Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky renounces his ideals - those ideals which, so it seemed to him, he had brought back from penal servitude intact. I say "seemed," for as a matter of fact, what he took for ideals during his life in the penal colony and in his first years of freedom was merely - I hope this is now clear - a deceptive belief that upon serving his sentence, he would become the free man he was before. Like all people, he took his own hopes for the ideal and hastened to expel all memories of penal life from his mind, or at least to adapt them to the conditions of his new life. But his efforts led to nothing, or more precisely, to almost nothing. The penal truths, however much he tried to polish and tidy them up, retained too obvious traces of their origin. From under their magnificent attire, sad branded faces stared out at. the readers; one could see shaved heads. In the loud, bombastic words, one could hear the clanking of chains. Only The House of the Dead was received by the public and critics as something kindred, ordinary, and free. And, indeed, in this work, Dostoevsky displays - for the only time in his life - almost the Tolstoyan art of reconciling reality with established ideals. The reader laid down The House of the Dead enraptured, elevated, filled with tender emotion, ready to struggle against evil, et cetera - exactly as the aesthetics of the time demanded. And, by the way, in his elevated mood and his readiness, he considered Dostoevsky just as good and kind a person as himself. Yet, with a modicum of attention and a bit less enthusiasm, you can find pearls, even in The House of the Dead, such as you will never find in the underground - for example, the concluding words of the novel: "How much youth was needlessly buried within these walls, what mighty powers were wasted there to no purpose! After all, the whole truth must be told; those men were exceptional men. They were perhaps the most talented, the strongest representatives of all our people. But their mighty strength went to waste, it went to waste abnormally, unjustly, and irretrievably."

     Is there a Russian who does not know these lines by heart? And moreover, isn't it partly due to them that the novel owes its fame? Consequently, Dostoevsky did know how to embellish this hideous and disgusting idea. How? By saying that the best Russians were in penal colonies! That the most talented, the most remarkable, the strongest people were murderers, thieves, arsonists, and bandits. And who said this? A man living at the time of Belinsky, Nekrassov, Turgenev, Grigorovich, at the time of all those people who have thus far been considered the pride and joy of Russia! And to prefer the stigmatized inhabitants of the House of the Dead to them! Why, that is downright madness. Yet two generations of readers have seen in this judgment an expression of Dostoevsky's great humanity. They thought that in his humility, in his love for his neighbor, he was singing praises in a new way to the humblest man. For propriety's sake, they did not even notice that, in his eagerness, the singer had indeed gone too far this time. Only recently did they notice (and, as a matter of fact, even this was fortuitous) the absurdity of such humility. But still, they did not venture to reproach Dostoevsky openly - so much had his reputation for sanctity grown because of the passage quoted above. They merely tried to reduce its importance by means of an appropriate interpretation. They began to point out that in Dostoevsky's time, convicts were not, strictly speaking, criminals in the true sense of the word, but merely objectors - for the most part, people who had rebelled against the outrageous practices of serfdom.

     This explanation, although belated, was, of course, necessary. Unfortunately, it is completely without foundation. Dostoevsky was not particularly fond of the objectors in the penal colony; he merely tolerated them. Recall how he spoke of the political prisoners. His enthusiasm was for the real convicts, for those about whom his fellow prisoner, the Pole M...tsky, always said: "Je hais ces brigands" - and it was only for them. In them, he found strength, talent, and singularity; he ranked them higher than Belinsky, Turgenev, and Nekrassov. Nothing is left to us but to be outraged by this judgment, to ridicule it, to curse it, to do whatever we please, but Dostoevsky meant precisely this and only this.

     Unlike the Pole M...tsky, Dostoevsky saw in these brigands (if "all must be told," and I think it is high time it was) his "ideal," and just as he had done earlier in the case of Belinsky, he did now; he accepted their entire doctrine of life, which, although it had never been set down in books, was unquestionably most definite and clear. True, he accepted it, not joyfully and willingly, but because he could not do otherwise, and without considering what" it might bring him: in such cases, a beneficium inventarii is not customary. He did not even want to admit to himself that his teachers were convicts. In defending his new views, he always referred to the common folk. "Something else changed our views, our convictions, and our hearts. That something else was our direct contact with the common people, brotherly union with them in our common misery, the realization that we ourselves had become the same as they, that we were on the same level as they and even on a level with their lowest representative." [Dostoevsky, in Grazhdanin, No. 50, 1873]

     But what sort of people were they - those with whom Dostoevsky had lived? They were convicts; they were those elements that the people had rejected. To live with them means not to be on intimate terms with the people, not to be in contact with them, but to withdraw farther from them than have any of our Russian absentees who live permanently abroad. This must never for a single minute be forgotten. And if this is so, it also means that all Dostoevsky's veneration for the people, which had won him so many ardent and devoted followers, related to an entirely different deity, and that the Russians, the "trusting" readers, had been cruelly and unprecedentedly deceived by their teacher. True, Dostoevsky was not the first teacher to deceive his students. But few would have had the courage to make a substitution such as this. I suppose that Dostoevsky himself, despite his unusual acumen and sensitivity to everything pertaining to ideals and faith (he is the author of "The Grand Inquisitor"), did not, in the given instance, fully realize what he was doing. He did not want to believe in convicts, and if he placed them on such an impossibly high pedestal in the excerpt quoted from The House of the Dead, it was only in the vague hope that the convicts could still be subordinated to the higher idea. At least in his writing, Dostoevsky made open obeisance only once to his fellow convicts. And that was probably because the general tone of The House of the Dead removes all possibility of suspicion on the part of the reader. It contains as much sympathy for good as it does artistry. The reader had long since stopped scrutinizing the individual thoughts: say what you please, everything will be taken for the noble idea.

     Yet, all the ordeals Dostoevsky underwent in Siberia were trivial in comparison with the horrible necessity of bowing down before convicts. Nietzsche asks: "My friend, do you know the word contempt? And the torment of your justice in trying to be fair to those who despise you?" And, indeed, there is no greater torment in life. But Dostoevsky was obliged to get to know it. The convicts despised him; this is attested to on almost every page of The House of the Dead; but reason, conscience, and "justice" did not permit him to revenge himself on them, to answer contempt with contempt. Like Nietzsche, he was still obliged to side with his inexorable foes, to acknowledge them - and, I repeat, not out of fear, not out of the greatness of his heart and its compassion for the humblest man, but out of conscience - as his teachers, as the best and most talented people, whose existence justifies all that is ugly, insignificant, and useless in life, i.e., the Dostoevskys, Turgenevs, Belinskys, et cetera.

     Such was the terrible burden Dostoevsky brought with him from penal servitude. With the years, not only did it not grow lighter, it pressed down on him ever more and more. He was unable to cast it off until the very last days of his life. He had to bear it; he had to hide it from everyone's eyes, and at the same time to go on "teaching" people. How can one cope with such a task?

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