Reading Dostoevsky: The Russia we want to be

A strange sensation gained possession of him in that dingy and stuffy corridor, a sensation that strove painfully to become a thought; but he still could not guess what that new struggling thought was.

Last night, when I was consuming by the handful the final pages of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin is unflinchingly justifying his choice in marrying one of two women–Nastasya Filippovna, the captivatingly beautiful kept woman with glittering eyes and Aglaia Epanchin, the recklessly innocent youngest daughter of a respectable Petersburg family–I began to understand the climax of this feverish story in a different way than I had, up until this point, been reading it.

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When I was reading The Brothers Karamozov a few years back, my uncle suggested that one has to be knowledgeable in Russian history to fully understand the Dostoevsky novels.

Agreed. And though there may be much that I am missing in my reading of this nightmarish, philosophically probing, spiritually penetrating, rapturous labyrinth of human souls (Virginia Woolf calls Dostoevsky’s novels “seething whirlpools”), I began to view Prince Myshkin’s painful love of two women with an awareness of Russia’s long and struggling history.

Nastasya Filippovna (yes the names) feels suffocated by a blanket of shame, a blanket which she lifts at various junctures in her much-gossipped storyline–whether to escape a wedding or to escape the man she ran away with–both dazzling and shocking the community and heaping on more public disgrace. She is described as the kind of woman who thinks every time she looks at her lover: “I’m tormenting him to death now, but I’ll make put for it with my love, later.” Her raving choices seem to be more about her own sense of worth, but they always inflict wounds on the men in her wake.

Aglaia lives a secret life of whispered commitments and private love notes. She herself can’t seem to decide whom to love–the middle class Ganya who has violent emotions and a family to care for, the rich, worldly and somehow wise Yevgeny Pavlovich, or the saintly but embarrassingly honest Prince Myshkin. Aglaia’s romantic impulses seem more about spiting her parents than asserting the freedom she is grasping at.

What became shuddering clear to me last night was the possibility that these characters are not just women caught in the web of social stratification and the constraints of gender politics in their St Petersburg world. Maybe they are allegories for two kinds of Russia–old and new.

One is barbaric, disgraceful, and disgusting, yet with a beauty that can hardly be overlooked, much less forgotten. The other is a sophisticated but troubled offshoot of a culture that loves its libraries and laws and longings but yearns for originality and railroads and protection from the outside world.

To Aglaia, the dreamed-about modern Russia, Myshkin says, “You are exceedingly beautiful. You are so beautiful that one is afraid to look at you.” Aglaia is the one Myshkin more readily trusts and desires, but she is a riddle to him. What drives her? Who will she become?

Of Nastasya, the difficult ancient Russia whose spirit is entrenched in every institution, in every family, in every town (and maybe in every soul, for as one character observes, “The Russian soul is a dark place”), Myshkin marvels:

Whether she were a woman who had read too much poetry…or simply mad, as Myshkin was convinced, in any case this woman–though she sometimes behaved with such cynicism and impudence–was really far more modest, soft, and trustful than might have been believed. It’s true that she was full of romantic notions, of self-centered dreaminess and capricious fantasy, but yet there was much that was strong and deep in her…Myshkin understood that.

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In the moment when the two women have their inevitable showdown, Aglaia is overcome by her hate of Nastasya. New hates old. Possibility hates reality. But by her very rejection of her she can never escape.

And the decision rests with Myshkin. Which Russia will he choose? Who as a people, I hear Dostoevsky asking, will we be? And do we still have a choice?

There’s another extremely popular novel in which a choice is made between to lovers, this time in America. I’m thinking of Daisy Buchanan. Will it be her husband or Jay Gatsby? Old money or new? Alliances, power, and prestige, or honesty, aspiration, and originality. Both are extravagant. Both are falsifications of what America truly is, or of what America can be.

This is just a side thought. I wonder for how many novels that explore nationalistic identity we can take this way of reading. Daniel Deronda? Absalom, Absalom? Certainly. The California novels of John Steinbeck? Some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works?

I’ve even begun to ask (and if you’re not familiar with The Idiot, go ahead and skip this paragraph) who else is a metaphor for something. Is Myshkin meant to represent Christian Orthodoxy? Is Rogozhin secular Russia?  What does it mean that they exchange crosses early on and that at the end they lie down together on the same couch in tender, brotherly affection after an extraordinarily dark act of violence?

And so, back to Prince Myshkin’s choice. Which Russia will he choose? Which woman will it be?

“But what are you doing, prince?” Yevgeny Pavlovich cried with horror. “So you’re marrying [Nastasya] from a sort of fear? There’s no understanding it! Without even loving her, perhaps?”

“Oh, no. I love her with my whole heart! Why she’s…a child! Now she’s a child, quite a child! Oh, you know nothing about it!”

“And at the same time you have declared your love to Aglaia Ivanovna?”

“Oh, yes, yes!”

“How so? Then you want to love both of them?”

“Of, yes, yes!”

“Upon my word, prince, think what you’re saying!”

I’m still thinking what he’s saying. One hundred forty-eight years later, I’m still thinking what he’s saying.

Beating words from the red heart of a ginger: A list of dos and don’ts.

Whether you call us redheads or coppertops, rust boy or backdraft or Anne of Green Gables, all the gingers in your life need an extra layer of protection. Your commitment to this list of dos and don’ts (or if you will, dues and doh!n’ts) will help our community thrive. And hey, you may save more than one life.

DO let us walk with you on the “ginger side of the sidewalk.”

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DON’T expect us to wait with you on the train platform.

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(Beverly Farms station, Beverly, MA)

I mean, we might do it, but you should realize that we are doing it sacrificially. This platform is outside of Boston for crying out loud. Think of all the ginger brothers and sisters who have here laid down their lives for their friends. This applies too to those times you’ve stopped us on the street for a two-minute conversation or asked us to come check out your new back deck while there was still daylight.

Always remember that the love of a ginger comes at a great cost.

DO make us feel safe by saying things like “Want to sit down together in the shade and talk?”

DON’T make us try to find you all over Washington Square in the blazing sun. You can find us at the end of a park bench, wedged between smelly people we don’t know. Yes, it is gum/bird poo we are trying not to lean against. No, we don’t like the stringy headstock of the man’s guitar in our face. But you will notice that the one overhanging branch substantially covers our face, neck, and, if we hold our book correctly, part of our left arm (which is a bonus), and ladies and gentleman we have FOUND THAT SPOT! And yes, we know that that spot will change every three minutes. You’ve made us wait fifteen of them for you to get here. For a ginger, fifteen minutes can be the difference between life and death.

And really? You don’t think you can find us in the shade tucked underneath our wide-brimmed hat? You’re the one who’s always telling us we glow in the dark. We do glow in the dark, but it’s because of all the sunscreen, not our skin.

DO offer to rub sunscreen our back. We might ask you to use twice the amount you think you’ll need.

DON’T ask to borrow some sunscreen. Would you ask to borrow someone’s oxygen machine?

DO tell us our freckles look darker/stand out on our arms when you pick us up at the airport after our summer trip to Catalina Island.

DON’T tell us about your “base tan” that you got out at “the lake.”

DON’T hold up your arm to compare with ours.

DON’T EVER invite us to “lie out” with you. Check your privilege.

And, might we suggest, go see a dermatologist. We’re not messing around here.

DO give us extra doses of anesthesia. Most of us need it. Get on buzzfeed sometime. Or something more scientific.

DON’T, however, send us buzzfeed articles about how ginger populations are dying off.

Like we need another reminder to overcome our fears of birth pains. Remember, the love of a ginger comes at a great cost.

DO listen to what it was like to grow up with Reba and Ron Howard as our only role models.

DON’T just shrug and change the subject when your ginger roommate, a virgin, tells you his upcoming project is a book on gingersexuality.

DO express concern for our health. Remember the anesthesia?

DON’T babble on about Vitamin D pills. We get more Vitamin D in the 30 seconds it takes to pick up the morning newspaper than you get in a year. And we’re probably having this conversation in the sun. We’d be happy to listen to you from inside that bush over there. Or behind that tall man.

DO promote red velvet cake specials at local bakeries. #gingerfriendlydesserts

DON’T tell us that the dinner was too spicy because of the ginger. Because were you complaining back in 1997 whenever this song came on? That’s what I thought.

DO order ginger ale on a flight and give us a flirty nudge in the ribs.

DON’T tell us that you only drink ginger ale when you’re on planes.

Because let me tell you, we’ll be the first you go to when you need an ice-cold glass of ginger ale to settle your stomach ache. Never deny the healing powers of the ginge.

DON’T think you can pull off phrases like “the ginge.” Do you think we like yelling at you in public?

DO make cutesy little jokes about our immunity to Dementor kisses and the fact that we will never learn to play the saxophone with half the soul of, say, Bill Clinton.

DON’T think you won’t awaken our wrath. It’s a sleeping (insufficiently anesthetized) giant rising into the red dawn. A fire that stokes itself. A Rhode Island rooster without a cause.

DO ask us about the curtains in our home, we’d love to tell you, and then on a separate occasion about our new carpet. Are you looking to remodel?

DON’T think you won’t awaken our wrath.

Is it really any wonder why they named the red planet Mars?

DO speak out for the better representation of gingers in the film industry.

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DON’T write an article about how this beautiful ginger person can’t wear high heels AND save people from dinosaurs. Because honestly, isn’t that flare that she holds in her hand (yes, even if a brown-haired man did it first twenty years ago), that spewing top of a  combusting inner core, those sparks of self-sacrificial passion that ignite the resilience of a community–not unlike the radiant torch of Lady Liberty herself waging war against her century-long decay into cuprous oxide–is not that bronzing billowing flare, that flaming beacon that proclaims salvation to all and to all a good night, is it not the most iconic symbol we have today of gingerhood in all its incandescent glory?

OK. If you must, call it problematic, but go no further. I can always do another round about that wrath.

DO find a ginger in your workplace, on your sofa, underneath the nearest marquee, eave, or tree branch, and probably not on your back deck until the sun is setting (need I point at that this is also when the ginger clouds make their grand, shimmying appearance), and give them a warm, soulful hug (they’ll need it) and even better, a glowing, friendly kiss (even if you are a Dementor) and wish them good luck on wherever their passions may take them. Heck, feel free to throw in your favorite Celtic blessing. It never hurts.

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(Albert Camus with his redhead editor Michel Gallimard)

And believe me, when we say it doesn’t hurt, you can take us at our word.

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