“Among us there was also preserved a small group of prudent persons who had secluded themselves at the very beginning and even locked themselves in. But what lock can stand against a law of nature?”

Demons
Part Three, Chapter One, Sections 1-2
by Dennis Abrams

“The Fete. First Part.” “The fete took place, all the perplexities of the previous ‘Shpigulin’ day notwithstanding. I think that even if Lembke had died that same night, the fete would have taken place in the morning — so much of some special significance did Yulia Mikhailovna connect with it.” Yulia’s misunderstanding of the mood of society. Would there be a ‘denouement?’ “…the Russian man is boundlessly amused by any socially scandalous commotion.” Would there be a scandal? Was there spite? Cynicism? Why did Yulia not understand that the ladies surround her were united on one thing, “their merciless hatred of Yulia Mikhailovna.” The rise of the tacky people. “Always and everywhere, in a trouble time of hesitation or transition, various trashy sorts appear…This scum, which exists in every society, rises to the surface in any transitional time, and not only has no goal, but has not even the inkling of an idea, and itself merely expresses society and impatience with all its might.” The directionless scum falls under the command “of that small group of the ‘vanguard’ which acts with a definite goal, and which directs all the rabble wherever it pleases, provided it does not consist of perfect idiots itself — which, incidentally, also happens. It is now known: Pyotr was controlled by the Internationale, Pyotr controlled Yulia and she directed “all sorts of scum.” How could things have gone so amiss? Troubled times. The trashiest people gain prominence; the foremost people listen to them quietly, often chuckling. “…little Jews with mournful but haughty smiles, jolly passing travelers, poets with a tendency from the capital, poets who in place of a tendency and talent had peasant coats and tarred boots…If even Varvara Petrovna, right up to the catastrophe with her boy, was all but running errands for all this scum, some of our Minervas can be partially forgiven for their befuddlement at the time.” “I will repeat once again: Among us there was also preserved a small group of prudent persons who had secluded themselves at the very beginning and even locked themselves in. But what lock can stand against a law of nature? In the same way, even in the most prudent families, young ladies grow up who have a need to go dancing…How could one not subscribe? Everyone subscribed.” “According to the program, the festive day was divided into two parts: the literary matinee, from noon till four, and then the ball from nine o’clock on through the night. But this arrangement itself concealed germs of disorder.” Rumors of a luncheon after the literary matinee, or during it, with a free luncheon, with champagne, all due to the high cost of the ticket. Yulia’s boasting about the fete led to problems. Two solutions: a Belshazzar’s feast with toasts and ninety roubles left for the governesses, or “the realization of a significant collection, with the fete being, so to speak, only form. No compromise from Yulia, “her character despised the philistine middle.” “…and therefore one must be content with the most economical little German, ball, solely as an allegory…” Karmazinov’s reading “would annihilate even the very idea of food in the minds of our incontinent public.” Light snacks will be served, with a pay-to-dine buffet open at the far end of the suite of rooms.” The significance of Merci. The site of the reading will have a marble plaque “with an inscription in gold saying that on such and such a day and year, here on this spot, the great Russian and European writer, as he laid down his pen, read Merci…” Karmazinov’s demand that there will be no buffet while he is reading. Young girl’s dreams of the ball. Donations. The need for ladies to have two costumes — a morning gown for the reading, and a ball gown for the evening’s dancing. Sacrifices made, “Many of the middle class, it turned out later, pawned everything for that day, even the family linen, even their sheets and almost their mattresses, to the local Jews, who, over the past two years, as if on purpose, had been settling in terrible quantities in our town..” At noon, the orchestra strikes up. The narrator is one of the twelve ushers, “I saw with my own eyes how this day of infamous memory began.” The first to enter are “some of the vilest scum of our town,” brought in without tickets by Lyamshin and Liputin, “even completely unknown persons appeared…” The ‘savages” on their arrival demand to know where the buffet is, start swearing when they learn there isn’t one, and after being briefly thunderstruck by the beauty of the White Hall, begin cursing and starting a scene, “the most senseless questions and declarations would begin.” The “real” public appears, with because of the earlier arrivals, “a displeased and amazed look; some of the ladies were quite simply frightened.” The Lembke’s arrive late and the crowd grows restless — Yulia had been waiting for Pyotr “without whom she could not take a step lately, though she never admitted it to herself.” Pyotr’s refusal to be an usher, Yulia’s tears. Were the Lembke’s putting on airs with their late arrival? Their grand arrival. The orchestra plays a flourish, followed by mocking hurrahs from the rear. A drunk Captain Lebyadkin appears on the empty platform, half the audience laughs, Liputin takes him offstage. Liputin returns, and begging the crowd’s permission (given by the ‘scum’) recites a poem by Lebyadkin, insulting to both the governesses and the crowd, “Retrograde or true George-Sander/Be exultant anyhow!/Governess by dower grander/Spit on the rest and triumph now!” The narrator could not believe his ears, the entire hall is scandalized, Yulia nearly faints, a venerable old man and woman leave, others would have followed suit but Karmazinov appears on the stage; the narrator follows Liputin ‘backstage.’ After hesitating, Liputin admits to having read the joke on purpose and that he had helped Lebyadkin to write it. The narrator realizes “This is simply a conspiracy against Yulia Mikhailvona, to disgrace the day…” The lecturer set to follow Karmazinov, practicing, raising his fist in the air and bringing down “as if crushing some adversary to dust.”

A couple of thoughts:

1. Dostoevsky’s anti-semitism. Why doesn’t it bother me in the same way that Proust’s seeming anti-semitism did? Is it because I expect it of a Russian of that period? It bothers me that it doesn’t bother me.

2. The fete. Why does it bring to mind scenes from the 60s (Hair leaps to mind) where the hippies, the yippies, whoever, cause scenes in the homes or at the events of the upper/ruling classes?

3. And finally, from the first section. This line, “And yet the trashiest people suddenly gained predominance and began loudly criticizing all that is holy, whereas earlier they had not dared to open their mouths, and the foremost people, who until then had so happily kept the upper hand, suddenly began listening to them, and became silent themselves; and some even chuckled along in a most disgraceful way,” immediately brought to mind this line from Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“In the essay “F.M. Dostoevsky: Prophet Manque?” by Sergei Hackel, I just found this:

As one of Dostoevsky’s narrators puts it, ‘Reality strives towards fragmentation.’

Almost fifty years later, Yeats was to write, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. ‘ It was a diagnosis which one of Dostoevsky’s buffoons was to anticipate in “The Idiot. ”

The binding idea is no more (he insisted). Everything has gone soggy, everything and everyone’s got stewed. Each and every one of us, the lot of us, we are stewed.

For there is not only intensity in Dostoevsky’s world, there is also disorientation, disorder, chaos.”

I think he’s right on that. In Dostoevsky there is a constant sense of things going out of control, of things falling apart, of…the center not holding.

Tuesday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter One, Sections Three and Four

Enjoy.

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3 Responses to “Among us there was also preserved a small group of prudent persons who had secluded themselves at the very beginning and even locked themselves in. But what lock can stand against a law of nature?”

  1. Minnikin says:

    I’m not trying to be clever but…

    Dostoevsky’s anti-semitism? Surely you mean Dostoevsky’s character’s anti-semitism…?

    …and…

    Proust’s anti-semitism? Surely you mean Proust’s character’s anti-semitism…?

    In many essays on/criticisms of both Dostoevsky and Proust, I’ve seen consistent reference to and charges of, anti-semitism – and yet, Proust’s writings on issues like the Dreyfus affair as well as the various Jewish characters in his book (including his mother) have persuaded me that he was not anti-semitic…and in my reading of Dostoevsky so far, I haven’t yet seen anything to persuade me that he was either…

    By the way, I loved the Yeats connection: spot on: it’s a poem I’m very familiar with, yet I didn’t make the connection until you pointed it out.

    • Actually…not quite. A couple of points:

      Dostoevsky was as a person, deeply anti-semitic — his biographer Joseph Frank describes it as “virulent.” And that anti-semitism comes through, I think in his books — so far every Jew we’ve seen has been unsavory at best.

      The case of Proust is a bit more complicated. If, in reading Proust, we accept at least an affinity between Proust and the Narrator, one can read if not the same virulent anti-semitism as Dostoevsky (which, given the time and place of his birth and his religious beliefs are not exactly surprising), the attitude towards the more..overtly Jewish characters, such as Bloch, who typifies the more “pushy” and shall we say “overtly Jewish” side of Proust. Proust, obviously, was a supporter of Dreyfus, but I suspect he had continuing feelings of ambivalence about his Jewishness that characters like Bloch may represent.

      Does that make any sense?

      Dennis

      • Minnikin says:

        While I’m still not fully convinced about Proust, I stand corrected on Dostoevsky!

        David McDuff (a Dostoevsky translator whose books are published on Penguin Classics) posted an interesting comment here:

        http://halldor2.blogspot.com/2004/06/dershowitz-dostoyevsky-and-devil.html

        Amongst other things he states:

        ‘The presence of anti-Semitism in literature – from Chaucer and Shakespeare and Marlowe through Smollett, Voltaire, Dickens and Thackeray to Eliot and Pound – is all too perceptible, and Dostoyevsky does not constitute an exception, but rather a depressing conformity to the rule’.

        And this for me raises another question: Since 1945, the term ‘anti-semitism’ carries very different connotations from what went before…so how are we to view ‘anti-semitism’ of the late 19th century? Is there a context that we should try to understand it? (without hindsight influencing us). As McDuff (and others) have said, Dostoevsky was far from unique in his views.

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