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Psychic and cognitive doubles in Dostoevskii

March 21, 2013

Yuri Corrigan distinguishes between “psychic” and “cognitive” doubling in Dostoevskii’s fiction:

  • Seeing psychic doubling involves a “reading of Dostoevskii as a neo-Romantic psychologist who stands roughly between E. T. A. Hoffmann and Sigmund Freud” (83), where doubles are “explorations of unconscious elements in human personality” (82).
  • Cognitive doubling, an idea made popular by Bakhtin, sees Dostoevskii as a “dramatizer of self-consciousness.” Such a double is “not a dark, irrational, unconscious element” of a character’s personality. Instead, the doubles are “an expression of conflicting orientations within consciousness, the I-for-myself and the I-for-others,” of “the cognitive divide between the conscious mind aware of its unlimited potential and the self as an embodied, perceived thing” (83).

According to Corrigan, the two types of doubles are generally intertwined, but if you take The Double (Двойник, 1846), you can read the second Mr. Goliadkin as a cognitive double, while a little dog that attaches itself to Goliadkin in one episode symbolizing a hidden memory is a psychic double. A dog serves a similar purpose in the later novel The Insulted and the Injured (Униженные и оскорбленные, 1861; see pp. 84-85).

Corrigan takes a close look at doubles in two other early works, “The Landlady” (Хозяйка, 1847) and Netochka Nezvanova (Неточка Незванова, 1849). In each a group of three characters can be seen as allegorically enacting the drama of a single consciousness, but the main character’s two doubles are more than just doubles, having their own backgrounds and details that have nothing to do with the protagonist (86-99).

A pattern in these early works is lack of memory: the main character’s personal memories are inaccessible or just absent from the story. How to understand this is where Corrigan really diverges from Bakhtin. Bakhtin (as Corrigan presents his argument) sees cognitive doubling as a character’s search for freedom; thus in The Double, Goliadkin “panics under the gaze of others as he perceives himself through their eyes,” and the two Goliadkins reflect the “painful dissonance” between “the self as a free limitless consciousness and the self mercilessly scrutinized by others” (84). Lack of memory just goes along with being a free limitless consciousness living purely in the present.

Corrigan doesn’t buy Bakhtin’s view that amnesia is a “prerequisite for existential freedom” (100), arguing instead that Goliadkin in The Double, Ordynov in “The Landlady,” and Netochka Nezvanova have their various amnesias because of particular childhood traumas. Well, I shouldn’t exaggerate his argument about The Double: the dog is fleeting, and even with the context of the more explicit dog-as-painful-memory in The Insulted and the Injured it’s hard to know what memory of Goliadkin’s it might represent. But in “The Landlady,” Ordynov and Katerina reawaken each other’s memories of a child being tormented by an old man (89-90), and Netochka Nezvanova feels an “inexplicable connection between her own inner confusion” and a clearly suffering boy, Laria’s, “visible agony”; they are “connected by their remarkably similar pasts”  (95-96). These pairs of characters come together in a “mysteriously communal” way that, in “The Landlady,” is symbolized by one character shedding tears on the other’s cheek (91, 96).

Alongside these pairs there is another pair in each story (Ordynov and Murin in “The Landlady,” Netochka and Katia in Netochka Nezvanova) that “dramatizes the awakening of self-consciousness” and features a lot of the Murin/Katia character gazing fixedly at the main character (91-92, 97).

The Ordynov-Murin-Katerina and Netochka-Katia-Laria trios are, for Corrigan, not about existential freedom but about “pathology,” a “crying wound” of childhood trauma, and through this Dostoevskii “sketches […] the outlines of a tripartite model of personality.” In his later novels Dostoevskii will do more to “explore the immense philosophical potential of this arrangement,” as seen, for instance, in Stavrogin’s “state of incomplete amnesia” and several “personal emanations” (quasi-doubles) in The Demons (Бесы, 1871-72; see pp. 99-101).

Yuri Corrigan, “Amnesia and the Externalized Personality in Early Dostoevskii,” Slavic Review 72.1 (2013): 79-101.

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