Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     But Dostoevsky himself could not bear this deceit; he could not be satisfied with such "faith in himself." Despite his ability to talk so beautifully and seductively of the "proud loneliness" of his Grand Inquisitor, he understood that the whole magnificent masquerade of high-flown and noble words was needed, again, not for himself, but for others, for the people. Proud loneliness! Can present-day man really be proud when he is alone with himself? In public, in speeches, in books - that is a different matter. But when no one sees or hears him, when in the dead of night, in complete silence, he realizes what his life really is, how dare he use even one lofty word? Prometheus was lucky - he was never left alone. He was always heard by Zeus; he had an adversary, someone he could irritate and provoke to anger by his austere look and his proud words. He had a "cause." But modern man, Raskolnikov or Dostoevsky, does not believe in Zeus. When people abandon him, when he is left alone with himself, he automatically begins to tell himself the truth, and, my God, what a horrible truth it is! How few it contains of those fascinating and wonderful images which we, on the basis of poetic legends, have regarded as the constant companions of solitary people! Here, for example, is one of Dostoevsky's meditations (actually it is Raskolnikov’s, but, as we know, it is one and the same thing):
"Therefore I'm definitely a louse," he added, grinding his teeth. "Because I myself am perhaps more vile and disgusting than the louse I killed, and I felt beforehand that I would tell myself so after killing her. Can anything really equal this horror? Oh, the vulgarity, Oh, the baseness! Oh, how well I understand the ‘prophet,’ with his sword in hand, mounted on his steed: Allah orders, and you must submit - you trembling creature! The prophet is right, he's right when he places an excellent battery of guns from one side of the street to the other and mows down both the innocent and the guilty without even deigning to explain. Submit, you trembling creature, and wish not, for that is not your business! Oh, I'll never forgive that old hag, not for anything in the world!" [Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij (1894-1895), V, 272]
     What humiliating, disgusting words and images! Isn't it true that Raskolnikov had to murder the old woman and Lizaveta "for poetry," in order to have a proper explanation for such moods? But as a matter of fact, no blood was shed here, no criminal act was committed. It is the usual "punishment" that is sooner or later in store for all "idealists." Sooner or later the hour will strike for each of them, and they will exclaim with horror and gnashing of teeth: "The prophet was right; submit, you trembling creature!" As early as three hundred years ago, the greatest of all poets pronounced a terrible judgment on the greatest of all idealists. Recall Hamlet's mad cry: "The time is out of joint!" Since then, writers and poets have never ceased to phrase these words in an infinite number of ways. But thus far, no one has wanted to come right out and say to himself that there is no use even trying to join the links once they have been broken, that there is no use trying to steer time back again into the channel from which it has gone. New attempts are ever being made to restore the illusion of former happiness. People tirelessly shout to us that pessimism and skepticism have destroyed everything, that we must again "believe," "turn back," become "direct," et cetera. And as binding cement, they invariably offer the old "ideas," while stubbornly refusing to understand that these ideas contained all our unhappiness.

     What will you tell Dostoevsky when he declares to you: "It was as if I had taken scissors and severed myself from everyone and everything"? [Ibid., 115] Will you send him to play the benefactor to his neighbors? But he tried that path long ago, and then wrote "The Grand Inquisitor." Let whoever can continue to occupy himself with lofty truths and deceit, but Dostoevsky knows that if the bond of time lies in this, then it is severed for good. He speaks of this matter not as a dilettante who has read a lot of pamphlets, but as a man who has seen everything with his own eyes and felt everything with his own hands. Book V, Chapter 4 of The Brothers Karamazov is entitled "Rebellion." It means that Dostoevsky not only does not want to try to restore the former "bond," but is ready to do anything to show that there is no longer any hope here, that there cannot be any. Ivan Karamazov rebels against the most stable principles on which our contemporary world view is based. The chapter starts right off with the following words: "‘I must make a confession to you,’ Ivan said. ‘I could never understand how anyone could love his neighbors. It is precisely his neighbors, in my opinion, that he can't love; perhaps he could love those people at a distance.’" [Ibid., XII, 280] Alyosha interrupts his brother with a remark intended to show us that Dostoevsky does not share Ivan's opinion. But we are already accustomed to this infant's importunate and monotonous babbling, and it bothers us very little, especially as we are reminded of another passage, this time, one from an entry dated 1876 in The Diary of a Writer. Dostoevsky says there: "I declare that love of mankind is totally inconceivable, incomprehensible, and utterly impossible without a concomitant belief in the immortality of the human soul."

     It is clear that there is no difference between Ivan Karamazov's words and those of Dostoevsky himself. Everything Ivan Karamazov says is based on the assumption that the soul is not immortal. True, he offers no evidence to support his "assumption," but, after all, Dostoevsky also makes his assertion "for the time being without substantiation." In any event, there is no doubt that neither the hero of the novel nor the author believes in the salutary power of the idea "love thy neighbor." If you will, Dostoevsky goes even further than Ivan Karamazov. He writes: "Moreover, I maintain that an awareness of one's utter inability to help or to be of the slightest benefit or relief to suffering mankind, while simultaneously being thoroughly convinced that mankind does suffer, can even turn the love in one's heart into hatred for it" (Dostoevsky's italics) [Ibid., X, 425].

     Isn't it unfortunate that Razumikhin did not happen to be present, and that there was no one to remind Dostoevsky that his idea was extraordinarily original? After all, this is the same thing as in Raskolnikov’s article: conscience permits hatred for people! If you cannot help your neighbor, then you cannot love him either. But, as you know, precisely those neighbors who usually claim our love are, for the most part, people whom it is impossible to help - I am no longer speaking of all mankind. Formerly, it was enough to sing the praises of the suffering man, to shed tears over him, to call him brother. Now, this is not enough; people want to help him at any cost; they want the humblest man to cease being the humblest and to become the best! But if that is not feasible, they tell love to go to the devil, and place everlasting hatred on its vacant throne forever. Dostoevsky (I suppose that after the above quotations no one will again confuse him with Alyosha) no longer believed in the omnipotence of love or valued tears of compassion and tender emotion. The inability to help is the final and all-annihilating argument for him. He seeks strength and power. And you discover that the ultimate, the most sincere, the most cherished aim of his aspirations is the Wille zur Macht, and that it is as sharply and clearly expressed as it is with Nietzsche. He, too, could have followed Nietzsche's example and printed these words in huge, black letters at the end of any of his novels, for in them is the point of all his quests!

     In Crime and Punishment, the chief task of all Dostoevsky's literarY work is overshadowed by the idea of retribution, which has been cleverly fitted to the novel. To the unsuspecting reader, it seems that Dostoevsky is actually Raskolnikov’s judge, and not the accused. But in The Brothers Karamazov, the question is posed with such clarity that it no longer leaves any doubt as to the author's intentions.

     Raskolnikov is "guilty." By his own admission (forced from him by torment, and consequently unworthy of belief), he committed a crime: murder. People decline all responsibility for his suffering, however terrible it is. Ivan Karamazov knows this logic. He knows that if he were to propose his own fate for discussion, he would immediately be accused in some way or other of having "eaten the apple," as Dostoevsky puts it, i.e., of being guilty in thought, if not in deed. Therefore, he does not even try to speak of himself. He raises his famous question about the unavenged tears of a child. "Tell me," he says to his brother. "I ask you frankly. Answer me: suppose you were constructing the edifice of human destiny, with the aim of making men finally happy, of giving them peace and rest at last; but that in order to do it, you found it necessary and unavoidable to torture one single tiny creature - for example, that same little child who was beating its breast with its tiny fist [about which Ivan had told Alyosha earlier], and you had to erect this edifice on its unavenged tears - would you agree to be the architect under these conditions? Tell me, and don't lie." Alyosha answers this question, also in a quiet voice, as Prince Myshkin answered Ippolit, but the answer is, of course, different. No mention is made of "forgiveness," and Alyosha flatly rejects the proposed project. Dostoevsky has at last come to his final word. He now states openly what he had at first expressed with reservations and annotations in Notes from the Underground: absolutely no harmony, no ideas, no love or forgiveness, in brief, nothing that sages have devised from ancient to modern times can justify the nonsense and absurdity in the fate of an individual person. He speaks of a child, but this is merely for the "simplification" of an already complex question, or more probably in order to disarm his adversaries, who, in arguing, toy so cleverly with the word "guilty."

     And as a matter of fact, can that little child, beating its breast with its tiny fist, be any more horrible than Dostoevsky-Raskolnikov, when he suddenly realized that he had "severed himself as if with scissors from everyone and everything?" Recall what happened to Razumikhin when he followed Raskolnikov out of the room after that incredible, that horribly agonizing scene of the latter's leave-taking with his mother and sister: he suddenly divined the hell that was taking place in his unfortunate friend's soul. "‘Do you understand?’ Raskolnikov asked him with a painfully contorted face" - and the question makes one's hair stand on end. Yes, there are horrors on this earth that have never been dreamt of by the erudition of the most learned men. Compared to them, Karamazov's stories of Turkish brutality and of parents’ torturing their children seem pale. And, of course, the "apple" explains nothing here. One must either "avenge" those tears or - but can there be an "or" for people like Dostoevsky, who themselves have shed them? What answer can there be here? "Back to Kant"? God be with you, the way is open? But Dostoevsky goes forward, no matter what may await him up ahead.

     When Raskolnikov is convinced after the murder that he is forever cut off from his former life, when he sees that his own mother, who loves him more than anything in the world, has ceased being a mother to him (prior to Dostoevsky, who could have thought such horrors possible?), that his sister, who for the sake of his future had agreed to enslave herself forever to Luzhin, is no longer a sister to him, he instinctively runs to Sonya Marmeladov. Why? What can he find in that unfortunate, unschooled, and unknowledgeable girl? Why does he prefer that meek and humble person to his true and devoted friend, who can speak so admirably about lofty subjects? But he does not even think of Razumikhin! This friend, ready as he is to help, would not know what to do with Raskolnikov’s secret. He would probably advise him to do good deeds and thus assuage his poor conscience. But Raskolnikov flies into a rage at the mere thought of good. In his deliberations, one already senses that agony of despair that later prompted Ivan Karamazov to ask his dreadful question: "Why must we get to know this devilish good and evil, when it costs so much."

     Devilish good and evil - do you understand what Dostoevsky is infringing on? Human daring can go no further than this. As you know, all our hopes - and not only those in books, but also those in men's hearts have thus far lived and been supported by the belief that no sacrifice is too terrible for the triumph of good over evil. And suddenly out of the blue, there appears a man who solemnly, openly, and almost fearlessly (almost, for Alyosha does babble something in objection to Ivan) sends to the devil everything before which all people of all ages have prostrated themselves! And people were so gullible that, because of Alyosha’s pitiful chatter, they forgave Dostoevsky Ivan Karamazov's dreadful philosophy. In all Russian literature, there was but one writer, N.K. Mikhailovsky, who sensed in Dostoevsky a "cruel" man, an advocate of a dark power that everyone has considered hostile from time immemorial. But even he did not guess the full danger of this enemy. It seemed to him that one had but to expose Dostoevsky's "evil design," to call it by its real name, and it would be destroyed forever. He could not imagine twenty years ago that the ideas of the underground were destined soon to be revived and to lay claim to their rights, not timidly and fearfully, not under the cover of the usual conciliatory, stereotyped phrases, but boldly and freely, with a presentiment of certain victory. The "devilish good and evil," which seemed to be a chance phrase from the lips of a literary hero who was alien to the author, is now decked out as the scholarly formula "beyond good and evil," and in this guise it hurls a challenge at the millennial faith of all sages past and present. And before what did Dostoevsky's "good" bow its proud head?

     Karamazov speaks of the fate of a tormented child. But Raskolnikov demands an answer for himself, and only for himself. And failing to find the necessary answer with good, he rejects it. Recall his conversation with Sonya Marmeladov. Raskolnikov did not go to her to repent. To the very end, he could not repent deep down in his heart, for he felt that he was completely innocent; he knew that Dostoevsky had burdened him with the accusation of murder merely for appearance's sake. Here are his thoughts, his very last while still in the penal colony: "Oh, how happy he would be if he could consider himself guilty [i.e., of the murder]. He could have endured anything, even the shame and disgrace. He judged himself severely, but his embittered conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except perhaps a blunder [Dostoevsky's italics], which could have happened to anyone. But he felt no remorse for his crime." [Ibid., V, 539] These words are a summary of Raskolnikov’s entire horrible story. He had been crushed for reasons unknown to him. His task, all his aspirations now amount to justifying his misfortune, to restoring his life - and nothing, neither the happiness of the entire world nor the triumph of any idea whatsoever can give meaning in his eyes to his personal tragedy. That is why, as soon as he notices Sonya’s Bible, he asks her to read to him the "Resurrection of Lazarus." He is not interested in the "Sermon on the Mount," the "Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican," or, in brief, in anything that had been transferred from the Gospel to present-day ethics in accordance with Tolstoy's formula "Goodness and brotherly love - this is God."

     He had examined and tried all that, and, like Dostoevsky himself, was convinced that when taken separately, when torn from the general context of the Holy Scripture, it becomes not truth, but a lie. Although he does not yet dare to acknowledge the idea that truth lies not with science, but where these enigmatic and mysterious words are written: "He that endureth to the end shall be saved," [Matthew X, 22] he nevertheless tries to turn his gaze in the direction of those hopes that Sonya lives by. "After all," he thinks, "she's like me - also a humble person; she has learned by experience what it means to live such a life. Maybe I'll learn from her what our erudite Razumikhin cannot explain, what even an infinitely loving maternal heart, ready for any sacrifice, cannot guess." He tries again to revive in his memory that understanding of the Gospel that does not reject the prayers and hopes of a solitary, mined man under the pretext that to think of one's personal grief means to be an egoist. He knows that his lamentations will be heard here, that he will no longer be strung up on the rack of ideas, that he will be permitted to tell the whole, terrible, hidden truth about himself, the truth with which he was born into God's world. But he can expect all this only from the Gospel that Sonya reads, which is as yet uncut and unaltered by science and Count Tolstoy, from the Gospel in which there is preserved, along with other teachings, the story of Lazarus's resurrection; where, what is more, Lazarus's resurrection - indicating the great power of the miracle worker - gives meaning also to the other words that are so puzzling and incomprehensible to the poor, Euclidean human mind. In the very same way that Raskolnikov seeks his hopes solely in Lazarus's resurrection, so Dostoevsky sees in the Gospel not the propagation of this or that moral philosophy, but the pledge of a new life. He said: "Without a sovereign idea, neither man nor nation can exist. And there is but one [Dostoevsky's italics] sovereign idea in this world: namely, the idea of the immortality of the human soul, for all the rest of life's ‘sovereign’ ideas that man can live by derive solely from it." [Dostoevsky, op. cit., X, 424]

Orphus system

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