Thursday, April 10, 2014

"He behaved quite admirably once the suffering began." The madness of Chernyshevsky

There is a big scene about 75% of the way through What is to be Done? It's the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortess prison and began the book. This is the scene that launched What is to be Done? into its place as the most influential Russian novel of the 19th century. There are a couple of things going on in this scene, or possibly I should say this section, as it's actually made up of several scenes and a great deal of backstory. Wait, let's just map it out:

The novel opens in Moscow, where an unidentified man checks into a hotel, has a meal and then walks to the middle of a bridge and apparently kills himself with a revolver. This action is presented out of chronological order, as it depicts events that occur about six years or so into the story. Chernyshevsky--almost but not quite apologetically--uses this narrative cliche to hook the reader and then tells the story of Vera, Dmitry and Alexander up to that opening scene, at which point he interrupts the narrative to introduce a new character, Rakhmetov (or, as we call him at my house, Saint Rocky Socialist Christ). Rakhmetov is given a detailed, twenty-page biography including a geneology going back many generations. He's a sort of revolutionary superhero, an uberman, a lunatic, an aesthete, a machine in the shape of a bodybuilder with a pile of inherited money in the bank. He's so many things, in fact, that there is no critical agreement about who or what he really is, or how Chernyshevsky felt about him. Either Saint Rocky Socialist Christ is a holy fool, or he's the coming soviet hero (as Lenin thought), or he's a very bad idea and an example of the kind of guilt-ridden nobleman with no real ideals that Chernyshevsky despised in real life. Opinion is quite mixed. See Drozd, Verhoeven and Kharkhordin for details. Verhoeven points out, for example, that Rakhmetov might never come back to Russia for the revolution; he might disappear into America after his tour of Europe. We have no way of knowing, because in What is to be Done?, after Rakhmetov's long and detailed history, he shows up at Vera Palovna's house to lecture her for a couple of hours, delivering a couple of letters and The Theme Speech which allows her and the reader to go forth and be fully and completely liberated. And then, Saint Rocky disappears from the novel forever. After all this action, Chernyshevsky lectures the reader (especially the "perspicacious" reader) for a couple of pages, chiding the reader's stupidity, and explaining the dramatic/artistic purpose of the Rakhmetov character, some or all of which claims may be lies. Chernyshevsky has already written himself into a previous scene with Rakhmetov wherein the author admits that he is lying about something. We do not learn what that something is, unless (as I suspect) Chernyshevsky is lying about Rakhmetov. It's hard to say, because the arguments point in all sorts of directions.

The craziness of the novel has reached a fever pitch here. The pages following the lecture to the perspicacious reader include letters that attempt to further explain The Theme Speech, and then some flashbacks to further explain the further explanations. I won't quote any of that here, because it won't help. Chernyshevsky sits in his cell at Peter and Paul Fortess, squirming on the edge of his uncomfortable wooden chair, pulling on his beard and wondering what on earth he could write next, what more can he say to demonstrate the importance of Vera's absolute liberation. Oh, he has ideas, and he will write them all down (I almost typed "writhe them all down," which is nearly accurate, I think), and the lunacy and desperation of What is to be Done? ratchets into higher gear. I can't wait to see what the last 50 pages hold as Chernyshevsky launches these characters and his imaginary self into the imaginary future of Russia. I think I should find something to hang onto.

7 comments:

  1. “Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,' the Mock Turtle replied, 'and the different branches of arithmetic--ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision.”

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    1. There's some pillowtalk about statistics after the flashbacks, between off-stage amorous activity, very sweet. Some long passages of this novel could well have been written by Mr Carroll's Mock Turtle.

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    2. Oh. My. Pillowtalk about statistics.

      I have enjoyed your commentary on this one very much, despite doubting my readiness to tackle such a book!

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    3. Tom and I read it so you don't have to.

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  2. Some other parts could have been written by Ayn Rand.

    Otherwise, I will just say that we are reading the same book. Sometimes, you read someone and think, "Is that the same book I read?" Not here.

    Fortunately Vera's 115th Dream is still to come, or the rest of the book would be in danger of anti-climax.

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    1. Your twitter arrow pointing here was amusing--had to look and see if it was yet another bout of Chernyshevsky!

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    2. The goal of collectivism in What is to be Done? does seem to be the ability to maintain a nice apartment, have tea twice a day and entertain one's friends in the evenings and on holidays. Chernyshevsky's situational morality doesn't seem like a solid foundation for utopia, unless one is Chernyshevsky.

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