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…

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