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….
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 should not have been taken into account at all by what one might call the devout league of commentators, that is, those persuaded of Dostoevsky’s exemplary Christianity. I have in mind, to mention only a few representative names, such men as Berdyaev, Mochulsky, Zenkovsky, and Vyacheslav Ivanov among the White Russian émigrés, R. P. Blackmur and Eliseo Vivas among the Americans, and, among the innumerable German studies, such a work as Reinhard Lauth’s immensely long and ostensibly exhaustive Die Philosophie Dostojewskis in systematischer Darstellung (1950).
The aforementioned German work, which might be rendered into English as Dostoevsky’s Philosophy Systematically Presented, is in itself a critical gaffe of the first order. For in Dostoevsky there is in fact no systematic philosophy, no consistent and logically shaped point of view, neither a stable outlook nor any kind of mental stasis. His speculatively charged, dynamic, spiritually and intellectually turbulent mode of thought breeds mostly insoluble contradictions, paradoxes at once stimulating and disruptive, as well as outright antinomies. The ponderous systematizing that Herr Lauth goes in for with such dogged persistence is a quality of his own intellectual temper, not of Dostoevsky’s.
In truth, the Russian novelist can be spoken of as a philosopher only in a loose, analogical sense. Dostoevsky, whose thinking frequently proceeds in seeming unawareness of his contradictions, is no philosopher at all, in the strict sense of the term. Thus when Berdyaev remarks somewhere that Dostoevsky is to be regarded as Russia’s greatest philosopher, all one can reply is that he must be using a definition of philosophy that most students of that discipline would find totally unacceptable. Or else that he is simply confusing the depth and acuteness of the Dostoevskyean consciousness with the specific kind of mental process that philosophers properly engage in. 1
To my mind, Dostoevsky is best characterized as primarily a dramatic fabulist who happened to be intensely and singularly drawn to sheer thinking without regard to the rigors of method or logic. Always open to ideas, he converts them into highly dramatic (and quite as often melodramatic) forces in his fictive worlds, into the very particulars of emotions, action, purpose, and character, while at the same time mixing freely, almost casually, his scrutiny of the actual world with intuitions belonging essentially to the sphere of the numinous.
A number of scholarly works have been published in the Soviet Union that are of undoubted value in establishing the facts and circumstances of Dostoevsky’s career; but in evaluating his work, the Soviet critics tend to follow the party line of denigrating the idea that Dostoevsky was a writer of world stature endowed with uncommon ideological and psychological powers. Instead, when not discrediting him altogether, they restrict his role to that of an antagonist of “bourgeois values” and champion of “the insulted and injured.”
The attitude of Marxists not bound by the party line cannot be summed up so easily. In Literature and Revolution Trotsky, while by no means discounting Dostoevsky’s importance as a great Russian creative figure, bluntly alludes to his Christianity as “perfidious.” Georg Lukacs’s essay in his book Der russiche Realismus in der Weltliteratur is illuminating, though too limited in scope to allow for anything like the full development of a Marxist perspective. It is precisely from such a perspective, however, that Arnold Hauser is able to present an elaborate, thoughtful, and highly plausible critical account in his Social History of Art.2 In Hauser’s view Dostoevsky owes the depth and refinement of his psychology
…to the intensity with which he experiences the problematical nature of the modern intellectual, whereas the naïveté of his moral philosophy comes from his anti-rationalistic escapades, from his betrayal of reason and his inability to resist the temptations of romanticism and abstract idealism. His mystical nationalism, his religious orthodoxy, and his intuitive ethics form an intellectual unity, and obviously originate in the same experience, the same spiritual shock…. Only in later years Dostoevsky becomes the moralist, the mystic and the reactionary that he is often summarily described to be.
Still, having said all this Hauser proceeds to draw a distinction between the consciously held ideas of writers and their world view as shown in their creative practice. In the case of Dostoevsky, to be sure, this distinction is of particular significance. As Hauser puts it, “What decides the world-view of a writer is not so much whose side he supports as through whose eyes he looks at the world.” When it comes to that one hardly needs to insist any longer that the author of The Brothers Karamazov looked at what is new in the world with far greater deliberateness, profundity, and agitation through the eyes of Ivan than through those of his nominal favorite, Alyosha, or through those of the laboriously wrought saintly Father Zossima. The same goes for Crime and Punishment, where it is not Sonia Marmeladov’s pitiable situation and frenzy of faith that cast a spell over us but the restless spirit and conflict-ridden mind of the freethinker Raskolnikov.
On this theme it is well worth recalling the observation of an acute if somewhat casual American commentator that in order to account for Dostoevsky’s numerous paradoxes one must first grasp the fact that he is a 99 percent atheist and therefore a 101 percent believer. Comments of this nature are hard to come by, however. Most writers on Dostoevsky, flinching from this sort of discriminating approach, prefer to repeat mechanically after him his overstated because only half-believed-in formulas of deliverance from evil, Christian renewal, and ultimate salvation.
Being at once an extreme skeptic and an extreme believer generated in Dostoevsky a chronically antinomic state of mind which he surreptitiously relished, I believe, even as he tried to conceal it from his readers and especially from his patrons, including the renowned Pobedonstsev who belonged to aristocratic and official circles. To ascribe this to mere disingenuousness would be far too simple. It would mean losing sight of his deep ambivalence, the complexity of his sensibility and mind, as well as the extreme contradictions of the historical moment which in his own way he embodied.
The first thing to be considered is that Dostoevsky experienced in his lifetime (even if only within the milieu of the newly formed intelligentsia) the heady and precipitate secularization of Russia, a process aptly characterized by the critic E. Lampert (Studies in Rebellion, London, 1957) as spelling “the end of a world created with the fixity of the iconographic canon.” It was at this immensely fateful juncture in Russian history that Dostoevsky felt impelled to resist with frenetic zeal the impact of Western thought, its radical social ideas no less than its religious ones, whether Catholic or Protestant. Yet he never really succeeded in extricating himself from the torture chamber of doubt and unbelief that are part of the modern consciousness. In spite of his ranting against the Westernizing wing of the intelligentsia, he could never really purge himself of the forbidden fruit of European civilization.
It seems to me that a good many Western analysts of Russian culture and society err in making far too little of the suddenness with which European ideas entered Russia. For the shock of the “illumination” brought by these ideas was virtually a mental and political revolution. To be sure, there are significant exceptions among Western analysts. One such is Thomas Masaryk, who, in the second volume of his book The Spirit of Russia (1919), has much that is pertinent to say on this subject:
Let the reader call to mind Tolstoy’s Confession, where that writer describes the revolution that took place within his mind when he learned, as a great novelty, that there was no God. In Europe, generations and centuries prepared the way for this novelty; medieval philosophy and theocratic organization had been transformed step by step….
But think of theocratic Russia, enter into the mind of the religiously trained Russian, and realize how there came to him, like a bolt from the blue, the message of Voltaire, Diderot, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Stirner, Vogt, Straus and Marx….
But what must have been the effect of the sudden invasion of unbelief in Russia, a land where the church and its monasteries had hitherto been the highest and indeed the sole generally recognized spiritual authority…. In England Mill and Darwin were buried in Westminster Abbey; in Russia, such men as Chernishevsky, adherents of Mill and Darwin, found their way to the penitentiary or to Siberia!
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.
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.
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.”
April 20, 1972
That the Russians have never been very strong in philosophy is well known. In this sphere they are pupils, not teachers. No wonder that even as late as 1912 Trotsky, annoyed by the extravagant pretensions of the Russian intelligentsia, was able to taunt it for its sterility in philosophy. He asked: “What exactly have we given in the area of philosophy or social science?” His answer: “Nothing, a round zero. Vladimir Solovyov, who is usually remembered only on the anniversary of his death? His foggy metaphysics has not entered the history of world-thought; even in Russia his ideas failed to produce anything like a philosophical movement.” Trotsky continues by holding up to scorn the philosophical small fry who are looking forward to the imminent appearance of “a Slavic Kant.” “Where is he? He does not exist. Where is our Hegel? Where is one of equal importance in the history of thought? In philosophy we have none but third-rate disciples and faceless epigoni.” (Cf., Trotsky’s essay “Concerning the Intelligentsia,” Partisan Review, Fall, 1968.) ↩
Cf., pp. 142ff. of The Social History of Art, Vol. 4 (Vintage Books). ↩
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. ↩