Victor Serge

April 28, 2012

I put Victor Serge alongside of Vasily Grossman as an awe-inspiring Russian writer of whom I knew next to nothing, brought to my attention by the wonderful New York Review of Books Press (and also by my friend who recommended Kolyma Tales.)  Serge’s novels are not, in fact, well known at all; certainly not here in America.  He wrote in French, was published in French, and was saved from death in the Gulag because of the outcry of French literary intellectuals who were acquainted with his work.  Good thing he knew French!  His novels were only first published in English in the early 1970s.

Serge was born Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, in 1890, the son of anti-Tsarist agitators living in exile in Belgium.  He grew up in the militant atmosphere of exiled socialist-communist revolutionaries, and only set foot in Russia in 1919, after years of agitation, prison, writing, various exiles, and a life of poverty.  He landed in Petrograd/Saint Petersburg/Petersburg/Leningrad in the midst of the terrifying five-year Russian Civil War, and threw himself into The Revolution.  He remained a committed revolutionary, but retained his fierce independent (was it anarchist?) bent, and was quick to recognize the ‘betrayal of The Revolution’ that Stalin represented.  From there, it was all downhill.

His writings are unique in their blend of intense sympathy for the revolutionary cause, their unflinching recognition of the crimes committed in its name, their profound disgust with the course of the Soviet revolution, their poetic style, and the modernistic techniques he absorbed from European literary developments.  No plain social realism, no bitter denunciations of the cause betrayed, no simple answers.  Most interesting to me:  he focuses like a laser on the questions of just how people can believe they are struggling for the better  future of humanity while committing acts they know to be outrageous crimes; and why did so many people simply carry on with their work, fatalistically expecting to be unjustly arrested, tried, and perhaps executed?

The shortest of these three novels here, Conquered City, was the first written, and takes place in Petrograd during the siege he witnessed beginning in 1919.  The physical privation of citizens is horrifying.  The novel is actually a series of vignettes, some of which take place out of the city on the various fronts of the civil war, and which introduce characters from all realms of the Russian Empire:  bandits, intellectuals, proletarian communists, proletarian White sympathizers, counter-revolutionaries, Party leaders, and on. Serge depicts them all with sympathy, yes, even the counter-revolutionaries!  Throughout, all are subject to terror:  the Red Terror, or the White Terror.

One episode involves a dedicated young woman communist, hell-bent on “getting a case [investigation of a counter-revolutionary cell] moving.”  She is enthusiastic, relentless, and totally committed to the cause, with little thought for…well, anything. She cracks the case.  It turns out that a well planted worker is actually an enemy agent, and the lover of a formerly middle-class young woman.  Turns out that this woman was friendly with a well-respected, energetic, young communist agent, Arkady.  The woman’s brother was ‘suspected’ of something – wasn’t everyone? – and was hauled in for questioning.  Arkady knew immediately it was all garbage, and got the fellow released.  Now the man’s sister is known to be the lover of a man who is known to be an enemy of the people, and Arkady released his brother!  He’s done for, and he knows it.  Osipov, his friend, arrests him.  “What have you done, my poor old friend, what have you done!”  They shake hands.

Later, another mutual friend visits Osipov and challenges him on the arrest of Arkady:  “You know brother, we’re committing a crime.

“A crime?”  Osipov tossed back at him.  “Because one of us got hit this time around?  Don’t you understand that one must pay with one’s blood for the right to be pitiless?  Do you by any chance imagine that we won’t all end up like that?”

Class war is a dirty business, but “it must be done.”  These views recur again and again through the books.  With views like that, people will do anything.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev may be Serge’s best known novel, and I found it to be the most extraordinary of the three.  It takes place at the height of the Great Purge of the late 1930s triggered by the assassination of Kirov.  A young man gets hold of a revolver, determined to kill Stalin.  On his nightly walks, he actually sees him occasionally, stepping into a limousine at a Kremlin gate.  With the revolver in hand, he approaches the gate again, and Stalin is there!  But he totally looses his nerve, and walks on.  A little later, he sees another Party boss – it’s Tulayev, yes, certainly it’s that murderous scum!  He’s being dropped at the door of his mistress’ apartment.  He walks up to him, shoots him, and runs.  The ripples of terror immediately spread far and wide.

The chapters of the novel tell the story of Party members caught in the net of the pseudo-investigation into the murder.  There must be a conspiracy of course:  how could it be otherwise?  Most of them end up dead, shot for their invented complicity in the international plot against the Socialist state.  Among the victims: a long-exiled party member brought in from his Siberian house-arrest for interrogation; a young woman studying textile production in Paris on a plush-assignment (her father is a bigwig in the police organs – he is arrested too) who reads of the arrest of a former teacher and makes the fatal mistake of sending a telegram to papa demanding that he help the man; a commissar working in Spain – just what was Stalin’s aim in the Spanish Civil War? – who intercedes to help a young American communist arrested as a Trotskyite [He actually confronts Stalin in the Kremlin, and is let off with a posting to Siberia to work in forestry.]

One victim, in prison, is visited by another old Bolshevik who has been broken.  He urges the resister to give in, confess to whatever is asked:

Better men than you and I have done it before us.  Others will do it after us.  No one can resist the machine.  No one has the right, no one can resist the Party without going over to the enemy.  Neither you nor I will ever go over to the enemy…And if you consider yourself innocent, you are absolutely wrong?  We innocent?  Who do you think you’re fooling?  Have you forgotten about our trade?  Can Comrade High Commissar for Security be innocent?  Can the Grand Inquisitor be as pure as a lamb?  Can he be the only person in the world who doesn’t deserve the bullet in the neck which he distributed like a rubber-stamp signature at the rate of seven hundred per month on the average?  Official figures – way off, of course.  None will ever know the real figures…”

As someone wrote of Kruschev, commenting on his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes, he too was up to his elbows in blood.  They all knew the score.  They had quotas for arrests, imprisonment, execution…  Amazing that through all this, Serge still manages to convey why these people got into this in the first place:  their intense thirst for justice, fairness, an end to the crushing tyrannical poverty of the old regime, and a deeply felt desire for a society in which human equality is prized.  To note this as an irony is so obvious as to be ridiculous.

Unforgiving Years is the last of the three that I read, and the strangest in many ways.  In this book, Serge adopts a style that is at times elliptical, modernistic, and sometimes seems hallucinatory.  It is the tale of a communist agent who has had enough – he can’t go on, and he decides to escape to Mexico.  He knows the machinations of the security apparatus and how hard they are to evade, and he knows that his knowledge only gives him a little head start over his inevitable pursuers.  There’s also the business of his lover:  he wants to take her too, and that makes it harder.

The novel seems like a screenplay for a political film noir, but the level of tension, paranoia, and sheer horror exceeds anything from that genre.  At times, I felt that Thomas Pynchon had cribbed the entirety of Gravity’s Rainbow, from Serge:

In every war there is a rear that holds better than the front, a rear fat with noble sentiments, creature comforts, and lucrative deals:  this rear, which balances the front, makes the insanity total…The beaches of California still exhibit, in season, a full complement of pretty women with smiling thighs:  such is the natural order of things.  After all, there’s philosophical solace to be found in the fact that some still live while others die, an obvious improvement on everyone dying…But it  is no longer possible to embark upon a  coherent line of reasoning without falling into absurdity.

This novel was published in English in 1970, about the time Gravity’s Rainbow came out, but who knows?  Maybe Pynchon read it in French?

The ending of the story takes place in a paradisaical Mexican mountain setting but has all the weirdness and menace of the finale of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway.  Knowing as we do the end which Trotsky met in hiding, it is no surprise what happens, but just how the long arm of the Party reaches out to crush those who stray is terrifying nevertheless.

Not exactly happy reading these three books, but Victor Serge is a novelist for the ages – brilliant!

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Kolyma Tales

March 21, 2012

Kolyma Tales is a book of short stories, some very short, about life and death in the area of the Soviet Gulag considered by aficionados of its horror to be the deepest pit of its hell.  Kolyma (Koh-lee-mah) is a region in the far east and north of Siberia where prisoners were sent to die while scratching some gold from the frozen earth.  Temperatures would drop to sixty below zero, Centigrade, I assume.  Victor Shalamov somehow survived there for seventeen years and wrote what are considered some of Russian literature’s greatest short stories.

Most of the stories focus on a single situation involving a few characters, rather than narrating a dramatic series of events.  Often there is darkly ironic, or deadpan twist to the end.  The style is spare, precise, and descriptive, without sentiment.  They are brutally powerful, without overwhelming you with depression.

A well fed leader of the camp prospecting squad approaches a convict to participate in his escape plan.  The convict suspects a trap, but goes along, after saying he needs to gather strength:  can he have a can of Lend Lease condensed milk?  The squad leader gives it to him; the other convicts watch him eat it, like dogs that can’t turn their fascinated heads away.  The convict says he’s changed his mind.  The leader finds other dupes:  all end up dying in the attempt.

After WWII, hordes of Russian POWs, released into the custody of Stalin’s government, were sent to the Gulag.  They didn’t die fighting:  they must be traitors.  Unlike the usual run of the convicts, sentenced under Article 58, i.e. ‘political prisoners’ rounded up by quota from among the intellectual and middle classes, these men knew strategy, were used to risk, and understood how to use force.  Some stage a breakout under a major.  A good try, but…

One ‘funny’ tale is simply the indictment of an ‘injector’, a mechanical part of a pump that failed, leading to a failure of the crew to meet the work quota.  The part is denounced and indicted for its crime.  Is it a joke, or is it the work of a prison guard mechanically filling out forms, perhaps not knowing he’s describing a part and not a human convict?  Still a joke…

Endless descriptions of the struggle to stay warm, to scrounge food, to come to terms with the swarms of lice that make their home on your body, to avoid work intended to kill you, to somehow ‘cheat’ a few days rest by faking illness, inducing infection in sores, anything.  One man pretends his back is broken, and will not straighten up no matter what…for weeks.  He succumbs to a diabolical doctor who injects him with a stimulant just for the joy of proving the superiority of his medical knowledge.

Several stories cover the ‘criminal element.’  These are the thieves, rapists, and murderers who were sentenced to the Gulag, but who are not considered “enemies of the people” because they were not sentenced under No. 58.  They pose no danger to the building of socialism in one country.  They form terrifying gangs and live by fleecing the other convicts and any camp administrators they can.  The guards fear them and leave them alone – they murder with impunity.  They make the system work pretty well for themselves, avoiding assignments to the death-details, but sometimes they need the convicts for whom they have utter contempt.  They select an educated man as a “novelist,” one who will entertain them by reciting good stories from literary classics.  This man is protected and given respect.  Culture has its value, after all.

At one point, Shalamov refers to the guard tower as the architectural emblem of all that is Kolyma:  a surviving tower is shown below in an old photograph.  The Mask of Sorrow is a monument constructed to memorialize the victims of the Kolyma Gulag, and was constructed in 1996 with contributions from six cities in the region.

Shalamov’s stories were finally published in the USSR during Gorbachev’s presidency.


Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


What Is to Be Done?

November 28, 2011

What are we to think of What Is to Be Done?  I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth.  Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit.  None at all – zilch.  But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If  its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demons and his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time?  And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist.  Why did I wait until now to read it!

Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.  The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots.  His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?

Why did he ask that question?  Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age.  A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves.  The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend!  Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabin at several points in the narrative:  That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.

What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model:  the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order.  The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution.  They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.

If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.”  The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses.  And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side.  They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most.  Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.

Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear.  The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-Montefiore and Nadezhda MandelshtamThe incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them.  The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face.  The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel.  People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?

There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book:  the Tsar’s censors would not permit it.  There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely.  There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures.  In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.

I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story.  We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:

Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all.  I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them:  there you see very different features.  But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development.  Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed.  Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up.  It’s not so difficult.  Come out into the light of day…

To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:

I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

And I am with you, Fyodor!


The Revolution Will Be Drained

November 16, 2011

Nostalgic Realist School

Once again, I find myself reading a book that I have heard of for ages, but never got to:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?  What indeed?  It was so influential that both Tolstoy and Lenin wrote pieces by the same name.  The introduction to my translation says that Notes from Underground is a sustained parody of the book and its ideas.  Basically, everyone was talking about it, and responding to it.  As the Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, puts it:

If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, …a non-Russian would choose among….Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment…No, the novel that can claim this honor with the most justice… What Is to Be Done?…  No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, can compete.

Unlike that American novel, another that took me time to get around to reading, and which I found to my surprise to be a stunningly powerful work, What Is to Be Done?  is simply awful as literature.  There’s no getting around it.  It’s clunky, talky, the characters are allegorical and speak in the most stilted way imaginable, and in addition, the author had to use ‘code’ to get by the censors of the Tsar.  The plot is a soap opera about idealistic young people who are, we gradually realize, members of a revolutionary movement, yet politics is not the focus of the book, but the liberation, legally and sexually, of women is.  Strange to think that this is the book that set the Bolsheviks in motion, but Lenin himself, besides his homage to the book’s title, energetically defended the novel against critics.

The book is also quite strange:  Chernyshevsky frequently indulges in meta-literary interludes, addressing the ‘dear reader,’ hinting at what’s to come, congratulating us for already knowing what’s to come, psychologizing his characters, and generally managing the action like a vaudeville impresario.  Yet, this was the book that led to the October Revolution!

The nihilistic revolutionaries of the story are pretty nice, wholesome, energetic, idealistic guys and gals, for the most part.  They just happen to be atheists and thoroughgoing materialists.  Chernyshevsky uses the story to espouse his theories of ‘rational egoism,’ which is a radical distillation of English utilitarianism:  all people act for advantage; there is no morality, there is only calculation of what one’s advantage is.  The same old rubbishman is motivated by two things: the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain…  But because of the importance of the book, and, oddly, because it is chock-full of ideas, even if they are expressed in a wacky manner, it is, honestly, fascinating!

But, but, what’s this I find on page 216?  Something that lifts my spirits into the heavenly realm of drainage!  Here is the main character discoursing to his young wife on ‘agriculture’ and how to improve swampy wastelands:

Until very recently no one knew how to restore such fields to health; but now a method has been discovered.  It’s called ‘drainage’.  Excess water is channeled off into ditches, leaving only the required amount.

 The editor makes clear the real meaning of this ‘Aesopian’ language:

Russian radicals referred to mechanical processes such as drainage to indicate revolutionary means of change, and chemical processes to signify evolutionary change. Thus Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on drainage rather than on chemical improvement indicates his advocacy of revolution

I always knew that Drainage would serve The Revolution.  I will post more when I finish it.


Demons II: Conclusion

October 31, 2011

So, Demons comes to an end, but I’m not sure that there was a complete exorcism, although this scene after the murder of Shatov is a start:

…he snatched out the revolver and pointed it straight into the open mouth of the still screaming Lyamshin, whom Tolakchenko, Erkel and Liputin had already seized firmly by the arms, but Lyamshin went on shrieking even in spite of the revolver.  Finally, Erkel, somehow bunched up his foulard and stuffed it deftly into his mouth, and thus the shouting ceased.  Meanwhile, Tolkachenko tied his hands with a leftover end of rope.

Can we say that anything has been resolved, when we have young people like this in town who gape at suicides for fun?

I remember one of them saying aloud right then that “everything has become so boring that there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.”

Stepan Verkhovensky, the stuffy old-time liberal is aghast at the events in the town, and at the role his son played in organizing it all.  He glimpses the truth that his own abstract, self-satisfied intellectual games helped set the stage for it, and shattered by the knowledge, he sets off wandering in Russia, like King Lear on the heath.  Still, he remains absurd, childishly seeking a new female protector in the person of bible saleswoman he happens upon, and he still utters French expressions as would any self-respecting member of the intelligentsia.  So much for finding the real Russia.

Joyce Carrol Oates has written a fine essay on the novel in which she jeers at critics who insist on judging the book by an arbitrary standard, including Nabokov, and where she draws many parallels with Shakespearean tragedy:

Much has been said of the unevenness of The Possessed: Dostoyevsky has been accused of creating caricatures rather than characters, and of exaggerating the imbecilic nature of his “anarchists.”  Several close readings of the novel have convinced me that this is not the case.  Of course if The Possessed—like any of Dostoyevsky’s work, beginning with The Double—is measured against the conventional standards of naturalism, it will seem somewhat feverish and improbable: but so will King Lear and Hamlet.

Oates remarks on the frequent comparison of Stavrogin to Prince Hal, a foolish one, she thinks:  Hamlet is the more suitable comparison.  An exceedingly dark Hamlet, and all the darker for knowledge of the suppressed chapter, At Tikhon’s, in which the jaded superman character, above all normal human feeling, reveals his cruel seduction/rape – it’s not completely clear which – of a twelve-year-old girl who then killed herself.  His demonic narcissism and self-destructiveness makes him a perfect front man, for Pytor’s nihilist machinations, as well as being a figure of magentic attraction for him:

No need for education, enough of science!  There’s sufficient material even without science for a thousand years to come, but obedience must be set up.  Only one thing is lacking in the world:  obedience.  The thirst for education is already an aristocratic thirst.  As soon as there’s just a tiny bit of family or love, there’s a desire for property.  We’ll extinguish desire:  we’ll get drinking, gossip, denunciation going: we’ll get unheard-of depravity going:  we’ll stifle every genius in infancy.

So I wince when I hear anarcho-hipsters singing Pink Floyd’s We Don’t Need No Education, from The Wall.  Those who learned the lessons carried on, but in a more organized fashion.  They had the courage and ego to create a structure to ensure their place at the vanguard of the destructive wave

In the meantime your whole step is towards getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality.  We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand to assume power:  we shall rally the smart ones to ourselves and ride on the backs of the fools.  You should not be embarrassed by it.  This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom.  There are still many thousands of Shatovs ahead of us.

But if Dostoyevsky is ruthless in his depiction of the nihilists, their hangers-on, and by implication, their progeny in the revolutionaries of 1917, he is not light on the Establishment.  Governor von Lembke is an idiot – is he the only thing standing between Russia and the abyss?  Well, he has a German name anyway…

And, in the end, what is to be done?  I will go on to read just that novel since it appears to be one of the most influential in the history of 19th century Russia.


Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

October 27, 2011

I am 3/4 through Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in the recent P&V translation, and the action has certainly picked up!  At first, the book was tough going with its large cast of characters, the nicknames, the relationships between them that are hidden, and the strange mix, typical of Dostoyevsky, of parody, satire, melodrama, and biting criticism.  (I agree completely with Frank’s remark in the introduction that Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a satirist and humorist are vastly underrated.)  I had to make a crib sheet to keep the people straight, and it was often difficult to understand what was happening on a page, even though I read carefully.  Sort of like reading an old and decorous novel about sexual seduction and moving over the ‘good part’ without realizing that the characters actually are having sex…but this isn’t about sex, for the most part.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for extreme rhetoric (see links below), from the religious or political standpoint, and crackpot intellectual systems.  The section in Part II, With Our People, an ironic ‘our’, describes a meeting of  local poseurs, provocateurs, agitators, and intellectual wannabees spouting political rhetoric.  There is a heated discussion of whether or not it will be necessary to chop off the heads of one million souls, and whose heads will go flying.  And there are hilarious and idiotic exchanges among students whose heads are filled with slogans and left-wing catch phrases.  At one point, a stuffy respectable gentleman remonstrates with a young student-girl hothead, saying:

But I’m your uncle!  I used to tote you around in my arms when you were still an infant!

The Generation Gap in miniscule.  She replies:

What do I care what you used to tote around.  I didn’t ask you to tote me around, which means, mister impolite officer, that you got pleasure from it.

I sense a delicious parody here of the intellectual obsession with Utilitarian theories, which Dostoyevsky loathed:  people are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure, simple as that.  No sense in pointing out your former selfless and dutiful familial activities:  you did it for your own pleasure!

The chilling talk of mass murder might have seemed simply absurd in the 1860s, before Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler, not to mention Pol Pot.  And speaking of Pol Pot, the modern master of barracks communism, as Marx derisively characterized the ravings of the great nihilist,  Nechaev, the trial transcript of Pot’s Russian ancestor was grist for Dostoyevsky’s mill.  (Dostoyevsky was writing in the realist tradition, after all!)  I’ve found very little about Mr. (Nilhil) Nechaev in English, other than the catechism (see link), from which I offer these tidbits:

  • The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
  • Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, on consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
  • The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

And then, at the fete, there is the fatuous Mr. Karmazinov, a lampoon of Ivan Turgenev, the Euro-centered literary master with whom Dostoyevsky had a difficult, and largely hostile relationship.  (Ivan and Flaubert were great friends.) His speech bidding farewell to his readers, none of which is in the audience, is a scornful burlesque of intellectual self-satisfaction and pompousness.  Perhaps it is unfair to Turgenev, but it would not be so funny if it weren’t.  No doubt, he would love it if his fans would beg him, on their knees of course, not to leave Russia for retirement in Germany.  So much for westward-leaning intellectuals who see Russia’s future in Europe.

After his final words, and merci, Karmazinov is called back on stage to loud applause, and the governor’s radical-chic wife hands him a bouquet of roses.

“Laurels!” Karmazinov said with a subtle and somewhat caustic grin.  “I am moved, of course, and accept this wreath, prepared beforehand but as yet unwithered, with lively emotion:  but I assure you, mesdames, I have suddenly become so much of a realist that I consider laurels in our age rather more fitting in the hands of skillful cook than in mine…”

Shouts from the crowd reply:

“Except that cooks are more useful!”  and
“I’ll add three more roubles for a cook”
“So would I.”
“So would I.”
“But do they really have no buffet here…?”

He, he! Oh, that Fyodor, he’s a card!

Some links to over the top talk: