Dostoevsky’s Occasional Writings
This volume is a representative selection of Dostoevsky’s journalistic work and of the letters of his last years. The book draws on three stages of his life: the early period, before his exile to Siberia, when in 1847, poor and neglected after an initial success, he wrote four essays for Petersburg News; the middle years, 1860 to 1865, when returning from imprisonment he plunged into journalism, first publishing his magazine Time, which was suppressed after three years, then Epoch, which failed; and the final years, 1873 to 1880, when after the novels that made him famous, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, he was at work on The Brothers Karamazov, which he knew would be his last. Most of these selections have not been hitherto translated and are not always easy to come by even in the original. Mr. Magarshack has rendered them in a way that gives an excellent idea of the colloquial, hard-hitting style of Dostoevsky the publicist; and he has explained in a brief introduction the circumstances under which each of the entries was composed.
The interest of this collection is of a different order from that of Dostoevsky’s novels, Dostoevsky the publicist has nothing of the greatness of Dostoevsky, the creative artist. His journalistic pieces are shallow and discursive by comparison with his novels: they are emphatic rather than eloquent, strident rather than passionate. Yet they are concerned with the same questions that occupy him in his fiction. And it is this that lends them their special fascination. Why is it, they make the reader wonder, that the problems which attain such imaginative heights in the minds of Dostoevsky’s characters, of Ivan Karamazov. Raskolnikov, Myshkin, lose their intensity when they are argued by himself in the pages of his magazines? It has been said that Dostoevsky “experienced ideas” as ordinary mortals experience sensations. Could it be that this is not so? Or is it just that the sheet necessity of having to turn out copy explains the difference? Whatever the answer, a comparison of the two Dostoevskys, the journalist and the novelist, opens up fascinating possibilities to anyone interested in the nature of artistic creation, while to the general reader it offers the excitement of coming upon the first hints of ideas that blossom later into the magnificent arguments of the Myshkins, the Raskolnikovs, and the Karamazovs.
In the essays written in 1847, the reader is immersed in that atmosphere of a sordid and malevolent Petersburg into which he had been thrust already in Dostoevsky’s first stories, Poor Folk and The Double, and which was presently to envelop him again in Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. It is an atmosphere familiar also to Gogol, to whom Dostoevsky was deeply indebted. Nowhere is this indebtedness clearer than here: Gogel’s name occurs on every other page, the humor is Gogol’s humor and it is directed against the same failings which Gogol satirized: pretense, callousness, pettiness, artificiality, meanmindedness. But the young Dostoevsky seems to be more misanthropic than his predecessor. His condemnation is heavy and unrelieved, his sarcasm acerb and vitriolic. He excoriates a jaded society which neither thinks nor feels; which goes in for philanthropy, not through love and pity, but “out of a sense of duty”; which pretends to be entertained by meaningless, highbrow pastimes, by which it is actually bored, supporting Italian opera “for the sake of prestige” but scorning native talent, which it really enjoys; finds voluptuous pleasure in gossip, abuses friendship, and is oblivious to villainy. So profound is the corruption that even this false show of civilized interest is better than the naked truth. “Doublefacedness, chicanery, duplicity, I admit, are bad things, but if at this very moment every one appeared as he really is, it would be a damn sight worse.” The tone of these sketches, and even certain specific details in them, foreshadow Notes from the Underground, which seventeen years later was to usher in Dostoevsky’s great novels. I find it difficult to see in these early pieces the veiled political allusions which Mr. Magarshack ascribes to them. Dostoevsky was writing not about politics but of moral depravity: “We have little sense of personal dignity,” “we are not accustomed to do a good deed without a reward,” “are there any among us who do their work, as they say, con amore?” Is he really, consciously, “skating over thin ice” when he writes of the fruitless quarrels of Petersburg “circles” or is he condemning a state of basic indifference which affects even those who think they have serious interests? “If anything has to be done, we only become aware of it, as it were, from the outside. It never arouses any particular sympathy in us.” And so we alternate between states of fantastic daydreaming and “phlegmatic immobility.”
After Siberia, the tone of Dostoevsky’s strictures changes. His journal announces a positive program: “completely independent of literary authorities,” it will be impartial but outspoken. Without personal animosity, but firmly and boldly, it will take upon itself a “full exposure of all the literary quirks of our time” “Polemics of ideas we consider necessary at the present time. Skepticism and a skeptical view kill everything, even the view itself.” A purely negative stand, denunciation alone, will not do. This is a time to know what not to abuse. “We hate the empty-headed shouters who disgrace everything they touch.” One thinks of all the skeptics and fashionable critics in Dostoevsky’s novels the great-minded but tragically mistaken “theoreticians,” all the way from Raskolnikov to Ivan Karamazov; the men who despise everything and can find nothing to love, from the pitiful Underground Man to the demonaic Stavrogin; the shallow, self-important little rationalists, parroting “advanced” ideas, from the Luzhin of Crime and Punishment to the Rakitin of The Brothers Karamazov; and then, by contrast, one thinks of the humble ones, the “realists” as Dostoevsky calls them, who live not by the book but simply by their human sympathy with others: Sonia Marmeladova, Prince Myshkin, Shatov, Alyosha.
His enemies, Dostoevsky declares, are abstract thinkers of all persuasions: would-be educators, “utilitarians,” Westernists, Slavophiles. To them his views appear mysterious and on this account they denounce him, for “it is a little difficult to understand from books what is very easily understood from the facts of real life.” The educators, who think themselves enlightened and magnanimous, devise unworkable and insulting schemes for teaching the illiterate, of whom they have no knowledge and whom they consider stupid. “The common people,” Dostoevsky says to them, “are not exactly a herd of cattle.” The common man is intelligent, shrewd, and sensitive, and he is morosely resentful and suspicious of the nobleman, however magnanimous and enlightened. The would-be educator had better learn from the common man before he tries to teach him. An “enormous gulf separates us from the common people.” But the theoreticians either refuse to see this gulf or to take it seriously. The Slavophiles “cling to their confused and vague ideal,” which is based on sentimental daydreams, “a total incomprehension” of the people, “a fanaticism of hostility” toward their Westernist opponents, and “a total discord with reality.” They pride themselves on “being apart,” on having something of their own, special, different: they are stagnant: “they have writers; what they lack is life.” “Your idealism,” Dostoevsky addresses them, “is your undoing.”
But the Westernists, who “reject the very concept of nationality” are no more realistic. “All they are concerned about are the principles of universal humanity and they believe that, in the course of their further development, nationalities will become effaced like old coins and that everything will merge into one form, one general type.” Nothing will convince them that “they are floating in the air in utter solitude and without any support from the soil.” The “utilitarians” are equally visionary. They demand that art be “useful” and prescribe to writers what they shall write about. But how shall usefulness be measured? Who shall estimate the “usefulness” of The Iliad or the Apollo Belvedere? The usefulness of a work of art is not its subject but its artistic excellence, and this may be neither legislated nor imposed. “The first law of art is freedom of inspiration and creation.”
Apv form of “facelessness” is abhorrent to Dostoevsky: abstract and “faceless” theories floating above the real world with its real problems; “faceless” conglomerations of countries, with all distinctive national traits rubbed out; “faceless” pseudo-art that draws bloodless figures on a preconceived model. This is the danger of external pressures, rules, prescriptions. Dostoevsky defends the term “organic” against its detractors. And in every area of his polemics—art, society, education, foreign relations—he rests his case on what he understands to be the “national character” and the nature of the common people. “Russian society,” he declares on every occasion and with every possible inflection, “must unite with its national soil.” And since he sees the special “genius” of Russia as a “gift for synthesis,” he thinks such unity not only possible but assured. Indeed, it is to be the destiny of Russia to export the ideal of unity to the rest of mankind. Such is Russia’s mission, for such is the gift that distinguishes her from the West. And so, some fifty years before the advent of the Soviets, Dostoevsky writes in Time:
We have no English lords; we have no French bourgeoisie either, and we shall have no proletarians—we are quite sure of that. There can be no question of any class struggle in our country; on the contrary, the classes in our country tend to merge.
What we get, then, in these Occasional Writings, is a glimpse of the insights and errors of an extraordinarily complex mind, and an intimate sense of the problems that were occupying Russian thinkers directly before and after the emancipation of the serfs.