Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Adolescent (1875)

The subjects of personal identity and group identity have surfaced in a couple of previous posts in this blog,  (see April 1, 2012,  December 10, 2011 and December 2, 2011 posts), and now personal identity resurfaces in Dostoevsky's The Adolescent.

The circumstances here underlying the search for personal identity are not remarkable:  Dostoevsky's protagonist and narrator, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, has two fathers, a biological father and an adoptive father.   The more unique circumstance is that neither of these "fathers" has played much of a role in his life through adolescence.  Arkady does not really know either father. The adoptive father is a wanderer across Russia who returns home to Arkady's mother once in awhile; the biological father, a nobleman who has squandered his wealth, who like others of his class during the second half of the 19th century seem to flit back and forth between Russia and other European countries, while  arranging for someone to take care of Arkady as he is growing up. Alternatively, Dostoevsky's protagonist is referred to by some as Arkady Andreevich (patronymic name derived from his biological father) and Arkady Makarovich (patronymic name derived from his adoptive father). From which father does Arkady derive his personal identity?  "How can you not feel your father's blood in you?" Arkady is asked at one point, suggesting a blood or genetic basis for identity.  Personal identity, as another posting on this blog has observed, is a matter of autobiographical memory, and is not always a matter of genetic identity.  (See April 8, 2011 and December 2, 2011 posts). 

This is Russia, between the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) who authorized landowners to free their serfs and Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918), the last of the Romanovs.  It is a period of great change in Russia, including the beginning of the industrial revolution and liberal reforms under Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881), including emancipation of the serfs.  The intellectual air in Russia at the time is full of "ideas," and Dostoevsky, I believe, more than any other Russian writer of his era, brings the exchange and conflict of ideas to dramatic life, not only in The Adolescent, but his more famous novels, Crime and Punishment, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov

As The Adolescent opens, Arkady, age 20, fresh from completing the equivalent of high school in Moscow, arrives in Petersburg with an "idea" in his mind.  He has developed the naive, if not "adolescent" idea that he can achieve a life of independence of mind and solitude, whereby he is liberated from a life that depends on others.  Moving into adulthood he has to be prepared to no longer be a dependent.  But solitude, he believes, requires"power."  And to achieve power, his idea is to become a "Rothschild."  He is therefore determined to work, earn and save, with "persistence and continuity" until he is financially independent and can control his own destiny. His family now resides in Petersburg, including his adoptive father, his biological father, his mother and sister, as well as coterie of friends of immediate family members.

Ideas have a way of not maturing to actualities, which certainly happens here. As the plot progresses our protagonist is unable to flee the mix of his adolescent friends, family and relatives, and friends of relatives.  Instead of a life of solitude, Arkady encounters an ocean of social interactions, social emotions and feelings (see November 21, 2012 post) and by the end of his narrative he admits that his "idea" is "no longer recognizable."  Instead of working to accumulate the wealth he believed he needed to pursue a solitary life, Arkady believes he must now work to support his mother and his sister.  Even "Rothschild's", as another posting in this blog describes, cannot live and succeed in solitude.  (See June 30, 2012 post).

Arkady's first discovery is that his biological father possesses a moral anchor.  Andrei Petrovich is embroiled in litigation over an inheritance.  After arriving in Petersburg, Arkady is presented with a document, which he is told contains information that is inconsistent with his biological father's claim to the inheritance.  Arkady is presented with his own moral crisis: should he deliver the document to his father? or should he deliver it to the other party to the litigation? or should he conceal it?  After all, there is a possibility that Andrei Petrovich's inheritance might trickle down to his mother and even Arkady.  Arkady is assured that the document has no decisive legal significance because his father would win his case even if the court knew of the contents of the document: the testamentary instrument (will) is clear; the document, on the other hand, contains only precatory language that expresses a hope or a wish and does not create an obligation or a command.  The document, then, presents "a matter of conscience."  Arkady agonizes over the correct course of action before finally deciding to place the document in his father's hands, who in turn, after the court has ruled in his favor, renounces his claim.  Arkady is a "dumbstruck, but delighted" about his father's noble choice.  Arkady repents his own "cynicism and indifference to virtue" in light of his father's example.  Comparing his father to the example of Joshua of Nazareth:  "this man was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found."

The Adolescent reaches a crescendo as Arkady (who is recalling and recording the events of his reunion with his fathers and others a year later) recalls a conservation with his biological father in which the latter imagines a life without God.  "A calm has come, and people are left alone, as they wished:  the great former idea [of god] has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them all then is departing, like the majestic inviting sun in Claude Lorrain's painting, but it already seemed like the last day of mankind.  And the people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy.  My dear boy, I've never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid.  The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly; they would hold hands, understanding that they alone were now everything for each other.  The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass.  They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formerly.  They would begin to observe and discover such phenomena and secrets in nature as they had never supposed before, because they would look at nature with new eyes, the  eyes with which a lover looks at his beloved. *** Every child would know and feel that each person on earth was like a father and mother to him."  If we stopped loving god, Andrei Petrovich suggests, we would naturally turn to loving each other and becoming more appreciative of nature  after experiencing only a brief period of orphancy.  Profound, but not implausible given what we know about the origins of morality and conscience.  (See November 21, 2012 post). But it may leave one to wonder:  who is the adolescent, the son or the father? And then Andrei Petrovich explains, "this is all a fantasy, even quite an incredible one; but I have imagined it only too often, because all my life I've been unable to live without it and not think of it.  I'm not talking about my faith:  I have no great faith, I'm a deist, a philosophical deist, like all the thousand of us."  Arkady realizes his father's love more mankind is genuine ("the falseness I had feared wasn't there") and he realizes that his father is extremely comfortable with himself --- happy.  "I wouldn't exchange my yearning [for brotherhood among mankind] for any other happiness," his father confesses.  "In this sense, I've always been happy, all my life.  And out of happiness I came to love your mama then for the first time in my life." 

There is more to this novel than what I have focused on, and what I have focused on prefigures themes that later appear in Dostoevsky's final novel, The Brother's Karamazov.  As a first-person narrative written as young Arkady's "notes" of events that occurred only several months earlier, the notes have the character of autobiographical memory that lies at the core of extended consciousness and the autobiographical self.  (See April 8, 2011 post). 

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