Tuesday, November 26, 2002

schatz a lotsa maza

Still don't have a disc to save my papers on, so here is the really silly Russian fiction one I just wrote in two hours and will turn in about half an hour.

The Eavesdropper and the Role of the Reader in Crime and Punishment

With our ear to the door of Dostoevsky’s text, listening intently, and for purposes that perhaps need to be further examined, further admitted to, we, the collective audience, the readers of this text, of Crime and Punishment, we listen to Raskolinov’s tale just like Svidrigaylov on the other side of that door, and just like the furrier listening from the closet in the police station. The placement of these two eavesdropping scenes within the text is done to comment on our own role, that of the reader, in this text, and how similar our role is to that of the other two eavesdroppers, deprived of visuals, and relying mainly on language to hear Raskolnikov’s tale. Both instances of eavesdropping that occur seem to stem from non-benign intentions, and so if we are to take these scenes as a broader commentary imploring the critical questioning of our own role in eavesdropping, of our own role in the reading of a text, which this paper is going to assume and read these scenes as commentary of, then what are our intentions, how are they distinct from the other two eavesdroppers, if even at all? This paper is going to look at two eavesdropping scenes within this novel to attempt to answer this question, and will argue that the answer is not anything black and white – that just like other issues in Dostoevsky’s text, the conception of the reader’s role in a text - of the eavesdropper - is a murky one. This paper will also take a look at the occasional instances of an entre nous technique, of saying “we” within the text (to refer to himself and the audience), and how, by doing this, Dostoevsky grants the reader a more active role in the text, which complicates a reading of the eavesdropping scenes that would merely argue that the reader is assigned a negative role, that of merely an eavesdropper. This paper will argue that things are never that black and white in Dostoevsky – that they are always a little gray – and the role that the reader has in the reading of a text is that of a person with their ear to the door, but that that is not always a bad thing, not at all.

When Sonya and Raskolnikov are talking in Sonya’s apartment, having what they (and the reader!) thought was a private, unobserved moment between them, at the end of the scene, we, the readers find out that Svidrigaylov was listening the whole time, and as a result we become aware that we were too, that we are, that our role is not all that clearly defined from Svidrigaylov’s.

Beyond the door on the right, which shut off her room from Gertrude Karlovna Resslich’s flat, was another room, which had long been empty ... Sonya had long been accustomed to thinking of the room as unoccupied. But all through that interview, behind the door of the empty room, Mr. Svidrigaylov had been concealed, standing and listening. When Raskolnikov went out, he stood there for a moment longer, thinking, then tiptoed into his own room next door, got a chair, and carried it close to the door leading into Sonya’s room. The conversation had seemed to him interesting and important, and he had greatly enjoyed it – enjoyed it so much that he had brought the chair so that in future, the next day, for example, he should not be subjected again to the unpleasantness of standing on his feet for a whole hour, but be more comfortably placed and thus enjoy complete satisfaction in every respect. (279-280)

This is the window shot in a noir film right here that would remind the audience of their own voyeuristic gazing upon this product, a meta-commentary on the audience’s own role in watching a film. Here, we have something that produces a very similar effect, where we have a closeted listener to a scene - a listener that we do not find out about until the end of the scene, until the conversation has finished, allowing for the reader to read the scene once through normally as a conversation between two characters, but then ending it with a punch that makes the reader rethink the previous scene with the new information that the two were being listened to the whole time. And then there is the realization that we were also listening in the whole time, that we are Svidrigaylov in this scene.

Dostoevsky pokes fun at the passive listener/reader here by having Svidrigaylov move a chair close to the door so that “he should not be subjected again to the unpleasantness of standing on his feet for a whole hour.” Which, clearly, is a jab at the reader, at us, for making ourselves to comfortable in our readings, as if the act of reading should be a passive one. Instead, it should be a positive, active act. Svidrigaylov not only is a passive listener but he also then uses the information for his own purposes as something to hold over Raskolnikov, using information secretly obtained as a power leverage. This right here is what should distinguish our reading of this scene from Svidrigaylov’s listening to it – that we should take this information and use it in a positive fashion, not for the voyeuristic thrill that Svidrigaylov gets from it. We must find our kicks elsewhere in the reading of a text, by engaging in a dialogue with it, making it an active reading.

And Dostoevsky invites us to do that, absorbs us into his narrative voice in a couple of instances, saying either “us” or “we,” making the narration entre nous, where we are in on the joke, on the side of Dostoevsky, helping to narrate the story. The democratic “we” allows for the reader’s active participation with the text. When Rasolnikov decides for sure to murder the pawnbroker, Dostoevsky absorbs us into the narrative voice as a way of explaining why no explanation was needed for how Raskolnikov came to view this course of action as “rational.” “We omit the course of reasoning by which he arrived at this latter verdict, since we have already run too far ahead ... We shall only add that the practical, material difficulties played only a very secondary role in his thinking,” (61). The act of reading we - its verbalization by the reader - has the effect of including the reader in that we, makes the reader active in the text, makes the reader’s role distinct from that of the eavesdropper.

The appearance of an eavesdropper and the narrative importance with which this text grants these appearances should signal to us that these scenes are significant, and especially significant with regards to meta-commentary about the act of reading a text. Not only does Raskolnikov have Svidrigaylov listening in on him, but later in the novel, he also has the furrier listening in on him too, which just serves to further the point that everyone is listening in on Raskolnikov for their own clandestine purposes, and that we are not excluded from that, that we are listening to. The multitude of eavesdroppers on Raskolnikov gives the effect that many people are listening in on him, that he is a story, and thus, our own role in the reading of the text is identified by Dostoevsky, is called up for a critical examination. We are, essentially, Porfiry’s surprise waiting in the closet.

‘But don’t you want to see my little surprise?’ chuckled Porfiry, seizing his arm again and stopping him by the door. He seemed to be growing ever more high-spirited and playful, and this made Raskolnikov finally lose control.
‘What little surprise? What is this?’ he asked, stopping short and looking at Porfiry with terror.
‘Just a little surprise. Here it is, just behind the door, he, he ,he!’ (He pointed his finger at the closed door in the partition, which led into his living quarters.) ‘I locked it in so that it shouldn’t run away.’
‘What is it? Where? What?’ Raskolnikov went to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked.
‘It is locked. Here is the key!’
And he showed him the key, which he had taken from his pocket. (295)

Waiting inside that closet that Porfiry is pointing his finger at, locked in, is the furrier who went to the police to turn in Raskolnikov, but also us. We, too, are locked in that closet. As readers, we are also privileged to eavesdrop on this story, and in fact, do so, and are right there in that closet, just as guilty of eavesdropping as the furrier. Here, in this scene, with the closeted furrier, we have a listener that is more active, not nearly as passive as Svidrigaylov. The furrier is on the verge of actually entering into the scene, into the conversation, and is about to accuse Raskolnikov of murder, but he is prevented by someone else coming to confess the murder right at that time, and has to remain a passive observer.

While observing the scene, witnessing Raskolnikov’s refusal to admit guilt and then the painter’s admittance of guilt, the furrier assumes that he has made a mistake in his thoughts – that Raskolnikov is innocent and he later goes to apologize. Here, our listening is made distinct from that of the eavesdropper. We know that everything someone says is not always the truth, and we know that Raskolnikov is the murder, while the furrier, who listened to the information that he was presented with, that he was privy to hear – he assumed from this that Raskolnikov was innocent. And here some dangers are shown with reading/listening – that you only know so much as you are told, sometimes the reader (the furrier) does not get the whole story, or just gets half of the story, or gets the completely wrong story – and that is a dangerous situation – that you (the reader) need to hear as many voices and as many conflicting truths as possible to find out what is really going on, to maybe even reach some truths of your own. And we, as readers of this text, are privileged in that regard because we have Bakhtin’s polyglot fully realized here – this novel is an actively dialogic one with many different voices speaking within the novel. We are not merely eavesdroppers on Rasolnikov, we are instead, eavesdroppers on everyone, on St. Petersburg, on life maybe – and that, the ability to hear many different voices and sides, is a thoroughly benign thing.

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