“I’ve rarely met a more flaccid woman, and moreover her legs are swollen, and moreover she’s kind. What could be stupider than someone who is stupid and kind?”

Part One, Chapter Two, Sections 4-6
by Dennis Abrams

“Prince Harry. Matchmaking” continued. “Our Prince traveled for more than three years, so that he was almost forgotten in town.” Europe, Egypt, Jerusalem, Iceland. Varvara receives a letter from an old childhood friend, the widow of General Drozdov, Praskovya Ivanovna, telling her that Stavrogin had become a friend of her house, hinted at his relationship with her daughter Liza, and intended to travel with them to Switzerland in the summer, to Vernex-Montreux, “despite the fact that he was received like a son and was almost living in the family of Count K. (quite an influential person in Petersburg)…” Varvara sets off with her ward Dasha (Shatov’s sister) first to Paris, then to Switzerland, returning alone in July leaving Dasha with the Drozodovs; the Drozodovs will be returning to Russia at the end of August. Lizaveta Nikolaevanas wealth — no less than 200,000 roubles, “to say nothing of the fortune that would come to her in time from her mother,” Varvara’s pleasure at the possibility of a possible union with her son. Stepan’s unhappiness at Varvara’s absence, A new governor and new governor’s wife means that Varvara’s social status in the province might be lessened. Varvara’s return. “Administrative rapture.” Stepan’s red tie. Varvara notes that Stepan has “gone terribly to seed, terribly, ter-ri-bly! You’re not just old, you’re decrepit…” Stepan reports that the new governor, von Lembke, has been told that he is a “corrupter of youth and a formenter of provincial atheism,” and that Varvara ‘ruled the province,’ to which he responded, “such things will not continue.” The governor’s wife, five years older than her husband, related to the Drozdovs but lacking in good connections, “her whole goal is to pull him up. A pair of intriguers…she used to get herself invited to my balls out of charity when Vsevolod Nikolaevich was alive. And the girl used to sit alone in the corner all evening with a turquoise fly on her forehead, no one would dance with her…” An intrigue — Lembke was also in Switzerland with her cousin, trying to arrange a match for him and Liza. Varvara works it out. The novelist Karmazinov, related to Madame von Lembke, who will also be coming to visit the province. Varvara criticizes Stepan for the reputation he has gained, “I don’t like this reputation, Stepan Trofimovich. I’d rather you weren’t called an atheist, especially now. I’ve never liked it, in fact, because it’s all empty talk.” Varvara’s new conviction: “It is that you and I alone are not smarter than everyone else in the world, but that some people are smarter than we are.” Stepan quotes Pascal. Stepan inquires about Darya Pavlovna’s health. Stepan’s anguish over Varvara’s words of criticism, “Mon cher, je suis un man gone to seed!” The narrator says: “I will now set out to describe the somewhat amusing incident with which my chronicle really begins.” The Drozdovs arrive but much to Varvara’s surprise, Nicolas had parted from them in July and gone to Petersburg with Count K. and his three marriageable daughters. Praskovya Ivavona hints that Darya Pavlovna might have been the cause of Liza and Stavrogin’s separation. What happened? Varvara’s new project, “As a chronicler I limit myself simply to presenting events in an exact way, exactly as they occurred, and it is not my fault if they appear incredible.” Varvara Petrovna proposes to her young ward (and former serf) Darya Pavlovna that it might be a good thing if she should marry Stepan Trofimovich, “He’s an old granny — but so much the better for you. A pitiful old granny, by the way, it’s not worthwhile a woman’s loving him. But it is worthwhile loving him for his defenselessness, and you will love him for his defenselessness.” Darya was already getting fifteen thousand roubles from Varvara’s will, if she marries Stepan she will received them immediately, eight thousand of those will go to pay Stepan’s debts, seven thousand will remain in Darya’s hands — Stepan is not to ever touch them. The couple will receive an annual allowance of twelve thousand roubles, fifteen hundred with extra, plus room and board — they will have to hire their own servants. Darya is to give Stepan a little money occasionally, and allow his friends to visit once a week, “but if they come more often, chase them out.” The pension will not stop until Stepan’s death, after which Darya will have the seven thousand plus an additional eight thousand she will receive from Varvara’s will. Darya agrees to all the condition, but when she gives Varvara a slightly questioning look, “Varvara Petrovna, suddenly turned to her with a face burning with wrath. ‘You fool!’ she fell upon her like a hawk, ‘you ungrateful fool! What’s in your mind? Do you think I would compromise you in any way, even the slightest bit?…Don’t you know that I would never allow you to be offended? Or do you think he’ll take you for the eight thousand, and that I’m running now to sell you? Fool, fool, you’re all ungrateful fools! Give me my umbrella!”

And so, apparently, the real “chronicle” is just beginning. I greatly enjoyed Varvara’s intrigues, both in Switzerland with the Drozdovs and the governor’s wife as well as back home killing two birds with one stone by eliminating Dasha as even a potential competitor for Stavrogin’s affections (was there even anything there?) while partially separating herself from Stepan and his reputation. She is a Bismark, isn’t she?

Since my edition of Demons does not include Pevear’s original introduction, I thought this might be a good opportunity to post this piece regarding it, by Aaron Taylor, an Orthodox Christian layman, from his site, Logismoi.

Pevear’s Intro to Dostoevsky’s Demons

I have written before (here) about the Orthodox translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose rendition of War & Peace a few of us Ortho-bloggers are beginning to read. I believe I have also commented on the extraordinary introductions Pevear has written for the translations, my admiration for which I was just reminded of when I finished reading that for War & Peace this evening. Here, however, are two passages from one of my favourites, Pevear’s introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (sometimes known as The Possessed):

Dostoevsky called the novel Demons, we would suggest, precisely because demons in it do not appear, and the reader might otherwise overlook them. The demons are visible only in distortions of the human image, the human countenance, and their force is mesaurable only by the degree of the distortion. What this means for an understanding of demonic possession in the novel may be elucidated by a passage from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov are talking about the murder of their father. Alyosha suddenly turns to his brother and says: ‘It was not you who killed father . . . You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.’ In fact, Ivan was their father’s murderer, if only in an ‘intellectual’ sense. But Alyosha is talking about something else. He seems to mean that the evil in Ivan is not him, is not identical with him, is not his esseence. Ivan is in danger of taking it for his essence, of ‘damning’ himself and losing himself entirely. He is on the verge of madness. Alyosha’s message is truly meant to save him. The world of Demons—the provincial town with its society, its administration, its older and younger generations, its club members and revolutionaries—is in a condition similar to Ivan’s. The title is perhaps Dostoevsky’s message to us that ‘it is not them’. [1]

Pevear identifies the demons of the novel with the various ideas that ‘possess’ its charactres, including the ideas similar to Dostoevsky’s own which possess the character of Shatov. Then Pevear asks:

Is it not an exaggeration, even a sort of mystification, to give the status of ‘demons’ to mere ideas? But, in the first place, there are no mere ideas in Dostoevsky, there are what Mikhail Bakhtin, in his Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, calls ‘voice-ideas’, ‘voice-viewpoints’, ‘idea-images’, ‘idea-forces’, ‘idea-heroes’. There is no neutral, impersonal truth. ‘It is not the idea itself that is the “hero of Dostoevsky’s works” . . . but rather the person born of that idea’. Bakhtin pretends to a scientific analysis and therefore avoids evaluation of the ‘ideological content’ of Dostoevsky’s works, but implicit at least in his analysis is the possibility of an evil or alien idea coming to inhabit a person, misleading him, perverting him ontologically, driving him to crime or insanity. Dostoevsky portrays this phenomenon time and again. . . .

The person born of the idea may be distorted and even destroyed by it. But to make such a judgment, one must have some way of measuring the distortion, some image of the undistorted person. And, again, if Dostoevsky is to be true to his poetics, this cannot be an abstract idea of principle. Bakhtin acknowledges the existence of this ‘measure’ in a passage that is rather obliquely worded, but is crucial for an understanding of his own concept of ‘polyphony’, not to mention Dostoevsky’s novel: [2]

Pevear then quotes the following passage from Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:

. . . what unfolds before Dostoevsky is not a world of objects, illuminated and ordered by his monologic thought, but a world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating one another . . . Among them Dostoevsky seeks the highest and most authoritative orientation, and he perceives it not as his own true thought, but as another authentic human being and his discourse. The image of the ideal human being or the image of Christ represents for him the resolution of ideological quests. This image or this highest voice must crown the world of voices, must organize and subdue it. Precisely the image of a human being and his voice, a voice not the author’s own, was the ultimate artistic criterion for Dostoevsky: not fidelity to his own convictions and not fidelity to convictions themselves taken abstractly, but precisely a fidelity to the authoritative image of a human being. [3]

Then Pevear concludes:

The openness of Dostoevsky’s novels is an openness to this image; his polyphony has no other aim than the silent indication of its presence. Ideas that deface or distort this ‘authoritative image of a human being’ in a person are indeed acting like demons, and are them. [4]

Finally, although Pevear does not mention her, the Bulgarian-born French post-structuralist Julia Kristeva helps us contextualise the ‘polyphony’ to which Bakhtin and Pevear refer:

[Dostoevsky’s] dialogism, his polyphony undoubtedly spring from multiple sources. It would be a mistake to neglect that of Orthodox faith whose Trinitarian conception . . . inspires the writer’s ‘dialogism’ as well as his praise of suffering at the same time as forgiving. [5]

[1] Richard Pevear, ‘Foreword’, Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 1994), pp. xiv-xv.

[2] Ibid., pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Qtd. in ibid., pp. xviii-xix. Sorry, I don’t have my copy of Bakhtin at the moment or I would give the page number in the source.

[4] Ibid., p. xix.

[5] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression & Melancholia, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (NY: Columbia U, 1989), p. 214.


The Weekend’s Reading: (I know it’s a holiday weekend, so I’ll keep it fairly short.)

Part One, Chapter Two, Sections Seven and Eight; Part One, Chapter Three (“Someone Else’s Sins), Sections One through Four.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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