Analyzing Dostoyevsky

Northwestern’s Gary Saul Morson takes a look at three new studies of Dostoyevsky in the July 1 New York Review of Books review “Dostoevsky and His Demons.” Subhead: “Three biographers take different approaches to the great writer’s life, which often resembled his most fantastic tales.” It’s an excellent review that takes a brief detour into Freudian analysis of Dostoyevsky. I found this funny:

After Dostoevsky’s death, more legends accumulated. Best known is the one included in Freud’s “Dostoevsky and Parricide” and elaborated by later biographers and critics. Relying on a document mentioning an unspecified tragic incident in Dostoevsky’s life, Freud presumed that it must have been punishment by a tyrannical father for masturbation and the consequent onset of a nervous disease. When serfs murdered Dostoevsky’s father—as Dostoevsky’s daughter Lyubov reported—Dostoevsky, who in Freud’s view must have desired his father’s death, experienced intense guilt. The quasi death of epilepsy ensued as a self-inflicted punishment, and so the disease was not organic but “hysterical” in origin. Freud speculated that when Dostoevsky was actually punished in Siberia, the substitute punishment of epilepsy must have temporarily ceased.

As [Joseph] Frank and [Thomas Garton] Marullo demonstrate, everything about this widely accepted story is wrong. To begin with, the comment on which Freud based his analysis referred not to an event in early childhood, as he supposed, but to the death of Dostoevsky’s father when Dostoevsky was seventeen. Since the author’s own son Aleksey died of an epileptic seizure at the age of three, it seems likely that the father’s epilepsy was inherited, and so organic rather than hysterical. Of course, as Frank observes, this argument would not have impressed Freud, who, as an unreconstructed Lamarckian, believed in the heritability of acquired characteristics.

Did Dostoevsky’s epilepsy begin when he learned of his father’s murder? Did it cease in Siberia? As Marullo notes, when his father died in 1839, Dostoevsky was studying at the academy of military engineering, and “a seizure would not have passed unnoticed by the hundred or so schoolmates with whom Dostoevsky lived on close terms….” If Dostoevsky had had such an attack, he would have been dismissed immediately by the administrators of the institution.

Far from ceasing in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s epilepsy began there….

Other than that, Freud was right on the button.

In its weekly email last week, NYRB linked to the Morson’s review and interviewed Morson. I found everything in the interview of interest. NYRB has posted it under the heading “The prophetic character of Russian literature.” Here is one exchange with staffer Andrew Katzenstein.

In your essays on Grossman and Dostoevsky, we end up at a place where the most consequential political acts are those of common, everyday decency toward those in our immediate surroundings. Is this because violence—perpetrated by the state, terrorists, or revolutionaries—renders political decisions essentially moral, such that the political and personal become inseparable? How do the challenges of forming non- or sub-political communities—whether traditional or radical ones—manifest in the work of these writers?

I thought some readers might find Professor Morson’s response of interest (below the break).

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I address these questions in a book I am writing on the broad significance of Russian literature and experience from 1855 to the present. Russian living conditions have been extreme. In the Soviet Gulags at Kolyma in the far north, for instance, people labored at seventy degrees below zero in camps that supplied too few calories to sustain life. During the terror, people would spend the night dressed and prepared for arrest; they knew that every word was monitored and informers were everywhere so that it became a society of “whisperers.” Personal innocence was regarded as an outmoded concept, and there were camps for wives of enemies of the people. During the famine that accompanied the collectivization of agriculture, millions were starved to death as officials prevented them from gleaning grain left in fields or fishing in rivers. As with the Nazis, people were deliberately dehumanized.

For the Russians, these conditions provided a test of ideas. How would people who thought a given way behave? Who would steal food from a weaker prisoner or turn stool pigeon? Memoirists testified that intellectuals readily succumbed and always had some ingenious way to justify their loathsome behavior.

Soviet ideology taught that there is no such thing as non-class morality, no abstract good and evil; whatever benefits the Communist Party is by definition good. And the result alone counts. That was not the first principle of morality, it was the only one. To believe in the sanctity of human life, for instance, or that one should not be needlessly cruel was to show that one still adhered to ideas derived from religion or idealist philosophy and that one was therefore not a true materialist.

By the same reasoning, compassion was regarded as an impulse to be rooted out, and children were taught to overcome it. People who accepted this way of thinking behaved especially awfully in camps; after all, if only the result counts, why not save oneself at the expense of the life of another? Many people asked: Doesn’t that show there is something wrong with materialism, atheism, and relativism? The camps made it no mere intellectual exercise to argue that all is relative, and, for many, their experiences convinced them, as no arguments could have, that good and evil are as real as the laws of physics.

Evgeniia Ginzburg’s remarkable memoir Into the Whirlwind points out what many observed: the people least likely to behave badly, and to refuse to do what they regarded as evil even under severe punishment, were the religious believers. She describes one group who were made to stand barefoot on the ice because they refused to work on Easter; they withstood the punishment while singing hymns. She and other atheists wondered if that showed heroism or fanaticism. And an uncomfortable question occurred to them: Would atheists have had sufficient courage to resist doing what they regarded as wrong? It was considerations like these that led many—not Ginzburg herself—to become believers.

Westerners often take for granted that the purpose of life is happiness. What else could it be? Mainstream economics presumes that “maximizing utility” is the only human motivation. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov exposed the shallowness of such a view of life, and Soviet conditions made it seem, as Solzhenitsyn writes, like the prattle of a child.

In short, the Russians asked ultimate questions under extreme conditions. One could, of course, question whether extremes, rather than the everyday, are the reality against which ideas should be tested, and Russians have wondered that, too. Tolstoy insisted that it is the sum total of ordinary conditions that comprise life, and one needs to acquire prosaic wisdom, as Levin, the hero of Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace do.