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Sunday, March 20, 2011

He comes with his underground: the stenographer

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 long before the newspaper story precipitated the narrative as a whole in his mind. Unlike Henry James, whose introductions are quite consciously framing work, existing outside the work itself and eminently dispensable to those who want to get the thing itself, Dostoevsky does not quite cut the umbilical cord so elegantly. The intro is shot through with the same eye gleaming urgency as the narrative – it seems to be of a piece with the monologue of the pawn broker through whose consciousness the story unfolds. This is what Dostoevsky says about his method, here:

“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.

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