December 6, 2017

Shining a Dostoevskian Light on America’s “Strange New Thirsts”

By Stuart Mitchner 

Imagine a literary theme park, a Disneyland for readers and their kids where you can ride a raft with Huck and Jim, or climb aboard the Pequod with Ishmael, or fish the Big Two-Hearted River with Hemingway. Since the former Soviet Union is ever more massively imminent as we approach the moment of truth about Russian involvement in last year’s election, let’s say you could also visit a Chekhov pavilion complete with cherry orchard or tour Tolstoy’s estate where little Natashas can enjoy horseback rides and make-believe balls, or better yet you could take your chances in a fun house of existential chills dedicated to the work of Dostoevsky. Given the American public’s undying fascination with the dark side, the Dostoevsky House would draw the biggest crowds. 

Online dictionaries define the word Dostoevskian as “of or relating to or in the style of Fyodor Dostoevsky,” which doesn’t tell you much unless you know the novels or have seen the films and plays. Spoken aloud, the word itself already tells a stranger story than Tolstoyan, with its suggestion of open sunlit vistas. For Dostoevskian, the synonyms that come rushing to mind are intense, dark, twisted, bizarre, mysterious, illuminating, driven, grotesque, absurd, exalted, sad, funny, extreme, visceral, perverse, hysterical, religiously heightened, and of course incestuous since the act of obsessively reading Dostoevsky is itself Dostoevskian. Devoted readers become gamblers, like the author himself. Once you’ve played and won or lost, you keep coming back for more.

In André Gide’s preface to Dostoevsky (1924; New Directions 1961), a series of lectures first published at a time when the Russian author’s work was only beginning to be appreciated in the west, he observes that “Tolstoy in his immensity still overshadows our horizon; but as a traveller in a land of mountains sees above the nearest peak one loftier yet, screened hitherto by the surrounding heights, some eager spirits herald perchance the rise of Dostoevsky behind Tolstoy’s giant figure. This cloud-capped summit is the secret heart of the chain and source of many a generous stream in whose waters the Europe of today may slake her strange new thirsts.”

In the America of today, Mt. Tolstoy looms bright and clear, like Mt. Blanc, while Mt. Dostoevsky is a smoking Etna or Vesuvius slaking television viewers’ “strange new thirsts” for the vicarious nourishment of murder and mayhem, sin and redemption.

“Is America Ours?”

In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (1872), a critical chapter titled “Ivan the Tsarevitch” has the leader of a revolutionary plot telling Stavrogin, the novel’s charismatic antihero, “Without you I am … a bottled idea; Columbus without America.” As the chapter title suggests, the role imagined for Stavrogin is as the “tsar in hiding” who will take command should the plot succeed in undermining the foundations of society. When he’s pressed to commit to the plan — “Is America ours?” — Stavrogin says only “What for?” and walks away without another word.

The idea of America as fate is linked to suicide in Crime and Punishment when the sexual predator Svidrigailov tells a bystander he’s going to America just before shooting himself. One of the strangest speeches in The Possessed presents an America so brilliant and vast that Russia is dwarfed by it; the speaker is Captain Lebyadkin, a poetry-spouting drunkard loosely based on Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He’s talking about making his will when he refers to reading the biography of an American “who left all his vast fortune to factories and to the exact sciences, and his skeleton to the students of the academy there, and his skin to be made into a drum, so that the American national hymn might be beaten upon it day and night. Alas! we are pygmies in mind compared with the soaring thought of the States of North America. Russia is the play of nature but not of mind.” Lebyadkin wants to leave his skin for a drum “on condition of beating the Russian national hymn upon it every day,” except “they’d take it for liberalism and prohibit my skin.”

Even if you discount Lebyadkin’s fantastic notion as that of a word-drunk fool destined for a violent end, two of the novel’s central characters who actually spend time in the States testing “the life of the American workman” come out of it saying they were “like little children beside the Americans” and that to be “on a level with the Americans, you must be born or have lived many years there.”

How times have changed. In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction world of Russian-American relations, the day may come when Vladimir Putin will ask “Is America ours?”

Dostoevsky at Downton Abbey 

One 21st-century American phenomenon worthy of Lebyadkin’s “soaring thought” and “play of mind” is the ongoing Golden Age of series television dominated by shows with dark Dostoevskian elements, such as, among numerous others, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Shield, The Americans, Happy Valley, Stranger Things, Orphan Black, and The Leftovers. Even lavishly produced British series like Downton Abbey and Poldark have scenes and characters that can be viewed through a Dostoevskian lens. If he had celestial access to On Demand, the Russian master would connect with the tribulations of Downton’s long-suffering couple, Bates and Anna, and the sinister machinations of Mrs. Hughes and Thomas, the maid and butler from hell; he might also see hints of Dmitri Karamazov in the headstrong behavior of Ross Poldark; the Grushenka/Katya dynamic in Demelza and Elizabeth; and a thoughts-can-kill reflection of Ivan Karamazov in the extraordinary confrontation between a vengeful old woman who plants a deadly suspicion in the mind of the loathsome cad whose cunning payback destroys her. The dramatic intensity driving the concluding episodes of the recent season of Poldark cuts with Dostoevskian force through the civilized veneer of period drama.

My search for intimations of Dostoevsky gave me an excuse to revisit some favorite scenes, actors, and characters On Demand. Writing about HBO’s The Wire in September 1, 2010, I agreed with the reviewer observing that David Simon’s series “aspires not to John Grisham but Dostoevsky,” with Simon himself admitting “Our models are the big Russian novels.” Shadows of Crime and Punishment’s St. Petersburg haunt the smoky miasma of the West Baltimore zone called Hamsterdam, where drugs are dealt openly. The most Dostoevskian character is Omar Little, the gay stick-up man played with murderous charm by Michael Kenneth Williams, who could be talking about Raskolnikov when he says, “I had to get inside of his mind, and it’s a dark, dark vortex.”

Some other television characters with Dostoevskian allure: Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher/drug overlord Walter White (Brian Cranston) who enters his own dark vortex standing by while a drug-addicted young girl chokes to death on her own vomit; the gentle sharpshooting hit man with the disfigured face so sympathetically played by Jack Huston in Boardwalk Empire; Tom Hardy’s rabbi gang boss in Peaky Blinders; the hint of Crime and Punishment in the cat and mouse game played out by Forest Whitaker’s detective and Michael Chiklis’s rogue cop in The Shield; James Norton as the psychopathic rapist Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley who kidnaps the child of the girl he raped (Norton’s next role was as a vicar in Grantchester); Helena (Tatiana Maslany), the trained-to-kill Ukrainian clone in Orphan Black; Walton Goggins’s wildly articulate killer Boyd Crowder in Justified; the religious fantasies consuming Carrie Coons’s Nora and Justin Theroux’s Kevin in The Leftovers; Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) suspended between life and death in the inconclusive conclusion of final season of The Sopranos.

The Missing Russian

One of the funniest and most famous episodes of The Sopranos is the central sequence in “Pine Barrens,” which could be subtitled “What Happened to the Russian?” Not that Tony Soprano’s connection with the Russian mob (and his Russian mistress) is in itself evidence of a Dostoevskian presence. But it’s there in the grotesque free-for-all that takes place when Paulie and Christopher (Tony Sirico and Michael Imperioli) attempt to collect $5,000 from a Russian mobster (Vitali Baganov), who they kill and stuff in the trunk of a car and drive off to bury in the Pine Barrens, except the Russian isn’t dead, he’s a warrior “who killed 16 Chechen rebels singlehandedly,” and they end up chasing him through the snow, Paulie’s last gunshot hitting him in the head but he runs on, and by the time they give up the chase, they’re lost, and it’s night. When I saw the episode the other day as I was finishing The Possessed, the black comedy of two killers freezing and frightened and hungry in a snowy wilderness (they end up in an abandoned truck gorging on ketchup and relish packets) didn’t seem all that far removed from flailings of Dostoevsky’s hapless revolutionaries.

And while we’re waiting for the truth to come out about Trump and the Russians, there are diehard conspiracy theorists waiting to find out what happened to the Russian in the Pine Barrens. Did he die there? Did he get away? “That’s the question I get asked more than any other,” says the episode’s author Terence Winter. “It drives people crazy: ‘Where’s the Russian? What happened to the Russian?’ We could say, ‘Well, he got out and there’s a big mob war with the Russians,’ or ‘He crawled off and died.’” But we wanted to keep it ambiguous. You know, not everything gets answered in life.”