Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     But let us put aside the argument about sanction and what it is people actually strive for when they try so ardently, maliciously, and mercilessly to prove the incontestability and exclusiveness of their rights to it. Something else interests us now. What are we to do with the work of a writer who, by his own repeated admission, has said in his books that he is not the sort of person he actually is? To the Russian reader, Nietzsche's manner is really not unusual. We have Dostoevsky, who speaks as if he were not the underground man, not Raskolnikov, not Karamazov, and who simulates faith, love, humility, and what have you. We have Count Tolstoy, who wrote out of "vanity, ambition, and pride," as he himself says in an outburst of belated remorse in A Confession. So that we cannot straightaway reject Nietzsche even if we want to, for it would be necessary right after him to reject Dostoevsky and Count Tolstoy as well. So we must raise the following question: what is the use of such pretense, and furthermore, is it necessary? At this point, suppose we again let Nietzsche speak for himself. In the Preface to Human, All-Too-Human, from which we already quoted in the preceding chapter, there is a remark which, as it were, completely clarifies and justifies such strange methods: "It was then," says Nietzsche, "that I came upon the aphorism: ‘a sick man has as yet no right to pessimism,’ and it was then that I began a patient, persistent campaign against the unscientific basic tendency of all romantic pessimism, which tries to magnify and interpret individual personal experiences into general judgments, even universal condemnations - in brief, it was then that I forced myself to change direction. Optimism for the sake of restoring my strength, in order later to again have the right to be a pessimist - do you understand that? Just as a physician transfers his patient to a completely different environment, I, as physician and patient in one, forced myself into a totally different and untried zone of the soul." [Nietzsche, op. cit., III, 9]

     But are these reasons adequate justification of the author's pretense? Let us assume that a sick man indeed has no right to be a pessimist (an enviable right!) and that optimism, as a change of mental climate, can really be helpful to a student of Schopenhauer and Wagner. But how could the readers who happened upon the first edition of both volumes of Human, All-Too-Human, which had not yet been supplied with the explanatory prefaces (they were not written until eight years later ) - how could they guess that they were dealing not merely with books, that is, with the author's convictions, but with an artificially created atmosphere, suitable only for certain kinds of diseases? Neither the titles of these works nor the ideas expounded in them revealed anything of the sort. And if Nietzsche's literary activity had been confined to just the first four volumes of his works, the keenest and most sympathetic eye would never discern the author's purposes in them. Even now, when we have the long prefaces, when we are acquainted with the last four volumes of his works, and when we know Nietzsche's biography, critics remain stubbornly convinced that in Human, All-Too-Human and Dawn, Nietzsche is a consistent positivist. Therefore, these books evidently failed to achieve their goal. Nietzsche should have taken these experimental cures not in public, but at home, without informing anyone of them. Could Nietzsche not have known this elementary truth? Thus, the given explanation can be only of biographical significance to us, and can least of all shed light on the methods Nietzsche used to seek truth in this period of his life. Yet in Human, All-Too-Human, he already quite explicitly, if not boldly, expresses the moral judgments to which he adhered until the end of his life: he himself points this out in the Preface to Toward a Genealogy of Morals. And if we wish to go to the source of Nietzsche's world view, if we wish to learn how his new convictions "were born" (and, after all, that is the whole point of our investigation), we have no right to view his "positivist" works merely as experiments in autotherapy. We must seek in them everything that later led Nietzsche to the formula "beyond good and evil," to the apotheosis of cruelty, to the glorification of egoism, to the doctrine of eternal renewal, to the Wille zur Macht, and even to the ideal of the superman - and they do contain all this. A careful study of them convinces us that they sometimes tell more about their author than do the impassioned words of Zarathustra and the unrestraint of overtaxed creative power which manifested itself in Antichrist. So that the story of autotherapy must be taken with great reservations and, for the time being, even completely rejected.

     Much more important and therefore worthy of closer scrutiny is another explanation, to which we have already called the reader's attention in passing. Nietzsche says that in Human, All-Too-Human he set himself 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." This is undoubtedly a way of seeking truth, although it is, of course, a negative one. It remains for us only to test its efficacy. Does it really lead, indeed can it lead, to "truth," or on the contrary, does it lead away from it? Let us again turn to Nietzsche's experiment. In discussing Socrates and his teachings, he says: "Philosophers and moralists deceive themselves in supposing that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war on it. Extricating lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself. Socrates was a misunderstanding. The most blinding daylight, rationality at any price, life made clear, cold, cautious, conscious, without instinct, opposed to the instincts - all this was only a disease, another kind of disease, and by no means a return to ‘virtue,’ to ‘health,’ to ‘happiness.’ To have to fight the instincts - that is the formula of decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness equals instinct." [Ibid., VIII, 74] All this is in reference to Socrates and his preaching of a struggle with oneself or the "improvement theory," as Nietzsche expresses it. To conquer decadence in oneself is considered absolutely impossible. Socrates was a decadent, and his efforts to save himself were merely a new expression of decadence, of decay. He is unsuitable as a teacher, and his doctrine must be totally rejected. But what about Nietzsche? Besides the fact that his literary remains contain notes in which he himself admits that he is spiritually close to Socrates ("Socrates, I must admit, is so close to me that I am always struggling against him") [Ibid., X, 452], we find the following words in the introduction to an article on Wagner in Volume VIII, the same one in which he condemns the morality of improvement as a hopeless way of saving hopelessly lost people: "I am just as much a child of my age as Wagner, i.e., I am a decadent. The only difference is that I recognized the fact and struggled against it. The philosopher in me struggled against it." [Ibid., VIII, 1]

     But, after all, the very struggle, as we just saw, is but an "illness," a new expression of decadence. Thus, all Nietzsche's work came to naught, and despite his attempts at autotherapy, he remained the same decadent as, in his words, Socrates and Wagner were. How can this fundamental contradiction be resolved? By admitting that Nietzsche unjustly condemned the present, and Wagner and Socrates along with it, or on the contrary, by agreeing that a struggle against decadence is also decadence and assigning Nietzsche himself to the category of hopeless, useless people? As you see, the question is a vital and huge one - but because of the hugeness of a questions one should not forget to note its characteristic psychological feature. As for Socrates, Nietzsche was unusually vigorous in his criticism of the fruitlessness of all sorts of attempts to struggle against "decadence." Even the sage’s millennial fame, previously contested by no one, did not cause Nietzsche to mitigate his condemnation of the illustrious Greek. But when the matter touched him personally, it was as if the theory had never existed. It turns out that not only is it possible to struggle against decadence, but that victory is guaranteed such a struggle - providing there is sufficient courage, persistence, and energy. "Life itself," Nietzsche says in another place, "rewards us for our persistent will to life, for such a long struggle as the one I waged with myself at the time against the pessimistic weariness of life. In the end, we receive life’s great gift, the greatest it can bestow - we regain our task." [Ibid., III, 10]

     Hadn't Socrates displayed courage and energy? Yet it did him no good! But Nietzsche had saved himself, and he considers himself justified in again assuming the great mission of teacher of mankind, for which Socrates had proved unsuited. I have compared two of Nietzsche's contradictory judgments here, but not, of course, to accuse him of inconsistency. Important here only is the fact that, although he had all the "objective" data to include himself among the lost people, the decadents, and the men such as Socrates, he not only did not include himself in this category, but, on the contrary, solemnly and confidently disassociated himself from it. Herein is revealed a characteristic not only of Nietzsche, but of all mankind. None of us, despite all outward evidence, would sign a moral condemnation of ourselves. This is an inherent characteristic of human nature about which the majority of people have never heard, thanks to various lofty doctrines. Nor had Nietzsche heard of it when he was studying with Wagner and Schopenhauer. But in Human, All-Too-Human, he realizes it clearly: "Whether man has a serpent's sting or not can only be learned by stepping on it with your heel. A woman or a mother would say: by someone's stepping on a loved one or her child. Our character is determined much more by the absence of certain experiences than by what we have undergone." [Ibid.,33]

     And so it was with Nietzsche himself. As long as the circumstances were favorable, how could anyone (himself included) have suspected a "serpent's sting" in this meek, gentle man, who was capable of such deep and unselfish devotion, or, metaphors aside, how could anyone have suspected the extreme degree of egoism which had presented the underground man with the dilemma: should the world continue to exist or should he, the underground hero, have his tea? How could anyone, I repeat, in observing Nietzsche, a man who, with such selflessness and such intelligent persistence, had devoted his entire soul to the service of art and science, imagine that it was not art, not science, not the world, and not humanity that was his chief purpose? And that at the moment when, by the will of the fates, Nietzsche would be confronted with the question of whether to preserve the marvels of human culture, whose praises he had sung, or his solitary, insignificant life, he would be obliged to renounce his most cherished ideals and admit that all culture, that the whole world, is worthless if a single individual such as Nietzsche cannot be saved? This thought seemed insane to him; to his dying day, he could not completely accept it, and the more stubbornly it pursued him, the more passionately he tried to escape it, or at least to subject it to some ideal. It frightened him by the havoc it caused people; it seemed monstrous to him because of its fruitlessness, for other than destruction and denial, other than nihilism, it evidently could bring nothing.

     But it was not so easy to repudiate it. Nietzsche was neither the first nor the last to struggle against it. We saw the incredible efforts Count Tolstoy made to tear egoism up by the roots, to extirpate all remnants of it from his soul. The same with Dostoevsky. But the egoism not only did not diminish, it continued to grow and to assert its rights in ever-new forms. It was the same with Dostoevsky as with the legendary serpent - each time its head was cut off, two new ones would appear. And so it was with Nietzsche. He solemnly declared: "Above all, you must be convinced with your own eyes that injustice manifests itself most of all where a shallow, narrow, impoverished, rudimentary life cannot refrain, for the sake of self-preservation, from undermining quietly and untiringly, and from calling into question all that is higher, greater, richer." [Ibid., II, 11] These words are not, as it would seem at first glance, an expression of Nietzsche's personal judgment. The only thing original here is the form; the idea is as old as the hills. Show me the philosopher or the moralist who does not consider it his duty to extol a rich and lofty life to the detriment of a poor and narrow one? Only the Gospel says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit" - but modern science, following the precedent of science in every past age, has understood these words most conditionally, or frankly speaking, it has not understood them at all, and has ignored them with customary respect, just as people at large gatherings ignore old, distinguished guests who are of no use to anyone and who have been invited only for propriety's sake. Everyone knew that the rich in spirit are blessed, and that the poor are wretched now and forevermore.

     Nietzsche's judgment is merely a rehashing of this axiom, which has long been familiar to everyone. Having rebelled against everything, he not only did not venture to contest it, but unconditionally accepted it as dogma, as a noli me tangere. But if he paid tribute in words to a prejudice so deeply ingrained in us, he put into practice in every aspect of his life a principle that is its direct opposite. After all, he himself was poor in spirit. After all, he, too, had undermined; he, too, had subjected all that is higher, greater, and richer to doubt, and he did it solely to justify his own poor and wretched life - although this motive is always concealed by him with extraordinary care and consistency. In his diary for 1888, he explains the meaning of Human, All-Too-Human: "It was a war, but a war without gunpowder and smoke, without military procedures, without pathos, without mutilated limbs - all this might still be called idealism. A number of errors, one after the other, are calmly placed on ice: the ideal is not repudiated, it is frozen. For example, ‘genius’ is frozen here: a little farther on, the ‘saint’; still farther, the hero is turned into a big icicle; at the end, ‘faith’ and so-called ‘conviction’ are frozen; even compassion is considerably chilled; the Ding an sich is frozen almost everywhere." [Förster-Nietzsche, Des Leben Friedrich Nietzsches, II. 296] This is a surprisingly accurate description of Human, All-Too-Human: two lengthy books are fully summarized in a few words. But at the same time, it is merely a variation on the theme that we are now discussing - a "poor, rudimentary life" that dares to subject to doubt the legitimacy of the rights of all that is higher, richer, et cetera. Nietzsche "freezes" all that man has respected from time immemorial; he ridicules the hero, the genius, the saint. And when? In 1876-1878, when the last remnants of life were barely smoldering in him, when, by his own admission, he had completely dissipated his strength without benefit to himself and to others.

     As you see, "conviction," or, if you will, theory, is one thing and practice another. One remembers that Count Tolstoy became horribly indignant over such separation of theory from practice. He used to say that there must be an awfully large number of stupid theories if such an opinion can exist. I should say there are! Might I ask if there is even one "intelligent" theory? And could Count Tolstoy be what he is if he had adhered to his theoretical views in his personal life? If he had really "repudiated himself," and, in some secluded spot, far from everyone's eyes, unseen, unheard, had spent his days behind the plow or in devout conversation with his peasant neighbors? Or what would have happened to Nietzsche if he had conscientiously submitted to the conclusions of his intellect? But, fortunately, few people yield to conclusions. Deep in man's soul, there is another mighty, irrepressible force. It possesses us and ridicules "free will," which, in the meaning usually given it, would lead us to the worst possible acts of folly. This "will" tempted Nietzsche to condemn Socrates. And whom did Nietzsche (and Count Tolstoy) not condemn? What would happen to the human race if all such condemnations did not remain mere words, but had power over real life? But free will is free only with respect to the man to whom it belongs. And the one time its condemnations could be meaningful, it sensibly renounces its rights, as if instinctively sensing that it can bring nothing but misfortune.

     This solves the contradiction in Nietzsche's judgment of Socrates and of himself. His words about Socrates were theory. Of what concern are they to us? But in his works, he tells us of his life, of that poor life which undermined everything that is lofty and great, and which for its own preservation subjected everything to doubt that mankind reveres. That is another matter. Here, free will became silent; here, the hubbub that always accompanies discussions about a "rich life" is barely audible. Perhaps in this silence, new words will reach our ears, perhaps there will be revealed the truth about man, and not human truth, which has become so disgusting and which has worried the life out of us all.

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