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A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky

We know that in his youth Dostoevsky was captivated by illicit “messages” from Europe and that owing to his active involvement in the radical Petrashevsky circle he, too, soon “found his way” to a penitentiary in Siberia. This experience appears to have so unnerved him that upon his return from Siberia he gradually but decisively shifted his position and in his later work he no longer hesitated to adhere openly (and with the excessive zeal typical of converts) to Russian Orthodoxy and the more extreme forms of Slavophilism. It must be admitted, however, that this volte-face in no way weakened his creative powers. Perhaps this is so because in his apparent conversion there is more surface than substance, more willful rhetoric, seeming all the more intransigent for its willfulness, than positive conviction.

As a creative man of devastating intelligence, simultaneously visionary and subversive in temper, he harbored the radical suspicion that human beings are inherently incapable of ever fulfilling the Christian commandments of love and goodness. At times he was inclined to think that contrary to Christian doctrine man is altogether beyond redemption inasmuch as what has been built into him is “the faculty of cherishing in his soul the loftiest ideal side by side with his greatest baseness, and all quite sincerely.”

This is said by Versilov, a principal character in A Raw Youth, but his is not an isolated case. You find different versions of the same idea in most of Dostoevsky’s fiction. With which characters of his own creation does he identify most closely? According to Nikolay Strakhov, his intimate friend, Slavophile comrade-in-arms, and co-author of the official Life and Letters, “the characters who are most like him are the hero of Notes from Underground, Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, and Stavrogin in The Possessed.” Note that these figures belong to the children of darkness, whom he condemns in his novels, not to his idealized children of light like Sonia Marmeladov, Prince Myshkin, Alyosha, and Father Zossima.

I think it is a grave error, however, to attribute Dostoevsky’s very conspicuous “duality,” as it is often called, to purely personal traits, to some kind of private psychogenic drama. He held it to be an incontrovertible truth that this duality is inherent in human consciousness, is tenaciously rooted in it. It is difficult to contest his keen insight in this matter. The point is that this insight does have conceptual consequences hardly compatible with his Christian faith; for surely the hope of ultimate Christian salvation is altogether futile if the split between good and evil in human nature is never to be overcome. This is not the least of the factors persuading one to call into question the role of saint and prophet he assumed in his later years.

As a writer he combined unbounded imagination and psychological intuition with an equally unbounded ideological striving so provocative and even lurid in its effects as to lay himself open to the charge of spiritual licentiousness and presumption. What else could Chekhov have had in mind when he expressed distaste for his work on account of its “spiritual immodesty”? In my view, Dostoevsky was neither “honest” nor “good.” What he undoubtedly possessed, however, was greatness of soul.

His major fiction sufficiently attests to that greatness. Integral to his world is the paradoxical and highly original manner in which belief and unbelief are compounded in his work. To be sure, Dostoevsky delineated in various ways the unbelief of which he could not rid himself and which he covertly cherished. But it is worth stressing that the only well-formed and above all affirmative expression of his unbelief is comprised in his alternate vision of an earthly paradise marked out for the distant future when men, having abandoned their faith in God and immortality, nonetheless secrete from the very finality of their disenchantment, and from their absolute conviction of their forlorn situation in the universe, a new and as yet unheard of innocence leading to genuine peace and happiness.

The first hint of this vision is contained in The Possessed, in Stavrogin’s dream of “a corner of the Greek archipelago as it was some three thousand years ago.” The dream derives from Stavrogin’s persistent memory of Claude Lorraine’s painting Acis and Galatea, which he had once seen in the Dresden museum and which he chooses to call “The Golden Age.” (According to his biographers, Dostoevsky had seen this picture several times and it made an indelible impression on him.)

In Stavrogin’s version of the dream only the mythological past with its connotations of innocence and happiness is recalled, whereas in later works the past is displaced by the future. In a more elaborate form the vision is explored in A Raw Youth (1875). It receives further elaboration in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” published two years later, in which the vision of a golden age is transposed to a distant star whose inhabitants live harmoniously in their human and natural environment, as men might some day live on our own planet. Finally, in The Brothers Karamazov a recapitulation of this dream of an earthly paradise is mockingly recited by the devil, Ivan’s alter ego and the product of his hallucination.

Admittedly this Dostoevskyean theme cannot be described as anything more than a minor vision expressed shamefacedly, with no end of equivocation. No wonder a good many of Dostoevsky’s critics failed even to notice its presence. The major vision to which he continually and strenuously committed and recommitted himself he defined succinctly as “the Russian idea which will restore the world.” With the utmost stubbornness he insisted on mixing his “Russian idea” with his passionate Christology. It seems that he was unable to hold on to Christ without his Russianism, or to his Russianism without Christ. Thus he wrote to Maykov in January, 1867:

Our people is immeasurably higher, nobler, more upright, more capable, and filled with a different, higher, Christian idea, which Europe with its dead carcass of Catholicism, and its stupidly self-contradictory Lutheranism, cannot even understand.

For someone as intelligent as Dostoevsky to make such brashly unconditional claims suggests that he was far from certain of their truth and was merely trying hard to convince himself. Yet, astonishingly enough, at the very same time he was constructing in his mind an alternate vision, devoid of either Russianism or religiosity. Like his major vision, his alternate minor vision is mystical as well as utopian even while radically negating “the sovereign idea,” as he once called it, of immortality or any other survival of the belief in the supernatural.

The earthly paradise this vision projects is of course sheer heresy considered from the standpoint of Christian theology, but it does not have anything in common with what the Marxists call “scientific socialism.” It is a conception entirely inspired by the abstract-idealist mode of thought, involving no material and political exertions, yet the edge of its idealism is sharp enough to cut through all notions of the religious renunciation of the world and man’s rise to transcendent reality in the divine.

There is a dialectical twist in the way in which Dostoevsky distributes the dream among his characters. Thus Stavrogin himself, of whom we are told that he has lost all sense of the distinction between good and evil, first dreams of the “magic panorama” suggested by Claude Lorraine’s painting Acis and Galatea. Of all the figures in The Possessed he is surely the one most desperately in need of it. For him the dream serves as therapy, even if the therapy finally fails when a small dot in the center of the light grows into the shape of a red spider, and the dream turns into a nightmare, reminding him of the spider he saw on a geranium leaf when Matryosha, the little girl he had violated, stood haggard and with feverish eyes on the threshold of his room lifting her tiny fist against him.

Yet if the dream is spoiled for Stavrogin, who is beyond saving, it already contains in embryo the characteristic scene that dominates all of the dreams in Dostoevsky’s later works. The following is Stavrogin’s account of the dream, preceded by the explanation that Claude Lorraine’s picture appeared in it “yet not as a picture but as though it were an actual scene”:

As in the picture, I saw a corner of the Greek archipelago the way it was some three thousand years ago: caressing azure waves, rocks and islands, a shore in blossom, afar a magic panorama, a beckoning sunset—words fail one. European mankind remembers this place as its cradle….

Here was mankind’s earthly paradise, gods descended from heaven and united with mortals…. Here lived beautiful men and women! They rose, they went to sleep, happy and innocent; the groves rang with their merry songs, the great overflow of unspent energies poured itself into love and simple-hearted joys….

Oh, how happy I was that my heart was shaken and at last I loved! The sun poured its rays upon these isles and this sea, rejoicing in its fair children. Oh, marvelous dream, lofty illusion! The most improbable of all visions, to which mankind throughout its existence has given its best energies…for which it has pined and been tormented, for which its prophets were crucified and killed….

All these sensations I lived through, as it were, in this dream. I do not know exactly what I dreamed about, my dream was only of sensation, but the cliffs, and the sea, and the slanting rays of the setting sun, all that I still seemed to see when I woke up and opened my eyes, for the first time in my life literally wet with tears….

A feeling of happiness, hitherto unknown to me, pierced my heart till it ached…. But suddenly I noticed a tiny dot in the center of the bright, bright light….

Thus it is not given to Stavrogin, who leads “a life, so to speak, of mockery,” and to whom good and evil are merely words without real substance, to see any more in the “marvelous dream” than the “lofty illusion” of a golden age that has passed beyond recall. It is only in his next novel, A Raw Youth, that Dostoevsky contrived to plant a more complete and ideologically explicit version of Stavrogin’s painfully curtailed dream. Perhaps because this novel was first published serially in the progressive periodical National Notes, edited by the famous radical-populist poet Nekrasov, Dostoevsky could proceed freely to spin out and interpret his obsessive vision in a fashion that he might have thought inappropriate for the earlier novel, in fact as contradicting its national messianism. In the new novel he did permit himself, however, to let Versilov (who is actually, if not nominally, the chief figure) report on the dream in such a way as to disclose its true import, which now bears more on an idealized future than on the mythological past.

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