Monday, July 30, 2007

The Master of Petersburg

In The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee's main character is Dostoevsky; in a dialogue with a policeman named Maximov, this fictional Dostoevsky comments on the story of a landowner being murdered with an axe:

"... reading is being the arm and being the axe and being the skull: reading is giving yourself up, not holding yourself at a distance and jeering."

I could leave that as a statement unto itself, as a truth to be kept in mind when reading. But of course, with Coetzee, nothing is that easy. This is not Coetzee speaking, after all, in his own essayistic voice. Nor is it his narrator, or his fictional character making a statement in an essayistic context. It is a particular character, with particular interests, making a statement in a specific context (dueling with a policeman about his late stepson's papers). If one wants to try to make a generally applicable statement out of this passage, one has to be ready to sort out the possible ironies of how the passage is framed.

JMC's Dostoevsky presents the point, in his argument with Maximov, as a general truth, but he does not use it as a general truth, as it were, but as a means to the end he is arguing for (having his stepson's papers returned). By extension, JMC is not using it as a general truth, but as a means to the end of developing the character of his Dostoevsky. If JMC himself perceives it as a general truth, he is not saying so here. He always seems interested less in the truth-value of the statements like this that appear in his fiction than in how people use such "truth-like" statements to attain their particular ends (even, or perhaps especially, when their ends are not at all clear, or at least not as clear as in this particular context).

So it's not a matter of whether reading is about giving oneself up or distancing oneself, it's a matter of what purpose the presentation of a particular idea as a general truth serves, not only within fiction but also in conversation and discourse in general. (Are these comments themselves subject to these ironies?)


Donald Brown said...

Well, maybe I should take those lines to heart, about not holding yourself at a distance and jeering -- especially with the DP project and all. But I'm of the opinion that writing has to overcome our distance and jeering. It's like any feat of daring-do: yes, we'd like to see it succeed, that's what we're there for, but if it doesn't . . . well, it seems perfectly legit to point out why it missed the mark.

Now, as a comment on Dostoevsky -- with the axe, and the arm of Raskolnikov, and the skull of Lizebeta -- that's another matter, that's a JMC move of putting all the eggs in the same basket, so that the reader in this case sees the peculiar pathos of Dostoevsky: to suffer with all three: arm, axe, skull.

Andrew Shields said...

"Writing has to overcome our distance and jeering": I was trying to figure out a way to say something like that -- that we are not obliged to "give ourselves up" if what we are reading does not deserve it.

"the peculiar pathos of Dostoevsky": very nicely put! Interestingly, several characters refer to "Crime and Punishment" in "The Master of Petersburg," but JMC's Dostoevsky is not referring to his own story when he makes the statement to the policeman, but to a story written by his late stepson.

By the way, the Dostoevsky novel that "The Master of Petersburg" is in a sense a prequel to is "The Devils" (or "Demons" or "The Possessed," as it is variously titled in English).

Donald Brown said...

uhh, are you trying to say that allusion or reference is only to what is literally stated in the context in which it occurs? I sure hope not. If Dostoevsky is a character and refers to skull, axe, arm . . . I mean, c'mon, I don't care what the fictional context is, JMC is thinking of C&P!

Andrew Shields said...

No, of course not, the allusion is to C&P! I just wanted to provide more detail from the specific context in the story.

It only strikes me now that JMC surely intended the scene from the stepson's story to be an imitation of C&P, so that, within the fictional world of JMC's novel, the one doing the alluding is not JMC or his Dostoevsky (or Maximov, the policeman, for that matter), but Pavel (the stepson).

By the way, Maximov jeers at Pavel's story and gets criticized by D, but when D reads the story again later (after he has had the papers returned to him), he does not "give himself up" but, as any writer would, begins to think about how to revise the story to make it better!

Donald Brown said...

I'm going to have to put this book on my list of books to read, obviously.

How's Massachusetts? Connecticut humidity is awful today!