• Email
  • Print

Art and Life

In response to:

The Fatal Charm of the Millennium from the January 22, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

Aileen Kelly’s fascinating article, “The Fatal Charm of the Millennium” [NYR, January 22], will have given much pleasure to many people, as it did to me.

There is one error in it which cries for correction, however. She writes:

Bakunin’s infatuation and subsequent disillusion with him [Nechaev] are a psychological drama at least as powerful as Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Nechaev himself in The Possessed….

It is too bad that after a century this confusion should still be current among otherwise learned persons, though the novelist took the greatest pains to scotch it. In The Citizen for 1873, no. 30, later published as part of The Diary of a Writer, there is a long article entitled, “One of the Contemporaneous Falsehoods.” The relevance for those in 1976 who are concerned with the various forms of nihilism among our own youth can hardly be overestimated. It would be a serviceable act to reprint the whole article in The Review. *

About Nechaev Dostoevsky says:

I have not discussed in my novel the notorious Nechaiev and his victim Ivanov. The face of my Nechaiev, of course, does not resemble that of the real Nechaiev. I meant to put this question and to answer it as clearly as possible in the form of a novel: how, in our contemporaneous, transitional and peculiar society, are the Nechaievs, not Nechaiev himself, made possible? And how does it happen that these Nechaievs eventually manage to enlist followers—the Nechaievtzi? [The second italics added.]

That is the great fundamental question for our society as well. We too have a plague of Nechaievtzi.

Katharine Strelsky

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Aileen Kelly replies:

I much appreciate Mrs. Strelsky’s kind remarks about my review. However, it is not at all clear to me why she believes that the passage she quotes demonstrates that (in company with the much more learned authors of all the standard works on Dostoevsky) I am confused as to Dostoevsky’s intentions. If, as she seems to assume, Dostoevsky is saying that his character Petr Verkhovensky owes little or nothing to Nechaev, but is a pure artistic invention, this would make nonsense of the second part of the quotation: literary—and real—Nechaevs by definition exist only in so far as they resemble their real-life prototype.

The cause of the confusion is surely Mrs. Strelsky’s misunderstanding of the meaning of the passage, which is clear from the paragraph which precedes it. Here Dostoevsky asserts that “there is no literal reproduction of [the Nechaev affair]…. I took a phenomenon and merely sought to explain the possibility of its occurrence in our society as a social phenomenon and not in an anecdotal sense of a mere depiction of a particular Moscow episode.”

Dostoevsky is saying no more here than that his representation of the Nechaev affair is not historical but artistic; in response to the literal-minded who accused him of blackening Nechaev’s character for propaganda purposes, he is pointing to the difference between history and art, between “literal” treatment of “particular” phenomena and the universal imaginative truth of art. That in this artistic sense, Petr Verkhovensky was intended to be a portrait of Nechaev, is evident from the following passage in a letter to Katkov (October 8, 1870):

One of the most important events in my story will be Ivanov’s murder by Nechaev…. I hasten to add a reservation: I do not know and have never known either Nechaev or Ivanov, or the circumstances of the murder, except from the newspapers. And even if I had, I would not have begun copying them. I’m only taking the accomplished fact. My fantasy can in the highest degree differ from the reality that took place, and my Petr Verkhovensky may in no way resemble Nechaev, but it seems to me that in my astonished mind imagination has created that character, that type, which corresponds to this crime. [My italics]

This—the artistically credible depiction of a psychological type corresponding to the activity of Nechaev and his “crime”—is what I meant when I referred to Dostoevsky’s compelling portrayal of Nechaev in The Possessed: that a literary artist’s portrait cannot by definition be a “literal reproduction,” but involves the transformation, through imaginative selection, of the individual and contingent into an eternal type, did not, I think, have to be spelled out.

The definitive proof of Dostoevsky’s intentions are the Notebooks on The Possessed, which show his consistent effort to construct the character Petr Verkhovensky (referred to throughout the Notebooks as “Nechaev”) on the basis of what he knew about Nechaev. In particular, two sections—“About what Nechaev wants” and “Nechaev’s views on the course of internal politics,” enumerating Nechaev’s methods (the use of blackmail, murder, and deception on the grounds that the end justifies all means, the creation of small circles of revolutionaries cemented by the guilt of participation in some common crime, the breaking down of society through the encouragement of crime and disorders, and so on)—show that where Dostoevsky’s imagination filled the gaps in his knowledge he came remarkably close to the truth, with references to details of Nechaev’s Revolutionary Catechism which were only subsequently disclosed at the trial of the Nechaevists. As regards Nechaev’s personality, Dostoevsky seizes on those traits which most struck those who knew him; he echoes the suspicion of many revolutionaries: “Nechaev is not a socialist but a rebel. His ideal is insurrection and destruction and then, whatever might come,” and he concentrates on the enigma of a personality which at times appeared that of a criminal, a cynic, even an agent provocateur, and at times that of a fanatic, devoted to the cause. Although in the final version of the novel Verkhovensky/Nechaev is endowed with a comic aspect which is pure invention, he nevertheless retains all the characteristics set down, from life, in the Notebooks. While these “facts” about Nechaev were, as Dostoevsky reminds us, subordinated to his artistic purposes, they nevertheless were a crucial element in the process which turned Nechaev, from a peripheral figure in the Russian revolutionary movement, into an eternal human type.

  1. *

    The Diary of a Writer (George Braziller, 1954), pp., 142-154.

  • Email
  • Print