Dostoevsky, on the Fall: a literary interpretation

Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities at Brandeis University and teaches Russian and European literature of the nineteenth century.  She is a second-generation scholar of Russian literature who specializes in Dostoevsky (her mother, Kathryn B. Feuer, was a Tolstoy specialist).  I recently checked out from the library a copy of her book Dostoevsky’s Unfinished Journey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) which she says

explores questions of literary influence and intertextuality in Dostoevsky’s work while at the same time investigating his representations in fiction of the dynamic of conversion and healing or, frequently, the failure of this process.  (p. xiii)

Once upon a time, when I was attending college, I decided to major in English.  I was into great literature – I enjoyed talking and writing about it – what was not to like?  But I soon found out that the bloodless, dispiriting tone of sentences like the one above is de rigueur in literary studies.  For this reason (and others – see below) I eventually changed majors.  In an earlier entry, I favorably quoted Mark Le Fanu, lamenting “the coolness of our epoch” and “the technicist bent of much academic discourse in the humanities.”  Unfortunately, even otherwise excellent books like Miller’s seem infected by the prevailing Zeitgeist.

(My first-year English Lit and Composition teacher was a big, rawboned woman in her fifties who had only recently earned her advanced degree.  She was, I later learned, stuck in adjunct hell (i.e. not in the tenure stream).  She was poorly treated by other faculty members, and only allowed to teach “shit” courses like English Lit and Composition that all students, not just English majors, were required to take.  Tenured and tenure-track faculty couldn’t be bothered with teaching the rabble, apparently.  But this “untouchable” of the department transmitted her infectious enthusiasm for literature to me.  I decided, while taking her class, that I would major in English.  When she learned of my decision she asked me the reason for it.  I told her it was because I had been inspired by the beauty of the line by John Keats: “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.”  I recall that this answer pleased her very much.  We were both naïfs, I guess.  Her department shit-canned her the following year, and the supposedly better teachers, i.e. the ones I only got access to once I “graduated” from the entry-level English courses, turned out to be sourpuss-drips who had me retching and reaching for the exits in no time.)

In the course of her book, Miller examines conversion experiences – Dostoevsky’s own, as well as several examples from his writing.  She follows, and quotes, William James, from his Varieties of Religious Experience, in defining conversion as

the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.  (p. 150)

In her introductory chapter, Miller states that it is in her chapter titled “Unsealing the Generic Envelope and Deciphering ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ ” that

the two strands of the present book – the twin endeavors to unravel possible literary transformations and spiritual conversions – interweave and intersect.  I argue that Dostoevsky is responding to the work of Swift, Rousseau, Poe, and especially Dickens but that he ends by offering up his own extremely idiosyncratic and perplexing literary rendering of a spiritual conversion.  (pp. xv-xvi)

It turns out that many literati aren’t sure what to make of “this vexed little story” (p. 112).  Before they can interpret “the sincerity and ultimate moral goodness” (p. 106) of the dreamer, they first have to establish the genre of the story (hence the “Unsealing the Generic Envelope . . .” in Miller’s chapter title):

If, the reasoning goes, that can be determined, then the character himself can be better understood.  If, for example, the form of the story is utopian, the dreamer is a forward-looking idealist.  If it is anti-utopian or dystopian, he is a disillusioned solipsist.  If the form of the story is a fantastic dream sequence, our hero cries out to be understood psychologically.  Or, as I argue in the last section of this chapter, if this is a conversion tale of the Christmas story variety, the main character, emboldened by his vision, cheerfully accepts and embraces his inevitable ridiculousness in the eyes of the world.  (p. 106)

We are a long ways from Shestov here.  Shestov, without hesitation, rips open the “envelope” in order to read the enclosed “letter” – i.e. the dream itself – which, according to him, is a revelation from God.  He can’t wait to read it.  Meanwhile, the literati linger over the envelope.  They hold it up to the light, turn it this way and that, and carefully steam open the seal.  Gently removing the letter, they admire the linen of the paper, the calligraphic elegance of the letters on the page, and so on.  In short, everything about it interests them terribly, except for the actual contents of the letter, which they hardly seem to notice.  See how their discussion goes no higher than “the sincerity and ultimate moral goodness” of the dreamer?  The Fall itself, and what the dream tells us about it, is reduced to a religious trope whose residual meaning for us (today) can only be moral-personal-psychological, never ontic-archetypal-metaphysical.

Although many of her colleagues “consign this story, more or less comfortably, to the prescriptive realm of utopia” (p. 113), Miller (correctly, in my view) argues that

the most crucial boundaries of the story lie on a different front altogether.   . . .  The key tensions in this story are the Christian ones of fall and redemption (or false redemption).  The Garden of Eden or the earthly paradise replaces utopia as the arena for action and analysis.  . . .  A character who experiences an Edenic vision emerges from the experience with an inevitable sense of loss and, in some way, undergoes an experience of conversion.  (pp. 113-5)

Referencing a work by Robert Louis Jackson (The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes), Miller goes on to say that

one might describe the ridiculous man’s conversion as the realization that, although paradise is lost, men can be, in his words, “happy and beautiful without losing their ability to live on earth.”  Jackson quotes Paul Evdokimoff, “Along with the beauty of paradise, the ridiculous man has discovered that there is something better than innocence: conscious virtue.”  (p. 116)

But is conscious virtue better than innocence?  Doesn’t being conscious of virtue imply having the knowledge of good and evil?  And wasn’t the obtaining of this knowledge simply the Fall itself?  Therefore, on this reading, the Fall must have been a good thing for man: God lied, and the serpent told the truth; and, it is possible for man to come to an arrangement on earth with God.  So say the literati.  And they are hardly alone in thinking this way.  Per Shestov, the full weight of the classical-modern tradition stands behind them.

After surveying the critical landscape, Miller finally weighs in with her own reading of the story, which is based on a comparison with Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  At first blush, this may seem an unlikely pairing, but Miller makes an effective case for it.   She also does an excellent job of finding other works of literature – by Swift, Rousseau, Poe, and others – that may have influenced “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  It’s all beautifully done, and beautifully written.  Given what is possible to say in literary studies about “The Dream,” I think Miller’s book says it.  That I think it does not say all there is to say about “The Dream,” however . . . [goes without saying.]

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This entry was posted in Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Fall of man, Fall of man, series of posts, Miller, Robin Feuer, Russian literature, Russian religious philosophy, Shestov, Lev, Writing (uncategorized). Bookmark the permalink.

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