Saturday, July 01, 2006

Svidrigailov Circa 1977

Philip K. Dick must've been thinking about Dostoyevsky when he wrote this exquisite image:

"Her heart, Bob Arctor reflected, was an empty kitchen: floor tile and water pipes and a drainboard with pale scrubbed surfaces, and one abandoned glass on the edge of the sink that nobody cared about."
It comes from his 1977 book, A Scanner Darkly -- the entire text of which, incidentally, you can find online (no doubt illegally), though I ran across the quote on page 94 of the 1991 Vintage edition.

Now compare it to Svidrigailov's chilling vision of the afterlife in Crime in Punishment:
"Eternity [says Svidrigailov to Raskolnikov] is always presented to us as an idea which it is impossible to grasp, something enormous, enormous! But why should it necessarily be enormous? Imagine, instead, that it will be one little room, something like a bath-house in the country, black with soot, with spiders in every corner, and that that is the whole of eternity. I sometimes imagine it like that, you know."

--Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Jessie Coulson, (W. W. Norton & Co., (c) 1975), pp. 244-245. (Compare to the Constance Garnett translation.)

True, Dostoevsky and Dick are talking about different things -- the fate of the soul in the afterlife vs. the state of a particular person's soul in this one. But one has to allow for this, I think, since their different concerns exemplify the historical trajectory of literature's concerns in miniature. What both images have in common is an absolute terror of the mundane; the echo is remarkable. (I always thought Svidrigailov had it about right -- another instance, as in Milton, where the bad guy [Satan, the nihilist Svidrigailov] is so pungent and interesting that the good guys can't compete.)

Don't bother with reading Scanner, by the way. It's flabby and meandering, much like conversation with an addict, Dick announcing his insights into drug culture and the blurred roles of dopers and cops solemnly, without the surprising veer of his usual narratives. I much prefer Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle, and Dr. Bloodmoney (which really has nothing at all to do with Dr. Strangelove, except the title). Even his slighter novels usually have an element of surprise, a spark missing from Scanner's leaden, misogynistic narrative. I've just shared with you its brightest moment; now go and read something else.

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