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Wanderings

April 24, 2011

What is the English for странник? “Pilgrim” sounds appropriately religious, but implies travel with a goal; “wanderer” captures the undirectedness of the movement, but is an entirely “secular” word. Leskov’s “Очарованный странник,” in which the title character ends up in a monastery, is usually rendered as “The Enchanted Pilgrim,” not “The Enchanted Wanderer.” (Update: at least, McLean has “Pilgrim.” No sooner did I post this than I stumbled on a list at Trewisms that uses “Wanderer” and puts the work in very good company.)*

The Dostoevskii scholar Charles Arndt reads The Adolescent (Подросток, 1874-75) through a contrast between the religious wandering suggested by странник, странствия, странничество to “secular wandering” reflected in скитаться, скитальчество. (There is also бродяжество, which Arndt translates as “vagrancy,” used to deprecate странничество by a character unsympathetic to it.)

The good kind of wandering is demonstrated by Makar Ivanovich Dolgorukii: this странник is tied to Russia, in particular pre-Petrine Russia and the Russian peasantry, and through his wandering he becomes better disposed toward his fellow human beings (611-13, 620-21). A former house slave, Makar is the rare major peasant character in Dostoevskii’s works; quoting Sven Linnér, Arndt remarks that Dostoevskii usually had intellectual people of faith stand up for his peasant-idealizing views, rather than peasants themselves (611). Makar is based in part on Nekrasov’s Vlas (612-13).

Makar’s wandering is favorably contrasted to Andrei Petrovich Versilov’s wandering (скитальчество) in Europe. The gentleman Versilov is an intellectual follower of European trends, a creation of post-Petrine Russia whose mind won’t let him “commit himself to a single ideal” (621).

The idea of religious wandering, Arndt argues, includes a dimension of asceticism, and here Makar is contrasted to both Versilov and Arkadii Makarovich Dolgorukii, the adolescent of the title who is Versilov’s biological son but takes his patronymic and surname from his mother’s husband, Makar. All three are ascetics in some sense. Arkadii denies himself material things in order to someday become a Rothschild, an “unchristian,” “non-religious asceticism” (619-20). Versilov, whose eagerness to follow intellectual fads drawn from Western Europe leads him to convert to Catholicism, becomes a showy kind of ascetic and uses his un-humble feats of self-denial to try to influence others (620). Arkadii’s secular and Versilov’s false religious asceticism are inferior to the true religious asceticism of Makar, who “retreats to deserted places not to avoid the company of other people, but to do battle with his passions and conquer his selfishness” (620).

It’s completely peripheral to Arndt’s persuasive argument, but what sticks with me from reading Подросток several years ago is Arkadii’s “wandering” around St. Petersburg in a more trivial sense. In my memory the novel is a series of important conversations Arkadii needs to have without an appointment, so that he is always walking long distances or hiring an izvozchik he’d rather not pay for, and then arriving at an apartment to find the person he wanted to speak to was out. Then he’d wait for hours, and they wouldn’t come home, and he’d leave a note. It was a vivid picture of life when people didn’t have telephones and cars but some did have particular days on which they received or servants who could lie to visitors about whether one was home.

See Charles Arndt, “Wandering in Two Different Directions: Spiritual Wandering as the Ideological Battleground in Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent,” Slavic and East European Journal 54.4 (2010): 607-25.

* Also Pevear and Volokhonsky are evidently translating Leskov and favor “The Enchanted Wanderer.” H/t The Millions.

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