Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     And with what did he set out on this new path? What did he have in place of his earlier convictions? The answer can be given in a word: nothing. Nothing but loathsome physical suffering in the present; shameful, humiliating memories of the past; and a mad fear of the future. He could have no hope, for what is a broken, sick man capable of when he has wasted the best years of his life on futile, needless projects which had brought him nothing? Until the age of thirty, like our Ilya Muromets [a legendary hero in the early Russian folk epic S.R.], he sat in a corner, contemplating the ideals of others. Now it was necessary to rise and walk, but his legs refused to serve him. Kind old sages did not, and would not, appear with a magic potion: nowadays, there are no miracles.

     To top it all off, his illness assumed such proportions that he i had to give up his usual professorial duties, which had filled his day, and remain idle from morning to night, alone with his thoughts and memories. Even night did not bring him peace and quiet, for he suffered from insomnia, the usual companion of serious nervous disorders. And then such a man becomes a writer and takes the liberty of turning to the public with his word. What can he tell us? That he suffers, that he has suffered? But we have already heard enough complaints from poets; the young Lermontov long ago openly expressed that idea, which others had kept to themselves. What business is it of ours if Nietzsche suffered or not? And, moreover, it is a different matter with poets. They do not just complain. Who would listen to them if they "just" complained? They express their complaints in beautiful, resonant poems, and from their tears, flowers grow. We admire the flowers and forget the tears; the divine harmony of the poetry makes us rejoice at even the most plaintive tune.

     But Nietzsche is a philosopher: he cannot and must not sing. He must speak. Is it possible that he would decide to offer the public the dull and monotonous story of the horrors he had to experience? Or does philosophy also have its flowers and poetry, which also constitute its raison d’être? And is this science of sciences also an art - the art of passing off various interesting and entertaining things as truth? Let us listen to Nietzsche's explanations. In these matters, few people can compare with him in range and variety of experience. He will tell us in detail how he wrote his books. "Whoever can even slightly imagine," he writes, "the consequences involved in every deep suspicion; whoever knows the horror and chills of loneliness to which every uncompromising difference of outlook condemns us, will also understand how often I had to seek shelter in some sort of veneration or hostility, in scientism or flippancy or stupidity, in order to recover from myself, and to find temporary self-forgetfulness; and why, in those instances when it was impossible to find ready-made what I needed, I had to make it myself, to falsify it, and to invent it (what else have poets ever done?). And for what purpose does art in general exist?" [Nietzsche, op. cit., II, 3-4]. Not a bad confession, is it? Art is understood to be the deliberate falsification of reality, and philosophy is recommended to use the same method. Otherwise, it will be impossible to bear the horror and chill of loneliness. But can falsification, particularly if deliberate, really help in such cases? Does one's own view of life really become less dismal when the mind and conscience resort to such tricks? And furthermore, is it really in our power to change our view arbitrarily? We see what we see, whatever lies before us, and no efforts of the will can make black seem white to us, or vice versa. Evidently, Nietzsche thought otherwise. In the Preface to the third volume of his collected work, he says:

     "It was then [i.e., during his illness] that I learned the hermitic habit of speech that is known only to those who are lonely and who have suffered much. I spoke without witnesses, or more accurately, without thinking of witnesses. And I always spoke of things that did not at all concern me, but I gave the impression that they were important to me. Then I also learned the art of appearing cheerful, objective, curiouS, and, most of all, healthy and derisive: in a sick man, I dare say, this is a sign of good taste. Nevertheless, a keener and a more sympathetic eye will not miss what perhaps gives a particular charm to these writings [Human, All-Too-Human]: the fact that a sick and unfortunate man is speaking here as if he were not sick and unfortunate. A man is striving here at all costs to maintain equipoise, composure, and even gratitude to life; here reigns a stern, proud, ever cheerful, ever excited will, which has set itself the task of defending life against suffering and warding off all conclusions which usually. grow like poisonous fungi in all kinds of marshy soil - from suffering, disappointment, satiety, and isolation." [Ibid., III, 5-6]

     Now we know how Nietzsche wrote his books. Evidently, he had not been given the possibility to escape the power of ideas. Formerly, in defending Wagner and Schopenhauer, he spoke of things that did not concern him, but he did it with a look that made them seem important to him; now, upon entering a new career as an "advocate of life," he again, evidently, suppresses in himself all protest, all that is personal, all that is essentially his own, in order to glorify his new client. Again he plays the hypocrite, again he plays a role, but this time it is no longer unintentional, no longer with a clear conscience as in youth: now he is fully aware of his conduct. Now he knows he cannot do otherwise, and not only is he not horrified when he must say "Yes" aloud when his entire being says "No," he even prides himself on this art and finds a particular charm in it. He rejects all conclusions growing on the soil of disappointment, suffering, isolation, et cetera - the only conclusions that could appear to a man in his situation. Then who, or what, was it that dwelt in him and had been given such sovereign rights over his soul? Was it perhaps his old reason, which had once played such a dirty trick on Nietzsche and therefore had been deprived of all its former rights, that had again occupied its former predominant position by force or by cunning? Or were his conscience and shame before the public again enticing Nietzsche to an alien faith and persuading him, sick and miserable as he was, to feign health and happiness? A fact of unusual importance!

     At this point, we must note that in all of his work, down to the very last, in which Nietzsche speaks as an unequivocal immoralist and atheist, in which he takes as his slogan the fearful words that had served in the Middle Ages as the secret password of a Mohammedan sect that had clashed with the Crusaders in the Holy Land: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" - in all of his works, Nietzsche always, unfailingly, appeals to some higher court (at one time, it is simply called "life," at another, "the totality of life"), and does not venture to speak in his own name. An impression is produced which is best summed up by Dostoevsky's derisive words: "Everything is permitted, and that's that! And if you want to swindle, what further need is there of the sanction of truth?" [Dostoevsky, op. cit., XII, 769]. For partisans of the categorical imperative, Nietzsche's passion for the sanction of truth could serve as the best refutation of his entire doctrine, and I am most surprised that no one has as yet challenged him with this seemingly irrefutable argument. Especially as the contradictions that one encounters in Nietzsche's judgments - a shortcoming for which he was so often reproached - mainly derive from this veneration of the new "Moloch of abstraction," which has now replaced numerous old ones. I do not, however, mean by this that the sanction of truth or, perhaps I should say, every last sanction in general is on the side of those who proclaim that not all is permitted and who refrain from swindling - in the sense, of course, in which Dostoevsky used the word (after all, even such reservations are still necessary). Moreover, I have already pointed out that, in Dostoevsky's admiration of penal servitude, there are clear indications of an awareness that precisely this sanction, which the idealists have hitherto boasted as their inalienable and undivided prerogative, had been illegitimately appropriated by the latter. Schiller once, without any hesitation, without even thinking that any hesitation was possible, put the following words into the mouth of Phillip the Second:
Gern mag ich hören,
Dass Karlos meine Räte hasst, doch mit
Verdruss entdeck ich, dass er sie verachtet.
     In this sentence, the relations of those types of which Phillip II and Don Carlos are representatives, are, as it were, defined and fixed once and for all. Don Carlos despises Phillip II, but Phillip would feel flattered if he could see at least hatred for himself on the part of his son. And no one had any doubt that between good and evil, to use more general terms, such relations would continue for all eternity: evil is not in a position to get the better of good’s scorn, and therefore it secretly scorns itself. That is, the sanction of truth is on the side of Don Carlos and his beauty of soul. As for Phillip, if he wants to "swindle," then let him abandon hope of any sanction. That is the way it was in Schiller’s time. But now the situation has changed. Now the Don Carloses look to the Phillips for hatred just as they would for charity, but, other than contempt, they get nothing. Example: Dostoevsky and penal servitude, or Nietzsche, who expressed this idea with such frightful clarity in the words of Zarathustra quoted above: "My friend, do you know the word contempt? And the torment of your justice in trying to be fair to those who despise you?" Translate these words into concrete language - and such translations must be made by anyone who wants to find more than just aesthetic pleasure in books - and you will get a new formula for the mutual relations of Phillip and Don Carlos. It is no longer Phillip who knows the word contempt, it is no longer he who is tormented by the need to admit that justice (the sanction of truth) is not with him, but with his enemies - on the contrary, all these pleasures now fall to the lot of Don Carlos.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC