Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Nietzsche's Zarathustra says to his disciples: "So that no one could look into my inner depths and learn my ultimate will, I devised my long and bright silence. Many I found who were clever: they veiled their faces and muddied their waters so that no one might see through them, deep down. But cleverer mistrusters and diviners came to them and caught their most carefully concealed fish. It is the clear, the bold, the transparent people who are the cleverest among those who are silent: their ground is down so deep that even the clearest water does not betray it." [Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, "On the Mount of Olives."]. Nietzsche himself was no such clever man of silence: he muddied his water; but these words can be fully applied to Count Tolstoy. He is clear, bold, and transparent. Who would think it necessary to descend to the bottom of his soul or believe that monsters live in its depths? He himself likes to speak of his life as being "exceptionally happy in the secular sense." And when as a youth you read his works, how joyfully you view his bright, clear, and transparent depths! It seems that Count Tolstoy knows and comprehends all; it seems that the enigmatic and contradictory aspects of life that trouble people are merely enticing bait for man, and that the instability of all that exists is merely a deceptive mirage. Instability - there is no such word for Count Tolstoy.

     Recall, for example, the Epilogue to War and Peace. Are there really any doubts that could not be resolved around the tea table of Nikolai Rostov’s cozy dining room by the content and happy members of this large assembled family? True, Pierre has brought a handful of ideas from Petersburg which seemingly threaten to destroy the peaceful well-being of these inhabitants of Bald Hills. But, as you know, Count Tolstoy refused to write The Decembrists, and wrote War and Peace instead. The Decembrists, along with Andrey Bolkonsky, were dispatched to the realm of the Ding an sich, where, according to Kant's theory, all antinomies of the human mind are to be sent. And life is left with a priori judgments, the chosen representative of which is the person best suited for such matters - Nikolai Rostov. Would you like to hear the language of apriorism? Pierre Bezukhov, mumbling and lisping, begins to tell something about his experiences in Petersburg: "‘In the courts, bribery; in the army, nothing but the rod; military drill, deportation - the people are harassed, education is stifled. Whatever is young and honorable is crushed! Everyone sees this can't go on much longer. Everything is too strained, and soon it will break,’ Pierre said (as people have always said since governments came into existence, and whenever people have examined the operations of any government whatever) ."

     As you well realize, these are the words of Hume's skepticism. Give them free rein, and all the efforts expended on "war and peace" will turn out to have been needlessly wasted. Therefore, it is necessary to shift the trend of the conversation. And so Nikolai Rostov is allowed to speak. As a man of the a priori, he dislikes proof, and respects only universality and necessity. He comes right out and says so to Pierre: "I can't prove it to you. You say that everything in our country is rotten; I don't see it. If Arakcheev were to order me to march against,,you [i.e., against Pierre and his Petersburg friends] with a squadron and to mow you down, I would do it without a moment's hesitation." Splendidly said, isn't it? As a matter of fact, can anything be proved to Pierre? And, furthermore, isn't Kant right - can we really exist without a priori judgments, i.e., without those that are supported not by scientific arguments, which are always contradictory and unstable, but by a never-changing force, or in other words, by necessity? Shortly before writing War and Peace, Count Tolstoy performed a number of experiments with "conscience" - not with the Kantian-Rostovian conscience, which has principles, but with his own conscience of a man of genius. And do you know what came of it? Not only the a priori judgments, but almost all judgments disappeared. But how can a man live without judgments, without convictions? This great writer of Russia finally saw how convictions are born, and understood what a great advantage the Rostovs have over the Bolkonskys.

     Bolkonsky must not even be allowed to go on living. Where would you end up with him? But Rostov, even if you were to let him live a hundred years, would never lead you down an unknown, false path (unknown and false are synonyms in the given instance). And see what deep respect Count Tolstoy has for Rostov. "For a long time after his [Nikolai's] death," he tells us, "the people retained a pious memory of his management." A pious memory! Retained it for a long time! Look back over everything that Count Tolstoy wrote: he never spoke of a single one of his heroes with such a feeling of gratitude and tender emotion. Why was that, you will ask? Why did this ordinary man deserve such gratitude? Precisely because of his commonplaceness: Rostov knew how to live, and, therefore, he was always stable. Throughout Count Tolstoy's career as a writer, he never valued anything so much as precise knowledge and stability, for he found neither the one nor the other in himself. He could only imitate Rostov, and it goes without saying that he was obliged to shower praise on his lofty model. This "pious memory," like the entire Epilogue to War and Peace, is an impertinent, deliberately impertinent, challenge hurled by Count Tolstoy at all educated men - if you will, at the entire conscience of our time. And it was precisely a deliberate challenge: Count Tolstoy understood, he understood only too well, what he was doing. "I bow before Rostov, but not before Pushkin or Shakespeare, and I declare this openly before everyone" - this is the import of the Epilogue to War and Peace. Note that during the period of his Yasnaya Polyana journals and his early literary-journalistic experiments, when he also repudiated Shakespeare and Pushkin, he at least opposed to them, not an educated landowner, but the entire Russian people. This did not as yet seem so strange. The Russian people, after all, is a great "idea," a magic carpet on which many a reader or writer has made his transcendental journey. But Rostov - why, there is nothing in him that even resembles an idea; he is sheer matter, stagnation, inertia. And to dare to apply the epithet "pious memory" to him! After that, how could anyone really believe that Count Tolstoy is naïve and innocent, or that his innermost depth is transparent and its bottom visible? Obviously Dostoevsky's "hunch" was better than that of Count Tolstoy's other readers: "Anna Karenina is by no means an innocent thing."

     After Pierre's argument with Nikolai, Count Tolstoy takes us for several more minutes into the bedroom of his happy couple. In bedrooms, Count Tolstoy's conversations are carried on in a decidedly special way. In this case, the husband and wife are so accustomed to living with each other, so close, so inseparable that the one immediately catches the meaning of the other at the slightest hint. Here, you can detect nothing but the basic tune of family happiness: "Wir treiben jetzt Familien gluck, was höher lockt, das ist vom Übel." [We now happily carry on a family life, all higher drives are from the Devil - A.K.]. And Count Tolstoy once again depicts this entire idyll with what almost amounts to reverence. "Let the Shakespeares go on depicting tragedy; I, for my part, don't want to know about anything like that." Perhaps that was his thought as he accompanied his couples into the bedroom. But he did not openly say so. Openly, he prepared the solemn apotheosis of family happiness, which owns that all that is "higher" comes from the devil. However, there is a note of irony in this apotheosis - Count Tolstoy could not restrain himself. But, alas, the irony relates not to Rostov, but to Pierre, and not to his family and domestic affairs, but to his Petersburg plans. And even here, the irony is barely noticeable: the word "smugness" is flung at Pierre just twice, as if by chance.

     But in the Rostov’s bedroom, all is lovely. Countess Marya lets her husband read some pious literature of her own composition, and her husband, in reading this diary of his wife's, realizes his own insignificance before her loftiness of spirit. Moreover, Countess Marya offers, in regard to Pierre's dispute with Nikolai, a new argument in defense of apriorism, which Nikolai accepts with pleasure, despite the fact that, strictly speaking, he needs no argument whatsoever - herein precisely is his finest quality. Countess Marya says: "In my opinion, you are absolutely right. And I as much as told Natasha. Pierre says that everyone is suffering, is harassed, is becoming corrupt, and that it is our duty to help the poor. Of course [this "of course" is splendid!] he's right, but he forgets that we have other obligations which are closer, and which God Himself has marked out for us, and that we can risk our own necks, but not our children's."

     So that is how history is written! But that is not yet all. Having latched on to Countess Marya’s argument, the a priori man immediately shifts the conversation from the children to business matters, the estate, the redemption of promissory notes, payment of debts, and to his wealth. To Countess Marya, such a transition seems unnaturally abrupt: "She felt like telling him [her husband] that one does not live by bread alone, that he attaches too much importance to these matters [Count Tolstoy's italics], but she knew that she must not say this, and that it would be useless. She merely took his hand and kissed it. He interpreted this gesture as a sign of approval and as sanction for his ideas." What wonderful impertinence! Show me one writer besides Count Tolstoy who would dare to play such a dangerous game so openly. Countess Marya, who "always yearned for the infinite, the eternal, and the perfect," assents, as if nothing had happened, to the most extreme hypocrisy as soon as instinct tells her that the stability of her "spiritual union" with her husband is threatened. One step more and this hypocrisy would be raised to law, a law - horrible to say - of conscience. If you will, no further step is needed; it has already been taken in Countess Marya’s words. But strangest of all is the fact that Count Tolstoy does not give the slightest indication that he understands the abyss over which he has just leaped. As usual, he is clear, bright, and transparent.

     What "psychology" Dostoevsky would have made of this! But Count Tolstoy is already experienced. He knows that each time an antinomy approaches, one must assume an air of piety, innocence, and childish naïveté - otherwise, goodbye forever to all a priori judgments, universality, necessity, stability, firm ground, and foundations! And he has no equal in this diplomatic art. Perhaps this is the result of origin and breed - a dozen generations of ancestors who served in an official capacity and who always needed a solemn countenance. In this way, Count Tolstoy achieves a dual goal: he has told the "truth," and the truth has not undermined life. Prior to Count Tolstoy, idealism did not know such subtle techniques. For its effects, it always needed a crude lie, fervent emotion, eloquence, tinsel, and even gaudy colors.

     Had Dostoevsky recalled the Epilogue to War and Peace, he would have realized that it is an anachronism to be angry with Levin for his indifference to the Slavs’ misfortunes. The time for anger was earlier - when he read War and Peace. And if he accepted War and Peace, then he must also accept Anna Karenina - completely, without any reservations, its last part included. As a matter of fact, the SliMe affair is also a great muddle! It contains one of the antimonies - to kill or not to kill. Therefore, why not make it a Ding an sich? Why not leave it, as Levin suggests, to the sole jurisdiction of the government, bearing in mind the example of our ancestors, who turned all matters of government over to foreign princes who were expressly invited for that purpose?

     All Count Tolstoy's work, including his late philosophical journalistic articles and even his novel Resurrection (one of his few works, almost the only one, that is relatively unsuccessful - in it, Count Tolstoy seems to be gathering up the crumbs from his own once-sumptuous table), remains within the bounds of the task I have indicated. He wants at any cost to tame those raging beasts bearing the foreign names skepticism and pessimism. He does not hide them from our eyes, but keeps them in what seem to be exceedingly sturdy and reliable cages, so that even the most distrustful person begins to regard them as tamed and safe once and for all. Count Tolstoy's final formula, which sums up his many years of tireless struggle, and which he proclaims with particular solemnity in his book What is Art, goes like this: "Goodness and brotherly love - this is God." I am not going to speak about it here, as I had occasion elsewhere to explain its meaning and significance in detail. [L.Shestov, Dobro v uchenii grafa Totstogo i F. Nitshe (Petersburg, 1900)]. I want only to remind the reader that even this "conviction," which, according to Count Tolstoy's repeated assurance, has purest reason and truthful conscience as parents, is by no means of such noble origin. It was begotten by that same terror of the Ding an sich, by that same, almost spontaneous urge "back to Kant" (as representatives of the latest school of German philosophy were shouting in chorus not so long ago), by virtue of which Prince Andrey was dispatched, Rostov extolled, Princess Marya poeticized, et cetera. That is why, as we shall see below, the principle that Count Tolstoy offered as the greatest and loftiest truth could seem a blasphemous, ugly, and disgusting lie to Dostoevsky.

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