Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts



Ivan Nikolaevitch Kramskoy (1837-1887), portrait of an old man.

Dostoevsky experienced humiliating infirmities, such as epilepsy or addiction to gambling. His life was marked by terrible trials: a father murdered by his peasants, a death sentence followed by a mock execution, the penal colony, debts, etc. It was probably his own experience of suffering that shaped the way he glances at the marginalized, the humiliated, the rejected.

In each of the great novels of maturity – that Svetlana Geier calls nicely the “five elephants” – Dostoevsky depicts one or the other figure of drunkard, of madman, of sick or disabled person. Take for instance Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment, Hippolyte Terentyev and General Ivolgin, in The Idiot, the poor Olia, in The Adolescent, Maria Timofeevna, in Demons, or “Stinking” Lizaveta , in The Brothers Karamazov.

During the next few weeks (or months...), I will try to depict some of these figures. As usually, I shall do it appealing mostly to the text itself. My main purpose is to awaken the desire to read – or read again – these wondeful books of the great Fyodor. Those who do it will come forth grown, matured, called for more respect and compassion for their fellow human. Some will even find seeds of the Gospel and assurance that their thirst for redemption is not unfounded.

Christian Bobin – another writer that I love – has subtly expressed the feeling experienced by the reader of the great Russian: “I never met worshipers of Dostoevsky, but people who had been burned by that reading. He speaks of souls as the issue of a battle (...) Dostoevsky is a living. It's a burst of pure life, like a spark jumping from the fire. This pure life of fire sends a spark which jumps into the book. Then, it becomes a mere instrument for living”.

But, if you are looking for readings in which the characters are clearly identified as “good” or “bad”, Dostoevsky is not for you. In his books, you find very dark characters, as Stavrogin and Pyotr Verkhovensky, in Demons, or Svidrigaïlov, in Crime and Punishment. But even the most radiant figures, such as Prince Myshkin, Sonya Marmeladov, Alyosha Karamazov, or Makar Dolgoruky have their dark side and their imperfections. They are human beings...

Semyon Zaharovytch Marmeladov

To initiate the topic, I would like to mention again the soul-stirring drunkard of Crime and Punishment, Semyon Zaharovytch Marmeladov. On 15 January 2011, in the French version of this blog, I posted an article called “La plus belle prière” (here). I quoted a large section of the novel in which Marmeladov, mocked by the customers of the tavern where he gets drunk, starts a heartbreaking declaration of faith. Faith in the mercy of a God who does not turn away from the “drunkards” and the “weak ones”.

Marmeladov is a fallen clerk. He wastes the scarce household resources in taverns, forcing his daughter Sonia into prostitution to support the family. However, despite his decline, Marmeladov manages to “maintain a moral sensibility of heartbreaking depth”, as written by Joseph Frank, author of a masterly biography of Dostoevsky(1).

In a dialog with Raskolnikov, Marmeladov does not hesitate to recognize his ignominy. He explains that Sonia, his eldest daughter, is engaged in prostitution. He also mentions his wife, Katerina Ivanovna, that poverty and tuberculosis grow to hysteria. He goes on: “Granted, granted, I am a scoundrel, but she is a woman of a noble heart(...) Do you know, Sir, do you know, I have sold her very stockings for drink? Not her shoes – that would be more or less in the order of things, but her stockings, her stockings I have sold for drink! Her mohair shawl I sold for drink(...) We live in a cold room and she caught cold this winter and has begun coughing and spitting blood too(...) But her chest is weak and she has a tendency to consumption and I feel it! Do you suppose I don't feel it? And the more I drink the more I feel it. That's why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink. I drink so that I may suffer twice as much! (2).
 
I do not think that it is through masochism that Marmeladov delights in a suffering fueled by drink. It is rather a kind of self-punishment, like a penance he inflicts to himself, aware as he is of his decay and of the responsibility he bears.

A few chapters later, the reader learns that Marmeladov was run over by a cab. In blood, covered with wounds, he is carried home. “Marmeladov was in the last agony; he did not take his eyes off the face of Katerina Ivanovna, who was bending over him again. He kept trying to say something to her; he began moving his tongue with difficulty and articulating indistinctly, but Katerina Ivanovna, understanding that he wanted to ask her forgiveness, called peremptorily to him: ‘Be silent! No need! I know what you want to say!’ And the sick man was silent, but at the same instant his wandering eyes strayed to the doorway and he saw Sonia. Till then he had not noticed her: she was standing in the shadow in a corner. ‘Who's that? Who's that?’ he said suddenly in a thick gasping voice, in agitation, turning his eyes in horror towards the door where his daughter was standing, and trying to sit up. ‘Lie down! Lie do-own!’ cried Katerina Ivanovna. With unnatural strength he had succeeded in propping himself on his elbow. He looked wildly and fixedly for some time on his daughter, as though not recognising her. He had never seen her before in such attire. Suddenly he recognised her, crushed and ashamed in her humiliation and gaudy finery, meekly awaiting her turn to say good-bye to her dying father. His face showed intense suffering. ‘Sonia! Daughter! Forgive!’ he cried, and he tried to hold out his hand to her, but losing his balance, he fell off the sofa, face downwards on the floor. They rushed to pick him up, they put him on the sofa; but he was dying. Sonia with a faint cry ran up, embraced him and remained so without moving. He died in her arms.(3).

In this striking picture, a drunkard, a prostitute and a hysterical woman are gathered by the same tragedy. But it is with the invisible presence of the God of mercy, and under His gaze – captured by the pen of the writer – that transfigures their misery. Let us listen again to Joseph Frank: “A world that would be completely devoid of meaning is intolerable and appears as a supreme humiliation to the human spirit.” By peering into the heart of the most wounded and the most miserable people, Dostoevsky endorsed that belief and he conveys it to us with irresistible power.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Miraculous Years,1865-1871, Princeton University Press, 1996.
(2) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Part I, Chapter 2.
(3) Ibid., Part II, Chapter 7.

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