Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bloom on Dostoevsky

Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, has this to say regarding Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in his book How to Read and Why:
Absorbing as Crime and Punishment is, it cannot be absolved of tendentiousness, which is Dostoevsky's invariable flaw. He is a partisan, whose fierce perspective is always explicit in what he writes. His design upon us is to raise us, like Lazarus, from our own nihilism and skepticism, and then convert us to Orthodoxy. Writers as eminent as Chekhov and Nabokov have been unable to abide him; to them he was scarcely an artist, but a shrill would-be prophet. I myself, with each rereading, find Crime and Punishment an ordeal, dreadfully powerful but somewhat pernicious, almost as though it were Macbeth composed by Macbeth himself.
What I find most curious in this passage is that Professor Bloom singles out for his fundamental criticism of Dostoevsky -- whose greatness he recognizes -- the very thing that makes him most attractive to Orthodox readers. We applaud precisely his tendentiousness, his partisanship, his excoriation of nihilism and skepticism, and his desire to convert the reader to Orthodoxy. Reading Bloom is exhilarating in that in him we find an interlocutor with whom it is always instructive to disagree.


Anonymous said...

I would be delighted to achieve such partisanship as Dostoevsky. Alas, while I occasionally ape such in my poetry, I am remain a timid beast.

aaronandbrighid said...

It is interesting that Mikhail Bakhtin's view of Dostoevsky is almost precisely the opposite. In C&P, he takes issue only with the epilogue. For Bakhtin, it is Tolstoy that is the real partisan, with his very explicit moralising & authorial commentary. Dostoevsky allows his charactres to breathe free. And while the degree & nature of B's religiosity is debatable, it is clear that he is no Orthodox triumphalist or dogmatist--quite, in fact, the contrary.

Gabriel said...

I find Bloom’s remarks on D. amusing, if only because I think most of what Bloom writes to be tendentious.

There is something mystifying about what Bloom says though: Is he implying that there is some body of writers who are not partisans for something? And if there is such a body, shouldn’t any man who takes an economical approach to his free time avoid them at all costs? There’s nothing to be learned there; it couldn’t possible by interesting. But what Bloom and others who come after D. dislike is that he’s a partisan for something so “archaic” and “outmoded” as Orthodoxy (or orthodox--small “o”--Christianity as a whole). It nauseates many that D. isn’t shilling for some more “enlightened” or “humanistic” set of doctrines, that is, he’s not taking the reader by the hand to show them what an awful wasteland modernity is--now let’s go drown in excesses of our will, etc.

There is a young lady at my university whose office is near mine that is involved in a number of book clubs. One of them recently read C&P and I was eager to hear her thoughts on the novel. Sadly, they amounted to her saying the story “didn’t seem realistic.” I believe there was an underlying aversion to its “moralizing” as well; the idea of redemption seemed completely implausible to her. Maybe it’s implausible to most people because they don’t believe there is anything to be redeemed from, that at “worst” Raskolnikov is a criminal who should be locked up for a bit. I suppose the “inegalitarian” tint to his thinking (as expressed in his article especially) is a bit revolting to contemporary sensibilities, though probably not alien from the manner in which a lot of people understand themselves (even if they keep it quiet). All very sad I think…

Anonymous said...

And in Genius Mr. Bloom writes:

"....The genius of Dostoevsky faltered when it came to representing religion, which is the flaw of The Brothers Karamazov, since Dostoevsky's Russian Christianity was purely a disease of the intellect, a nationalistic virus, devoid of spiritual insight. Are we to be moved by Zosima's assertion, "Whoever does not believe in God is not going to believe in God's people"? That sounds uncomfortably like Southern Baptist conviction that Christ favors the Republican Party...."