Part Two, Chapter Six, Sections 4 and 5
by Dennis Abrams
“Pyotr Stepanovich Bustles About,” continued. “Pyotr Stepanovich was perhaps not a stupid man, but Fedka the Convict rightly said of him that he ‘invents a man and then lives with him.'” Pyotr’s certainty that he had won six days from von Lembke, “But this notion was a false one, and it all rested on his having invented Andrei Antonovich as a perfect simpleton, from the very start, once and for all.” His old doubts, reduced to dust. His soul longing for peace. “…all his instincts told him that there was something utterly incongruous in Pyotr Stepanovich’s words, something outside all forms and conventions…” Blum, who had been speaking with Lembke before Pyotr Stepanovich interrupted, reenters the room. Blum “belonged to the strange breed of ‘unfortunate’ Germans…” Blum’s close relationship with Lembke, Yulia’s dislike. Taking the word of Lyanshin and Telyatnikov, Blum presses Lembke to investigate Stepan Verkhovensky, “…every honest man, if there be such in this rude town, is convinced that there has always been concealed there a source of disbelief and social teaching. He keeps all the forbidden books…And many tracts. We will certainly finish by finding the trail of actual local tracts.” Blum mixed up father and son, Lembke points out, “They’re not on good terms, the son laughs openly at the father.” Blum points out that Stepan “was just an assistant professor, just only an assistant professor in rank…he has no distinctions, he was fired from his post on suspicion of plotting against the government. He was under secret surveillance, and no doubt still is.” Hearing Yulia approach, Lembke pushes Blum out, telling him, “Get ou-u-ut! Do what you like…later…Oh, my God!” “Whether he indeed took Andrei Antonovich’s last hysterical exclamation as direct permission to act as he had requested, or whether he played it false in this case for the direct good of his benefactor, being only too certain that the end would crown the affair — in any case, as we shall see below, this conversation between the superior and his subordinate produced a most unexpected result, which made many laugh, became publicly known, aroused the bitter wrath of Yulia Mikhailovna, and with all that left Andrei Antonovich finally bewildered, having thrown him, at the hottest moment, into the most lamentable indecision.” “For Pyotr Stepanovich, the day proved a bustling one. Pyotr’s visit to Karmazinov. Three days earlier, Karmazinov had loaned Pyotr a copy of the story he planned on reading at Yulia’s party, Merci, “quite certain that he would pleasantly flatter the man’s vanity by letting him acquaint himself with the great work beforehand. Pyotr’s observation that Karmazinov, with his “all but statesmanly mind,” was fawning on him. The narrator: “I believe the young man finally realized that the older one considered him, if not the ringleader of everything covertly revolutionary in the whole of Russia, at leas tone of those most deeply initiated into the secrets of the Russian revolution and with an unquestionable influence on the young.” Karmazinov’s cutlet and half glass of wine, his amazement when Pyotr accepts his invitation for lunch of his own. Karmazinov’s garb. Pyotr pretends to have lost the manuscript, then digs it out of his back pocket along with a handkerchief. Pyotr’s mocking of contemporary Russian literature. Karmazinov decides that Pyotr is an “ignoramus…and he certainly read the manuscript eagerly and is just lying with something in mind. Yet it may also be that he’s not lying, but is quite genuinely stupid. Isn’t he really some sort of genius hereabouts?” Karmazinov’s plans to sell his estate and abandon Russia completely, “Everything is doomed and sentenced here. Russia as she is has no future. I’ve become a German and count it an honor.” According to Karmazinov, “the whole essence of the Russian revolutionary idea consists in a denial of honor…For the Russian, honor is simply a superfluous burden.” Karmazinov refuses to reveal (as per Yulia’s request) the surprise he’s planning for the ball. Karmazinov’s hatred of Stavrogin, “This philanderer…will probably be the first to be hung from a limb…” Karmazinov presses Pyotr on what’s being planned, “You’ll have time to sell the estate, and time to clear out as well…It will be begin by the beginning of next May, and be over by the Protection…” Outside the house, Pyotr thinks of Karmazinov as a rat leaving the ship, and “if even this ‘all but statesmanly mind’ is inquiring so confidently a bout the day and the hour, and thanks one so respectfully for the information received, we cannot doubt ourselves after that.” To Filippov’s house.
A couple of thoughts…
1. Is Lembke being positioned as the book’s tragic…something? Pressed beyond his capacities by Yulia’s ambitions, surrounded by conspirators and conspiracies that he can’t possibly understand or even see…
2. What does the narrator mean when he calls Blum an “unfortunate” German? Especially when just a few pages later, Karmazinov says that he’s become a German and counts it an honor?
3. Pyotr’s manipulation of Karmazinov was fairly amazing — why do you think he even bothered to reveal to him the dates of the uprising?
4. And finally Karmazinov — he seems to be the only character not drawn to Stavrogin — why?
And more from yesterday’s essay by Gene Moore, “The Voices of Legion — The Narrator of ‘The Possessed'”
Perhaps we can attempt to analyze the narrator’s use of rumor and illusion by dividing the evidence presented by G—-v into, say, four categories: 1) eyewitness testimony, where the narrator is himself an observer or direct participant in the events he describes; 2) second-hand accounts in which the source of information is identified; 3) general rumors, assumptions made by people in the town whose specific sources remain unidentified, and which contribute to what the narrator calls “the mood of society”; and 4) omniscient speculation, accounts of things the narrator cannot possibly know, given what we come to know (through him) of the fates of the other characters. Obviously these categories are not discrete and will always coincide with the second, for example, while the third may be only a special instance of the fourth. These distinctions are proposed only as heuristic devices for the purpose of analyzing the narrator’s perspective, in particular his use of rumor as a narrative mode.
1. Eyewitness testimony. One might assume that this category is relatively safe ground, and that the narrator should at least be trusted to “know” what he has experienced personally. In fact, however, he is quite willing to admit to ignorance or absent-mindedness in his own capacity as eyewitness. He declares, for example, during the scene that ends Book One: “I’ve forgotten a little the order in which things happened, for a scene of confusion followed” (147; I:5:vi); yet he show no such modesty when facing the far greater difficulty of assessing the mood of the town, not to mention reporting conversations he cannot possibly have witnessed or even heard about. The accuracy of his eye is also put to the test in his encounter with Karmazinov, described as follows:
He [Karmazinov] suddenly dropped a tiny bag, which he was holding in his left hand; though indeed it was not a bag but a kind of little box, or more exactly some sort of small pocket-book, or better yet a tiny reticule, like an old-fashioned lady’s reticule, though indeed I really don’t know what it was. I only know that I flew to pick it up. I am utterly convinced that I did not really pick it up, but my first motion was unmistakable. (71; I:3:ii)
In the interest of greater accuracy, the dropped object is repeatedly revised to the point of total obscurity; while the narrator, having begun with acuity enough to note that Karmazinov was holding the object in his left hand, is soon reduced to such confused uncertainty that he cannot even be sure that he did not pick it up! (The guilt-ridden overemphasis of his denial only serves to convince the reader that indeed he probably did pick it up.)…
2. Second-hand accounts. Among the narrator’s functions is that of “reflecting” the moods of his friend Stefan Trofimovich, who remains his chief interlocutor throughout the novel. The narrator’s alleged humiliation at the hands of Karmazinov, with its ritual palimpsest of over courtesy and covert loathing, is soon paralleled by Stepan Trofimovich’s account of his own later brush with the great author:
“Cher,” he said to me that evening, recalling all that had happened that day, “I wondered at that moment which of us was the more contemptible: he, embracing me only to humiliate me, or I, despising him and his face and kissing it on the spot, though I might have turned away. . . . Foo!” (347; II:1O: iii)
There is an unmistakable hall-of-mirrors effect in the narrator’s account of his attempt to console Stepan Trofimovich over what the latter perceives as an arranged marriage with Dasha to cover “the sins of others”:
In the heat of the moment—and, I must confess, because I was tired of being his confidant— I may have blamed him too much. I was so cruel as to try to force him to confess it all to me himself, though indeed I did recognize that it might be difficult to confess certain things. He also saw right through me; I mean he clearly perceived that I saw right through him and that I was even angry with him, and he was angry with me for being angry with him and seeing right through him. My irritation was perhaps petty and stupid; but mutual solitude is sometimes exceedingly damaging to true friendship. (66-67; I:3:i)
The narrator prefaces this statement with the remark that “as I was still young, I was rather indignant at the coarseness of his feelings and the ugliness of some of his suspicions.” As chronicler, he can be only three or four months older than the “still young” man who confesses to his own coarseness and ugliness in forcing his friend to confess, imputing to Stepan Trofimovich his own feelings and fears.
For all their “mutual solitude,” neither the narrator nor Stepan Trofimovich is exempt from the charge of gossip-mongering. Varvara Petrovna chides Stepan Trofimovich for his laziness and susceptibility to gossip: “you read nothing but Paul de Kock, and write nothing, while all of them write; all your time’s wasted in gossip” (51; I:2:iv). The narrator is guilty of spreading at least one rumor of his own, albeit at Stepan Trofimovich’ s request, again while his friend is agonizing over his arranged marriage with Dasha:
I went round to everyone at his request and told everybody that Varvara Petrovna had given our “old man” (as we all used to call Stepan Trofimovich among ourselves) a special job, to put in order some correspondence of many years; that he had shut himself up to do it and I was helping him, etc., etc. Liputin was the only one I did not have time to visit, and I kept putting it off— and to tell the truth, I was afraid to go to him. I knew beforehand that he would not believe one word of my story, that he was sure to imagine there was some secret everybody was trying to keep from him alone, and that as soon as I left him he would set to work making inquiries and gossiping all over town. (68; I:3:i)
In fact it is only the narrator who is gossiping here, while Liputin is suspected of guessing the truth; yet the narrator faults Liputin for his insight and charges him with gossiping before the fact. It remains unclear whether Stepan Trofimovich commissioned the details of the narrator’s rumor or merely provided the idea, but in any event, the narrator’s reasoning not only apes the worries of the “old man,” but is altogether as neurotic and defensive as that of the Underground Man. As with the dropped object and the half-existent lady, the narrator’s objectivity may certainly be questioned under such circumstances.
3. General rumors. The narrator frequently presents himself as a chronicler of local “public opinion,” often shifting to the first-person plural “we,” although the precise scope of inclusion within this “we” is difficult to ascertain. “We” can refer to the townspeople in general, or to the members of Stepan Trofimovich ‘s circle, or to “our fellows” of the quintet (which always seems to have far more than five members). In this muddled context it is hardly surprising that Stefan Trofimovich, when questioned directly by the narrator, is unable to say whether or not he belongs to a secret society: “You may suppose you don’t belong, and suddenly it turns out that you do belong to something” (331; II, 9). There is also an interesting reference to “we” in a draft version of Stavrogin’s confession to Tikhon recorded in the Notebooks:
“How can we have such high understanding?” says Tikhon. “Say ‘How can I?’, please do!” says the Prince. “Why do you want me to say that?” “When one says we, it is as if one were hiding behind everybody else . . .” (14)
It is effectively as just such a screen that the narrator uses the “we” of public opinion, as a means of transmitting rumors without naming their sources. At times the voice of common rumor, like a chorus on the periphery, expresses itself with astonishing unanimity: thus, when Stavrogin pulls Gaganov’s nose, “it is remarkable that no one in the whole town had attributed this wild act to madness” (40; I:2:ii}; yet in the end, when “at last everything was explained,” the very same townspeople eagerly accept the verdict of “our three doctors” that Stavrogin’s outrages were a result of “acute brain fever”: “At the club they were ashamed and wondered how it was they had failed to ‘see the elephant’ and had missed the only possible explanation of all these wonders. Some skeptics, of course, also appeared, but they could not prevail for long” (43; I:2:iii). One might well wonder how the doctors’ definition of “brain fever” can be said to differ from insanity:
Our three doctors all expressed their opinion that the patient might well have been delirious for three days beforehand, and that although he was evidently in possession of consciousness and cunning, he must have lacked common sense and volition, as indeed the facts were to show. (43; I:2:iii)
Of course these “facts” might also be interpreted to show that Stavrogin’s attacks were a supreme demonstration of will, signalling his freedom from social convention and his literal grasp of metaphor; but the important point here is that the unanimous opinion of the doctors is accepted by the town with a second, enforced unanimity, even though it contradicts their own collective instincts. These references also anticipate the final sentence of the novel: “Following the post-mortem, our doctors absolutely and insistently rejected all idea of insanity” (516; III:8). If it was not insanity, then what was it? “Brain fever” sounds mor scientific and reassuring, and so the town jumps eagerly to accept the first plausible “explanation” of events, sharing their urge to make sense of things not only with the characters who have adopted Stavrogin’s cast-off ideologies, but also with the narrator himself, who seems to share in the general satisfaction with the doctors’ verdict even though, by the time he comes to write his account some three months later, he possesses, if not the “full knowledge” he claims, at least some understanding of what was to happen later…
Earlier the narrator reports a rumor that Stavrogin is on a secret mission for the government (echoing the rumors surrounding Gogol’s Khlestiakov and Chichikov); this rumor is made to sound extremely ominous before being dismissed as frivolous and even traceable to its source:
There were also other conversations, though not in public, but in private, on rare occasions and almost in secret, extremely strange things whose very existence I mention only to forewarn my readers in view of the later events of my story. [. . .] When certain very solid and sensible people smiled at this rumor, remarking very reasonably that a man living a life of scandal, and starting his career . among us with a black eye, did not look like a government official, they were told in a whisper that he was serving not officially, but, so to say, confidentially, and that in such cases it was essential to look as little as possible like an official. This remark produced a sensation; it was ‘ known among us that the Zemstvo of our province was the object of close scrutiny in the capital. I repeat, these were only flitting rumors . . . (168; II:1:i)
The narrator then hints strongly that these rumors originated with Artemii Pavlovich Gaganov, whom Stavrogin soon humiliates in a duel (in yet another act of “omission”); but identifying the source of a rumor cannot erase its permanent effect on the “public mind”. A mirror image of this same rumor is later revealed by Petr Stepanovich to Stavrogin just before the name-day “meeting” at Virginskii’s:
“You’ve no doubt represented me as a member from abroad, with ties to the Internationale?” Stavrogin asked suddenly. “No, not an inspector; you won’t be an inspector; but you are one of the original members from abroad, who knows the most important secrets—that’s your rфle.” (299; II:6:vii)
Stavrogin indeed knows the “most important secrets,” and in a famous passage in the Notebook Dostoevsky observed that the “special tone” of his novel would depend on the mysteries enveloping Stavrogin and Petr Stepanovich: “The tone consists in not explaining Nechaev or the Prince.” The explanations offered by the general rumors of the town, again “doubled” with the narrator’s own critical comments and explanations, also fail to arrive at a valid account of the secret forces at work in the town.”
Part Two, Chapter Six, Sections 6 and 7