Dostoevsky Beyond Dostoevsky

Science, Religion, Philosophy

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Editor(s): 
Svetlana Evdokimova, Vladimir Golstein
Ars Rossica
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , September
     2016.
     424 pages.
     $79.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781618115263.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Dostoevsky Beyond Dostoevsky is a rich collection of recent American scholarship on the Russian writer’s response to modernity. Although the twenty-one contributions included in this volume are not of equal originality, together they produce an intriguing picture of Dostoevsky’s diverse interests in topics ranging from the expected—philosophy and psychology—to the more surprising—Homer and Islam. Since the editors of the book sought to demonstrate “Dostoevsky’s awareness of the intense interaction between diverse spheres of knowledge” (2), their task was accomplished brilliantly.

But what this volume fails to prove is how Dostoevsky’s “realism in a higher sense” fulfilled its “extraliterary task” thanks to the writer’s embrace of interdisciplinarity. In fact, Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism,” according to many recent Russian researchers (particularly Tatiana Kasatkina and Boris Tikhomirov) arose not so much from his critique of the contemporary trends, but rather from his commitment to the premodern spiritual and aesthetic traditions of Christian Orthodoxy. Although Dostoevsky addressed many aspects of Russian and foreign cultures, his extraordinary ability to transcend the interpretative frameworks of his time can be explained only by the fact that his creative imagination was directed by an alternative to secularized modes of inquiry that modernity privileged.

Before highlighting the specific contributions to this volume, a general note on its arrangement into five parts is in order: unfortunately, not every “chapter” fits the topic of its part well, so the impression produced is that such a division was a mere afterthought. For example, in part 1, “Encounters with Science,” we find not only three informative studies of Dostoevsky’s response to Darwinism, but also a less illuminating piece on Dostoevsky’s correspondence with Ivan Pavlov, a non-believing physiologist, and his Orthodox wife.

Part 2, “Encounters with Philosophy,” opens with Steven Cassedy’s pertinent examination of “the meaning of life” from German Romantics to Dostoevsky, but is followed by David Cunningham’s reflection on his teaching Dostoevsky and Nietzsche together, from which little is learnt about Dostoevsky’s philosophical views, yet much about the critic’s conception of “writing oneself into (or out of) belief” as the title of chapter 6 suggests. The following chapter by Charles Larmore titled “Dostoevsky as a Moral Philosopher” contains a close reading of Ivan Karamazov’s the Grand Inquisitor as a moral dilemma: Ivan’s zeal for justice contradicts his insistence on proving his right to rebel against God’s failed creation exclusively with examples of unjust human behavior. Although Larmore’s reading yields little new insight into Ivan’s provocative “poem in prose,” it curiously proposes to split freedom into “radical” and “instrumental.” Fortunately, the volume’s second part ends on a high note as Sergei Kibalnik presents a thoroughly examined progress of Dostoevsky’s thought about morality’s foundation in faith, providing ample evidence from Dostoevsky’s diaries, letters, and fiction.

In the slimmer part 3, “Questions of Aesthetics,” only three articles are presented. First, Robert Louis Jackson looks at the concept of “formed formlessness” to answer a question, “Can one perceive the highest beauty in the utmost darkness and degradation?” (189). Then, Susanne Fusso’s chapter on the relationship between the Russian writer and his editor Mikhail Katkov illuminates a number of aesthetic positions that both the writer and his editor held. In the section’s last piece, the volume’s editor Svetlana Evdokimova analyses Dostoevsky’s “Christian Aesthetics.” This comparative analysis of Dostoevsky’s art and the postmodern aesthetics claims that the postmodern art is not only already present in Brothers Karamazov but actively practiced by its sleaziest character, Fyodor Karamazov, who is viewed as “an artist of simulacra” (221). This persuasive argument concludes that “Dostoevsky’s own ‘realism in a higher sense’ is rooted in the aesthetics of incarnation, an aesthetic that dissolves the Platonic severance between the world of forms and the world of appearance, and affirms the unbroken continuity between God and the world” (231).       

The longest (seven articles) and the most diverse fourth part of this volume is titled “The Self and the Other.” Although psychology is intended to be the focus here, Deborah A. Martinsen’s essay on moral emotions in Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man would fit much better in the second part devoted to philosophical issues, for this story is interpreted as a philosophical tale that bridges the gap between the rational and the emotional in man. Noticeably, Inessa Medzhibovskaya’s examination of Dostoevsky’s views on education fits even less logically within this part, since it deals with issues of cultural politics rather than psychology. Nevertheless, the part opens on a strong note with Gary Saul Morson’s essay on doubling as the symptom of Western secularism’s failure to maintain stable subjectivity in the absence of belief in God. The next article by Yuri Corrigan also examines subjectivity, but this time on the boundary between the interior and the intersubjective. This critic asserts that the tragic plot of A Weak Heart proves “the brokenness of dialogic interaction in early Dostoevsky” which often results in pathologies of self-construction.

Fortunately, the following two essays provide less disheartening insights into Dostoevsky’s representations of human psyche. Michal Oklot’s essay looks at a number of ephemeral characters who could be understood as angelic witnesses to the divine mystery presented in the novels. These angelic allusions are thus shown to be markers of “Dostoevsky’s synthetic vision, which combines the Gospel with the realist narrative” (289).  Next, another editor of the collection, Vladimir Golstein, presents his study of Crime and Punishment in which he asks the readers to envision Porfiry as Dostoevsky’s Socrates, or a spiritually informed midwife. Ultimately, Carol Apollonio’s piece treats individualism figured by Dostoevsky as solitary confinement.

The fifth and final part of the volume titled “Intercultural Connections,” contains three essays: Donna Orwin’s examination of Dostoevsky’s appreciation of Homer, Olga Meerson’s reading of the epilogue to Crime and Punishment as alluding to “Isaac’s binding,” and Marina Kostalevsky’s investigation of Islamic motifs in The Idiot

Overall, this collection offers much that will please a diverse audience; however, only a few essays in it provide fresh insights into Dostoevsky’s religious commitments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Svetlana Corwin is Associate Professor at Belmont Abbey College.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vladimir Golstein is associate professor of Slavic Studies at Brown University. He is the author of Lermontov's Narratives of Heroism (1999), Svetlana Aleksievich –The Voice of Soviet Intelligentsia (2015) and numerous articles on major Russian authors. His essays on current political affairs have been published by ForbesThe Nation, Al JazeeraRTAntiwarAlternet, and Russia Insider; he is also a frequent participant in various political TV shows discussing US and Russia’s foreign politics and culture for CCTV’s The Heat, PressTV, RT’s Crosstalk, Al Jazeera, and Channel 4 in Great Britain.

Svetlana Evdokimova is a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature and is currently professor of Slavic Studies and Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her main areas of scholarly interest include, Pushkin, Russian and European Romanticism, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, relations between fiction and history, and gender and sexuality in Russian and European literatures. She is the author of Pushkin’s Historical Imagination (Yale University Press), Alexander Pushkin’s Little Tragedies: The Poetics of Brevity, ed. (Wisconsin University Press), and of the wide range of articles on Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. She is currently writing a book on Chekhov’s relationship with the Russian intelligentsia and its impact on the formation of his literary self.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.