Problems of Dostoevskij’s Prosaics: Paradoxes of Process

Several of Dostoevskij’s novels pose a challenge to all traditional poetics because they were written according to norms radically at odds with them. Faced with works like The Idiot, A Writer’s Diary, and perhaps The Possessed, critics are faced with the choice of either acknowledging the works as failures or of discovering overly ingenious methods to show that, in fact, everything does fit into a coherent structure after all. But Dostoevskij himself indicates some of the key ideas for a different poetics—one that dispenses with structure and its concomitant, a unified design, and proceeds processually, by a set of shifting and developing designs. As it happens, Dostoevskij saw that the presumptions about time, causality, and free will built into a traditional novelistic structure were radically at odds with the views he wished to exemplify. And so, for him, the creation of a prosaics of process was not only literary but also philosophical and theological.

The Idiot is by no means the only major work in world literature to demand such a prosaics. Works of this sort are a distinct minority, but they include true masterpieces: War and Peace and Anna Karenina; Tristram Shandy, Don Juan, and Eugene Onegin; and a work that influenced both Sterne and Byron, Samuel Butler’s Hudibras. Thus the project of understanding Dostoevskij’s prosaics of process has broader theoretical ramifications.

Baxtin’s idea of polyphony moves in the direction of a process poetics, but he ultimately failed to develop it. One sign that the idea of the polyphonic novel went wrong is the claim that Dostoevskij invented this type of work. Still more important, he tended to read all of Dostoevskij’s works as polyphonic, whereas it is clear that, although there are polyphonic and processual elements in Karamazov, the work is predominantly structural. Whereas other critics, with nothing but poetics at their disposal, read out the processual element in The Idiot, Baxtin commits the opposite error by denying the predominance of structure where it is present. Not every Dostoevskij novel resembles The Idiot, just as not all historical novels resemble War and Peace. Dostoevskij can help us to develop an understanding of questions simultaneously literary, philosophical, and theological which will, I hope, lead us out of several theoretical morasses in which we find ourselves.