Dostoevsky

December 13, 2010

My wonderful thesis advisor, Alice Dark, left this in her mailbox for me. It’s a marked up section of “How Fiction Works” analyzing Dostoevsky’s work with respect to trauma. Anyone who knows me in a literary or classroom context knows how drawn I am to the theme of trauma. Alessandro Baricco’s “Without Blood” is my Bible, after all. I can’t believe I lent it out!

Anyways, here’s what Alice wanted me to know:

“Dostoevsky was the great analyst-in a sense, almost the inventor-of the psychological category that nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love…Dostoevsky would call this psychological torment the “Underground,” meaning a kind of poisonous, impotent alienation, a chronic instability of self, and a vaunting pride that at any moment might unexpectedly crash into its reverse-cringing self-abasement.”

“Dostoeveskian character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the announced motive…the second layer involves unconscious motivation… [that] presages Freud’s comment on the action of the superego: “In many criminals, particularly youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt that existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive…The third and bottom layer of motive is beyond explanation and can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness; they want to confess. They want to reveal the dark shamefulness of their souls, and so, without knowing quite why, they act “scandalously” and appallingly in front of others, so that people “better” than they can judge them for the wretches they are.”

That’s the sentiment that animates the very last line of Bernard McLaverty’s great novel “Cal,” that human wretchedness of the trickster who desires harsh judgment, all the while working to avoid said judgment. Every character I’ve ever written suffers the same predicament, leading me to postulate that perhaps I share this as well. It’s an interesting thought, certainly. I wonder what Alice thinks. In any case, trauma seems to me to be a twisted Mise-en-Abyme that is at the heart of the human condition. Twisted, in this case, refers to the opposed nature that trauma brings to the heart of the Matrioshka.

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