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Idealism and Its Critic

Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche

by Lev Shestov, translated by Bernard Martin, translated by Spencer E. Roberts
Ohio University Press, 400 pp., $10.00

Kierkegaard and the Existential Philosophy

by Lev Shestov, translated by Elinor Hewitt
Ohio University Press, 314 pp., $10.00

Potestas Clavium

by Lev Shestov, translated by Bernard Martin
Ohio University Press, 413 pp., $10.00

Chekhov, and Other Essays future date)

by Lev Shestov
University of Michigan Press, 240 pp., $4.40 (ohio University Press will publish a new translation at a

Athens and Jerusalem

by Lev Shestov, translated by Bernard Martin
Ohio University Press, 447 pp., $10.00

Essays in Russian Literature: The Conservative View

by Lev Shestov et al., translated and edited by Spencer Roberts
Ohio University Press, 464 pp., $9.50

The needs of the time can make most metaphysical propositions sound true, for their truth is a function of the consciousness of the time. To an age incredulous of theology, disillusioned with material progress and the ideals of humanism, the words of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard made a strong posthumous appeal. They had removed God but exalted faith; repudiated the conventional bond of faith with charity and reason; and offered the dynamics of a new egoism in which “all things are possible.”

Everyone has read books about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but comparatively few can have come across the Russian critic and connoisseur of ideas who was certainly their most lucid and interesting disciple—Lev Shestov. His friend Berdyaev, who is much better known and more widely translated, was of altogether inferior intellectual stature. Some of Shestov’s work is available in French and German,—and there are one or two English versions dating from 1916, but this new edition of his major works, admirably introduced and for the most part admirably translated by Bernard Martin of the University of Ohio, should make his reputation with an Anglo-Saxon audience.

Shestov is almost the only Russian polemicist who is a joy to read even in translation. By way of Tolstoy he is kin to Voltaire, and he attacks the premises of humanist idealism with the same wit and relish with which Voltaire excoriated the Church. Humorous, skeptical, unexcited, his style has nonetheless great energy, and he is often extremely funny at the expense not only of other philosophical attitudes but also of his own: there are few recent sages with less self-importance, even though—or perhaps because—his peculiar emphasis on solipsism is the key to an essentially negative metaphysical position. He is never tired of reminding us that philosophers and great writers are paid far less attention than they suppose: absorption in their thought insulates them from the world (we must remember that he showed no interest in the communal and down-to-earth activities of linguistic philosophy).

Though without their inner fires, Shestov has much of the superb stylistic vitality of his heroes, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he sees more as novelists and dramatists of the inner life than as philosophers, and as closely akin to the two great Russian novelists with whom he continuously and by implication compares them. He himself had no pretensions to anguish. He did not go mad; there was no Regina in his life; he underwent no tormenting spiritual pilgrimages like those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Utterly rejecting “reason and the good,” he remained himself a model of sanity and common sense. There was no humbug in this: rather was it the result of a remarkable and unique kind of cultural balance. A Jew, Shestov inherited that ancient and unshaken imperturbability in the midst of chaos; Spinozan, though opposing Spinoza’s rationale. A Russian, he was on the inside of the greatest of new literary cultures. A European settled in France for the second half of his life, he exercised a direct influence on Sartre and Camus, both of whom knew and respected his work.

Circumstance thus helped him to acquire something of the originality of genius. He lived on other authors, but his insight into them was an evangelist’s rather than a critic’s. He had the luck to have as his text the greatest literature of the last hundred years, and the perception to synthesize it with the standpoint of Western metaphysics. His interpretations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are more brilliant and suggestive than those of any other commentator, because he sees them under Western as well as Russian eyes, and also with something of the native vision of an Old Testament prophet.

He was born Lev Isaakovich Schwartzmann in 1886, at Kiev, where his father had established a large textile business. He was much attached to his father, a loyal Jew who delighted in denouncing orthodoxy, for which he was once nearly expelled from the Kiev synagogue. Shestov attended Moscow University where he became involved in economic questions for the only time in his life: his thesis on “Factory Legislation in Russia” was suppressed as revolutionary and he never became a Doctor of Law. For some time he worked successfully in his father’s business, then turned it over to his family and went to Europe, where he married a young Russian medical student in Rome and considered pursuing the career of a singer.

But he also produced two manuscripts, which were published on his return to Russia in 1898 and won him a considerable reputation among the Petersburg intelligentsia, particularly Merezhkovsky, Rozanov, and Berdyaev, who recognized ideas congenial to them. Shakespeare and his Critic Brandes denies that the rational humanist critic can begin to understand the nature of Shakespearean tragedy. Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche and its successor, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: the Philosophy of Tragedy, are Shestov’s most brilliant polemical performances, and it is significant that all three appeal to the artist in order to discredit the philosopher; or rather they extract from the artist the outlines of an incontrovertible metaphysics, based not on terminology but on life itself, which for that reason makes nonsense of all concepts of “reason and the good.”

In his next book, The Apotheosis of Groundlessness, Shestov adopts a more aphoristic manner but the message is the same. Indeed it never varies, though Shestov is more persuasive when he makes it apropos of great writers than in his own person. In his latter years he wrote a book on Kierkegaard, whom he only discovered when his own comparable position had been clearly formulated, and in his last and weightiest work, Athens and Jerusalem, he dredges metaphysics for evidence to show why we must put our trust in the older city and reject the younger. Again and again in his later work he quotes with deadly intent the famous saying of Spinoza, “non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere,” “not to laugh, not to weep, and not to curse, but to understand,” for what is the value of understanding if it brings us into mere inquiry and necessity—“and necessity,” says Shestov, “does not offend the fallen man”—instead of bringing us into the freedom of despair?

In 1914 Shestov returned to Russia. Naturally enough the Bolshevik triumph failed to arouse his enthusiasm, and after stormy and difficult years he left for France, where he died in 1938. The closest friend and disciple of his last years was the young Rumanian Jewish poet Benjamin Fondane, who kept notes of their conversations which were found among his papers after his death in the Nazi gas chambers at Birkenau. Before he died, Shestov realized a long-cherished dream when he was invited to lecture in Jerusalem, where his grandfather had been buried and where in his old age he was hailed as one of the great Jewish thinkers of the century.

To such a thinker God’s existence is no problem, for a Jew’s existence is that of Godhead. Where Kierkegaard had to strive and suffer to realize himself as a “knight of the faith,” Shestov could identify himself tranquilly in that faith with the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, which had made Jews so much hated and feared by Christians who had come to realize—consciously or unconsciously—that their God was mortal and had no resurrection. Shestov insists on a logic which only his race could command. “Man must himself become God”—(as the Jews once did)—“create all things out of nothing; all things, matter together with forms, and even the eternal laws.” He collates with quiet relish the words of Tertullian, Luther, and the Christian mystics who have attempted to turn this conviction into the paradox of a personal idea—“If God were not I would not be: if I were not God could not be.” Instead of hurling himself on Hegel as Kierkegaard did, Shestov regards him with amusement.

The fundamental idea of Christianity, Hegel solemnly proclaims in the Philosophy of Religion, is the unity of the divine and the human nature. God has become man. It never for a moment entered Hegel’s mind that knowledge does not make a man equal to God but tears him away from God, putting him in the clutches of a dead and deadening truth…. When Hegel transforms the truth of scripture, revealed truth, into metaphysical truth; when, instead of saying that God took the form of man, or that man was created in the image and likeness of God, he declares that “the fundamental idea of the absolute religion is the unity of the divine and the human natures,” he kills faith.

Hegel, with Kant and Spinoza before him, affirms that the creator and created alike bow down before eternal truths. God was free once from them, in the creation, but never again.

Speculative philosophy will not give up this position for anything, and defends it with all its strength, for gnosis, understanding, is more important to it than eternal salvation: what is more, in understanding it finds eternal salvation.

It will be noted that every terminological question is calmly begged, but that all seems clear as day—in contrast to the obfuscations of Kierkegaard, about whom Shestov is writing, Shestov’s art is to make authoritative and pellucid what in all comparable theorists—Rozanov, Berdyaev, D.H. Lawrence, and Middleton Murry—seems muddled, subjective, flaccidly mystical, or plain crackpot. Shestov is relentlessly polemical but not in the least combative. He saw nothing to quarrel about. He was great friends with Berdyaev, though it is clear he thought him an ass, and with Husserl, whose philosophy was often repugnant to him.

As a critic Shestov wastes no time on style or form or literary device. What interests him is the gap between what a great literary artist thought he was saying (intelligere), and what he was actually saying, with the God-like confidence of a creator. In Shakespeare and his Critic Brandes he rejects the notion that “Macbeth is a criminal who feels all the pangs of conscience on earth,” even though this may have been Shakespeare’s conscious idea. Like Job, Macbeth is a man in extremity, mind at the end of its tether, but unable to find the faith in himself without which life signifies nothing; and this has nothing to do with the ethics of crime and punishment.

As the arch “anti-intentionalist” of criticism Shestov is not always convincing, but he always illuminates, particularly when he implies that the great Russian novel is founded on a continual process of striving against the grain. Gogol attempted to reform the hero of Dead Souls. Futile hope! What he had created was sui generis, the product of his own solipsism and what it felt, which had nothing to do with what merely ought to be. (Shestov is here following Rozanov, who had already denied any realism, in the responsible nineteenth-century sense, to Gogol’s creations.)

Tolstoy searched endlessly for the good and identified it with God. Rubbish! What his characters want and get is assurance in themselves, even at the cost of smugness, even at the cost of hypocrisy. We leave Pierre, that seeker, smugly content in his marriage, smugly discussing his future plans, aspiring to the condition of the real hero, Rostov, that Knight of the Faith, “who knew how to live and was therefore always stable.” And Rostov’s wife, Princess Mary, with her “profoundly spiritual nature,” is in reality indifferent to everything except her own marriage and children. Such an attitude, says Shestov, is for Tolstoy the real law of life, and in his superbly deadpan celebration of it, “he had told the truth and the truth has not undermined life…. [B]efore Count Tolstoy idealism did not know such subtle techniques,” for in him, “the lofty and the beautiful do not end up in quotation marks.” (These are the most searching comments ever made on the world of War and Peace.)

As for Levin in Anna Karenina, “The more he withdraws into the narrow sphere of his personal interests the more brazen he becomes in praise of ‘the good.’ ” Shestov has a wonderful ear for the nuances that prove his point.

You’re married I hear?” said the landowner.

Yes,” replied Levin with proud satisfaction.

Why on earth “with proud satisfaction”? Because for Tolstoy-Levin to be married, to have a family and estate, and not to care a straw for anything or anybody else were really the summum bonum which held the individual in the confidence of life “as a plough is held in the earth.” This gives him the proud satisfaction that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man has in being an Underground Man, in the teeth of the rest of the world.

For Dostoevsky is no different. Shestov continually asserts his profound kinship with Tolstoy, in accordance with his apparent conviction that the greater the writer—and especially, it may be, the Russian writer—the greater the hypocrite. (Shestov ignores Pushkin, about whom such a suggestion would be manifestly absurd.) The “compassion” of The House of the Dead moved all Russia, and continues to move every reader today. But what is there really in it? Why did Dostoevsky concoct a narrator, Goryanichikov, whom he abandons in Siberia, “buried alive,” lost to hope? Why? Because he himself had faith and hope; he wanted to go on living, and at moments of deepest gloom and “compassion” he forgets his narrator and gives to the problem of such suffering what Shestov calls an “ingenuous” but wholly conclusive answer.

I won’t be here forever, only for a few years,” I thought, and laid my head back on the pillow.

And so in Notes from Underground Dostoevsky finally gives in, and shows the man of faith, the anti-humanist, for what he really knew him to be, the man “for whom the world can drown in blood as long as I can drink my tea.”

Even Chekhov does not escape impeachment from Shestov. Nothing wry, nothing gentle, nothing humanist here, but another “cruel talent.” “For almost twenty-five years Chekhov did one thing only: in one way or another he killed human hopes.” Humanist hopes, that is. In his essay “Creation from Nothing,” written after Chekhov’s death in 1905, Shestov’s own developing attitudes are particularly obtrusive, yet his insight cannot be ignored.

As long as a person is settled in some job, as long as he has something ahead of him, Chekhov is completely indifferent to him. But when a person becomes entangled, and so entangled that he can in no way be disentangled, Chekhov begins to come to life. Then colour, energy, an upsurge of creative force appear in him…. Before lies hopelessness, helplessness, and the sheer impossibility of any action whatever. Yet the character continues to live: he does not die…. In the end he is left alone with himself. He has nothing, he must create everything himself.

And yet Chekhov—like his two great predecessors, but far less subtly—often shows mauvaise foi in his stories and tries to complete them in accordance with some ideal of progress and human betterment.

In the last resort Shestov’s analyses, however brilliant and revealing, are flawed by his refusal to bother with art, the art which in a great writer may be just as “unintentional” as the difference between what he says and what he thinks he is saying. The art of Tolstoy, with its involuntary and powerful affirmation of the self-assurance needful to life, is in perfect dramatic balance (though he would have scorned the term) with the terrible apprehension of death: his power of realizing life would be nothing without his equally compelling imagination of death. The humor of Chekhov, as of Kafka and Beckett, is as instinctive and needful to his art as ideas of “reason and the good” are to our human predicament. K’s position outside Kafka’s castle is as hopeless, as full of nothingness, as that of the Professor in Chekhov’s “A Dreary Story,” but it is precisely the function of art—in its formal genres of the tragic, the humorous, the conclusive-inconclusive (Shestov says, surely wrongly, that most of Chekhov’s stories might as well stop in mid-sentence)—to invent ways of passing the time that would have passed anyhow, to affirm that here indeed “all things are possible.” Its function is as vital as that of faith itself, is indeed the most graphic possible affirmation of it. Artists, or else they would be silent, believe like Knights of the Faith in what they are doing.

A saving duplicity, then, is organic to their art, and not, as Shestov seems to imply, the symptom of an effort to say something other than what they really feel. Dostoevsky is both Underground Man and sanguine, bustling polemicist, full of faith in the narod, full of hope that the Russians will one day have Constantinople. Dickens is both haunted by childhood, obsessed with murderers, and a gaily and ardently outgoing Victorian ameliorist. Human beings—and especially literary geniuses—are more full of vagary than Shestov and his kind, with their Either/Or, can allow; and capable of believing, as it were, in reason and the good at one moment and in God at another. Cheerfulness, like despair, keeps breaking in. The much despised Hegel may be right after all, for his dialectic is truer to the movement of art, and of life, than is any rigidly extreme existentialist position. And so we sometimes feel that great literature, for Shestov, is not a living and dividing process, but a waxwork museum of ideas and the evasion of ideas, over which he presides like a sardonic but seductive curator.

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