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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

combining the last two posts

Note: I combined the last two posts here. It makes for a prettier read.

In the introduction to his story, A Gentle Creature, that Dostoevsky produced for his column, A Writer’s Diary, he traced the story back to a fait divers about a seamstress who committed suicide with an icon in her hands. Dostoevsky scholars have found other routes to the story – Dostoevsky brooded over a similar plot quite a bit before the newspaper story precipitated the narrative as a whole in his mind, with the picture it gave him of the husband, a pawn broker, telling the tale as his wife lies stretched out dead on a table in their apartment. Unlike Henry James, whose introductions are quite consciously framing work, existing outside the work in tone and vision and highly enjoyable in themselves, although eminently dispensable except to the stories they preface (except in so far as the artist wants his critical word, too), Dostoevsky does not separate the preface from the story: quite otherwise, he, in a sense, invites his readership to understand the story from its first crude working up. It is as though the story and the introduction are bound by an umbilical cord that Dostoevsky does not cut – although his translators do. The story is not reprinted with the preface in, for instance, in the Oxford World Classics edition. This is too bad, since he manages to tell us something vital to understanding his method – a method that is as important for understanding the content of the tale as Sherlock Holmes’ method is for understanding the unfolding of the solution of a crime – in his own way, just as does the more recondite James tells us in his way:

“If there had been a stenographer to listen to him and note it [the narrator’s monologue] down, the result would doubtless be more staccato, more unformed than that I am presenting to the reader, but, or so it seems to me, the psychological order would remain the same.” [Translated from the French]

I have connected the underground as one of the loci – a metaphorical and metaphysical locus – in which was formed, in the nineteenth century, the oppositional character under capitalism. And I have also noted the relationship to the agent of circulation – to, in fact, the growing cultural dominance of what Mill called the Middle Class, the ancestor of what C. Wright Mill called the White Collar class.

For Dostoevsky, as it happens, the stenographer is not a neutral figure. He met the woman who became his second wife, Anna Grigoryevna, when he hired her as a secretary – a stenographer. In Joseph Frank’s biography, we read:

Dostoevsky, who had agreed to try working with a stenographer only with great reluctance and as a last resort, was nervous and distraught, obviously at a loss on how to treat this newly intrusive presence. To break the ice, he began to question Anna about her study of stenography, then a relatively new method of transcribing speech… Anna informed him that her class had begun with more than a hundred students, but only twenty-five were left at the end; many, thinking that stenography could be mastered in a few days, had dropped out when this supposition proved false.” (156)

In fact, the image of the couple – of the teller and the scribe, or the stenographer – seems to arrive in Dostoevsky’s work after he has already used this method extensively. It is the method of the Night section of The Demons, and, similarly, of Notes from the Underground. It is important that in the notes leading up to A Gentle Creature, Dostoevsky imagines a pawn broker who is “misanthropic… with an underground’. [Ludmilla Koehler, Five minutes too late…] In both the Notes and The Devils, the problem of epistemological access, that is, the question of who knows the story, or the events that become the story, and how they interpret them, and how their interpretation is woven into the events themselves – that problem which bedeviled and enchanted James – is cut with one, clumsy (at least from the standard of the novel as James conceived it) blow. Testimony and confession, here, converge. “Who is that other who is always besides you…”

The stenographer is not a mirror, is not epistemologically neutral, but creates an epistemological situation, one in which the teller can be ‘caught out’ – can ‘slip up.’ Ultimately, the stenographer is an ambassador of police power. It is the invisible stenographer that creates, in these stories, the sense of a thing happening that will be reiterated in a police interrogation room or in court.

It is surely important, too, that the narrator of A Gentle Creature is a pawnbroker who quotes Goethe’s Faust. The pawnbroker or money lender was the shadow side of the financial power that is embodied in bank, one of the major hubs of circulation. The pawnbroker, in one of his first conversations with the woman – or, actually, girl - whose suicide hangs over the story compares himself to Mephistopheles. The pawnshop is, for Dostoevsky, the place that the money economy loses all its pretences, and shows itself, at last, as the ultimate exploiter of human despair. Dostoevsky, like Marx, was, much to his disgust, personally acquainted with pawnbrokers. Both lived and worked under the gun. Under their various manias, their undergrounds.

Until the eighteenth century in Catholic countries, the predominant notion of confession was pre-eminently that of a sacrament. In the legal sense – that is, the sense ended up on trial, either in a ecclesiastical or secular court – the sacramental sense existed as a sort of sanctioning halo around the most direct witness to a crime – the witness of the perpetrator himself. The sacramental sense of confession lent itself to the justification of torture, that strange moment in the juridical process in which pain – usually associated with the punishment merited by the guilty – is used to give a proof of guilt. Punishment first, the sentence afterward – torture is by its nature an inversion of the course of justice, or at least its institutional logic. Torture can, of course, exist after the sentence – torture then merges with all the other punishments, and it loses its sacramental associations. Its diminishment becomes a purely humanitarian matter. It is through a connotation of sacrament that the torturer did not wholly undo the foundation of the law, its sanction, which, although making full use of fear, transcends fear in fairness, in proportion. The great cynics – for instance, De Sade – discerned in torture the true motive behind the law, the disorder of the libertine grin behind the solemn mask of the judge. The law, here, is wholly conformable to a certain desire in the hands of those who have the power to realize their desires, and who, in the process, take pleasure from their hypocritical pretense that they don’t.

In the Protestant countries, the sacramental sense of confession was outlawed, or at least banned in the Protestant church, and so it was taken out of the domain of the sacred into the domain of the autobiographical, the novelistic, the psychological, the criminal. Torture, then, is stripped of anything but utility. Still, even as confession is transferred from the sacramental to the secular domain, it is never fully disassociated from purgation and purification. The secular world may be one of different shames and rewards, but the old semiotic devils, the purges and purifications of the cult, retain a trailing, epiphenomenal insistence, like the shadow of a demon projected on the wall by a trick of the gesture of a hand.

It is in the form of confession that a truth other than the truth of experiment and scientific theory still holds on in a world of total utility. And yet, it is shoulder to shoulder with the world of total utility, just as the underground man is shoulder to shoulder with the stenographer – whose function is to be absolutely transparent. To be as if she isn’t there at all.

And yet of course she is. If the underground man hides, confession is his weapon, but it is not a weapon that he can employ without imagining the stenographer, the official representative of the desk, the typewriter, the office, the report. This should give us an idea of how odd it is to make confession a weapon. For it means the stripping away of the intervening structures that keep us – society, the state – from seeing the confessor, whose express desire is to find a mousehole. Or, like Rousseau, to retire to a remote and safe harbor. It is as if the motive that has produced so many underground labyrinths to confuse the seekers behind one, around one, is, in a gesture, vetoed. And yet, it is not hard to see the philosophical unity between this contradiction between the underground and the compulsion to exhibition. The pawnbroker in The Gentle Creature calls it pride, but what is that pride in? It is the pride of the non-identical.

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