Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     The answer to this question is in all Dostoevsky's subsequent literary work. From then on, he was to spend almost no time on the humiliated and insulted - only at odd moments, out of habit. His favorite subject is crime and the criminal. One question relentlessly pursues him: "What sort of people are convicts? How did it happen that they seemed to be right, that they still seem to be right for having despised me, and why do I involuntarily feel so insignificant, so weak and, horrible to say, so ordinary before them? Can this really be the truth? Is this what the people should be taught?" There can be no doubt that Dostoevsky asked himself such questions. Raskolnikovís article clearly attests to it. There, people are divided, not into good and evil, but into ordinary and extraordinary. All the "good" ones fall into the category of the ordinary, and, in their narrow-mindedness, obey the moral laws; but the extraordinary ones create their own laws, and to them, "all is permitted." Razumikhin correctly sums up the gist of this article when he tells Raskolnikov: "What is really original in all this [that is, in the article and in Raskolnikovís arguments explaining it] and what is exclusively your own, to my horror, is that you sanction bloodshed when one follows the dictates of one's conscience, and, excuse my saying so, you do it with such fanaticism. Consequently, that is the main idea of your article. But sanction of bloodshed by conscience is... why, in my opinion, that is more horrible than the official, legal sanction of bloodshed." (The words "original," "the dictates of one's conscience," and "by conscience" were italicized by Dostoevsky.) [Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij (1894-1895), V, 260]. Thus, "conscience" compels Raskolnikov to side with the criminal. Its sanction, its approval, its sympathy are not with good, but with evil. The very words "good" and "evil" no longer exist. They have been replaced by the expressions "ordinariness" and "extraordinariness." The former is connected with the idea of vulgarity, worthlessness, uselessness, whereas the latter is a synonym for grandeur. In other words, Raskolnikov stands "beyond good and evil" - and this was thirty-five years ago, when Nietzsche was still a student dreaming of lofty ideals. Razumikhin told the truth - the idea was most original, and it belonged entirely to Dostoevsky. In the sixties, no one ever dreamed of such a thing, not only in Russia, but even in Europe. Even Shakespeare's Macbeth was regarded at the time as an edifying portrayal of the pangs of conscience in store for a sinner while still on earth. (Brandesí even now goes on interpreting Macbeth that way: fabula docet.) [Georg M. Brandes (1842-1927), a Danish author and literary critic. - S.R.]

     Now the question arises: if Raskolnikovís idea is so original that it occurred to absolutely no one but its originator, why did Dostoevsky have to arm himself against it? What was the use in struggling against it? Against whom was Dostoevsky struggling? Answer: against himself, and only himself. He alone in the entire world envied the moral grandeur of the criminal, and, as he did not dare to express his true thoughts openly, he created various "situations" for them. First, in The House of the Dead, he expressed his admiration for convicts in such a way that he lured the kindest and most compassionate people to his side. Then he substituted convicts for the idea of the people. Then, for the remainder of his life he fought against the theoretical apostates from "good," although there was just one such theoretician in world literature - Dostoevsky himself. After all, if Dostoevsky's task really amounted to a struggle against evil, then he must have felt splendid. Who of his fellow writers did not have just such a task? But Dostoevsky had his own original, very original, idea. Struggling against evil, he offered in its defense arguments such as it never dared even dream of. Conscience itself intervened for evil! The idea on which Raskolnikov based his article was developed at great length and in a different form by Nietzsche in his Toward a Genealogy of Morals and still earlier in Human, All-Too-Human. I do not mean that Nietzsche borrowed it from Dostoevsky. When he was writing Human, All-Too-Human, no one in Europe had heard of Dostoevsky. But one can safely say that the German philosopher would never have been so bold and frank in expounding it in Toward a Genealogy of Morals if he had not felt Dostoevsky's support behind him.

     At any rate, it is evident that, despite the novel's plot, Raskolnikovís real tragedy does not lie in his decision to break the law, but in the fact that he realized he was incapable of such a step. Raskolnikov is no murderer; he is guilty of no crime. The incident with the old pawnbroker and Lizaveta is invention, slander, and false accusation. And Ivan Karamazov, later on, was not involved in the Smerdyakov affair. He too was slandered by Dostoevsky. All these "heroes" are of Dostoevsky's own flesh and blood; they are transcendental thinkers, romanticists, designers of projects for a future ideal and felicitous social order, devoted friends of mankind, who have suddenly grown ashamed of their loftiness and transcendentalism and have realized that discussions about ideals are idle chatter that does not add one iota to the common treasury of ,human wealth. Their tragedy is in their inability to begin a new and different life. And so profound, so hopeless is this tragedy that it was not difficult for Dostoevsky to present it as the cause of the agonizing experiences of his heroes who murder. But there is not the slightest basis here on which to regard Dostoevsky as an expert on or an investigator of the criminal soul. Although he knew convicts, he saw them only in prison. Their earlier life, when they were free, and the history of their crimes remained just as much of a mystery to him as it does to all of us. The prisoners never spoke about all that. People will ask: what about poetic fantasy? In my opinion, it must not even be mentioned in connection with Dostoevsky. The ancient bards were endowed with fantasy. The Muses would indeed come flying to them at night and whisper in their ear wonderful dreams, which these favorites of Apollo would jot down in the morning. But to Dostoevsky, the underground man, the convict, the Russian man of letters who used to carry his wife's clothing off to the pawnshop, this sort of mythology is most unbecoming. His idea wandered about the deserts of his own soul. And from there, it brought the tragedy of the underground man, of Raskolnikov, of Karamazov, et cetera. These criminals without crime, these pangs of conscience without guilt form the content of Dostoevsky's numerous novels. Herein is Dostoevsky himself, herein is reality, herein is real life. All else is "doctrine." All else is a wretched hut hastily knocked together from odds and ends of old buildings. Who needs it? Dostoevsky himself, it must be noted, attached great significance to his doctrine, just as Count Tolstoy and Nietzsche did, just as almost all writers do. He thought that he could tell people what to do and how to live. But of course, this ridiculous pretension always remained a pretension. People do not live according to books; they never have.

     At the end of Crime and Punishment, you read the following promising lines: "But here begins a new story - the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his regeneration, of his gradual crossing from one world into another, of his acquaintance with a new, hitherto totally unknown reality. This could constitute the subject of a new story, but our present story is now ended." Don't these words sound like a solemn promise? And didn't Dostoevsky, as a teacher, assume the responsibility of showing us this new reality and these new opportunities for Raskolnikov? But the teacher never went beyond his promise. In the Foreword to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's last work, we again come across this same promise. One novel is too little for Dostoevsky. In order to portray his true hero, he needs still another novel, although in The Brothers Karamazov, which is spun out over a thousand pages, there should have been room enough for the "new life" as well. And, as you know, between Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote three whole novels, each of them massive: The Idiot, A Raw Youth, and The Possessed! But he never remembered his promise.

     The Idiot, with its Prince Myshkin, cannot, of course, be taken into consideration. If such a "new" reality is all that awaits man, if Prince Myshkin, that pitiful shadow, that cold, anemic specter, is to serve as our "ideal," then wouldn't it be better not to look into the future at all? The most unassuming and grievously insulted man, even Makar Devushkin, would renounce such "hopes" and return to his impoverished past. No, Prince Myshkin is nothing but idea, i.e., a void. And what a role he has! He stands between two women, and just like a Chinese roly-poly, leans now in one direction, now in the other. True, from time to time, Dostoevsky lets him have his say. But surely this is no great merit: it is the author himself speaking. Moreover, Prince Myshkin, like Alyosha Karamazov, is endowed with an unusual gift of foresight that practically verges on clairvoyance. But this, too, is no great virtue in the hero of a novel where the thoughts and deeds of all the characters are controlled by the author. And beyond these traits, Prince Myshkin is a complete nullity. Eternally grieving over those who grieve, he is unable to console anyone. He antagonizes Aglaya, and fails to soothe Nastasya Filippovna; he befriends Rogozhin, foresees his crime, but can do nothing about it. If only it were in his power to comprehend the tragic situation of the people around him! But he lacks even this. His grief is mere grief from a sense of duty. That is why he is so free with his words of hope and solace. He even offers his literary balm to Ippolit, but here he is met, or if you will, sent packing, as he well deserves.

     No, Prince Myshkin is a black sheep, even among Dostoevsky's eminent people, although they are all more or less unsuccessful. Dostoevsky understood and could portray only the rebellious, struggling, seeking soul. As soon as he tried to depict a man who had found himself, one who was composed and comprehending, he immediately fell into offensive banality. Recall, for example, Father Zosimaís visions of "the splendid unison of men in the future." Don't they reek of the tritest Zukunftsmalerei?, which even the Socialists, who are so ridiculed in the underground, had long since repudiated? But in all such instances, Dostoevsky has no desire to think. With an indiscriminate hand, he takes from wherever it suits him: from the Slavophiles, from the Socialists, from the commonplaceness of bourgeois life. Evidently, he himself felt that this was not his task, and he performed it with astonishing negligence. But he was unable to renounce moralization and prophecy: they alone bound him to the rest of the people. This was the part of him that was best understood, that was esteemed, and for which he was elevated to prophet. However, one cannot live without people, entirely without people: "After all, every man must have at least somewhere to go. For there comes a time when he definitely must go somewhere," says Marmeladov. And for that occasion, one needs the customary uniform. After all, one must not appear in public with the words of the underground man, with deep respect for penal servitude, with all the "original" thoughts that filled Dostoevsky's head! People would not want to listen to such a neighbor; they would drive him away. People need idealism at any cost. And Dostoevsky throws this blessing to them by the handful, so that in the end, he himself at times thinks that such an occupation is indeed worth while. But only at times, so that afterward he can laugh at himself.

     Who is the person in question in the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor"? Who is this cardinal, from whose hands the people get their daily bread? Isn't this legend a symbol of Dostoevsky's own prophetic work? Miracle, mystery, and authority - after all, his preaching consisted of these, and only of these elements. True, Dostoevsky intentionally refrained from saying the main thing. The Grand Inquisitor, who boldly undertook to correct Christ's work, is himself as weak and pitiful as the people whom he treats with such contempt. He made a dreadful miscalculation in appraising his role. He can tell but part of the truth - and not the most horrible part. The people accepted ideals from him indiscriminately, without examining them. But that was only because, for the people, ideals are nothing more than a pastime, a decoration, a formality. Their childish, naÔve faith, which has not yet known doubt, demands nothing more for itself than a few words or other for its expression. That is why the people follow almost anyone who feels like leading them, and why they so readily change their idols: le roi est mort, vive le roi. But the old, wretched cardinal, exhausted by long hours of meditation, imagined that his feeble idea was capable of molding the confused, chaotic masses and giving them a fixed direction, that it was in its power to play the benefactor to hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. What a happy and dazzlingly splendid delusion!

     And, as you know, it is not only characteristic of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's novel. In all ages, all teachers have thought that the world rested on their shoulders and that they were leading their students to happiness, to joy, to light! As a matter of fact, the flock needed the shepherds much less than the shepherds needed the flock. What would have become of the Grand Inquisitor if he had not held the proud belief that all mankind would perish without him? What would he have done with his life? And then this very old man, who with his keen mind can penetrate all the mysteries of our existence, cannot (perhaps he only pretends that he cannot) see one thing - the most important thing of all for him. He does not know that the people are not indebted to him for their faith, but he to the people - for the faith which at least partly justifies in his eyes his long, dismal, agonizing, and lonely life. He had deceived the people with his stories of miracles and mysteries; he had assumed the look of an omniscient and all-understanding authority; he had called himself God's deputy on earth. The people had trustingly accepted this lie, for they did not need the truth; they did not want to know it. But the old cardinal, with almost a century of experience behind him, with a mind sharpened by inquisitive and relentless thought, did not notice that he had fallen victim to his own deceit by imagining himself the benefactor of mankind. He needed this deceit, he had no other way to find faith in himself, and he accepted it from the hands of the contemptible, insignificant crowd.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC