Creative Memory and the Goal of Art: The Link between Recollection and Literary Activity in Dostoevskij’s Diary of a Writer

The literary-artistic process is a fundamental element in Dostoevskij’s oeuvre. As Gary Saul Morson explains, much of his work is metaliterary; in Diary of a Writer, for example, Dostoevskij compels his reader to experience the need for form and the quest to tell a coherent story. Joining narrator and reader in this diligent, experiential study of art— its value and potential, rewards and responsibilities— are his dramatis personae. Critics tend to disagree on precisely what role literary activity plays in the hero’s life; Diana Lewis Burgin perceives it as an escape from reality, while Robin Feuer Miller and Robert Belknap see reading and writing as inherent to, even coincident with, the existence and coexistence of consciousnesses. They seem to agree nonetheless that the way in which the Underground Man, Raskol′nikov, Ivan Karamazov, and myriad others generate and apprehend their own and others’ texts both shapes and reflects the development of their identity and their relationships with others.

Whether focused on understanding the past or oriented toward divining or crafting the future, literary activity is nothing without memory. If readers and writers were unable to retain and contemplate experiences, their words and texts would lose the power to mean, and existence would become thoroughly senseless. In his assessment of “Peasant Marej,” Robert Louis Jackson argues that the recollection of prior experiences transforms the narrator/hero’s perspective and sparks his spiritual, artistic journey toward truth and toward the desired universality, in which the “I” merges with “all.” While Jackson conceives of memory as the source of art, Belknap views memory as its goal. In his study of The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from the Underground, Belknap links memory with art and with the crucial concept of immortality. Citing the famous exchange between d’Alembert and Diderot, he asserts that memory is indispensable to the consciousness and existence of the self. In the quest for immortality, Dostoevskij’s heroes are obligated to utter their own word by rendering a kind of autobiography. Only thus may they join society and live on forever in the memory of others. Echoing Jackson and even Rousseau, Miller assesses Myškin and the Underground Man and explains that, for Dostoevskij, it is only through the articulation and apprehension of words and texts that they can perform the vital work of recognizing, exploring, and embracing their own and others’ heterogeneity; conveying goodness throughout the world; and achieving the “straightforward communication” between self and other of the future utopia.

The scholarly dialogue on the goals and processes of art— and memory’s role therein— prompts as many questions as it answers. How does memory function in the utopian universality described by Jackson and Miller? Does the death of memory necessarily follow if the “I” merges with “all” in a relationship which requires no mediation? Are self and other thus forgotten, drowned in a sea of eternal homogeneity? If all consciousnesses were to merge into one, would there be any need, or anything, to remember? Is the end result of all this fervid recollection a terminal forgetting? While Belknap’s view of eternal memory as both the way and the destination of art appears to contrast with that of Jackson and Miller, it raises questions as well. Is memory, or recollection, synonymous with, or something different from, literary art itself? What, if any, difference is there between memory and recollection? If we must render an account of the self to secure perpetual memory, and we must remember in order to generate such an account, are not art and memory locked in a cycle, simultaneously inescapable and impenetrable, with no resolution in sight?

Operating from a Baxtinian understanding of the processes of reading and writing and their relevance to the development of identity and relationships, I propose to assess the significance of memory to the goals and processes of literary activity through an evaluation of the “fictive” works in Diary of a Writer, particularly “Gentle Creature,” “Peasant Marei,” and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” I hypothesize that a way out of this apparent “vicious cycle” of memory and art may lie in the skillfully executed creative cooperation between self and other in the quest for truth and understanding. Alternatively, this productive relationship, while meaningful, may prove insufficient without a faith in the divine. Only by studying these issues carefully can we gain a better appreciation of the powers and limitations of art and memory.