Monday, February 3, 2014

an intellectual on the road

In Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed (variously Demons), you will find the character Stepan Trofimovitch Verkhovensky. He's an older fellow, an intellectual. He lives mostly inside his head, where the ideal, the abstractive, and the theoretical quiver in consciousness. He lives, therefore, just beyond the actual, in a more liquid or gaseous state than the solid. 

In that respect, I see his intellectualism as a kind of artistry. On the impetus of allusive and expansive thinking, he floats toward possible spheres of interpretation. The life of mind has, over time, opened up a tangential space for this critic at large, for this spirit known as Stepan Trofimovitch. A peripheral "geography" is where the artistic abides. But let's not get carried away. He's an intellectual, not an artist per se, even if his musings and one famous work change time into different substance.  

We find Stepan Trofimovitch in the novel during his later years, when he's a chronic free boarder with the aristocratic Vavara Petrovna. In her manor and with dramatic flair, he soliloquizes perceived slights and gesticulates intrinsic egoism. But he's more eccentrically charming than insufferable. Just a fading candle flame from an older era. 

In Part Three of this novel, there is a Chapter 7: "Stepan Trofimovitch's Last Wandering." After a falling out with Vavara Petrovna, he sets out on the road. Dazed, feverish, and crestfallen, he yet proceeds with a misty hopefulness -- a Don Quixote on a not quite firm mission. Here's an excerpt:

The cart reached him; it was a fairly solid peasant cart. The woman was sitting on a tightly stuffed sack and the man on the front of the cart with his legs hanging over towards Stepan Trofimovitch. A red cow was, in fact, shambling behind, tied by the horns to the cart. The man and the woman gazed open-eyed at Stepan Trofimovitch, and Stepan Trofimovitch gazed back at them with equal wonder, but after he had let them pass twenty paces, he got up hurriedly all of a sudden and walked after them. In the proximity of the cart it was natural that he should feel safer, but when he had overtaken it he became oblivious of everything again and sank back into his disconnected thoughts and fancies. He stepped along with no suspicion, of course, that for the two peasants he was at that instant the most mysterious and interesting object that one could meet on the high road.
“What sort may you be, pray, if it's not uncivil to ask?” the woman could not resist asking at last when Stepan Trofimovitch glanced absent-mindedly at her. She was a woman of about seven and twenty, sturdily built, with black eyebrows, rosy cheeks, and a friendly smile on her red lips, between which gleamed white even teeth.
“You . . . you are addressing me?” muttered Stepan Trofimovitch with mournful wonder.
“A merchant, for sure,” the peasant observed confidently. He was a well-grown man of forty with a broad and intelligent face, framed in a reddish beard.
“No, I am not exactly a merchant, I ... I ... moi c'est autre chose.” Stepan Trofimovitch parried the question somehow, and to be on the safe side he dropped back a little from the cart, so that he was walking on a level with the cow.
“Must be a gentleman,” the man decided, hearing words not Russian, and he gave a tug at the horse.
“That's what set us wondering. You are out for a walk seemingly?” the woman asked inquisitively again.
“You . . . you ask me?”
“Foreigners come from other parts sometimes by the train; your boots don't seem to be from hereabouts. . . .”
“They are army boots,” the man put in complacently and significantly.
“No, I am not precisely in the army, I ...”
“What an inquisitive woman!” Stepan Trofimovitch mused with vexation. “And how they stare at me . . . mais enfin. In fact, it's strange that I feel, as it were, conscience-stricken before them, and yet I've done them no harm.”
The woman was whispering to the man.
“If it's no offence, we'd give you a lift if so be it's agreeable.”
Stepan Trofimovitch suddenly roused himself.
“Yes, yes, my friends, I accept it with pleasure, for I'm very tired; but how am I to get in?”
“How wonderful it is,” he thought to himself, “that I've been walking so long beside that cow and it never entered my head to ask them for a lift. This 'real life' has something very original about it.

So much other stuff goes on in this whole novel that someone might ask, "Why are you focusing on this little scene with the two peasants?" It's because I find myself on occasion wondering about the further and farther lives of minor characters.

The two cart peasants are confronted with the riddling presence of an...intellectual! They are also being unconsciously influenced by the intellectual narrator. And behind him, the artistic intellectual author, who has placed those two peasants in an unusual circumstance. They must be feeling ghosts! 

Will they later laugh or whisper about that preposterous stranger on the road? The appearance of Stepan Trofimovitch will surely alter, in the weeks ahead (especially for the woman),  an opinion that things are firmly quotidian. 

The world is odder than it appears. How thoughtful of Dostoevsky to bestow on non-intellectuals an extraordinary encounter with someone from the life of reading and thought. The shock will surely vibrate into their own later years.

And how will brute nature -- rain, snow, wind, stone, stream, wheat -- extruded into the human shapes of two cart peasants affect Stepan Trofimovitch? Will his last dream as he soon lies dying spiral around the weirdness of a contrary mode? Will he sigh out his last toward the enigma of peasants, those who eyed him with suspicion?

1 comment:

  1. One of the aspects of Dostoevsky's writing that has always amazed me is his ability to ease back and forth between journalistic narrative and editorial prose. He lavishes subtle shades of emotion on his characters--allowing them to sketch themselves through their own thoughts. While reading this passage, I wondered which of Dostoevsky's friends might this Stepan Trofimovitch have been based on. Perhaps a peculiar sensation of alienation, of being set apart from the crowd, was quite keenly felt by the author as well. Fyodor Mikhailovich appears in my mind's eye: he has endured a commuted death sentence, hard labor and exile and other hardships. He knows what it is to be mired in the mud. And yet, his is a brilliant mind on a level with the elite. A keen psychologist, his writing forms a bridge between various characters, voices, ideas and ideals, creating a microcosm unique to each of his books--now these, indeed, leave an unmistakable imprint on the souls of his readers.