Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chekhov Writes A Dostoyevsky Story: "An Attack of Nerves"

How many of Chekhov's stories have I read? I have no idea. Hundreds of them. All 201 in the Ecco 13-volume set of Constance Garnett's translated tales. A bunch translated by Ann Dunnigan. Peter Constantine's collection of 38 stories from the young Chekhov. Lots more, though most translators mine the same vein of tales that Garnett worked. But let's say I've read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story "An Attack of Nerves" (also known as "A Nervous Breakdown") is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

I steal the following summary from the NYU School of Medicine "stories about doctors" website:
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
I will ignore the NYU School of Medicine's shallow comments on the story and give you my own.

While both the Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories are part of a long and dense tradition of Russian "fallen women" fiction, I claim that they are more closely linked than by just that tradition. Notes and "Nerves" share important symbolism; Chekhov's formal structure pushes against Dostoyevsky's in an asymmetrical manner to form a kind of balance; Chekhov's protagonist is strikingly similar to the Underground Man; both tales end with frustration at the protagonist's inability to solve the problem of subjugation. I hope I remember to mention that Chekhov seemingly implies a sympathy with Chernyshevsky's idea that woman can only be freed when men become civilized enough to free them. We'll see how well I do. This entire essay might be beyond my abilities. You've been warned.

Let's start with the snow, which is an important symbol in both stories. Dostoyevsky's snow is the element which opens Part II of Notes, the element to which he returns in the tale of Liza:
Snow is falling today, yellow and dingy. It fell yesterday, too, and a few days ago. I fancy it is the wet snow that has reminded me of that incident which I cannot shake off now.
Chekhov's story is also set on a snowy night, but his snow is beautiful and mysterious:
The first snow had not long fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow. There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the houses look quite different from the day before; the street lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light, frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white, youthful, feathery snow.
Dostoyevsky's snow is always "wet" and sometimes even "warm," and is never anything but part of the world's antagonism, another marker of the Underground Man's misery, pointing in the same direction as everything else in the Liza story:
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
Chekhov's protagonist, on the other hand,
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naïve, as it were virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the river.
Dostoyevsky, then, uses the snow to show that the world itself--including the weather--is a force set against man, whereas in Chekhov it is man who is the force of evil set against nature:
If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.

"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev. "Damnation take these houses!"
these houses are bordellos, where Vassilyev has been dragged, from one to the next, by his friends. His friends are looking for a good time; Vassilyev is horrified by what he sees, by the objectification of the women, by the base nature of man--even of his good and beloved friends.

Which brings us to the next important similarity between the stories, the protagonist's disgust with man. Dostoyevsky shows us this by having the Underground Man insult Liza in as cruel a manner as he can, demonstrating to her that she is a slave to men, maybe less than a slave, and that he is no better; she cannot possibly look to him for salvation (this is a direct attack on Chernyshevsky's novel). The Underground Man sees no end to this slavery and baseness, but it's all one with the evil that is the world so it does not particularly matter more than anything else. Chekhov's Vassilyev, on the other hand, determines that he is going to save women, to end prostitution:
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted to save women. . . .
The problem, however, is too big for one student in Moscow to solve. Vassilyev, who has always been a sensitive soul, goes mad from the pressure of the world's evil. He becomes a version of the Underground Man:
Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along Sadovoy Street.

Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing. Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
That particular scene closely echoes a scene in Notes From Underground. The other strong sign that "An Attack of Nerves" is related to Notes From Underground is the ending, atypical of Chekhov. It is atypical in that it is an actual rounding off of the through-action of the piece, which Chekhov rarely does, and it strikes a negative, cynical note which Chekhov rarely uses. It is not subtle, and its comedy is a cheerless sort of joking: "He had two prescriptions in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He had taken all these remedies before." Chekhov implies that the problems of civilization cannot be solved; they can only be pushed away and ignored. His own profession, or at least psychiatry, cannot cure depression caused by the shape of society. It is society which is sick, but we can only treat the individual, not the society.

And so on, in the same general style, as Chekhov would say. There are other Chekhov stories that deal with prostitution, but none which so closely echoes the form and content of Notes From Underground. So that's my attempt to extend the literary influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? through Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and into Chekhov's oeuvre. Even if I'm wrong, "An Attack of Nerves" is a great story, written in beautiful language. I don't know why I ever read anything but Chekhov, I say yet again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clerihew from underground (for Marly Youmans)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky
said to Dostoyevsky,
"So what's to be done
with Anton Chekhov's gun?"

Is that sufficiently awful? I can try again.


  1. Hah, you tricked me! I should have thought to say that you can't rhyme "Chernyshevsky" with "Dostoyevsky"! Edmund Clerihew Bentley would probably disqualify you for not coming up with a multi-word rhyme for "Cheryshevsky."

    However, I like it with all the names...

    "Sufficiently awful." I think part of the point of clerihews is that they be awful, though Auden and Hollander wrote some. Most of the ones you see online are not attributed to an author, though maybe it's because people don't admit to committing clerihews.

    Clerihew frolics--

    Sir James Dewar
    Is smarter than you are
    None of you asses
    Can liquify gases.

    Here's one with wacky rhyme--

    Desiderius Erasmus
    Suffered from one of the rare asthmas.
    His worst wheezes
    Were caused by over-ripe cheeses.

    This one pops up a lot, and I like it:

    John Stuart Mill,
    By a mighty effort of will,
    Overcame his natural bonhomie
    And wrote Principles of Political Economy.

    And this:

    Moses Maimonides
    wrote vast quantities
    and stood for amity
    in an age of Kalamity.


    When the young Kant
    Was told to kiss his aunt,
    He obeyed the Categorical Must
    But only just.

    Lord Byron
    Once succumbed to a Siren:
    His flesh was weak,
    Hers Greek.
  2. Oh, see, those are good poems. I had no idea. I also don't know what I meant by "sufficiently awful." Maybe I assumed the expectations for a poem by Bailey would be as low as possible! As you see, I can make rhyming couplets, but I'm not so good at making them into a poem. But here's another try:

    Nikolai Chernyshevsky:
    To him I raise a glass of whiskey
    What was his reward for freeing dear Olga?
    Eight years on the Volga

    I can't seem to break free of blocky, foursquare construction.


    1. Haha! "Chernyshevsky" does rhyme in a drunken, slant way with "glass of whiskey" that I find funny!

      If it were mine, I'd cut "What was" and "dear." Maybe even turn it into an address with "you" and "your" instead of "him" and "his."

      But I like the first one two, even though it cheats!

    2. AAAAAGH! First one TOO, please.

    3. I actually added the "what was" and "dear" to break up the regularity of the line lengths. So you see how little I know what I'm doing here. Poetry is so much out of my depths.

      The only other rhyme for "Chernyshevsky" I can think of is "Nevsky," but that also seems like cheating.

    4. It is like cheating! But go ahead--the clerihew started as a schoolboy prank. I think clerihews can be full of awkwardness, but I like that line as a pithy, trochaic one. I'm going to have to post a link-post to your clerihewishness.
  3. One clerihew that i like - and wish I could lay claim to it - is:

    Carl Gustav Jung
    Was well hung,
    A fact that annoyed
    Sigmund Freud.
    1. Sigmund S. Freud
      was often annoyed
      by the fact that his smokes
      were the butt of lewd jokes.

      (stolen from here)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"It would be necessary to describe him, if he had not already been described."

Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has begun posting about Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella Notes From Underground, and thank goodness for that because I was afraid I'd have to go first and I was stuck for anything to say, frankly. If nothing else, I can pad my blogging with lengthy responses to whatever Tom says on his blog. It's like the Republic of Letters, but quite quite watered down on my end. Excitement to commence!

I will begin my own assault on Notes by quoting myself, a comment I made on Tom's post in which I say who and what I think Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--the narrator of Notes, that is--is supposed to be.
My opinion, today anyway (I finished my rereading of Notes last night, about 10:00), is that the Underground Man is the result of Dostoyevsky's testing of Chernyshevsky's theory that mankind would be happy were he rational. Suppose man were given only rational options, FD says, and the Underground Man is what would result. He is forced underground, beneath the feet of the Rational Man as it were, because at heart man is irrational and the more you attempt to force rational behavior onto him, the more irrational man will become. Then FD puts his test subject into versions of scenes from What is to be Done?.
The pieces of Chernyshevsky's novel that are parodied in Notes From Underground are, more or less and in order of appearance:

1. The introduction and numerous subsequent passages where Chernyshevsky the author character directly addresses the reader, often verbally abusing "the perspicacious reader," who may in fact be the Tsar's censors, or at least the censors at the Peter and Paul Fortress in which Chernyshevsky was imprisoned when he wrote the novel.

Dostoyevsky structures Notes as a long unbroken lecture to the reader by the Underground Man.

2. This scene, where Chernyshevsky tells us what sort of man Lopukhov is:
One time he was walking in a shabby uniform on the Kammenoi-Ostrof Prospekt, on his way from his lesson, for which he got fifty kopeks an hour, though he had to go a distance of three versts from the lyceum. A distinguished somebody, of imposing mien, met him, motions him out of the way in the manner of men of imposing mien, and bears straight down upon him without giving way. But Lopukhof, at that time, had a rule, not to be the first to turn out for anybody except a woman. They bumped against each other with their shoulders, and the distinguished somebody, half turning about, said, 'What a pig, what a hog you are!' but while he was preparing to continue the lesson, Lopukhof made a full turn towards the distinguished somebody, took the distinguished somebody by the body, and deposited him in the gutter very tenderly ; then he stood over him, and said, 'Don't you move, else I will drag you farther where the mud is deeper.'
Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man meets a distinguished somebody on a bridge and the question of right-of-way comes up.

3. The many scenes in What is to be Done? where educated revolutionaries get together, talk politics and arm wrestle, acting civilized and progressive and with excellent bonhomie.

Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man joins a party of young gentlemen he knew from school. Hijinks ensue.

4. The central domestic drama of What is to be Done?, of Lopukhov marrying Vera to rescue her from her greedy, common family and then letting her go when Lopukhov realizes that Vera is in love with his best friend Alexander Kirsanov. Releasing Vera from her obligation and gratitude is the function of the Lopukhov character.

Dostoyevsky gives us the story of how the Underground Man confronts the subjugation of women.

That's Notes From Underground in broad strokes. Tomorrow I might quote from each of these sections, comparing and contrasting, etc. Or I might just go for the jokes, because there are a lot of jokes in Dostoyevsky's novella. Or I might just let Tom do all the work and save myself for the essay I'm planning about Anton Chekhov's version of one section of Notes From Underground. We'll see.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tea and Vitriol

On Sunday it rained, so we stayed in and had tea. We do tea right at our house:

photo credit: Mighty Reader

There were dessert items as well as sandwiches.

photo credit: Mighty Reader

On Sunday I also began my re-read of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 long magazine article Notes From Underground. I've just read Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 long novel What is to be Done?, to which Notes is a partial response (and parody). That experience makes Dostoyevsky's piece seem quite a different thing than it was the first two times I read it. More about that, possibly, tomorrow. But I will say two things about Notes:
  • It's typical disorganized Dostoyevsky, and
  • It seems to be pretty hard on old Chernyshevsky, digging quite hard. I would like to remind Fyodor that Chernyshevsky, after all, was not hoping for the creation of the Gulag or Stalin; he was hoping for a happy and benign utopia. An impossible, fundamentally inhuman utopia (in this I agree with Dostoyevsky), but still a place where people would be free and happy. Parody is risky business.
Biggest laugh line so far:
Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
Also! I am pleased to remember to mention that there is a Chekhov tie-in with Notes From Underground that I will hopefully remember to write about later this week. I've been wanting to read some Chekhov again in any case.


  1. Are you kidding me? You two should have charged yourselves, like, a hundred bucks to attend tea at your place. You'd be making so much money if you did that. I'm particularly impressed that your berry garnish has its own little pink flower garnish.

    1. Davin, you and Red are invited to our tea room any time you like. The little flowers on the raspberries are from our lilac tree. The raspberries, sadly, are from the grocer.

      For a while in Seattle there were a couple of unlicensed tea houses that did pretty good business. Mighty Reader remains tempted by that vocation.

    2. We're into a lovely tea here too. One of life's pleasures. But I think Austen or Wodehouse would go better with the tea.

    3. Tea is a sure mark of civilization. My vote goes to Wodehouse, though I'd also be fine with any number of English writers.
  2. Very lovely, Scott! I remember the tea at your house, and it was an experience! I love everything about your house, by the way. If I were a criminal, I'd steal it out from under you. And I'd keep that china too. ;)

    This makes me want to re-read our anthology of Notes!

    1. Michelle, you cannot have our house. But you can come visit again, and we'll have tea.

      Every once in a while I think the three of us should do another anthology. But then I snap out of it.
  3. Should I interrupt the tea? I think you're wrong on both bullet points, but that can wait.

    1. You think it's atypical disorganized Dostoyevsky? My second bullet point contains too many claims for me to guess what you disagree with there. Yes, interrupt, do.

    2. This is an organized book, even in the simulated rant. The parody gives D. some structure. The single character helps, too. Maybe this is clearer in Part II.

      Dostoevsky does not think people will be either happy or free in that utopia.

      It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment. I hope that Perspicacious Reader, with whom I deeply sympathize, was able to get across the border before the row of asterisks hit. He's gonna get it in the neck. But then so will Chernyshevsky.

    3. The book is organized into four distinct sections, yes. What I mean is that, at the paragraph level, Dostoyevsky's prose is always disorganized. It points in all directions and works more cumulatively than linearly. Typical disorganized Dostoyevsky. Sloppy prose. Things settle down in Part II, and happily the narrative broadens. The three main episodes that make up Part II are fine dramas. Part I is lousy fiction, is what I think. I am aware, yes, that Notes was not intended to be read primarily as fiction; the strength of Part II is that it stands on its own without reference to Chernyshevsky; the daily life of the Underground Man is timeless and beyond politics.

      I agree that nobody would be happy in Ch's utopia; I don't know enough about his political essays and the content of that journal he edited to know if he called for a bloody revolution. Though, I guess, most revolutions begin and end with someone being put against a wall, don't they? 

    4. Ah, there's the difference. I think the first part in fact was intended to be read as fiction, even though it took many decades for anyone to actually do it, and that it is effective as fiction. Maybe I could expand on this, although that might be beyond me.

      To a Leninist, Stalin and the Gulag are hidden under the asterisks. I don't know what Ch. thought. Probably that it would all just work out somehow. Pangloss as revolutionary.

    5. Well, Rakhmetov is willing to be a machine in service of progress, to do whatever is necessary. His room, you recall, runs with blood. I'm sure he'd have no qualms if that blood was someone else's. I phrase that poorly but I hope you see what I mean.

      Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

      I don't know. It somehow comes down to me not enjoying Notes this time. Tomorrow I'm going to post about how I'm not enjoying it, or at least how I'm unable to find something to say about it despite my many false starts. Maybe.

    6. I want to argue with the idea of Dostoevsky being disorganised. He's organised to be Dostoevsky in the way that Christina Stead is organised to be Christina Stead or Balzac is organised to be Balzac. I'm not sure how else anybody would want him to organise himself. They're all volatile; they bulge.

    7. While "disorganized" is certainly how I think of Dostoyevsky's prose style, I don't mean it as a judgment against him. His writing is like a bush grown wild, where other writers would prune back, espalier, etc. Dostoyevsky writes in several directions at once and reveals his meaning over time instead of immediately, and the narratives threaten to explode in unpredictable trajectories. Wait; did I say "threaten to?" They do explode in unpredictable trajectories. None of that is a weakness. Maybe "sloppy" is too harsh a word, but I'm stickin' with "disorganized."

      I'll be reading Demons soon, so we'll see then if I still believe what I'm saying now. Before that, I'm reading Weymouth Sands, but first it's a volume of Chekhov stories. I'm getting dizzy.

    8. Demons is amazing. I look forward to seeing what you think of it.
      As to the French Revolution, by the late 1800's it was possible to look at the long-term effects and see that while it was horribly bloody in the short run, in the long run it did a lot of good. Then again, I suppose whether or not you think the French Revolution was a good thing is still one of the dividing lines in politics today. 

    9. I guess I come down on the side of people who wonder if the means justify the ends; I wonder if the Republic is truly best implemented by first beheading the aristocracy. If the first act of a new government is to kill all of its ideological enemies, how free is that state really going to be? I am always suspicious of purges in the name of progress, I guess. Did ideas of egalitarianism spread because of the revolution, or despite it? Correlation is not causation, etc.

    10. To be pedantic, the Terror really wasn't about beheading the aristocracy; it was mainly about going after the government's enemies, whatever class they happened to be. And it was hardly the first act of the new government. But I take your point, and I don't justify what happened. The fundamental mistake, I think, was before they even implemented the Republic, when they decided to go to war with Austria.
      I guess my point is that it's a common enough belief, and one which I share, that the French Revolution was a very good thing indeed, that it's not clear at all that it should have been a warning to Chernyshevsky. 

    11. No, no, I get that, I do. My view of the French Revolution is based almost entirely on "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Horatio Hornblower." A scholar I am not.

      I do think that maybe Chernyshevsky thought people could be convinced through the force of his logic to radically change society. If he talked long enough and well enough and had the right friends, it would all happen as if by magic. Maybe. I might actually be that sort of revolutionary myself, to tell the truth.

      I also think that for many people, revolution in the abstract is a good idea and it always comes as a surprise when the houses are on fire in real life. Though I have also met "revolutionaries" who merely wanted to burn everything down to see the flames, and to avoid having to get real jobs after college. There are many ways to be a revolutionary, I guess. I'm back to where I started, I see.
  4. I agree - Ch. did not understand the imaginative potential of his own creation. This is part of what makes him a tragic figure.

    And people ask if his book is worth reading!

    1. I admit that I thought more folks would join the read-along. It's really been a swell time. Someone should do (or maybe already has done) a study of what fantasy novels revolutionaries have read.
  5. Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

    In some places I think Dostoyevsky sees Chernyshevsky exactly the way you do here. To paraphrase Joseph Frank, when there was a “schism among the nihilists,” Dostoyevsky saw the brilliant and hard-edged Pisarev as the one whose ideas were really dangerous, and Chernyshevsky's camp as well-meaning and naive. Pisarev's ideas lead to Raskolnikov committing murder, and Chernyshevsky's to the buffoonish, but ultimately decent, Lebezyatnikov (also in C&P).

    And @Tom: It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment.

    Tying him to the French Reign of Terror is a step fairer than tying him to the Gulag, but Ch. could look at 1776 and 1848 as well as 1789. He could and did write about the American Civil War and the Roman Republic.

    1. Yeah, in FD's parody response to Schedrin's parody, Dostoyevsky treats Ch as a crank, a goof. He implies that Schedrin will abandon the revolutionary position once he starts reading poems and literature rather than parroting party line. I'm guessing that in the opening salvo of Notes, Dostoyevsky is firing at more targets than Chernyshevsky.
  6. Darn it, now I'm hungry.

    1. You and yours are also invited! We don't have a high chair, so you'll have to bring yours.