Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky

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Back to David Foster Wallace or Consider the Lobster.


The essay reviews Joseph Frank's comprehensive study of Fyodor Dostoevsky's life and work. Wallace draws attention to the fact that Frank uses Dostoevsky’s “fiction as a kind of bridge between two distinct ways of interpreting literature, a purely formal aesthetic approach vs. a social-dash-ideological criticism that cares only about thematics and the philosophical assumptions behind them” (256).


Sincerity and Irony in Fiction

Throughout the essay, Wallace inserts paragraphs that set off from the rest of the text with asterisks that are in the first person and include what might be considered deep and serious questions, such as:“**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to ‘’’seem’’ like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?**” (257)

Wallace uses these passages to make a point about the state of fiction today vs. the fiction of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky’s characters talk seriously, openly, and earnestly about their convictions, ideologies, and beliefs. Wallace’s point is that in our day and age, if a fiction writer wrote in a modern day “Serious Novel” as Dostoevsky did, “people would either laugh or be embarrassed for [him]” (274). Wallace describes that the problem with our literature today is that postmodernism has imposed a “self-consciousness” (272) that has “severely constrain[ed] our own novelists’ ability to be ‘serious’” (272), for “our intelligentisia distrust strong belief, open conviction” (272). Instead, Wallace posits that we have abandoned any attempt to be desirous and given it to “fundamentalists whose pitiless rigidity and eagerness to judge show that they’re clueless about the ‘Christian values’ they would impose on others” (273). We are not longer able to write seriously without the veil of irony. Though, as Wallace points out, “we will, of course, without hesitation use art to parody, ridicule, debunk, or criticize ideologies—but this is very different” (274).

So, the

big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we –here, today – cannot or do not permit ourselves…Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an irony distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertexual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization flourish or some shit. (271)

The Intentional Fallacy

Wallace notes that Frank’s “readings aim to be explicative rather than argumentative or theory-driven; their aim is to show as clearly as possible what Dostoevsky himself wanted the books to mean. Even though this approach assumes that there’s no such thing as the Intentional Fallacy, it still seems prima facie justified by Frank’s overall project, which is always to trace and explain the novels’ genesis out of Dostoevsky’s own ideological engagement with Russian history and culture” (259).

The Intentional Fallacy, as written by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, explains that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (IF, 3). Wallace’s sincere praise for Joseph Frank’s work on Dostoyevsky (a work which has not only committed, but has deliberately ignored the intentional fallacy), makes clear that Wallace condones and even commends a commitment of the intentional fallacy. Wallace argues the necessity of taking the author into account, for “a comprehensive reading of Dostoyevsky’s fiction is impossible without a detailed understanding of the cultural circumstances in which the books were conceived and to which they were meant to contribute” (JFD, 258). We simply can’t ignore the “external” (IF, 10) evidence of a work, for in doing so we are “[treating] and author’s books hermetically, ignoring facts about the author’s circumstances and beliefs that can help explain not only what his work is about but why it has the particular individual magic of a particular individual writer’s personality, style, voice, vision, etc” (JFD, 260).


The Intentional Fallacy

The Intentional Fallacy, in literary criticism, addresses the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a "fallacy," a critic suggests that the author's intention is not important. The term is an important principle of New Criticism and was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay "The Intentional Fallacy" (1946 rev. 1954): "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art." The phrase "intentional fallacy" is somewhat ambiguous, but it means "a fallacy about intent" and not "a fallacy committed on purpose."

Wimsatt and Beardsley divide the evidence used in making interpretations of literary texts (although their analysis can be applied equally well to any type of art) into three categories:

(1) Internal evidence. This evidence is present as the facts of a given work. The apparent content of a work is the internal evidence, including any historical knowledge and past expertise or experience with the kind of art being interpreted: its forms and traditions. The form of epic poetry, the meter, quotations etc. are internal to the work. This information is internal to the type (or genre) of art that is being examined. Obviously, this also includes those things physically present to the work itself.

(2) External evidence. What is not actually contained in the work itself is external. Statements made privately or published in journals about the work, or in conversations, e-mail, etc. External evidence is concerned with claims about why the artist made the work: reasons external to the fact of the work in itself. Evidence of this type is directly concerned with what the artist may have intended to do even or especially when it is not apparent from the work itself.

(3) Contextual evidence. The third kind of evidence concerns any meanings derived from the specific work's relationship to other art made by this particular artist—as is the way it is exhibited, where, when and by whom. It can be biographical, but does not necessarily mean it is a matter of intentional fallacy. The character of a work may be inflected based upon the particulars of who does the work without necessarily characterizing it as an intentional fallacy.

Thus, a text's internal evidence — the words themselves, and their meanings — is fair game for literary analysis. External evidence — anything not contained within the text itself, such as information about the poet's life — belongs to literary biography, not literary criticism. Preoccupation with the author "leads away from the poem." According to New Criticism, a poem does not belong to its author, but rather "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public." It is the Contextual evidence that presents the greatest potential for intentional fallacies of interpretation. Analysis using this type of evidence can easily become more concerned with external evidence than the internal content of the work.


More on Dostoevsky

Wallace explicitly references Dostoevsky in Infinite Jest, when Barry Loach engages his Jesuit brother "in some rather heated and high-level debates in spirituality and the soul's potential, not that much unlike Alyosha and Ivan's conversations in the good old Brothers K., though probably not nearly as erudite and literary, and nothing from the older brother veen approaching the carcinogenic acerbity of Ivan's Grand Inquisitor scenario" (969).