Theses Doctoral

Visual Polyphony: The Role of Vision in Dostoevsky's Poetics

Ossorgin VIII, Michael Mikhailovitch

For Fyodor Dostoevsky, ways of seeing reflect ways of thinking about the world. This dissertation complements Mikhail Bakhtin’s analyses of Dostoevsky’s poetics by taking a visual-aesthetic approach and exploring “visual polyphony,” a concept that Bakhtin used but did not develop at length. When Dostoevsky returned from nearly ten years in exile (1849-1858), his interest in aesthetics was acute. He had intended to write a treatise on art and Christianity, but that project never materialized. Dostoevsky did, however, explore visual matters in essays of the 1860s. And vision figures prominently in his post-Siberian fiction.
Each of the three chapters in this dissertation focuses on vision in Dostoevsky’s writing. The first chapter analyzes two important aesthetic statements of Dostoevsky’s journal Vremia. The first is “Petersburg Visions: In Prose and Verse” wherein Dostoevsky’s narrator declares that he is a “dreamer,” a claim that also reveals the role of imagination in Dostoevsky’s special brand of realism. In “Exhibition at the Academy of the Arts: 1860-1861,” Dostoevsky takes issue with the realism of the Academy’s prized painting, Valery Yakobi’s Prisoners’ Halt, for being too photographic in its servility to visual objectivity and outward appearance. These writings display Dostoevsky’s fascination with vision not as a passive observation, but as an active, subjective and complex process in which empirical data blends with existing narratives that dictate what the seer sees.
In the second chapter, I show how Dostoevsky renders prison convicts empirically, yet empathetically in Notes from the house of the Dead (1861). The narrator Gorianchikov describes the eponymous notes as “scenes.” Through Gorianchikov, Dostoevsky maintains an exterior perspective relative to the peasant convicts’ thoughts. In this sense, Gorianchikov assumes the perspective of a realist painter, yet he manages to humanize the prisoners where Yakobi’s painting fails. This is especially evident in my analysis of what Gorianchikov calls a “strange picture,” which is his description of the prisoners gathered in anticipation of their annual Christmas theater performance. The characters of this novel number among the least psychologically penetrated in his fiction, yet Dostoevsky manages to indicate their interiority from without.
In the third and final chapter, I examine Dostoevsky’s use of Holbein’s Dead Christ (1521) in The Idiot (1868). Drawing from Pavel Florensky’s explanations of Realism in visual art and reverse perspective in iconography from his article “Reverse Perspective,” I show how the Dead Christ combines Realist and reverse perspectival qualities. I use Bakhtin’s term “visual polyphony” to explain the special capacity of this painting to convey conflicting messages about Christ’s death and to elicit conflicting worldviews from Ippolit, Rogozhin and Myshkkin. The visually polyphonic painting plays a critical role in The Idiot, the most polyphonic of Dostoevsky’s novels. It reveals the visual dimensions to Dostoevsky’s polyphony: things look differently from different perspectives.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Knapp, Liza
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 23, 2017