Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684bc48f8b-4z9h4 Total loading time: 1.663 Render date: 2021-04-14T03:29:49.314Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true }

Where Bobok Is Buried: The Theosophical Roots of Dostoevski's “Fantastic Realism”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


In addition to examining the ideological and artistic origins of Fedor Dostoevskii's portrayal of the underworld in his short “cemetery story” “Bobok” (1873), Ilya Vinitsky probes the theosophical context of Dostoevskii's “fantastic realism.” Vinitsky considers this story a programmatic “theosophical menippea” that artistically “voices” and “tests” Emanuel Swedenborgs doctrine of posthumous self-exposure of the wicked souls who are no longer restrained by “fear of the law, of the loss of reputation, of honor, and of life” and laugh shamelessly “at honesty and justice.” Vinitsky argues that Dostoevskii was interested in Swedenborg's spiritual psychologism as an epistemological method and contends that Swedenborg's interpretation of devils as former humans, with their “earthly” consciousness, inner sufferings, and memories, perfectly corresponded to Dostoevskii's symbolic anthropology. Vinitsky also proposes that the comic narrator of “Bobok” can be seen as a literary mask of Dostoevskii himself, who employs philosophical irony as a means of conveying a metaphysical message in the age of positivism and disbelief.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2006

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


This essay was originally prepared for the symposium “Dostoevsky Dismembered: Decentering a Great Writer,” held at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, on 15 April 2005. I thank Caryl Emerson, Gary Saul Morson, Kevin M. Piatt, and Andrew B. Wachtel, as well as the anonymous reviewers for comments. I also thank my former students Jim Tonn and Paul Richard for their help in translating and editing this article. The epigraphs are taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, trans, and annotated by Kenneth Lantz (Evanston, 1993), 1:175, and from Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for The Possessed, ed. and with an introduction by Edward Wasiolek (Chicago, 1968), 242. All references to the original texts are from F. M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Leningrad, 1972-1990; hereafter PSS). Except where otherwise stated, all emphases within quotations are my own addition.

1. See, for example: Sakulin, P. N., Iz istorii russkogo idealizma: Kn. V. F. Odoevskii. Myslitel'. Pisatel’ (Moscow, 1913)Google Scholar; Gershenzon, Mikhail, P. Ia. Chaadaev: Zhizn’ i myshtenie (St. Petersburg, 1908)Google Scholar; Chizhevskii, D., “Neizvestnyi Gogol',” Novyi zhurnal 27 (1951): 126-58Google Scholar; Berry, Thomas E., Spiritualism in Tsarist Society and Literature (Baltimore, 1985)Google Scholar; Vaiskopf, Mikhail, Siuzhet Gogol'ia (Moscow, 1993)Google Scholar; Carlson, Maria, “No Religion Higher Than Truth“: A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia, 1875-1922 (Princeton, 1993)Google Scholar; Leighton, Lauren G., The Esoteric Tradition in Russian Romantic Literature: Decembrism and Freemasonry (University Park, 1994)Google Scholar; Bogomolov, Nikolai, Russkaia literatura nachala XX veka i okkul'tizm: Issledovaniia i materialy (Moscow, 2000)Google Scholar; Obatnin, Gennadii, Ivanov-mistik: Okkul'tnye motivy v poezii iproze Viacheslava Ivanova (Moscow, 2000)Google Scholar; and Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Ithaca, 1997).Google Scholar This list is by no means complete.

2. In Terry Castle's insightful discussion of the late eighteenth-century phantasmagoria and the metaphorics of modern reverie, “spectralization” is denned as “the absorption of ghosts into the world of thought.” As a result of this process, the mind becomes “a phantom-zone—given over, at least potentially, to spectral presences and haunting obsessions.” Castle, Terry, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (New York, 1995), 142, 144.Google Scholar Castle's ideas on spectralization in the late Enlightenment prepare the way for a productive discussion of mid and late nineteenthcentury Russian literary consciousness, with its numerous ghosts of reality.

3. On the Russian spiritualist movement of the 1860s and 1870s, see Emma Hardinge Britten, “Spiritualism in Russia,” Nineteenth Century Miracles, or Spirit sand Their Work in Every Country of the Earth: A Complete Historical Compendium (1884; reprint, New York, 1976); Pribytkov, Viktor, Spiritizm v Rossii, ot vozniknoveniia ego do nastoiashchikh dnei (St. Petersburg, 1909)Google Scholar; Berry, Spiritualism in Tsarist Society and Literature. On Russian debates concerning the soul and body, see V. V. Zenkovskii, Istoriia russkoi filosofii (Paris, 1948-50; reprint, Leningrad, 1991), vol. 1, pt. 2; K. Ravelin, “Zadachi psikhologii: Pamiati T. N. Granovskogo,” Vestnik Evropy (March 1872).

4. I refer to Dostoevskii's “famous declaration of his aesthetic credo of ‘fantastic realism,'” formulated in his 11/23 December 1868 letter to Apollon Maikov: “Oh, my friend, I have a totally different conception of reality and realism than our novelists and critics. My idealism—is more real than their realism. God! Just to narrate sensibly what we Russians have lived through in the last ten years of our spiritual development—yes, would not the realists shout that this is fantasy! And yet this is genuine, existing realism. This is realism, only deeper; while they swim in the shallow waters… . Their realism—cannot illuminate a hundredth part of the facts, that are real and actually occurring. And with our realism, we have predicted facts. It's happened.” Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (Princeton, 1995), 351; PSS, 28.2:329.

5. Fanger, Donald, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism: A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol (Cambridge, Mass., 1965)Google Scholar; Jones, Malcolm V., Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoyevsky's Fantastic Realism (Cambridge, Eng., 1990).CrossRefGoogle Scholar;

6. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his influential aesthetic reading of this story, presented it as a sort of authorial manifesto: the “menippea almost in the strict ancient sense of the term.” Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis, 1984), 144. According to Bakhtin, this classical genre reveals here (in its traditional form of “conversations in the realm of the dead“) “its greatest potential, realizes its maximum“: “carnivalesque underworld,” a “rather motley crew of corpses,” their vulgarity and their scandals, the “awareness of a complete absence of responsibility, open graveyard eroticism, laughter in die coffins” and so on (138-41). In Bakhtin's interpretation, the underworld of “Bobok” represents a grotesque or carnivalized masquerade of Dostoevskii's major ideas, themes, and images: the idea that “everything is permitted” if there is no God and no immortality of the soul; “the theme of a consciousness on the brink of insanity“; “the theme of the final moments of consciousness (connected in other works with the themes of capital punishment and suicide)“; “the theme of sensuality, penetrating the highest spheres of consciousness and thought; the theme of total ‘inappropriateness’ and ‘unseemliness’ of life cast off from its folk roots and from the people's faith” (144).

7. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:185; PSS, 21:54.

8. Robert L.Jackson, “Some Considerations on ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ and ‘Bobok’ from the Aesthetic Point of View,” The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes (Princeton, 1981), 301.

9. Sources for “Bobok's” otherworldly chatter were sought in contemporary publications. Vladimir Tunimanov names the satire of Nil Admirari [L. K. Paniutin's pseudonym] dealing with ritual walks in a Smolensk cemetery. Nikolai Suvorin's paradoxical “Progulka v adu” (Promenade in hell, 1872] must also be mentioned. There have been attempts to connect the provocatively naturalistic picture of life in the otherworld with the danses macabres of baroque painting; see, for example, Konstantin Mochul'skii, Gogol'. Solov'ev. Dostoevskii (Moscow, 1995). “Bobok” has also been examined in the context of the spiritualistic issues in fashion at the time of its publication. Thomas Berry argues that the conversations of the deceased can “be interpreted as a parody of a seance where the absurd is placed on a par with empirical reality.” Thomas Berry, “Dostoevsky and Spiritualism,” Dostoevsky Studies 2 (1981): 48. Finally, attempts have been made to view the story as an Orthodox parable. Metropolitan Antonius sees in it a portrayal of the “remorselessness of sinners and their indifference towards evil” and suggests that the story was written “under the effect of some church legends” (unfortunately he did not specify precisely which). Quoted from V. A. Tunimanov, “Portret s ‘borodavkami’ ('Bobok’) i vopros o ‘realizme’ v iskusstve,“Dostoevskii: Materialy i issledovaniia (St. Petersburg, 1997), 14:175.

10. Among the literary predecessors of this fantastic story, scholars have named Lucian's Menippus, orajourney to the Kingdom of the Dead, Dante Alighieri'sDwme Comedy (1308- 21), Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux's Dialogue sur les heros de romans (1664), Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle'sDia/og-uM des marts (1683), Prince Vladimir Odoevskii's “The Live Corpse” (1844), Nikolai Gogol“s Mertvye dushi (Dead souls, 1842), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and Aleksandr Pushkin's “Kogda za gorodom, zadumchiv, ia brozhu” (1836). Traces of Pushkin are apparent in the story: one is reminded of the lewd banquet in Feast during the Plague (1830). On “Bobok,” see also Portnova, N. A., “K probleme paradoksal'nosti stilia Dostoevskogo,” Dostoevskii: Materialy i issledovaniia (Leningrad, 1987), 7:91101.Google Scholar

11. “Mr. Dostoevskii recounts how he overheard conversations at the cemetery between already buried dead people, how these decaying corpses gossiped, declared their love, and so on. Granted, these are all fantastic stories, but the very choice of such subject matter makes a morbid impression on the reader and makes him think the author is off his head [lit.: something is wrongwith his ‘top floor’].” Anonymous, “Zhurnal'noeobozrenie,”.D£/o, no. 12 (1873): 102.

12. “What kind of horror is this? What kind of cynicism? […] Why publish all of this swinishness, in which there is not an ounce of artistic merit. It does nothing but frighten, offend, profane. For Dostoevskii ‘Bobok’ is a kind of fusillade of the Eucharist, and the play with the words'spirit’ [dukh] and'spiritual’ [dukhovnyi] is a sacrilege of the holy ghost [Dukh Sviatoi]. If it is possible to punish an author for what he publishes, then for ‘Bobok,’ for ‘Bobok’ alone, he deserves penal servitude. Yes, Dostoevskii was exiled to hard labor because he wrote ‘Bobok.'” Andrei Belyi, Kritika. Estetika. Teoriia simvolizma (Moscow, 1994), 1:407-8.

13. “'Bobok’ is the most frightening of Dostoevskii's metaphysical insights. The godless world is decomposing alive. The rotting of souls is more horrible than the decay of bodies.” Mochul'skii, Gogol'. Solov'ev. Dostoevskii, 460.

14. Ibid., 459.

15. Bakhtin suggests that in “Bobok” “menippea converges with the mystery play” and “the central figurative idea of the story” is that “today's corpses [are] unfruitful seed, cast on the ground, but capable neither of dying [… ] , nor being born anew.” Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics, 145.

16. Characteristically, the corrupted dead of this story are portrayed through their voices (jokes, remarks, stories), which the deranged narrator has overheard. In this respect, “Bobok” presents a kind of a radio reportage de profundis.

17. In his commentary, Tunimanov acknowledges that Platon Nikolaevich's ideas resemble Swedenborgian views of the afterlife more than Nikolai Strakhov's rationalistic ideas. PSS, 21:406. He does not develop his observation in the commentary, however, and immediately disregards it by naming other sources for Platon Nikolaevich's explanation, including, for example, Fedor Tiutchev's poem “Nash vek” (Our age, 1851). PSS, Ql :408.

18. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:182; PSS, 21:51. Could this character in fact be based on Swedenborg's translator and spiritualist Aleksandr Nikolaevich Aksakov? Up until their acquaintance while taking the waters at Bad Ems in 1875, Dostoevskii thought of Aksakov as a “nihilist.” PSS, 29:210. On Aksakov, see Sergei Suchkov, “Puteshestvennik v tsarstvo dukhov,” in Aleksandr N. Aksakov, Animizm i spiritizm: Kriticheskoe issledovanie (Moscow, 2001), 5-20.

19. Emanuel Swedenborg, O nebesakh, o mire dukhov i ob ade, trans. Aleksandr N. Aksakov (Leningrad, 1863), 424-25. English citations are from: Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen, trans. John C. Ager (New York, 1978), 321.

20. Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 340.

21. On the themes of shame, lying, and exposure in Dostoevskii's works, see Deborah A. Martinsen's insightful Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky's Liars and Narrative Exposure (Columbus, 2003).

22. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:183; SS, 21:52.

23. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:183; PSS, 21:51.

24. Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 182.

25. Dostoevsky, A Writers Diary, 1:182-84; PSS, 21:51-52.

26. Andrei Belyi, who calls “Bobok” a cynical parody of Revelation, incorrectly identifies the heroes’ conception of consciousness with that of the author himself (or more precisely, believes that Dostoevskii considers Klinevich's ideas to be the truth). It is surprising that such an admirer of Swedenborg as Andrei Belyi fails to note the presence of the former's theosophical dialectics in “Bobok.“

27. Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 273.

28. Sorokoviny refers to a commemorative service in the Orthodox Church forty days after death. In the first half of the 1870s, Dostoevskii contemplated writing a work named “Sorokoviny,” which would have dealt with the theme of twenty tribulations for the Orthodox soul. Although the plan was not realized, this theme surfaced in The Brothers Karamazov: Dmitrii's lifetime “sufferings and ordeals of the soul” ﹛khozhdenie dushi po mytarstvam) (bk. 9, chaps. 3-5) and Ivan Karamazov's dialogue with the devil (bk. 11, chap. 9). Dostoevskii likely drew on Bishop Ignatii's (Brianchaninov) Sfovo o smerti (Sermon on death). He had three editions of this influential theological tract in his library (1862,1863, 1881).

29. PSS, 21:45.

30. As Bakhtin correctly notes, however, “under conditions of the menippea, the ‘seemly’ simpleman is presented with a slight overtone of comicality, as if he were somewhat inappropriate.” Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 145.

31. Benz, Ernst, Emanuel Swedenborg: Visionary Savant in the Age of Reason, intro. and trans. Goodrich-Clarke, Nicholas (West Chester, Penn., 2002), 402.Google Scholar

32. In his book, Swedenborg repeats his major ideas many times. In “Bobok,” Dostoevskii refers to concrete lines of Heaven audits Wonders, but he adopts and artistically transforms (creates a literary “image of the idea“) the general sense of Swedenborg's doctrines concerning the otherworld.

33. Bakhtin contends that, capitalizing on the potential of the genre, Dostoevskii creates the extraordinary situation of the final few moments of consciousness: “Freed from all the conditions, positions, obligations, and laws of ordinary life, as it were a life outside of life. And how will it be used by the ‘contemporary corpses'? An anacrisis, provoking the consciousnesses of the corpses to reveal themselves with full, absolutely unlimited freedom. And reveal themselves they do.” Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 140.

34. PSS, 28.1:164. “The uncertainty and the feeling of disgust with that new thing which was bound to come any minute were dreadful; but he said that the thing that was the most unbearable to him at the time was the constant thought, ‘What if I had not had to die! What if I could return to life—oh, what an eternity! And all that would be mine! I should turn every minute into an age, I should lose nothing, I should count every minute separately and waste none!'” Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans, with an introduction by David Magarshack (New York, 1955), 87-88.1 thank Kevin Piatt for this observation.

35. Goran Stockenstrom, “'The Great Chaos and the Infinite Order': The Spiritual Journeys of Swedenborg and Strindberg,” in Erland J. Brock, ed., Sxuedenborg and His Influence (Bryn Athyn, Penn., 1988), 43.

36. A literary portrayal of the same idea of spiritual self-exposure appears in Vladimir Dal“s short “cemetery story” The Raving (Bred, 1861). Dal’ was an ardent Swedenborgian, a propagator and translator of the theosophist's writings.

37. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:332-39. Dostoevskii attacks experimental (Anglo- American) spiritualism as a quasi-religion based on positivism in his notes for 1876-77. PSS, 24:96-97, 160, 161, 172. On Dostoevskii's attitude toward Dmitrii Mendeleev's Scientific Commission for the Study of Mediumistic Phenomena (1875-75), see Michael D. Gordin, “Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevskii and Mendeleev,” Slavic Review 60, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 756-80.

38. Leonid Grossman, Biblioteka Dostoevskogo (Odessa, 1919), 175-77. See also T. V. Sholomova, “Dostoevskii i Svedenborg,” Dostoevskii i sovremennost'. Material)’ VIII, Mezhdunarodnykh starorusskikh chtenii (Novgorod, 1994), 248-51.

39. “It is possible that it was precisely the well-known spiritualist's book that inspired Dostoevskii to write a ‘fantastic tale’ whose hero is a dreamer and prophet who travels to a small star.“PSS, 25:403.

40. Milosz, Czeslaw, “Dostoevsky and Swedenborg” (1975), Emperor ofthe Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (Berkeley, 1977), 128.Google Scholar

41. Robin Feuer Miller makes an interesting observation regarding the role of the image of the seed in both Swedenborg and Dostoevskii (The Brothers Karamazov). Miller, Robin Feuer, “Dostoevsky's ‘The Dream of a Ridiculous Man': Unsealing the Generic Envelope,” in Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh and Morson, Gary Saul, eds., Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert Louis Jackson (Evanston, 1995), 281-82.Google Scholar A relationship between the Swedenborgian image of the seed and the “little bean,” bobok, is possible. See, for example, in On Heaven, the World of Spirits, and on Hell (§ 475): “To think and to will without doing, when there is opportunity, is like a flame enclosed in a vessel diat goes out; also like seed cast upon the sand, which fails to groiu, and so perishes with its poxuer of germination. But to think and will and from that to do is like … a seed in the ground that grows up into a tree or flower and continues to live.” Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 296. On the Eleusinian symbolism of the seed in “Bobok,” see “'contemporary dead men’ are as sterile seed, cast on the ground, but capable neither of dying (that is, of being cleansed of themselves, of rising above themselves), nor of being renewed (that is, of bearing fruit).“Bakhtin,Pro6- lems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 147. One may also note that in ancient mythologies the bean was considered a symbol for the dead person's soul (hence Pythagoras's notorious ban on eating beans) and was associated with resurrection and salvation. See Ol'ga M. Freidenberg, Poetika siuzheta izhanra (Moscow, 1997).

42. PSS, 24:9.

43. Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 352.

44. Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for The Possessed, 243. The image of a butterfly plays an important role in Swedenborg's theosophy. See Emanuel Swedenborg, The True Christian Religion Containing the Universal Theology of the New Church (New York, 1972), 1:15-16: “Any one can find evidences in favor of a Divine in the visible things of nature when he observes those worms which are moved by the joy of a peculiar love to aspire after a change of their earthly state into one somewhat analogous to a heavenly state. For this purpose they crawl into suitable places, enclose themselves in a covering, and thus place themselves in a womb from which to be born again; and there they become chrysalids, aureliae, nymphs, and finally butterflies […] Who that sees evidences in favor of a Divine in the visible things of nature can help seeing in these as worms an image of man's earthly state, and in these as butterflies an image of his heavenly state? Those who have confirmed themselves in favor of nature behold the same things, but having rejected man's heavenly state from their thought they call them mere operations of nature.“

45. In the passage just quoted, Dostoevskii's demonic hero rejects the idea of salvation. I believe that on this point Dostoevskii's Orthodox beliefs in forgiveness and resurrection latently confront Stavrogin's “Swedenborgian” determinism (see “At Tikhon's“). Analyzing a possible Swedenborgian “dimension” of The Devils is beyond the scope of the present article, however.

46. Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell, 283-84.

47. Religious, folk, and literary sources of the demonic in Dostoevskii are traced by William J. Leatherbarrow in A Devil's Vaudeville: The Demonic in Dostoevsky's Major Fiction (Evanston,2005).

48. Ivan Polkanov, “O zhizni dushi po vozsoedinenii eia s telom, vo vseobshchem voskresenii mertvykh,” Strannik 14, no. 1 (1873): 13-40. A censor's approval is dated 10 January 1873.

49. Concrete Swedenborgian implications of “The Dream” are beyond the scope of the present discussion.

50. Khrisanf [V. N. Retivtsev], “Emmanuil Svedenborg i ego verouchenie,” Khristianskoe chtenie, no. 1 (1866): 73.

51. On the early period of Russian Swedenborgianism, see D. Chizhevskii's “Swedenborg bei den Slaven,” Aus zwei Welten: Beitrage zur Geschichte der slavisch-westlichen literaturischen Beziehungen (The Hague, 1956), 269-90. Anders Hallengren, in his compilation article, “Russia, Swedenborg and the Eastern Mind,” The New Philosophy 43, no. 4 (October- December 1990), includes among those studying Swedenborg from the 1850s to the 1870s author and philologist Vladimir Dal', philosopher Pamfil Iurkevich, Princess K. M. Shakhovskaia, and philosopher and poet Vladimir Solov'ev. See Mikhail Roshchin, “Svedenborg v Rossii,” in Em. Svedenborg, Novyi Ierusalim i ego nebesnoe uchenie: Pechataetsia po iubileinomu izdaniiu v pamiat’ 250-letiia so dnia rozhdeniia E. Svedenborga, 1688-1938 (Voronezh, 1991), 15-20. From 1863 to 1870, A. N. Aksakov published his translations and interpretations of Swedenborg's works in London and Leipzig. In his 1863 translation of De coelo he included an introductory article about Swedenborg as a forerunner of modern spiritualism as well as the theosophist's biography. Also see Aksakov's critical analysis of Swedenborg's system in his Ratsionalizm Svedenborga: Kriticheskoe issledovanie ego ucheniia o Sviashchennom pisanii (Leipzig, 1870).

52. Schleiden, Matthias, Etiudy: Populiarnye chteniia M. I. Shleidena, avtora Rastenie i ego zhizn’ (Moscow, 1861).Google Scholar

53. Schleiden, quoted in N. G. Chernyshevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 15 tomakh (Moscow, 1951), 9:482.

54. Ibid., 9:483.

55. “From the medical point of view,” Kovalevskii argues, Swedenborg's case is characterized by the following symptoms of epilepsia nocturna: convulsions, fits of ecstasies and hallucinations, “the gift of clairvoyance and communication with the world of spirits,” as well as religious messianism. P. I. Kovalevskii, Generalissimus Suvorov. Orleanskaia deva. Magomet. Svedenborg. Psikhiatricheskie eskizy iz istorii v dvukh tomakh (St. Petersburg, 1901— 09), 2:434,452.

56. In his introduction to Swedenborg's De coelo, A. N. Aksakov wrote, “In the present time the issue of the world of spirits has been raised again and is rapidly advancing. This issue is progressing, not by philosophical speculation, nor by mystical sermons, nor by the logic of a single day, but rather by the simple path of empirical facts, by the discovery of laws of nature, by the logic of historical evidence. Striking phenomena are occurring around us! The veil that has concealed from human beings the mysteries of the spiritual world and the further destinies of our souls in the afterlife is vanishing; the communication between the spiritual world and the earth, between man in flesh and man the spirit, has been regained; the new world reveals itself to man's soul, which hears, sees, and perceives its own immortality in this world.” Aksakov, “Ot perevodchika,” O nebesakh, o mire dukhov i ob ade, v.

57. Russian Swedenborgians observed that Swedenborg's cosmology and ethical system perfectly corresponded with Russian Orthodox beliefs. Thus, Vladimir Dal’ found the idea of mytarstva dushi (ordeals of the soul) very close to Swedenborg's afterlife experiences. See P. I. Mel'nikov-Pecherskii, “Vospominaniia o Vladimire Ivanoviche Dale,” V. I. Dal’ i Obshchestvo liubitelei Rossiiskoi Slovesnosti (St. Petersburg, 2002), 66. On the other hand, in the late 1850s and 1860s critical discussions of Swedenborg's teachings appeared in Russian religious journals: Khrisanf, “Emmanuil Svedenborg i ego verouchenie,” 72- 105, 251-72; Osinin, I. G., “Shvedenborg i ego uchenie ‘Dukhovnaia beseda,'” Khristianskoe chtenie, no. 29 (1859): 8094.Google Scholar

58. Georgii Florovskii, Puti russkogo bogosloviia (Paris, 1981). See pt. 2, chap. 6, “Filosofskoe probuzhdenie.“

59. Jung-Stilling, J.-H., Die Theorie der Geisterkunde (Nurnberg, 1808).Google Scholar In the 1830s and 1840s this idea was popularized by the influential doctor and writer Justinus Kerner.

60. Kardec, Allan, Le Livre des esprits (Paris, 1857)Google Scholar; Owen, R. D., The Debatable (and Between this World and the Next) (New York, 1872)Google Scholar; Davis, Andrew Jackson, A Stellar Key to the Summer Land (Boston, 1867).Google Scholar

61. Both Swedenborg and Dostoevskii are characterized by a strong apocalyptic feeling: the Swedish seer explained his revelations by the fact that the Last Judgment had already begun. In his Diary of a Writer Dostoevskii hints at the approaching denouement of world history. Swedenborg's famous apocalyptic tract The White Horse (1758) “echoes” the eccentric Lebedev's interpretation of the apocalyptic horse in The Idiot.

62. In this respect it is suggestive to compare Nikolai Leskov's “progressivist” and Dostoevskii's “apocalyptical” views. At the end of the 1860s, Leskov was highly interested in Allan Kardec's spiritual doctrine as described in Le Livre des esprits. In 1865-66, Leskov produced two articles on French philosophical spiritism. He was especially interested in the idea of punishment in the next world according to one's moral behavior and improvement of the soul by degrees through a series of physical reincarnations. In the early 1870s, Leskov tightly connected the question of spiritism with the mystical search for truth (e.g., Svetozar Vladenovich Vodop'ianov in the antinihilist novel Na nozhakh [At daggers drawn, 1870-71] and the insane Vasil'ev of “Smekh i gore” [Laughter and sorrow, 1871]). Dostoevskii also may have been familiar with Kardec's spiritualist doctrine: in his library he had Apollon Boltin's Dogmaty Khristovoi tserkvi, izlozhennye soglasno spiriticheskomu ucheniiu (1864). There are no traces of Kardec's doctrine of compulsory reincarnation in Dostoevskii's works, however.

63. As Vladimir Solov'ev wrote in his article on the Swedish seer, “it is quite original in Swedenborg's theosophy that he does not accept the prehuman and superhuman origins of angels and devils. Instead, he sees in them only the evolution of a man in two opposite directions. This means that any man during his lifetime is already, in his essence, either angel or devil, and the one who, like Swedenborg, becomes a spiritual seer, can distinguish this essence clearly. Therefore, it is earthly or natural mankind that is the source and hotbed [Seminarium] of heaven and hell.” [Solov'ev], “Svedenborg,” in F. A. Brokgauz and I. A. Efron, eds., Entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (St. Petersburg, 1890), 10:498.

64. Benz, Emanuel Swedenborg, 404.

65. Iurii Lotman and Boris Uspenskii, in their famous essay on dual models in Russian cultural consciousness, propose that Russian “binary” cultural consciousness is rooted in the Orthodox cosmology, in which there is no room for an evolutionary “neutral sphere” of Purgatory. One may contend that from a Dostoevskian perspective, a Swedenborgian “world of spirits,” in which souls expose their inner content completely, does not contradict this binary scheme but instead provides it with “an inner logic” for the final bifurcation— either heaven or hell. See lu. M. Lotman and B. A. Uspenskii, “Rol’ dual'nykh modelei v dinamike russkoi kul'tury (do kontsa XVIII veka),” in B. A. Uspenskii, hbrannye trudy (Moscow, 1996-97), 1:220.1 thank Caryl Emerson for this observation.

66. Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:156-57.

67. Ibid., 1:165.

68. Although the theme of Protestantism is important for his Diary, it is likely that Dostoevskii is simply referring to Swedenborg's “political” visions: the Protestant seer always portrayed Catholics as suffering in hell. It is difficult to perceive Swedenborg as an orthodox Protestant, for his doctrine was strongly opposed by Swedish Lutheran priests. See Rem, Emanuel Swedenborg, 498-518.

69. PSS, 25:262-63.

70. Ibid., 11:237.

71. Dmitrii Minaev, “Komu na Rusi zhit’ khorosho,” Iskra, no. 12 (1873): 7.

72. Anonymous, “'Besy’ Fedora Dostoevskogo,” Iskra, no. 6 (1873): 5.

73. See, for example, Kant's refutation of the seer in Immanuel Kant, Traume eines Geistersehers (Riga, 1766).

74. Gary Saul Morson, “Introductory Study: Dostoevsky's Great Experiment,” in Dostoevsky, A Writer's Diary, 1:11.

75. The portrait referred to is by Vasilii Perov. Gobs, no. 14 (14January 1873); quoted in PSS, 21:402.

76. As certain commentators have noted, the conversation overheard by Dostoevskii's narrator resembles the dogs’ correspondence in Gogol“s “Diary of a Madman.“

77. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (1877) may be considered within the context of this unrealized plan.

78. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 147. Bakhtin notes that the narrator in “Bobok” is shown on the threshold of insanity. This borderline state of mind is ambiguous, however, for it may be interpreted either as a disease or as a penetration into the mystery of this world, which is concealed from the sane mind of the living.

79. The ontological nature of Dostoevskii's humor and irony in their relationship to prophetic discourse and metaphysical fears (see Dostoevskii's article on the devils and modern spiritualism or “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man“) is outside the scope of the present discussion. The “holy fools'” connection of Dostoevskii's provocative humor is discussed in Harriet Murav's Holy Foolishness: Dostoevski's Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford, 1992). One may also add that this double-edged aggressive (self-) irony was deeply rooted in the medieval mystical discourses of communication with the Devil (from Egyptian hermits to Jakob Boehme and Russian “fools in Christ“).

80. In this context, the then-fledgling career of the secular mystic Vladimir Solov'ev is representative. Incidentally, in the early 1870s, Solov'ev was interested in Swedenborg's theosophy. Swedenborg was one of the favorite philosophers of his teacher Pamfil Iurkevich. Later on Solov'ev wrote an article on the theosophist for Brokgauz and Efron, Entsiklopedicheskii slovar'.

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 12 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 27th January 2017 - 14th April 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Where Bobok Is Buried: The Theosophical Roots of Dostoevski's “Fantastic Realism”
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Where Bobok Is Buried: The Theosophical Roots of Dostoevski's “Fantastic Realism”
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Where Bobok Is Buried: The Theosophical Roots of Dostoevski's “Fantastic Realism”
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *