Mask and Icon in Dostoevskij's Aesthetics

Shanti Elliott, Northwestern University

"The uttered word is silver, but the unuttered word is gold"--Russian folk proverb

The magic of the unuttered word figures as a particularly potent aesthetic ideal for Dostoevskij. He chants the above folk proverb periodically and emphatically when addressing the development of Russian art and literature throughout Diary of a Writer and in letters. He tries to guide Russia's artists away from the current tendency to "utter" through their painting; he argues for the truly unuttered and unfettered word. He urges artists to avoid the pedantry of "labelling" their work with a certain "liberal purpose," and to present the subject with "humble innocence." His repeated references to "the unuttered word" in regard to painting indicate that he is not priveleging visual representation over verbal, but that he is talking about a "word" that is both verbal and visual, and that needs protection from expression. In this paper I will argue that Dostoevskij tries to convey an "unuttered word" by transposing iconic philosophy into narrative structures, following the example of Russian folktales.

Dostoevskij invests the image with maximal ethical and aesthetic weight. Praising the people as the preservers of the image of Christ, he expresses intense hostility toward those who do not preserve but deform. Since, as it has been frequently observed, Dostoevskij often articulates his strongest ideological and aesthetic convictions in polemical form, I will approach his iconic aesthetics by way of a polemic involving narrative, iconic vision, and the Russian folk, all interlinked and very dear subjects for the writer.

The premises of Dostoevskij's iconic aesthetics surface particularly clearly in his argument with Leskov over the people's faith, stemming from Leskov's representation of icon veneration in "The Sealed Angel." There emerges from this polemic an axiology of the face, rooted in folk religious values, that imprints Dostoevskij's unique philosophy of the novel. The titles under which Dostoevskij consolidates his mounting hostility to Leskov, "A Troubled Look," and "An Impersonator," reflect Dostoevskij's preoccupation with the problem of the distorted face.

Though his dispute with Leskov erupts over an icon, Dostoevskij never steps into theological or moral territory in his argument; he argues from an exclusively aesthetic position. The icon stands for a way of seeing things and acting and remains remarkably unfixed in function. The principle that justifies its veneration by the Orthodox is its likeness to its subject (poxozh--related to the saint's designation as "podobnyj"--a description and a performative all rolled up into one: the icon is like the saint, the saint is like god, be like the saint), a designation that leaves its boundaries rather loose and expansive while remaining aesthetically managed by tradition. The contrast between Dostoevskij's and Leskov's approaches to the icon gives access to the aesthetic makeup of the tradition that allows the folk to "preserve the image of Christ" in a way that the official Orthodox church, as represented by Leskov's bishop, does not.

My paper will conclude with a discussion of how Dostoevskij applies his iconic aesthetics to his own narrative. By examining icons, and their use of inverse perspective, alongside the realist paintings he calls "uttered words," we can see how Dostoevskij's narrative creates a symmetry of faces to suggest an alternate order of time, events, and morality.