Monday, May 22, 2017

Russian dolls

Everybody is familiar with those famous "Russian dolls", the "matriochkas" (or, more correctly, matriochki)… figures of decreasing size, which fit into each other. Obviously they are subject to multiple symbolic meanings. I personally see in them an image of the various levels of consciousness which exist in the human being. Inner unity is seldom reached in a man; his will is often divided, his consciousness obscured or torn. Dostoevsky has made of this complexity of the human heart one of the essential features of his novels. It is particularly evident in the figure of the "double", whether in a single character – like Goliadkin, in The Double – or in two characters who are like flip sides of the same being – like Mychkin and Rogozin, in The Idiot.

But it seems to me that the brilliant Fyodor has made use of another literary device to express the interlocking nature that can characterize human consciousness. This is particularly the case of souvenirs buried in the memory, souvenirs that an event or a word can trigger and bring to life. When opened, a Russian doll reveals another; so it is with Dostoevsky – the heart of a character, once opened, shows him in a new light. The attentive reader of Dostoevsky's great novels will no doubt have noticed how often the author begins to tell a "story in the story." It may be narratives spoken by one of his characters, or a revealing dream, or still a vast digression, as a close-up shot of an event whose detailed account is not essential to the coherence of the novel, but which opens it up to new meanings.

After a long period during which I "abandoned" my favorite author, I wish to return to those "Russian dolls" concealed in Dostoevsky’s novels. To open the series, here is a remarkable passage(*) from the first of the "great" novels of his maturity, Crime and Punishment.

In the hours preceding his crime, Raskolnikov is agitated. He walks randomly. The idea of going home disgusts him. He enters a tavern, grabs something to eat and drinks a glass of vodka, something he has not done in a long time. He finally decides to go back home, but on the way, completely exhausted, he leaves the road, enters the bushes, and falls asleep on the grass. Then, he "has a frightful dream."

The narrative of this dream covers seven or eight pages. Rodia Raskolnikov sees himself, at seven years old, in a small town walking with his father. They go to the cemetery where his grandmother and his younger brother, who died at the age of six months, lie. On their way, they pass a tavern where people celebrate and get drunk. In front of the tavern, there is a large cart, to which powerful draft horses are usually harnessed.
Raskolnikov, by Ilya Glazounov
But it is a puny, old mare that is harnessed here. Drunken peasants come out of the tavern and the whole gang pile into the cart, with a barrage of shouting and laughter, then of whips on the back of the poor animal, by three raging men. The child sees it all. “Father, father, he cried, father, what are they doing? Father, they are beating the poor horse!” The father exhorts him not to look at these drunkards and tries to draw him away, “but the boy broke free from his hand, and ran over to the little horse”. But the relentless abuse of the frail mare that falls and tries to rise again continues mercilessly, with the ongoing outburst and laughter and with a kind of murderous hatred. The executioners eventually complete their deadly play wielding iron bars. “… the poor boy is beside himself, he cries out and fights his way through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms round her bleeding dead head and kisses it, kisses the eyes and kisses the lips…. Then he jumps up and flies in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka [the driver]”. But his father seizes him and takes him far from the crowd. “Father! Why did they… kill… the poor horse! he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest”.

It is then that Raskolnikov wakes up. It is as if the dream has stirred his consciousness. While for several weeks he had planned the murder of the usurer, whom he considered a worthless being, he is now "broken". “Good God! he cried, can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open… that I shall (…) steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood… with the axe… Good God, can it be?” And he persuades himself that he “will not do it”.

Basically, by recounting Raskolnikov's dream, Dostoevsky wants us to understand that this man is neither some kind of beast nor a monster. His crime will be the result of an ideological fit. Rodia would be the victim of this monstrous cynicism which had developed within a fringe of the Russian intelligentsia, engendered by nihilistic notions that Dostoevsky would depict in The Demons.

After his dream, Raskolnikov was convinced that he would not be capable of murder: “I knew that I could never bring myself to it, No, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it!” But everything changed after the chance meeting with Lizaveta, the sister of the usurer, a few words of whom with a merchant catch him by surprise. “He had learnt, he had suddenly quite unexpectedly learnt, that the next day at seven o’clock Lizaveta, the old woman’s sister and only companion, would be away from home and that therefore at seven o’clock precisely the old woman would be left alone (…) he felt suddenly in his whole being that he had no more freedom of thought, no will, and that everything was suddenly and irrevocably decided”. Here then is the man, however capable of compassion and to whom violence is repugnant, who in a flash will become an assassin. Mystery of the human heart...


(*) Crime and Punishment, 1st part, chapter 5. English translation by Constance Garnett, on