Lunacharsky on Bakhtin and Dostoevsky

by tigermanifesto

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Anatoly Lunacharsky

Currently, I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov, and have already completed Notes From Underground, for a class on Russian literature. Suffice to say that the reading list leans heavily on conservative and anti-socialist, even outright reactionary, texts. We’re getting to Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Stalin propaganda later in the semester, and I’m sure to have some thoughts on that as well. For now, however, I’m waist-deep in what is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most famous novel, especially its long dialogical musings on Grand Inquisitors and Christian utopias. Though we’re not using much in the way of literary theory in our approach to the book, the professor introduced us to Bakhtin’s polyphonic reading of the book. The theory goes this way: Dostoevsky’s authorial voice is subsumed by the clashing, co-equal voices of autonomous characters. The book is essentially a string of extended debates, and the author confines hir role to narrating the conflicts with as much remove as possible. When reading the book, however, one cannot help but noticing that Dostoevsky, though he avoids the overt didacticism of, say, later Tolstoy, definitely favors one view over another. His reactionary position is complicated, often self-contradictory, and politically bankrupt, betraying deep personal division, but it’s not difficult to parse from the book.

I’ve recently come across what Soviet Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote about Bakhtin’s analysis:

“I am rather inclined to agree with Bakhtin that Dostoyevsky -if not at the stage of completion then certainly when working out the first ideas of his novels and the gradual evolution of their plots – hardly ever kept to any preconceived constructive plan, that his method of work was indeed polyphonic in the sense that it was a commingling and interweaving of absolutely free individuals. It is even possible that Dostoyevsky himself was excessively and most intensely interested in the outcome of the ideological and ethic conflicts between the characters which he created (or which might rather be said to have created themselves through him).”

Despite this agreement, however, Lunacharsky has his own spin on the matter: he writes that Dostoevsky’s early association with utopian socialism and his subsequent imprisonment continually erupted in his work:

 One would have to be completely devoid of all psychological sensibility and, moreover, have a whole series of politically responsive strings missing in the instrument of consciousness, in order to doubt (even in the absence of direct proofs) that the young Dostoyevsky was among those who “sought for a city.” He was indubitably full of anger against social injustice and so profoundly so that, at some half-hidden subterranean level, this anger continued its volcanic work throughout his existence. Its grumblings and rumblings can only be ignored by the politically deaf, and the glow it throws up – only by the politically blind.

He comments further on Dostoevsky’s use of religion in his work:

In this way, God, Orthodoxy, Christ as a democratic, individual, purely ethical principle of the Church – all this was quite essential to Dostoyevsky, for it gave him the opportunity to avoid a final spiritual break with socialist truth while, at the same time, anathematising materialist socialism.

These positions also gave him the chance to assume a profoundly loyalist attitude in relation to the tsar and to the whole tsarist regime. At the same time, from the altar end of the Church, the end facing the congregation, it was possible to embellish these ecclesiastical modes with all kinds of effective graces. In this way, Dostoyevsky’s Orthodoxy is at once a profoundly conservative principle and, at the same time, a kind of maximalism. Maximalists in the sphere of religion have always been in a position to say to materialists: “You will never dare to include the right to immortality in your programmes, will you? You will never be able to demand absolute bliss and the merging of all men into one ‘all-spirit’, will you? We, on the other hand, can manipulate these beautiful, delicious things as much as we like, representing them as the true reality.”

Lunacharsky, therefore, reads Dostoevsky as deeply divided, his fractured, polyphonic novels the result of a consciousness that “tends toward schizophrenia” and also reflects the social fracturing caused by Russia’s nascent industrial revolution. The Brothers Karamazov is a powerful social protest against inhumanity, but it ultimately finds its safe haven in the arms of the Church and the Tsar. It lets the materialists and atheists have their speeches, but all the while Dostoevsky can resolve the matter however he wants. He is not in full control of his characters, is incapable of suppressing their tendencies within his work, but it is clear where he prefers to stand. Lunacharsky again:

It seems to me that only if we adopt this approach to Dostoyevsky will we understand the true substructure of that polyphony which Bakhtin has noted in Dostoyevsky’s novels and stories. Only Dostoyevsky’s split consciousness, together with the fragmentation of the young capitalist society in Russia, awoke in him the obsessional need to hear again and again the trial of the principles of socialism and of reality, and to hear this trial under conditions as unfavourable as possible to materialist socialism.

Viewed this way, his dismissal of Chernyshevsky in Notes From Underground makes perfect sense, as well as the hagiographical treatment of characters like Zosima in Karamazov. Paradoxically, it is those who have rejected the world–the monks and the true believers–who are best able to love it and help other people in the novel. Not in the way that Ivan “returns his ticket” and refuses the arrangement of the world, but rather those who reject the world in favour of an eternal reality that is supposed to break in. Orthodoxy alone is presented as real, Orthodoxy as the fantastical world of the peasants, the dignified servants, the generous rich, the wise monk, etc. Dostoevsky is brilliant but almost always wrong, the kind of writer that drives me batty. Nevertheless, his treatments of morality are at least far less moralistic than the most dogmatic reactionaries, making him easier to read than, say, Solzhenitsyn or, God forbid, later Gogol.

See the rest of Lunacharsky’s essay here.