“But, God, how it’s all perverted, distorted, mutiliated!”

Part Two, Chapter Four, Sections 1-2
by Dennis Abrams

“All in Expectation” “The impression produced in our whole society by the story of the duel, which quickly became public, was especially remarkable for the unanimity with which everyone hastened to declare himself unconditionally for Nikolai Vsevolodovich.” Former enemies proclaim themselves his friends. How did it happen? “This is how it happened: the very next day after the event, the whole town gathered to celebrate the name day of the wife of our provincial marshal of nobility. Yulia Mikhailovna [the governor’s wife] was also present, or rather, presided, having arrived with Lizaveta Nikolaevna…” There are no longer any doubt that Lizaveta Nikolaevna is engaged to Mavriky Nikolaevich, but the ladies still wanted to believe that a romance between Lizaveta and Stavrogin had taken place in Switzerland. No legal charges had been brought in the duel. The “sugar enunciation” of the retired and important general. The general praises Stavrogin: “Suddenly I’m told that some student here insulted him in the presence of his cousins, and that he hid from him under the table; then yesterday I heard from Stepan Vysotsky that Stavrogin fought with this…Gaganov. And solely with the gallant purpose of offering his forehead to an enraged man; just to get rid of him. Hm. That’s the style of the Guard in the twenties. Does he call on anyone here?” A silence falls on the gathering, until: “‘What would be simpler?’ Yulia Mikhailovna suddenly raised her voice, annoyed by the fact that everyone, as if on command, turned their eyes towards her. ‘How can there be anything surprising in Stavrogin fighting with Gaganov and not responding to a student? Could he challenge his own former serf to a duel?'” With those ‘portentous words,’ everything changed: “Everything scandalous and gossipy, everything petty and anecdotal, was immediately pushed into the background; a different meaning was set forth; a new person was brought forth, in whom everyone had been mistaken, a person of almost ideal strictness of notions…Noise and gossip in society…” Stavrogin is the “new man” and an “unquestionable nobleman,” and was “moreover the wealthiest landowner in the province…” Stavrogin is praised for not bringing Shatov into court. Stavrogin’s connections with Count K are recalled, “it became unquestionable for everyone that Nikolai Vsevolodovich was engaged to one of Count K.’s daughters…” The adventure in Switzerland with Lizaveta Nikolaevna were no longer mentioned; Lizaveta’s importance and beauty were downgraded, they forgot about Marya Timofeevna, drew attention to Stavrogin’s devotion to his mother, sought out all of his virtues, and finally, “Yulia Mikhailovna was finally acknowledged as a woman of supreme perceptivity.” Stavrogin appears at the event, then withdraws into silence, “Even his pride and that squeamish unapproachability for which he had been so hated among us four years earlier, were now respected and liked.” Varvara Petrovna’s triumph, while the thought of Marya “lay on her heart like a stone.” Varvara thanks Yulia. Yulia announces she knows nothing about Stepan and his learning, “I receive young Verkhovensky, of course, and indulge him. He’s reckless, but then he’s still young; of considerable education, however. In any case he’s not some former critic.” Varvara defends Stepan. The Sistine Madonna. Yulia defends young people, “I think our young people shouldn’t be neglected either. They shout they’re communists, but in my opinion they should be spared and appreciated…I have arrived at the conclusion and accepted it as a rule to indulge young people and thereby keep them on the brink. Believe me, Varvara Petrovna, only we of society, by our beneficial influence and, namely, by indulgence, can keep them from the abyss they are being pushed into by the intolerance of all these old codgers.” Yulia invites Stepan Trofimovich to participate in a literary reading, “if it’s short and…not really too learned.” Varvara adds her name to Yulia’s subscription list and declares, “I am in love with her, I don’t understand how I could have been so mistaken about this woman,” she said to Nikolai Vsevolodovich and to Pyotr Stepanovich, who ran by that evening.” Pyotr offers to tell Stepan the news about the literary reading. His anger at Stavrogin’s duel, “But you really had no right to fight.” Stavrogin’s “menacing frown,” Pyotr Stepanovich’s “strange, long smile.” Problems between father and son — a week earlier, Stepan and Pyotr had argued, and Stepan had ended “by driving Pyotr Stepanovich out with a stick.” An open book on STepan Trofimovich’s table, What Is to Be Done? “I guess that he had obtained and was studying the novel with a single purpose, so that in the event of an unquestionable confrontation with the ‘screamers’ he would know their methods and arguments beforehand from their own ‘catechism,’ and, being thus prepared, would solemnly refute them all in her eyes. Stepan’s feverish anger, “I agree that the author’s basic idea is correct…but so much the horrible for that! It’s our same idea, precisely ours; we, we were the first to plant it, to nurture it, to prepare it — and what new could they say on their own after us! But, God, how it’s all perverted, distorted, mutilated!” Pyotr invites Stepan to Yulia’s but treats him badly, tells him he’s been invited to indulge him and allow him to suck to Varvara, that what he reads mustn’t be dull so he’ll look it over first, calls Stepan Varvara’s ‘lackey,’ says that he showed her his letters, that he should have married Varvara when he had the chance, that he’s been living off Varvara, “you’ve been milking her like a nanny goat,’ and questions whether he is in fact really Stepan’s son at all, and not the son of ‘that little Pollack.” “I curse you henceforth in my name!” Stepan Trofimovich, pale as death, stretched his hand out over him.

1. Lovely take on how quickly public opinion can change.

2. Regarding Yulia’s attitude towards young people — it’s nice to know that Tom Wolfe’s ‘radical chic’ existed so long before he coined the term.

3. Why is Pyotr goading his father?

And finally, some information on Stepan’s choice of reading material, the novel What Is to Be Done?

What is to be Done? (Russian: Что делать) (alternatively translated as “What Shall we Do?”) is a novel written by the Russian philosopher, journalist and literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky when imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress of St. Petersburg. It was written partly in response to Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. The novel’s hero, named Rakhmetov, became an emblem of the philosophical materialism and nobility of Russian radicalism. The novel also expresses, in one character’s dream, a society gaining “eternal joy” of an earthly kind.

Chernyshevsky offered an ideological vision that promised to resolve the tensions produced by educational reform, Western European competition and cultural intrusion, and the advent of secularization and impact of science in a still predominantly agrarian Christian community. By pursuing these ideals from a materialist and scientific perspective, he undoubtedly persuaded[citation needed] the younger generation of the intelligentsia of the possibility as well as the nobility of acting to overcome Russia’s great social and economic problems – thus providing declasse intellectuals with a social role that gave them considerable self-esteem regardless of the success or failure of their actions. For this very reason, the novel has been called “a handbook (or bible) of radicalism” and led to the founding of a Land and Liberty society.

In late 1862 Chernyshevsky asked the prison commandant for permission to begin work on a novel. His request granted, he set to work and produced the entire novel within four months, between December 14, 1862, and April 4, 1863. The first part of the manuscript was then submitted to the prison censor, who, whether carelessly or for devious purposes, passed it and forwarded the manuscript to the censor of the journal Sovremennik. Passed again, the novel was sent to the journal’s editor, Nekrasov who soon lost it in a cab. He managed to recover the manuscript only after advertising in the official gazette of the St. Petersburg police.[3] With what is perhaps the greatest irony of Russian letters, the novel that the police helped to retrieve turned out to be the most subversive and revolutionary work of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Its publication has aptly been called “the most spectacular example of bureaucratic bungling in the cultural realm during the reign of Alexander II”.[4]

Plot outline

A guidebook to revolution disguised as a soap opera, the reader is naturally forced to draw comparisons between different characters, and in particular with the heroes and heroines of the novel. The former includes Lopukhov and Kirsanov, who in turn pale in stature to Rakhmetov – a model for emulation placed in the novel both to humiliate mere mortals and to inspire them to become at least “new men,” if not “superior” ones. A similar hierarchy exists on the female side with Vera Pavlovna evidently representing the outstanding model of the “new woman”, as demonstrated in her ability in establishing sewing cooperatives (an example of Chernyshevsky’s own theory of environmental determinism in liberating the individual), combined with a frugality and intellect to match (as when she decides to study medicine). However, the highest level in Chernyshevsky’s female hierarchy stands the mysterious spirit who appears to Vera Pavlovna in each of her four dreams; leading her through a process of self-discovery and self-realization toward ultimate emancipation. Unlike Rakhmetov, Chernyshevsky infers that these main characters are really quite ordinary individuals who are unconsciously working towards the betterment of society by continually improving themselves; hence the author’s assertion that only naturally vulgar people fail in regard to a proper sense of realisation.

Reception and impact

The book is perhaps best known for the responses it created rather than as a novel in its own right. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different What is to be Done? based on moral responsibility. However, radical thinkers Lenin, Georgi Plekhanov, Kropotkin, Kollontay, and Luxemburg were all highly impressed with the book. Lenin in particular found it inspiring and wrote a pamphlet, also titled “What is to be Done?”, in response. Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer, and according to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, Joseph Frank, “Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Kapital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.” Lenin imitated Rakhmetov with daily weight lifting while Nechaev copied him by sleeping on a wooden bed and living on black bread.

The main character of André Gide’s Les caves du Vatican (English: Lafcadio’s Adventures), Lafcadio, bears a striking resemblance to Rakhmetov.

American playwright Tony Kushner referenced the book multiple times in his play Slavs!.

Thursday’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter Four, Section 3


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