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Dostoevskii and tragedy: three versions

June 23, 2011

Terms like “the carnivalesque,” “polyphonic novel,” and “chronotope” get thrown around even by people who haven’t read Mikhail Bakhtin. His idea of polyphony, crucial to his understanding of Dostoevskii, didn’t come out of the blue: an essay by Ilya Kliger shows how Bakhtin’s evolving position responds to others’ arguments about Dostoevskii and tragedy.

Ivanov as painted by Konstantin Somov in 1906

First, the poet and critic Viacheslav Ivanov sees a pattern: 1) there is some community; 2) an individual becomes self-conscious and separated from the community; and 3) the individual suffers and returns to the community. This is Raskolnikov’s journey in Crime and Punishment, but not only that (76). It is the history of verbal art as well. Before the theater there were religious rites with no distinction between audience and participants; then tragedy is born, with a tragic hero on stage separated from the chorus, and this isolation becomes ever more severe until we have modern novelists writing about isolated individual characters for solitary readers; and finally Dostoevskii transforms the novel to the “novel-tragedy,” so that “the reader now participates in the great tragic event, the rite of suffering individuation and ecstatic redemption, and can share in the experience of the all-human I,” not unlike those who took part in “early Dionysian festivals” (77). After art went through a stage of modern isolation, Dostoevskii transforms the novel into a new thing that recaptures the crucial feature of that old thing, classical tragedy.

Lev Pumpianskii agrees with some of Ivanov’s premises, but where Ivanov sees in Dostoevskii a return to the essence of tragedy, Pumpianskii sees the end of Russia’s “naively classical” or “ecstatically trusting” period and its entry into modernity (79). Dostoevskii’s modern hero is “self-conscious” and an “aesthetic initiator,” a descendant of Hamlet (77). He can even overpower the author: Pumpianskii describes Crime and Punishment as “unstable aesthetic territory, which can be read both the way Dostoevskii wants it read and the way Raskolnikov wants it read” (77-78).* Meanwhile, Dostoevskii writes tragedy to the extent that he “takes up the key motifs of the tragic tradition—spilled blood and trial, suffering and redemption, sacrifice and recompense,” but these motifs appear in a degenerate modern form: “unlike Orestes, Raskolnikov kills a woman who is not his mother; unlike Oedipus, Mitia only almost kills his father. And Smerdiakov, who does commit parricide, is less a son than a lackey” (78).*

Bakhtin is with Pumpianskii in believing that Dostoevskii created a “self-conscious hero, who surprises and ‘talks back'” (80). But for Bakhtin, this doesn’t make the novel fall apart, but leads Dostoevskii to create a new kind of novel, the polyphonic novel. The mode of art that Bakhtin calls “classical” in his early writings is called “monologic” later, in opposition to “polyphonic” (81). Opposites in this sense are Racine (classical/monologic) and Dostoevskii (polyphonic): according to Bakhtin, “Racine’s hero is all objective existence, stable and fixed, like plastic sculpture. Dostoevskii’s hero is all self-consciousness. Racine’s hero is an immobile and finite substance; Dostoevskii’s hero is infinite function” (81).* Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly, Dostoevskii’s self-aware hero is, for Bakhtin, just as much an aesthetic creation as Racine’s (81).

Kliger’s essay is everything I want from an article: it points me toward interesting works by past thinkers that I knew nothing about, and it gives me the context to understand what they wrote instead of being frustrated by what, without Kliger, I would likely have taken as the grandiosity and vagueness of their Ideas about Tragedy.

See Ilya Kliger, “Dostoevsky and the Novel-Tragedy: Genre and Modernity in Ivanov, Pumpyansky, and Bakhtin,” PMLA 126.1 (2011): 73-87. Abstract with gated link to full text.

* Transliteration changed for consistency

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