Propp: Brilliant but Boring

I have been translating, with two colleagues, Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale (Исторические корни волшебной сказки), a very important book that has for some reason never made it into English. It is a tour de force in many ways and truly a follow-up to his widely known Morphology of the Folktale (Морфология сказки), which has been especially influential for folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and others for decades. This book had its own roots in the final chapter of the author’s dissertation, which was also the source of the Morphology. It helps to fill out the picture of Propp as a scholar and thinker. The previous volume showcased his application of formal categories and structural analysis; the English version was a staple text for budding structuralists of just about any stripe, whether they were interested in folklore or not, in the 1970s and 80s. This book, which is twice the length, allows him to delve into history, particularly the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, where the wondertale (a.k.a., the fairy tale) finds its deepest roots.

There has been a lot of work on human evolutionary history since Propp’s day, in numerous fields, some of it written for popular audiences, much of it focused on the same transition between what Michael McCarthy in his 2015 The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy refers to as the 50,000 generations (of hunter-gatherers) and the 500 generations (of agriculturalists). But no one to my knowledge has done what Propp does in this book, which is to try to fix the development of specific fairy tale features (e.g., the abducted maiden, the serpent/dragon, the guardian of the underworld) in concrete human social practices, especially those associated with rites of initiation.

It is a fascinating history, and he is extremely good at pulling together research and examples from myth, religion, ethnography, and more, and from regions all across the globe. I have learned a lot by translating his words into English.

What I have not learned by translating his words is anything about effective writing. Translating Propp for me has often taken on strange qualities, where I might feel like rewarding myself for getting through a few sentences by taking a break. This is not usually the way translation works, not for me at least. Generally, I am motivated to start and to continue a translation project by the quality of the writing itself. I am drawn forward by wanting to share the magic of the words — their formal coherence, sound patterns, rhetorical nuances, and more — as much if not more than by any semantic content “in” the words.

This is not just about fiction or poetry either. I feel the same way about the literary nonfiction I have translated, even prose that might be categorized as “scholarly,” such as Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric, which was a joint project together with Cinzia Sartini Blum and David J. Depew (Yale University Press, 2004). His prose is sometimes turgid, but it is also always quite compelling. Lines like this were what first grabbed me: “Un peso pende ad un gancio, e per pender soffre che non può scendere: non può uscire dal gancio; poiché quant’è peso pende, e quanto pende dipende.” I must have read this sentence aloud a hundred times, and I still love it. The prose made me think, and in fact it was interwoven with the ideas in interpretive and linguistic puzzles that made me want to solve them.

There are almost no puzzles in Propp’s prose. He is clear. He is also somewhat repetitive and rhetorical, as if he were speaking from a lectern, which he probably was (“let me remind you”), and in the royal “we” (“previously we explored…”). He can also be rather lazy, engaging in the sort of sloppy techniques that some graduate students might use in their first couple of years of study before they figure out that, while what they’ve written might be correct, it is not at all enjoyable to read. A colleague of mine once recalled that a favorite professor of his from grad school had given him an A- for exactly this shortcoming. When asked why the grade was not an A, the professor had responded, “You wrote a very thorough paper that no one would ever want to read twice.”

I am capable of translating such prose. But it is also LONG and chock full of references (to the Rigveda, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, collections of folktales, myths, studies from the Americas, Africa, Australia, and more), many of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which means they need to be checked for page numbers, existing English translations, etc. Hence the reward of taking a break after every few sentences or so.

I am certainly learning things by focusing in this way on the book, but the process has reinforced in me how much I am motivated as a translator by the compelling aspects of the writing itself. Without that, translating can be quite a slog.

Teaching Ukrainian Culture as if it were Russian

A former public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine explained to me a few years ago how they were trying to help Ukrainian institutions to train Ukrainians to tell Ukraine’s story to the world, “because,” he said, “at this point wherever you look, Russia is telling Ukraine’s story.” I thought of this comment when reading the opening pages of Karl Schlögel’s 2015 Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland (in Gerrit Jackson’s 2018 translation), where he writes:

For me, and I think for everyone who has studied it, Russia is more than a subject of research; it is deeply woven into our personal lives. And so, the so-called Ukrainian crisis was a moment of truth, challenging us to reconsider deeply held convictions and how we had arrived at them. It called for more than a review of the scholarship of the past and the evolution of the cultural, diplomatic or business relations between the countries. It struck to the core of our dedication to dialogue, and more was at stake than merely a position that might be revised or amended. What was cast in doubt was an undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves with heart and soul, an engagement that could not have remained without consequences, that might almost be called an enchantment or entanglement. In short, this was about Russia as an integral part of our biographies; the events in Ukraine called a major part of our life’s work into question.

(Schlögel 2018: 24)

Schlögel’s sentiment resonates deeply for me and I suspect for other Russian specialists as well. Perhaps that deep personal commitment has made it hard sometimes to change the way we approach our subject, I don’t know. But it is clear to me, as I think about his call for a re-assessment of our professional commitments and “entanglements” that I have tended to teach those aspects of history and culture that Russia and Ukraine share as if they were Russian in an uncomplicated way, without having much to say about the fact that they are also Ukrainian. In effect, I have told Ukraine’s story through a Russian lens.

I suppose it might be easy for some to dismiss the idea of teaching Kievan Rus’ as national in any sense, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Belorusian. This, after all, would be a rather wooly anachronism since national consciousness in the modern sense is a much later phenomenon. That’s fine and true, of course, but does not explain the much more interesting modern historical phenomena associated with anchoring the identity and overall contours of a country in significant events, places, and personages from the past, especially when it is where one lives. In this context, it is not at all helpful to designate the literature, art, architecture, and cultural figures of Kievan Rus’ as “Old Russian” let alone “Medieval Russian” without specifying that these are all also “Old Ukrainian” and “Old Belorusian” too. And not just specifying but exploring what this means today and has meant historically, in practice for real people every day.

I’m thinking about this now because I’ll be teaching an intro-level Russian culture course again in the coming year after a five-year hiatus. Re-reading the materials I have used many times before is not making me cringe (at least not most of the time) so much as clarifying how much the present influences our views and interpretations of the past and also reenforcing the conviction that one must constantly revisit what one thinks one knows and how one thinks one knows it.

Teaching Ilya Repin

I have used Ilya Repin’s 1883 Procession of the Cross in the Kursk District in class many times over the years, especially as a part of teaching aspects of social activism in the art of nineteenth-century Russia. The painting’s contrast of abject poverty among the people to the lavish richness of the Church is easy for students to see, and closer scrutiny quickly enables them to decipher the complicity and cruelty of the military apparatus that appears to be keeping the people in line.

Jane Costlow’s excellent reading of the painting in her 2013 Heart-Pine Russia has opened up an entirely new dimension for me, which I’m looking forward to sharing with students the next time I teach it. Basically, she adds to the social commentary of the painting by paying special attention to landscape. My students and I have of course noticed many times that the landscape of the painting is dry and dusty, which lends a starkness to the scene and makes the social commentary harsher and rather unforgiving. But that was usually as far as we would take this line of thought.

We were missing something that, once pointed out, becomes as clear as the other aspects of the painting. Beyond the implied cruelty of people in positions of power toward other people, which one can see if one looks carefully, there is the implied rapaciousness of people toward nature in the background, which one can see if one looks still more carefully.

The great diversity of Repin’s rendering of the earthbound crowd draws the viewer’s eye, but so do the figures who stand out above them. Rising above the crowd are eight or so figures on horseback, and if our gaze moves beyond them into the background, we are confronted with a bare and dusty hillside with stumps of recently cut timber and brush, a hillside where a forest used to be.

(Costlow 2013: 96)

The surprising thing is that I never noticed the stumps that are now so conspicuous to me. Of course it would be different if they were walking through a forest! Repin in fact has other paintings of processions, some of which were sketches in preparation for this larger work, where the people make their way through wooded areas, rendering the depictions lush and even bucolic in tone. The absence of forest here and the conspicuous markers that there used to be forest here are central to the expression and social commentary of the painting, which Costlow’s research on “the forest question” makes exceptionally clear.

Definitely one of my favorite parts of this fine book.

Bringhurst on Translation

I just read Robert Bringhurst’s “The Polyhistorical Mind” lecture, which is the first chapter in his 2006 book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, and was struck by this observation: “Few people earn a degree in European Studies or Asian Studies without acquiring some rudimentary knowledge of a European or Asian language. Students of African Studies are also routinely expected to learn an African language. But how many universities ask even their doctoral students in American Studies or in Canadian Studies [Bringhurst is Canadian–RSV] to learn an indigenous North American language? Not one.” Reading this in 2020, I am pretty sure he is still correct.

The essay has a number of moments like this, with direct, clear observations that amount to institutional interventions, and is unusual and refreshing from this standpoint. For instance, while he lauds the practice of including writers with Native American ancestry in the curriculum, he also notes, “When we teach Greek literature, we do not limit the offerings to novels conveniently written in English by Greeks.”

As he delves into why such things matter, moreover, he touches on the declining number of living languages in the world and the resulting impoverishment for what he calls the “intellectual biomass” of the earth, especially in its “word hoard and grammar hoard and story hoard.” I am with him throughout this section, but then, just as he is describing the accumulation of wisdom in the stories of the earth, his thought takes a strange turn in this paragraph:

Translation, of course, is a hurdle. But it can be crossed, unlike the painted wall of paraphrase or the blank wall of silence and denial. The labor and pleasure of crossing it should be shared, I think, as widely as possible. But it shouldn’t be thrust on the storytellers themselves.

(Bringhurst, p. 31)

I suppose I can agree with a lot of this, but the point of departure, namely, the “hurdle” of translation, strikes me as too easily leaped over in this cursory manner. And while there is a tiny gesture towards something that might actually not be a hurdle in the process, namely, the “pleasure of crossing it” (which also goes by extremely fast), the overall sense and mood here is of a labor that needs to be shared in order to be manageable.

The paragraph feels almost like an afterthought or perhaps a response to a question, anticipated or real, for just after this, we are back to the organic nature of the story within the language and the moment in which it is told:

Mythtellers tell their stories to those who are listening. They also tell their stories to themselves. That is hard to do in a foreign language. When you ask a mythteller to tell you a story in your language rather than hers, the mythteller must talk only to you, not to herself. And then something is missing.


I certainly see that this carries on the “sharing of the labor” idea from the previous paragraph, but it is still all negatively coded. I cannot help but think that by hurdling across the necessity of translation — rather than, what, wading into it to rest in its midst and contemplate things from that perspective, mid-hurdle, as it were — we miss so much that we might learn, not just about the stories themselves, the storytellers, and the cultures from which they hail, but also about ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Music Saving

COVID-19 isolated me, as it did most of us, in ways that we could not have anticipated. I found a variety of ways to not go crazy. One was to rediscover music, not listening so much as making, something I have done off and on for many years since I was a teenager. In the age of non-contact, what I found was notation software, which has come so far it is hard to believe. I started composing again this spring and summer, picking up threads from years, sometimes decades ago and creating completely new ones from scratch. It does not seem to want to stop at this point, but calls constantly. I have to resist in order to get my “work” done.

I’ve put up so far a lucky thirteen pieces at the YouTube channel I created for sharing. The name Ba Ren Chi is something I thought up years ago, the Japanese Romanization, one possible one anyway, for the first three syllables of my last name. It seems apt.

The latest is mean, I mean that’s in the title, Meaner Than That, and the two before were spur-of-the-moment compositional gifts to my mother on her 90th-birthday and my wife on her we won’t say which birthday. Then before that Cool 6, which I find so fun, and then older ones like the zany Zapp, the eclectic Rok Ni Yon, and the sincere September Elegy. And that’s only seven of them.

I am sharing because it’s really all I want to do. Have a listen if you’re at all interested. No pressure to like or become a follower (or whatever the YouTube version of that is). I put little stock in such things. But if anything speaks to you, please drop me a line via comments here. It will make me feel very good.

Racing to 2019

Quite a few things have happened since I last posted, so much that I am having trouble remembering what happened when, what I wrote down and what I didn’t, where I traveled, and how many people’s names I’ve forgotten since I spoke with them. Apologies for my tardy replies and general slowness.

We got a four-year, one million dollar grant from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to work with a partner university in Kyiv/Kiev to help train communications specialists in Ukrainian civil service. We got a two-year $700,000 grant to establish a Russian Flagship Program at Indiana University, Bloomington. I helped to organize, then took part in a conference on Siberian Infrastructure and Environment at the Indiana University Gateway in Berlin, Germany (my paper “Tree and Bird,” focuses on the spruce and the jay, especially the Norway Spruce and Steller’s Jay, markers of sorts at the confines of an imagined geography of Siberia that starts with my front yard and ends in Alaska).

AHB published three books! First was Christopher Merrill and Won-Chung Kim’s translation of Sunwoo Kim’s If My Tongue Refuses to Remain in My Mouth; then Anna Rosenwong’s translation of a compilation of poems by Jose Eugenio Sanchez as Here the Sun’s For Real (just reviewed by Anthony Seidman at the LA Review of Books); and third the 91st Meridian Books title The Same Gate: A Collection of Writings in the Spirit of Rumi, which is complemented by an entire series of events and films at the International Writing Program over the past several years.

In October, the American Literary Translators Association‘s annual conference came back to Bloomington, the second time in six years we have hosted it. The first was when I had just moved there (here), in 2013, and was in my first year as chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. On the eve of the conference in 2013, I learned I would be president, not VP, as I had assumed (the president-elect had a heart arrhythmia that needed to be treated….)

As I look back on this, I am a bit surprised I did not collapse at the time. It is sometimes surprising how much adrenaline can accomplish. This is worth taking a step back to remember, at least for myself, so I’m going to write it down here, in the spirit of Predrag Matvejević, to remember and record, lest it fall into the nothingness of oblivion. We all have time enough for that.

I started my term as ALTA president in something of an emergency. I was slated to take on the vice president’s role, but on the eve of the 2013 conference, our president-elect at the time, Elizabeth Lowe, contacted me to say that she’d been diagnosed with a serious health problem and would not be able to take on her duties as president. Thankfully, she is doing quite well again now (I was quite happy to see her at the opening reception of the 2018 conference enjoying a beverage), but at the time the board turned to me and asked me to serve. There wasn’t anyone else do it, so I agreed. I was then in my first year of chairing a department at a new institution—I had come to Indiana just nine months before. This meant that I didn’t have the usual preparatory period before assuming the presidency and that I had many other things on my mind. It was also at this moment that ALTA was transitioning from its long sojourn at UT-Dallas to something new, which meant we were heading into completely uncharted waters.

I found local support at Indiana University through graduate assistants and the Executive Dean’s Office in the College of Arts and Sciences, which provided financial support for travel. I reached out to colleagues in ALTA whom I knew were committed and knowledgeable for advice and counsel. These individuals included Aron Aji, Susan Harris, Sean Cotter, Olivia Sears, Susan Bernofsky, and Esther Allen. Several agreed to become board members, and some of these individuals are serving in the current leadership still. Some months later I turned to my former student from the University of Iowa, Erica Mena-Landry, with whom I had collaborated on several projects at Autumn Hill Books and The Iowa Review, and whom I knew to be a tech-savvy, artistically sensitive, and extremely dynamic person. Erica and I worked for many months essentially as partners on a host of ALTA initiatives, feeding off each other’s energy and enthusiasm. This was both good and bad. It propelled ALTA forward in profound ways—we added new awards programs, re-established our NEA collaboration, begin receiving regular NEA funding for the annual conference, and became a literary partner of the AWP. But it also wore us both out and made it clear that what we were trying to do in the way that we were trying to do it was not really sustainable in the long term.

This realization came close to the end of my three-year term as president, and the executive committee (Aron Aji, Sean Cotter, Paul Daw and myself) was by then seriously considering the potential benefits of a new affiliation with an institution of higher learning. The process of partnering with the University of Arizona, ALTA’s newly established home base, has been skillfully shepherded by current president Aron Aji and vice president Ellen Elias-Bursac, while ALTA’s new executive director, Elisabeth Jaquette, its communications and awards manager, Rachael Daum, and program manager, Kelsi Vanada, have launched themselves into the many new prospects and opportunities that this affiliation affords. My last of six years on the board ends in October of 2019.

A few weeks ago, Jill Schoolman at Archipelago wrote to let me know she’s almost finished reading my translation of Jergović’s Kin. I had been waiting patiently, somewhat nervously (what if she didn’t like it after all?). In her note she wrote, “You’ve done a wonderful job with it. I love the book.” Yes, so do I. Excerpts coming soon.

What’s a Person Worth

My colleague Alexey Vdovin at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow wrote to ask for an article I published in 2003 as part of the proceedings of the 13th International Congress of Slavists, which was held in Ljubljana, Slovenia the year before that, and since I don’t have a definitive version of that article handy, and I haven’t put up any new blog posts for a while, I will make it available here (help yourself Alexey!). This essay was the kernel of a chapter in The Woman in the Window, so I don’t believe it has additional insights or interpretations from the ones offered in the chapter entitled “Three Modern Characters: the Double, the Con Man, and the Woman in the Window.” But I could easily have forgotten things. The actual essays is called What’s a Person Worth: Character and Commerce in Dostoevskii’s Double,” and it appears in Robert A. Maguire and Alan Timberlake, eds. Proceedings of the 13th International Congress of Slavists (Bloomington: Slavica, 2003), Vol. 2: Literature, pp. 203-212. (Alexey, I’ll try and get you a pdf in the meantime, in case you want to cite page numbers.)


When Titular Councilor Iakov Petrovich Goliadkin, in Dostoevskii’s 1846 novel The Double, rushes from one merchant to another to arrange purchases to be concluded at some unspecified future time or changes his larger bills into smaller in order to have a fatter wallet, he is manipulating the superficial details of commerce in order to give himself the appearance, and perhaps the inner sense, of affluence. The same may be said of his hiring a carriage, renting livery for his servant, driving around town, and “paying a call” on his doctor. These are the trappings of a station higher than the one he currently occupies, and Goliadkin’s eventual descent into madness may be understood, as Dostoevskii himself indicated in his feuilleton of the period, as the result of an urge for upward social mobility, in short, ambition.[1]

This conceptual framework links the book less to the world of the Gogolian petty clerk, that is, to “Diary of a Madman” and “The Overcoat,” which, as numerous critics have shown, functioned as the inspiration for Dostoevskii’s Poor Folk, than it does to that of Dead Souls. This latter relation, as Joseph Frank has shown, while uppermost in Dostoevskii’s mind at the time of The Double’s initial creation, has tended to be neglected because of his subsequent revisions, which removed most of the direct intertextual references for the 1866 edition (Frank 1976: 299-300). Nevertheless, these two texts, even after Dostoevskii’s changes, remain crucially connected to one another. While I agree with Frank that “the best way to understand The Double is to see it as Dostoevskii’s effort to rework Dead Souls in his own artistic terms,” the resulting “new synthesis of Gogolian elements” and, in particular, the “genuine exploration of encroaching madness” that he identifies in The Double depend upon an assumption of realism that the work itself calls into question. Indeed, it is not even clear that Goliadkin in fact goes mad at the end of the work. Goliadkin Junior, we are told, is outside the carriage in which Goliadkin Senior is being led away, and subsequently drops out of sight. For all we know, he returns to the ball from which he emerged “hatless” at the moment of Goliadkin Senior’s discovery behind the woodpile. If one sees Junior as a manifestation of Senior’s repressed social aspirations, as many have, then of course it is only the guilt-ridden, retiring, “conscience” that is committed. In other words, if half the man stays behind, well-adjusted, even giddy at the removal of his twin, that is not madness in any ordinary sense, let alone a clinical one, and the appeal to realism gives way before other, symbolic or metaphorical interpretations.

I do not mean to supply a definitive answer to the question of whether Goliadkin does or does not go mad in the present essay, for I don’t think one is possible. Dostoevskii has provided equal evidence for at least two ways of interpreting his text, turning the “either/or” of reality into a dreamlike “and,” in effect daring his readers to attempt to see through the filter of his words to a reality beyond it that is, of course, not there.[2] The work’s conflicting details thus lead readers into an interpretive impasse, problematizing interpretation itself. Here the link to Dead Souls is relevant in another manner, with Gary Saul Morson’s suggestion of Gogol’’s book as a “hermeneutic parable” providing a helpful starting point (Morson 1992). But such a reading—namely, seeing problems of interpretation as paramount—vitiates the social and political aspects of Dostoevskii’s work, and Gogol’’s for that matter, to too great an extent. It is certainly true that both writers were interested in the manner in which readers read and interpret literature, making sense or nonsense out of life in the process. But Morson’s equation of the puzzling aspects of Gogol’’s work with its purport, while rhetorically quite skillful, also divorces that work from pivotal features of its immediate socio-political context, and, as a result, distorts the very real sense in which the writer hoped to transform the world.

Gogol’’s Dead Souls, which I have treated elsewhere (Valentino 1998), presents in part a reaction to the encroachment of a commercial ethic on the upper echelons of Russian society in the early nineteenth century. Chichikov’s seemingly nonsensical wanderings represent a progression from the a-commercial, sentimental state of Manilov to the degradation of Pliushkin as a result of the gradual acceptance of commerce in human souls by the middle terms: Korobochka, who is fearful but acquiescent, Nozdrev, who is trade incarnate (along with lying, cheating, and gambling), and Sobakevich, whose knowing subjection of questions of human value to questions of price leads directly to the degradation of worldly value at Pliushkin’s estate. Behind this interpretation lies a long-standing trend in republican thought that has tended, in opposition to capitalist apologists, to see social corruption as a function of the rising commercial ethic.[3] Viewed in this manner, Gogol’’s depiction links commerce with fraud, depravity, corruption, and ultimately, slavery.[4]

There is, however, a fundamental ambiguity in Dead Souls with regard to the very commercial processes the work implicitly critiques. It is an equivalent to what Joseph Frank refers to as the “puzzling ambiguity of attitude” in The Double, where “a character is shown simultaneously as socially oppressed and yet as reprehensible and morally unsavory because he has surrendered too abjectly to the pressure of his environment” (Frank 1976: 307). In much the same way, all while suggesting the morally inflationary effects produced by the action of trading in human souls, Gogol’ gives us a hero, the explicitly non-virtuous Chichikov, who is both the commercial agent par excellence and the work’s only catalyst for social change. Herein lies its most important connection to The Double and the one I shall pursue in this essay.

As social catalyst, Chichikov represents a revolutionary force. This force explains the rumor among the town’s inhabitants that he is “Napoleon in disguise” (Gogol 1997: 209). Such an individual is not like what John Bayley calls “the Napoleonic hero, the man of will, obsession and dream” (Bayley 1971: 316). Nor is he primarily the Napoleonic manipulator, who reduces others to the means of achieving his own ends (see for instance Lotman 1978: 476-77). He is instead Napoleon the upstart, a man who, by obtaining power, wealth, and/or influence, will cease to be who he was and become someone new. This social, political, and economic advancement on the part of one man amounts to a revolution of the old system of landed wealth and title, which fixed the future position of a man as rigidly as fate itself. It serves therefore as an icon for the processes of modernization, the emergence of the modern social individual. The ambiguity that lies at the heart of Dostoevskii’s Double may be understood in the very same way: in order to rise from one’s place, whatever it is, one must break with oneself, perhaps take on a disguise or deceive and manipulate others. One must create an image of oneself in the eyes of others, which may or may not correspond to one’s “true” self. One must nurture and manipulate the icons of consensual fantasy, including the very image one has created, in a thirty-year-mortgage style attempt to translate oneself into something real.

This is precisely what Chichikov attempts to do, namely, associate himself with the collective fantasy of the dead serfs’ value, thereby acquiring real estate and transforming himself into a pomeshchik. In the process, he becomes at one point a “millionaire,” at another the worthless kidnapper of the Governor’s daughter, at a third “Napoleon in disguise,” all as a result of the collective fantasy of the town’s inhabitants, the fluctuations of which raise, lower, and altogether reformulate his social image, his social and political value, with the baselessness of rumor, or words on a page, or stocks floating in a market. In his relation to Goliadkin, the fact that Chichikov does not suffer psychologically from these shifts of identity has prompted critics to look elsewhere in Gogol’’s opus for a suitable model, but this leads one along a side path. While the chinovnik atmosphere of such works as “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” furnishes a superficial resemblance to that of The Double, the best way to understand The Double’s relation to Dead Souls is to dig deeper into the origins of Chichikov’s character, all while keeping in mind the broad socio-economic, political, and psychological implications of the interpretation I have offered. Chichikov’s nearest literary referent is in fact not Popryshchin or Akakii Akakievich, nor indeed, any previous Gogolian creation. It is Hermann from Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades.”

Like Chichikov, Hermann attempts to manipulate fantasy. True, it is not the fantasy of money or commodified labor, but it is no less powerful for all that. Moreover, the revolutionary implications of Hermann’s “entrepreneurship” are highlighted once again in a reputed resemblance to Napoleon. The similarity is noted, appropriately, thrice (see Leighton 1977). First, Tomskii comments to Liza, “He has the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles.” Then the narrator remarks, “He was sitting on the window sill, frowning fiercely, his arms folded. In this attitude he bore a striking resemblance to the portrait of Napoleon.” Finally, we are told simply, “This resemblance struck even Lizaveta Ivanovna” (Pushkin 1936: 250, 252). The allusion to “The Queen of Spades,” through the suggested resemblance of Chichikov to Napoleon, is strengthened by several parallel themes: false representation (Hermann pretends to be in love with Liza), social climbing achieved through criminal actions, and the subjection of questions of value to the measure of money. Dead Souls carries on where Pushkin left off, presenting a politically conservative reaction to a loss of social value as the result of commercial culture’s spread in post-Napoleonic Russian society. But Gogol’’s depiction leaves out the psychological implications that such a transformation of social identity represented for Pushkin. Through its prominent interrogation of madness, The Double recreates this psychological dimension, accompanying it with a characteristically Dostoevskian emphasis on moral and esthetic questions.

The government assignatsii over which Goliadkin gloats at the beginning of the story are objects of beauty and sensual pleasure to him. Thus the “pachka zelenenkikh, serenkikh, sinenkikh, krasnenkikh i raznykh pestrenkikh bumazhek” looks at Mr. Goliadkin “affably” and “encouragingly” (Dostoevsky 1972: 110). He must wipe his hands before touching them. He counts them for the hundredth time in the course of two days, caressing each between his thumb and index finger. Even in all their numeric specificity, they represent for him a rather indeterminate, “splendid” sum of money, which “can take a man far.” In much the same manner, the government document, another kind of valued paper (bumaga), must be beautified before it is turned in. It is under the pretext of scratching out a blot that Goliadkin Junior is able to wrestle the crucial paper away from his elder twin in order to worm his way into the good books of their department superiors. The government issued money and the government office document are thus powerful in an equivalent manner, namely, through their appeal to desire and imagination.[5] As such, they may be filled, on one hand, with all Goliadkin’s hopes of success as well as, on the other, his fears of conspiracy and betrayal.[6] But they are more than mere personal symbols. These are public phenomena that have underlain modern European society since the middle of the eighteenth century. As such, they are filled with the hopes and fears of the public as a whole and are powerful only to the extent that humans agree among themselves to value them and, most importantly, make good on their promises.

This aspect of Dostoevskii’s works, that is, the importance of monetary promises—promissory notes—has tended to be overlooked by critics. A quick glance at the two most important of Dostoevskii’s post-exile novels makes the omission clear. Raskol’nikov is brought to the attention of the investigating authorities initially because he faints at the police station, where he has been summoned because of a stale IOU that he earlier gave to his landlady. The entire subsequent development of the story hinges on the fainting spell, which the broken promise to pay has brought to the surface. Dmitrii Karamazov is led to his fateful encounter with Grushen’ka because his father has threatened to sell her Dmitrii’s promissory note. The note thus links the three characters in what will become the novel’s main conflict. In neither work is the piece of paper the central problem. In both it serves as a kind of catalyst, a container for potential inside the stories, which mirrors the actual role of promissory notes, and indeed, all forms of credit, in life itself. The power of such phenomena lies in the kind of imagination, consensual collective fantasy, that underpins modern society.

In The Double Dostoevskii has in effect concentrated this fantastical potential in the mind of a single individual. Goliadkin thus begins his journey by fantasizing about his fantasy-based assignatsii. He toys with the trappings of wealth that can create an image of himself as prosperous in the eyes of others. He sinks himself into the symbols of the government bureaucracy that serve to verify the greatness of the Russian state, its power and “benevolence,” and by extension, the power and greatness of each of its individual human cogs. The split that takes place in him as a result of this wholehearted acceptance of 1840s modernity is merely a coming to terms with the trade-off that his complicity necessitates. In this interpretation the story may be seen as yet another version of the moral or spiritual decay that accompanies modernity in such works as Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (1847) and Balzac’s Illusions perdues (1837-43), as the growth of social dependence in the forms of salaried office, personal and professional patronage, “the exchange of forms of mobile property” and “modes of consciousness suited to a world of moving objects” with fluctuating values, signal a fundamental transformation in the social and political life of the individual.[7] The loss of such “human” traits as sensitivity and a Schilleresque beauty of soul that make one capable of appreciating the love that binds us to others and to the world itself, are an inevitable, lamentable, but “ordinary” complement.

To the questions of what one might give up, beyond psychological integrity, by coming to terms with such a world and what might constitute an appropriate rebellion against it, this early work of Dostoevskii’s furnishes intriguing responses. The first dovetails with what Albert O. Hirschman has called the “Romantic critique of the bourgeois order,” which, from Fourier and Marx to Freud and Weber, portrays the triumph of the ideology of self-interest as an impoverishment of the “full human personality.” The irony of such a critique stems from its historical blindness, since, as Hirschman explains, “capitalism was precisely expected and supposed [by its eighteenth-century apologists] to repress certain human drives and proclivities and to fashion a less multifaceted, less unpredictable, and more ‘one-dimensional’ human personality’” (Hirschman 1997: 132-33). For Dostoevskii, particularly in his pre-exile, humanist phase, this irony would have weighed little in comparison with the very real conditions of early nineteenth-century Russian society, with its entrenched serfdom and dehumanizing bureaucracy. Goliadkin’s complicity in the modern world, his desire to raise himself in it through the manipulation of his self-interested public persona, may be seen therefore as an impoverishment of his humanity, which is depicted as a fundamental division.

The sense of human kind’s moral diminution must also be related to a perceived loss of heroism, particularly as a chivalric, aristocratic ideal, in modern times, when “to strive for honor and glory” comes to seem anachronistic, if not ridiculous. Dostoevskii gestures toward this chivalric mode by having his hero, love letter in hand, look up to the window behind which Klara Olsuf’evna supposedly awaits him, thereby invoking the gaze of the devoted knight toward his feminine inspiration.[8] But what looks back from behind the window is not his beloved at all, or at least not the beloved woman Goliadkin has convinced himself to expect. It is an undifferentiated public gaze:

Suddenly, in all the windows at once, a strange commotion took place. Figures appeared, curtains opened, entire groups of people rushed to Olsufii Ivanovich’s windows, all looking for something in the courtyard. From the safety of his pile of firewood, our hero, in turn, began following the general commotion with curiosity and stretched his head from right to left as far as the little shadow of the woodpile concealing him would allow. He froze all at once, shivered, and all but sat down on the ground from fright. It occurred to him—in a word, he guessed it with all his being—that they weren’t looking for something or someone: they were looking precisely for him, Mr. Goliadkin. Now everyone is looking, pointing in his direction. […] Suddenly they have all seen him, all at once, and are waving at him, nodding towards him, saying his name. (Dostoevskii 1972: 224)

This substitution of public notice, public opinion for the approval of an exalted, untouchable woman is a masterstroke of literary transfiguration, by means of which all the “tainted” ambitious motives of the hero are stripped of their idealist veneer. The utterly confused Goliadkin Senior does not have the conceptual wherewithal to comprehend that what emerges from the ball to meet him in the very next moment is not an alien enemy-twin but the public self his own desires and fantasies have unleashed.

The story’s mock heroic narration, the subject of much critical speculation,[9] is also best understood within the intellectual historical context of the demise of knightly glory in the modern world.[10] Here again Dostoevskii’s text appears to take its cue from Gogol’’s poema, which functions in part as a form of lament on the disappearance of the hero, particularly the virtuous hero. “The virtuous man,” explains Gogol’’s narrator,

has not been taken as a hero […] because it is time finally to give the poor virtuous man a rest, because the phrase ‘virtuous man’ idly circulates on all lips; because the virtuous man has been turned into a horse, and there is no writer who has not driven him, urging him on with a whip and whatever else is handy; because the virtuous man has been so worn out that there is not even the ghost of any virtue left in him, but only skin and ribs instead of a body; because the virtuous man is not respected! No, it is time finally to hitch up a scoundrel. And so, let us hitch up a scoundrel. (Gogol 1997: 224)

What Gogol’ develops is an opposition between the virtuous man and the confidence man, the trading man engaged in shady commercial transactions, which points to a long legacy of negative attitudes toward business in Russian culture.[11] Dostoevskii’s critique of modernity, however, does not limit itself to the morally inflationary consequences of allowing commerce to infiltrate culture. Instead, he directs his attention inward, to modernity’s very “fantastical” foundations, to the fashioning of public personae, the wearing of masks, the acquisition of status, and the effects of such “progress” on the inner life of one “not handsome, but also not bad looking, neither too fat nor too thin” individual (Gogol 1997: 3). His story is not that of the petty clerk crushed by the monolithic bureaucracy but of the everyman who tries to get by within it. The monumental struggle between the two Goliadkins, then, is mock heroic only in a historical sense, that is, when placed alongside what Bakhtin has called the “externalized” heroes of the ancient epic (Bakhtin 1981: 13-20). For the modern individual by contrast, Goliadkin’s inner struggle is, more often than not, the only kind of heroism available.

I am suggesting that Dostoevskii’s novel be understood in effect as something of a Psychomachia, or “struggle for the mind,” on Prudentius’ fourth-century model, just as Gogol’’s work, in its finished form, was to be something of a Divine Comedy. But, it should be noted, Gogol’’s book was to be an active, transformative Divine Comedy, which would mark the end of Russia’s Middle Ages and also propel the country into a new, moral and spiritual renaissance.[12] The question arises: how can a work of literature, or any work of art for that matter, manage to transform society if not by its imaginative potential? Here the great power of modern society re-enters each of these quintessentially modern works, pointing once again to the fundamental “ambiguity of attitude” that they share. Gogol’’s aborted attempt subsequently to transform his hero introduced in effect an open question into Russian nineteenth-century literary depiction: how could notions of self-interest—so important to the development of modern society in Western Europe—be appropriated by Russian society without its socially corrosive concomitants? In other words, how might a self-interested agent be depicted in the Russian context as a non-fragmented behavioral entity, socially valuable in a manner that re-directed the self-interested energies Gogol’ satirized so devastatingly? For Dostoevskii in The Double, the fantasy of the assignatsiia and the fantasy of the document exercise a transformative power equivalent to the fantasy of the literary work, as all represent the power to make ideas, collective consensual fantasies, into reality and create something out of nothing.[13] The effect of The Double on a reader attempting to locate the boundary between truth and fantasy is to point to what Slavoj Zizek has called the fantasy of “ontological consistency” (Zizek 1989: 68), the pervasive truth of ideological fantasy in the modern world, the “positive structuring of social reality by shared fantasy” (Mulcaire 1999: 1039). It is ironic that of all movements, realism, with its explicit truth claims and denigration of the imaginary, would make the greatest use of this fantastically transformative power of literature.

In the specific context of Russian literary history the task of depicting the whole man is of course bound up with the notion of the positive hero.[14] It was Chernyshevskii and his followers who would take up Gogol’’s question most forthrightly in subsequent years, namely in their attempts to create self-interested, yet virtuous heroes whose actions were directly beneficial to the whole of Russian society. Dostoevskii’s well-known opposition to such representations, while on one hand demonstrating the great chasm that separates his later political views from his early humanism, nevertheless stems from a similarly internalized look at the inevitable contradictions of modern personality.


[1]Goliadkin, states Dostoevskii, “goes mad out of ambition, while at the same time fully despising ambition and even suffering from the fact that he happens to suffer from such nonsense as ambition.” Frank 300.

[2]“Dreams are quite incapable of expressing the alternative either-or; it is their custom to take both members of this alternative into the same context, as though they had an equal right to be there. […] There is not really an alternative in the dream-thoughts, but an and­­­­––a simple addition.” Freud 267.

[3]The history of republicanism in West European thought is well documented in the works of Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and others in the Cambridge School of the history of political theory. This essay relies in particular on numerous underlying themes of modernity as formulated by Pocock 1975.

[4]“Trade, without doubt, is in its nature a pernicious thing; it brings in that wealth which introduces luxury; it gives rise to fraud and avarice, and extinguishes virtue and simplicity of manners; it depraves a people, and makes way for that corruption which never fails to end in slavery, foreign or domestic.” Davenant 1771: 275.

[5]See Mulcaire 1999 for a well-argued reformulation of the understanding of the role of public credit, especially in early eighteenth-century British society.

[6]Likewise, his concerns about Petrushka are invariably presented as fears of being “sold out” (prodan). See Dostoevskii 1972: 111, 188. All translations from this text are my own.

[7]On the advent of a “world of moving objects” and its questioning of the constitution of modern personality, see Pocock 1975: 464.

[8]This supremely charged trope is ubiquitous in nineteenth-century literary representation, from Schiller’s “Knight of Toggenburg” to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Turgenev’s A Nest of the Gentry, Henry James’ The American, and the list goes on. Dostoevskii began his first published work, Poor Folk, by invoking this image. He would toy with it on more than one occasion in subsequent works, not only in his pre-exile period. It is inverted, for instance, at the conclusion of Crime and Punishment, when Sonya looks up to the hospital window behind which Raskol’nikov is recuperating and understands that her life is now meaningful only as a reflection of his.

[9]Cf., for example, Bakthin 1963: 291-92; Vinogradov 1929: 261-67; and Terras 1969: 206-212.

[10]Hirschman sketches a brief history of “the Idea of Glory and its Downfall” in The Passions and the Interests, 9-12.

[11]I do not wish to claim that this is a trait unique to Russian culture. From Lazarillo de Tormes to Defoe’s Moll Flanders to Le Sage’s adaptations of Guzman de Alfarache and, especially, Gil Blas, one repeatedly witnesses the social and economic rises and falls of individuals through calculating, self-interested, and not always legal, commercial undertakings. However, retarded commercial development in Russia and its artificial freezing by the Soviets meant in practice a preservation and even popularization of certain aristocratic attitudes toward commercial enterprise—what Gogol’’s narrator refers to as that “which the world dubs as not quite clean”—and a shielding of the Russian populace from the dilemmas of modern commercial society. In the socialization of school-age Russians one finds even today a strong suspicion of self-interested motives and a tendency to denigrate the individual who puts “Ia” at the front of the alphabet, instead of where it belongs, at the end. Such suspicion may have passed through and been institutionalized by the Soviet period, but its roots in Russian culture are far deeper than the twentieth century.

[12]For a discussion of Gogol’’s literary models, particularly in relation to Dante, see Maguire 1994: 296-97; and Fanger 1979: 167-68.

[13]Certainly in this Gogolian phase and probably later as well, Dostoevskii believed that art could have such transformative power. The great responsibility such a stand conferred upon the artist, which clashed with the professionalization of literature taking place in this very period, tormented him throughout his creative life. Dostoevskii’s financial straits are well known, though the extent to which he might have unconsciously sabotaged his own financial well being, almost always in connection with his literary endeavors, can of course never be known for certain.

[14]The classic treatment of the expression of politically virtuous behavior in Russian literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remains Mathewson 1958. It generally steers clear of economic history, leaving issues of republican thought in the Russian context untouched.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1963. Problemy Poetiki Dostoevskogo, 2nd ed. Moscow.

–––––. 1981. “Epic and Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed., Holquist; tr., Holquist and Emerson. Austin.

Dostoevskii, F. M. 1972. Dvoinik. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh; 1. Leningrad.

Bayley, John. 1971. Pushkin: a Comparative Commentary. Cambridge, England.

Davenant, Charles. 1771. “An Essay Upon the Probable Methods of Making a People Gainers in the Balance of Trade,” The Political and Commercial Works. London.

Fanger, Donald. 1979. The Creation of Nikolai Gogol’. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frank, Joseph. 1976. Dostoevskii: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton.

Freud, Sigmund. 1955. “The Interpretation of Dreams,” tr. Brill. The Major Works of Sigmund Freud. Chicago.

Gogol, Nikolai. 1997. Dead Souls, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky. New York.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1997. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before its Triumph. Princeton.

Leighton, Lauren G. 1977. “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades’” in Canadian Slavonic Papers XIX. 4: 417-43.

Lotman, Jurij M. 1978. “Theme and Plot: The Theme of Cards and the Card Game in Russian Literature of the Nineteenth Century,” Poetics and Theory of Literature 3: 455-92.

Maguire, Robert A. 1994. Exploring Gogol. Stanford.

Mathewson, Rufus W. Jr. 1958. The Positive Hero in Russian Literature. New York.

Morson, Gary Saul. 1992. “Gogol’s Parables of Explanation: Nonsense and Prosaics. Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word, eds. Susanne Fusso and Priscilla Meyer, 200-239. Evanston.

Mulcaire, Terry. 1999. “Public Credit; or, the Feminization of Virtue in the Marketplace,” PMLA, (114) 5: 1029-1042.

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton.

Pushkin, Alexander. 1936. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories, tr. T. Keane. New York.

Terras, Victor. 1969. The Young Dostoevskii 1846-1849. The Hague.

Valentino, Russell Scott. 1998. “A Catalogue of Commercialism in Gogol’’s Dead Souls.” Slavic Review (57) 3: 543-562.

Vinogradov, V. V. 1929. Evolutsiia russkogo naturalizma. Leningrad.

Zizek, Slavoj. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London.


Deliver us

Just translated and adapted this from the Polish original, which was written by Adam Mickiewicz ca. 1830. It seems pretty appropriate for our time.
Almighty God! The children of a democratic nation raise their pretty damn-well armed hands to you from every quarter of the world (some of them just keep inexplicably exiting the country). They cry to you from great plains and snow-capped peaks, from rising waterways and sinking dessicate valleys. By the blood of our people fallen in battles for liberty and justice, deliver us O Lord!
From the profane little hands of fools, deliver us O Lord!
From the darkness of ignorant minds, deliver us O Lord!
From the superficial inanity of wealth without depth of character, deliver us O Lord!
From intolerance and hatred bred of xenophobic fear, deliver us O Lord!
From two-faced reactionary hypocrisy, deliver us O Lord!
From intemperate rhetorical ineptitude, deliver us O Lord!
From silly narcissitic speachifying, deliver us O Lord!
From sexist pus*-grabbing boasters, deliver us O Lord!
Such a visionary that A. M.!

Scaring Sparrows

There does not appear to be any English idiom “to scare sparrows,” which is in all the existing English translations that I have been able to have a look at & something that the U-man says he was doing as a government clerk in the very first section of Part I. I am still trying to figure out whether there was an idiomatic expression to that effect (as he puts it пугать воробьёв напрасно) in Russian 150 or so years ago. One Facebook friend suggested гонять голубей, but it seems not to be a metaphor and is merely what pigeon owners do when they let them fly and then direct their circling and swooping in formation, by means of whistling, hand waving, or some other form of signaling.

At first I was bothered by the “in vain” idea, but now I understand that as the opposite of chasing them away for a particular purpose, as in they are eating my garden so I need to frighten them. In this case, he was just doing it because he got some pleasure out of it and was consoling himself by means of it. I am just a tiny bit tempted by the idea of inserting a definite article before the word sparrows, which would give the entire passage a very different sense.

My friend Val Vinokur points out that in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has one of the boys throw rocks at sparrows at Iliusha’s funeral. I find the idea that the two passages might be distantly related by means of a species of bird, the sparrow no less, quite appealing.

The whole passage, trimmed a bit for clarity, goes

…сознавал в себе, что я … только воробьев пугаю напрасно и себя этим тешу.

Another Facebook friend did a yandex search (“because this is just so interesting”) and found not a set phrase but lots of entries for “как отпугнуть воробьев” (how to scare away sparrows). She also notes that “воробьиное пугало” translates as a scarecrow. This makes me wonder if maybe “scaring crows in vain” might not be a good option. It is definitely more concrete, and the tie-in to the scarecrow is rather nice. But crows are large and a bit scary, while sparrows are little and cute, even if they’re annoying when they’re devouring your blueberries.

My colleague Maria Shardakova, Director of Russian Language Instruction at Indiana University, hears in this expression echoes of a whole class of idioms:

Стрелять из пушек по воробьям = firing at sparrows with a cannon (overkill)
Старый воробей and, later in the 19th century, Стреляный воробей  = a rigid, uncompromising person and/or an experienced person, someone you can’t fool [Стреляного воробья на мякине не проведешь]

We’ve obviously stumbled onto a rich source of metaphorical expression, and Dostoevsky’s usage must be resonating within a larger aura of “the word,” as Bakhtin would later put it, except that here it is rather the bird.

It also occurs to me that we might have come to accept this scaring sparrows phrase at least in part because of the widespread availability of this work and the consistency with which translators have rendered this phrase, even if “I was just scaring sparrows in vain” is not immediately understandable in English and might even strike someone unfamiliar with the text as a rather odd notion. Perhaps this speaks to the power of translation in shaping the reception of a work along certain lines and with certain attitudes and ideas associated with it. I’ve toyed with chasing pigeons (the phrase I mean), and someone suggested cow tipping as an option, but while this last expression implicitly conveys petty maliciousness, it is far too deliberate and intricate to stand in for chasing little birds, which has something quite childish about it, an impression re-enforced by the next line in the text.

Here’s what I’ve decided to go with for now:

I was aware at every instant, and even at moments of the bitterest bile recognized inside me with shame, that I was not only not a malicious person, I wasn’t even an embittered one, and I was merely frightening sparrows to make myself feel better. I would be frothing at the mouth, but just bring me some kind of doll, give me a little tea with sugar, and I’d likely calm down.

Breathing and Stretching

I turned in the manuscript. I TURNED IN THE MANUSCRIPT!!! It clocked in at a bit over 400,000 words. I’m not sure what that will mean in terms of pages. Probably more than a thousand. This will depend on the editing process. But the main part is done.

I got a haircut on Saturday, and Ally asked me if I had done anything to celebrate. The question was natural but also a little unexpected. Well, no, nothing at all. Nor do I think any single thing–a dinner? a weekend vacation?–would adequately mark having completed the work. Turning it in feels good of course, but it doesn’t feel like the end at all. There’s editing and promotion work to do, the latter being the sort of thing that really never ends, and there are so many projects that have been simmering while this one was on the front burner. I am anxious to get back to them.

First up is breathing and stretching, which feels right at the moment. But while I breathe and stretch, I’m also thinking about the next two presentations I’ll be doing, in about a month at the annual AWP conference in Tampa, Florida. One panel is on word play in translation, and I’ll likely use examples from the just completed thing I worked on, for which examples are ready. The other is on the theme of translation and exile, and there I’m considering a brief exploration of the sort of self-othering, internal travel, ethno-linguistic exile from one’s “own” language that takes place when one translates, especially when one translates a lot, many short works, fewer long ones, or one big monster of a book. I suspect this is something that happens to people who learn to love a foreign culture and begin to feel estranged from their “own.” Non-translators must also know it, so figuring out what is specific to translation in this scenario will be a question to answer.

Playing with words is part of this, too, of course, so the two topics are likely to be connected in my presentations. I plan to practice them here in a few preparatory posts, so anyone who ends up being there may end up knowing what I will say before I actually say it. The AWP format does not really allow much room for expansion, and while the entire conference is focused on writing and writers, actually writing one’s comments and thoughts down and reading them to the audience is discouraged. Maybe this is ironic.

First, however, I’ll be trying to catch up on the many things I’ve let myself get behind on. And stretching and breathing of course. I invite you to join me.