Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"What nonsense you are talking. . . . Tell me, do I look purple?" Fyodor and the crocodile

During the last days of 2014 I read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1865 short story "The Crocodile." I remember that Tom at Wuthering Expectations read this story back in October of 2013 and it seemed at the time to be a sort of lightweight farce, a broadside against Western European investment in the Russian economy (a thing that was going on at the time; the Russian railways were mostly built with foreign capital, for example). Of course, back when Tom was reading "The Crocodile," neither he nor I had read Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is To Be Done? "The Crocodile" is in fact a broadside against Chernyshevsky, a sort of warmup to Dostoyevsky's more involved attack against him in Notes From Underground.

It's funny, this story, but it's also mean-spirited, I might even say cruel. Dostoyevsky was nobody's idea of a nice guy, so this doesn't come as a great surprise. You should read his Artist's Notebook where he does a convincing impression of a mad dog while going after all things Jewish (or, really, where he goes after anyone who disagrees with him at all). Fyodor must've been a lot of fun at parties. I digress.

"The Crocodile" tells the story of Ivan Matveich, who works with the narrator Semyon Semyonich in the Petersburg office of the state censor. (This fact, that Ivan and Semyon work in the censor's office, is mostly buried but it comes out in the last part of the story. It's a subtle joke and maybe one of the best ones in the story.) Ivan's vacation has just begun. He has his leave from the office, his passport, his travel plans (he's going abroad "for the improvement of his mind"), and a morning with nothing to do, so Ivan takes his wife Elena Ivanovna, along with Semyon Semyonich who somehow has the morning off, down to an exhibition hall to see the crocodile being shown by a pair of Germans. The crocodile is impressive in size but actually pretty dull:
Near the entrance, along the left wall stood a big tin tank that looked like a bath covered with a thin iron grating, filled with water to the depth of two inches. In this shallow pool was kept a huge crocodile, which lay like a log absolutely motionless and apparently deprived of all its faculties by our damp climate, so inhospitable to foreign visitors. This monster at first aroused no special interest in any one of us.

"So this is the crocodile!" said Elena Ivanovna, with a pathetic cadence of regret. "Why, I thought it was . . . something different."

Most probably she thought it was made of diamonds. The owner of the crocodile, a German, came out and looked at us with an air of extraordinary pride.

"He has a right to be," Ivan Matveich whispered to me, "he knows he is the only man in Russia exhibiting a crocodile."
Elena and Semyon wander off, and behind their backs Ivan is suddenly swallowed whole by the crocodile. This does not kill him, because--as he describes later in great detail to Semyon--the crocodile is hollow and really not that uncomfortable to be trapped within.

There is of course some initial panic. Elena wants the crocodile cut open so that Ivan can be freed. The German refuses to do this, because the crocodile is his property, and Ivan was rude enough to jump down the crocodile's throat, and it is in the German's best interest to keep the crocodile unharmed. "The economic principle must come first," the German says, echoed by Semyon Semyonich, and then echoed--from the belly of the beast--by Ivan Matveich himself. This is where the parody of What is to be Done? really starts. "The economic principle" is Dostoyevsky's shorthand for the scientific materialism proposed by Chernyshevsky's heroes in WitbD? These ideas are foreign to Russia, imported from Western European countries like France and Germany. Dostoyevsky shows us that Nikolai Chernyshevsky has been swallowed up, quite willingly, by these ugly foreign ideas.

Ivan Matveich-within-the-crocodile becomes a sensation, and the German is able to charge quite a lot more for tickets, and he's very pleased with the turn of events. His crocodile is far more valuable with a living Russian inside it. Ivan Matveich is also pleased. Inside the crocodile, his life will be much better than before:
"Listen," he began dictatorially. "The public came to-day in masses. There was no room left in the evening, and the police came in to keep order. At eight o’clock, that is, earlier than usual, the proprietor thought it necessary to close the shop and end the exhibition to count the money he had taken and prepare for to-morrow more conveniently. So I know there will be a regular fair to-morrow. So we may assume that all the most cultivated people in the capital, the ladies of the best society, the foreign ambassadors, the leading lawyers and so on, will all be present. What’s more, people will be flowing here from the remotest provinces of our vast and interesting empire. The upshot of it is that I am the cynosure of all eyes, and though hidden to sight, I am eminent. I shall teach the idle crowd. Taught by experience, I shall be an example of greatness and resignation to fate! I shall be, so to say, a pulpit from which to instruct mankind. The mere biological details I can furnish about the monster I am inhabiting are of priceless value. And so, far from repining at what has happened, I confidently hope for the most brilliant of careers."

[...]

"...For I am full of great ideas, only now can I at leisure ponder over the amelioration of the lot of humanity. Truth and light will come forth now from the crocodile. I shall certainly develop a new economic theory of my own and I shall be proud of it — which I have hitherto been prevented from doing by my official duties and by trivial distractions. I shall refute everything and be a new Fourier."
This is where Dostoyevsky is being cruel. For the crocodile is not just the dangerous foreign ideas that have swallowed up Ivan Matveich, it is also the Peter and Paul Fortress prison in Petersburg, which has swallowed up Nikolai Chernyshevsky, from which dark place he will lecture to one and all and solve Russia's every problem. Dostoyevsky mocks a man in prison. Which, given Dostoyevsky's past, is maybe not so cruel now that I think of it.

Meanwhile, as Tom pointed out in 2013, Elena Ivanovna is drawing the attention of every man in Petersburg, and Ivan Matveich has plans for her to hold salons for the young intellectuals of the city where he will speak to them from the crocodile. His plans involve a crocodile tank on wheels. This is all satire, making fun of the Olga Chernyshevsky character in the final chapter of What is to be Done?

All the quotes in this post are from Constance Garnett's translation, but I actually read John Strahan's translation from his book 15 Great Russian Short Stories (1965).

2 comments:

  1. Nnnn. That is meant to represent the noise I would make if you told me this in person. I wondered why Dostoevsky was so riled up about foreign investment. But foreign ideas, not money, nnnnn, I see, that makes a lot more sense.

    Now I wonder if the satire is not just of the Olga Chernyshevsky character, but of the actual person, which is crueller. But as you note, there is another side. Even if the man in the prison / crocodile is an idiot, we all want him to be released from the crocodile.

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    1. What first gave it away was FD's parody of NCh's prose style at the end of Part I:

      Having written this first chapter in a style appropriate to the incident recorded, I intended to proceed in a language more natural though less elevated, and I beg to forewarn the reader of the fact.

      Then, of course, Ivan starts talking about his great ideas and mentions Fourier.

      I guess I'd assume he's mocking the real Olga as well as the fictional; another twist of the knife in Nikolai's side. Dostoyevsky was a fearless hater, you know.

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