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A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky

It is important to note that Versilov begins his account with almost exactly the same words used by Stavrogin. Again we hear of the picture Acis and Galatea, which Versilov too renames “The Golden Age,” and again we are told of the vivid impression of a corner of the Greek archipelago, of its smiling waves, isles, and rocks, “a flowery shore, a view like fairyland in the distance, a setting sun with its slanting rays,” in short, the scene of “an earthly paradise where gods come down from the skies” and where lives, happy and innocent, “a splendid race.” In the rest of the passage he goes on to repeat almost verbatim Stavrogin’s effusion:

The Golden Age is the most unlikely of all the dreams that have been, but for it men have given up their life and all their strength, for the sake of it prophets have died and have been slain, without it the peoples will not live and cannot die, and the feeling of this I lived through, as it were, in that dream; rocks and sea, and the slanting rays—all this I seemed to see when I woke up and opened my eyes, literally wet with tears. I remember that I was glad, a sensation of happiness I had never known before thrilled my heart till it ached; it was the love of all humanity.

Versilov is a humanist, whose experience excludes Stavrogin’s extreme desperation. His dream is not cut off by a tiny dot which turns into a red spider. The thoughts the dream suggests to him are animated by fervent hope, an auspicious view of the future in which the naïve innocence of the golden age of the past is transcended in a new unity of mankind forged almost “on the last day of humanity” in spite of the absence of God. This absence is definitive, as Versilov makes clear to his son Arkady. Never again is Dostoevsky so outspoken about the larger implications of his secular vision. To understand these implications, it is necessary at this point to quote Versilov in full:

I picture to myself, my boy…that war is at an end and strife has ceased. After curses, pelting with mud, and hisses, has come a lull, and men are left alone, according to their desire; the great idea of old has left them; the great source of strength that till then had nourished and fostered them was vanishing like the majestic sun setting in Claude Lorraine’s picture, but it was somehow the last day of humanity, and men suddenly understood that they were left quite alone, and at once felt terribly forlorn.

I have never, dear boy, been able to picture men ungrateful and grown stupid. Men left forlorn would begin to draw together more closely and more lovingly; they would clutch one another’s hands, realizing that they were all that was left for one another! The great idea of immortality would have vanished, and they would have to fill its place; and all the wealth of love lavished upon Him, who was immortal, would be turned upon the whole of nature, on the world, on men, on every blade of grass. They would inevitably grow to love the earth and life as they gradually became aware of their transitory and finite nature, and with special love, not as of old, they would begin to observe and would discover in nature phenomena and secrets which they had not suspected before, for they would look at nature with new eyes, as a lover looking on his beloved.

On awakening they would hasten to kiss one another, eager to love, knowing that their days are short, and that is all that is left to them. They would work for one another, and each would give up all that he had to all, and by that only would be happy. Every child would know and feel that every one on earth was for him like a father and mother. “Tomorrow may be the last day,” each one would think, looking at the setting sun; “but no matter, I shall die, but all they will remain and after them their children,” and anxious over each other, would replace the thought of meeting beyond the tomb.

Oh, they would be in haste to love, to stifle the great sorrow in their hearts. They would be proud and brave for themselves, but would grow timid for one another; every one would tremble for the life and happiness of each; they would grow tender with one another, and would not be ashamed of it as now, and would be as caressing as children. Meeting, they would look at one another with deep and thoughtful eyes, and in their eyes would be love and sorrow.

How strange it is to hear a Dostoevskyean spokesman no longer predicting that following the loss of faith (“the great idea of old…the great source of strength”) men will plunge into a terror of chaos but declaring instead that it is this very loss that will enable them finally to open a window to the sun—that is, to the whole of nature, to an affirmation of the sufficiency of the earthly life and to the tender even if sorrowful love binding them each to each that results from the knowledge of their absolute forlornness in the universe, a love, moreover, that will do away with war and strife.

Out of a heterodox anthropocentrism Dostoevsky thus constructs a veritable idyll of atheism; and this idyll, however visionary, calls into question and in a sense negates the final vision of chaos induced by unbelief which is evoked in his creation of such children of darkness as Raskolnikov and Stavrogin. This is a significant reversal of values. True, it is a purely hypothetical reversal; Dostoevsky does not indulge in it fully, or without equivocation. What holds him back is probably the fear of acknowledging (not least to himself) his variant conception of the future—that “the great idea of old” is bound to vanish in time, being no more than a historical “error” or “illusion,” and that mankind will not only survive the loss but even finally achieve liberation from the vices of the past.

Such an admission on Dostoevsky’s part might after all be read as in effect annulling his religious commitment; it is as if having reached this point in explicating his dream of an earthly paradise he is positively appalled by his own temerity. Thus he recklessly begins to maneuver to have it both ways. How? By imposing on Versilov’s long speech—which, in its explicitness, cuts to the heart of the matter—an additional brief paragraph that appears to deny everything that has just been said. It is obvious to the critical reader that this paragraph is artificially tacked on. For here Versilov remarks with cavalier inconsequence that he cannot complete the picture of the future he has drawn without recalling Heine’s vision of “Christ on the Baltic Sea.” “I could not get on without Him. I could not help imagining Him, in fact, in the midst of his bereaved people. He comes to them…and then, as it were, the scales would fall from their eyes and there would break forth the great rapturous hymn of the new and last resurrection.”

The Christ so suddenly and preposterously sprung upon us at the end of Versilov’s speech strikes us as a strictly supposititious, or at best vestigial, figure—the phantom of a reluctant atheist. At this point Dostoevsky might well be accused of insincerity. However, I prefer to construe this hollow sounding ending, which patently contravenes everything that Versilov had said before, as another instance of the Russian novelist’s frequent practice of letting obdurate hope and irrational faith dissolve the imaginative logic as well as the intellectual coherence of even his most acute and original speculations.3

While Stavrogin’s and Versilov’s accounts of their dreams are no more than digressions, bearing no direct relation to the plotting of the novels in which they occur, the story of the “ridiculous man,” on the other hand, is entirely centered on this theme, which is now developed to its maximum dramatic intensity and ideological value. Certain thematic variations of great complexity are also added. The elements in the story are fully rendered dramatically and psychologically, with no resort to “the banality of mere statement,” as the Jamesian phrase has it. It is a truly superb fictional representation of its author’s enduring vision of an earthly paradise. And his habitual fluctuation, his wavering between the two visions—the major Christian one and its antithetical alternate—are wholly embodied in it.

The “ridiculous man,” the narrator-protagonist of the story, might as well be called the “absurd man,” for in his singularly modern extremity he anticipates those figures of the “absurd” that haunt twentieth-century literature. At the very start the narrator tells us that he was “terribly disheartened” because of one circumstance beyond his power to control: “namely, the conviction which was gaining upon me that nothing in the whole world made any difference” (italics in the text).

Worse than that, he felt that it made no difference to him “whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.” Moreover, from the acute consciousness that nothing existed in his own lifetime he gradually derives the idea that nothing existed in the past either, “only for some reason it had merely seemed to have been,” so that inevitably, even if little by little, he becomes convinced that “there would be nothing in the future either.” In so “absurd” a situation his indifference mounts to the point where he ceases being angry with people and almost stops noticing them. With the total disappearance of meaning, with existence following essence into the void, the “ridiculous man” has no option but to decide to shoot himself.

The only question left open is precisely when to pull the trigger. So he sits down at the table, draws the gun out of the drawer, and puts it in front of him, being certain that he will shoot himself that very night. The one thing he does not know is how much longer he will go on sitting at that table. While so sitting he falls asleep and dreams without being aware of it that he has already shot himself and is buried in the earth. But suddenly the grave is opened and he is “seized by some dark and unknown being” who carries him off into outer space, and after a long flight puts him down on another planet where he finds himself in the midst of the very earthly paradise that both Stavrogin and Versilov had dreamed of. The “ridiculous man” describes it in virtually identical words:

I stood on this other earth in the bright light of a sunny day fair and beautiful as paradise. I believe I was standing on one of the islands which on our earth form the Greek archipelago…. Oh, everything was just as it is with us, except that everything seemed to be bathed in the radiance of some public festival and of some great and holy triumph attained at last. The gentle emerald sea softly lapped the shore and kissed it with manifest, visible, almost conscious love.

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    It goes without saying that this tendency, bespeaking double-mindedness and irresolution, plays right into the hands of the devout believers among the Dostoevsky critics and scholars. In trying to overcome the dilemma that his alternate vision puts them in, they apply various methods. Some, not understanding what they read, simply ignore it; others interpret it in such a way as utterly to distort its meaning.

    For example the late Konstantin Mochulsky, a belated convert to Orthodoxy who served to the end of his life on the faculty of the St. Sergius Theological Seminary in Paris, literally turns handsprings to make us believe that Dostoevsky’s minor alternate vision is merely a variant of his major Christian vision and is actually of a piece with it. He is quite aware that the three dreams—Stavrogin’s, Versilov’s, and that of the “ridiculous man”—form one whole, “a kind of triptych.” But what is his interpretation? Basing himself entirely and with ludicrous solemnity on Versilov’s appended last-minute appeal to Christ, while ignoring all that precedes it, he concludes that the triptych proves Dostoevsky’s belief in “the resurrection and transfiguration of the flesh.” Thus all ends happily for him with “the hymn of the last resurrection” (cf., p. 556 of Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, Princeton, 1967).

    Nicolas Berdyaev, on the other hand, also a convert and a more prominent one, distorts Dostoevsky’s text in a wholly different way. Unlike Mochulsky, he admits that what Versilov is saying is that all people will come to love each other and be at one “because the great idea of love and eternal life which used to sustain them had now been lost.” Berdyaev goes even further in characterizing this “picture of love without God” as the “antithesis of Christian love.” Where is the way out, then, for a commentator intent on making Dostoevsky out to be an examplary Christian? The way out is blandly to assume, without bothering even to provide the slightest bit of textual evidence, that Dostoevsky is in no way implicated in Versilov’s heretical vision. By thus denying the complicity that binds author to character, Berdyaev converts Versilov’s speech into another Dostoevskyean dire warning that without immortality there can be no true love (cf., p. 128ff. of Dostoevsky, Meridian Books, 1957).

    This last claim may well be Berdyaev’s most cherished belief, but to read it into Dostoevsky’s alternate vision is a gross misrepresentation of the text. For one thing, Versilov is not an “adversary” character. For another, in the account he gives of his dream he is clearly being used by his author simply to voice a prescient even if in some respects visionary heretical-secularist speculation that other characters, who have nothing in common with Versilov, repeat in other contexts. In truth, Dostoevsky was never as simple-minded or narrow-minded as most of his dogmatic Orthodox commentators, of whatever Christian denomination, who set out to interpret him in such a homiletic fashion as to make certain of support for their truculent piety. Plainly, their main concern is to enlist the prestigious novelist as a “witness” in the service of their faith. In this biased procedure all literary-critical distinctions are invariably lost.

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