The Force of Inertia In Dostoevsky's Krotkaja
Liza Knapp, Columbia University
Zachem mrachnaja kosnost' razbila to, chto vsego dorozhe? [...] Kosnost'! O, priroda! Ljudi na zemle odni—vot beda! [...] Vse mertvo i vsjudu mertvecy. Odni tol'ko ljudi, a krugom nich molkhanie-vot zemlja! (1)
(Why did gloomy inertia smash that which was dearest of all? [...] Inertia! O,
nature! People on earth are alone, that's what's wrong. [...] Everything is dead and there are corpses everywhere. People, alone, and around them, silence-such is the earth!)
These desparate apostrophes to inertia (kosnost') culminate Dostoevsky's short story "Krotkaja", which appeared in the November, 1876 issue-of
Dnevnik pisatelja. Dostoevsky presents the story as the extemporaneous confession of a Petersburg pawnbroker whose wife has just killed herself by jumping out of their window, clutching in her arms an icon of the Mother of God. As the pawnbroker narrates his version of the events leading up to his wife's suicide, her corpse lies on the table before him.
In the finale of this disturbing confession, not only does
the pawnbroker blame this mysterious force, inertia (kosnost')
for this personal tragedy, the suicide of his wife, but he
also has come to regard this inertia as a blight on human
existence in general, one which results in human isolation
(Ljudi na zemle odni—vot beda!") and causes the earth to
appear as a corpse-ridden place (Vse mertvo i vsjudu mertvecy.").
Initially, the confessional ramblings of this griefstricken,
guiltridden husband appear rather inscrutable. What does
he mean by inertia? And how is it to blame for all this?
The pawnbroker's perplexing apostrophes to inertia can, however, be deciphered if examined within the context of other references to inertia, to be found in Dostoevsky's own works as well as elsewhere, in the literary, philosophical and scientific works of others. Chief among these is Newton's
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy; 1687), where the First Law of Motion posits inertia as an innate property of all physical matter. By inertia (vis inertiae), Newton means the inability of a physical body to change from a state of rest or of uniform motion, unless it is acted upon by an external force.
Dostoevsky studied physics at the Academy of Military Engineers and it can therefore safely be assumed that he was acquainted with the concept of inertia and the role it played in Newton's conception of the universe. (2) Although Dostoevsky's career as an engineer was short-lived, his interest in physics endured. Apparently, the Academy of Military Engi-
neers had failed to teach him all he wanted to learn about the subject, for, in 1854, while in exile, he wrote a letter asking His brother to send—along with the works of historians, philosophers and the Church Fathers— a recently published physics book. (3) Whether or not Dostoevsky ever received or read this book, the request attests a continued or renewed interest in the subject.
A concern with physics, and its possible metaphysical ramifications, is further borne out in his writings, through references to particular physicists, (4) through persistent use of mechanical metaphor, (5) as well as through deliberation on inertia and other laws of nature. Inertia figures in Dostoevsky's works as
kosnost', as inercija, and as an unnamed mechanical force which threatens human life and makes the natural world appear as a colossal machine. In general Russian usage, the Latinesque word
inercija is more strictly associated with Newtonian mechanics than is the Slavic word kosnost' which has other connotations of sluggishness and stagnation. In the 19th century, however,
kosnost' was also commonly used to denote the mechanical principle of inertia, as defined in Newton's First Law of Motion. (6) In this context, inertia denotes not immobility or incapacity for movement
per se, but rather an incapacity for self-generated, self-determined movement. In Russian terms, inertia has also been defined as "samonedejatel'nost'". Curiously, Russian definitions of inertia are often couched in negative terms and portray inertia as an inability to change, thus making it appear as a defect or vice, whereas Newton's original formulation of the principle of inertia employed terms such as "continuation" and "persistence" and thereby depicted inertia as a neutral if not positive quality. (7)
Upon discovering inertia at work within themselves, Dostoevsky's pawnbroker and other heroes despair because such a mechanization of their behavior poses a threat, if not to the existence of, at least to the exercise of, their free will. It reduces them to being nothing more than physical matter, subject to the laws of nature and thereby to decay and death. Such determinism denies certain basic Christian beliefs. The literary confession, the genre to which "Krotkaja" belongs, has traditionally narrated the hero's struggle-whether successful or not-to change the course of his life and become anew man. (Indeed, Dostoevsky's pawnbroker often refers to his own attempts to begin a "new life".) But as a confessional hero attempts to alter his behavior, he often discovers within himself a perplexing resistance to change. It undermines his will, seeming to render it inoperative. In other words, the confessional hero finds himself in the state described by St. Paul in his "Epistle to the Romans", when he complains that:
The good that I would I do not, but the evil which I
would not that I do. (8)
According to Paul, man can be delivered from this frustrating state only by God's grace and by faith in Christ's resurrection. Paul regards this resurrection as a miracle for it defies the laws of nature and promises that all creation will have the chance of doing likewise: "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay." (9) Thus Christian faith miraculously liberates man from subjugation to the laws of
St. Augustine's confession poses the problem (and offers a solution) in a similar way. He, too, found it hard to do the good willed. He describes how he had to struggle before his actual conversion to alter behavior that he considered wrong:
I was quite sure that it was better for me to give myself up to your [God's] love than to surrender to my own lust. But while I wanted to follow the first course and was convinced that it was right, I was still a slave to pleasures of the second. (10)
To his dismay and frustration, he found himself unable to change. He persisted on a sinful course even though the force that originally set him on this course, his will, was no longer being exerted in that direction. Sinning out of habit, he had become sin's "reluctant victim", whereas he had originally been its "willing tool." (11) At work within Augustine as he found himself sinning against his will was the spiritual equivalent of the physical principle of inertia, as defined by Newton more than a millennium later. Eventually, faith in God allowed Augustine to overcome his inertia.
In his confession, Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents himself as the passive, although often reluctant, victim of external circumstances over which he felt he had no control. In analyzing his behavior, he resorts to mechanical imagery, depicting himself as physical matter reluctant to quit its state of rest:
Cette médiocrité fut en grande partie l'ouvrage de mon naturel ardent, mais faible, moins prompt encore à entreprendre que facile à décourager, sortant du repos par secoursses, mais y rentrant par lassitude et par goût... (12)
Rousseau, unlike Augustine, does not try to overcome his inertial tendencies, for he considers them to be natural, and for Rousseau, the work of Nature is not to be tampered with. Thus, instead of chronicling a repentant struggle to change his habits, his confession records his grievances against the external forces which he felt had wrecked his life. ,
When Dostoevsky's confessional hero, the pawnbroker, discovers inertia at work in his life, he clearly regards it as a pernicious threat. And since at the end of his confession, he seems to have failed to disarm this threat, his vision of inertia naturally becomes more tragic than that of Augustine (who disarmed the threat) and that of Rousseau (who saw no threat to begin with.) And yet, much like Rousseau, the pawnbroker initially tends to attribute events in his life to forces external to himself, ones over which he has no control. He sees his whole life as having been determined by a "tyrannical injustice" against him (tiranicheskaja nespravedlivost' protiv menja), whereby nobody loved him. He refers to his regiment, which he regards as the most significant event in his life prior to his marriage, as an "external circumstance" (vneshnee obstojatel'stvo), and stresses its "accidental nature" (sluchajnyj kharakter) and the fact that it resulted from an "unfortunate concatenation of circumstances" (ot
nechastnogo skoplenija obstojatel'stv). (XXIV:23)
At first, the pawnbroker shows the same fatalism as he responds to his wife's suicide, of which he says:
Glavnoe obidno to, chto vse eto sluchaj—prostoj,
varvarskij, kosnyj sluchaj. (XXIV:34)
(What's most offensive is the fact that all this is an accident—a simple, barbaric, inertial accident.)
In using the epithet "inertial" (kosnyj) to characterize this accident or chance occurrence, the pawnbroker reveals the close link between fatalism and mechanical determinism, the upshot of both outlooks being the same: a denial of self-determination. While the pawnbroker regards a lack of self-determination as a universal facet of human existence, he seems to feel that, in the case of his meek wife, the basic problem was compounded by her lack of self-assertiveness. In other words, her meek, gentle nature made her even more vulnerable to blind forces such as inertia. In the drafts of the story, the pawnbroker was to comment directly on the extreme susceptibility of the meek to this force of inertia:
Krotkie tak, otdajutsja dvizheniju, ne rassuzhdajut. Revol'ver. Po pokatoj inercii oslablenija chuvstva. Fu, kakoj ja vzdor napisal. A ved' eto inercija, i pokataja. (XXIV:318-319)
(The meek are such, they surrender to motion, they don't reason. The revolver. Due to the downhill inertia of weakening of feeling. Fu, what nonsense I've written. But, truly, it is inertia, and downhill.)
In the final version of this passage where the pawnbroker comments on his wife's attempt to kill him, specific mention of inertia has been dropped, but mechanical principles such as inertia and gravity are implicit in the metaphorical model for his wife's behavior which he develops:
Govorjat, chto stojashchie na vysote kak by tjanutsja sami knizu, v bezdnu. Ja dumaju, mnogo samoubijstv i ubijstv sovershilos' potomu tol'ko, chto revol'ver uzhe byl vzjat v ruki. Tut tozhe bezdna, tut pokatost' v sorok pjat' gradusov,
o kotoruju nel'zja ne skol'znut', i vas chto-to vyzyvaet nepobedimo spustit' kurok. No soznanie, chto ja vse videl, vse znaju i zhdu ot nee smerti molcha,--moglo uderzhat'
ee na pokatosti.(XXIV:21)
(They say that people standing on an altitude somehow gravitate of their own accord downwards, into the abyss. I think that many suicides and murders have been committed simply because the revolver had already been taken in hand. That is also an abyss, it's a forty-five degree inclined plane which one has no choice but to slide down, and something invincibly causes you to pull the trigger. However, the realization that I had seen everything, that I know everything and that I am awaiting death from her silently, was able to hold her back on the inclined plane.)
As he describes the blind, mechanical nature of his wife's behavior, the pawnbroker depicts himself as an external force, interrupting her inertial slide down the inclined plane-she points the gun at his head but doesn't carry through by pulling
the trigger and he assumes it is because she noticed him wake up and observe her. This shock jolted her out of her inertia. Such is his mechanistic interpretation of his wife's attempt murder of him; similarly he argues that her suicide, an "inertial accident" (kosnyj sluchaj), would have been averted had he arrived home five minutes earlier. Apparently, he assumes that he would have once again acted as an "external force" interfering with the inertial progress of her plan:
Glavnoe, obidno to, chto vse eto sluchaj-prostoj, varvarskij, kosnyj sluchaj. Vot obida! Pjat' minut, vsego, vsego pjat' minut opozdal! Pridi ja za pjat' minut-i mgnovenie proneslos' by mimo, kak oblako, i ej by nikogda potom ne prishlo v golovu. (XXIV:34)
(What's most offensive is the fact that all this is an accident—a simple, barbarous, inertial accident! This is the offense! Five minutes, only, only five minutes late! Had I come five minutes sooner-then the moment would have flown by like a cloud, and it would never again have come into her head.)
That the pawnbroker's arrival would have permanently banished thoughts of suicide from his wife's head is unlikely.
In apparent attempt to evade responsibility, the pawnbroker depicts his wife's death as an event determined by chance and other causes beyond their control. In this vein he asks:
A chto esli malokrovie? Prosto ot malokrovija, ot istoshchenija zhiznennoj energii (XXIV:35)
(And what if it was anemia? Simply because of anemia, because of exhaustion of vital energy?)
When he suggests that anemia and exhaustion of vital energy caused his wife to act as she did, he seems to offer a biological explanation for her behavior, however, the term "zhiznennaja energija" also suggests another branch of science, physics. The specific notion of this exhaustion might even be a veiled reference to inertia, since the term vital force (zhiznennaja sila) was used in physics books to denote the mysterious force, possessed by animals, including humans, that differentiates them from other matter by enabling them to change from a state of rest or motion without the aid of an external force—in other words, possession of this "vital force" means freedom from inertia. (13)
By the same token, the pawnbroker's declaration that the meek one's "vital energy"
has been exhausted is in a sense tantamount to a declaration that she had become a victim of inertia. In these repeated attempts to see inertia as the force "animating", or more accurately, "mechanizing" his wife, the pawnbroker seemed to evade his responsibility for what has happened. However, near the very end of his confession he suddenly admits his own guilt for what has transpired. He confesses that he is responsible for sapping her of her vital energy: "Izmuchil ja
ee—vot chto!" (XXIV:35) ("I tortured her to death—that's what!") At this moment, he seems to understand that his marriage was doomed and his wife, driven to suicide by his own intransigence, by his inability to change or adapt in any way: in spite of his good intentions (the good that he would), he
continued to threat his wife unkindly (to do the evil that he would not) and eventually "tortured her to death."
When the pawnbroker discovers this inertia within himself, he discovers that he has become nothing more than physical matter. As such, he is necessarily subject to the same laws that rule the physical world. Within the context of Dostoevsky's metaphysics, the end result of these laws of nature is always death. (14) Lev Shestov, in discussing the end of "Krotkaja", equates inertia (kosnost') with the "boundless power of death over life" (bezgranichnaja vlast' smerti nad zhizn'ju). (15) As the pawnbroker contemplates his wife's corpse, he faces all-too-convincing evidence of the power of these laws of nature. (16) Still, he keeps irrationally hoping that his wife will open her eyes — and thus that the laws of nature will be reversed:
O, pust' vse, tol'ko pust' by ona otkryla khot' raz glaza! (XXIV:35)
(Oh, let it all be such, only let her open her eyes just one more time.)
But she does not open her eyes, the laws of nature carry the day, and he succumbs to a vision of the universe in which these laws have become both inexorable and irreversible.
At the end of the confession, the inertia the pawnbroker discovered within himself seems to have permeated the earth, making it appear as a corpse-infested place. Even the sun, traditionally seen as a life-giving force (one opposing inertia) , becomes a corpse:
Kosnost'! O, priroda! Ljudi na zemle odni—vot beda! [ ... ] Govorjat, solnce zhivit vselennuju. Vzojdet solnce i posmotrite na nego, razve ono ne mertvec? Vse mertvo, i vsjudu mertvecy. Odni tol'ko ljudi, a krugom nikh molchanie—vot zemlja! "Ljudi, ljubite drug druga"—kto eto skazal? chej eto zavet? (XXIV:35)
(Inertia! O, nature! People on earth are alone — that's what's wrong. [...] They say that the sun animates the universe. The sun will come out, just look at it—isn't it a corpse? Everything is dead and there are corpses everywhere. People, alone, and around them silence— such is the earth. "Love one another"--who said this? whose commandment is this?)
When the pawnbroker alludes to human isolation and asks about the commandment to "love one another", he implies that inertia causes not only mortality but also a failure to love-or perhaps it's the reverse: a failure to love causes inertia. (The point is that it is a vicious circle and in vicious circles it is virtually impossible to distinguish cause from effect, although one thing is clear: vicious circles operate by virtue, or by vice, of inertia.)
Inertia, isolation and death have replaced the deliverance, love and paradise that the pawnbroker wanted to create. He reminds his wife's corpse that: "Raj byl u menja v dusha, ja by nasadil ego krugom tebja!" (" Paradise was in ray soul. I would have planted it around you." XXIV:35) But the "good
that he would", the paradise existing in his soul, failed to materialize.
Dostoevsky had previously concerned himself with this same network of ideas—inertia and mortality, on the one hand, and love and immortality, on the other—in a notebook entry made at the time of his first wife's death in 1864. (The story "Krotkaja" interprets and expands on the ideas outlined in the notebook entry and thus it can be seen as a gloss on it.) In fact, Dostoevsky, like his later fictional pawnbroker, pondered his wife's death while her corpse lay on the table before him. He begins: "Masha lezhit na stole. Uvizhus' li s nej?" Then he addresses the failure of human beings to fulfill Christ's commandment about love:
Vozljubit' cheloveka, kak samogo sebja, po zapovedi Khristovoj,—nevozmozhno. Zakon, lichnosti na zemle svjazyvaet.
Ja prepjatstvuet. (XX:172)
(To love someone, as oneself, in accordance with Christ's commandment, is impossible. The law of the ego is binding on earth. The "I" stands in the way.")
This "law of the ego" (or selfishness) is, in a sense, also what causes the pawnbroker's intransigence and frustrates his attempts to love his wife.
The thematic parallelism between this notebook entry and "Krotkaja" continues, for in the notebook entry Dostoevsky switches, in an apparent non-sequitur, from his discussion of Christian love to the subject of materialism and inertia, writing :
Uchenie materialistov--vseobshchaja kosnost' i mekhanizm
veshchestva, znachit smert'. Uchenie istinnoj
filosofii-unichtozhenie kosnosti, to est' mysl', to
est' centr i Sintez vselennoj i naruzhnoj formy ee— veshchestva, to est' Bog, to est' zhizn' beskonechnaja.
(The teaching of the materialists—universal inertia and the mechanization of matter, amounts to death. The teaching of the true philosophy is the annihilation of inertia, it is thought, it is the center and Synthesis of the universe and its external form, matter, it is God, it is eternal life.)
In the notebook entry, Dostoevsky makes it clear that embracing materialism means succumbing to inertia and results in death, whereas embracing God (or the so-called "true philosophy") means annihilating inertia and results in eternal life; however he does not directly explain how the Christian love which had been discussed throughout the rest of the notebook entry fits into this scheme. But he implies what he later, in "Krotkaja", will demonstrate more explicitly-namely, that love provides a potential means of annihilating inertia. (17)
As he concerns himself with materialism, in general, and inertia, in particular, Dostoevsky follows in the footsteps of various philosophers who explored the metaphysical rami-
fications of the physical theories of Newton, Descartes and others. (18) A concern with physics permeates European philosophical works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, the German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte describes the human spirit as a machine governed by "inertia of the spirit" (Trägheit des Geistes), (19) He also explains how this inertia constitutes the root of evil in man:
Trägheit sonach, die durch lange Gewohnheit sich selbst
ins unendliche reproducirt, und bald gänzliches
Unvermögen zum Guten wird, ist das wahre, angebohrne, in
der menschlichen Natur selbst liegende radicale Uebel ... (20)
[Accordingly, inertia, which out of longstanding habit reproduces itself ad infinitum and which soon becomes a complete incapacity for doing good, is the true, inborn, fundamental evil, lodged in human nature itself.]
Inertia functions in the spirits of Dostoevsky's heroes in the very same way, keeping them from doing the good that they would and causing them to do the evil that they would not. Specific knowledge of Fichte's writings on the subject probably did not contribute to the development of Dostoevsky's ideas on inertia. Ignorant of Fichte though he may have been, Dostoevsky was obviously aware of, and to a degree affected by, modern Western philosophy's obsession with physics.
The Russian philosopher, Vladimir Solov'ev, with whom Dostoevsky was in contact during the late seventies, (21) also shared this concern with inertia. In fact, in his "Lectures on God-Manhood" (1873), Solov'ev identifies inertia (kosnost') and impenetrability (nepronicaemost'), as the two qualities that beset the natural world once it had fallen away from the "divine unity" (bozhestvennoe nachalo). (22) Inertia and impenetrability, when present in (fallen) human beings, not only mechanize human existence but also cause excessive egoism and a denial of others, both contributing to make love for another impossible.
The human predicament - man in his fallen state - as described by Solov'ev in these lectures had already been illustrated by Dostoevsky's pawnbroker and others of his earlier confessional heroes who, like the pawnbroker, had fallen victim to inertia. (23) Chief among these others is the underground man who confesses to his own inertia (inercija), defined as "conscious-sitting-with-arms-folded", and who also criticizes his supposed antitheses, the men of action and
les hommes de la nature et de la vérité for their active, machine-like existence. But, actually, as he himself secretly realizes, both types of existence discussed - his own conscious stasis and the men of action's mindless motion - can be seen to be determined by the same principle, inertia, for as defined by Newton, it embraces the blind continuance of both motion and rest. Similarly, Ippolit in "The Idiot" may be regarded as a victim (and/or perpetrator) of inertia: when he loses faith in triumphing over the laws of nature, the world appears to him as "some colossal machine, technologically up-to-date" (kakaja-nibud' gromadnaja mashina novejshego ustrojstva), which is ruled by, and run on, "a dark, insolent, senselessly-eternal force to which all is subjected" ("temnaja, naglaja, bes-
smyslenno-vechnaja sila, kotoroj vse podchineno" VIII:339). Ippolit chooses to describe the force in these terms, but had he named the force that keeps the machine in motion, the name given would surely have been inertia. When Ippolit and the pawnbroker conclude that inertia has taken over them as well as the universe, they begin to see death everywhere, this wareness of human mortality making life unbearable to them. In "Notes from underground," actual death remains more remote to the hero, as he boasts of his senseless longevity; still, a concern with death permeates his confession and when he claims to be "still-born" (mertvorozhdennyj), his point seems to be that being born into a life of inertia is tantamount to being born dead.
The vicious circle established in Dostoevsky's works between inertia, sin and mortality also harks back to Patristic thought. Specifically, the Church Fathers held that by sinning man became mortal - that is, he re-became the matter out of which he had originally been created. In the process, man forfeited the spiritual, immortal nature God had endowed him with at creation. Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century Church Father whose mystical writings were very popular in the Russia of Dostoevsky's day, defines divine nature, as a "state of not being bound by any law of nature" (in Russian translation: nesvjazannost' nikakoj prirodnoj siloj). (24) Thus, man's being subject to necessity of any sort (including the physical laws) is proof of his having forfeited his divine nature. Thus when Dostoevsky applies the concept of inertia to describe man's wretchedness, his fallen sinful state, he does not create a metaphor, but rather carries certain Patristic concepts to their literal conclusion: sinning man becomes nothing more than physical matter and therefore is subjected to all physical laws, and since Newton's time, primary among these has been the force of inertia. Dostoevsky's special understanding of inertia and its role in human existence results then from a superimposition of Newtonian physics onto Patristic metaphysics.
But if, according to Christian thought, the "old Adam" brought man mortality and subjection to the laws of nature, the "new Adam", Christ, promised him immortality and deliverance from these laws. Specifically, through his incarnation and resurrection, Christ triumphed over the laws governing physical matter and thereby promised man the possibility of doing likewise. As St. Paul writes, "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay." When Dostoevsky argues in his notebook that in order to achieve eternal life, the "true philosophy", the "synthesis of the universe", etc., one must annihilate inertia, he is in perfect harmony with Christian theology although he employs the lingo of modern philosophy.
Yet the pawnbroker and most of Dostoevsky's confessional heroes, rather than annihilate inertia, seem to be annihilated by it. They are cursed by their inability to change or reform and their failure to use their will in a productive way. But, wretched as they are, these heroes nevertheless identify, if only remotely, the means by which inertia could be annihilated.
As he alludes to the commandment to love one another ("ljudi, ljubite drug druga - kto eto skazal?"), the pawnbroker reveals his awareness of the redemptive potential of selfless love, even of its specific potential for delivering man from inertia. In other confessions, the heroes realize that faith in the resurrection (Ippolit) and "zhivaja zhizn'" (the underground man) also offer freedom from inertia.
But the pawnbroker and most other Dostoevskian heroes fail to love another, to have faith, to partake of "zhivaja zhizn'". They fail to "do the good they would." On this very account, according to Dostoevsky, they become "tragic heroes", but tragic heroes of a particular sort, ones who partake of the special "tragedy of the underground". In 1875, Dostoevsky explained this when he wrote:
Ja gorzhus', chto vpervye vyvel nastojashchego cheloveka russkogo bol'shinstva i vpervye razoblachil ego urodlivuju storonu. [...] Tol'ko ja odin vyvel tragizm podpol'ja, sostojashchij v stradanii, v samokazni, v soznanii luchshego i v nevozmozhnosti dostich' ego i, glavnoe, v jarkom ubezhdenii etikh neschastnykh, chto i vse takovy, a stalo byt', ne stoit ispravljat'sja! (XXVI:329)
[I pride myself that I was the first to depict the contemporary man of the Russian majority and that I was the first to unmask his ugly tragic side. [...] I'm the only one to have depicted the tragedy of the underground, consisting of suffering, of self-castigation, of consciousness of the best and of the inability to achieve it, and, most of all, of the clear conviction of those unfortunates, that all are thus, and consequently, there's no need to reform!]
For Dostoevsky, then being "tragic" means falling victim to inertia, allowing one's life to be determined by it rather than one's will, allowing it to prevent reform; and it means accepting this personal inertia as a universal, natural law from which there is no deliverance.