Dostoevsky and the Susquehanna Valley


This morning I was reading up on Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism,” celebrated in Mikhail Bakhtin’s view of the author’s art as a polyphonic or many-voiced “dialogical materialism,” an embodied dialogue or textual iconography.

Dostoevsky’s theory of art indeed involves an iconographic epistemology-. It emphasizes storytelling as personal relationship, and exposes the destructive effects of indulging an objectifying idolatry of self and others instead.

He wrote in an 1868 letter of a “genuine, existing realism,” which in the words of his biographer Joseph Frank “delves beneath the quotidian surface into the moral-spiritual depths of the human personality, while at the same time striving to incarnate a more-than-pedestrian or commonplace moral ideal.”

Dostoevsky compared such “fantastic realism” to the experience of relationship with an icon, as distinguished from the objectifying idolatry of a merely materialistic approach to nature

Ideas that distort and impersonalize an authentic sense of life as intercommunion were demonic in his view, and a kind of false realism.

By contrast, “fantastic realism” reflected partly Dostoevsky’s  earlier “vision on the Neva,” in which urban St. Petersburg  became “like a fantastic vision of fairyland,” including all classes of people as magical, and angelic and demonic dimensions, rather than just a monumentalized imperial matrix. It also reflected his deep personal experience of spirituality and community, emerging partly from his time in a prison camp.

I immediately found myself connecting this “fantastic realism” to a more modest project on the Susquehanna Valley in which I’ve been involved for several years now with fellow Bucknell Prof. Katie Faull and many other colleagues and students, including collaborators at other universities in the region.

Digital scholars Dr. Diane Jakacki, and Dr. Andy Famiglietti, together with Katie and me, have put together a new (but still under construction) website for the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project, which highlights different aspects of this multimedia collaborative effort in environmental humanities, community studies, and natural history.

The whole SSV project highlights for me how stories (human and non-human) can engage us in region, and reciprocally help us to shape a meaningful sense of a region as the context for our lives. It is a tribute to the connectivity inherent in emerging fields of environmental humanities that Dostoevsky’s “fantastic realism” can engage such work, highlighting the often ignored or objectified landscapes around us as  instead “magical,” in the sense of meaningful.

Dostoevsky noted while working later on “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov that the modern Western elevation of man over the earth in dangerous hubris involves denial of meaning in nature. A lack of meaningfulness is perhaps the ultimate mark of the lack of sustainability in our current mainstream culture. As Walker Percy put it in his Jefferson Address to the National Endowment for the Humanities, novels, poetry, the arts, and humanities, all can be evidence in exploring what often is called “environmental science.” They help illuminate the relationships that shape meaningful environments and regions like the Susquehanna Valley.


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