Imitations of Rousseau in The Possessed
Robin Feuer Miller, Harvard Russian Research Center
She: Why do I never see you, my dear friend? I am worried about you... a whole week has gone by. If I had not been told that you are in good health I should suppose that you are ill... Oh dear, what can be the matter with you? You have no business in hand, and you can have no troubles. For if you had I flatter myself that you would have come straight away to confide in me. Can it be that you are ill? Adieu, my good friend; and may my adieu bring me a good-morning from you.
He: I can tell you nothing yet. I am waiting till I am better informed, which shall be sooner or later. In the meantime rest assured that persecuted innocence will find a defender zealous enough to make its slanderers repent, whoever they may be.
She: I must say that your letter alarms me. What can it possibly mean? I have read it over more than two dozen times. Really I cannot understand a word of it...
He:... But do you know how I shall atone for my errors in the short time I have still to spend near you? By doing what no one else will do; by frankly telling you what the world thinks of you... Notwithstanding all the self-styled friends who surround you, when you see me depart you can say farewell to truth. You will never find anyone else who will tell it to you.
She: I did not understand your letter of this morning. I told you so because it was the truth. I do understand this evening's. Have no fear that I shall ever answer it. I am too anxious to forget it.
After the terrible falling out between Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna, Stepan prepares to quit his
amie forever. Do we read here an epistolary exchange between them which Dostoevsky drafted in his notebooks, but never inserted into the novel proper? Certainly the dear friends were, continually-for twenty years—in the habit of writing each other, whether both were living under the same roof, or whether Stepan had moved into his cottage
on the grounds of Varvara's estate. Varvara, like the "she" of the letters prided herself on being full of common sense, and, although lately distracted by the influence of new, self-styled friends, was devoted to Stepan. Stepan, though extremely sentimental and often frightened, is equally devoted to Varvara.
There are, unquestionably, certain compelling similarities between this pair and the true authors of these excerpts. A strongwilled, middle-aged woman is writing to a sentimental, timorous, middle-aged man. She is impatient. He is preoccupied with imagined conspiracies and persecutions. She is decidedly plain; he, rather ridiculously, prides himself on his attractiveness to women. Throughout their relationship, his role is more feminine, hers more masculine. She even supports him financially. He lives on the edge of her estate, and their frequent letters travel, at most, across the park. She is Mme D'Epinay; he is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (1)
Dostoevsky's reaction to Rousseau spanned the length of his writing career. Most often, Dostoevsky chose to polemize with and parody the "Jean-Jacques" of the
Confessions - The Insulted and Injured, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, and
A Raw Youth all contain both parody and polemic directed at Rousseau. (2) In
The Possessed Stavrogin's written statement - which is read on printed sheets by the monk Tikhon - embodies one of Dostoevsky's most substantial moral critiques of the Rousseau of the
Confessions and of the genre of the written confession in general. Leonid Grossman has remarked upon the significant presence of Rousseau in Stavrogin's confession in his remarkable essay, "Stilistika Stavrogina. "(3)
It is always, fortunately, tricky to write about sources and influences in Dostoevsky's fiction. A single fictional episode in Dostoevsky's canon, if it has any sources at all, is most likely to have at least two sources, if not more. Thus the famous scene of Kirillov's suicide bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar scene in Dickens'
Martin Chuzzlewit (chapter 51). But it bears an equally unsettling resemblance to material from Victor Hugo's
Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné. (4) Or, in The Idiot, Ferdyshchenko's narrative about stealing a three-ruble note from the table of his hostess and allowing her servant, Darja, to be blamed for the deed finds its sources in Book II of Rousseau's
Confessions as well as in Dostoevsky's own previous work (the episode in
Crime and Punishment between Luzhin and Sonja).
Likewise Stavrogin's confession in The Possessed contains distinct echoes of Valkovskij's in
The Insulted and Injured, and, significantly, both confessions draw from Rousseau's. Moreover, Stavrogin initially intends to make his confession public - in a random way - to the multitudes, not just ro readers who deliberately choose to read it. By the time Tikhon reads Stavrogin's statement, it is already printed, and, as he pulls the sheets from his pocket he tells Tikhon, "Here are the sheets which are intended for distribution. If only one man reads them, then, know that I shall not conceal them any longer and they will be read by everyone. "(5) Rousseau had also sought to thrust his
Dialogues (an extension of his Confessions) upon the world in like fashion. After an unsuccessful attempt to place his
Dialogues on the high altar of Notre Dame, he gave copies of them to Condillac and to a visiting Englishman, and at last, he tried to hand out a circular to passers-by in which he pleaded for his voice to be heard by all Frenchmen. (6)
In the 1871 version of Stavrogin's confession, Dostoevsky actually has Stavrogin mention Rousseau. Stavrogin admits that although he gave himself up to the same vice as did Rousseau, he abruptly stopped this habit (presumably masturbation) at seventeen (XI, 14). Hence we may deduce that Stavrogin had probably read Rousseau's
Confessions during his youth, and, if he read it later, it is then significant that he chose to compare this early stage of his biography to Rousseau's. And who, until he turned sixteen, was Stavrogin's tutor, the director of his reading and of his "moral development" (X, 35; 53)? Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskij. Of their relationship, the narrator-chronicler observes, "We must assume that the teacher (pedagog) somewhat upset the nerves of his pupil. When at the age of sixteen Nikolaj was taken to the lycée, he looked debilitated and pale, and was strangely quiet and pensive" (X, 35; 54).
Numerous sources for the character of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskij exist - among them, Herzen, Chicherin, Korsh, Durov, Kukol'nik, Turgenev, and Belinskij. (7) Most important, however, is T. N. Granovskij, whose name stands for Stepan's throughout many of the notes for the novel. Stepan Trofimovich, it is customary to point out, represents a repository of the beliefs of the men of the forties in Russia - the liberal, intellectual, Westernizers. Nevertheless, despite these many sources, Stepan Trofimovich is a surprisingly new creation in Dostoevsky's canon (much as Vronskij is in Tolstoy's). (8) Thus, however many antecedents we may discover in history for
Stepan, he is, above all, a fully realized and highly original fictional character.
Once having asserted Stepan's ultimate independence from all the historical figures Dostoevsky drew upon in order to create him, I shall immediately add a new name to the list, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau himself - as the father of French Romanticism, as the author of the
Confessions (a celebration of the individual), as a lifelong exile first from Geneva, then from France, and as a political and social thinker who rebelled against the established order - exerted a powerful influence, both negative and positive, over "the men of the forties" in Russia. He was, in effect, a spiritual godfather, hated by some, revered by others, of this generation. In 1846 Belinskij, upon reading the
Confessions wrote, "I am now reading the Confessions. In all my life few books have affected me so powerfully as this one has. "(9) Indeed, Rousseau's influence has been crucial for Russian writers on all sides of the political spectrum: Karamzin, Chernyshevskij, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, to name a few.
Stepan Trofimovich's life bears some crucial resemblances to Rousseau's. Dostoevsky's creation of Stepan thus holds yet another clue to his ideas about Rousseau. Furthermore, it is a sleight of hand of typical Dostoevskian skill, economy, and genius that Rousseau's presence should hover, though in very different ways, on both sides of the complex moral equation worked out in the novel (just as it does in history) - on the liberal "father" and his biography, and on his mysterious, revolutionary, symbolic "son" (or pupil) and his problematic use of the confessional genre.
The most striking resemblances between Stepan Trofimovich and the Rousseau of the
Confessions lie in certain elemental biographical details. The narrator-chronicler twice stresses that Stepan Trofimovich is fifty-three years old. Dostoevsky was notorious for muddling the ages of his characters. Their age gains frequently did not mesh with the passage of time in his novels. Stepan is no exception. The narrator-chronicler, in his introductory chapter, describes him as being fifty-three, and then later, as the action of the novel begins, Varvara Petrovna, in urging Stepan to "propose" to Dasha, exclaims impatiently, "What do your fifty-three years matter?" (X, 19, 61; 33, 86) It is unclear whether the first reference to his age describes Stepan during a period several years before the main events of the novel occur. What is clear, however, is that Dostoevsky has mentally
assigned the age of fifty-three to Stepan, regardless of the passage of time in the novel. Rousseau's
Confessions, started in 1765 - fifty-three years after his birth - describe the first fifty-three years of his life.
Like the exiled Rousseau, Stepan emphasized his own "civic role" and enjoyed the "pleasant fancy of being a public figure. For example, he was extremely fond of his position as a 'persecuted' man, or, as it were, an 'exile'" (X, 7; 20). Rousseau, despite his genuine political problems labored under the delusions of an increasingly acute persecution mania. "In the abyss of evil in which I am sunk I feel the weight of blows struck at me; I perceive the immediate instrument; but I can neither see the hand which directs it nor the means by which it works... The authors of my ruin have discovered the unimaginable art of turning the public into the unsuspecting accomplice of their plot... " (p. 544) He regarded himself, always, as an exile. The narrator-chronicler describes Stepan's delusions. "How's that for the power of one's own imagination. He himself believed sincerely for his whole life that he was constantly regarded with suspicion in certain spheres, that his steps were continually known and watched.... " (X, 8; 22) Stepan, like Rousseau in his persona of Jean-Jacques, prided himself on spending his life as a "living monument of reproach" ("voploshchennoj ukoriznoju") to his country (X, 11; 27). Yet Dostoevsky constantly undercuts his character by having the narrator-chronicler point out repeatedly that the "whirlwind of concurrent events" which had precipitated Stepan into his life as a watchful and watched exile had not, in fact, ever occurred. The reader of Rousseau's
Confessions must, for himself, distinguish between fact and fancy in the speaker's biography. To the degree that Dostoevsky did indeed draw upon Rousseau as a model for Stepan Trofimovich, however, he consistently made his own creation more ridiculous than its real-life source.
Throughout most of his life Rousseau was dependent upon women for emotional as well as financial support. Fittingly, he called Mme de Warens, the greatest love of his life, "mamma. " When we first encounter Stepan Trofimovich, he is already the veteran of two marriages and has, for the last twenty years, lived under the wing - emotionally and financially - of Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina. in book IX of the
Confessions Rousseau describes his relationship with Mme d'Epinay. For two years he lived in a cottage (the Hermitage) on her estate of Montmorency,
where he found it, at first, "delightful to be the guest of (his) friend" (p. 376). Stepan also enjoys "a refined and delicate" union with his "friend, " Varvara Petrovna. Both women - notably plain and middle-aged, have literary pretensions: each is extremely proud, at first, to be the guardian and protector of an important literary and political figure. Both men are also preoccupied with matters of education - Rousseau, the author of
Emile, was also working out a "system of education" (p. 381) for the son of Mme de Chenonceaux. Stepan, of course, was the tutor of Stavrogin as well as of Lise Tushina and Dasha Shatova. Each man carries on a kind of sexless flirtation with his protectoress and has as a rival a more famous "German"-Grimm for Rousseau and Karmazinov for Stepan.
Yet both Rousseau and Stepan, despite their preoccupation with education and despite their extreme sentimentality and self-proclaimed sensitivity, have given their own children away to the care of others. They have betrayed the very bonds whose import they affirm. Rousseau deposited each of his five children, as infants, into a foundling hospital. Upon the death of his first wife the "grief-stricken" Stepan had sent his five-year-old son Petr, "the fruit of a first, joyous and still unclouded love" from Paris to Russia to be brought up by distant relatives (X, 11; 26). Each man proclaims, quite hypocritically, his continuing concern and love for these banished children. Rousseau initially admits that he might have erred. He presents himself as a man with all the qualities of an ideal father. "... my warm-heartedness, my acute sensibility... my innate goodwill... my burning love for the great, the true, the beautiful... my horror of evil in every form, " etc. (p. 333). He describes the pain he felt on sending them off, but he ultimately defends his decision. "All things considered, I made the best choice for my children... " (p. 334) Likewise, the supposedly "grief-stricken" Stepan had already been separated from his wife and child three years before his wife's death. And Dostoevsky resorts to pure humor in ridiculing this situation as he has Stepan describe to the narrator-chronicler a conversation with the now grownup Petr, whose estate Stepan has already squandered, "... you wretch,... hasn't my heart been aching for you all my life, though I did send you away by parcel post?" (X, 171; 220-21) For each man, theories of education and claims for the love of his children conceal a dreadful fact of abandonment.
In addition each man finds it necessary to carry on a frantic correspondence with his protectoress. The day's
exchange of letters between Rousseau and Mme d'Epinay which appeared at the beginning of this essay greatly resemble the kind of correspondence passing between Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara. "It is true, " writes the narrator-chronicler, "that he was passionately fond of writing, that he would write to her even when he was living in the same house, and during his hysterical episodes he would write two letters a day" (X, 13; 29). All parties, of course, carefully preserved their correspondence.
Moreover, each woman made a kind of child or creation out of her middle-aged male ward. "But one thing, " writes the narrator-chronicler of Stepan, "he failed to notice to the very end, namely that he had at last for her become her son, her creation, one might almost say her invention"(X, 16; 29). In fact, "she herself designed even the suit he wore all his life" (X, 19; 33). Mme d'Epinay took a similar maternal, creative interest in the most intimate aspects of her Jean-Jacques' existence. Rousseau describes how one freezing morning he opened a parcel from Mme d'Epinay "and found in it a little under-petticoat of English flannel, which she informed me she had worn, and out of which she wanted me to make myself a waistcoat... This mark of more than friendly attention seemed to me so tender - it was as if she had stripped herself to clothe me - that in my emotion I kissed the note and the petticoat twenty times in tears" (p. 407). (10)
Each man, at times of intense emotional disturbance, suffers from a humiliating physical complaint which acts as a kind of humbling bodily counterbalance to his lofty mental attitudes. Rousseau's notorious bladder trouble finds an echo in Stepan's attacks of gastric catarrh. But emotional disturbance can ultimately drive each of them suddenly to cast off his role as dependent male: wounded dignity and the perceived betrayal of a grand friendship precipitates each to undertake a dramatically conceived flight. Years after the fact, Rousseau is still at pains to describe the indignation he had felt at Mme d'Epinay when at last relations between them had completely broken down. Still incensed by her last letter which began, "After having shown you for many years every possible evidence of friendship and sympathy, I have nothing left for you but pity" (p. 451), he writes: "It was necessary to depart immediately, whatever the weather, just as I was, even if I had to sleep in the woods and on the snow that then covered the ground.... I found myself in the most terrible embarrassment that
I have ever known in my life" (p. 452). Likewise, Stepan Trofimovich, also in the face of encroaching winter, cannot bear Varvara Petrovna's pity and disdain. He plans a departure which is every bit as imminent and dramatic as Rousseau's. He tells her that as soon as the fête is over, "I shall take up my bag that very evening, my pauper's bag, leave all may belongings behind me(11)... I always thought that there was something higher than food between us... And so I go on my way to make amends. I'm setting out late in the year, in the late autumn, a mist lies over the fields, my future road is covered with the rigid hoarfrost of old age... " (X, 266; 345) (12)
Yet it is at this moment of the greatest biographical similarity between these two sentimental old men - who are declaring, at long last, their independence from a protecting female - that Stepan Trofimovich begins, morally and spiritually, to transcend Rousseau. Rousseau's departure from the Hermitage was inspired mainly by his wounded vanity. Although Stepan's vanity has suffered an equally painful blow, his comic, yet passionate and courageous farewell to Varvara contains a significant prediction. "You have always despised me, but I shall end up like a knight who has remained faithful to his lady, for your opinion has always been dearer to me than anything in the world. From this moment on I shall accept nothing, but shall honor you disinterestedly" (X, 266: 345). Stepan's words prove true.
It is customary to regard Rousseau's Confessions, like those of St. Augustine, as a work which describes a crucial conversion. (13) For me, at least, that moment of conversion of Rousseau is difficult to locate, and when found, unconvincing at best. Stepan Trofimovich, on the other hand, despite - and perhaps
because of the depths of ridiculousness to which he is capable of descending, does undergo, just before his death, an authentic conversion experience.
Throughout his life Rousseau struggled to determine the nature of truth - to learn how to discover the lie immersed in truth and the truth concealed in the lie. The preoccupation with uncovering the essential meanings of truth and falsehood may be an essential part of any autobiographical enterprise (or of any character whose: main activity is the scrutiny of the self). For those lies which we tell are intimately related to our desires. But so are our proclaimed truths. Just as we often suppress those ideas or desires which seem to us the
truest, so may those same ideas or desires be the ones we seek most persistently to express. Lionel Grossman addresses some of these considerations in his essay, "The Innocent Art of Confession and Reverie. " "Perhaps in autobiography, as in many other forms of imaginative writing, there are two impulses. One is to release a discourse that has been suppressed, to permit what could not be said, was not said, and is indeed unsayable -the thing that is at the heart of the writer's activity as a writer - to be said, or rather to be approximated. The other impulse is to imprison it again, to disguise it, to keep it at arm's length, by means of substitutions and displacements. "(14)
Rousseau's final work, the autobiographical Reveries of the Solitary Walker carries on, now in the guise of meditation rather than revelation, many of the themes of the
Confessions. In The Reveries, completed shortly before his death, Rousseau devotes the entire Forth Walk to a close scrutiny of the nature of truth. He asks himself which truths should be revealed, which concealed. He looks back at his
Confessions and at "the number of things of my own invention which I remembered presenting as true... What surprised me most was that when I recalled these fabrications I felt no real repentance. I, whose horror of falsehood outweighs all my other feelings... by what strange inconsistency could I lie so cheerfully without the slightest twinge of regret... ?"( 15) This question leads Rousseau to a discussion of ethics, morality, and the nature of lies which function in the service of truth and vice versa.
Stepan Trofimovich shares Rousseau's preoccupation with truth and lies (and so, of course, always, did Dostoevsky). On the threshold of death, Stepan seems about to discover certain permanent meanings about truth. He, too, links this understanding of truth to confession, to what one chooses to reveal and to conceal. "My friend (Sofja Matveevna, the "gospel woman"), all my life I've been lying. Even when I spoke the truth. I never spoke for the sake of the truth but for my own sake" (X, 497; 645). Yet Dostoevsky seems never to be able to resist having his characters take such statements one step farther, so that they ultimately join him in his own realm of infinite paradox. "Savez-vous, " continues Stepan, "perhaps I am lying even now. The trouble is that I believe myself when I am lying... " (X, 497; 645). Such statements do not reveal an unfinalized world view as much as they do a final conviction that in some unfathomable way the truth and the lie partake together
of some greater, inscrutable yet perfect whole. The truth will out, but the lie will in - always concurrent with each other.
Aside from these correspondences between Rousseau and Stepan Trofimovich, there remain the vital differences between the interests and ideas of these two men, the one real the other fictional. Except for their mutual pursuit after definitions of truth, their other philosophical and intellectual interests do not really coincide. In these spheres, Stepan draws life from the Russian intellectuals of the 1840's. But Rousseau offers the rudimentary point of departure, the biographical frame. Each man unconsciously presents himself to his readers as an epitome of the sentimental, middle-aged man dependent on a strong-willed woman. Each exhibits a strong dichotomy between his timid self and his lofty words - his doctrines which will allow no compromise with honor. Each partakes of two separate existences -a biographical life filled with compromise and a self created through language whose standards are unyielding.
If we admit Rousseau's presence in the character of Stepan Trofimovich, both Dostoevsky's ongoing polemic with Rousseau and the structure of
The Possessed (often criticized as imperfect) become finer and more subtle. For if Rousseau stands behind both Stepan, the man of the 40's and Stavrogin, the mysterious hero figure of the 6O's, then the two generations, so deeply in dispute with each other, are also inextricably linked together. The portrayal of this chain of guilt, this sharing of responsibility for the condition, the "madness" possessing Russia, is, as we know, one of Dostoevsky's main endeavors in
The Possessed. Early in the novel, the narrator-chronicler observes of Stepan and Stavrogin, "there was not the slightest difference between them" (X, 35; 53). Each is, in his own way, a hopeless romantic. Each embraces borrowed European ideas which prove to be at best useless, at worst destructive, and many of these borrowings derived ultimately from Rousseau. Yet despite his comic ridiculousness, Stepan eventually transcends Rousseau, while Stavrogin, in his confession cannot -despite his tragic awareness - separate himself from destructive vanity.
But even if Stepan escapes comedy and achieves a genuine dignity and greatness by the end of the novel, the traces of his guilt linger on. Just as
The Brothers Karamazov portrays the working of a mechanism by which grace travels through the world, so is
The Possessed concerned
with depicting the chain reactions of evil influence. Thus those ideas which seem gently comic in a character like Stepan can become, quite easily, transmuted into the deadly philosophies of others. We experience Stepan's desire to be greater than he is in the comic mode - hence his assurances that he is an "exile, " his description that he is being watched. But how far removed are these weaknesses, in the end, from those to which Stavrogin succumbs in his confession? His desire to titillate, to describe his deeds as worse than they are - his vanity -are dangerously akin to all these qualities as they exist in Stepan. Stavrogin's confession takes Rousseau's
Confessions to its darkest extremes, while Stepan's character, for the most part, attacks it through parody and ridicule. But the linkages between the tutor and his pupil remain significant.
It is a compelling irony that Dostoevsky himself so often resembled this Rousseau with whom, through his fiction he so passionately argued. Both Belinskij and Strakhov called attention to the negative resemblances between the two. Belinskij said of Rousseau, "I have a great loathing for this man. He so resembles Dostoevsky. " Strakhov, in a letter to Tolstoy which was highly critical of Dostoevsky (calling him spiteful, envious, dissolute) added, "Like Rousseau, however, he considered himself the best and the happiest of men. "(16) Certainly each man
quarrelled frequently with his friends, mistrusted them, was jealous of them yet sought, too, to forgive and love them.
But Dostoevsky resembled Rousseau in positive ways as well. Each man hoped, and in his writings strove, for society's return to a simpler way of life in which the necessary complexities of the individual psyche could be minimized. Each, in his writings, portrayed with compassion the figure of the dreamer who loved, above all, to let his thoughts ramble as he himself wandered about outdoors. Each explored, unabashedly, the sensuality lurking in guilt and in punishment. Each, ultimately, sought for the reader to be the ultimate judge of all he had written. Above all, both Rousseau and Dostoevsky engaged themselves in an unceasing, intense search for authenticity - through seeking to portray the human soul, in all its nakedness and in all its layered veils and adornments.