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  • The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky's Spiritual Art, and: Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fiction
  • Dale E. Peterson
George A. Panichas. The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky's Spiritual Art. Chicago: Gateway1985. 216 pp. pb. $8.95.
Vladimir E. Alexandrov. Andrei Bely: The Major Symbolist Fiction. Russian Research Center Studies 83. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985. 221 pp. $22.50.

"The furthest frenzies of French modernism," D. H. Lawrence announced in 1924, "have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness" expressed in the Russian prose tradition. Each of these studies seeks, in a different manner, to do justice to that critical dilemma. Although the novelistic craft as practiced by Dostoevsky and Bely has of late been merged with the enterprise of literary theory to yield critical commodities such as "the dialogical novel" or, indeed, "symbolist fiction," the reader's encounter with the primary texts still produces a shock to cognition that is all too easily glossed by acts of systematic commentary. It is then a promising change when criticism about the foremost Russian proponents of a literature of revelation acknowledges the raw truth that the texts are themselves deliberate reconstructions of worldly values and perceptions. The novels of Dostoevsky and Bely enact and embody a metaphysical process; the verbal sequence has visionary consequence.

There are dangers as well as opportunities for a criticism that openly addresses this literature of extreme consciousness. The effort to arrive at a critical placement of the novelist's vision can deflect a scholar's attention from the literary power of the narrative's alteration of consciousness. It is always tempting to substitute a gloss for the text's polished grace. Despite large temperamental and intellectual differences, both Panichas and Alexandrov quite regularly lapse from their respect for transformative texts in order to chase after a far less substantial presence—an extratextual spirit of the author—that is outside the literary transaction altogether.

The Burden of Vision carries, by the author's own admission, the weight and gravity of a critic's conscience after twenty years of active meditation on novels that are seen to bear (and bare) testimentary power. George Panichas makes no secret of writing from an embattled position. In an impassioned Critical Note that concludes his reverent appreciation of Dostoevsky's "spiritual art," he assails, with the polemical intensity of his mentor, a secular critical establishment that largely evades or brackets the indisputable metaphysical and prophetic dimension of Dostoevsky's expressed world. To the extent that a scandalous discretion has marked academic modernizations of Dostoevsky as a master psychologist, it is difficult not to sympathize with a religious counterreformation in Dostoevsky studies. But it is also instructive to look closely at what Panichas has in view when he examines the meaning of Dostoevsky's spiritual art.

Meditative criticism is an act of contemplation that enables, in this case, "the faculty of divination" to perceive "in their integral continuity and totality" Dostoevsky's greatest novels as a sequential prophecy on "man's human and superhuman destiny." Thus, Panichas reads the last five novels as a Pentateuch, as a [End Page 329] metahistorical narrative whose "megaplot" is revealed in the bold tides that preface each chapter: SCHISM, TERROR, SATANISM, PURGATION, SAINTLINESS. By such a reading, Dostoevsky's consciousness can be implicated in a secure theophany, with the author himself read typologically as a Christian refiguration of Isaiah's prophetic vision. It is also worth noting that this mode of contemplation has the effect of adumbrating dirough novelistic story a Christian metaphysics "that is biblical but not ecclesiological." Though the local color of the theological vision may be Russian Orthodox, Dostoevsky's narrative path toward redemption and his figures of sanctity are regarded as manifestations of a spiritual rather than a doctrinal religiosity. It is then the angle of the critic's vision that constitutes the contemplated object as a univocal, virtually culture-free rendition of the prophetic history of Christian salvation. Surely some readers may be forgiven if they regret the absence of a dialogical and a cultural component to what Panichas acknowledges as Dostoevsky's spiritual art.

In the challenging case of Andrei Bely, whose artistry was a collateral embodiment of esoteric doctrines...


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