© Olga Meerson

Let me start with a spin-off of my own introduction to Dostoevsky’s Taboos. Perhaps I should start with what did not make it into the opera. After all, the opera is to the novel what the tip is to the iceberg—a metonym. The novel itself, however, acts as a kernel for all Dostoevsky’s subsequent poetics if not all his work.

The Dead House Notes itself is a certain nutshell version of Dostoevsky’s later plots, motifs, poetics, and patterns of character development. It is in The Dead House that tabooed sore spots of characters and narrators come to prominence. As his characters evolve from objects of description into subjects observing others, from being seen to seeing, there transpires a new type of portraiture, described by Bakhtin—the portraiture of criminals’ conscience.  What ails these characters is not how others see themselves but how they see whatever they see, about others or themselves. They rarely can put to words what they see, but that is how conscience often works: it shows what is wrong ontologically, not legally. Rather than their conflict with the law, a personal hell from within torments them. In the episodes chosen by Janáček, he makes their stories work in precisely that way—we witness these characters’ pangs of conscience, not their criminal charges. 

On my part, I especially dwell on the close reading of the Bathhouse episode where Petrov, a convicted murderer, suddenly gets squeamish when Gorianchikov mentions hell as a powerful metaphor for the Bathhouse scenery itself. Petrov is hardly a paragon of decorum— like 90% of all subsequent characters in Dostoevsky.  Had he been observing decorum more, he would be loved by Dostoevsky less— like Luzhin, Totsky, or Miusov, none of whom are murderers. Why then is Petrov squeamish here? Because to him, the word »hell« denotes a literal image, of either personal retribution or his internal state of conscience at the moment. This motif of unexpected squeamishness of murderers, or other serious sinners in Dostoevsky, would subsequently conjure up Dostoevsky’s view of conscience as the internal accuser versus external legal charges or accusations. He would stand by this distinction to the point of serving as an ad hoc defense lawyer himself. Indeed, once the sinner’s sin invades their conscience, the territory is forbidden for any action of legal punishment— they should be left alone with their internal hell, for that is the only vehicle for sincere penitence. 

Akulka’s Husband, oddly enough, is relevant for this motif of internalized morality: unlike Dostoevsky, Gorianchikov is not a political prisoner. Symptomatically, however, Janáček, like many other readers, perceives him as a political prisoner like his author. Dostoevsky states that Gorianchikov had killed his wife. Yet in his interactions with other criminals, he looks like an outsider with primarily political agenda and criticism, very different from these criminals’ concerns. All his tactless curiosity towards murderers like Petrov, even his writerly power at wielding metaphors of hell about Nicholas I’s prison and exile system, falls on deaf ears.

If, however, he talks and writes, and narrates and analyzes the way Dostoevsky himself would, then why make him his wife’s murderer in the first place? It seems that there is another point about Gorianchikov, also seminal for Dostoevsky’s patterns of characterization: Gorianchikov himself clearly sees others and the paradoxes of their consciousness versus their conscience, but at the same time, he fails to see the same paradoxes within himself. Hence, Akulka’s Husband is a case of Gorianchikov’s projection as a character. Later, we will encounter the same trait in Raskolnikov (vs Svidrigailov), Stavrogin (vs Liputin, among others), Evgeny Pavlovich and many others (vs Prince Myshkin), etc.  In the terms of the Philokalia, this trait can be hypothetically classified as »the demon of clairvoyance concerning the sins of others« (the term is my husband’s, an Orthodox priest with an uncanny sense of humor). 

None of these observations aim to minimize the social poignancy of Dostoevsky’s criticism of Nicholas I’s Siberian Prison system— fully inherited by the Soviets and made even more infernal as the Gulag.  Yet Dostoevsky’s point is that, even with the correction of real criminals, murderers, etc., such a penitential system is bound to miss its mark: no repentance is possible with constraints on freedom. 

Recently, I have also taught the story of Isai Fomich. The antisemitism notwithstanding,  the prisoners view Isai Fomich as a beacon of freedom — precisely when he prays— granted free access to the local synagogue on Sabbath days; ignoring the rage, and even the presence of the oppressive Platzmajor, and even ridiculed as claiming that all the Jews were singing some alleged “gibberish” while leaving Egypt: actually the »lalailaila« that Gorianchikov cites as nonsense is based on a very popular Seder hymn with the refrain »dai-dayenu«[1].

Gorianchikov may not know that but Dostoevsky still may know, especially given his friendship and polemics with Kovner.  

In short, though Dostoevsky is never politically correct, his sinners’ world is informed by the same ideal of freedom as his own is. What seems to matter to Janáček most about all these notions of freedom and subjecthood are the voices of various characters who get to tell their stories in a very compelling way—by singing them recitativo. 

Prof. Dr. Olga Meerson teaches at Georgetown University (Washingtom DC) and is the author of »Dostoevsky’s Taboos«, »Personalism as Poetics«, and »Platonov’s Poetic of Re-Familiarization« along with vast variety of publications on Russian literature and thought. Her research interests range from Old Testament exegesis to Russian Orthodox liturgical poetics and musicology, to Dostoevsky and Andrei Platonov and contemporary Russian women writers, especially poets. She is a co-translator of Platonov’s Soul and Other Stories, which was awarded the AATSEEL prize for »best translation from a Slavonic language«.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dayenu