Diary of a Tweeter: On Golyadkin, Raskolnikov, and the Search for Empathy

by Brian Armstrong


Brian Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augusta University. He works on the intersection of philosophy and literature, and his current project focuses on the philosophical implications of Dostoevsky’s fiction. He masterminded @YakovGolyadkin last fall during#TheDoubleEvent. You can find him on Twitter under the handle @wittstrong.

As I begin to write this post about @RodionTweets, I realize that the details of the origin of the project are a bit murky. It emerged from one of many brainstorming sessions that Katia Bowers and I had at the start of the Fall 2015 semester for social and digital media projects for The North American Dostoevsky Society. We were interested in creating an event related to Richard Ayoade’sThe Double, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1846 novel of the same name. We were planning a simultaneous viewing on multiple campuses, and Twitter would play a key role in promoting the event and enabling viewers to communicate during it. Our brainstorming also kept looking ahead to#CP150 and the idea of tweeting Crime and Punishment arose. I’d always been interested in what the novel would’ve looked like if Dostoevsky had stuck to his original idea of writing it from the first-person and tweeting the novel might give us some sense of that. We decided that tweeting The Double would be a good test run: it’s much shorter and almost entirely centered on its central character, Yakov Golyadkin. Katia, her RA Kristina McGuirk, and I set it up so that the tweeting ran for four days in November – as in the novel – and then, on the fifth day, the film viewing took place, with Yakov tweeting from his own account.

The project was valuable for many reasons. Firstly, it promoted awareness of Dostoevsky and of the Society (which exists to further study of Dostoevsky). From a scholarly perspective, the extremely careful reading that the process required gave rise to new insights on the work. Sarah Young noted this in her earlier post: “The result of that process, for me, has been closer readings than I have ever done before, and these have revealed all sorts of details that I have never previously noticed.” I certainly found this to be the case with The Double, too. I would imagine that some of my insights are not new – they’ve been noted somewhere in the vast secondary literature – but that doesn’t make them less important for the individual reader, whether a student or scholar. I’m also still sorting out to what extent any of the insights are connected to the use of Twitter as a hermeneutic tool: the act of converting a fictional voice into Twitter clearly seems to shed a unique light on the original text, but how does it do that?

One of the things that especially struck me with respect to tweeting The Double was a certain lightness and vivacity in Yakov that I’d always missed before. He seemed wittier, more earnest – more like he saw himself and like he maybe was (granting that he really isn’t at all but is, rather, a literary construct). I have my own theory of why this is, and it’s twofold. First, it seems to me that Yakov was struggling with the reality of trying to move up in a meritocratic world that wasn’t really, it turned out, so meritocratic (a struggle that makes him a bit more relatable for the modern reader than his slide into dementia). Second, the narrator, who is not Yakov but like another double, is always there watching over his shoulder, observing and commenting and making inferences about what Yakov is feeing, but is not entirely empathetic. Thus, in stripping away the narrator, a greater possibility for empathy opens up. If this is so, I’m not entirely sure yet why it is so, although I suspect that it’s because of how the narrator navigates his presentation of Yakov with his presentation of others, who seem to judge Yakov. The narrative voice also leaves us in a state of intense epistemological uncertainty, so that we end up suspicious of Yakov. Once that suspicion is gone, we can more authentically draw nigh.

In order to see how things would compare in the case of Rodion and Crime and Punishment, I wanted to keep things the same. This meant that I, um, broke one of the @RodionTweets rules: as Sarah noted in her post, “the general consensus […] was that he probably wouldn’t tweet during conversations, but would give his thoughts on them after the event.” But is not the first rule of @RodionTweets Club that one must #stepover the rules? In any case, I did assume that Rodion tweeted during conversations, as this was what we did with Yakov. It seemed to make sense for Yakov; who knows what’s really happening with him, right? And one can imagine the seemingly socially awkward Yakov tweeting as he talks (or tweeting talks that are not actually happening). But with CP, things are different. The narrative voice is not fully centered on Rodion – and this was very much by design for Dostoevsky. We might well ask what purpose those strategic shifts from Rodion have. And, ideally, Twitter should help us to answer that question. I believe that it was Gary Rosenshield who first began tackling this question back in the 1970s; perhaps we can meaningfully extend his insights with this new tool.

Higher Twitter Realism

In order to justify my approach a bit more fully, I gave it a name: “higher twitter realism,” intended to echo Dostoevsky’s claim that his own writing is a form of “higher realism.” Whether or not it’s at all an appropriate label, I nonetheless operated with the assumption that Rodion’s tweeting was like an extension of his thoughts, including his perceptions of what others are saying. Could he possibly tweet things discretely as he’s talking to another person? I would assume not. But “live tweeting” these conversations did serve the purpose of providing a faithful version of the narrative that’s stripped of a narrative voice, including a third-person account of what others are doing and saying.

Part IV seems like an appropriate Part for this. Sarah Young’s note on Part IV in her Mapping St. Petersburg shows why: “An even greater contraction is evident here. The entire part consists of conversations and interviews, and there is notably no reference, beyond stating that movement between one building and another took place, to anything happening en route. Even though one of the interviews is located in a public office, the police station, Petersburg as a public city and a landscape seems to have all but disappeared here.” Thus, we find that, although Raskolnikov is moving about the city, one would hardly realize it: we’re almost always in the midst of conversations. And, interestingly, Rodion’s failure to register the city around him was not because, as we see at other times, he’s lost in thought; rather, it’s because he’s almost always talking to someone in Part IV: Svidrigailov, Razumikhin, his family, Sonya, and then Luzhin. It’s an intensely discursive section of the novel, and the key players in his transformation are all there.

So what results? A few things stand out for me at present. First, Rodion seems more unmoored, more locked in his own head. This seems especially the case in the final two chapters of Part IV. Granted, this is likely the effect of having Rodion tweet not just his own thoughts but also what others are saying. At times, and especially at first, I tried to have him demarcate his thoughts from his speech and his speech from the speech of others by having him tweet “I said x” or “S/he said x.” But this grew tiresome, and it seemed to me, as I moved along, that there’d be no real need from him to make these distinctions: whether he said it or thought it, or whether he or another said it, would be less important that the thoughts – the propositions expressed or those that he can infer (and often does) from what’s expressed. (He’s highly inferential.) The result is that, at times, one might not be able to tell in the Twitter feed what is said versus thought, or what is uttered by him versus uttered by another like Svidrigailov or Porfiry.

This leads to the second point, one that I didn’t really think about until, a few days after finishing my portion of the project, I heard Dr. Carol Apollonio’s keynote at theJune 2016 International Dostoevsky Symposium. She raised the question of the ontological status of the other characters, asking: granted that the text is words and not real, why do we attribute the ontolgocial status to aspects of the text as we do? Carol noted that Raskolnikov slips invisibly about while inside his head but surrounded by others, and we, as readers, enter this suspended state. Transposing Raskolnikov’s voice into Twitter, I think, heightens our awareness of this state. Carol also asked us how, for instance, we really know that Rodion really overheard a student and an officer in a tavern. In The Double, it would have been much more clear that the ontological status of the event should be questioned by the reader; Twitter brings out this ontological tension that Carol notes. Carol noted that deciding what is actually happening in “interpretation in the indicative mode,” and she urged us to remain in the uncertainty as we engage in our interpretive activity.

Extending Carol’s insight raises new questions. How do we know that the conversation in Porfiry’s office happens just as the narrator reports? Why do we not question whether it’s all in R’s head? Stripped of any certainty that Porfiry’s there, it seems like it really could be an internal debate of the sort that plagues Rodion. He arrives at the station and no one notices him; we watch as his thoughts and feeling shift, until suddenly he decides that he’s ready to face Porfiry. The next two sentences might make an uncertain reader suspicious: “At that very moment he was called in to see Porfiry Petrovich. Porfiry Petrovich, it turned out, was alone [был у себя в кабинете один]” (310). This emphasis on the ‘lone’ drives the next two chapters (and I’d never noticed how frequently words with the root одн- [one, lone] occur in Part IV, Chapter 5 alone).

While I’m inclined to think that, within the fictive reality of the novel, the conversation really did take place, it’s certainly interesting to wonder if the reason people look at him differently after he leaves the office is that he just entered an empty office, freaked out, and is now leaving.

But now we have another question: What in particular gives Porfiry ontological weight beyond just being another voice woven dialogically into Rodion’s thought? I think that that’s an actual question that Dostoevsky sought to raise, and – to offer another suspicion – I suspect that it’s part of what he’s after in his move toward wider-ranging POVs in his novel. It’s as if, having worked to build the tools by which to more fully articulate the consciousness of another person, he now needs to give weight back to the realities outside the consciousness of those individuals.

It also seems to me that Rodion in Twitter form would draw less empathy than Yakov in Twitter form. So where did the empathy go? It’s almost as if it left with those others who are cut out of Twitter – with those “real” people who seem to truly value Rodion, to see something good in him, to fight for him. If we are left only inside Rodion’s head, we can loose sight of that – of a potential and value in Rodion that Rodion himself can’t quite see. As Kate Holland put it in her post on Part III, “We are trapped instead in Raskolnikov’s monomania. While we trace the vacillations of his self-deception and self-revelation, those psychological developments are never embedded into a broader moral or social context.” If I combine my question with Kate’s observation, a possible inference is that the reality that is left out of an exclusive focus on Rodion’s consciousness is the one to which others seek to open him and is this source of their empathy for him: the moral, which, for Dostoevsky, is also real.

This is part 4 of a series of posts on the experience of creating @RodionTweets. You can follow the Twitter account here. The introduction to the series is here. Click here to read Part 3, and here to go on to Part 5. More information about the #CP150 project can be found here.

 

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