In Which Juvenal & Dostoevsky Lampoon Poets

Writers love to lampoon poets.  They’re easy targets:  the disheveled hair, heavy drinking, unconventional manners, and thrift-shop tweeds…  Are the stereotypes true?

Horace thought so. He caricatured pretentious poets in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). (You can read my posts here and here.)  And I was astonished this week to find similar observations about poets in Juvenal’s Satires and  Dostoevsky’s Demons.

I’ll start with Juvenal, who wrote in the second century A.D.

He explains in his first poem why he writes satire. He begins by mocking poetry readings in Rome:  he wants to get revenge after sitting through so many bad ones.  He criticizes hackneyed poems about mythical heroes, Theseus, Telephus, and Orestes.  He writes (this is my rough prose translation):

Will I always be in the audience? Will I never get revenge, after being tormented so many times by the Thesiad of hoarse Cordus? Will one poet have recited dull comedies, another elegies, and go unpunished? Will a poet have wasted my whole day by reciting his great Telephus or Orestes, which he scrawled in the margins and then continued unfinished on the back of the book?

I have been to a few readings like that.  And Juvenal is so funny!

Dostoevsky also raves and rants in his novel Demons about bad poets, who he says flourish in times of social unrest.  He wrote Demons partly to respond to what he regarded as romantic portrayals of the nihilists in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and the revolutionaries in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?

Dostoevsky fulminates about the times and the mores.

Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way.

He then lists many, many different kinds of people who offend him, the military, the lawyers, the divinity students, and the feminists, and here’s what he says about writers and poets.

People like… Gogol’s Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev,….poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents…—all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom?

At a literary fete, the pompous Karmazinov, a caricature of Turgenev, gives a long, monotonous reading from his new bad book.  This is followed by an incendiary speech by a liberal humanist of the older generation, and then a revolutionary poem by a drunken madman.

Watch out for those literary readings!

Dostoevsky in the Springtime

Imagine a town of wretched winter-blitzed people!  It has been a very cold April, and we were relieved to see signs of spring today.

I planned to sit outside and read Dostoevsky.

But alas!

The cat objects to Dostoevsky.

Shocking, isn’t it?  The cat did it. She has no idea that chewing books is forbidden.  She’s sweet, but clueless.  And apparently she does not like Dostoevsky.

I cannot read a book in this condition.

I’m disappointed.

I was thoroughly enjoying Demons (also called The Possessed, or Devils).  I started reading it after I finished Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, because the translator Michael R. Katz wrote that it is partly Dostoevsky’s response to What Is to Be Done? and to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. (There are also references to other books by Turgenev.)

Demons is a milder psychological novel than, say, Crime and Punishment.  Set in a provincial town, Demons has an almost Turgenev-like atmosphere at first:  much  tea is drunk, characters discuss poetry and politics, and the jockeying for social power is constant.  But then the revolutionaries arrive, and beware!

As in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, there is a conflict between a father and son:  Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensk, a liberal humanist of the 1840s generation, has long been a tutor and hanger-on in the household of the wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stravrogin.  His son, Pyotr Stepanovitch, who has been raised by relatives, is a nihilist–only with none of the nobility of Turgenev’s Bazarov.  And when he shows up at Varvara Petrovna’s, his father does not at first recognize him.

At the same time, the moody, gorgeous Nikolai Vsvelodovich Stravrogin arrives to visit his mother, Varvara Petrovna.  She adores him, but there is gossip about him and a mad woman…and is any of it true? Meanwhile Pyotr Stepanovitch is sowing dissension as part of the revolutionary plot.

The social rivalry and political tension increase as Pyotr Stepanovitch destroys reputations.  There is much decadence–a group of young people go into a hotel room to look at a suicide–and Pyotr Stepanovitch discredits a local politician.

Stepan Trofimovich, who tries to keep up with modern culture,  reads Fathers and Sons and What Is to Be Done?  He (and the cranky Dostoevsky) find Bazarov a completely unbelievable character.

There is a huge cast of characters, and it is a page-turner.  It rambles a bit, but maybe it will all come together in the end.

I found an old Oxford paperback, Devils, to replace the Dover, so I will be able to finish the book.

I swear I used to have a copy called The Possessed, and I think that’s a better title.  Probably less accurate…