Daily Archives: November 8, 2009

Leviathan and Dostoevsky’s Crocodile


As a way perhaps of tying together two of the recent threads on the blog, I thought I might offer up this little piece as an intriguing example of Leviathan symbolism. It is a summary of Dostoevsky’s unfinished grotesque allegorical satire, “The Crocodile,” from Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, vol. 4 of Joseph Frank’s monumental critical biography.

The Jonah/Leviathan archetype is all the more resonant in the tale because it is a playful but deadly serious satirical attack on the murderous logic of ideologies–in this case the opposing faiths of capitalism and socialism–and the way in which the primary demands of human welfare are so “rationally” sacrificed to the secondary concerns of ideology:

The Crocodile concerns the fantastic adventure of a conceited bureaucrat of ‘advanced’ opinions, who is accidentally swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly takes up residence in his belly. From this secure vantage point, whose isolation allows him the leisure to concentrate his mind, he decides to proclaim a whole new set of ideas about the future improvement of mankind. As he explains his enthusiasm, “you have only to creep . . . into a crocodile . . . shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind.” This mockery of a visionary Utopianism, however, is not Dostoevsky’s main target; rather, he focuses on the futile attempt made by a naive friend of the crocodile-dweller, concerned about his health and welfare, to initiate a rescue effort before he dissolves entirely in the reptile’s gastric juices. This well-meant humanitarian aim is opposed by a highly placed bureaucrat, who has recently been convinced by an important capitalist that Russia is greatly in need of new foreign investments. The crocodile is the property of a visiting German entrepreneur, and any injury to it would only discourage the flow of capital into the country and hinder Russian economic expansion.

The crocodile-dweller himself, though “progressive” to the tips of his toes, nonetheless agrees with the capitalist’s reasoning: before all else, “the principles of economics” must be respected. All consideration of simple “humanity” are thus swept aside, and the logic of utility, the logic of economics, triumphs over the plight of a human being. The advocate of capitalist enterprise and the inventor of a new millennium are in complete accord; both right and left in Russia, as Dostoevsky saw it, had now accepted exactly the same chilling and inhumane prescriptions for human conduct.

More on Robert Alter and Frye


Responding to Bob’s post on the Leviathan symbolism in the Bible:

Yes, and Alter, in the same essay, says that Leviathan is confined to the “cage” of Job, Isaiah, and the Psalms, as if these were minor books of the Bible and the imagery was in some kind of quarantine from the rest of the biblical story.

For Frye’s take on Blake’s use of the Leviathan symbolism, It is worth reading Clayton Chrusch’s summary of chapter five of Fearful Symmetry. Here is an excerpt concerning the cluster of imagery attached to Satan and the serpent:

Alter is an excellent example of a militantly centrifugal critic, a normative realist or descriptivist. He puts all his intellectual energy into directing the verbal traffic of the Bible and literature outside, a critical cop breaking up any gathering of images. OK, move along now, disperse. The ideological underpinnings are worth noting: there is nothing but an objective dimension to reality, this is the way things are: obey and work.

” The serpent, actually, takes a number of symbolic forms: a Satanic form that tempts Adam, an Adamic form representing fallen humanity, and a Messianic or revolutionary form, where it is nailed to the tree of mystery as Orc, representing death and rebirth. The serpent also has a Chaotic form which is more sinister than its Satanic form. In this form, it manifests as a dragon ridden by Rahab or the Great Whore (Mystery), a Covering Cherub blocking the way to Eden, or as Leviathan. This symbolism means that the basis of all tyranny is chaos.”

That the basis of all tyranny is chaos may explain the title of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan: the idea that the only thing that can defend against the perceived chaos of life in a state of nature, which is also the perceived chaos of human nature, is a Leviathan-like political tyranny. Moby-Dick, as Frye has pointed out, is perhaps greatest example of Leviathan imagery in literature: Ahab projects a paranoid vision of chaotic nature and evil onto Moby Dick and creates at the same time, in his bloody hunt for the whale, an authoritarian system of tyranny aboard the Pequod.

It is true that one has to learn how to think archetypally as a critic, and one can simply refuse to learn, but that is to simply ignore the imaginative element in the act of reading any story or poem, and this critical position can easily take advantage of the fact that the imaginative element in reading literature takes place mostly on an unconscious level, precisely because it is a compressed skill we learn from childhood on.

Alter also dismisses out of hand Frye’s reading of the earth=mother/bride imagery in the second creation story: again, as Bob puts it, Frye has got biblical (and other) scholarship on his side, at least in the way in which creation myths are always versions, displacements, adaptations of competing mythologies, such as the agricultural myth of a symbolically female reproductive Nature. In this case, however, because we are dealing with a sexual myth of creation, female symbolism, and what Frye calls the patriarchal set-up and a “sexual neurosis,” the repression is greater and the displacement is all the more marked. Frye emancipates this imagery in his reading of the second creation myth in chapter six of Words with Power, in a way that is consistent with a feminist approach to scripture.

Battle of the Bibles: More on Robert Alter and Frye


Further to Joe’s point about Robert Alter:

Another cheap shot by Alter is his critique of Frye’s interpretation of Leviathan in Jonah and Job. Alter picks up a phrase here and there from Frye’s Great Code discussion, but he’s not in the least fair to Frye’s extended account of the way this image functions across the biblical narrative. One of the advantages of looking at the Bible as a unity is that it permits Frye to link the images of the Leviathan as they appear in Psalms 74 and 104, Isaiah 27 and elsewhere (the word occurs six times in the Old Testament). Alter says that the “Leviathan is in no way a force contending with God.” But it is clearly such a chaotic force in Psalm 74, where God is said to have crushed the heads of this marine creature, and in Isaiah 27, we’re told that the lord will punish the fleeing, twisting serpent and will kill the sea dragon. The image was a familiar one in Hebrew culture, as it was in Ugaritic poems. Alter, who has no sense of what a mythical symbol is, wants to make Leviathan into a literal crocodile rather than a symbolic primeval monster, a creature quite like the Behemoth of Job 40, also a symbol of chaos and evil. Alter says that the author of the Book of Job “never so much alludes to the belly of the beast.” True, the Hebrew poet doesn’t allude to the belly; he refers to it directly: “Look at Behemoth . . . its power in the muscles of its belly” (Job 40:15, 16). One would think that the literal minded Alter would at least pay attention to the letter. What we can say for Frye’s reading of the sea monsters––and their link with Rahab––is that he’s got biblical scholarship, which sees the sea monsters as symbolizing chaos and evil, on his side.