Saturday, November 10, 2012

The divided man

Mme Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) Portrait of Prince Sergey Gagarin

The human heart is divided. The line between good and evil crosses him throughout (cf. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”, The Gulag Archipelago). The human being carries within himself a "double" which contradicts him, opposes him, or forces him. Dostoevsky is so penetrated by this truth that it becomes a recurring motive in his work. There is, of course, The Double, one of his first novels, entirely built on this theme, but the idea of "double" appears in many other books and is illustrated by many other characters. And in his 1877 Writers Diary, he writes: "The ‘double’ is a grave and bright idea, and in my whole work, I've never pursued nothing of more important than this idea".

Among many others, a character in The Adolescent appears to me to illustrate marvelously this fundamental human ambiguity that Dostoevsky calls "the idea of the double". It is about Versilov, the father of Arkady, the teenager who is also the narrator of the book. Illegitimate son of an aristocrat – Versilov – and of a servant, the teenager goes in search of this imperceptible father. Imperceptible because divided and thus "double". At no time, the face, the words or the gestures of Versilov seem completely transparent, simple and true. Everything is "double". It is at the end of the story, after a redeeming event, that the man will appear unified, simplified, restored.

Quite puzzled by the behavior of his father, whom he found after a long separation, Arkady comes there to exclaim, during a discussion with a friend: "I beg you to tell me the whole truth. What I exactly want to know, is what he is as a man... " The reader shares moreover the uncertainty of the narrator. He sees him, sometimes trembling with admiration and tenderness for Versilov, and sometimes looking with suspicion, and even disgust, to a father who is often so distant and cynical. An example, from the first angle: Arkady has just seen his father again after a stormy break. They spoke, but without saying anything that matters. Arkady takes back his father: "We arrived at the exit door, and I, I always followed him. He opened the door, the wind rushing in put out my candle. Then, suddenly, I grabbed his hand. It was a pitch black night. He jumped but did not say a word. I bent up to his hand, and suddenly, eagerly, I began to kiss his hand several times, many times. – ‘My sweet boy, why do you love me so much?’ he muttered, but this time in a quite different voice. His voice had trembled, something entirely new sounded there, as if it was not him who spoke".

From the opposite angle, a situation where the darkness of Versilov shows through the outside of a generous act. In a chivalrous way, he has destroyed a document which would have allowed him to claim an inheritance, and so to wrong the one who was really entitled to it. Hearing that, Arkady exults and tells it to one of his friends: "What a man! What a man! No, but who would have done that? I exclaimed on cloud nine". But his interlocutor – Vassyn – introduces the doubt into his mind: " – I agree with you, many would never have done it... and, no doubt, this is an extremely selfless act... – But?... Tell the bottomm of your thought. Vassyn, you add a 'but'? – Yes, of course, there is also a 'but', the act of Versilov, it seems to me, is maybe a little bit fast, and maybe not quite so straightforward, smiled Vassyn. – Not so straightforward? – No. There is there a kind of 'pedestal'. Because, anyway, he would have been able to do the same thing without injuring himself... "

So, throughout the book, we wonder if Versilov is a righteous man, a victim of events, or a bastard... But that is not really the question! Dostoevsky’s puropose is precisely to show us that he is – and that we are! – both. We will not be able to draw a conclusion until the "bastard" has passed away.

But as dark as the acts of the man may appear, they have almost always their part of light. The relationship which exists between Versilov and Arkady’s mother reflects this ambiguity. This young widower of the good society could have been "satisfied" with seducing the poor Sofia Andreevna, recently married to one of his servants – Makar Dolgoruky –, and then abandon her once achieved the aim. But, inexplicably, he seems to have become attached to her. Arkady notices: "I would not swear that he has loved her, but that he dragged her behind him all his life, that is a fact". Even more surprising, this apparently unscrupulous Versilov feels remorse and comes to ask for forgiveness to the man – a servant! – whose wife he has stolen: "He told me spiritually, tells Arkady, that he had sobbed on the shoulder of Makar Ivanovitch, that he had specially convened for the thing in his office. And she, during this time, she remained prostrate, I do not know where, fainted in her small domestic’s cage..." In Versilov, as in many other characters of Dostoevsky’s novels, exists an internal dislocation. Impossible, throughout the pages of the novel, to know the fairness from the feint. Only the outcome will operate the unity inside him, as the result of a real passover.

Would not the divided man be thus rather a "wounded" man, whose kindness is more important than the wound, and therefore a man in the process of unification, of restoration? All Dostoevsky breathes such a hope. A hope based on the most central belief of the Christian revelation: the faith in a love that no evil can destroy, a love that "never ends"(1Cor 3). This is why, almost always, the characters of the Dostoevskian drama reach an increasing of humanity through testimonies of true love – even unaccomplished. The one to whom love is given enters a path of healing and collects the fruit of the redeeming love. As, for example, in the following scene, which concludes the second part of The Adolescent: "We went out on the canal, and we began leaving. – ‘Will you never kiss me from the bottom of the heart, like a child, as a son kisses his father?’ he whispered, with a strange tremor in his voice. I kissed him warmly. – ‘My sweet... always keep your soul as pure as you have it at the moment’. Never in my life I had kissed him before, never I would have been able to imagine that he wished it himself".

It is still in The Adolescent that we encounter one of the most beautiful characters of a "deified" person: Makar Dolgoruky, the father of the young Arkady. In a next article, I shall try to sketch his portrait. And, why not, to continue in the same direction, with other pure hearts: Alyosha, Myshkin, Sonia ...

Fiodor (the other one)