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I read the preface of Crime and Punishment by the Dostoyevsky, and I stumbled upon this sentence:

But besides that, these were novels of a new kind, their multiple planes so divergent and even contradictory as to all but baffle definition.

What does

"so divergent and even contradictory as to all but baffle definition."

mean ?

I understand that "multiple planes" means that his works were not clear and could have several hidden meanings. But I completely don't understand the second part of the sentence.

A little more context:

A new form, a new plan captivated me and so I began over again. I’m working day and night, and for all that I’m not working very much. A novel is a work of poetry. In order to write it, one must have tranquility of spirit and of impression  …” A novel, at least a Dostoevsky novel, is a “work of poetry”— that is, a simultaneous composition on multiple planes— and the critics can therefore be forgiven their perplexity about where to take hold of it, since the first perplexity of criticism is that it must speak monosemantically of the polysemous.

But besides that, these were novels of a new kind, their multiple planes so divergent and even contradictory as to all but baffle definition. So much so that one line of criticism, rightly noting the dramatic technique and high seriousness of Dostoevsky’s writing, has called his late works “novel-tragedies,” while another, with equal rightness, finds their roots in Ménippean satire and a carnival sense of the world.

5

Planes was, back in the middle of the last century, a stock metaphor of literary criticism, expressing the notion that the “poem” (literary work) unfolds in many modes simultaneously, such as a phonic mode, where the pattern of sounds is in itself expressive; a literal or historic mode, where lifelike events transpire; a tropological mode, where the events have general moral implications; an anagogic mode, where the events have a profound spiritual significance; a mythic mode, where the narrative conforms to patterns fundamental in the poet’s culture; and so forth, each individual work presenting multiple modes, each conceived as lying on a distinct ‘plane’, like the successive floors of a multi-story building.

In traditional works, these many planes are expected to parallel and reinforce each other, operating in harmony so that the work depicts a consistent ‘universe’ and a single coherent point of view and ‘message’. This is, for instance, the notion which lay behind Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk or “unified work of art”.

Your author, however, argues that Dostoevsky created “novels of a new kind” in which the various planes are not arranged according to the traditional decorum, separate but parallel, each plane constituting a transmuted reflection of the central literal plane, but at odd angles to each other and with distinct content and attitudes on each. The planes “diverge” from each other and contradict each other; they interpenetrate, so it is impossible for the reader/critic to discern at any given moment in the narrative what plane the author is operating on and what his current purpose is.

In consequence, the multiple planes “baffle definition”: they bewilder and defeat any attempt to define individual planes and pin down an unambiguous meaning.

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Original: so (a)divergent and even (b)contradictory (c)as to (d)all but (e)baffle definition

Interpreted: so (a)going in different directions and even (b)conflicting (c)such that it (d)nearly completely (e)makes definition impossible (puzzling)

all but: The idiom "all but" is strange because it can have two different meanings. If I say "I found all but one pencil" that means "I found every pencil except one." But if I say "I am all but sure I put the pencil on the desk" means "I am almost absolutely sure I put the pencil on the desk." See https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/9967/all-but-idiom-has-two-meanings

as to: As a native speaker, I feel confident that the interpretation is close to "such that it" in this particular sentence. However, I cannot find any authoritative defense of my interpretation! Perhaps someone else may help with my answer. Searching the web indicates as to as meaning "in regard to" or "according to" but neither of these (or anything else I could find) seems to fit this situation.

  • Thank you very much, but I have also problem with meaning of "as to" part. – Paul Brewczynski Jan 7 '14 at 14:34
  • I updated my answer to include "as to". Thanks can be given by upvoting and/or indicating answer as correct. Kudos to @StoneyB for such a tremendous insight as to (about; in regards) planes and historical lines of thought, but if you find my answer "more helpful" as to (in regards;in terms of) your particular issue with English language usage, it should be marked as the accepted answer. – CoolHandLouis Jan 7 '14 at 16:25

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