Reimagining Dostoevsky for the 21st Century (3): Blogging about Dostoevsky, Part 2

The continuation of our conversation with George Pattison about his blog Conversations with Dostoevsky. Part 1 can be found here.

DN: Tell me more about the embodied Dostoevsky and the setting of the blog. Will the conversations all take place in the narrator’s apartment? And why is it important to emphasise Dostoevsky’s physical presence, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that he has been dead for 120 years? Does this device give a certain authority to his voice?

GP: I’ve dropped a few little comments in – and I think this is as close to Dostoevsky’s view as we can tell – to the effect that immortality isn’t just an eternal soul transferring from a mortal body into a constant state of heavenly bliss, but that there is some kind of post-death development. We can use Bakhtin’s phrase of unfinalizability: even the dead person hasn’t learned all they need to learn. I don’t think authors have the last word, even if they want to. But they do have a significance, which I want to show. However, even as an embodied voice he is not from our time or our place, and whilst there may be parallels and continuities we are in a very different place globally, nationally, and intellectually from his situation. That is, I think, typical of our relationship with writers of the past: they are and are not part of our world. There is also a sense in which, after someone dies, their life ceases to be their own and it passes into the universal spectrum of human experience. This changes how we relate to them. Dostoevsky now belongs to what people call ‘world literature’ in a way he couldn’t have done when he was alive.

Regarding the setting, Scottish cities have always struck me as having something a bit Russian about them, Glasgow in particular. I mention in one of the blogs that modern Glasgow and Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, as it was in his lifetime, were shaped by a mad period of capitalist and industrial expansion, juxtaposing extreme poverty and desperation with extraordinary wealth. They are the kinds of cities where those two worlds are separate but also meet in all sorts of ways, in strange combinations of social groups. However, the conversations won’t all take place in the apartment. We will encounter Dostoevsky in some other settings.

DN: Let’s talk about the overall arc of the blog. Why did you pick ‘The Gentle Spirit’ to start with?

GP: Partly because the conclusion of that story is, for me, one of the most succinct statements of existential despair you can find. I think it’s saying something similar to Ivan Karamazov’s Rebellion but more concisely. There is also a certain critical opinion that ‘A Gentle Spirit’ is one of Dostoevsky’s most perfect or classic works, as a piece of writing. It is very compact, balanced and focused. It also has a close connection to one of his most autobiographical passages, the notes written after the death of his first wife, beginning ‘Masha is lying on the table. Will I ever see Masha again?’ The ‘Masha’ text is one that, out of all of his writings, states most explicitly some of his speculations about death, the afterlife, Christ,. It’s also important to take something that’s less well known, for the more general reader, to look at Dostoevsky from another side. A case of ‘defamiliarization’, perhaps.

DN: Are there particular subjects you will focus on in subsequent blogs?

GP: The blog started with the question of individual existential despair. The discussion of literature then moves towards the role of the Bible, and then the ‘Christmas Cards’ conversations leads on to the role of Christ. I’ll be taking a break over the summer, but the next conversation will begin with a dinner party where we discuss Dostoevsky and existentialism, and Dostoevsky’s view of women (it turns out our narrator’s wife has strong views on this subject). Dostoevsky will appear in the kitchen to give his side of the argument, while the narrator is washing up! For Dostoevsky, the role of Christ can’t be separated from his ongoing presence in the world, which broaches big questions on the relationship between faith, church and society, so I want to address those in a further conversation. Another topic one should not ignore is the question of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism; that will be dealt with via a very critical seminar that our narrator attends, though Dostoevsky will appear to give some feedback on that. Finally I’ll move on to the question of God and immortality, and this brings in the question of literature and our relationship to the literature of the past, to the dead voices of the people we know about like Dostoevsky, but also of the people we don’t know about such as those in the prison camps.

DN: What else do you feel readers should be taking away from Dostoevsky about today’s world?

GP: For me, Dostoevsky gives a voice to those who don’t have one. He enlarges compassion. One of the things I recycle is the story from Diary of a Writer where Dostoevsky sees a young man in the street walking home with his child, and he invents a whole story around them. Whether it’s true or not, it makes us look at people differently. It makes us realise that everyone we see in a crowd has an amazing story. He reveals something about the humanity of people in the most unexpected places and reminds us that people are much more complex than we like to think. That leads on to the nature of the self. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man attacked the rational, autonomous egoist who believes that economic self-interest is the only real guide to what motivates people; this view is still very much present in our society today and I think it is a limiting, mistaken one. Dostoevsky can help us see beyond that.

DN: What, finally, do you hope readers will gain from your blog?

GP: I hope they will read more Dostoevsky! They will see that he makes all the points I wish to make better than I do, but they will also be alerted to the need to read him critically and not be over-reverential. He too was a human being with all the limitations that involves. And, of course, I also hope that these conversations will also help readers who are confused or sceptical about religion see better why and how Christian faith makes human sense.