Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevskyby Rene Girard
In a fascinating analysis of critical themes in Feodor Dostoevsky’s work, René Girard explores the implications of the Russian author’s “underground,” a site of isolation, alienation, and resentment. Brilliantly translated, this book is a testament to Girard’s remarkable engagement with Dostoevsky’s work, through which he
In a fascinating analysis of critical themes in Feodor Dostoevsky’s work, René Girard explores the implications of the Russian author’s “underground,” a site of isolation, alienation, and resentment. Brilliantly translated, this book is a testament to Girard’s remarkable engagement with Dostoevsky’s work, through which he discusses numerous aspects of the human condition, including desire, which Girard argues is “triangular” or “mimetic”copied from models or mediators whose objects of desire become our own. Girard’s interdisciplinary approach allows him to shed new light on religion, spirituality, and redemption in Dostoevsky’s writing, culminating in a revelatory discussion of the author’s spiritual understanding and personal integration. Resurrection is an essential and thought-provoking companion to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
Girard, an emeritus professor of French at Stanford University, first published this book in France in 1963 and revised it in 1976; it is this revision that is now being issued in an English translation. With one foot in anthropology and another in religious studies, Girard remains a literary critic out of step with the majority of his colleagues, who are mostly concerned with such secular matters as ideology. Girard unabashedly holds that literature has been able "to preserve some of the original power of the sacred" that has otherwise been lost to our post-religious technological era. Dostoevsky is a key case in point. Editor and translator Williams (Religious Studies/Syracuse Univ.) offers a helpful prologue that situates the book in Girard's body of work. The critic's central thesis is that desire is mimetic. Contrary to the conventional view that instinct dominates our desires, Girard argues that we instinctively copy desire: "To say that our desires are imitative or mimetic is to root them neither in their objects nor ourselves but in a third party, the model or mediator, whose desire we imitate in the hope of resembling him or her, in the hope that our two beings will be `fused', as some Dostoevskyan characters love to say." Girard is able to show exactly how this works in Dostoevsky's fiction over the entire course of the writer's career. Clear as this picture may be, Girard's highly specialized monograph is not for the casual Dostoevsky enthusiast. His readings of the later works, especially Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, take up explicitly religious interpretations of the "mimetic desire" thesis. The book is marred by opaque generalizations and a few excessively compressed forays into intellectual history. Girard can be hard to follow. He can also be persuasive.
Alternately infuriating and engrossing, this messy little book is worth reading for its scattering of imaginative, challenging, and fruitful insights.
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Resurrection from the UndergroundFeodor Dostoevsky
By René Girard
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2012 James G. Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDescent into the Inferno
Contemporary critics readily say that writers create themselves in creating their work. This formula is eminently applicable to Dostoevsky as long as one does not confuse this twofold creative process with the acquisition of a technique or even with the perfect mastery of a field or subject.
One should not compare the author's successive works to the musical exercises by which musicians gradually increase their virtuosity. What is essential lies elsewhere and cannot be expressed initially except in a negative form. For Dostoevsky, to create oneself is to slay the old human state, prisoner as it is of aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual forms that shrink his horizon as a man and a writer. The disorder, the interior degradation, the very blindness that the earlier works reflect in their totality, present a striking contrast to the lucidity of the works after The Insulted and Injured; this is particularly true of the inspired and serene vision of The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky and his work are exemplary, not in the sense of a corpus of work and a life without fault, but in exactly the opposite sense. In observing this author live and write we learn, perhaps, that peace of soul is the most difficult of conquests and that genius is not a natural phenomenon. From the quasi-legendary image of a repentant convict we should retain the idea of this twofold redemption, but we should retain nothing else, for ten long years elapsed between Siberia and the decisive rupture.
From Notes from the Underground on, Dostoevsky is no longer content to rehash his old certainties and to justify himself in his own eyes by continuing to take the same point of view about others and about himself. He exorcises his demons, one after the other, by embodying them in his novels. Nearly each book marks a new conversion, and this imposes a new perspective on the perennial problems with which he deals.
Beyond the superficial difference of subjects, all the works form but one; it is this unity that is perceptible to readers when they recognize at first glance a text by Dostoevsky, whatever its date. It is this unity that so many critics seek these days to describe, to possess, to encompass. But to recognize the absolute singularity of the author one admires is not sufficient. Beyond this admiration it is necessary to locate the differences between the particular works, differences which are signs of a quest that may or may not succeed. For Dostoevsky the search for the absolute is not in vain; begun in anxiety, doubt, and deceit, it ends in certitude and joy. It is not by some immutable essence that the writer defines himself but by this exciting itinerary that itself may constitute the greatest of his works. To find its stages it is necessary to compare the individual works and disengage the successive "visions" of Dostoevsky.
The works of genius are based on the destruction of a past which is always more essential, always more original—that is, they are based on the recollection of memories always more distant in time. As the horizon looms larger for the mountain climber, the summit of the mountain becomes nearer. The early works are going to demand of us only a few allusions to attitudes of the writer or to events in his life more or less contemporaneous with their creation. But we will not be able to advance in the master works without turning back again at the same time toward the author's adolescence and infancy through a series of "flashbacks" that may otherwise seem capricious.
The minor violence which we exercise on the early works in order to bring out the obsessive themes will find its justification not in some psychoanalytic or sociological "key," but in the superior lucidity of the master works. It is the writer himself, after all, who will furnish us the point of departure, the orientation, and the instruments of our investigation.
The beginnings of Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in the literary life were resounding. Belinsky, the most respected of the critics of that epoch, declared that Poor Folk was a masterpiece, and he thus quickly made of its author a writer à la mode. Belinsky hailed what we today would call a literature of social commitment, and he saw in the humble resignation of the hero, Makar Devushkin, an indictment of the social order which was even more severe for not having been directly stated.
Makar is the minor government official, poor and already middle-aged. The sole light in his gray and humble existence comes from a young woman, Varenka. He avoids visiting her for fear of scandal-mongering, but he exchanges a quite touching correspondence with her. The "little mother" is not less miserable, sad to say, than her timid protector. She agrees to marry a proprietor who is young and rich but also coarse, brutal, and tyrannical. Makar does not complain; he does not protest; he does not make the least gesture of revolt. He participates in the preparations for the nuptials; he searches feverishly to make himself useful. He would not recoil from any humiliating expedient, one senses, in order to preserve his modest place in the shadow of his dear Varenka.
A little later, Dostoevsky wrote The Double, a work inspired, sometimes rather closely, by certain romantic doubles and above all by The Nose of Gogol. The Double dominates, from afar and in all instances, all that its author will publish before Notes from the Underground. After some ridiculous and humiliating misadventures, the protagonist, Golyadkin, sees his double springing up everywhere he turns, a certain Golyadkin Junior, who is physically like him, a functionary like him, occupying the same post as his in the same administrative office. The double treats Golyadkin Senior with a contemptuous disrespect and he thwarts all the bureaucratic and amorous projects into which Golyadkin Senior enters. The appearances of the double multiply, along with the most grotesque failures, to the point that Golyadkin enters an insane asylum.
The biting humor of The Double contrasts sharply with the somewhat sickly sweet pathos of Poor Folk, but the similarities between the two are more numerous than appear at first glance. Makar Devushkin, like Golyadkin, feels himself always to be martyred by his co-workers. "You know what kills me," he writes to Varenka, "is not the money but all the bothers of life, all those whispers, the faint smiles, the little cutting words." Golyadkin says much the same thing, and the appearance of the double serves only to polarize and concretize his feelings of persecution which remain diffuse and without definite object in his predecessor. Occasionally Golyadkin believes it is possible to make peace with his double. He is then caught up in enthusiasm, imagining the existence he would lead if the spirit of intrigue and cleverness of this maleficent being were in his service rather than mobilized against him. He ponders fusing himself with the double, becoming simply one with him—finding, in short, his lost unity. Now the double is to Golyadkin as Varenka's future husband is to Makar Devushkin: the rival, the enemy. So it is fitting to wonder whether the "humble resignation" of Makar, the extraordinary passivity that he demonstrates toward his rival and his pitiful effort to play a small role in the household of the beloved, always in the shadow of the husband, does not stem from an aberration somewhat like that of Golyadkin. Makar certainly has a thousand reasons to flee from a rival much better armed than he is—a thousand reasons, in short, to be obsessed with defeat, and it is from this obsession that Golyadkin suffers. The theme of the double is present in all the works of Dostoevsky in the most diverse and sometimes most hidden forms. Its extensions are so many and ramified that they will not appear to us except little by little.
The "psychological" orientation that is asserted in The Double displeased Belinsky. Dostoevsky did not relinquish his obsessions, but he continued to try to express them in a very different form and style. The Landlady is an unsuccessful yet significant attempt at romantic frenzy. Ordynov, a melancholy and solitary dreamer, rents a room in the house of a bizarre couple: one a beautiful young woman and the other an enigmatic old man named Murin who exercises an occult power over her. Ordynov falls in love with the "landlady." She declares her love for him also, "like a sister, more than a sister," and eventually she proposes to him that he enter into the enchanted circle of her relations with Murin. The "landlady" desires that these two lovers unite and become one. Ordynov tries to kill his rival, but in vain, for Murin's gaze makes the gun fall from his hands. The idea of the "fusion" of the two protagonists and that of the fascination exercised by Murin may be connected without difficulty to the themes of the preceding works. Once again the subject is defeated by the rival who fascinates him and whose object of desire must be his own.
In A Weak Heart we find ourselves once more in the world of minor officials. The story is that of The Double but viewed from the outside by an observer who does not share in the hallucinations of the hero. The latter has everything, so it seems, to be happy. His fiancée is charming, his friend is devoted, his superiors are benevolent. But for all that he is no less paralyzed by the possibility of failure, and, like Golyadkin, he sinks little by little into madness.
At an appointed moment the "weak heart" presents his fiancée to his friend, who immediately declares himself in love. Too faithful to compete with his comrade, the "weak heart" asks the latter to make a small place for him in his household. "I love her as much as I love you; she shall be my guardian angel, as for you also. Your happiness will reflect on me and warm me too. May she direct me as she will direct you. From now on my friendship with you and my friendship for her will become one friendship. You will see how she will protect you and how devotedly I will take care of you both." The young woman accepts the idea of a ménage à trois with enthusiasm, and she exclaims joyfully, "We three will be one."
The main figure of White Nights, as in The Landlady, is a "dreamer." He spends the twilight nights of the St. Petersburg summer in long walks. In the course of one of his rambles he makes the acquaintance of a young woman who is no less a romantic dreamer than he, a veritable Russian Emma Bovary. She passed her adolescence attached by a pin to the skirt of her grandmother. He falls in love with her but does not express it because Nastenska expects, at any moment, the return of a young man whom she promised to marry. But she is no longer completely certain that she loves this fiancé. She wonders whether her grandmother's pin is not a bit responsible for this juvenile passion. In the course of an ambiguous exchange of confidences, she accuses her companion of indifference and offers her friendship to him in terms reminiscent of the "landlady" or the fiancée of the "weak heart": "When I get married, we will remain friends, we will be as brother and sister, or even something more. I will love you almost as much as him." The protagonist finally declares his love but, far from pressing his advantage with her, he does everything like Makar Devushkin to insure the success of his rival. He sends the latter Nastenska's letters; he arranges a rendezvous to which he accompanies her. When the two young people meet and fall into each other's arms, he is the fascinated voyeur. The entire conduct of this character is described in terms of generosity, of devotion, of the spirit of sacrifice. Nastenska goes away forever, but she sends to the unfortunate fellow a letter in which she expresses once more what could be called the "dream of the life à trois." "We will see each other again," she writes, "you will come to be with us and you will not leave us. You will be always our friend, my brother."
We know that the young Dostoevsky was paralyzed in the presence of women, even to the point of fainting when a well-known St. Petersburg beauty was introduced to him in a salon. But we know nothing, or nearly nothing, about a love life which perhaps amounted to very little because of this paralysis. On the other hand, we are very well informed about the relationship between Dostoevsky and Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, his future wife, during the entire period that preceded their marriage.
In 1854 Dostoevsky had just got out of prison. He was not finished with the justice of the czar, for he was required to enlist in a Siberian regiment and to serve, initially as a simple soldier, then from 1856 as a subaltern officer. Stationed at Semipalatinsk, he there became a friend of the Isaev family. The husband, a man intelligent but embittered, was killing himself with drink. His wife, Maria Dmitrievna, was thirty years old and spoke much about her ancestors, French aristocrats who migrated during the French revolution. Seen up close, Semipalatinsk was less a romantic dream than even the Yonville-l'Abbaye of Madame Bovary. Greedy minor bureaucrats, brutal soldiers, and adventurers of every sort wallowed there, in the mud or in the dust according to the season. Maria Dmitrievna immediately inspired feelings in Dostoevsky which any of his heroes would have experienced: "I fell immediately in love with the wife of my best friend." What ensued is known to us from the letters of Feodor Mikhailovich to a young magistrate, the aristocratic Wrangel, who did what he could to mitigate the difficulties of the writer during his years of military service. Very quickly Isaev died. Feodor Mikhailovich proposed marriage to Maria Dmitrievna, and she did not refuse. The widow was then living at Kuznetsk, a large village even more remote than Semipalatinsk, a real Siberian Dodge City where the role of sheriff was played by the secret police and that of the Indians by the Kirghiz pirates. Naturally Dostoevsky spent all his leaves in Kuznetsk, and it was during one of these trips that tragedy struck. "I saw her," he writes to Wrangel. "What a noble and angelic soul! She cried, she squeezed my hands, but she loves another." The Other is named Nikolay Vergunov. He is young and handsome. Feodor Mikhailovich is ugly; he is thirty-five years old and an ex-convict. Like the heroine of White Nights, Maria Dmitrievna hesitates. She announces that she is smitten with Vergunov, but she confides in Dostoevsky and encourages him to come see her again.
Vergunov is a teacher. He earns a pittance. If Maria Dmitrievna marries him she would bury herself forever in the remote steppe with a procession of children and a husband too young who would finally leave her. Such is the somber picture that Dostoevsky paints for the widow in his letters. He speaks equally of his brilliant future as a writer, of the fortune awaiting him the day he obtains permission to publish. But very quickly Dostoevsky drops this language; he does not want to compel the proud Maria Dmitrievna to defend her Vergunov. "I don't want to give the impression," he writes, "that I'm working on my own behalf." Pushing the logic of this reasoning to an extreme, he adopts the behavior of his own heroes and makes himself the advocate and supporter of his rival for the young woman. He promises to intervene in his favor with Wrangel. In the letters of this period his writing, which is generally quite clear, occasionally becomes completely illegible. The name of the teacher recurs in his delirious prose like a sort of refrain: "And above all, don't forget Vergunov, for God's sake ..."
If the writer sometimes justifies his conduct for tactical reasons, more often he does not hesitate to give himself the finer role. He admires his own grandeur of soul and speaks of himself as he would speak of a hero of Schiller or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He experiences a "disinterested sympathy" for Vergunov and "compassion" for Maria Dmitrievna. All this "magnanimity" turns out to be rewarding: "I had compassion for her and she inclined toward me—it was for me that she had compassion. You have never known her; at each instant something original, something wise, spiritual, but also paradoxical, infinitely good, truly chivalrous—a knight in woman's dress. She will be lost."
Excerpted from Resurrection from the Underground by René Girard Copyright © 2012 by James G. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
René Girard is a member of the French Academy, Emeritus Professor at Stanford University, and the author of several books that have been translated widely. He is the recipient of the Modern Language Association's Lifetime Achievement Award (2008).
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