Dostoevsky’s Provocateurs.

Lynn Patyk discussed her recent book Dostoevsky’s Provocateurs at Bloggers Karamazov (The Official Blog of The North American Dostoevsky Society), and I found her ideas new and worth sharing:

KB: You write that provocation is “the key artistic mechanism of Dostoevsky’s creation” (p. 9). Why is provocation such an important aspect of Dostoevsky’s work?

LP: I think Dostoevsky dreaded boredom and being boring, and as I just said, provocation is a key communicative tactic to avoid that. Dostoevsky avoided becoming an engineer (so as to avoid being boring) but I often think of him as engineering his fiction – his communicative/plot situations – to keep things moving. I often refer to provocation this way in my book, as the primum mobile, or perpetuum mobile, or the moving mover. It’s a key reason why Dostoevsky’s fiction is so breathless and dynamic. Provocation also hits the ball into the other’s court, with all the suspense and uncertainty that that entails. So every time there is a provocation, there is the breathless “what will the reaction be?” and this opens a space… which in fiction approximates the space of possibility and freedom, as if there is no author and all of the characters are autonomous agents reacting spontaneously and “in the moment.”

KB: What is ‘provocation’ in the Dostoevskian sense? Is all communication provocation to some degree? How does provocation tie into Dostoevsky’s broader philosophical project?

LP: A lot of communication has a provocative element to it, in that we communicate to elicit a response, and often a particular, desired response, from our interlocutor. I am not a scholar of communication, although all of my work (as a literary scholar and as a scholar of terrorism) is fundamentally about communication. Communication performs a lot of functions, and sometimes it provokes no response (think of Chekhov’s plays where no one responds to anyone!), nor is it intended to. I can only comment on Dostoevsky’s broader philosophical project in so far as I understand it (as it has been interpreted by the scholars upon whom I rely), but Dostoevsky’s fundamental aim of revealing the “man in man” in his own terms can only be accomplished by “getting that man to talk” – a lot. This is a complete paraphrase and simplication of what Bakhtin says, but I agree with him. So how, as an author, do you do that? And on another level, how do you engage a bystander’s interest and profound investment to the point where they might form an opinion, pass judgement, or even relate the proceedings to themselves? If you think about real life, we’re frequently bored or annoyed by other people’s conversations, no matter how engrossing those conversations are to them. We’re not interested; we just want them to shut up. So how does Dostoevsky rope us in and get us involved, too?

KB: How does labeling Nastasya Filippovna in The Idiot as a provocateur change the way we understand her as a character? Does female provocation differ from its male counterpart?

LP: Well, I was seriously annoyed by the way that a lot (not all) of the criticism treats (or doesn’t) Nastasya. She’s such a powerful character, with precocious feminist arguments, and she makes these arguments by provoking the self-exposure of characters who embody the patriarchal structures that have victimized not only the female characters, but the younger generation of males. She’s really in command of the narrative and pushing all of the characters’ buttons to the end. She orchestrates her demise and Rogozhin is her tool, as he is throughout the novel. For women, provocation is a highly risky business, and Dostoevsky is supremely aware of this, and he demonstrates that Nastasya is fully aware of the risks as well. This is because the ultimate purpose of adversarial provocation is to escalate the conflict until the eruption of violence, and we all know how women are positioned with regard to male violence in the world. Dostoevsky shows this to us multiple times throughout the novel, and he also shows Myshkin anticipating and attempting to intercept this violence (serve as a surrogate, a sacrifice). But when it comes down to it, Nastasya refuses Myshkin’s self-sacrifice (his marriage to her) because she views it as her destruction of him, and she won’t do that. There are male characters in Dostoevsky who will “sacrifice” others for their projects (I won’t name names), but Nastasya doesn’t do that, at least not directly.

When I reread The Idiot (which I wrote about here) I will bear her ideas in mind and probably come to a fairer appreciation.

Unrelated, but I can’t resist mentioning even though it’s not worth a post of its own: the Lithuanian verb mir̃ti ‘to die’ is used only for humans and bees.


  1. Interesting idea. Basically Lynn Patyk interprets надрыв (anguish?) as provocation. That is protagonists are not on the edge and ready to fly off the handle at any moment and often do, but engaged in some histrionics while being in relatively healthy mental state. Interesting.

  2. Yes, exactly. It’s hard for me to deal with Dost’s over-the-top melodrama, and this gives me a way in that makes sense to me.

  3. the Lithuanian verb mir̃ti ‘to die’ is used only for humans and bees.

    A Reddit thread (topic: “In Lithuanian, mirti is used for humans, pets and interestingly bees.”) with some remarks of interest from different commenters:

    In Lithuanian, mirti is used for humans, pets and interestingly bees.
    We use padvėsti and nugaišt for all other animals…
    However you can hear people using this word for other things too. Also, you can hear people using mirti for wild animals too more and more.

    I think it’s fine to use mirti for whatever is important to you. I hated when my grandma used to correct me that dogs dvesia (like wild animals), and not miršta (like people), especially when referring to my dog. But I guess me and her came from a different time.

    Also, there is this citation from the Lietuvių kalbos žodynas: Žvirblis čirškia žiemą: mirsiù, mirsiù ‘The sparrow chirps in winter: I will die, I will die’ (apparently collected from Adutiškis in Švenčionys District in eastern Lithuania; the regular intonation is mir̃siu, at least in standard Lithuanian.)

    But there is also this entry:

    atmir̃ti, atmi̇̀ršta, àtmirė (plg. rus. oтмepeть) intr. išmirti (apie bites): Pavasarį bitės àtmirė. Arm.

    atmir̃ti [infinitive], atmi̇̀ršta [present], àtmirė [past] (cf. Russian отмереть) intr. to die (of bees) In spring the bees died. Armoniškės, Belarus

    I gather that Armoniškės and its surroundings used to have a significant Lithuanian-speaking population.

  4. Very interesting, and it makes sense that the Younger Generation™ would extend the usage.

  5. you can hear people using mirti for wild animals too more and more.

    i wonder whether there’s a similar process with the death verbs in hasidic yiddish? traditionally, שטאַרבן / shtarbn is for humans and פּײגערן / peygern for animals (with the loshn-koydesh-origin construction ניפֿטר װערן / nifter vern for particularly righteous people). i would guess that either peygern has drifted out of use or that the distinction has remained as it historically stood, rather than a more systematic shift in the boundary, since hasidic communities generally don’t currently have close relationships to specific types of animals.

  6. Hebrew לְהִתְפַּגֵּר lehitpager, from פֶּגֶר peger ‘carcass’, something like ‘to carcassify’, is used disrespectfully for animals, and even more so for people, pretty much the way English carcass is not used for anyone or anything beloved.

  7. In Russian there are two basic verbs for death (and many more fancier ones, and a few decades before the Dead Parrot sketch) умереть and сдохнуть. The first one applies to people (unless you want to be very rude) and the second one to animals. But the exact semantic boundaries should be very hard to describe.

Speak Your Mind