Still thinking about evil after my post a few days ago, in keeping with Halloween. Where better to turn than a Dostoevsky scholar?
Joseph Frank sent me his book Between Religion and Rationality some time ago. Morgan Meis over at The Owls would have found the cover sexy. My tastes, alas, are a little more flashy and vulgar. I found it too sedate. Perhaps that’s why the book remained in a pile of books I meant to read. But I picked it up at last for his chapter on “Dostoevsky and Evil.”
I was pleased to see Joe’s essay style is lucid and unaffected — and as digressive and roundabout as he can be in conversation. So the effect is halfway between formal essay and a conversation in Joe and Marguerite’s book-crammed campus flat.
He opens with J.M. Coetzee‘s Elizabeth Costello, discussing the title character’s revulsion at Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, which describes degrading, obscene details of the execution of Hitler’s would-be assassins. But the details recounted are fictional. No one was there to say what had actually happened.
“What troubles her above all is that, while appalled and repelled by the book, she had not been able to push it away entirely. It had resisted her feelings of revulsion and disgust, and she feared that some of the ‘absolute evil’ it depicted had, as it were, also infected her; ‘she felt, she could have sworn, the brush of Satan’s hot, leathery wing.”
(The protagonist also shares Coetzee’s passionate vegetarianism: “If Satan is not rampant in the abattoir, casting the shadow of its wings over the beast … where is he?”)
Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The Feast of the Goat, another book that portrays evil in graphic detail, has a different take. (And here’s where Dostoevsky comes into play.) Joe quotes the Peruvian author:
“Perhaps we would be able to read what Mr. West wrote and learn from it, and therefore come out stronger rather than weaker. … The manner in which a poem, a novel, a play works on the sensibility or on a character varies to infinity, and much more as a result of the reader than rather than of the work. To read Dostoevsky may, in some cases, lead to traumatic and criminal consequences, while on the other hand it is not impossible that the spermatic iniquities of the Marquis de Sade have increased the percentage of virtuous readers, vaccinating them against carnal vice.”
Sorry. I’m with fellow vegetarians Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello on this one. I know what it is like to feel polluted even by a brilliantly written book (perhaps more so then). But the good Prof. Frank has a different p.o.v. altogether: “The details chosen to evoke the scene are his [West's] own creation, and her [Costello's] horrified response cannot simply be fobbed off as a private reader reaction.” Recalling Dostoevsky’s murders in Crime and Punishment, he writes:
“One would be hard put to match such grisly details in either the European or the Russian novel of the same period, but their effect is ultimately offset by the intensity of Raskolnikov’s inner suffering and his final inability to endure his total estrangement from the rest of humanity. … One can find example after example in Dostoevsky’s works of the same boldness in depicting evil at work and the same effort to overcome its effects.”
He returns to Costello, Coetzee, and Paul West:
“… as author he [West] is responsible for the manner in which he depicts this episode; and there is no evidence here of pity, only terror and even horror. It is such horror that leads Costello to level against him the charge of ‘obscenity,’ and to arrive at her extreme conclusion. ‘To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must for ever remain off-stage. Paul West … has shown what ought not to be shown.’”
Costello longs to argue with West, “some confrontation leading to some final word” — however, concludes Frank, “one cannot help thinking that the person Costello really wishes to meet, rather than Paul West, is an incarnation of Dostoevsky.”
And perhaps Charles Dickens, as well. And Victor Hugo. Maybe Lev Tolstoy, too. May I come to that dinner? Soon?