“A Little Hero” by F. Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A delightful novella that incorporates the best of Dostoevsky’s early literary concerns, namely the exploration of the psychology of characters and the tension between the Romantic and naturalistic ways of interpreting life.

Told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy, “A Little Hero,” depicts a seasonal congress of the nobility at the estate of Mr. and Mme. M. After laying out the cast and their respective idiosyncrasies—including those of a particular blonde and pokingly impertinent divinity and the more sentimental Mme. M, who engross most of the little narrator’s attention—the story moves on to depict how the young hero seeks to derive his status as such with a show of horsemanship on an unridable horse. Throughout and at times in spite of the young boy’s perceptions Dostoevsky depicts the types of illicit intrigues of the estate class in which much of Tolstoy’s later work would consist.

Motifs of the romantic knight-errant, as well as those of the courtly love tradition, provide both structure and irony to the story: while using such themes, Dostoevsky nonetheless turns them on their head, both with the hero being beset by two ladies (a reversal of Guinevere and Arthur v Lancelot—which, itself, is depicted elsewhere in the story), the dramatic irony of the boy’s romantic interpretation of the reality of the upper-class interludes, and with the hero’s being, in the end, only an observer of the woman with which he is in love.

Continuing Dostoevsky’s earlier depiction of the dreamer in “White Nights,”“A Little Hero” thus incorporates many of the questions for which the author was articulating his own answers, providing an early Dostoevskian depiction of a generally non-Dostoevskian milieu.


John Galt, Tom Joad, and other polemical myths

Just about the only titles by Ayn Rand I’d feel comfortable assigning my students without previous suggestion by either student or boss would be Anthem or We the Living, mostly because they both fit into broader genres of dystopian and biographical fiction, respectively, and can, thus, be understood in context. Don’t get me wrong: I’d LOVE to teach The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, if I could find a student nuanced (and focused) enough to handle those two; however, if I WERE to find such a student, I’d probably skip Rand and go straight to Dostoevsky, Austen, and Hugo—again, in part to give students a context of the novelistic medium from which they can better understand authors like Rand.

My hesitation to teach Rand isn’t one of dismissal; indeed, it’s the opposite—I’ve, perhaps, studied her too much (certainly, during my mid-twenties, too exclusively). I could teach either of her major novels, with understanding of both plot and philosophy, having not only read/listened to them several times but also read most of her essays and non-fiction regarding Objectivism, art, and fiction, etc. However, I would hesitate to teach them because they are, essentially polemics. Despite Rand’s claiming it was not her purpose, the novels are didactic in nature: their events articulate Rand’s rationalistic, human-centric metaphysics (itself arguably a distillation of Aristotelian natural law, Lockean rights, and Nietzschean heroism filtered through Franklin, Jefferson, and Rockefeller and placed in a 20th-century American context—no small feat!). Insofar as they do so consistently, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged succeed, and they are both worth reading, if only to develop a firsthand knowledge of the much-dismissed Rand’s work, as well as to understand their place in 20th-century American culture.

All that to say that I understand why people, especially academics, roll their eyes at Rand (though at times I wonder if they’ve ever seriously read her). The “romantic realism” she sought to develop to glorify man as (she saw) man ought to be, which found its zenith in the American industrialist and entrepreneur, ran counter to much that characterized the broader 20th century culture (both stylistically and ideologically), as it does in the 21st. Granted, I may have an exaggerated sense of the opposition to Rand—her books are still read in and out of the classroom, and some of her ideas still influence areas of the culture—and one wonders if Rand wouldn’t take the opposition, itself, as proof of her being right (she certainly did this in the last century). However, because of the controversy, as well as the ideology that structures the novels, I would teach her with a grain of salt, not wanting to misuse my position of teaching who are, essentially, other people’s kids who probably don’t know/haven’t read enough to understand Rand in context. For this fact, if not for the reasoning, I can imagine other teachers applauding me.

And yet, how many academics would forego including Rand in a syllabus and, in the same moment, endorse teaching John Steinbeck without a second thought?

I generally enjoy reading/listening to books I happened to miss in my teenage years. Had I read The Great Gatsby any sooner than I did in my late twenties, I would not have been ready for it, and the book would have been wasted on me. The same can be said of The Scarlet Letter, 1984, and all of Dostoevsky. Even the books I read then have humbled me upon rereading; Pride and Prejudice wasn’t boring—I was.

Reading through The Grapes of Wrath for the first time this month, I am similarly glad I didn’t read it in high school (most of my peers were not so lucky, having to read it in celebration of Steinbeck’s 100th birthday). The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the book (though it certainly has faults) but in ourselves—that we, as teenagers who lack historical, political, and philosophical context, are underlings. One can criticize Atlas Shrugged for presenting a selective, romanticized view of the capitalist entrepreneur (which, within Rand’s view, was thorough, correct, consistent, and, for what it was, defensible) which might lead teenagers to be self-worshipping assholes who, reading Rand without nuance, take the book as justification for mistaking their limited experience of reality as their rational self-interest. One can do much the same, though for ideas fundamentally opposed to Rand’s, for The Grapes of Wrath.

A member of the Lost Generation, John Steinbeck was understandably jaded in his view of 19th-century American ideals. Attempting to take a journalistic-realism view of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl from the bottom up, he gave voice to the part of American society that, but for him, may have remained inarticulate and unrecorded. Whatever debate can be had about the origins of Black Tuesday (beginning more in Wilson’s Washington than on Wall Street), the Great Depression hit the Midwest hardest, and the justifiable sense that Steinbeck’s characters are unfair victims of others’ depredations pervades The Grapes of Wrath, just as it articulates one of the major senses of the time. When I read the book, I’m not only reading of the Joad family: I’m reading of my own grandfather, who grew up in Oklahoma and later Galveston, TX. He escaped the latter effects of the Dust Bowl by going not to California but to Normandy. I’m fortunate to have his journal from his teenage years; other Americans who don’t have such a journal have Steinbeck.

However, along with the day-in-the-life (in which one would never want to spend a day) elements of the plot, the book nonetheless offers a selectively, one might even say Romantically, presented ideology in answer to the plot’s conflict. Responding to the obstacles and unfairness depicted in The Grapes of Wrath one can find consistent advocacy of socialist revolution among the out-of-work migrants that comprise most of the book. Versus Rand’s extension of Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden’s sense of pride, ownership, and property down to the smallest elements of their respective businesses, a sense which they want to extend to and grow by hiring good, reliable employees, one finds in Steinbeck the theme of a growing disconnect between legal ownership and right to the land. In the different reflections interpolated throughout the Joads’ plot Steinbeck describes how, from his/his characters’ view, there had been a steady divorce over the years between legal ownership of the land and appreciation for it. This theme was not new to American literature. The “rural farmer vs city speculator” mythos is one of the fundamental characteristics of American culture reaching back to Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans’ opposition to Adams’s Federalists, and the tension between the southwest frontiersman and the northeast banker would play a major role in the culture of self-reliance, the politics of Jackson onward, and the literature of Mark Twain and others. Both sides of the tension attempt to articulate in what the inalienable right to property inheres. Is it in investment of funds and the legal buying and owning of land, or is it in the physical production of the land, perhaps in spite of whoever’s name is on the land grant or deed? Steinbeck is firmly in the latter camp.

However, in The Grapes of Wrath, one finds not a continuation of the yeoman farmer mythos but an arguable undermining of the right to property and profit that undergirds the American milieu which makes the yeoman farmer possible, replacing it with an (albeit understandable) right based not on production and legal ownership, but on need. “Fallow land’s a sin,” is a consistent motif in The Grapes of Wrath, especially, argue the characters, when there are so many who are hungry and could otherwise eat if allowed to plant on the empty land. Steinbeck does an excellent job effecting sympathy for the Joads and other characters who, having worked the soil their whole lives, now must compete with hundreds of others like them for jobs paying wages that, due to the intended abundance of applicants, fall far short of what is needed to fill their families’ stomachs. Similarly, Steinbeck goes to great pains to describe the efforts of landowners to keep crop prices up by punishing attempts to illegally grow food on the fallow land or to pick the fruit left to rot on trees, as well as the plot, narrowly evaded by the Joads, to eradicate “reds” trying to foment revolution in one of the Hoovervilles of the book (Tom Joad had, in fact, begun to advocate rising up against landowners in more than one instance). In contrast to the Hoovervilles stands the government camp, fitted out with running water, beneficent federal overseers, and safely outside the reach of the local, unscrupulous, anti-migrant police.

However, just as Rand’s depictions of early twentieth-century America is selective in its representation of the self-made-man ethos of her characters (Rand omits, completely, World War I and the 1929 stock market crash from her novels), Steinbeck’s representation of the Dust Bowl is selective in its omissions. The profit-focused prohibitions against the Joads’ working the land to eat were, in reality, policies required by FDR’s New Deal programs—specifically the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which required the burning of crops and burying of livestock in mass graves to maintain crop prices and which was outlawed in 1936 by the Supreme Court. It is in Steinbeck’s description of this process, which albeit avoids explicitly describing the federal government’s role therein, where one encounters the phrase “grapes of wrath,” presaging a presumable event—an uprising?—by the people: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Furthermore, though Rand presents, if in the hypothetical terms of narrative, how something as innocuous and inevitable as a broken wire in the middle of a desert can have ramifications that reach all the way to its company’s highest chair, Steinbeck’s narrative remains focused on the Joads, rarely touching on the economic exigencies experienced by the local property and business owners except in relation to the Joads and to highlight the apparent inhumanity of the propertied class (which, in such events as the planned fake riot at the government camp dance party, Steinbeck presents for great polemical effect).

I use “class” intentionally here: though the Great Depression affected all, Steinbeck’s characters often adopt the class-division viewpoint not only of Marx but of Hegel. Tom Joad’s mother articulates to Tom why she is, ultimately, encouraged by, if still resentful of the causers of, their lot:

“Us people will go on living when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people—we go on.”

“We take a beatin’ all the time.”

“I know.” Ma chuckled. “Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”

Describing, if in fewer words than either Hegel or Marx, the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” process of how their class is steadily strengthened by their adverse circumstances in ways the propertied class is not, Mrs. Joad articulates an idea that pervades much of The Grapes of Wrath: the sense that the last and best hope and strength of the put-upon lower classes is found in their being blameless amidst the injustice of their situation.

This, I submit, is as much a mythos—if a well-stylized one—as Rand’s depiction of the producer-trader who is punished for his or her own ability to create, and, save for the discernible Marxist elements in Steinbeck, both are authentically American. Though the self-prescribed onus of late 19th- and early 20th-century literature was more journalistic than artistic in nature, Steinbeck was nonetheless a novelist, articulating not merely events but the questions beneath those events and concretizing the perspectives and issues involved into characters and plots that create a story, in the fairy tale sense, a mythos that conveys a cultural identity. That The Grapes of Wrath is polemical—from the Greek πολεμικός for “warlike” or “argumentative”—does not detract from this (it may be an essential part of it). Indeed, for all the artistic selectivity involved in the art form, nothing can give fuel to a cause like a polemical novel—as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and many others show.

However, when it comes to assigning polemics to students without hesitation, I…hesitate. Again, the issue lies in recognizing (or, for most students, being told) that one is reading a polemic. When one reads a polemic, one is often engaging, in some measure, with politics dressed up as story, and it is through this lens and with this caveat that such works must be read—even (maybe especially!) when they are about topics with which one agrees. As in many things, I prefer to defer to Aristotle, who, in the third section of Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, cautions against young people engaging in politics before they first learn enough of life to provide context:

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs.

Of course, the implicit answer is to encourage young people (and ourselves) to read not less but more—and to read with the knowledge that their own interests, passions, neuroses, and inertias might be unseen participants in the process. Paradoxically, it may be by reading more that we can even start to read. Rand becomes much less profound, and perhaps more enjoyable, after one reads the Aristotle, Hugo, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky who made her, and I certainly drew on American history (economic and political) and certain elements of continental philosophy, as well as other works of Steinbeck and the Lost Generation when reading The Grapes of Wrath. Yet, as Aristotle implies, young people haven’t had the time—and, more importantly, the metaphysical and rhetorical training and self-discipline—to develop such reflection as readers (he said humbly and as a lifelong student, himself). Indeed, as an instructor this stands not as an obstacle but an opportunity—to teach students that there is much more to effective reading and understanding than they might expect.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating my case. I have, after all, taught polemical novels to students (most recently 1984 to a middle schooler), and a novel I’ve written and am trying to get published is, itself, at least partially polemical on behalf of keeping Shakespeare in the curriculum. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s polemical burlesque of the psychology behind Russian socialism, Devils, or The Possessed, so specifically predicted the motives and method of the Russian Revolution (and any other socialist revolution) over fifty years before it happened that it should be required reading. Nonetheless, because the content and aim of a work requires a different context for teaching, a unit on Devils or The Grapes of Wrath would look very different from one on, say, The Great Gatsby. While the latter definitely merits offering background to students, the former would need to include enough background on the history and perspectives involved to be able to recognize them. The danger of omitting background from Fitzgerald would be an insufficient understanding of and immersion in the plot; of Steinbeck, an insufficient knowledge of the limits of and counters to the argument.

Part of the power and danger of polemical art lies in its using a fictional milieu to carry an idea that is not meant to be taken as fiction. The willing suspension of disbelief that energizes the former is what allows the latter idea to slip in as palatable. This can produce one of at least two results, both arguably artistic aberrations: either the idea is caught and disbelief is not able to be suspended, rendering the artwork feeling preachy or propagandistic, or the audience member gives him or herself over to the work completely and, through the mythic capability of the artistic medium, becomes uncritically possessed by the idea, deriving an identity from it while believing they are merely enjoying and defending what they believe to be great art. I am speaking from more than a bit of reflection: whenever I see some millennial interpret everything through the lens of Harry, Ron, and Hermione on Twitter, I remember mid-eye-roll that I once did the same with Dagny, Francisco, and Hank.

Every work of art involves a set of values it seeks to concretize and communicate in a certain way, and one culture’s mythos may be taken by a disinterested or hostile observer to be so much propaganda. Because of this, even what constitutes a particular work as polemical may, itself, be a matter of debate, if not personal taste. One can certainly read and gain much from reading any of these books (as The Grapes of Wrath‘s Pulitzer Prize shows), and, as I said, I’m coming at Grapes with the handicap of its being my first read. I may very well be doing what I warn my students against doing, passing judgment on a book before I understand it; if I am, I look forward to experiencing a well-deserved facepalm moment in the future—which I aim to accelerate by reading the rest of Steinbeck’s work (Cannery Row is next). But this is, itself, part of the problem of polemics. Passively reading Atlas Shrugged or The Grapes of Wrath, taking them as reality, and then interpreting all other works (and, indeed, reality) through their lens is not dangerous because they aren’t real, but because within the limits of their selective stylization and values they ARE real. That is what makes them so powerful, and, as with anything powerful, one must learn how to use them responsibly—and be circumspect when leading others into them without the discipline proper to such works.

A further reflection on NN’s Efimov

Belief in intoxication—Owing to the contrasts other states of consciousness present and to the wasteful squandering of their nervous energy, people who live for sublime and enraptured moments are usually wretched and disconsolate; they view those moments as their true self and the misery and despair as the effect of everything ‘outside the self’, [because they teach dissatisfaction and disdain for the world along with the obfuscation of the genius cult. Who will, then, have to suffer from these immoderates? Their entire surroundings into the farthest future, especially the children]; thus the thought of their environment, their age, their entire world fills them with vengeful emotions…Humanity has these rapturous drunkards to thank for a great deal of evil: for they are the insatiable sowers of the weeds of dissatisfaction with self and neighbor, of disdain for this world and their time, and especially of world-weariness. Perhaps a whole hell of criminals could not muster and impact as sinister and uncanny…[as] people of genius who cannot control themselves and who take all possible pleasure in themselves only at the point where they have completely lost themselves… “—F. Nietzsche, Dawn I.50 (italics in trans.; brackets from prelim draft)

Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova was published in 1849, Nietzsche’s Dawn in 1881, the year of the former writer’s death. It is known that Nietzsche did not discover Dostoevsky, whom he famously calls in his 1888 The Twilight of the Idols “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn” (IX.45), until around 1886-87; he almost certainly did not read NN. Yet, in a not-uncommon serendipity, Nietzsche articulates clearly an idea previously concretized in the work of Dostoevsky.

This type of seeming coincidence between the two has more and more made me take both writers’ work seriously as correct diagnoses of 19th century Europe, their respectively different prescriptions to the diagnoses notwithstanding. They both understood that the souring of early 19th-century Romanticism, the ideological and aesthetic effects of the French revolution and Napoleon (that such events and such a man should be possible, etc), the scientism of which Darwin was only a part (albeit a major one), and the metaphysical and ethical questions posed by all of these and other issues had led to a deeply unstable decadence. Ultimately bringing home Falstaff’s almost prophetic pronouncement upon finding Sir Walter Blunt’s body on the battlefield that “there’s honour for you” (1HIV 5.2), it would take the Great War for Europe to realize they no longer believed in the values their the culture was built on (is not reading modern history often a game of “Shakespeare, et al, were right”?).

Nietzsche’s and Dostoevsky’s respective responses to the problem—the emptying of the values at the source of the culture, what N would declare in The Gay Science as the death of God—are as different as they are nuanced. Acknowledging (with a bravery one still rarely sees in such topics) that if one removes the root they have no right to the tree, Nietzsche would eventually call for a wholesale replacement of the Platonic-Christian metaphysic, with the godlike ubermensch as its standard of value. Meanwhile, against (though not really) Nietzsche’s ubermensch Dostoevsky had already presented his answer to decadence in the young, diffident, unprepossessing erstwhile monk, the Christlike Alyosha. Whereas, in laying out the power of the ubermensch, Nietzsche keeps before his reader’s awareness the fact that such an existence will be beyond the vast majority of humans, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha is characterized by his ability to lift up and redeem even the worst of characters. Of course, Alyosha stands as Dostoevsky’s larger answer to the empty decadence of Europe: a return to Orthodox Christianity, which, because of its sacramental worldview whereby all the world can have a divine significance, stands as a reliable source of the Romantic outlook the early Dostoevsky was, to use a Nietzschean image, pushing into the fire to discover whether it was a god or an idol.

Dostoevsky’s most nuanced critical investigation into Romanticism is NN‘s Efimov, whom I describe elsewhere. Again, that Nietzsche’s Dawn should sound like a commentary on Efimov speaks to the prescience of both works. To treat the above passage as if it were such a commentary:

The Romantic vision as Intoxication

To say that Efimov’s primary vice is alcohol would be wrong; it is not until his pretensions of his own greatness cause him to accuse his landowning employer of misuse of authority that, against said beneficient employer’s advice, he becomes a drunk. Efimov’s dissolution with alcohol is merely an effect of his deeper disconnect from reality, though it certainly reinforces the latter—not only with the perception distortion of the drink but also the subsequent wasting of money which, to Efimov’s implicit savor, keeps Efimov in a dejected, put-upon state.

The man’s character is highlighted by the presence of fellow violinist, B., who more than once interprets how the, from the Romantic perspective, best aspects of Efimov’s character lead to the increase of the worst. However, Nietzsche might argue that the problem is not just in Efimov, but in B.: the enshrining of the Romantic impulse, of the seeming passion for art, of instinct for music, etc, are all themselves intoxications. It is a cultural drunkenness that produces an Efimov, as can be seen in the contrast between him and B., the book’s more pragmatic musician and Efimov’s one-time roommate and several-time benefactor. Describing Efimov’s psychology, B. says:

“[A]ll his impetuosity, impatience and feverish haste amounted to nothing more than an unconscious despair at the memory of his squandered talent and that it was more than likely that this talent had never been anything very special, not even in the beginning, that there had been a great deal of blindness, of vain complacency and premature self-satisfaction and of dreaming and fantasizing about his genius.”

From Nietzsche’s perspective above, one might very well read this as applying to Romanticism (or at least the dreamlike state of mechtatelnost) as a whole. Interpreting Efimov at more than one point, B. articulates the misleading effects of the man’s perspective that would prompt Nietzsche to call Romanticism as a whole “the malignant fairy” (BGE I.11). Albeit part of Dawn‘s larger argument against Christianity and its supposedly good effect on humanity, the split between selves described by Nietzsche can be seen in Efimov, who must go to further and further lengths (only one measure of which is drunkenness) to maintain his false view of himself. Fulfilling the “suffering” of “the children” under such “immoderates,” Netochka, herself, becomes both a victim to and reinforcer of Efimov’s obfuscation. Efimov’s viciousness is so vicious because, due to Romanticism’s “sublime and enraptured moments,” it seems so not vicious; indeed, Efimov’s whole persona relies on presenting (and believing, himself) the idea of his own virtuousness, for which he is punished by reality. He is most the bad guy when he appears most like a good guy. We know to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing; what of a sheep (goat?) in wolf’s clothing? What tricks and poisons must such a being rely upon to supplement their innate lack of teeth?

Because of this element of his deception, Efimov must strive not for greatness but for degradation. Like other characters in the Dostoevsky canon—lowest of whom is Fyodor Karamazov, himself, father of Alyosha—Efimov seems to do the worst thing possible as if from a compulsion. Later in the book, after Efimov has married and lives with Netochka, B. again interprets the man, and he is much less forgiving:

“[N]owadays poverty is almost his happiness: it provides him with an excuse. He can now convince everyone that it’s only poverty that has hindered him, and that if he had been rich, free of troubles and had had plenty of free time, we would all have recognized him for the artist he is…If you were to deprive him of his wife he would be the most miserable creature in existence. It must be several years now since he has touched his violin—and do you know why? Because every time he does he’s forced to realize that he’s nothing, a nobody, not one bit of an artist.”

To Dostoevsky’s credit, in passages like this the author steel mans the worst of the Romanticism he loves and takes a hammer to it in the form of Efimov. Ironically, the very things that supposedly once gave Efimov a reason for his early egotism have been destroyed by that egotism; what art he once may have had (can he be sure he ever did, seeing from inside a dream as he does?) has been destroyed by the cache it once provided with those around him. Furthermore, his violin, the symbol of his art, fills him with frustration and, ultimately, madness.

Nietzsche, it would seem, would locate the source of the problem not in Efimov but in a culture that would entertain such a man’s delusions. Certainly the Russian Naturalists contemporary with Dostoevsky’s early years did this; indeed, early Russian socialism and revolution (for which Dostoevsky was arrested as an accessory) was a reaction against what many saw as a perspective that, en masse, incentivized ignoring the causes of things like poverty, abuse, and drunkenness. The atheistic socialism of Belinsky and Herzen, as well as later Russian socialists (indeed, many socialists, in general), arguably committed the same sin for which they accused the Romantics—that the further disproven was their dream, the more deeply and fervently they maintained it—but I’ll save that discussion for a later post on Dostoevsky’s answer to it in The Possessed. For now, let it suffice that NN‘s Efimov stands not only as Dostoevsky’s first in-depth exploration of the psychology of the antagonist who does not know he is the antagonist, but, from Nietzsche’s view, indicative of one of the major crises of the 19th century: that of a Platonism which, while not being fully believed, still encouraged a disdain, if not ressentiment, of reality as such.

Dostoevsky never fully rejected Romanticism (thank goodness!); indeed, after seeing in Siberia the strength and redemption made possible by that greater Romanticism, Orthodoxy, it would enliven and provide the narrative and moral basis for much of his later work, in which he would synthesize the best aspects of Romanticism and Naturalism. In my opinion, while he and Nietzsche may have diagnosed the same problems, he provided better answers, ones we, as a culture still dealing with the results of the 19th and 20th centuries, still have yet to learn. I don’t mean Orthodoxy, per se, (though as an Orthodox Christian I wouldn’t mind a greater interest in the higher and deeper things) but merely a larger awareness that such things as abstract, Platonic meaning are real, despite paradoxically, their reality not being felt until they are actively lived out (can’t say it enough: thank you, Aristotle). Greater than any arguments for a looking backward rather than forward to reinvigorate a culture’s dead values is the demeanor of Dostoevsky’s writing and characters; as in “The Grand Inquisitor’s” presentation of Christ’s wordless interaction with the Inquisitor, it is not with arguments or apologetics that Sonia and Alyosha redeem Raskalnikov and Kolya (among others), respectively, but with love, by showing the implicit strength and resilience of their Christian (ie. millenia-enduring) humility. In Netochka Nezvanova there are early, if pre-Siberian, signs of this humility in the form of Prince X, who despite his social height is willing to demean himself to adopt Netochka and defend her on more than one occasion, even against his own wife.

Nonetheless, besides being an early exploration of the psychology of irrationality, degradation, and masochism that would fill Dostoevsky’s later works, Efimov—even to himself!—provides a caricature of many of the aspects of the early 19th-century conceptions of the artist-hero which later writers besides Nietzsche would review with a critical eye (Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy come to mind). Because of this, Netochka Nezvanova stands as a perhaps overlooked forerunner not only of other 19th century works but of the psycho-socio-cultural investigations that would comprise much of that century’s shifts that would become apparent early in the next.

How to Be a Conservative by Sir Roger Scruton—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted to Goodreads.com.

In How to be a Conservative, English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton articulates both the cultural foundation for and reasons to subscribe to conservatism. Differentiating between conservatism, the demeanor, and conservatism, the English philosophical tradition, Scruton describes his own experiences which led him to be a conservative before laying out the universal principles that fall under the philosophy—many of which are held by people, explicitly or implicitly.

Identifying the conservative tradition as a defense of revealed and discovered truth, Scruton structures the book through topical chapters entitled “The Truth in…”. Several of his conclusions about what consistent conservatism might say about the topics may surprise readers; for example, Scruton argues that because of conservatism’s regard for and protection of “home,” it is conservatism, not ascendant progressivism, that can and should provide the best motivations and approaches to mitigate global climate change. In other sections regarding the rise of modern political correctness, he goes through the history of classical liberalism and conservatism to show how both are the source of the multicultural regard for other countries and people groups, and both (especially the latter) are necessary for authentic multiculturalism to exist.

Eminently positive in his arguments (both in the “optimistic” and the “substantial” sense), Scruton’s How to be a Conservative shows that the conservative worldview is anything but a simple reactionary perspective; rather, he shows that it has both a rich history and a logical coherence that make it relevant for readers today and in the future.

Netochka Nezvanova—Projeny Projection

Dostoevsky’s last, interrupted work before his arrest for participation in the Petrashevsky circle’s illicit printing, Netochka Nezvanova (1849) was (or would have been) the writer’s first attempt at a longer novel. In it Dostoevsky follows the growth of an orphan into a young woman developing her skills as a singer by the time she reaches eighteen at the end of the installment. Presumably intending to carry Netochka’s bildungsroman into her life as a famous singer, Dostoevsky uses several elements of the by then out-of-vogue Romantic tradition, just as he had with Poor Folk, “White Nights,” and The Double.

However, as in those stories, he nonetheless incorporated several other aspects into his writing. “In each case,” says Joseph Frank in The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, “he took a form that had become outmoded and attempted to revitalize it with a new, contemporary significance.” In NN, Dostoevsky continues his investigation of the psychology of the Romantic, articulating both the circumstances that lead to one adopting and the effects that might result from the overly Romantic view of the world—”МЕЧТАТЕЛЬНОСТЬ,” “mechtatelnost,” “star-gazing,” “reverie”— which does not balance the internal life with external reality. As with his previous works, NN consistently maintains a tension between the high and uplifted vision of the characters and the squalor of their everyday lives, and it further develops the balance between the virtues he saw inherent in the Romantic vision and the vices made possible by the overly-internal character (see his later Raskalnikov, among others).

While his previous stories more or less dealt with adults, here he examines both the tragic and ennobling aspects of mechtatelnost as it pertains to the life of a child. Born into squalor and raised by a step-father whose dreams and fantasies soothe and distract his own ego from the fact that he has squandered his talent as a violinist, Netochka shows what may be Dostoevsky’s earliest (certainly his youngest) iteration of what would later be termed existentialism, and, thrown as she is into a life and family she does not understand, she stands as an implicit rejection of the “tabula rasa” perspective of human life and childhood.

Or does she? While she, herself, certainly doesn’t start from a place of neutral being (she is already deeply into her experiences—themselves a result of Chapter 1’s backstory of her step-father’s fantastic madness—before she awakens into awareness at age nine), her character often stands as a blank slate or mirror onto which other characters project their own inner pathologies. While her real name is Anna/Annetta, her nickname, which she carries through the whole book, is “Netochka Nezvanova”—”nameless nobody.” While she does eventually (indeed, triumphantly) develop her own character and will despite the deterministic elements of her nurturing (or lack thereof), Netochka nonetheless stands as a cipher for those around her, and her at times empathetic, at times naive, willingness to go along with those she loves causes her to become what those around her need her to be, for good or ill.

“Everything started turning into the fairy tale my father frequently told me and which I interpreted as reality.” Thus Netochka, describing how her step-father’s consistent weaving of his narrative of how despite his talent he has been put upon by the world, articulates the familiar motif of the Romantic vision’s ability to both alleviate and distort one’s and others’ views of the world. However, in NN it’s more pitiful, vicious, and suspenseful because in the first two of the book’s three episodes the young Netochka doesn’t know any better. Despite her heightened perceptiveness for a child (itself perhaps more a symptom of her step-father’s relying on her as “a fellow sufferer” than a natural aptitude), one can see several places where Netochka is drawn into the perceptions of others. This often reveals more about them than her, and as in the advances and evasions in previous works, it serves as a brilliant means of Dostoevsky exploring new ways to develop his characters within old forms.

Principal of the characters who develop a co-dependent, projective relationship with Netochka is her step-father, Efimov, whose backstory must first be described for one to understand Netochka’s story. With Efimov Dostoevsky articulates to the fullest extent yet the psychology of the pathological dreamer, and he uses the erstwhile musician to present the Romantic “hero” in the Naturalistic context popular in Russian literature of the time. In Joseph Frank’s words, Efimov “is possessed by the demon of the old-fashioned Romantic conception of art, which was indeed largely a glorification of the ego of its creator” (Seeds). This is apparent from the story’s beginning:

“‘…this man, with his complete impotence and totally inadequate knowledge of musical technique, had nevertheless such a deep and lucid—one might even say instinctive—understanding of art. He had such intense feeling and appreciation for it that it is hardly surprising if he confused himself in his own mind and mistook himself for a genius, a high priest of art rather than a sympathetic, natural critic.'”

Spoken by Efimov’s less talented but more practical and dedicated—and thus more consistently employed—foil, the fellow violinist B., these lines reveal how Efimov’s delusions, though attractive to people, have blinded him to his own inability to merit them. Having earlier quitted a reliable position in a local landowner’s orchestra, Efimov has been virtually unemployed for six years, all the while enduring “‘a feverish contest taking place between a violently over-strained will and inner impotence.'” Seen through the eyes of a friend who understands the value of both the Romantic view of art and the need to understand oneself as they really are, Efimov is a man who has not contained and focused his passion in beneficial ways but has instead spent his resources (usually lent to him by friends like B.) on drunken dissipation.

Efimov’s engaging in greater self-delusions as he becomes more and more degraded (indeed, at times he seems to masochistically enjoy his degradation) would be at least dismissable did he not marry a woman and become step-father to her daughter. In the book’s second chapter we finally meet Netochka, whose first memories involve fear of her mother and pity for her father. Having seen how Efimov uses the pity of those around him, we can easily see a home life like a latter Tennessee Williams play, with each family member’s actions provoking the very actions they hate in others. A woman who had been brought in by Efimov’s Romantic language (solely for her 1,000 kopek dowry) before being summarily disillusioned, Netochka’s mother ironically becomes the antagonist to the girl’s childlike perspective. “How did I develop such cruel feelings towards a creature who suffered so eternally as my mother?” the older Netochka asks, recounting her childhood. Much of the answer lies in her becoming the participant in fantasy that Efimov wants in order to garner his approval. The co-dependency made possible by the arrangement is easy to imagine, and it produces much of the book’s initial tension and dramatic irony. Ending in Netochka’s mother’s death and Efimov’s being, like The Double‘s Golyadkin, pushed to madness by the presence in St. Petersburg of a truly great violinist to whom even his delusions cannot convince himself of his superiority, Netochka Nezvanova‘s first episode lays the psychological groundwork out of which the book’s heroine must rise in order to become not only her own character but a psychologically healthy one. Because it is his psychological influence which Netochka must rise out of as much as the poverty of which he is the source, Efimov is implicitly present throughout the story.

For those who have read Dostoevsky’s later works, his earlier pieces like Netochka Nezvanova are troves for hints of what would make those later works so great; such is the case for any canonical (or non-canonical) writer. Signs of Crime and Punishment’s Marmeladov can be seen in Efimov (though Marmeladov is arguably redeemable due to his knowing he is a degenerate, whereas Efimov never acknowledges the extent of his pathology, nor its effect on his step-child), as well as, in a more implicit and sinister way, Svidrigailov and even Stavrogin. Princess Katya’s impetuousity can, at times, remind one of Liza Khokhlakov, Dostoevsky’s basing much of that character on his later first wife notwithstanding. Furthermore, Dostoevsky’s choice of a poor female protagonist who rises out of literal and psychological poverty is an early example of his later consistent focus on put-upon female characters.

More than the characters, one can find early iterations of Dostoevsky’s later style and choice of subject in NN. Both Efimov’s unconscious manipulation of the helpless (because young) Netochka and the conscious manipulation of the same by the girl’s mother out of resentment for her listless husband will be recognizable foreshadows of Dostoevsky’s latter home lives. This, of course, provides the central conflict of the book: that between Netochka’s early misperception of the world and reality. Reading through NN‘s later two episodes, I found myself watching Netochka’s narration critically, trying to spot where her earlier trauma may have warped her subsequent interpretation of her experiences. For example, rather than read it as a 19th century trope of the closeness and purity of children, I often read her overly-passionate (at several times erotic) relationship with Princess Katya as both a repeat of and an opposite reaction to Efimov. That Dostoevsky understood the dramatic potential of the psychological backgrounds of his characters so early in life is both amazing and yet, considering his later work, unsurprising.

Simultaneously his first envisioned long-form novel and his last work before his sentence to Siberia, Netochka Nezvanova takes a special place in Dostoevsky’s canon. It culminates several of Dostoevsky’s early trends, not the least of which is his engaging in the Romanticism-Naturalism debate taking place in Russia at the time. In Frank’s words, “With this work, Dostoevsky was endeavoring to steer a middle way between the discredited Romantic glorification of art on the one hand, and the temptation to discard the values of art entirely in favor of the utilitarian and the practical on the other.” In this book one can see a greater confidence than in any of his earlier nonetheless excellent work. His time in prison would ultimately sift and solidify his perspectives in ways that relegate any early questioning or immaturity to the past, and while it’s a pity Dostoevsky did not resume the work after his time in prison (it ends right when it seems to get going!), the book contains many elements he would later utilize in his masterpieces.

Dostoevsky and the psychology of the simp

One of the many words birthed and, once popular, emptied of its specific censuring weight by 2020 was “simp.” Defined by Urban Dictionary as “someone who does way too much for the person they like,” and “a man who puts the hoes before the bros,” the word is, as far as I can figure, the noun/verb form of “simpering,” which fits. However, these initial definitions lack a certain weight, for it’s arguable that there are circumstances where such actions would be not only appropriate but necessary (see “marriage”). A more lengthy, damning, and, in my view, useful UD definition identifies a simp as “a guy that is overly desperate for a woman, especially if she is a bad person or has expressed her disinterest in him, whom he continues to obsess over. They’re usually just virgins that will accept coochie from anyone, regardless of who they are.” Well said.

As I said in a previous post, last year I set out on a personal project to read or reread all of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work as I read through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography on the man (one volume per year). At this point I’ve completed the first two biography volumes, which cover Dostoevsky’s early life and his time in a Siberian prison camp, and several of the author’s early works.

One major motif I kept seeing in Dostoevsky’s pre-Siberian works was his focus not on heroic characters but their opposite: the psychological weaklings of St. Petersburg. Works like Poor Folk, “White Nights,” and The Double all feature protagonists who, whether or not they let themselves be aware of it, have little to no chance with the women who occupy their affections. In fact, presaging the more serious psychology of masochism explored by Dostoevsky’s later works (and in his own early romantic relationships), Dostoevsky includes themes of self-sabotage in these early writings: it’s debatable whether or not Makar Dyevushkin, the “White Nights” dreamer, or Yakov Golyadkin would have chosen their paramours if they weren’t utterly out of reach—an idea consciously approached by the characters to differing extents. Ironically, the utter unattainability of the characters’ fantasies allows the characters to maintain their uplifted, (technically) Romantic visions of the women—and of themselves—even to their own detriment. In all three cases, the type of attraction they experience and how they treat the attraction comes out of their literal circumstances at the bottom of St. Petersburg, and in all three cases it leads to inevitable failure.

Poor Folk: Makar Dyevushkin, King of the Simps

Despite (or because of) its focus on an older clerk’s correspondence with a younger woman, Poor Folk is a testament of why one needs bros (though perhaps not the Karamazov kind). As I read the letters between him and Varvara Alexyevna, I kept wanting to do what I’ve done to friends in similar situations: slap Dyevushkin and tell him to develop some God-damned dignity. The sense that one is watching an act of self-destruction in real time is part of what Dostoevsky explores through the book: the psychology of the ashamed.

The first of the low-level clerks that would populate several of Dostoevsky’s works, Dyevushkin lacks any social standing in Russian society, and he knows it. Within the first few pages of the epistolary novel one learns of the bareness of his quarters—for which he very nearly apologizes to the hardly better off Varvara (the first of Dostoevsky’s put-upon female characters, she deserves her own post altogether). Nonetheless, despite his straits and her not having asked him for such things, Dyevushkin buys often extravagant gifts for Varvara early in their correspondence, and he even changes apartments to be nearby if she ever needs anything. Eventually, and implicitly because of possible finagling on Varvara’s part, Dyevushkin even ends up helping with preparations for Varvara’s marriage to a landowner from outside the city. In short, what 2020 called a “simp” Dostoevsky called a Makar Dyevushkin—itself a derivation of a Russian word “devushka” for girl or young woman (about which one can draw their own conclusions).

I don’t mean to sell the book short—after all, with critic Vissarion Belinsky’s endorsement it was the book that pushed the young Dostoevsky to the top of the Russian literary scene. At the time and following a similar movement in Europe, Russian culture was shifting from artistic Romanticism to a more journalistic Naturalism, and Poor Folk serves as a snapshot of this change (this movement is a major topic in Frank’s first biographical volume, The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849). Consistent through the book is the clash between the two characters’ uplifted Romantic language—much of it from the novels they read—and the squalor of their actual lives.

Indeed, the problems arguably created by a Romantic perspective are present in the book’s opening letter from Dyevushkin to Varvara: “I compared you with a bird of the air created for the delight of men and the adornment of nature.” In his next letter, the protagonist reflects on his own language:

“I ought not in my old age, with scarcely any hair on my head, to have launched out into lyrical nonsense and fine phrases…For no rhyme or reason there was a regular holiday in my soul; I felt so gay. I took up my papers eagerly—but what did it all amount to! As soon as I looked about me, everything was as before, grey and dingy. Still the same ink-spots, the same tables and papers, and I , too, was just the same; as I always have been, so I was still…”

Though much of Dostoevsky’s later skill would consist in his synthesizing the best aspects of Romanticism with honest portraits of Russia’s middle and lower classes, at this point the language of the Romantics which had momentarily lifted Dyevushkin’s perspective only serves to highlight his squalor after the words have left.

More relevant to the current topic, the opening letters introduce the theme of how Dyevushkin’s Romantic perspective of Varvara keeps him from actually acknowledging her character and circumstances. Much of the book’s tension lies in his subtly counseling the younger woman against things that might aid her advancement—reading, finding employment, and ultimately marrying a secure (if distasteful) prospect. However, far from merely speaking to 19th-century perspectives of women as the weaker or lesser sex, Dyevushkin’s Romantic condescension speaks more to his own weakness. He can’t afford for the young Varvara to rise in the world because it will only underscore how pathetic he, himself, is.

The rest of the book is a masterpiece in projection: everything from Dyevushkin’s seemingly selfless encouragements for Varvara to his annoyances at his humorously critical peers to his much more vicious resentment of charity from the upper classes serve to characterize only himself, and it is one of the aspects that fills the book with critical potential. At some level Dyevushkin knows his seeing St. Petersburg from the bottom has affected his perspective. In a letter dated July 8 he describes the paranoia of the poor:

“One hides oneself sometimes, one hides oneself, one tries to conceal one’s weak points, one’s afraid to show one’s nose at times anywhere because one is afraid of tittle-tattle, because they can work up a tale against you about anything in the world—anything.”

Presaging Rodney Dangerfield by a century, Dyevushkin develops this sentiment in his August 1 letter, saying, “The poor man is exacting, he takes a different view of God’s world, and looks askance at every passer-by and turns a troubled gaze about him and looks to every word, wondering whether people are not talking about him…everyone knows, Varinka, that a poor man is worse than a rag and can get no respect from anyone…”

Considering Dyevushkin’s constant experience of such things, it is not surprising that he should try to find solace in his Romantic vision of Varvara. However, like a modern subscriber donating thousands of dollars to his mistress’s OnlyFans only to see it go to her and her boyfriend’s downtown flat, Dyevushkin’s Romantic relief, itself, becomes tragic. In a master move foreshadowing his later articulation of the psychology of those who steer more directly into self-destruction the closer they come to it, Dostoevsky does not pull Dyevushkin back from the edge. Instead, he leaves the clerk simultaneously trying to manipulate her into maintaining correspondence by threatening to withhold his own letters and refusing to accept that Varvara has married and will receive no more of his letters:

“…when you go away you must write to me from there, or else, my heavenly angel, this will be the last letter and you know that this cannot be, this cannot be the last letter! Why, how can it be, so suddenly, actually the last? Oh no, I shall write and you will write…besides, I am acquiring a literary style…Oh, my own what does style matter now? I don’t know, now, what I am writing, I don’t know at all, I don’t know and I don’t read it over and I don’t improve the style. I write only to write, only to go on writing to you…my darling, my own My Varinka…”

One can hardly find a worse L in the whole of Reddit, and it’s only one instance of my favorite game to play nowadays: “Dostoevsky called it.”

“White Nights”: TFW a Friendzoned Dreamer

Unlike Makar Dyevushkin, the unnamed dreamer of Dostoevsky’s first-person short story “White Nights” is aware of the effect loneliness and Romanticism have had on his perception of the world. However, rather than avoid the perspective, he embraces his Romantic solipsism and enjoys the way it allows him to see the world in a better light. Notably set in the white nights season of summer, where St. Petersburg’s proximity to the Arctic Circle ensures that the skies never darken beyond dusk, the short story continues Dostoevsky’s wrestling to find the dramatic balance between Romanticism and Naturalism.

The short story—which, according to Joseph Frank, was “the only one of Dostoevsky’s minor stories to be greeted favorably by the critics” (Seeds 346), no doubt because of its lighter tone and subject—follows a man wandering around St. Petersburg, which has been virtually emptied as the more wealthy inhabitants have left the city on vacation. In an early, if unserious, image of Raskalnikov, the narrator says, “I felt afraid of being left alone, and for three whole days I wandered about the town in profound dejection, not knowing what to do with myself.” To fight off the impulse to feel “ashamed, mortified and sad that I had nowhere to go for the holidays,” he seeks the type of serendipity popular in Romantic novels of the time.

In a self-fulfilling prophecy, he finds this in a young woman—Nastenka—whom he finds crying on a bridge over a canal. As in Poor Folk, the dreamer’s Romantic interpretation of the girl is immediate; however, he is self-aware enough that rather than being reductionary it becomes parodic:

“And timid as I was with women, yet this was such a moment!…I turned, took a step towards her, and should certainly have pronounced the word ‘Madam!’ if I had not known that that exclamation had been uttered a thousand times in every Russian society novel. It was only that reflection stopped me.”

Rather than maneuvering to avoid the pitfalls of Romanticism, Dostoevsky exploits them for comic effect—for not even his characters can believe them without reservation. With his capacity for irony in tow, the narrator develops a three-day relationship with the girl, who he learns is awaiting her fiance. Upfront about his Romantic perspective, he seeks to turn his apparent loneliness into charm. “I do nothing but dream every day that at last I shall meet some one. Oh, if only you knew how often I have been in love that way…Why, with no one, with an ideal…” Paradoxically, the ridiculousness of his tendency to live in a dream allows him to displace his apparent timidity and develop a touchstone with which to entertain the young Nastenka, and the two meet up for the next couple of nights in anticipation of the girl’s fiance.

Far from blinding him to those around him and the state of his life, as does Dyevushkin’s, the “White Nights” dreamer’s frankly Romantic perspective gives him not only apparent courage and talking points, but a way to cope with solitude. “He desires nothing, because he is superior to all desire, because he has everything, because he is satiated, because he is the artist of his own life, and creates it for himself every hour to suit his latest whim.” Even as these lines augur the strength-in-solitude elements of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, they sufficiently draw Nastenka into the dream enough that, by her fiance’s inevitable arrival, she is (or seems) tempted to remain with the narrator.

However, ironically this would be anticlimactic: because the story’s main theme is the amusing unbelievability of Romanticism, for the dreams to become reality would undercut the underlying premises of the story. It is a break, a holiday, from reality that comprises the whole impetus for the story’s relationship, just as much as the transient white nights season provides an empty St. Petersburg for the story’s setting. The transience of the brief romance (which will surprise no one who has worked with teenagers) is emphasized by the story’s final section being labeled “Morning”—as if Nastenka’s letter apologizing for abruptly leaving the narrator the night before weren’t enough of a wake up call.

Nonetheless, although “White Nights” follows the same general form as Poor Folk, with the protagonist developing an outwardly platonic relationship with the girl only for her to eventually marry someone else, it is more parodic than tragic. In tone, it is a 9gag meme with which one sympathizes (#feelsbadman) rather than a Reddit post of a massive but deserved L. Because the narrator is consistently aware of the unreality of his perspective, he does not suffer a metaphysical rupture when reality hits. Indeed, in what can, like other parts of the story, be interpreted alternately as optimistic and pathetic, the narrator faces his contradiction directly:

“[The] whole vista of my future flashed before me so sad and forbidding, and I saw myself just as I was now, fifteen years hence, older, in the same room, just as solitary…But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness…Oh never, never! May you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart! My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

Rather than resent Nastenka for leaving, as Dyevushkin does Varvara, the white nights dreamer chooses to maintain his parodically Romantic view of Nastenka and remain grateful for their brief interaction. Though he uses language of doing it for Nastenka’s sake, it’s clearly for his own sake—or, rather, for the sake of his memory of the girl, which, even as it ennobled her, ennobled St. Petersburg for the dreamer.

One key aspect of the story’s charm is Nastenka’s difference from Varvara. Whereas Dyevushkin interprets Varvara through a Romantic lens without her playing along and in a way that keeps her at a level to which he can condescend, the “White Nights” dreamer withholds his Romanticism during his first couple of interactions with Nastenka. He keeps it hypothetical in a way that attracts Nastenka, which successfully happens. Indeed, she enjoys partaking in the dreamer’s dream so much that, playing her part in the Romance, she makes as if tempted to forsake her intended for him. Unlike Varvara, who, despite at times arguably manipulating Dyevushkin with his own servility, has a tragic past and consistently aims at improving her future, Nastenka hardly lives up to the dreamer’s perceptions of her. Far from being tragic, the disconnect between the Romantic and the real has a humorous effect; one is reminded of Don Quixote‘s Dulcinea del Toboso.

Because of all this, “White Nights” may not fit in a post about characters overly desperate for women, especially when the narrator accepts the story’s end with apparent contentment. Of course, the white nights end in his ultimately being friendzoned, and one could easily read his insistence on maintaining his ennobled view of Nastenka as so much cope. Nonetheless, if anything, the optimistic narrator, though consciously maintaining an unreal and rosy perspective, deserves not censure but an F in chat—in no small part due to Dostoevsky’s maintaining the story’s unserious tone. Furthermore, one can see early hints of Dostoevsky developing a psychology of happiness in spite of adversity, part of which involves the willingness to look past the apparent facts of one’s life and into their possible Romantic meaning—a view Frank relates to Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy, which sees the life through a sacramental lens, interpreting the material world as a vehicle for something much greater.

Dostoevsky will take the issue of the Romantic lens to its furthest and most destructive extreme in The Double, but here in “White Nights” one finds a lighter look at the psychology of the St. Petersburg clerks that populate so much of his work.

The Double: Yakov Golyadkin—the Tryhard who Played Himself

Titular councillor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin picks up Dostoevsky’s investigation of shame at lowliness where the previous examples left off; however, unlike the pathetic but not unsympathetic Dyevushkin and the gay dreamer, Golyadkin soon breeds little but contempt. Opening in medias res with Golyadkin renting livery to perfect his persona of a member of the aristocracy, The Double follows Golyadkin as he plans to crash the birthday party of his benefactor’s daughter, Klara Olsufyevna, with whom he hopes to endear himself enough to marry up. However, it is soon apparent that the man’s use of cliche, a motif through the book, is the extent of what he knows of the upper class, and it only highlights his going outside his lane.

Upon being initially rejected from benefactor’s daughter’s party, Golyadkin, after “inwardly [uttering] a desire to sink into the earth or to hide in a mouse hole together with his carriage,” sneaks in and hides in a cupboard, eventually joining the party before being summarily escorted out and running off into the St. Petersburg night. Over a canal one wonders might be the same over which the dreamer met Nastenka in a lighter milieu, Golyadkin sees a man dressed exactly like him whom he recognizes but does not identify. Following the man, he is led back to his own apartment, which the man enters. Entering, himself, Golyadkin finds, sitting on his own bed, his double.

After going to Golyadkin’s work the next day—where, despite their physical similarity, he is not recognized, presumably because his demeanor is so different from Golyadkin’s—the double returns with Golyadkin to his apartment, where they share a meal and enough drink to foresee nothing but good prospects in their relationship. However, the relationship soon sours as the new Golyadkin, embodying all the traits our protagonist wishes he had, begins to assume all of his aspirations. This heightens not only Golyadkin’s sense of inadequacy, but his delusional paranoia that everyone, even his double, is plotting his downfall.

In this case, Golyadkin is not wrong: he is plotting against himself, but it is not in the form of his double. In The Double Dostoevsky uses the Romantic trope of the doppelganger to explore not only a mistaken identity plot but also the psychological vicissitudes and evasions of a man who cannot live up to and is, indeed, sabotaged by his delusions of grandeur.

This division between Golyadkin’s pretensions and the reality of his character and manners eventually reaches its climax when the double who embodies all the things he lacks but wishes he had sets his sights on Golyadkin’s love, Klara. As with Dyevushkin’s—though in a much more theatrical way—Dostoevsky ends Golyadkin’s story not with his facing the reality of his situation but with his unconsciously resigning himself to a false reality as he steps into the carriage hired by his double to carry him to an asylum.

Throughout the book, it is evident that at some level Golyadkin knows his own lack of belonging in St. Petersburg society, but he consistently refuses to accept it. More than either Poor Folk or “White Nights,” The Double explores the dramatic potential of psychological projection and displacement, as well as the role the subconscious can play in literature, literally splitting one character into two.

As far as she goes, Golyadkin’s love, Klara, plays a much more minor part in the story than Varvara and Nastanka do in theirs. Her role in The Double is, if anything, merely symbolic, for if Golyadkin can marry her he will be proven to belong in the upper class. However, this is precisely the problem: the need for proof, itself, implies its lack, and the impulse to try so hard to rise only underscores his inferiority complex. Golyadkin can definitely stand as one who does too much for an obviously fruitless dream of romance, though having the qualities of a simp are merely accidental to his deeper problems. Clearly unaware of upper class etiquette and bearing beyond the externals he has picked up from below, Golyadkin will never embody the persona needed to join the aristocracy; that his double does so shows that at some level Golyadkin knows it. Indeed, his attempts actually have the reverse effect, landing him lower in society than where he started.

[*this and the next paragraph added after initial posting] One major theme in The Double is shown in the quote above, where Golyadkin, at being rejected, wishes to disappear: the desire to see without being seen. A hallmark of Golyadkin’s deep-seated shame, his focus on what people will see and subsequently think about him comprises much of his inner life. To, perhaps, force The Double into this post’s argument of “Dostoevsky prophesied the modern incel,” the desire for one-way sight which will allow Golyadkin to look on Klara (or, rather, his stylized idea of her) while complacently maintaining his own perspective of himself without its being interrupted by reality may align his psychology with the caricature of coomer basement dwellers who choose online pornography over self-improvement and attempts at real relationships.

Applied to sexuality, solipsism like Golyadkin’s is masturbation, and, while Dostoevsky of course never even hints at the topic, the self-reinforcing disconnect from reality—and the critical yet beneficially refining role other people play in it—progressively engaged in by Golyadkin parallels the type of spirals and porn addictions not only described but, nowadays, defended in different fora of the internet. One of the marks of Dostoevsky’s skill in The Double, and one of its most contemptible aspects, is how much evasion Golyadkin must engage in to maintain himself as the good guy of the book when he is often the source of the problems. That he becomes his own antagonist in the form of the double—which is his idealized version of himself, and yet which is not himself—makes this clear, and it parallels how the longer one spends replacing real relationships with the romanticized ideals involved in porn, the less possible (and, indeed, more sabotaging and deluding) the romanticized ideals will become. If anything, Golyadkin’s utter oblivion to his own vicious cycle might serve as a warning of how similar evasions of reality (such as one-way “relationships” with the glamorized caricatures in pornography) can lead us into our own solipsisms—i.e., madnesses—that can affect all other areas of our perceptions, and thus, of our lives.

Dostoevsky’s early works, divided from his larger corpus by his time in Siberia, reveal an author responding to the literary milieu of the time while trying to work out his own style and perspective. Paradoxically combining tropes of sublime Romanticism with the least salutary members of St. Petersburg, his early works can be read as literature, social commentary, farce, and psychological expose. His characters Dyevushkin, the white nights dreamer, and Golyadkin lined up with other trends in Russian literature (especially Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dead Souls) while providing a look at what, in Dostoevsky’s view, were the downsides of Tsar Peter’s effort to westernize and bureaucratize Russia through cities like St. Petersburg.

I opened this post with a brief discussion on what constitutes a “simp,” and I’ll be even briefer in closing it. My topic, after all, is not modern online coomer culture but Dostoevsky. And yet, it’s striking how many parallels there are between the memes and trends one reads about on Twitter and Reddit and Dostoevsky’s early antiheroes, all of which could very easily be termed simps, incels, and betas (and they are only one class of the undesirables examined by the man). That the author who would become one of history’s greatest novelists should consider such characters worthy of dramatic exploration is something to consider, as are the fruits of such explorations. Such characters are not the last aspects of Dostoevsky’s writing to parallel things one sees today—though those are, of course, better saved for later, hopefully shorter, posts.