Drafted on 8 February 2017 | Published as a blog post on 13 February 2023
What is biography? It is necessary to clarify at the outset what biography is not. Biography is not a ‘non-literary background’ against which literature as a ‘foreground’ is to be rendered meaningful. The new historicists have destroyed such a myth. Nor is biography something which functions as the ‘final signified’ for literature, offering a singular, central, or ultimate, interpretation. Poststructuralists, including Roland Barthes, have challenged such a thesis. Biography, as Barthes says, is quite simply ‘bio-graphy’ (bios + graphia) i.e. life in writing, or life as written, or written life. Be it biography or autobiography, there is no ‘life of the author’ outside the domain of writing or textuality. That which is not written remains unknown, ungraspable. Because everything about the author’s life is not written in biographies and autobiographies, because everything cannot be written, any biography or autobiography is, by definition, fragmentary. The author is never accessible as a complete flesh-and-blood person; he exists only as/in writing/fiction/text and exists only as fragments. This is one sense in which the Barthesian idea of ‘paper author’ should be understood. What, then, is the value of biography insofar as literary criticism is concerned? For this, once again, Barthes offers us a way out through his notion of ‘biographeme’. Biographemes are the smallest textual units which may intertextually be used to engage in a critique of the literature. Biographemes do not constitute the ‘central signified’ of a literary text which, ultimately, is ‘a tissue of quotations’ derived from innumerable centres (in the plural) of culture.
It is possible to talk about a few biographemes from Dostoevsky’s life, which may help us intertextually engage with his novels and short stories. It has been pointed out that Dostoevsky stands for a plurality of selves, or ‘polyphonic’ selfhood. Freud, for instance, has isolated four facets from Dostoevsky’s rich personality: the creative artist, the moralist, the neurotic, and the sinner. It may be argued that Dostoevsky is all four and much more. However, what undoubtedly stands out is his creative self. He said that he was a ‘martyr for literature’. It is the creative self that anchored all his other selves. It is by isolating a few such biographemes (a few, not all) that we could show how the creative self of Dostoevsky has a kind of centrality.
Birth, marriage, and death
Dostoevsky was born on 11 November 1821 (Moscow) and died on 9 February 1881 (Petersburg). He was the second of seven children (four boys and three daughters) to his parents. His father was a physician based in Moscow and served at a hospital for the poor. In 1839, his father was murdered by the peasants of his estate. The impact of the murder of his father and Dostoevsky’s epilepsy has been analysed by Freud, especially in the context of The Brothers Karamazov. His mother came from a merchant family. In 1857, he married Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, a widow of 29 years, whom he met during his exile. In his (February-March) 1863 trip to Western Europe, he met his lover the 23-year-old Apollinaria Suslova who eventually declined his marriage proposal. During the same time, he also engaged in gambling (even though his terminally ill wife was left in Petersburg, amid poverty), an act which has been interpreted as an assertion of freedom against forces of necessity financial, social, and moral. His trip to Western Europe was also significant due to his exposure to Western art, especially the artworks of Holbein. In 1867 (by the time Maria was dead), he married Anna Snitkina, 25 years his junior and a stenographer, who had helped him write The Gambler at a time when he was in a life-and-death rush to meet the publication deadline. Dostoevsky died in St Petersburg at the age of 59 due to a lung haemorrhage. He was buried in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. At his burial ceremony, a huge crowd gathered and many poets and friends shared their memories. Lacking a ticket, Anna, his widow, did not get a chance to attend the program. When she said that she was Dostoevsky’s widow, a person told her that there were too many Dostoevsky widows already attending the program.
Dostoevsky was educated in a private school in Moscow. In 1938, one year after his mother died, he got admitted to a military engineering institute, namely, St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineers. His brother Mikhail could not get through the entrance examination. Dostoevsky was very successful as a student. During this period, he wrote two plays (now lost), translated French authors and read voraciously. In 1843, his study was completed and he entered the rank of sub-lieutenant in the engineering corps. However, in less than a year, he was completely bored, and in 1844, he resigned from his commission in the army to devote himself to writing. He wanted to be a professional writer and was especially inspired by Gogol and Pushkin.
Dostoevsky was imprisoned twice in his life. The first imprisonment was arguably the most traumatic event and completely altered his ideological stance [rendering him increasingly monarchist and Christian]. On 23 April 1849, Dostoevsky was imprisoned for 8 months, and then on December 22, was brought in front of a firing squad. However, at the very last moment, the death sentence was revoked, and instead, he was sent into ten years of exile, out of which he had to spend four years in a labour camp at Omsk. He met all sorts of criminals and received, as Bird puts it, intense physical and spiritual wounds. It was during this imprisonment that Dostoevsky had his first epileptic attack. His experiences were directly used in the book Notes from the Dead House. After four years of camp life, he was put into the barracks at a city in northern Kazakhstan named Semipalatinsk. In course of time, he won the officer rank and worked in the local city. His experiences in Kazakhstan were used in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, especially in the description of a kind of empty landscape symbolizing the ‘terrifying and redemptive promise of freedom’. It was in 1859 that he was at last allowed to return to Russia.
What led to Dostoevsky’s imprisonment? The reason was not substantial. At this time, the Russian government was headed by Tsar Nicholas I who has been described as a paranoiac. The various European revolutions in the 1840s, which were in turn inspired by the French revolution, contributed to the paranoia of the Tsar and made him extremely suspicious about any form of anti-government activities. Consequently, all forms of public discourse were prohibited, and vigilant censorship was instituted. Philosophy, as a subject was banned in the universities and scholars, was even arrested for engaging in philosophical discourses. Poetry, fiction, and literary criticism were virtually the only means of engaging in debate. It is in this environment that Pushkin and Gogol became inspirations for D. In 1847, before his imprisonment, Dostoevsky became part of the Petrashevshky circle, a group that was headed by Mikhail Butashevich-Petrashevsky (1821–1866). Petrashevshky was notorious for collecting banned books and inspiring debates which were critical of the Russian government, especially the policy that led to the perpetuation of serfdom. In 1847, the government arrested the 21 young men who were part of this group on the charge of sedition. D, in particular, was accused of sedition since he was reading some of the correspondences with/from Gogol which were considered written against the Tsar.
Dostoevsky’s creative self
Freud describes Dostoevsky, perhaps rightly, as a masochist. Dostoevsky was either placed in, or always created for himself, a position in which he inevitably suffered, or in which he could transform his suffering into writing. This is most evident from the fact that he left his job in the army to devote himself to writing, even though that meant plunging into poverty. His repeated recourse to gambling would also be a case in point. A letter written from prison in 1849 further testifies to this:
“My nervous irritability has notably increased, especially in the evening hours; at night I have long hideous dreams, and latterly I have often felt as if the ground were rocking under me, so that my room seems like the cabin of a steamer. From all this I conclude that my nerves are increasingly shattered. Whenever formerly I had such nervous disturbances, I made use of them for writing; in such a state I could write much more and much better than usual.”
The question of artistic truth and freedom in Poor Folk
Dostoevsky was very conscious of the constraints on human freedom in both subjective and public domains. In his first novel Poor Folk (1846), he shows how money and power on the one hand, and illness and sexual desire on the other, together create constraints over human freedom. He promotes fiction as a means of making human freedom sovereign in the imaginative realm. The artistic truth and artistic freedom remain the most crucial concerns of Dostoevsky.
In this context, it may be mentioned that Dostoevsky always risked everything for literature. A letter written to his brother Mikhail on 24 March 1845 testifies to this: “To publish oneself means to thrust one’s chest forwards, and if the work is good, it will not only hold its own but will redeem me from subjection to debt and give me food. And now about food! You know, brother, that in this respect I am left to my own powers. But come what may, however dire my circumstances, I have pledged to bear up and not take commissions. Commissions will crush and destroy everything. I want each of my works to be distinctly good. Look at Pushkin and Gogol. They didn’t write much, but monuments await both. And now Gogol gets 1,000 roubles in silver for each signature [about twenty pages], while Pushkin, as you know, sold each line for ten roubles. But then their glory was paid for by years of penury and starvation…."
It is a fact that, after the publication of Poor Folk, Dostoevsky was hailed as the literary successor of Gogol.
Publishing journals to tackle poverty
Dostoevsky was very much influenced by the media culture and himself conducted several journals and newspapers in course of his life. Many of these journals, which he was part of, remained the only source of income for him. However, his works were serially published in journals of which he was not a part. The first of his journals was the Vremya [Time] (1858-1863) which had to be ended due to a ban by authorities over the issue of the Polish uprising mentioned in one of the journal articles. The second was Epokha [Epoch] opened in 1864 but ended within a short time. In this magazine was published Notes from the Underground. The third journal was called Grazhdanin [The Citizen] of which he was the editor for just one year (1873). The fourth journal was called The Writer’s Diary.
Debate with Nikolai Chernyshevsky
In the 1860s, a few years after his return to Russia, Dostoevsky became increasingly monarchist and Christian (although his idea of Christianity, as his answer to the Jewish question, was unique and somewhat problematic). However, his basic concern was still for artistic freedom, and against the reduction of art to social and political causes. This issue is comprehensively captured in his intellectual debate with Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, imprisoned on the charge of sedition since July 1862, was publishing his novel What is to be Done in the journal Sovremennik [The Contemporary]. This novel somehow escaped the eyes of the censors. In this novel, Nikolai Chernyshevsky attempted to propose ways to bring about radical reformation in Russia under the leadership of heroic individuals. Nikolai Chernyshevsky confessed that he was not a man of literature and had little command over the language. However, the task of literature was limited to its social function, according to him. He was an advocate of utilitarianism in Russia and promoted the values of the economic well-being of people and rational egoism – all of which he wanted to bring about through revolutionary actions. Dostoevsky, however, was against the utilitarian approach to art and vehemently promoted artistic freedom. The Dostoevsky-Nikolai Chernyshevsky debate culminated in Notes from the Underground.
Sigmund Freud, in “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” writes: “After the most violent struggles to reconcile the instinctual demands of the individual with the claims of the community, Dostoevsky landed in the retrograde position of submission both to the Tsar and for the God of the Christians, and of narrow Russian nationalism – a position which lesser minds have reached with smaller effort. This is the weak point in that great personality. Dostoevsky threw away the chance of becoming a teacher and liberator of humanity and made himself one of their gaolers. The future of human civilization will have little to thank him for.”
Freud’s essay is certainly insightful, especially his take on the role played by epilepsy and gambling in the life of Dostoevsky. However, the above lines regarding Dostoevsky are not entirely true. Dostoevsky was not supporting either a radical or a conservative cause. His cause was the cause of literature and art. The juxtaposition of the cruel and the kind-hearted in his novels, in this sense, might reveal the various selves of the author but, in the end, it is his creative self, a self that wanted to sacrifice itself for the cause of art, which gets manifested as the most dominant aspect of his life. The future of human civilization will have that much, if not more, to thank him for.
Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” In Image Music Text, pp. 142-148. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana Press, 1977.
---. “From Work to Text.” In Image Music Text, pp. 155-164. Translated by Stephen Heath. Fontana Press, 1977.
---. “Preface.” In Sade, Fourier, Loyola, pp. 3-10. Translated by Richard Miller. University of California Press, 1989.
Bird, Robert. Dostoevsky: Critical Life. Reaktion Books, 2012.
Breger, Louis. Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst. Routledge, 2009.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton University Press, 2012.
Freud, Sigmund. “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” In The Standard Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 21, pp. 173-194. Translated by James Strachey et al. Hogarth Press, 1961.
Veeser, H. Aram, ed. The New Historicism Reader. Routledge, 1989.