Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Dostoevsky's literary work can be divided into two periods. The first begins with Poor Folk [1845] and ends with The House of the Dead [1861-1862]. The second begins with Notes from the Underground [1864] and ends with the Pushkin Speech [1880], that somber apotheosis of all Dostoevsky's creative work. From Notes from the Underground, which thus falls on the border between the two periods, the reader suddenly and quite unexpectedly learns that while the other novels and articles were being written, there was taking place in Dostoevsky one of the most horrible crises, that only the human soul is capable of preparing for itself and bearing. What was the cause of it? Penal servitude? Evidently not; at least, not directly. After his penal servitude, Dostoevsky wrote quite a number of articles in which he not only did not renounce his earlier convictions, but continued to proclaim them with a power of talent and genius such as he dared not even dream of in his younger years. After all, upon completing his penal servitude, he wrote The House of the Dead, a novel that everyone, even enemies of his new tendency, unanimously praises to this day as a "particularly" worthy work, or more precisely, as one that stands apart from all his subsequent novels. Here we still have in toto the very same Dostoevsky whose first novella had been read with such fervor in Belinsky’s Circle. In "idea" and "conviction," The House of the Dead unquestionably belongs to a loyal disciple of the "furious" Vissarion, of George Sand, and of the French idealists of the first half of the nineteenth century.

     Here we have almost the same thing as in Poor Folk. True, there is also a thing or two that is new here: there is a sense of reality, a readiness to see life as it really is. But who would think that a sense of reality could even partially threaten a man's convictions and ideals? Everyone, Dostoevsky himself included, would have considered such a hypothesis beast likely. Reality is, of course, dismal and ugly, particularly the reality of penal servitude, whereas ideals are bright and clear. But, after all, this antithesis was the very soil on which his ideals had sprung up: not only did it not refute them, it vindicated them. All that remained was to urge and spur reality on until the distance between it and the ideals had become infinitely small or nonexistent. Accordingly, even the depiction of dismal reality was aimed at one thing only - to struggle against it and destroy it in the distant, but seemingly near, future.

     In this sense, Poor Folk and The House of the Dead are of the same school and have one and the same purpose; the only difference is in the craftsmanship of the author, who in the course of fifteen years had managed to improve himself considerably in the art of writing. In Poor Folk, just as in The Double and "The Landlady," we are dealing with a still awkward, although talented, disciple, who is enthusiastically popularizing the great master Gogol as interpreted to him by Belinsky. In reading the stories just mentioned, you are, of course, reminded of "The Memoirs of a Madman," and "The Terrible Vengeance," and probably think that popularization was unnecessary. Very likely, the reader would lose little if Dostoevsky's early stories had forever remained in their author's head. But the writer needed them. From early youth on, as if foreseeing his future task, Dostoevsky practiced the depiction of scenes that were somber and painful. For the present, he was imitating, but his time would come, and he would abandon his teacher and write on his own. It is, of course, strange to see youth showing a partiality for gray and for dark colors, but, after all, Dostoevsky never knew any others. Was it possible, you ask yourself, that he dared not face the light, not face joy? Was it possible that already in early youth he instinctively felt the need to sacrifice himself completely to his talent? But it is true: talent is a privilegium odiosum; rarely does it give its possessor earthly joys.

     Until the age of forty, Dostoevsky patiently bore the burden of his talent. It seemed to him that this burden was light, that such a yoke was a blessing. With what delight he recalls his first literary attempts in The Humiliated and Insulted. According to him, he experienced his greatest happiness not when his work was published, and not even when he first heard the unusually flattering comments on it from the mouths of the best writers and literary connoisseurs of the time. No, he considered the happiest hours of his life those when, as a still unknown writer, he worked in silence over his manuscript, shedding tears over his invention - over the fate of the downtrodden and oppressed government clerk Makar Devushkin. I do not know if Dostoevsky was being completely frank here, and if he actually did experience his greatest happiness while shedding tears over his invention. Perhaps there is a certain amount of exaggeration here. But even if this is so, if Dostoevsky, in making such an admission, was merely paying tribute to the viewpoint that prevailed in his time - one that he himself shared-even so, the strangeness of his words can and must arouse a feeling of alarm and suspicion in us. What sort of man is it, what sort of people are they, who make it their duty to rejoice so madly over the mishaps invented by them for the unfortunate Makar Devushkin? And how is it possible to combine "happiness" with the tears that they themselves admit to shedding over their horrible invention? Note that The Humiliated and Insulted is written in the same style as Poor Folk. The fifteen-year interval had not in the least "reformed" Dostoevsky in this respect. Earlier he had shed tears over Devushkin; now they are over Natasha. As for the delights of creative activity, they, as is well known, never abandon a writer.

     At first glance, it would seem that nothing could be more unnatural and, forgive me the word, more repulsive than all these combinations of tears and delight. Whence the delight? And why? The man had to tell that Makar Devushkin or Natasha had been insulted, tormented, and crushed; apparently, there is nothing to rejoice at. But he spent whole months and years over his stories, and then declared publicly, frankly, and unashamedly - more than that, with obvious pride - that these were the best moments of his life. The same frame of mind is expected of the public reading works of this sort. It is expected to burst into tears and at the same time not to forget to rejoice. True, there are grounds for these demands. It is assumed that in this way, good feelings are aroused: "It deeply moves your heart to realize that the most downtrodden man, the lowest of the low, is also a human being and is called your brother." [Dostoevsky, op. cit., IV, 29]. And so in order to spread this idea among readers, a special class of people is needed, who spend their entire life mainly contemplating in their imagination all possible horrors and monstrosities that exist in such great variety on earth and then depicting them in their books. The pictures must be vivid, lively, gripping, and startling; they must strike the heart with a mysterious force. Otherwise, they will be condemned; otherwise, they will not produce the desired effect.

     Let us put aside the readers with their hearts and good feelings. But what must be the situation of a writer who has assumed the dismal responsibility of arousing someone else's conscience by the depiction of various kinds of horrors? It is good if he manages, at least for a time, to bewitch his own conscience so that the scenes intended to have an effect on others pass without leaving a trace on it.

     This would, of course, be unnatural, but, as we saw, it is psychologically possible. Even if Dostoevsky did exaggerate in reporting his first talks with his Muse, there is, at any rate, also undeniable truth in his story. Most likely, poor Makar Devushkin did give him many delightful hours. Youth, inexperience, the example of older and patently superior people - from such elements, almost any absurdity can result. Just recall the deeds that men have made up their minds to do when up ahead, even far off in the distance, an "idea" with its brilliant aureole would flash before them. Everything would be forgotten, everything would be sacrificed to it. Not only the fictitious Makar Devushkin, with whom it was necessary merely "to accustom himself as to an actual living relative," but real, living people, even relatives, were forsaken as soon as the question of serving the idea arose. Is it surprising then that he was able to feel happy while having before him the imaginary face of a humiliated government clerk? However that may be, and whatever may have been involved here, the role of the inventor of dismal reality is all the more dangerous and terrible the more sincerely and completely people surrender themselves to it and the more talented the person who has taken it upon himself. Talent is, I repeat, a privilegium odiosum, and Dostoevsky, like Gogol, had sooner or later to realize how heavy was its burden.

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