The House of the Dead (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Posted: October 16, 2017 in fiction
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house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

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