getting different selves is a source of anxiety.
8. Happiness is usually absent or at any rate extremely fleeting and usually connected to moments where the anxieties surrounding the perception of self are stilled.
9. The self is perceived and expressed through language: monologues, dialogues, letters. It is usually at one remove from the narrator (layered narrators) and relayed to the narrator, who passes it on to the reader, through language.
10. The Gogolian conception of character becomes a Dsotoevskyan conception of self.
11. The self and its attendant problems are exacerbated by poverty, low social position and extreme loneliness.
12. When in the social self, the solitary self is sought as (illusory) refuge, and vice versa.
13. There is an implicit warning on the part of ‘Dostoevsky’ (a ghostly figure sensed but not glimpsed among the composite of narrators and characters) that the solitary self will become ill if it divorces itself completely from the social self, becoming wrapped in isolation and fantasy; and a warning also, that the social self will become decadent, unseemly and meaningless if it ignores the needs of the solitary self in its determination to achieve wealth, social position and security.
14. The Ideal Connection between selves is Brotherhood.
This conception of self was by no means stable, and was to change subtly throughout his career, but in this decade the territory was mapped that was to exercise a huge influence on existentialism, the modernists and modern psychology. It is Dostoevsky writing in the 1840s who charted the terrain between the 19th century's conception of self and character, and the modernists'. At the same time, Dostoevsky is the poet of isolation and loneliness, the chronicler of the foregrounded consciousness, the voice from within which never ceases.