• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky: the best and the worst, inseparable. He really looks for the truth and fears to find it; he often finds it all the same and then he is terrified…a poor great man….

—Victor Serge

There are two visions in Dostoevsky, a major and a minor one. The major one, expressing his passionate religiosity and nationalism, has been more than sufficiently written about, whereas the minor one, atheistic in essence, has been noted hardly at all. Moreover, even when interpreters have noted this vision they tend to distort it in the attempt to assimilate it into Dostoevsky’s more central and characteristic concerns: he is thus credited with a unity of outlook that his work cannot support.

In my view, Dostoevsky cannot be fully understood unless his antithetic, or alternate, vision is taken into account—the dream of no less than an earthly paradise to come, the age-old idea or myth of a golden age no longer regretfully put in the distant past but hopefully projected into the future.

This alternate vision is cunningly dispersed in Dostoevsky’s later work and often formulated in a secretive, piecemeal, and even inverted fashion. Hence one can scarcely present a coherent analysis of it without first noting the essential vulnerability of his version of the Christian world view. Very few of his numerous critics and expositors have in fact been able to gauge the full measure of this vulnerability: the reason for this is largely subjective, having to do chiefly with their own religious or quasi-religious attachments.

Among these few, notably, is Prince D. D. Mirsky, who, in his highly instructive History of Russian Literature, firmly rejects the unqualified acceptance of Dostoevsky’s work as “a revelation…in which ultimate problems of good and evil are discussed and played out with ultimate decisiveness and which, taken as a whole, gave a new doctrine of…spiritual Christianity.” Mirsky differs radically from the many interpreters adopting this approach in contending that the tragedies recounted by Dostoevsky are “irreducible tragedies that cannot be solved or pacified” and that his harmonies and solutions emerge “on a lower and shallower level than his conflicts.” If his Christianity in particular strikes Mirsky as “of a very doubtful kind,” the reason is that, in his opinion, it failed to reach the innermost recesses of the novelist’s soul, being “a more or less superficial formation which it would be dangerous to identify with real Christianity.”

Mirsky’s History was first published in 1926, when he was very far indeed from his later conversion to political radicalism. In truth he was then not in the least interested in controverting the Christian doctrine on ideological or any other grounds. His criticism was if anything largely concerned with aesthetic valuations (though it was invariably linked to his acute understanding of the historical and psychological conditions associated with the rise of Russian literary expression). It is nevertheless typical of the direction that Dostoevsky studies have taken virtually since the novelist’s death that an approach as disinterested as Mirsky’s should not have been taken into account at all by what one might call the devout league of commentators, that is, those persuaded of Dostoevsky’s exemplary Christianity. I have in mind, to mention only a few representative names, such men as Berdyaev, Mochulsky, Zenkovsky, and Vyacheslav Ivanov among the White Russian émigrés, R. P. Blackmur and Eliseo Vivas among the Americans, and, among the innumerable German studies, such a work as Reinhard Lauth’s immensely long and ostensibly exhaustive Die Philosophie Dostojewskis in systematischer Darstellung (1950).

The aforementioned German work, which might be rendered into English as Dostoevsky’s Philosophy Systematically Presented, is in itself a critical gaffe of the first order. For in Dostoevsky there is in fact no systematic philosophy, no consistent and logically shaped point of view, neither a stable outlook nor any kind of mental stasis. His speculatively charged, dynamic, spiritually and intellectually turbulent mode of thought breeds mostly insoluble contradictions, paradoxes at once stimulating and disruptive, as well as outright antinomies. The ponderous systematizing that Herr Lauth goes in for with such dogged persistence is a quality of his own intellectual temper, not of Dostoevsky’s.

In truth, the Russian novelist can be spoken of as a philosopher only in a loose, analogical sense. Dostoevsky, whose thinking frequently proceeds in seeming unawareness of his contradictions, is no philosopher at all, in the strict sense of the term. Thus when Berdyaev remarks somewhere that Dostoevsky is to be regarded as Russia’s greatest philosopher, all one can reply is that he must be using a definition of philosophy that most students of that discipline would find totally unacceptable. Or else that he is simply confusing the depth and acuteness of the Dostoevskyean consciousness with the specific kind of mental process that philosophers properly engage in. 1

To my mind, Dostoevsky is best characterized as primarily a dramatic fabulist who happened to be intensely and singularly drawn to sheer thinking without regard to the rigors of method or logic. Always open to ideas, he converts them into highly dramatic (and quite as often melodramatic) forces in his fictive worlds, into the very particulars of emotions, action, purpose, and character, while at the same time mixing freely, almost casually, his scrutiny of the actual world with intuitions belonging essentially to the sphere of the numinous.

A number of scholarly works have been published in the Soviet Union that are of undoubted value in establishing the facts and circumstances of Dostoevsky’s career; but in evaluating his work, the Soviet critics tend to follow the party line of denigrating the idea that Dostoevsky was a writer of world stature endowed with uncommon ideological and psychological powers. Instead, when not discrediting him altogether, they restrict his role to that of an antagonist of “bourgeois values” and champion of “the insulted and injured.”

The attitude of Marxists not bound by the party line cannot be summed up so easily. In Literature and Revolution Trotsky, while by no means discounting Dostoevsky’s importance as a great Russian creative figure, bluntly alludes to his Christianity as “perfidious.” Georg Lukacs’s essay in his book Der russiche Realismus in der Weltliteratur is illuminating, though too limited in scope to allow for anything like the full development of a Marxist perspective. It is precisely from such a perspective, however, that Arnold Hauser is able to present an elaborate, thoughtful, and highly plausible critical account in his Social History of Art.2 In Hauser’s view Dostoevsky owes the depth and refinement of his psychology

…to the intensity with which he experiences the problematical nature of the modern intellectual, whereas the naïveté of his moral philosophy comes from his anti-rationalistic escapades, from his betrayal of reason and his inability to resist the temptations of romanticism and abstract idealism. His mystical nationalism, his religious orthodoxy, and his intuitive ethics form an intellectual unity, and obviously originate in the same experience, the same spiritual shock…. Only in later years Dostoevsky becomes the moralist, the mystic and the reactionary that he is often summarily described to be.

Still, having said all this Hauser proceeds to draw a distinction between the consciously held ideas of writers and their world view as shown in their creative practice. In the case of Dostoevsky, to be sure, this distinction is of particular significance. As Hauser puts it, “What decides the world-view of a writer is not so much whose side he supports as through whose eyes he looks at the world.” When it comes to that one hardly needs to insist any longer that the author of The Brothers Karamazov looked at what is new in the world with far greater deliberateness, profundity, and agitation through the eyes of Ivan than through those of his nominal favorite, Alyosha, or through those of the laboriously wrought saintly Father Zossima. The same goes for Crime and Punishment, where it is not Sonia Marmeladov’s pitiable situation and frenzy of faith that cast a spell over us but the restless spirit and conflict-ridden mind of the freethinker Raskolnikov.

On this theme it is well worth recalling the observation of an acute if somewhat casual American commentator that in order to account for Dostoevsky’s numerous paradoxes one must first grasp the fact that he is a 99 percent atheist and therefore a 101 percent believer. Comments of this nature are hard to come by, however. Most writers on Dostoevsky, flinching from this sort of discriminating approach, prefer to repeat mechanically after him his overstated because only half-believed-in formulas of deliverance from evil, Christian renewal, and ultimate salvation.

Being at once an extreme skeptic and an extreme believer generated in Dostoevsky a chronically antinomic state of mind which he surreptitiously relished, I believe, even as he tried to conceal it from his readers and especially from his patrons, including the renowned Pobedonstsev who belonged to aristocratic and official circles. To ascribe this to mere disingenuousness would be far too simple. It would mean losing sight of his deep ambivalence, the complexity of his sensibility and mind, as well as the extreme contradictions of the historical moment which in his own way he embodied.

The first thing to be considered is that Dostoevsky experienced in his lifetime (even if only within the milieu of the newly formed intelligentsia) the heady and precipitate secularization of Russia, a process aptly characterized by the critic E. Lampert (Studies in Rebellion, London, 1957) as spelling “the end of a world created with the fixity of the iconographic canon.” It was at this immensely fateful juncture in Russian history that Dostoevsky felt impelled to resist with frenetic zeal the impact of Western thought, its radical social ideas no less than its religious ones, whether Catholic or Protestant. Yet he never really succeeded in extricating himself from the torture chamber of doubt and unbelief that are part of the modern consciousness. In spite of his ranting against the Westernizing wing of the intelligentsia, he could never really purge himself of the forbidden fruit of European civilization.

It seems to me that a good many Western analysts of Russian culture and society err in making far too little of the suddenness with which European ideas entered Russia. For the shock of the “illumination” brought by these ideas was virtually a mental and political revolution. To be sure, there are significant exceptions among Western analysts. One such is Thomas Masaryk, who, in the second volume of his book The Spirit of Russia (1919), has much that is pertinent to say on this subject:

Let the reader call to mind Tolstoy’s Confession, where that writer describes the revolution that took place within his mind when he learned, as a great novelty, that there was no God. In Europe, generations and centuries prepared the way for this novelty; medieval philosophy and theocratic organization had been transformed step by step….

But think of theocratic Russia, enter into the mind of the religiously trained Russian, and realize how there came to him, like a bolt from the blue, the message of Voltaire, Diderot, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Stirner, Vogt, Straus and Marx….

But what must have been the effect of the sudden invasion of unbelief in Russia, a land where the church and its monasteries had hitherto been the highest and indeed the sole generally recognized spiritual authority…. In England Mill and Darwin were buried in Westminster Abbey; in Russia, such men as Chernishevsky, adherents of Mill and Darwin, found their way to the penitentiary or to Siberia!

  1. 1

    That the Russians have never been very strong in philosophy is well known. In this sphere they are pupils, not teachers. No wonder that even as late as 1912 Trotsky, annoyed by the extravagant pretensions of the Russian intelligentsia, was able to taunt it for its sterility in philosophy. He asked: “What exactly have we given in the area of philosophy or social science?” His answer: “Nothing, a round zero. Vladimir Solovyov, who is usually remembered only on the anniversary of his death? His foggy metaphysics has not entered the history of world-thought; even in Russia his ideas failed to produce anything like a philosophical movement.” Trotsky continues by holding up to scorn the philosophical small fry who are looking forward to the imminent appearance of “a Slavic Kant.” “Where is he? He does not exist. Where is our Hegel? Where is one of equal importance in the history of thought? In philosophy we have none but third-rate disciples and faceless epigoni.” (Cf., Trotsky’s essay “Concerning the Intelligentsia,” Partisan Review, Fall, 1968.)

  2. 2

    Cf., pp. 142ff. of The Social History of Art, Vol. 4 (Vintage Books).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print