Behind the @RodionTweets Curtain: the Nuts and Bolts of Twitterifying Dostoevsky

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by Kristina McGuirk

Kristina McGuirk is a Master’s student in Library Studies and Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia and the #CP150 project Research Assistant. She previously worked as a writer and editor for Better Homes and Gardens special interest magazines. You can find her on Twitter at @kkmcguirk.

As the #CP150 research assistant, I provided social media and editing support for @RodionTweets. What this means in practice is that I collected the tweets from each scholar for their parts of the book, edited the tweets for consistency, voice, and style (more on that below), returned them with queries, and ultimately scheduled the section using Tweetdeck (Twitter’s free tweet management platform).

In the beginning, while the literary savvy people worked out who would tackle which parts of C&P, I put together a general “Twitter Style Guide” for the crew. This was largely to help those less comfortable with Twitter and to make sure we were all on the same page. Selfishly, it was also to make sure I wasn’t going to spend a lot of time on the more time-consuming/less impactful parts of editing tweets, such as cutting down the number of characters because of a photo, or turning long passages into multiple, numbered tweets (we learned on @YakovGolyadkin that style of conveyance was not particularly successful).

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@RodionTweets official style guide

While working on the project, I’ve talked about being true to the nature of Twitter a lot. It was probably annoying. But I’m going to give it one last go here. As Sarah Hudspith discussed in her post, I struggled with the idea of revealing the murder on Twitter. There’s no practicality to it. (Does everyone remember the drug dealer’s Twitter woes on season one of Mr. Robot?). But Sarah’s rationale that Twitter provides Raskolnikov a medium for talking to himself, however, was spot on, and, I was convinced. If you looked back at my own tweets in the month leading up to our July 7 launch, I was pretty much live-tweeting what annoyed me while working in coffee shops and libraries—not all that different from Rodion or the rest of Twitter (except that most of us aren’t plotting to #murder a #louse).

Suspending my disbelief, I moved on to really editing the tweets. Tweets coming from six different people resulted in six different products that had to turn into one person’s thoughts… on Twitter. It wasn’t easy, but luckily almost everyone enjoyed directly quoting the book when possible, so the tenor of the writing was not wildly different (thanks again, Dostoevsky, Oliver Ready, and Penguin!). The biggest differences were in how many tweets each person produced for their parts, and how they chose to convey the thoughts. Some of the scholars were more succinct in their tweets, while others offered pages and pages of tweets for their sections. My job wasn’t to really worry about the how or why of what was included, but to make sure that the tweets were telling Rodion’s story in an engaging way that felt like Twitter.

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Often Twitter is about randomly sharing what you’re thinking/seeing/doing; Rodion is great at cryptically oversharing!

I started by playing with punctuation, varying ?!?! and … and ? and . and sometimes—gasp—not even ending a tweet with anything, because Twitter is fast and loose like that.

I then made every effort to combine tweets. Repetition is a big part of C&P’s storytelling and Rodion’s thoughts, but using a lot of synonyms or adjectives in one sentence isn’t the most efficient way to get a tweet out. I was able to remove superfluous words and phrases pretty easily. (This was my journalism degree in action, while my English degree quietly stares at the wallpaper ignoring me.) Even certain tweets or parts of the novel were just disconnected enough from Rodion’s own narrative that I didn’t need to include them. The rest was a battle with between the 140-character limit on each tweet and the details and phrasing.

I also got tweets that were more narrative (natural as we were working from a novel): this happened, and then he said this, but what about that, and now he’s doing this, and I’m wondering about that. However, in Twitter, the direct narrative had to go away and the story had to be told through Rodion’s reactions. One way to do this was to edit for passive voice and narrative phrasing—Twitter is very much in-the-moment social media, so it definitely works for storytelling, but since each tweet comes at a different time, on a different line, you don’t need the textual cues. Sure, he was still tweeting some of what happened to give his interjections context, but we’re offering more of his thoughts than his retelling of what’s happening.

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This is an altered text that I felt worked particularly well transitioning to Twitter.

Something I wish I would have tried earlier in the editing processes was modernizing the text a bit. While I did add gifs and a silly hashtag here and there (as did Katia Bowers), there was definitely a limit to what was too contemporary. At one point, Sarah Hudspith said she had to fight the urge to write “Sh*t! Got blood on my iPhone! #murderproblems” But… I wish we had done that! I wish I’d suggested early on using Twitter for the platform it is–#trending hashtags, feuds, and cat gifs. Sarah Young is right that an epic trolling session at the Crystal Palace would have been hilarious, but I also understand that this would have been a different way of engaging than we’d planned. I think if I were to do it again, I’d give myself more time for reimagining.

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A missed opportunity! I desperately wanted to use this in Part 3, but it wasn’t appropriate for how we’d been using Twitter.

There are a couple lessons I learned regarding timing and characters (wouldn’t it have been more practical to refer to ‘Raz’ instead of Razumikhin the whole time?) but, ultimately, @RodionTweets was a success and really got me to think differently about a classic I hadn’t read since high school. It was such a creative way to engage with a text and I would encourage everyone to wonder what their favourite literary character’s Twitter looks like… except maybe Dickens’s Gong-Donkey, because I don’t know how to convey drunk braying with Twitter.


This is the last of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 6 or here to go all the way back to Part 1. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

Raskolnikov in the Fog: Time and the Crime and Punishment End Game

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by Katherine Bowers

Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism and is one of the #CP150 co-organizers. She tweets about books, writers, and other interesting things @kab3d.

“The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture,” wrote Virginia Woolf in “The Russian Point of View.” For me, this exactly describes how I feel reading Crime and Punishment Part 6. The tension between Raskolnikov’s two paths—Sonya’s way out (resurrection through repentance) and Svidrigailov’s (suicide)—builds to a fever pitch and I get consumed.

I had a vision that I’d create an ending for our Twitterized version of the novel to rival that of Dan Sinker’s amazing @MayorEmanuel, which began as a parody account tweeting coverage of the 2011 Chicago mayoral election, took on a life of its own, and ended up with a narrative arc that was decidedly epic in nature. The feed was even later sold as a standalone novel, and was just as riveting to read in book format as it had been in real time tweets over the course of that year. Following @MayorEmanuel in 2011 showed me what Twitter narratives are capable of doing, and I was eager to see whether I could reproduce Dostoevsky’s taut novel ending in the medium. I excitedly sat down to read and work on the tweets…

… and, well, I wasn’t exhilarated.

This came as something of a surprise to me. For those following the Twitter feed, Parts 3, 4, and 5 of the novel follow closely one after the other, all within the space of about 48 hours. Part 5 takes place entirely during a 2-hour window and ends with an incredibly tense moment when Svidrigailov reveals that he’s overheard Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya. Dostoevsky leaves us with a cliffhanger… but Part 6 doesn’t pick up that loose end. Instead, the tension drops off, and Part 6 begins the next day… or the day after. As a tweeter, I was confounded by a couple of lines I had never paid that much attention to while reading the novel before:

For Raskolnikov a strange time had begun: it was as if a fog had suddenly descended, trapping him in hopeless, oppressive isolation. Recalling this time much later, he surmised that he’d experienced, now and then, a dimming of his consciousness, and that this had continued, with a few intervals, right up to the final catastrophe. (trans. Ready, p. 527)

Brian Armstrong talked about the reader not knowing what was real or not in his blog post. But, in the beginning of Part 6, one difficulty is that Raskolnikov doesn’t know what’s real. The first pages of Part 6 are confused and confusing as Raskolnikov navigates St Petersburg, trapped in a mental fog that doesn’t lift. My task was figuring out how to express this in Twitter. Would Raskolnikov go completely silent, as he had during July 10-14 when he was ill? I didn’t think so. After all, in the narrative, he’s out and about around town, going places, doing things, trying to meet up with Svidrigailov, actually meeting up with Sonya. Events happen during this foggy period and the novel goes on.

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I hadn’t noticed before that the beginning of Part 6 is told in retrospect, after Raskolnikov has figured out what’s real and what’s not. Some events—like one of the services over Katerina Ivanovna’s body in the Marmeladovs’ apartment, or waking up under a bush—are relatively lucidly described, but others—planned meetings with Marmeladov, visits to some Petersburg locations—blur into his mental fog. Still, if Raskolnikov was tweeting them all along, and unable to distinguish between waking and dreaming, between real and unreal, would the twitter record of this time have the same lucid quality all the time? Or only some of the time? Closely following Dostoevsky’s text meant that only the lucid events feel real, but adding images or Google Street View links lends more of a sense of the real to the tweets that are less concretely sketched out.

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The Part 6 opening period of fogginess seems at first to undermine the narrative arc that has been building up through Parts 3-5; it signals a change in style in the text, a turn to a less fevered, more retrospective voice. In terms of the @RodionTweets project, this shift naturally corresponds to a sudden diminishing of tweet frequency. Part 5, taking place over the course of a 2 or 3-hour period on July 16, includes an intense 80+ tweets, but July 17, the first day of Part 6, has only 8. One would guess that this drop off would result in a less well-defined sense of narrative, as in the text’s described fogginess. Intriguingly, though, through the prism of Twitter, there is no such shift. The small 140-character-or-less snippets of Dostoevskian psyche are published and appear to their audience out of context in most cases. Only through a site like Storify, which allows for curation and preservation of a Twitter story tied to a specified chronology, can the narrative be reconstituted. As @RodionTweets’s anxious, confused, or dreaming thoughts go out, they mingle with other tweets in readers’ feeds, become lost, are retweeted out of chronology (sometimes days later); the result for those following is more a sense of Dostoevskian atmosphere than a tightly narrated retelling of the novel that sucks one into a Woolfian whirlpool.

Partially, this lack of narrative force in Twitter is due to the fact that Part 6’s riveting timeline comes apart at the seams when broken into 140 character bites and set to a Twitter feed’s unyielding schedule. Reading the novel, time seems to contract and expand with the narrative’s excitement level. The four days of fogginess seem to take place instantaneously—we zip by them in just a few pages, and coming off of the rush of the Part 5 ending, they hardly register. They serve merely to slow us down slightly, to give us a moment to catch our breath. We are further slowed, then, by dialogue, and interactions with other characters—in Part 6 various characters’ stories resolve, but these endings take place outside of Raskolnikov’s consciousness. Finally, on July 21st, the fog lifts and the novel concludes. Raskolnikov confesses, but the lead up to the confession takes place over just an hour. Before that hour, Raskolnikov himself doesn’t know whether he will confess (!)

Tweeting Part 6 has taught me that it’s difficult to build narrative force without access to the 3rd person narrator’s tools and tricks for, for example, making the novel time contract and expand in ways that tantalize readers and spur them on to read more. Being tied to a text that’s already written ties our hands in some ways. But, nonetheless, in the final tweets there’s a sense of urgency and purpose that comes through. Where does this come from, then, if not the narrator? It’s through Raskolnikov finally making a decision, putting a plan in motion, and following through in a way we haven’t seen him do on Twitter before, and haven’t seen in the novel since Part 1. In the spirit of that, and closure, I, too, like Brian, indulged in #steppingover and broke one of the cardinal rules of @RodionTweets Club (laid out by Sarah Hudspith in her Part 1 blogpost: Raskolnikov wouldn’t live tweet dialogue, but only report it after): I tweeted the confession. This spoils the realism, but in terms of the narrative, it adds a sense of conclusion that, I think, Dostoevsky, always in tune with what works on a narrative level, would have endorsed.

Once Raskolnikov confesses, then what happens? Like the novel, @RodionTweets will also have an Epilogue. Unlike the novel, which wraps things up in some thirty pages, it’ll be drawn out… the tweets will keep going, scheduled in and spread out over the next 18 months… until Raskolnikov has faded away.


This is part 6 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 5 or here to go on to the final post in the series. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

The illustrations above are from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s “Imaginary Prisons” series of etchings (1745-1750) and are in the public domain. 

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

Regarding the Pain of Others: Tweeting Book V of Crime & Punishment

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by Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer L. Wilson is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on her first book, Radical Chastity: Abstinence and the Political Imagination in 19th Century Russian Literature. You can find her on Twitter on @JenLouiseWilson.

I can’t think of anyone who better articulates how the forces of crushing poverty fractures the self than Dostoevsky. His characters rarely use words to say what they mean, but rather to express how they would like to be understood. And they want to be understood as anything but who they really are, which are people who have been humiliated and debased by poverty. I was reminded of this by, of all things, Twitter.

As part of the #CP150 Twitter project, I was tasked with tweeting Book V of Crime and Punishment. Aside from Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya, this book contains the Marmeladov funeral banquet. Organized by Katerina Ivanovna, this banquet is a ridiculous waste of money by a family who has none to spend, let alone squander; it’s an act of what Dostoevsky labels “pauper’s pride,” wherein:

[C]ertain social rituals, deemed obligatory for all and sundry in our country, lead many to stretch their resources to the limit and spend what few copecks they’ve saved merely in order to be “no worse than the other.

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The funeral banquet. Woodcut illustration of the novel by Fritz Eichenberg (1938).

In other words, the banquet scene is a display of things done and said for the sake of appearances that run wholly counter to reality. This presented a serious challenge for me—how could I convey (in 140 characters no less) the duality of meaning in what the characters were saying at this banquet. For instance, I couldn’t just write “Katerina Ivanovna discusses her plans to open a boarding schools for noble girls in #T__________.” This boarding school was an obvious lie from the moment it came out of her mouth, and had no other function than to (unsuccessfully) mask her abject poverty. As a result, I found myself wondering—how do you tweet “pauper’s pride”?

It occurred to me that this wasn’t a silly question given how important a platform Twitter has become within social movements and in relaying affective solidarity with different human struggles. While this project, as I understood it, started off as a way of understanding how Twitter could serve Crime and Punishment, for me it became more a question of how reading Dostoevsky can benefit our understanding of Twitter and other social media platforms where powerful emotions borne out of pain are expressed.

When it came to tweeting Book V, I am not proud of how I responded to Katerina Ivanovna’s pain. I inserted a number of tweets in which I call Katerina Ivanovna a superficial social climber; I knew this was harsh at the time, but I wanted to make it clear to anyone following on Twitter who hadn’t read the novel that her statements about having money and social standing were to be read as false. I wish I could have come up with a more empathetic way to convey these ideas that could have situated Katerina’s lies within the emotional context of poverty. I tried to make it up by including tweets where Raskolnikov looks upon Katerina with sympathy, particularly after Sonya has been falsely accused by Pyotr Petrovich of stealing money: “I watch as Katerina Ivanovna leaves this drunk and disorderly throng, weeping/ She wanders into the street, with the vague intention of finding justice somewhere.”

In the end, what I was reminded of by this project was the importance of situating a person’s words, particularly the ones they express when they are at their worst, within the context of their social position and the emotions that such a position might bear out. I also learned that this is much easier said than done in a world limited by 140 character utterances, and that maybe we could all give one another a break when we fail to be perfect allies online.


This is part 5 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 4 or here to go on to Part 6. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

The illustration above is a woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg, part of a series illustrating the novel for the 1938 The Heritage Press edition. The photograph is from the personal collection of Scott Lindberg, proprietor of New Documents, and we are grateful to him for permission to include it. Lindberg has also kindly given permission to use another photo from the series for one of the @RodionTweets tweets.

This post is cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

On Golyadkin, Raskolnikov, and the Search for Empathy

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by Brian Armstrong

Brian Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augusta University. He works on the intersection of philosophy and literature, and his current project focuses on the philosophical implications of Dostoevsky’s fiction. He masterminded @YakovGolyadkin last fall during #TheDoubleEvent. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @wittstrong.

As I begin to write this post about @RodionTweets, I realize that the details of the origin of the project are a bit murky. It emerged from one of many brainstorming sessions that Katia Bowers and I had at the start of the Fall 2015 semester for social and digital media projects for The North American Dostoevsky Society. We were interested in creating an event related to Richard Ayoade’s The Double, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1846 novel of the same name. We were planning a simultaneous viewing on multiple campuses, and Twitter would play a key role in promoting the event and enabling viewers to communicate during it. Our brainstorming also kept looking ahead to #CP150 and the idea of tweeting Crime and Punishment arose. I’d always been interested in what the novel would’ve looked like if Dostoevsky had stuck to his original idea of writing it from the first-person and tweeting the novel might give us some sense of that. We decided that tweeting The Double would be a good test run: it’s much shorter and almost entirely centered on its central character, Yakov Golyadkin. Katia, her RA Kristina McGuirk, and I set it up so that the tweeting ran for four days in November – as in the novel – and then, on the fifth day, the film viewing took place, with Yakov tweeting from his own account.

The project was valuable for many reasons. Firstly, it promoted awareness of Dostoevsky and of the Society (which exists to further study of Dostoevsky). From a scholarly perspective, the extremely careful reading that the process required gave rise to new insights on the work. Sarah Young noted this in her earlier post: “The result of that process, for me, has been closer readings than I have ever done before, and these have revealed all sorts of details that I have never previously noticed.” I certainly found this to be the case with The Double, too. I would imagine that some of my insights are not new – they’ve been noted somewhere in the vast secondary literature – but that doesn’t make them less important for the individual reader, whether a student or scholar. I’m also still sorting out to what extent any of the insights are connected to the use of Twitter as a hermeneutic tool: the act of converting a fictional voice into Twitter clearly seems to shed a unique light on the original text, but how does it do that?

One of the things that especially struck me with respect to tweeting The Double was a certain lightness and vivacity in Yakov that I’d always missed before. He seemed wittier, more earnest – more like he saw himself and like he maybe was (granting that he really isn’t at all but is, rather, a literary construct). I have my own theory of why this is, and it’s twofold. First, it seems to me that Yakov was struggling with the reality of trying to move up in a meritocratic world that wasn’t really, it turned out, so meritocratic (a struggle that makes him a bit more relatable for the modern reader than his slide into dementia). Second, the narrator, who is not Yakov but like another double, is always there watching over his shoulder, observing and commenting and making inferences about what Yakov is feeing, but is not entirely empathetic. Thus, in stripping away the narrator, a greater possibility for empathy opens up. If this is so, I’m not entirely sure yet why it is so, although I suspect that it’s because of how the narrator navigates his presentation of Yakov with his presentation of others, who seem to judge Yakov. The narrative voice also leaves us in a state of intense epistemological uncertainty, so that we end up suspicious of Yakov. Once that suspicion is gone, we can more authentically draw nigh.

In order to see how things would compare in the case of Rodion and Crime and Punishment, I wanted to keep things the same. This meant that I, um, broke one of the @RodionTweets rules: as Sarah noted in her post, “the general consensus […] was that he probably wouldn’t tweet during conversations, but would give his thoughts on them after the event.” But is not the first rule of @RodionTweets Club that one must #stepover the rules? In any case, I did assume that Rodion tweeted during conversations, as this was what we did with Yakov. It seemed to make sense for Yakov; who knows what’s really happening with him, right? And one can imagine the seemingly socially awkward Yakov tweeting as he talks (or tweeting talks that are not actually happening). But with CP, things are different. The narrative voice is not fully centered on Rodion – and this was very much by design for Dostoevsky. We might well ask what purpose those strategic shifts from Rodion have. And, ideally, Twitter should help us to answer that question. I believe that it was Gary Rosenshield who first began tackling this question back in the 1970s; perhaps we can meaningfully extend his insights with this new tool.

In order to justify my approach a bit more fully, I gave it a name: “higher twitter realism,” intended to echo Dostoevsky’s claim that his own writing is a form of “higher realism.” Whether or not it’s at all an appropriate label, I nonetheless operated with the assumption that Rodion’s tweeting was like an extension of his thoughts, including his perceptions of what others are saying. Could he possibly tweet things discretely as he’s talking to another person? I would assume not. But “live tweeting” these conversations did serve the purpose of providing a faithful version of the narrative that’s stripped of a narrative voice, including a third-person account of what others are doing and saying.

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Naftali Rakuzin’s illustration of Crime and Punishment (used with permission)

Part IV seems like an appropriate Part for this. Sarah Young’s note on Part IV in her Mapping St. Petersburg shows why: “An even greater contraction is evident here. The entire part consists of conversations and interviews, and there is notably no reference, beyond stating that movement between one building and another took place, to anything happening en route. Even though one of the interviews is located in a public office, the police station, Petersburg as a public city and a landscape seems to have all but disappeared here.” Thus, we find that, although Raskolnikov is moving about the city, one would hardly realize it: we’re almost always in the midst of conversations. And, interestingly, Rodion’s failure to register the city around him was not because, as we see at other times, he’s lost in thought; rather, it’s because he’s almost always talking to someone in Part IV: Svidrigailov, Razumikhin, his family, Sonya, and then Luzhin. It’s an intensely discursive section of the novel, and the key players in his transformation are all there.

So what results? A few things stand out for me at present. First, Rodion seems more unmoored, more locked in his own head. This seems especially the case in the final two chapters of Part IV. Granted, this is likely the effect of having Rodion tweet not just his own thoughts but also what others are saying. At times, and especially at first, I tried to have him demarcate his thoughts from his speech and his speech from the speech of others by having him tweet “I said x” or “S/he said x.” But this grew tiresome, and it seemed to me, as I moved along, that there’d be no real need from him to make these distinctions: whether he said it or thought it, or whether he or another said it, would be less important that the thoughts – the propositions expressed or those that he can infer (and often does) from what’s expressed. (He’s highly inferential.) The result is that, at times, one might not be able to tell in the Twitter feed what is said versus thought, or what is uttered by him versus uttered by another like Svidrigailov or Porfiry.

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Naftali Rakuzin’s illustration to Crime and Punishment (used with permission)

This leads to the second point, one that I didn’t really think about until, a few days after finishing my portion of the project, I heard Dr. Carol Apollonio’s keynote at the June 2016 International Dostoevsky Symposium. She raised the question of the ontological status of the other characters, asking: granted that the text is words and not real, why do we attribute the ontolgocial status to aspects of the text as we do? Carol noted that Raskolnikov slips invisibly about while inside his head but surrounded by others, and we, as readers, enter this suspended state. Transposing Raskolnikov’s voice into Twitter, I think, heightens our awareness of this state. Carol also asked us how, for instance, we really know that Rodion really overheard a student and an officer in a tavern. In The Double, it would have been much more clear that the ontological status of the event should be questioned by the reader; Twitter brings out this ontological tension that Carol notes. Carol noted that deciding what is actually happening in “interpretation in the indicative mode,” and she urged us to remain in the uncertainty as we engage in our interpretive activity.

Extending Carol’s insight raises new questions. How do we know that the conversation in Porfiry’s office happens just as the narrator reports? Why do we not question whether it’s all in R’s head? Stripped of any certainty that Porfiry’s there, it seems like it really could be an internal debate of the sort that plagues Rodion. He arrives at the station and no one notices him; we watch as his thoughts and feeling shift, until suddenly he decides that he’s ready to face Porfiry. The next two sentences might make an uncertain reader suspicious: “At that very moment he was called in to see Porfiry Petrovich. Porfiry Petrovich, it turned out, was alone [был у себя в кабинете один]” (310). This emphasis on the ‘lone’ drives the next two chapters (and I’d never noticed how frequently words with the root одн- [one, lone] occur in Part IV, Chapter 5 alone).

While I’m inclined to think that, within the fictive reality of the novel, the conversation really did take place, it’s certainly interesting to wonder if the reason people look at him differently after he leaves the office is that he just entered an empty office, freaked out, and is now leaving.

But now we have another question: What in particular gives Porfiry ontological weight beyond just being another voice woven dialogically into Rodion’s thought? I think that that’s an actual question that Dostoevsky sought to raise, and – to offer another suspicion – I suspect that it’s part of what he’s after in his move toward wider-ranging POVs in his novel. It’s as if, having worked to build the tools by which to more fully articulate the consciousness of another person, he now needs to give weight back to the realities outside the consciousness of those individuals.

It also seems to me that Rodion in Twitter form would draw less empathy than Yakov in Twitter form. So where did the empathy go? It’s almost as if it left with those others who are cut out of Twitter – with those “real” people who seem to truly value Rodion, to see something good in him, to fight for him. If we are left only inside Rodion’s head, we can lose sight of that – of a potential and value in Rodion that Rodion himself can’t quite see. As Kate Holland put it in her post on Part III, “We are trapped instead in Raskolnikov’s monomania. While we trace the vacillations of his self-deception and self-revelation, those psychological developments are never embedded into a broader moral or social context.” If I combine my question with Kate’s observation, a possible inference is that the reality that is left out of an exclusive focus on Rodion’s consciousness is the one to which others seek to open him and is this source of their empathy for him: the moral, which, for Dostoevsky, is also real.


This is part 4 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 3, and here to go on to Part 5. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

The illustrations are by Naftali Rakuzin, and appear with his kind permission. He has also given permission to use an image of one of his illustrations for @RodionTweets. More of his illustrations of Crime and Punishment can be found on his website.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

Rethinking the narrative structure of Crime and Punishment through Twitter

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by Kate Holland

Kate Holland is an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. Her book, The Novel in the Age of Disintegration: Dostoevsky and the Problem of Genre in the 1870s, was published in 2013. She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Reader’s Advisory Board and tweets on @fyodor76.

Before the #CP150 Twitter project, I was a Twitter lurker, but when I was offered the opportunity to join a group of international Dostoevsky scholars tweeting Crime and Punishment from Raskolnikov’s point of view, I could not resist the temptation. I teach the novel almost every year, in a Dostoevsky course, a survey, and a first-year seminar called “The Criminal Mind,” and this seemed like a great opportunity to look at it anew, and to go outside my scholarly comfort zone in the process. I opted to tweet Part III, a key section of the novel. It includes Raskolnikov’s first meeting with the detective Porfiry Petrovich and the disclosure of his article “On Crime,” through which Dostoevsky reveals Raskolnikov’s “extraordinary man theory” for the first time. Here Dostoevsky seems to break with the ideas about Raskolnikov’s motives for the murder which he has been building throughout the first two sections of the novel and reveals the outlines of what ends up being his true motive. At the end of the section Raskolnikov begins to realize the nature of the “louse” that he has killed and the significance of his failure to take “the next step.” This section of the novel includes a lot of dialogue, some of which Raskolnikov is not present for, as well as a scene in which he is in a delirious state, which posed special challenges for the Twitter medium.

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Crime and Punishment doodles

This Twitter project required three different modes of translation from the text: the most straightforward was direct transcription of Raskolnikov’s thoughts as conveyed by Dostoevsky and translated by Oliver Ready; the second mode was transposition of the text from third to first person in order to convey Raskolnikov’s thoughts as the context required; and the third was creative manipulation of the story by the addition of thoughts which might be conceivably ascribed to Raskolnikov. For a literary scholar like myself, fidelity to the text is second nature, thus the process of direct transcription posed no real problems. Transposition was also fairly easy; I am so used to teaching this text that I have an internal commentary on it in my mind which was easy to follow. The hardest part to get used to was adaptation, or “filling in” gaps which the text intentionally leaves opaque. Given that this novel was first conceived of in the first person and contains many passages which can be seen as “stream of consciousness” avant-la-lettre, it is a rich environment to be mined for tweets. At the same time, though a novice to the Twitter form, I was also aware of the great gap between “stream of consciousness,” where thoughts are conveyed in as unfiltered a way as possible, and tweeting, which involves a whole series of formal and social filters.

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Crime and Punishment doodles 2

My biggest quandary was how to treat the conversation between Raskolnikov and Porfiry. Although we had agreed that our collective approach to the tweeting should be broadly consistent, and that Raskolnikov should only tweet what would be practically possible (that is, he would not be able to tweet during a conversation, for instance), the extraordinary man theory is so central to the Crime and Punishment’s ideological structure that it seemed important to include it in our Twitter translation of the novel. Raskolnikov’s idea that extraordinary men can “step over” the law for the sake of a great idea is key to his process of self-realization, and there was no question in my mind that it had to be tweeted in order to give ideological and philosophical coherence to our project. In this scene Raskolnikov’s tweets reflect his dialogue with Porfiry; he is presenting his ideas for a second time in the Twitter mode after they have been recited back to him by Porfiry with a new intonation. In the delirium scene at the end of Part III, it begins to dawn on Raskolnikov how far he has fallen short from the goal he set himself, how miserably his own squalid crime compares to the crimes of his hero Napoleon. Here I found that hashtags, one of the basic units of the Twitter toolkit, served to express his self-disgust quite appropriately in shorthand; I particularly liked #napoleoncomplex, #epicfail, and #lousenotnapoleon.

Our #CP150 Twitter project gave me a fresh perspective on Dostoevsky’s novel. The combination of the three modes of Twitter translation reminded me of the extraordinary complexity of Crime and Punishment’s narrative structure; I found myself constantly jumping between my three tasks as the narrative perspective moved in and out of Raskolnikov’s consciousness. It also revealed how much gets lost if we translate the novel entirely into Raskolnikov’s point of view and suggests some of the reasons why Dostoevsky may have rejected his original idea for first person narration in favor of a third person narrator. Here we lose Razumikhin as a moral counterweight to Raskolnikov, never guess at his burgeoning feelings for Dunya, and bypass Dunya and Pulkheria Alexandrovna’s response to their sudden meeting with Sonya. We are trapped instead in Raskolnikov’s monomania. While we trace the vacillations of his self-deception and self-revelation, those psychological developments are never embedded into a broader moral or social context. Followers of @Rodiontweets will find themselves trapped in Raskolnikov’s perspective with no narrative respite. In this format the novel’s psychological claims emerge more clearly than its moral or ideological ones. In our Western cultural context this is perhaps quite appropriate, since the novel is best known for its psychological portrait of a criminal which influenced philosophers, writers and film directors from Nietzsche and Freud to Hitchcock and Cronenberg, rather than its moral and spiritual redemption narrative.


This is part 3 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 2, or here to go on to Part 4. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

To learn more about the manuscript doodles pictured here, read the article on Open Culture here: Dostoevsky Draws Doodles. These images are borrowed from that post.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

On Tweeting Part Two of Crime and Punishment

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by Sarah J. Young

Sarah J. Young is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. Her book, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting, was published in 2004. She blogs about her research on www.sarahjyoung.com and tweets on @Russianist.

One thing that interests me is how digital technologies broaden the possibilities of what we can do as humanities scholars. My first foray into the digital, Mapping St Petersburg, used Google Maps to start exploring the interaction of text and city, and the ways in which the city’s spaces are incorporated into and transformed by its literary tradition. The results of that project, a set of interactive maps that enable us to interrogate the geographical dimensions of the ‘Petersburg text’, offer new perspectives that I have found very useful in rethinking the texts, and it has become a very useful teaching tool that enables students to engage with the text in new ways.

It’s no coincidence that we began Mapping St Petersburg with the same novel that we are now tweeting. The spatial and temporal specificity that enabled us to map Crime and Punishment so precisely – the extent to which it participates in and represents the real world of St Petersburg in 1865 – is one thing that makes it amenable to tweeting. But more than that, the novel’s very complexity and multi-layered nature invites us to break it down in different ways and construct new readings out of that process of granularization. This is in essence what we have always done as literary scholars, as interpretation inevitably involves selection (and therefore also exclusion) of material from the text.

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A screenshot from Sarah’s “Mapping St Petersburg” project; this is a map of Part II of the novel. See Mapping Dostoevsky for maps of various aspects of Crime and Punishment.

Perhaps the main difference with projects like @RodionTweets and Mapping St Petersburg (in part because of their public nature) is that they force us towards completeness and to following our reading to its logical limit. While we may be concentrating only on one aspect of the text, we cannot lay aside any of the difficulties or contradictions that aspect may entail. I think we seldom have to be so consistent or thorough when it comes to traditional forms of interpretation (the advantage of the machine reading of Dostoevsky I’ve also recently embarked upon is similarly the complete overview it offers). The result of that process, for me, has been closer readings than I have ever done before, and these have revealed all sorts of details that I have never previously noticed. So it is perhaps not so much that these digital projects have allowed us to do something we couldn’t do before, rather that they have given us access to an augmented version of what we have previously done.

Writing this a few days before the tweeting of the present time of Crime and Punishment begins, I’m interested in the results as much as a reader of the novel as in my role as one of the participants in the project. As a reader, I wonder what impression the tweets will give of the text as a whole, and what new insights they will offer. Already from the tweets we have seen from the novel’s pre-history, I’m struck by how easily they fit into my timeline and become part of the echo-chamber (which gives me a certain insight into the accounts I follow), and the identification we (mainly the participants in the project) have been experiencing with Raskolnikov, as his problems seem not so very remote to our own:

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#academicproblems

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Raskolnikov reacts to Brexit?

As a participant, I wonder how my interpretation of Raskolnikov’s perception of events will differ from my colleagues’ when we see the tweets in situ. One thing I’ll be particularly interested in – which I really struggled with, and to which I’m only now, in retrospect, beginning to find an answer – is how the tweets deal with the other characters. We tend to think of Crime and Punishment as focusing solely on Raskolnikov, and to a great extent so it does. But for all his introspection, for large parts of the novel he interacts with others and in the first couple of parts at least he is very alive to the world around him on the streets of Petersburg. These elements of necessity appear in a more passive role than they play in the novel itself – still present, and perhaps with even more intensity, within Raskolnikov’s internal dialogue, to be sure, but their external part in that dialogue is removed, or at least refracted through Raskolnikov’s lens (I’m particularly looking forward to Marmeladov’s funeral from that point of view – and to what Jennifer Wilson has to say about writing the tweets for that part of the novel). That refraction undoubtedly provides a concentrated view of Raskolnikov’s perspective and thoughts about how he experiences the events of the novel, which in itself has the potential to reveal new and unexpected questions. But at the same time, twitter is an interactive platform, and while we can reply to @RodionTweets or incorporate his tweets into our own, Raskolnikov himself cannot interact in the same way either with other characters in the novel, or with the reading audience. I wonder in retrospect what it would look like if he could.

One of the questions we asked ourselves was: how would Raskolnikov use Twitter? The general consensus – with which I agreed – was that he probably wouldn’t tweet during conversations, but would give his thoughts on them after the event. Yet now (and I emphasize that this is several weeks after I completed the tweets for Part II and have had time to reflect on them), I can’t help thinking that some of those interactions could (would?) have been configured quite differently. For example, I can envisage Raskolnikov’s conversation with Zametov in the Crystal Palace tavern – one of the oddest scenes in the novel in terms of Raskolnikov’s behaviour towards another character and in the language he uses – being turned into an epic trolling session. I can see Porfiry doing the same later on. And if @RodionTweets’ followers replied to him, how would he respond? Perhaps that’s going too far in rewriting the novel (and indeed, would have turned this whole project into something quite different, on perhaps an unmanageably large scale), but such thought experiments can be helpful in our endless interrogation and reinterrogation of Dostoevsky’s characters, their relationships to each other, and our relationship to them. As with so many of readings of literature, I find that looking at what is not included is often as revealing as what is there.


This is Part 2 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 1 or here to go on to Part 3. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

This post has been cross-posted on sarahjyoung.com and All the Russias blog.

On Tweeting Part One of Crime and Punishment

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by Sarah Hudspith

Sarah Hudspith is an Associate Professor in Russian at the University of Leeds. Her book, Dostoevsky and the Idea of Russianness, was published in 2004. She is co-director of the Leeds Russian Centre and manages Dostoevsky Now, a public engagement project for exploring Dostoevsky in the world today through events, discussion and online resources. She tweets on @SarahHudspith.

When Katia Bowers first approached me to take part in the #CP150 Twitter project, I was very excited. As an undergraduate student, my first experience of Dostoevsky had been Crime and Punishment: it was an experience that began a life-long love affair, but it also put paid to a hidden dream – to write fiction myself. For how could I possibly write a novel that would ever come close to Dostoevsky’s? Now, I was being offered the chance to (re)write a part of that very novel myself, to put myself almost into Dostoevsky’s shoes and to experience the creation of a new kind of Raskolnikov. How could I refuse?

When I learned that the parts of the novel would be divided between the contributors, I also knew straight away which part I wanted to cover: the first part, in which the murder takes place. On the one hand it was quite a daunting responsibility to draw out of the text (in Oliver Ready’s masterful translation) the voice needed to attract followers to the beginning of the story. But on the other hand, I felt that Part One presented the most fascinating challenges that might have a contemporary relevance: how might a murderer use social media to reflect on his/her crime, in the run-up to it and its immediate aftermath? We live in an age where many people feel compelled to broadcast their lives online, to create a narrative of themselves which can become more real than the intimate, offline self. Raskolnikov is a character searching for an identity for himself: is he an intellectual, a philanthropist, a pioneer of a new morality, a sensualist, a beloved son and brother, a criminal? What parallels could be drawn between his anguished self-seeking, when put into the context of a Twitter account, and the contemporary mediation of personal identity? Further, social media are increasingly platforms for the propagation of ideologies and their distillation into ever more extreme forms, indeed are sadly the venue for publicising horrific crimes in the name of a so-called ‘new word’. The idea of a Twitter account for Raskolnikov presented intriguing issues around the interface between public and private and brought them into clearer focus for me.

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Decoration of Dostoevskaya Metro station in Moscow

The public/private question arose quite quickly when considering how much @RodionTweets should say about the murder, assuming a natural desire not to be found out, which is (despite moments to the contrary) Raskolnikov’s attitude in the novel. I reflected on how much of Part One Raskolnikov spends wandering the streets of St Petersburg, talking aloud to himself, seemingly unconcerned or at least oblivious as to whether he is overheard, and I felt this could be equated to the contemporary tendency to ‘talk’ to social media, almost forgetting its very public nature. So for me, Twitter became the medium via which I imagined Raskolnikov talking ‘aloud’ to himself, and it became natural to tweet, for example, Raskolnikov’s full realisation of the ugly horror of his intention: “God! Will I really actually take an #axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? Will I really slip in sticky warm blood?” Although Raskolnikov asks himself these kinds of questions, openly and unguardedly away from the privacy of his garret room, it is not tantamount to a public confession, an admission of the responsibility for taking human life. That comes much later.

Allied to this question was the problem of spoilers. One aim of the project is to bring new readers to Dostoevsky; how much should we give away? Dostoevsky originally conceived of Crime and Punishment as written in the first person, but eventually switched to a third person narration which allowed him greater control over the development and revelation of Raskolnikov as a character, contextualising his thoughts with flashbacks and memories. A Twitter account, on the other hand, is as relentlessly linear as real life lived minute by minute. But I reasoned that since first-time readers of the novel would experience it as a ‘why-dunnit’ rather than a ‘who-dunnit’, knowing all along that Raskolnikov was the murderer, then the Twitter account should be the same.

In a sense, the project has created the first person version of the text that Dostoevsky ultimately rejected, and this meant that we would lose those parts of the text governed by the impersonal third person narrator, namely when Raskolnikov is acting, rather than simply thinking or talking to himself. One challenge was whether to fill those gaps, and how to do so. I was wary of straying from the text, and I was mindful of the brief to think about when Raskolnikov might realistically be tweeting: for example, he would not be tweeting whilst in conversation with Razumikhin, but might tweet his thoughts about the conversation after the fact. Nevertheless, there were times when I felt there would be a loss of suspense, particularly during Raskolnikov’s frantic last-minute preparations for the murder, if @RodionTweets went silent. The prospect of being able to put words into Raskolnikov’s mouth was thrilling, but those words had to be chosen carefully to fit with the tweets based more closely on the text. Thus, I considered it plausible for @RodionTweets to beg the ether: “Where can I get an #axe at this time of day!”

The use of hashtags was encouraged, and though this might seem the most anachronistic aspect of the conceit of translating a 19th-Century character into a 21st-Century medium, I found that it helped to highlight an important part of Dostoevsky’s conception for Raskolnikov. At the earliest stages of envisaging the novel, he described in a letter to the editor Katkov his plan to write a story about a young man falling under the influence of “strange, ‘unfinished’ ideas afloat in the atmosphere” and committing a murder. I saw that the use of hashtags created a certain emphasis when added to words, and I felt that this would nicely suggest ideas and concepts afloat in the Twittersphere that were preying on Raskolnikov’s mind, even at an unconscious level. In this way, I could highlight the obvious #crime, but also #soul, #sacrifice, #fate and even #deadbody, adding a possibility of a double reading to the exclamation “Over my #deadbody!”

It has been tremendously rewarding to take part in this collaborative project. I did not expect at first that to do so would generate fresh perspectives on the novel, and I have been very satisfied at the way it has enhanced my understanding of the text. I look forward to the insights that will arise from the tweets pertaining to the remaining parts of the novel, and I hope that readers and Twitter followers will find it equally engaging.


This is Part 1 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to go on to Part 2. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

This post has been cross-posted on All the Russias blog.

Introducing @RodionTweets: Translating Raskolnikov into 140 Characters or Less

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by Katherine Bowers

Katherine Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism. She tweets about Russian writers and other interesting things on the account @kab3d.

One hot July 7 evening, a young man left his rented room to practice walking aC&P-Ras murder route. This took place in the pages of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). But this July 7, Twitter will witness another young man–or the same young man–leaving his room to trace a murder route. You can follow his adventures on the Twitter account @RodionTweets, which will begin tweeting the events of Crime and Punishment from Raskolnikov’s perspective on Thursday.

Tweeting Raskolnikov is no easy task. The account was the brainchild of Brian Armstrong and me, and has come together through the efforts of a crack team of intrepid and creative tweet miners: Brian, me, and also Sarah Hudspith, Sarah J. Young, Kate Holland, and Jennifer L. Wilson. Our ace Project Assistant, Kristina McGuirk, has done valiant editorial work, creating a single, cohesive, and (we hope) Dostoevskian voice in Twitter from disparate tweet mining styles. This project builds on the skills Brian, Kristina, and I learned while creating @YakovGolyadkin‘s voice during #TheDoubleEvent last November.

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@RodionTweets in action!

The task of “translating” Raskolnikov’s voice into 140-character-or-less text snippets has sparked a number of fascinating conversations. They include whether it makes sense to “live tweet” the murder (#murdererproblems), what form of social media would Raskolnikov prefer (Snapchat, as the evidence disappears?), which animated gif best expresses the trauma of witnessing a horse beating in a dream, and, among others, the quintessential #dostoevskyproblem: how do you live tweet 3 days of delirious wandering? These questions and their answers have diverted us throughout the process of creating @RodionTweets, and so, throughout the month of July, as the various parts of the book are twitterified and published, each participant will write a blog post on one intriguing facet of his/her @RodionTweets experience. Stay tuned!

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#delirium strikes even the most intrepid!

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Oliver Ready’s new translation!

The @RodionTweets Team would like to thank Penguin Books US for giving us permission to use Oliver Ready’s wonderful new translation of Crime and Punishment as a source text for our project. We are also grateful to those who allowed us to use their images to illustrate the project, including Naftali Rakuzin, Scott Lindberg, and Sarah J. Young. For a full list of acknowledgments, click here.

@RodionTweets is part of a larger celebration of the 150th anniversary of Crime and Punishment taking place this summer and fall. Events include a summer reading group hosted by the North American Dostoevsky Society on Facebook (you can join them! they are starting Part 2 of the novel today!); an August Twitter novel adaptation film festival; library exhibits taking place in Toronto, Cambridge, and online; a series of blog posts forthcoming on The Bloggers Karamazov from Dostoevsky experts reflecting on different aspects of the novel; a panel on translation and language in Crime and Punishment at the University of Bristol in October; and a conference and film screening at the University of British Columbia in October.

The project “Crime and Punishment at 150″ is organized by Kate Holland and myself, and supported with funding from the North American Dostoevsky Society, the CENES Department at the University of British Columbia, Green College, UBC, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The project also collaborates with a number of other partners, including the Petro Jacyk Central & East European Resource Centre at the University of Toronto, the Cambridge University Library, the Department of Russian at the University of Bristol, the Dostoevsky Now initiative at the University of Leeds, the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies 19th-century Study Group, and Apocalypse Films.


This is the first in a series of blog posts about the creative twitter project @RodionTweets. The next blog post, on Part One, can be found here

A chat with Lonny Harrison on his new book about the Dostoevskian psyche

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Lonny Harrison is an incoming Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. His book, Archetypes from Underground: Notes on the Dostoevskian Self, was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in May 2016.

Harrison cover (f).inddQ. Archetypes from Underground gives its readers a new way of understanding Dostoevsky’s characters. Why do you think we need a new way of reading them?

There are so many ways of reading and understanding Dostoevsky. Like many others, I am interested in the psychology of his characters: the dreamers, criminals, murderers, thieves, the downtrodden and abused, visionary prophets and amoral nihilists, the list goes on… Dostoevsky’s great talent was his facility to dramatize the emotional and psychological lives of such a diverse cast along with their weighty psychic load. But I have always been unsatisfied with the clinical approach, that is, treating them like patients in therapy. From the Vienna school—Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, and others—to more recent studies, there is a whole industry that thrives on analyzing Dostoevsky-as-psychologist. While that can be productive, I prefer the classic studies by Nikolai Berdiaev and Vyacheslav Ivanov, who treated Dostoevsky’s writing in mythic terms, which is more the way I see them. We should remember that Dostoevsky wrote, “They call me a psychologist: it is not true, I am only a realist in a higher sense,” and also, “My idealism is more real than their realism.” One of the things I do in this book is bring a new definition of Dostoevsky’s underground. In brief, the underground is the realm of the unconscious, or it can be “conscious inertia” as the Underground Man calls it. I write about the underground as a transformative principle. It is the nexus where the unconscious meets the conscious mind, causing friction that erupts into clusters of ideas, or patterns of action and behavior. These patterns that emerge are the archetypes themselves. So reading Dostoevsky from an archetypal perspective opens his works to a better understanding of the dynamic qualities of his characters and situations, all responding to the crisis of modernity and the problem of the modern self.

Q. What exactly do you mean by archetypes? What are Dostoevsky’s main archetypes?

Dostoevsky stated on several occasions that he was interested in creating character types. He thought Mr. Golyadkin in The Double was his first and most important underground type; later in the preface to Notes from Underground, he said, “types such as the creator of these notes not only could, but are bound to exist in our society.” Already in these works, however, it is apparent that he means something more than social-cultural types. Even in his earliest writing in the 1840s, that is what sets him apart from the Natural School. As a realist writer, he worked with social-cultural types, but as a “realist in a higher sense,” he worked in the realm of archetypes. From the underground type to the Karamazovan nature, Dostoevsky’s types are archetypes. In fact his final novel is the culmination of a whole cluster of archetypes he had been writing about all through his works. In the preface to The Brothers Karamazov, the hero Alyosha Karamazov is called an “odd man out”—an atypical hero, indeterminate, undefined—yet one who bears within himself the heart of the whole. Looking at the archetypes in characters like the Underground Man and Alyosha and his brothers brings to light the fact that, contrary to popular belief, archetypes are not fixed patterns, but very dynamic expressions of the ever- evolving psyche in its myriad forms. Dostoevsky’s stories are embodiments of the cycles of myth that code the experiences of the average human psyche in its dialectical phases of development. All archetypes have a positive and favorable side that points upward as well as a partly negative and unfavorable, partly chthonic side that points downward. Dostoevsky’s underground is the territory of this downward-pointing dimension, the subterranean, the unconscious. Its opposite is the upward-pointing process of transformation, numinous experience, and discovery of authentic self, which is also his terrain.

Q. Is this binary ever overcome?

Yes, in a sense it is, inasmuch as it works as a catalyst for the coincidence of opposites that produces transformation. We have to recognize that the idea of ego transcendence is so important in Dostoevsky. One doesn’t always think so when we read about the doubles, devils, criminals, etc., that are so frequently met. There are no perfect saints either, of course. Prince Myshkin is not the Christ figure some have made him out to be, and Alyosha confesses that he, too, possesses the earthy Karamazovan nature. But what sets them apart is that Dostoevsky makes them vehicles of the transformative process of the psyche. More than others, they overcome the qualities of egotism that bring chaos to the lives of most of the characters around them. You might ask, so what is ego transcendence, what does it look like? Well it is a variety of things; for one, it is the moment of epiphany, a sudden insight, or fleeting, ecstatic vision. These moments abound in Dostoevsky. The story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is based on just such a transformative vision in a dream (although the lived experience in the dream seemed to occur over a span of eons). It also relates to the concepts of direct experience, spontaneity, and “living life” [zhivaia zhizn’], terms Dostoevsky frequently employed. It is probably encapsulated best in the sermons of Alyosha’s spiritual mentor, the elder Zosima, which give the experience of inner illumination of authentic self its most direct expression. Actually the passage where Zosima is lying in state and Alyosha, holding vigil, has his dream about the miracles at the Wedding at Cana, simply abounds with archetypal imagery, symbols of alchemy, and mystical transformation.

Q. What question(s) first inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been interested in the idea of doubles in Dostoevsky for a long time. It led me to the principle of the complementarity of opposites, which harkens back to ancient and medieval sources like Hermeticism, Neoplatonism, and Western esotericism. Berdiaev was the first to write about it in Dostoevsky. Following the thread, I found that Dostoevsky’s doubles, and many of his themes more broadly have a lot in common with the work of C.G. Jung. In fact they shared several common sources. Both Jung and Dostoevsky drew on German Romanticism, especially Schelling and Carus, for whom the psychology of the unconscious resonated deeply. I also became interested in the idea of the modern self, especially reading Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, and A Genealogy of the Modern Self by Alina Clej. I was intrigued by the idea that the self as we know it is not a static thing, that it has an evolutionary heritage, and I saw Dostoevsky’s writing as occupying an important place in that heritage. I wanted to write about the notion of self in Dostoevsky in order to help in our understanding of the modern self in all its fascinating complexity. I was tantalized by the same questions that seem to tantalize and taunt his characters: What drives them? What do they believe? Who are they? Where is their soul? So I began to think to myself, what is the Dostoevskian self?

Q. Dostoevsky’s books are riddled with doubles. Can we be sure that a single Dostoevskian self exists?

That’s exactly it. There is no monological self in Dostoevsky. That’s why I see the Dostoevskian self as an archetypal patterning. The double is the principle of the unconscious mind meeting the conscious mind. It’s a catalyst for transformation. So I’m mostly interested in how Dostoevsky’s fiction signifies the archetypal source of self, residing in the unconscious. It has potential to inhibit self-awareness and cause personal destruction—in characters like Mr. Golyadkin, the Underground Man, or Stavrogin, but also to enhance self-knowledge and achieve self-integration, as Myshkin, Alyosha, or the Ridiculous Man begin to do.

Q. What were your favorite parts of this research?

I really enjoyed working on Chapter 3 “Dostoevsky’s Underground,” and Chapter 4 “Dostoevsky and the Shadow.” They get to the heart of the matter. They combine several of the most interesting ideas that I was researching, like Dostoevsky’s efforts to revise The Double in the 1860s, which he abandoned in favor of writing Notes from Underground. Moving from Dostoevsky’s underground to the notion of the shadow, I study his trademark archetype Karamazovshchina, which translates roughly as “Karamazovism.” I also examine feminine archetypes such as the Earth Mother and femme fatale for these chapters. Other topics are the epidemic of moral and psycho-ideological illness that Dostoevsky believed had infected the Russian intelligentsia, a travesty he paints with apocalyptic imagery, but also countered with the so-called “Russian idea”. The essential point regarding Dostoevsky’s later writing is its nation-centeredness. He locates the ideal of brotherhood and transcendent, unifying love, and harmony in the Russian narod—a subject he writes extensively about in Diary of a Writer. I also like some of the creepier imagery he uses to represent the underground, like spiders and insects, or the decomposition of consciousness that goes on in the post-mortem socializing of Dostoevsky’s macabre tale “Bobok”. I always have to laugh when I read it. As a literary study of the mind and consciousness, Dostoevsky is at his best, using the fantastic and grotesque to stage his “higher realism.” It just doesn’t get any better than that.

To learn more about Lonny Harrison’s research, check out his faculty profile page. You can also follow him on Twitter @lonnyharrison

This interview has been cross-posted on the UT Arlington liberal arts news website.


This interview is part of a new feature on The Bloggers Karamazov. If you have recently published work on Dostoevsky and would like to be interviewed on our blog, please let us know!

Upcoming Dostoevsky papers at Canadian Association of Slavists conference

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If you’re attending the big Canadian CongreSSH conference in Calgary next week, you may be interested in these Dostoevsky papers. They are all part of the Canadian Association of Slavists meeting May 30-June 1.

On May 30 at 10:45am is the panel, “Dostoevsky in the Classroom”

Chair: Irina Shilova, University of Calgary

Papers:

  • Joseph Schlegel, University of Toronto, “Intertextuality in the Classroom: Creative Engagement with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.”
  • Kate Holland, University of Toronto, “Teaching Students How The Brothers Karamazov Works”
  • Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia, “#TheDoubleEvent: Community Engagement Online and in the Dostoevsky Classroom”

Also at CAS: on the panel “Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature,” 1:15pm on June 1:

  • Baktygul Aliev, Williams College, “Fraudulent Other in Dostoevsky’s The Double

 


In future, we hope to feature more information about conferences, panels, papers, talks, and other events related to Dostoevsky Studies. See the Upcoming Conferences and Panels section of our web space for more details. If you have an update for the page, let us know! You can share it on our Facebook page, tweet it @ us, or use our Contact Form.

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