Part Two, Chapter Six, Sections 1-3
by Dennis Abrams
“Pyotr Stepanovich Bustles About” “The day of the fete had been finally fixed, yet von Lembke was growing more and more sad and pensive. He was full of strange and sinister forebodings, and this worries Yulia Mikhailvona greatly.” Cholera, a great loss of cattle, fires raging, rumors of arson, robbery. Von Lembke’s growing taciturnity and secretiveness. Yulia in charge — at her urging, measures have been put in place strengthening the governor’s power, people deserving of Siberia receive awards instead, “certain complaints and inquiries systematically unanswered.” von Lembke rewards his days of obedience to Yulia with “little moments of rebellion.” Yulia’s misunderstanding of her husbands nobility of character. The narrator states he can’t discuss administrative matters, “Besides much will be uncovered by the investigation that has now been ordered in our province.” The narrator describing Yulia, “The poor lady (I feel very sorry for her) might have attained all that so attracted and beckoned to her (fame and trhe rest) quite without such eccentric moves as she set herself from the very first.” Feeling her calling. “The poor woman suddenly found herself the plaything of the most various influences, at the same time fully imagining herself to be original.” Being used by “many artful dodgers.” “At the same time she liked large-scale landholding, and the aristocratic element, and the strengthening of the governor’s power, and the new democratic element, and the new institutions, and order, and free thinking, and little social ideas, and the strict tone of an aristocratic salon, and the all but pot-house casualness of the young people that surrounded her. She dreamed of giving happiness and reconciling the irreconcilable, or, more exactly, of uniting all and sundry in the adoration of her own person.” Yulia’s belief in a state conspiracy, her belief that Pyotr Stepanovich was “connected with everything revolutionary in Russia, yet at the same time devoted to her to the point of adoration,” her belief that he would help her uncover the conspiracy, save the others, sort them out, report on them, “she would act with a view to higher justice, and even history and all of Russian liberalism would perhaps bless her name, and the conspiracy would be uncovered even so.” Yulia sends Pyotr Stepanovich to cheer up and reassure her husband. Among von Lembke’s worries: the case of the sub-lieutenant who bit his commander’s shoulder, who had probably lost his mind and who had “thrown two icons belonging to his landlord out of his apartment, and chopped one of them up with an axe…”; the tracts found in his pocket, (the same tracts previously found in Kh—province), as well as at the Shpigulin factory; the breakout of Asian cholera at the factory, the workers who were cheated out of their money after the factory had closed. Pyotr unexpectedly enters von Lembke’s office. Von Lembke’s secret jealousy of Pytor and Yulia. Pyotr announces he has found von Lembke’s lost manuscript. His “praise,” “I couldn’t tear myself away, my dear, even though I’m not pleased…You’ll charm the reader, becasue even I couldn’t tear myself away, but so much the worse. Readers are as stupid as ever, intelligent people ought to shake them up but you…” Pleased by the praise, von Lembke agrees to hear Pyotr out. The tracts. The poem, “The Shining Light.” Pyotr abroad. Pyotr’s act for von Lembke. Pyotr throws himself on von Lembke’s “humaneness.” Pyotr praises von Lembke as being a “most noble man, and, above all, a sensible one…that is, capable of understanding…” von Lembke misreads Pyotr as being “unable to control himself.” Pyotr tells von Lembke that Shatov is the student in the poem, and begs him to save him. Pyotor explains that there are five, maybe ten people involved, Kirillov included. Pyotr tells von Lembke that if he lets Shatov alone, he’ll find out the names of all the other conspirators, but he’ll need six days. Yulia must not be told. Pyotr’s using von Lembke, von Lembke believes he’s gotten the best of Pyotr. Pyotr assures von Lembke that Stavrogin is not involved. Lembke shows Pyotr an anonymous letter from “the repentant freethinker, Incognito,” offering to name names in exchange for a pardon and pension. Pyotr convinces Lembke not to take it seriously and offers to take it and find out who wrote it.
I have to say that I loved today’s reading — both in its analysis of Yulia Mikhailovna and her playing with fire (so to speak) with the political radicalism of the day in order to make a name for herself, in how sorry I’m beginning to feel for Lembke, and at Pyotr’s masterfully manipulative playing of his scene with Lembke. For me, at least, the book is becoming an actual page-turner. How are you all doing with it?
And continuing with a topic I brought up over the weekend, the seeming unreliability or lack of certainty in the narrator’s narrative, I found this essay that goes even deeper into the subject. I think it’s worth your while.
The Voices of Legion: The Narrator of The Possessed
Gene M. Moore, Amsterdam.
“Literary fictions are always involved with the indeterminacies inherent in all discourse; but in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed, this latent issue is emphasized and doubled with a pervasive atmosphere of doubt and suspicion concerning not only the events the narrator undertakes to describe, but also the manner in which he describes them. Anton Lavrent’evich G—-v’s chronicle of the “recent and strange events” that befell his provincial town is riddled with contradictions and impossibilities of a kind that signal the perpetration of a fiction. The authority of his text is based ultimately on rumor and gossip, on unattributed (or unattributable) discourse of obscure and irresponsible origin, yet able for that very reason to heap catastrophe upon all who possess or are possessed by it. If Liputin is a notorious rumor-monger, Petr Stepanovich Verkhovenskii is a virtuoso of rumor, a subtle master of innuendo and suggestion able to transform a provincial inferiority complex into a ghostly empire of imaginary quintets; while Stavrogin, whose outlived avatars have become the private demons that haunt and destroy those to whom he has “meant so much,” refuses to explain himself either in speech or in action, silently watching as his own silence and immobility generate rumors and occasion crimes of omission. The narrator himself, despite the apparent confidence of his tone and the safety of his position “now that it’s all over,” manages in the course of his chronicle to demonstrate the impossibility of ever achieving a final and ultimately valid description of events. The problem of evil influence, as a form of demonic possession, is a central theme in much of Dostoevsky’s later work: when one man’s idle fantasies become another’s rigid faith, is the former responsible for actions the latter may commit in the name of his own ideas? How literally can words be taken? To what extent is Ivan Karamazov guilty of his father’s death, or Stavrogin to blame for the deaths in The Possessed? “We are all to blame,” as Shatov declares in one of many possible morals to the narrator’s story (446; I:5:iii). The voice of “all,” the background noise of rumor, hisses and crackles throughout the narrator’s chronicle; and the evil of his story lies not only in the tale, but also in the manner of its telling.”
Information is power; but good information is not immediately or inherently more powerful than bad information, and the counterfeit coin of rumor may gain currency all the more readily in closed societies where the forces of government or geography restrict the flow of information and limit the means of testing its validity. Similarly, in those engaging macro-rumors known as works of fiction, a variety of narrative personae organize and control the flow of information (on behalf of the author, if not always exactly as he intends) and largely determine the extent to which indications may be subject to internal or external verification. An examination of the narrator’s credibility in The Possessed reveals that although his position as narrator entitles him to certain conventional advantages, he is as thoroughly mystified and possessed as his fellow townspeople. The narrator is by definition the first possessor and spellbound captive of his story; and all references to narration in his text may be understood as more or less veiled commentaries on his own storytelling methods.
Critical opinion appears to be divided on the significance to be accorded the narrator of The Possessed. Horst-Jьrgen Gerigk and Wolf Schmid regard him as a peripheral figure, one lacking a “psycho-physical personality” (Gerigk); while Klaus-Dietrich Stдdtke has described him as “more an amazed participant with to some extent a strongly outlined social-psychological physiognomy.” Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that “Narration in Dostoevsky is always narration without perspective,” and that in The Possessed the narrator “structures his narration without any significant perspective at all.” The narrator’s perspective has also been explored by Slobodanka B. Vladiv, who notes the importance of rumor in the novel, claiming that indeed “The entire chronicle of Anton Lavrent’evic G—-v could be classified, in an extreme view, as one huge piece of local provincial gossip,” while “the narrator’s pathos lies in his attempts to orientate himself as objectively as he can amidst the morass of gossip, which he attempts to sift and organize into a causal chain of events.” Other critics have ignored the narrator altogether, or regarded his role as so transparently conventional as to allow his views to stand for those of the (omniscient) author. If such discrepancies suggest an unresolved problem, they may also be taken as a tribute to the subtle discretion of a narrator so unobtrusive as to be easily overlooked.
But is this actually the case? Is the narrator really an impartial, objective, “reliable” chronicler who serves as a transparent vehicle for a conventionally omniscient author? Michael Holquist has described The Possessed as a “temporal palimpsest” in the sense that the narrator’s chronicle relates events whose sources and motives lie in previous times and distant places. The narrator’s story is based on other stories that are not told, but which—to the extent they can be understood at all—must be deciphered and reconstructed from clues that appear as the effects of implied causes. As Holquist puts it, the characters “do not act in the novel’s present so much as continue merely to work out predictable patterns of behavior that are encoded in the ideology to which they gave themselves in the novel’s Vorgeschichte.” In this sense the entire novel is an epilogue acted out by characters already “possessed” by their surrender to ideology, while the precise circumstances surrounding these surrenders remain as mysterious as the original “possession” of the man named Legion whose rescue serves the novel as a motto. Since all the evidence concerning the characters is filtered through the narrator’s consciousness and conveyed through his style, however seemingly transparent and objective, the novel may also be described as an epistemological palimpsest composed of multiple and often contradictory layers of rumor, speculation, and eyewitness testimony. As far as we are given to know, the narrator has never left his provincial town. He alone has no Vorgeschichte, so that except for the (always unexpected!) arrival of characters from outside, he can report the motivating prehistory of the others only as it sifts down through the various concentric societal circles of America, Switzerland, and Petersburg to become part of local rumor and legend.
What do we actually know about Anton Lavrent’evich G—-V? His name is revealed in Proustian fashion, late, and in installments through the mouths of others: his self-effacing surname by Stepan Trofimovich (74; I:3:iii), his first name and patronymic by Lizaveta Nikolaevna (102-03; 1:4:i). He tells Liza’s mother, Madame Drozdov, “I’m in the service” (102; I:4:i), but we never see him serve. His own motives in undertaking his chronicle are never stated explicitly, so that his account appears as unmotivated and irresponsible as the rumors of which it so largely consists. It is difficult to identify the narrator as belonging either to the generation of the “liberal” parents of the forties or to that of their “radical” children of the sixties. Childless and unmarried, the narrator is evidently young enough to feel stirrings of jealous infatuation for Liza, although nothing comes of this, while his old-fashioned attitudes and his long fidelity to Stepan Trofimovich mark him as somewhat older than the younger set. He presents himself most often simply as a friend of Stepan Trofimovich, and functions at first rather like a first-person Jamesian ficelle to expose the character and reputation of Verkhovenskij pиre in the opening chapters of his chronicle.
With the introduction of Stepan Trofimovich the reader is also introduced to the narrator’s characteristic technique of oscillating suggestion or chronic epanorthosis, which consists in first making an assertion, then qualifying it, then contradicting it directly, then re-qualifying it back in the other direction, etc., according to the model: “This is so. On second thought, it isn’t certain that it’s so. In fact, I’m convinced it isn’t so. There is some evidence, however …” Classic examples of this technique are to be found in Notes from Underground, whose anguished hero glories in a paradoxical spirit worthy of Zeno (“I was lying just now when I said I was a spiteful official; I was lying out of spite”). But The Possessed abounds in similar contradictory sequences, beginning with the narrator’s introductory portrait of Stepan Trofimovich:
I am even inclined to suppose that towards the end he had been entirely forgotten everywhere; but still it cannot be said that his name had never been known. It is beyond question that he had at one time belonged to a certain distinguished constellation of celebrated leaders of the last generation [. . .] But Stepan Trofimovich’s activity ceased almost at the moment it began, owing, so to say, to a “whirlwind of combined circumstances.” And would you believe it? It turned out afterwards that there had been no “whirlwind” and even no “circumstances” [. . .] Yet he was a most intelligent and gifted man, even, so to say, a man of science, although indeed, in science . . . well, in fact he had not done such great things in science, indeed apparently nothing at all. But that’s very often the case, of course, with men of science among us in Russia. (8; I:1:i)
If this amounts, as Edward Said puts it, to “hedging” or “purposeful vagueness,” it is also a demonstrating of Dostoevsky’s recognition that in fiction “everything is true,” in the sense that once a suggestion has been made, no amount of retraction can ever fully erase it. Stepan Trofimovich is described as both having and not having a reputation; his son Petr is introduced in a striking series of descriptive paradoxes which warn that he is not at all what he appears to be (143; I:5:v); the narrator both extols and undercuts Liza’s beauty (88-89; I:3:vii); he both blames and excuses Julia Mikhailovna for the disastrous fete (248-49, 387; II:5:i, III:2:iii). In short, the narrator both has his cake and eats it too, since new contradictions do not invalidate old assumptions but serve instead to cast doubt on the very possibility of ultimate and stable constructions. Moreover, what is true of the suggestion is also true of its source: given the staggering number of narratological variables, characters cannot be deemed “reliable” or “unreliable” once and for all, but at best only sometimes reliable and sometimes not, always pending further evidence to the contrary. All one can say with certainty—reliably—is that once a character gives reason to suspect that he may be unreliable, he becomes and remains forever a potentially unreliable character, and this latent unreliability tends to cast a retrospective shadow of doubt over earlier accounts in which one had as yet no cause to suspect his sincerity. Soon the cumulative effects of such signs of unreliability can lead to an atmosphere in which all statements appear insincere, manipulative, idiotic, or otherwise unworthy of belief (not to mention the fact of their being fictional) . It is within such wide margins of indeterminacy that political opportunists like Petr Stepanovich can best develop their propagandistic techniques; while the epistemological palimpsest presented by G—-v also reveals his own narrative mastery of the suggestive allusion and the elusive suggestion.”
What are your thoughts? Do you believe, as apparently Dostoevsky did, that in fiction “everything is true?” And by using that perspective, is Dostoevsky giving us something closer to “truth,” or is it way of, shall we say, copping out and failing his responsibilities as a storyteller?
Part Two, Chapter Six, Section 4