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David Bethea examines the distinctly Russian view of the "end" of history in five major works of modern Russian fiction.
Originally published in 1989.
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The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction
By David M. Bethea
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Idiot: Historicism Arrives at the Station
That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore, that Trojan Horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks! Where is the country's champion, the Moore of Moore Hall, to meet him at the Deep Cut and thrust an avenging lance between the ribs of the bloated pest?
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
What is this that man has done?
He has set off on the iron road,
And I feel the threat of our iron century.
— Fyodor Glinka, "Two Roads"
For good or for ill, Russian literature has long been known for its so-called messianism, and there is no writer who struggled more than Dostoevsky to give legitimacy to the "Russian idea," to the belief that Russian history is uniquely inscribed with a Biblical End. Yet Dostoevsky was no mystic, at least in the sense of one who tries to peer beyond the End and tell about it (see, e.g., Rozenblium, "Tvorcheskie dnevniki" 13–15). If he had occasion to resort to the figures and codes of Revelation, he did so allusively, for as a novelist he was keenly aware that his texts must first be grounded firmly in nineteenth-century history and that whatever lies on the other side of personal death is not to be captured in words, is not the stuff of a story told over time. As his epoch's most eloquent voice in the dialogue between logic (rassudok) and belief (vera), he apparently had similar thoughts about the promised interregnum of the Antichrist and the Second Coming of Christ as prophesied by John of Patmos.
Modern criticism often speaks of novels as being "end-determined" or somehow written in reverse, with the shadow of a foreordained conclusion cast backwards over the various elements of narrative structure. Such an approach, one suspects, could certainly be applied to much of Dostoevsky's writing, and to The Idiot especially, of whose haunting final scene the author wrote his niece S. A. Ivanova, "almost the whole novel was thought out and written for the sake of the denouement" (Dolinin n: 138). But it would be a mistake to do so too hastily, if only because the neat and self-regarding "structure" touted by modern criticism is such a vexed issue in the context of Dostoevsky the great vitalist. The implicit danger in reading Dostoevsky through Western eyes is to impose cultural paradigms and critical orthodoxies which have limited meaning when projected back to the Russia of the 1860s and 1870s. In this regard, The Idiot has been a powerful magnet for some spectacular misreadings. Rene Girard's fascinating but remarkably uninformed account of what he calls the "Dostoevskian apocalypse" in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is a prime example of this (see 256–91). Indeed, if we are to judge by what Dostoevsky had to say about the logically closed ideologies swarming in the air of his time, he would have harsh words for the way that language has evolved from a medium of ethical choice to a system of systems. In the end one would have to agree with Edward Wasiolek who, as the Western scholar most familiar with Dostoevsky's notebooks, points out that The Idiot is, of Dostoevsky's major fiction, the work most resistant to "elegant" structural analysis: "We cannot go to The Idiot with theories of the organic fitness of every part, of the necessity of every positioning, every image, every sound. ... Structure, I hazard, is never as exquisite as our current theories would have it, at least not in this novel" (Notebooks 9).
One issue is not in doubt: as the threat of revolution entered the public consciousness, Dostoevsky and the tradition his work grew out of became increasingly obsessed by the notion of apocalypse. Whether or not history, in Herzen's metaphor, followed a "libretto," the threat of a communist-inspired "violent tempest — dreadful, bloody, unjust, and swift" — was something that people anticipated, depending on their political orientation and the part they saw themselves playing in the unfolding drama, with either fear or joy (ss vi: 104). Moreover, this apocalypticism could not but leave some trace on how Dostoevsky's fiction is composed and narrated. Here The Idiot is particularly noteworthy: it is Dostoevsky's first major work in which the apocalypse, as metaphor for "anti-life" (death), "antihistory" (timelessness), and indeed "anti-narrative" (end, silence) is ironically the prime mover of plot. There is good reason why the novel has been called Dostoevsky's most "untidy masterpiece" (Wasiolek, The Notebooks 19) and why efforts to invest it with a structure it apparently lacks have so often gone awry. This central paradox — namely, that The Idiot is about an end it cannot tell but only foretell — is the subject of this chapter. To pose the question in terms of the novel's life in our own times: this end, foretold, held in linguistic limbo by the "différence" of Dostoevsky's telling — is it a true End, a transcendental presence whose "time has come"? or is it simply an end like any other, a provisional presence that resolves nothing and leaves everyone, characters, reader, and author, stuck on the tracks of an ongoing historicism? I will briefly establish a context for Dostoevsky's apocalypticism within his epoch and his own oeuvre, then look more closely at how the novel gathers narrative momentum and proceeds toward its end. Our focus will be on the image of the train, which as metaphor for mechanical force, "iron logic," and unregenerate chronos, is both the chief semantic and compositional source of this momentum and one possible key to Dostoevsky's conceptualization of the role of apocalypse in history.
The most authoritative statement ever made by Dostoevsky on the idea of the End came in a notebook entry of April 16, 1864, as he stood vigil at the bier of his first wife. The occasion provided ample opportunity to contemplate the nature of death, the possibility of resurrection, and the meaning of history. The entry itself is especially interesting both because of its unguarded frankness and because of its timing on the eve of Dostoevsky's major period — the first part of Notes from Underground had just appeared that March and Crime and Punishment and the other novels were soon to follow. It is also striking that the questions raised by Dostoevsky as he reasoned passionately with himself are directly implicated in the themes and story-line of The Idiot, the novel written after Crime and Punishment, in the first years of Dostoevsky's self-imposed exile in Western Europe (September 1867-January 1869).
Masha is lying on the table. Will Masha and I ever see each other again?
It is impossible to love one another as oneself according to Christ's commandment. ... Only Christ could do this, but Christ was eternal [vekovechnyi],an eternal ideal [ot veka ideal], toward which man strives and must, by the laws of nature, strive. At the same time, after the appearance of Christ as the ideal of man in the flesh it became clear as day that ... the highest use to which man can put his personality is ... to destroy, as it were, that 7, to give it back in full to each and every one selflessly and wholeheartedly. And this is the greatest happiness. Thus the law of I merges with the law of humanity and in this merging both [the I and the all] ... attain the highest goal of their individual development.
It is precisely this that is the paradise of Christ. All history — both that of mankind and of each man separately — is only the development of, struggle with, urge for, and attainment of this goal.
But if this is the ultimate goal of mankind (at whose attainment there will no longer be a need to develop ... [and], therefore, to live), then it follows that man, having once attained [his goal], also ends his earthly existence. Hence man on earth is a being that is only developing, and therefore not completed, but transitional.
But to attain such an exalted goal is, to my mind, totally senseless, if in the attainment of the goal all is snuffed out and disappears, that is, if there is no more life for man upon the attainment of the goal. It follows then that there is [i.e., there must be] a future life in paradise ...
NB. The Antichrists are mistaken when they attempt to refute Christianity with the following main point of refutation: (1) "Why doesn't Christianity reign on earth if it is [the] true [religion], why does man suffer to this day and not become a brother to others?"
Well, it's not easily understandable why — because this is the ideal of the future, completed life of man, while earthly man is in a transitional state. This ideal will come, but it will come after the attainment of [life's] goal, when man will have been completely reborn by the laws of nature into another form which neither marries nor is given in marriage; and, secondly, Christ himself taught this lesson only as an ideal, prophesying that until the end of the world there would be struggle and development (his teaching about the sword) for such are the laws of nature, because on earth life is developing, while there [i.e. the other world] is an existence which is complete in its synthesis, eternally joyous and full, for which, it would seem, "time" shall be no more ...
Hence man strives on earth for an ideal that opposes his nature. When man doesn't fulfill the ideal of striving for the ideal, that is, doesn't in an act of love make a sacrifice of his I to other people or another being (Masha and I), he experiences suffering and calls that suffering sin. Hence man must constantly experience a suffering which is counterbalanced by the heavenly [raiskii] delight in fulfilling the law, that is, by sacrifice. Herein lies our [sense of] balance on earth. Otherwise the Earth would be without meaning (Neizdannyi Dostoevskii 173–75).
I have quoted this extraordinary passage at length because in it we see the mind of a great story-teller trying, step by step, to compose a plot for life that encompasses death. As in the finale of The Idiot, where Myshkin and Rogozhin contemplate the corpse of Nastasya Filippovna, Dostoevsky strikes repeatedly at the mystery of this ultimate threshold. The fascination with spatio-temporal brinks and border-crossings that is his hallmark and that so marks the writing of The Idiot is here distilled to a radical essence of logic and belief. Dostoevsky works back from the fact of his wife's death to the story of every human life. Death frames life, gives it a conclusion so that what has come before can have a beginning, middle, and end (see Kermode, Sense 58-59). Yet only if the conclusion can be set, as it were, in a larger story does this structure have a meaning, and the forward movement ("struggle and development") a goal (the synthesis of "Masha" and "I"). Dostoevsky's Christian logic is trying to posit the ultimate story whose authorial viewpoint cannot be known. To resort to the language of narratology, without some larger emplotment of faith, humanity's attempts to serialize the tale of its strivings beyond life's conclusion are deprived of any absolute or meaningful placement in time. There is no divine "draft," no "Finis" in paradise, only endless embellishment and retardation.
In short, although Dostoevsky's internal monologue does not express the argument so explicitly, the future author of The Idiot is feeling his way toward the head-on collision between Christianity and historicism, between an atemporal ideal and the relentless march of chronos, that lies at the center of his most elusive plot. Indeed, many of the motifs that reappear, artistically shaped, in The Idiot are set forth here in unmediated fashion: the silent corpse and what it means; Christ as an ideal that entered history and became flesh; the final tableau and tragic ensemble of competing loves; the sense of harmony and synthesis — Dostoevsky's metaphor for God — that, like a freely rotating eyeball, sees the present (life "in the middest") from the vantage of eternity (life "at the end"). All of these are vital to the plot of The Idiot, and we will return to them in due course. For the moment suffice it to say that Dostoevsky was sensitive to the dangers of positivistic thinking that lie in wait for the vacillating believer." His unkind words for the "Antichrists," "atheists," and "materialists" of the 1860s are evidence of this. And, as shall be seen shortly, Dostoevsky felt that the logic of such thinking condemned the (hi) story of a human life and a people to be told in terms of a tragic and unavoidable end.
As an artist, Dostoevsky had to find a way to invest these tensions ("here" / "there," "now" / "then") in story form. He needed some verbal picture of interlocking time-space relations to embody the notions of personal and national history that occurred to him in his time. This picture, which Bakhtin has termed the chronotope, is the novelist's (or narrative poet's) way of translating notions of time (open/closed, public/private, changing/static) into ready-made images of narrative space (the public square, the road). One of the most celebrated and visually arresting means of proceeding down the road of life and history is the steed which, as we have seen, entered Russian literature and culture — both reflecting the shape of contemporary history and, indeed, contributing to that shape — as a powerful symbol for contemporary readers. In the Russian context, the horse was employed both as local color (a mode of conveyance, a domestic animal) and as mythical image (a symbol of imperial might or manifest destiny), so that in certain works it actually became a focal point where opposing concepts of time (everyday-epic) could intersect and collide. Here the horse's role in folkloric and chivalric tradition elided with its role in the emerging realistic tradition; the site of this collision — the "cliff" over the "abyss" in Petersburg in Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman, the "steppe" in Gogol's Dead Souls — functioned as an all-important visual field for organizing the reader's response to contemporary history.
Thus, Senate Square served as the "betwixt-and-between" site where different classes of people (Peter-Evgeny) and the different times they represented could have their "duel." And the steppe, with its sprawling expanse and seemingly endless horizon line, became a metaphor for the openness and infinite possibility of Russian historical time, a time whose direction and meaning were as yet unknown: "Whither art thou soaring away to, then, Russia? Give me thy answer! But Russia gives none" (Guerney 304). As he entered on the period of his major fiction, Dostoevsky turned with increasing fervor to the central questions of Russia's history, to the "whither" and "why" raised by his forebears. His later works constantly take into account the time and space that has been traveled since these earlier historical poses first captured the attention of contemporary audiences.
Although the horse's role in the chronotope of Pushkin and Gogol was not, properly speaking, "apocalyptic" — that is, no explicit connection was made between its movement and the End prophesied in the Book of Revelation — one thing is certain: over time, this role began to acquire an increasingly dark coloration. What was once implicit was now, under the pressure of contemporary history, "revealed" to subsequent generations. If in the first half of the nineteenth century certain thinkers, notably Chaadaev and Herzen, had seen Russia's lack of a significant past as an opportunity to avoid the pitfalls of Western bourgeois civilization (Herzen visualized this as the pristine "openness" of Siberia), then in the second half of the century others such as Leontiev and Solovyov saw their country's historical mission more pessimistically, in terms of closure, not openness. Leontiev, for example, so feared the process of democratization promoted by the left that he claimed that "Russian society ... is racing faster than any other along the path of universal mixing [vsesmeshenie], and, who knows ... suddenly we may ... give birth to the Antichrist" ("Nad mogiloi Pazukhina," s VIII: 425). In addition, the myth surrounding Petersburg in Pushkin's poem was gradually being re-finished by other "catastrophists": rather than the floodwaters that were often seen in early nineteenth-century poetry (V. Odoevsky, Lermontov, M. Dmitriev, V. Pecherin) as a natural form of retribution, by the turn of the century it was the notion of a flaming end (ekpyrosis), to be fueled by terrorist bombs and the man-made fires of social revolution, that came to dominate the descriptions of this doomed city.
Excerpted from The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction by David M. Bethea. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- A Note on the Transliteration, pg. xi
- Preface, pg. xiii
- Introduction: Myth, History, Plot, Steed, pg. 3
- ONE. The Idiot: Historicism Arrives at the Station, pg. 62
- TWO. Petersburg: The Apocalyptic Horseman, the Unicorn, and the Verticality of Narrative, pg. 105
- THREE. Chevengur: On the Road with the Bolshevik Utopia, pg. 145
- FOUR. The Master and Margarita: History as Hippodrome, pg. 186
- FIVE. Doctor Zhivago: The Revolution and the Red Crosse Knight, pg. 230
- Afterword: The End and Beyond, pg. 269
- Works Cited, pg. 277
- Index, pg. 297