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A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky

Once again the scene suggested by Claude Lorraine’s Acis and Galatea is evoked. This third dreamer, “a modern Russian progressive and a despicable citizen of Petersburg,” begins observing the life of the beautiful race that inhabits this earthly paradise. He is astonished to learn that these people “desired nothing and were at peace with themselves.” Playful and high-spirited, they wander about their lovely woods and groves, living on simple food and conversing with the trees and with the animals that love them. They know sexual life and beget children, but the narrator never notices in them “those outbursts of cruel sensuality which overtake almost everybody on earth.” Their idea of “life eternal” is so thoroughly pantheistic as to have nothing in common with the Christian conception of it:

They found it almost impossible to understand me when I questioned them about life eternal, but apparently they were so convinced of it in their minds that for them it was no question at all. They had no places of worship, but they had a certain awareness of a constant, uninterrupted, and living union with the Universe at large. They had no specific religion, but instead they had a certain knowledge that when their earthly joy had reached the limits imposed upon it by nature, they—both the living and the dead—would reach a state of still closer communion with the Universe at large. They looked forward to that moment with joy, but without haste and without pining for it….

Clearly, the Christian world view is not only unknown but also wholly superfluous to these dwellers in the earthly paradise who, as is expressly stated, have “no places of worship” or any “specific religion.” Living as they do in close communion with “the Universe at large,” they know nothing of the radical separation of man from nature (out of which grow the attendant notions of personal immortality and salvation) which is the deepest and most fundamental assumption underlying all of our “higher” religions.

There is no authorial comment or intrusion in the narrator’s report on the happy mode of life he observes so exultingly. His acquiescence in it can be taken only as a form of identification. In his previous state of “absurdity” as in his later ecstasy—when “the sensation of the fullness of life” leaves him “breathless” as he “worships” the new life he has discovered—the narrator is at one with the writer, who in this way finds it possible to undercut his own ostensible Christian conviction without taking direct responsibility for secretly receding from it.

But what happens? As it turns out, the nameless narrator, the “despicable citizen of Petersburg” and a modern “Russian progressive” to boot, secretly suffers from a spiritual emptiness in his new-found paradise. As he puts it: “Surely my paltry heart and my vacillating and trivial mind could not have risen to such a revelation of truth!” At this point a different and horribly shocking truth is disclosed to us by the narrator—“I have been concealing it all the time, but…the fact is, I—corrupted them all.”

This is the story’s sudden reversal, the inevitable Fall into the hell of mankind’s history as Dostoevsky realistically perceives it, which in other contexts he accepts or even, when overcome by his passionate Christianity, forgets. (He returns to it later in the story, at the very end, though unconvincingly, for it is much too late to effect another reversal.) In the very long passage that follows, however, he is again at one with the narrator, when, with a kind of analytic ferocity, he sums up what men are like and what they have done, without a hint of redemption. He appears to be telling us what happened on the other, the imaginary planet, after the Fall. It is all too clear that he is speaking about us, the inmates of our familiar and sadly exclusive earth. A short extract from this long passage will suggest its flavor and historical meaning:

They learnt to lie, and they grew to appreciate the beauty of a lie…. Then voluptuousness was soon born, voluptuousness begot jealousy, and jealousy—cruelty…. Very soon the first blood was shed: they were shocked and horrified, and they began to separate and to shun one another. They formed alliances, but it was one against another. Recriminations began, reproaches. They came to know shame, and they made shame into a virtue. The conception of honor was born, and every alliance raised its own standard….

A struggle began for separation, for isolation, for personality, for mine and thine. They began talking in different languages. They came to know sorrow, and they loved sorrow. They thirsted for suffering, and they said that Truth could only be attained by suffering. It was then that science made its appearance among them. When they became wicked, they began talking of brotherhood and humanity and understood the meaning of those ideas. When they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up whole codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine.

They only vaguely remembered…that they ever were happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility of their former happiness and called it a dream…but the strange and wonderful thing was that though they had lost faith in their former state of happiness…they longed so much to be happy and innocent once more that, like children, they succumbed to the desire of their hearts, glorified this desire, built temples, and began offering up prayers to their own idea, their own “desire,” and at the same time firmly believed that it could not be realized and brought about, though they still worshipped and adored it with tears.

Still, after this bitter résumé of history, in which all values, however supernal and glorified in religious tradition, have been ruthlessly exposed and traced to criminal sources, the “ridiculous man” awakes from his dream only to declare, in a mood of naïve optimism, that now that he has “beheld the Truth,” he knows that “people can be happy and beautiful without losing their ability to live on earth.” It is really very simple; all that is necessary is “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

It is plain that in this last page of his story Dostoevsky is back doing business at his old stand. The ending he has devised cannot be taken seriously. It lacks credibility. It is the product of Dostoevsky’s attempt to have it both ways—to destroy the Christian version of history while at the same time recovering his belief and appeasing his conscience as a Christian. This ending can satisfy only the devout among his critics and expositors, who cannot accept the far-reaching exposure of values that precedes it.

It seems to me that this story perfectly exemplifies Victor Serge’s observation that Dostoevsky “looks for the truth and fears to find it” and when he finds it “all the same…then he is terrified.” Dostoevsky’s truth is incorporated in the body of the story, his fear of it in the ending.

Let us then disregard the factitious ending. Indeed, the story’s implicit logic prepares us for a different ending altogether. Upon awakening, should not the “ridiculous man,” having been admitted to an earthly paradise only to act in it as the agent of corruption—“a horrible trichina, a germ of the plague”—finally carry out his initial resolve to kill himself? For now more than ever his design of suicide is fully motivated. After all, having “infected” the happy and innocent people, he has witnessed the rise, out of nothing less than their “wickedness,” of consolatory but empty ideals, ideals that tease their “wickedness” without ever dislodging it.

Nor are the ideals that Dostoevsky cherished spared. Has he not repeatedly exalted suffering as heuristic and humanizing? Yet in the dream planet, which is really an analogue of our own, the corrupted people are shown to thirst for suffering, saying that “Truth can only be attained by suffering.” But that is only another of the innumerable ways they have devised to rationalize away their “wickedness.” Furthermore, we are told that precisely as they became “wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanity….” So much for Christian values!

But this is by no means all. Through the medium of his analytical dreamer Dostoevsky proceeds to tell us that having no real faith in their former state of happiness, these corrupted people “longed so much to be happy and innocent once more” that they yielded “to the desire of their hearts” and began building temples and offering prayers “to their own idea, their own desire.” This insight into the essence of religion virtually corresponds to Feuerbach’s idea that man abstracts the best in himself, alienates his ideal self by projecting it into a distant heaven as if it were an entity whose existence is outside himself. For Dostoevsky, the passionate Christian, to confess to that much is brutal heresy.

The form this parable takes is of great interest. Instead of projecting his earthly paradise into the future, as he usually did, Dostoevsky materializes it here and now by locating it on another planet. This permits him to describe a merely imaginary future as actually existing in the present while at the same time he shifts our own historical past to the future conceived as following rather than preceding the golden age. Thus he organizes the progress of the story so as to produce a kind of anamorphic image in which past, present, and future are made to coexist, like a distorted drawing that appears natural in a curved mirror.

In this way he accomplishes a double aim: he exhibits the splendors of the longed-for golden age while simultaneously exhibiting the innate evil of our nature which brings about its disintegration. This procedure fully expresses his own basic duality. In his own way he believes in his dream of the earthly paradise yet at the same time, because of his pessimism about human nature, he cannot fully commit himself to his vision but can only play with it.

Of course, according to Christian theology the idea proclaimed by the narrator upon awakening from his dream that “people can be happy and beautiful without losing their ability to live on earth” is wholly unacceptable. Theology teaches us that it is futile for man to seek to realize the divine in the earthly; he must aspire to a life in God. Here, in disdaining heavenly compensation, Dostoevsky is entirely abandoning orthodoxy though without seeming to be aware of the implications of this abandonment. He wants the kingdom of God to be established in the here and now, and for this reason he constructs his earthly paradise, which is the kingdom. Yet the pressure of his ambivalence with its irrepressible iconoclasm is so great that he ends by destroying it.

Every time Dostoevsky embarked on the composition of a new work he was compelled at once to remake and unmake both the believer and unbeliever in himself. Toward the end of 1877, soon after publishing “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” he began The Brothers Karamazov. In that great work the vision of an earthly paradise is again invoked, though under very ambiguous circumstances. This time the devil, appearing to Ivan in his delirium, recalls it as he repeats Ivan’s innermost thoughts to mock them. Ivan’s devil is an up-to-date one, sophisticated, a master ironist and sophist, a virtuoso of every nuance of malice.

Many critics of Dostoevsky have dealt with Ivan’s session with the devil, but none that I can think of has ever referred to the particular passage in which the devil implicitly connects Ivan’s unvoiced reflections on the theme of the earthly paradise with those of Versilov and the “ridiculous man.” This internal reference, suggesting the author’s preoccupation with this theme, cannot be properly understood unless it is read in the context of the devil’s tactic of slyly denigrating Ivan’s thought so as to deprive it of honor. What he is after is not only to exacerbate Ivan’s guilt but also to make him feel that his thinking has been criminally foolish. It is a brilliant passage:

…Oh, I love the dreams of my ardent young friends, quivering with eagerness for life!… Oh, blind race of men who have no understanding! As soon as men have all of them denied God—and I believe that period, analogous with geological periods, will come to pass—the old conception of the universe will fall of itself without cannibalism and what’s more the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Every one will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a God. His pride will teach him that it’s useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward. Love will be sufficient only for a moment of life, but the very consciousness of its momentariness will intensify its fire, which now is dissipated in dreams of eternal love beyond the grave…and so on and so forth in the same style. Charming!

Ivan sat with his eyes on the floor, and his hands pressed to his ears, but he began trembling all over. The voice continued.

The question now is, my young friend reflected, is it possible that such a period will ever come? If it does, everything is determined and humanity is settled for ever. But as, owing to man’s inveterate stupidity, that cannot come about for at least a thousand years, every one who recognizes the truth even now may legitimately order his life as he pleases, on the new principles. In that sense “all things are lawful” for him….

This ironic devil is by no means an orthodox Christian. In fact, he is a pragmatist pure and simple. Instead of showing that Ivan’s earthly paradise is an illusion, he confines his gibes to the consequences in the present of that sort of dream. He is saying that in the protracted intermission between the dream and its realization men like Ivan may “legitimately” act as they please, that “all things are lawful.” In so far as he is a pragmatist, however, this devil has deserted his post and placed himself outside the religious sphere.

Yet, unlike some students of Dostoevsky, this devil understands perfectly well that there is no connection whatever between Ivan’s dream (as that of Versilov and the “ridiculous man”) and the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. Note that he does not accuse Ivan of plagiarism or even mention the lost paradise. That story tells of primal man’s sin in falling from instinctual innocence into human consciousness, the knowledge of good and evil. In Dostoevsky’s vision of an earthly paradise the consciousness of men, far from declining, is so heightened as to enable them to attain a new and radically different kind of innocence.

This idea was poetically anticipated by Heinrich von Kleist in his famous essay “On the Marionette Theater,” where he states that now “that paradise is bolted shut, and the angel stands behind us, we must journey around the world and see whether perhaps it is open again somewhere on the yonder side.” He surmises, though, that an opening is to be found after all, writing that “the last chapter in the history of the world” will begin when men “eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to fall back again into the state of innocence.”

What is finally to be made of Dostoevsky’s vision of earthly paradise? In my view, the important thing about it is not its rhapsodic utopianism, its dream of perfect concord, but rather the intensity of its rapture with the earthly, that is to say, its latent secularism and naturalism. Though in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the vision is undermined by the devil’s mockery, we cannot for that reason ignore it or assume that he repudiated it. It was a constant element in his thought and imagination, pointing toward the future—now the present—when literature, in Russia as earlier in the West, turned away from the question that obsessed him throughout his life: the question of the existence of God and immortality.

This alternate vision can thus be said to be a precursor of the historical shift from the concern with what exists beyond the visible world to the concern with the visible. As William James once phrased it, “The earth of things, long thrown into shade by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.”

With few exceptions, the greater poets of the present as of the past century—from Wordsworth to Stevens—have been sufficiently inspired by this shift, even though with some nostalgia, to invest it with positive feeling in their expression of it. The poetry of Wordsworth is full of intimations of what some have called natural religion, as M. H. Abrams persuasively argues in his recent book Natural Supernaturalism. So he can ask:

Paradise, and groves

Elysian, Fortunate Fields—like those of old
Sought in the Atlantic Main—why should they be
A history only of departed things,
Or a mere fiction of what never was?

Of his many answers to this question I will quote only one:

For the discerning intellect of Man,
When wedded to this goodly uni- verse
In love and holy passion, shall find these
A simple produce of the common day.

In American literature the noblest statement on this theme was made by Wallace Stevens. In his great poem “Sunday Morning” the issue is undeviatingly faced in measured and subtle language. His musing protagonist, the woman in her peignoir leisurely enjoying her “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,” begins to dream a little and “feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” But “the green freedom of a cockatoo” on her rug is more real to her. “The pungent oranges, and bright, green wings / Seem things in some procession of the dead” that winds its way “over the seas, to silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.” And now the poet addresses himself directly to her unresolved doubts:

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

And the woman resumes:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures, or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swal- low’s wings.

Unlike the modern poet, Dostoevsky could never put out of his mind the “dominion of the blood and sepulchre,” but at times, however equivocally, he came close to discovering his paradise in the “balm or beauty of the earth.”

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