“No one, no one nowadays admires the Madonna anymore or wastes time over it, except for invenerate old men. This has been proved.”

Demons
Part Two, Chapter Five, Sections 1-3
by Dennis Abrams

“Before the Fete” Planning Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete. Fluttering around Yulia: Pyotr Stepanovich, Lyamshin, Liputin a few ladies and young girls, and Karmazinov, who did not flutter. The fete shall be democratic. Where shall it be held? Why did Varvara fawn on Yulia Mikhailvona? Was it because Yulia demeaned herself before Nikolai Vsevolodovich? “Strange was the state of people’s minds at that time…Several extremely casual notions spread as if on the wind. Something light and happy-go-lucky came about, which I will not say was always pleasant.” How much was Yulia Mikhailovna to blame? A wide circle had formed, centered in Yulia Mikhailovna’s drawing room, “They were called sneerers and jeerers, because there was little they scorned to do.” Playing pranks. The young lieutenant’s brunette wife and whist. The petty clerk, his daughter and her husband. The book-hawker selling Gospels; Lyamshin slipped into her bag “a whole bundle of enticing, nasty photographs from abroad, specially donated for the occasion…’ Lyamshin’s song, “The Franco-Prussian War,” redeems him in Yulia’s eyes. Lyamshin’s fawning. “One morning the news swept through town of an ugly and outrageous blasphemy.” The desecration of the icon of the Mother of God, stones and pearls stolen, a live mouse placed behind the broken glass. “It is known positively now, four months later, that the crime was committed by the convict Fedka, but for some reason Lyamshin’s participation has also been added to it. At the time no one mentioned Lyamshin and he was not suspected at all, but now everyone insists that it was he who let in the mouse.” The crowd around the scene of the crime, the monk accepting donations. The effect of the crime on von Lembke, “As I am told Yulia Mikhailovna put it afterwards, from that sinister morning on she began to notice that strange despondency in her husband which never left him afterwards up to the very day of his departure from our town, two months ago, for reasons of ill healthy, and seems to be accompanying him now in Switzerland as well, where he continues to rest after his brief career in our province.” Two pranksters donate a single brass kopeck, Lizaveta, accompanied by Mavriky Nikolaevich suddenly rode up, fell on her knees before the icon, “right on the dirty sidewalk, and reverently bowed three times to the ground.” Lizaveta donates her diamond earrings. The day after the desecration of the icon — the narrator joins the ‘pranksters,’ among them Lizaveta, on a trip across the river to visit “our blessed man and prophet Semyon Yakolevich…Everyone visited him…trying to get a word from the holy fool, venerating him, and leaving donations.” When the expedition came opposite the town’s hotel, “someone suddenly announced that in one of the rooms of the hotel they had just found a guest who had shot himself, and they were awaiting the police. At once the idea was voiced of having a look at the suicide. The idea met with support: our ladies had never seen a suicide, ‘everything has become so boring that there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.” Lizaveta is among those going to look at the suicide, a young man who had shot himself because he had caroused away the four hundred roubles he was supposed to have spent on his eldest sister’s trousseau. “Death must have occurred instantly; no mortal agony showed on his face; his expression was calm, almost happy, he need only have lived. Our people all stared with greedy curiosity.” One gentleman observed that “this was the best solution and that the boy even could not have come up with anything smarter,” another that “he had lived well, if only for a moment,” a third blurted out “Why have we got so many people hanging or shooting themselves — as if we’d jumped off our roots, as if the floor had slipped from everyone’s feet?” Lyamshin and then another take some of the grapes remaining from the boy’s last meal; a third reached out for the Chateau d’Yquem as well.” The room is cleared by the police chief, “For the remaining half of the way, the general merriment, laughter, and brisk chatter became almost twice as lively.
At Semyon Vakovlevich’s. Ordinary visitors remained outside the railing, those invited by the ‘blessed man’ were allowed into the inner sanctum. Slippers on his feet. Light fish soup, jacket potatoes with salt, tea. Among the pilgrims, a fat merchant, an elderly and woebegone noblewoman, and one landowner, who had already been kneeling for one hours against the railing. “Fairlooks! Fairlooks!” The laughter of the pranksters. Semyon, “He usually did not take tea alone, but also had it served to his visitors, though by no means to all of them, usually pointing out himself those upon whom happiness would be bestowed…The way the tea was served also varied: some got it with sugar in it, others with sugar on the side, still others with no sugar at all.” The poor widow receives too many sugar loaves — what’s the prophecy? Semyon Vakolevich refuses to answer questions from the “magnificent lady” from the group of pranksters. A gold piece for the hundred-thousand-rouble merchant, “Gold to gold.” Lizaveta orders Mavriky Nikolaevich to kneel before Semyon Yakovlevich, “‘I beg you, it will give me the great pleasure. Listen, Mavriky Nikolaevich,’ she suddenly began in an insistent stubborn, ardent patter, ‘you absolutely must kneel, I absolutely want to see you kneeling. If you won’t kneel, don’t even come to call on me. I absolutely insist, absolutely!…'” “Mavriky Nikolaevich…attributed these capricious impulses in her, frequent of late, to outbursts of blind hatred for him…some special unconscious hatred which, at moments, she was utterly unable to control.” Mavriky Nikolaevich opened the gate, entered the inner sanctum, and knelt in the middle of the room. “‘Unction, unction!’ muttered Semyon Yakolevich.” Lizaveta hysterically runs to Mavriky, lifting him up, “Get up! Get up!…How dared you kneel?” The ‘magnificent lady’ once again begs Semyon Yakolevich to “utter’ something for her…his response, “F— you, F—you!” One last mysterious event takes place: On leaving Lizaveta runs into Stavrogin — they looked at each other, and, according to all witnesses, “Liza, having looked at Nikolai Vsevolodovich, quickly raised her hand, right up to the level of his face, and would certainly have struck him if he had not managed to draw back.” At the same time, Stepan Trofimovich had his long awaited meeting with Varvara Petrovna. Stepan believes she is no longer the one he had known for twenty years. Accounts are settled — Varvara offers to pay him three thousand roubles for live, but he must live on his own, “in Petersburg, in Moscow, abroad, or here, only not with me.” Stepan: “And that’s all? All that’s left of twenty years? Our final farewell?” Varvara: “You and these twenty years of ours! Twenty years of reciprocal self-love, and nothing more…You’re a stylist, not a friend…” Varvara accuses Stepan of having done nothing for her during those twenty years, denying her “even the books which I ordered for you and which, if weren’t for the binder, would have been left uncut.” His fears and insecurities, her sarcasm, “You have distinguished yourself superbly throughout your life, Stepan Trifimovich.” Arguing over the Madonna. Varvara has succumbed to the new ideas, “Oh, what an outpouring of other people’s words! So it’s even gone as far as the new order? God help you, unhappy woman!” Varvara says her eyes have been opened and that she has defended Stepan. A discussion of the upcoming fete: “Tell me, what precisely will you read?” “Why, precisely about that queen of queens, that ideal of humanity, the Sistine Madonna, who in your opinion is not worth a glass or a pencil.” Karmazinov thinks Stepan should find something amusing to speak about from Spanish history. “Don’t beg me, I cannot. I will read about the Madonna, but I will raise a storm that will either crush them all or strike me alone…but in any case, whether I emerge defeated or victorious, that same evening I shall take my bag, my beggar’s bag, leave all my belongings, all your presents, all pensions and promises of boons to come, and go off on foot to end my life as a merchant’s tutor, or die of hunger somewhere in a ditch. Alea jacta est!” (The die is cast!) Tears, stupidity and spite, and farewells.

Extraordinary. The desecration of the icon, the “stop-by” to see the suicide (didn’t that painful scene seem oddly…modern?), holy fool Semyon Yakovlevich’s “Fuck you,” Stepan and Varvara’s final (I’m guessing) break-up…Dostoevsky is ratcheting up the intensity by proverbial leaps and bounds…it’s evident how essential the slow buildup was, to see the relationships and the way the society in that province worked before things start to fall apart…

And finally, this from Gary Saul Morson from his essay “reading Dostoevskii”

“Dostoevskii’s second narrative method demonstrates the untenability of determinism apparently opposite to the first…let me here just offer one example. In [Demons], the young and wealthy reprobates of the town visit the mad ‘prophet’ Semen Iakovlevich. Just as they are leaving, Liza Nikolaevna and Stavrogin appear to jostle each other in the doorway, and the chronicler goes on:

‘I fancied they both stood still for an instant and looked, as it were, strangely at one another, but I may not have seen rightly in the crowd. It is asserted, on the contrary, and quite seriously, that Liza, glancing at Nikolai Vsevolodovich [Stavrogin], quickly raised her hand to the level of his face, and would certainly have struck him if he had not drawn back in time. Perhaps she was displeased with the expression of his face, or the way he smiled, particularly just after such an episode with [her fiance] Mavrikii Nikolaevich. I must admit I saw nothing myself, but all the others declared they had, though they certainly could not all have seen it in such a crush, though perhaps some may have. I remember, however, that Nikolai Vsevolodovich was rather pale all the way home.’

‘Perhaps,’ ‘on the contrary’, ‘I may not have seen rightly’, ‘I fancied’: language like this is irritatingly common in Dostoevskii’s narrative. Something may or may not have happened; and if it did (which is by no means certain, though perhaps it could have happened, though many doubt it, but then they are unreliable, though not always mistaken…) – if it did happen, it might be part of many sequences, each of which may suggest an endless series of ramifications. In any case, the action that may or may not have happened was itself a non-action, a slap that could have been given, but was not. The narrator tries to decide whether Liza meant to slap Stavrogin but did not or, on the contrary, simply did not slap him.

As in so many of such descriptions in Dostoevskii, the point is not what did happen: it is that any of the suggested events could have happened. Sometimes Dostoevskii suggests a haze ofc rumours, each suggesting a possibility that, whether or not it is true, could be. We gradually learn to see time not as a line of single points but as a field of possibilities. If the tape were played over again, a different possibility might be realised. Contrary to the determinists or Leibnizians, we live in a world where more than one thing is possible at any moment. Possibilities exceed actualities. Whatever happens, something else might have, and to understand a moment is to grasp that ‘something else.’ By the same token, each of us is capable of living more lives than one, and to understand a person is to intuit what else he or she might have been or done. Dmitrii might have been a murderer, and Alesha, we are told, might easily have been a revolutionary.”

And is this aspect of Dostoevsky, I’d argue, that makes him, despite everything, so surprisingly modern.

Monday’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapter Six, Sections 1-3

Enjoy.

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2 Responses to “No one, no one nowadays admires the Madonna anymore or wastes time over it, except for invenerate old men. This has been proved.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    Thanks for posting a copy of the painting – I’d just been viewing Raphael’s ‘Sistine Madonna’ online! Though it’s already been referred to earlier in the book (page 27), it’s taking on a new significance, particularly with Varvara’s seeming embrace of the ‘new’ and ‘modern’ ideas and her break from the ‘old’ and from Stepan. The painting is located in the ‘Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister’ in Dresden. Dostoevsky lived in Dresden briefly (circa 1869) so he must surely have been very familiar with it.
    (Interestingly, after World War II, the painting was relocated to Moscow for a decade before it was returned to Germany).

    Gary Saul Morson’s analysis is spot on but I don’t think i’d refer to the ‘perhapes’ and ‘maybes’ as “irritatingly common in Dostoevskii’s narrative”… Hardly irritating but totally ‘modern’ as you suggested, Dennis.

  2. Lynn Rios says:

    I do find it intriguing to view people and events based on possibilities and potentials, but have never before experienced that as a literary style. hmmmmm interesting

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