02 May 2010

Pevear's Intro to Dostoevsky's Demons


I have written before (here) about the Orthodox translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose rendition of War & Peace a few of us Ortho-bloggers are beginning to read. I believe I have also commented on the extraordinary introductions Pevear has written for the translations, my admiration for which I was just reminded of when I finished reading that for War & Peace this evening. Here, however, are two passages from one of my favourites, Pevear’s introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (sometimes known as The Possessed):

Dostoevsky called the novel Demons, we would suggest, precisely because demons in it do not appear, and the reader might otherwise overlook them. The demons are visible only in distortions of the human image, the human countenance, and their force is mesaurable only by the degree of the distortion. What this means for an understanding of demonic possession in the novel may be elucidated by a passage from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov are talking about the murder of their father. Alyosha suddenly turns to his brother and says: ‘It was not you who killed father . . . You’ve accused yourself and confessed to yourself that you and you alone are the murderer. But it was not you who killed him, you are mistaken, the murderer was not you, do you hear, it was not you! God has sent me to tell you that.’ In fact, Ivan was their father’s murderer, if only in an ‘intellectual’ sense. But Alyosha is talking about something else. He seems to mean that the evil in Ivan is not him, is not identical with him, is not his esseence. Ivan is in danger of taking it for his essence, of ‘damning’ himself and losing himself entirely. He is on the verge of madness. Alyosha’s message is truly meant to save him. The world of Demons—the provincial town with its society, its administration, its older and younger generations, its club members and revolutionaries—is in a condition similar to Ivan’s. The title is perhaps Dostoevsky’s message to us that ‘it is not them’. [1]

Pevear identifies the demons of the novel with the various ideas that ‘possess’ its charactres, including the ideas similar to Dostoevsky’s own which possess the charactre of Shatov. Then Pevear asks:

Is it not an exaggeration, even a sort of mystification, to give the status of ‘demons’ to mere ideas? But, in the first place, there are no mere ideas in Dostoevsky, there are what Mikhail Bakhtin, in his Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, calls ‘voice-ideas’, ‘voice-viewpoints’, ‘idea-images’, ‘idea-forces’, ‘idea-heroes’. There is no neutral, impersonal truth. ‘It is not the idea itself that is the “hero of Dostoevsky’s works” . . . but rather the person born of that idea’. Bakhtin pretends to a scientific analysis and therefore avoids evaluation of the ‘ideological content’ of Dostoevsky’s works, but implicit at least in his analysis is the possibility of an evil or alien idea coming to inhabit a person, misleading him, perverting him ontologically, driving him to crime or insanity. Dostoevsky portrays this phenomenon time and again. . . .

The person born of the idea may be distorted and even destroyed by it. But to make such a judgment, one must have some way of measuring the distortion, some image of the undistorted person. And, again, if Dostoevsky is to be true to his poetics, this cannot be an abstract idea of principle. Bakhtin acknowledges the existence of this ‘measure’ in a passage that is rather obliquely worded, but is crucial for an understanding of his own concept of ‘polyphony’, not to mention Dostoevsky’s novel: [2]

Pevear then quotes the following passage from Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics:

. . . what unfolds before Dostoevsky is not a world of objects, illuminated and ordered by his monologic thought, but a world of consciousnesses mutually illuminating one another . . . Among them Dostoevsky seeks the highest and most authoritative orientation, and he perceives it not as his own true thought, but as another authentic human being and his discourse. The image of the ideal human being or the image of Christ represents for him the resolution of ideological quests. This image or this highest voice must crown the world of voices, must organize and subdue it. Precisely the image of a human being and his voice, a voice not the author’s own, was the ultimate artistic criterion for Dostoevsky: not fidelity to his own convictions and not fidelity to convictions themselves taken abstractly, but precisely a fidelity to the authoritative image of a human being. [3]

Then Pevear concludes:

The openness of Dostoevsky’s novels is an openness to this image; his polyphony has no other aim than the silent indication of its presence. Ideas that deface or distort this ‘authoritative image of a human being’ in a person are indeed acting like demons, and are them. [4]

Finally, although Pevear does not mention her, the Bulgarian-born French post-structuralist Julia Kristeva helps us contextualise the ‘polyphony’ to which Bakhtin and Pevear refer:

[Dostoevsky’s] dialogism, his polyphony undoubtedly spring from multiple sources. It would be a mistake to neglect that of Orthodox faith whose Trinitarian conception . . . inspires the writer’s ‘dialogism’ as well as his praise of suffering at the same time as forgiving. [5]


[1] Richard Pevear, ‘Foreword’, Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (NY: Vintage, 1994), pp. xiv-xv.

[2] Ibid., pp. xvii-xviii.

[3] Qtd. in ibid., pp. xviii-xix. Sorry, I don't have my copy of Bakhtin at the moment or I would give the page number in the source.

[4] Ibid., p. xix.

[5] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression & Melancholia, tr. Leon S. Roudiez (NY: Columbia U, 1989), p. 214.

4 comments:

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Sadly, I don't have any translations by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Guess I'll have to add them to my wishlist.

I did, however, perceive an allusion to Odysseus and the Cyclops as I read that first excerpt from Pevear on Demons...

NOBODY! IT WAS NOBODY!

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, you really should get them, Father. They've done a lot of the greats over the last 20 years.

J. Boor said...

You have extracted both the best Pevear parts and the best quotations from that introduction and saved me from excitedly typing Bakhtin into chat window! Kudos, Rev. Dcn!

Aaron Taylor said...

Glad I could be of service, Mr Boor!