Philip Rahv was the most dialectical of thinkers in the PR group, with the possible exception of Sidney Hook in his dialectical days. Throughout the summer issues of Partisan Review, 1938, you can feel the need of the contributors to attach what Rahv calls “classical” literary traditions to the present moment, while remaining committed to the positions of the non-CP communists within and around Trotsky. In his essay on Dostoyevsky, Rahv begins his discussion of The Possessed by making this explicit argument: A classic has to stay alive to be readable.
“To be means to recur. In the struggle for survival among works of art, those prove themselves the fittest that recur most often…. The past retains its vitality insofar as it impersonates the present, either in its aversions or ideals; in the same way a classic work renews itself by impersonating a modern one.”
And so Rahv uses his argument to turn the explicitly reactionary Dostoyevsky into the hidden but present radical Dostoyevsky. The Possessed has become contemporary again because it addresses itself to the problems of revolutionary politics. The particulars will differ beween the earlier 19th century arguments for Liberalism and Slavism and Nihilism, and those of Bolshevism, but, as Rahv orientates the reader, “It is not by chance that on the occasion of the Moscow Trials, the world press unanimously recalled to its readers the name of Dostoyevsky, the great nay-sayer to the revolution.”
As you may already know, Dostoyevsky had been involved in his twenties with a radical group in St. Petersburg who studied and modelled themselves on French Utopian thinking. He was arrested with others in the group, and sentenced to four years of hard labour and then exile to Siberia. Rahv suggests that the recovery of Dostoyevsky to Soviet favour was anchored to the fantasy of the ‘Slav Soul.’ As a version of the instinctual mythical romantic nationalism that was abroad in Europe, the ‘Slav Soul ‘ became an aesthetic movement as well.
Peredvizhniki –Slavophile Artists, 1872 Alphonse Maria Mucha, “The UNion of all Slavs.”
“That swollen concept [the Slav Soul] is the product of the sociological romanticism of the Slavophile movement, which substituted brooding about history for making it… As for those ‘sympathisers’ of Stalin who use the “Slav Soul” to prove the innocence of the GPU and the guilt of its victims…If you make the unfathomable perversity of the Slav nature your premise, then logically your conclusion cannot exclude any explanation, no matter how wild and incredible.”
Rahv argues that although Dostoyevsky had turned against political revolutionary theory, “this analyst of contradictions, who was ever vibrating between faith and heresy, made revolutionaries the object of his venom, there is a real affinity between them. If Dostoyevsky is now on the side of the revolutionaries, then those are the revolutionaries of the Left Opposition, and the revolutionaries who are the victims of the Moscow Trials.
“If in the past social critics dismissed The Possessed as a vicious caricature of the socialist movement, today the emergence of Stalinism compels a revision of that judgement. Its peculiar ‘timeliness’ flows from the fact that the motives, actions, and ideas of the revolutionaries in it are so ambiguous, so embedded in mystifications, as to suggest those astonishing negations of the revolutionary ideal which have come into existence since Lenin’s death.
Taking on the principal characters of The Possessed, beginning with Verhovensky, who Rahv compares with two secret policemen of Stalin’s NKVD, Genrich Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, both of whom were later denounced and added to the numbers of those executed during the Moscow Trials and shortly afterwards.
Rahv writes that Dostoyevsky “hated socialism because it objectified his lack of belief and his heretical love for the boundless expansion and change of which the human mind is capable”. He concludes this essay proving Dostoyevsky’s revolutionary meaning : “Reactionary in its abstract content, in its aspect as a system of ideas, his art is radical in sensibility and subversive in performance. Rahv’s tour de force also adumbrates the future of criticism.
In 1972, Rahv took another look at Dostoyevsky and there found a version of the novelist’s work that opens out into what will become that more meaningful within rising theories of post-structuralism. Rahv dismisses Reinhard Lauth’s Dostoevsky’s Philosophy Systematically Presented, as a critical gaffe of the first order: “For in Dostoevsky there is in fact no systematic philosophy, no consistent and logically shaped point of view, neither a stable outlook nor any kind of mental stasis. His speculatively charged, dynamic, spiritually and intellectually turbulent mode of thought breeds mostly insoluble contradictions, paradoxes at once stimulating and disruptive, as well as outright antinomies. The ponderous systematizing that Herr Lauth goes in for with such dogged persistence is a quality of his own intellectual temper, not of Dostoevsky’s.” Rahv concludes his essay for the New York Review of Books, by looking again at the disjunctions and openings in Dostoeyevsky’s narratives, and linking them to another opposition in his work; that between the old and Hebraic story of the lost kingdom and the prospect of a new earthly paradise, to be made and enjoyed here in this world.
“This alternate vision can thus be said to be a precursor of the historical shift from the concern with what exists beyond the visible world to the concern with the visible. As William James once phrased it, “The earth of things, long thrown into shade by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.”
SO Rahv secures the author of The Possessed for the Trots, and later, for the deconstructioneers.
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next: Dwight Macdonald on Soviet Cinema, 1930-1938 (Part One).