sex, religion and politics

18 January 2011 § Leave a comment

They’re supposedly the three big unmentionables in polite society, but it’s these three conversational bombs that lie at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novels. I started off trying to see if I link one theme to each book; it would be nice if I could say well, the Idiot is all about sex, and the Devils is all about politics and Brothers Karamazov is all about religion, but it really isn’t quite as neat as that.

I’m reading the Idiot at the moment. I don’t think I’ve read it since I was 18, so I suspect I was rather youthfully idealistic about the sexual passions that run through it. This time round, I’m really struck by the destructive and unhealthy relationship between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin; here are two people who probably really don’t actually like each other that much, but are utterly consumed with desire, oblivious to all sense, and to those around them. There’s some degree of that with Dmitry and Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov too, although not as fierce as Nastasya and Rogozhin.

The other big relationships are notable for their frustration and lack of fulfilment. Prince Myshkin and Aglaya almost mirror Nastasya and Rogozhin; neither of them seem to know what they want, they won’t admit that there is any attraction between them and they are prickly and defensive towards each other. In Brothers Karamazov, poor old Katerina is thoroughly confused about her feelings for Dmitry and Ivan, she probably thinks she’s in love with them both but again, it’s probably just good old-fashioned lust. (I can’t help feeling that Dmitry and Ivan are probably rather fanciable, in a hopeless sort of way). Even the great romance of Crime and Punishment, between Raskolnikov and Sonya, is not exactly wholesome.

There are happy, stable relationships, but these always seem to be between secondary characters; the lovely Razumikhin and Dunya, or Varya and Ptitsyn in the Idiot. I’m reading Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky biography at the moment, but I’m still on his bachelor days: I assume that his own life is going to shed some light on all these failed sexual relationships, since there’s so much of Dostoevsky’s own life and thinking crammed into the novels.

I’ve just been reading about Dostoevsky’s early literary life in St Petersburg, his championing by Belinsky and his circle followed by their great falling-out, and I’ve been wrapping my brain around Utopian Socialism and Left Hegelianism. I’m beginning to understand more clearly where Raskolnikov comes from, and some of the thinking behind the portrayal of Christ in the Grand Inquisitor, but I need to keep reading and thinking before I tackle Dostoevsky’s religion and politics.

This is making me wonder whether I’ve finally stumbled across some sort of idea for structuring all this. I’ll keep writing and let it cook.


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