Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Nietzsche's prayer was heard: the denizens of Heaven sent him madness. On one of his solitary walks in the Engadine Mountains of Switzerland, he was suddenly struck, as if by lightning, by the thought of "eternal recurrence," and from that moment on, the nature of his work changed completely. Now we are no longer confronted by the underground man, timidly and carefully undermining commonly accepted convictions under the cover of theories that are alien to him. We are addressed by Zarathustra, who believes in his prophetic mission and who dares to oppose his opinion to that of everyone else. But, strangely enough, despite the fact that Nietzsche saw the origin and primary source of his new world view in the idea of eternal recurrence, he nowhere develops this idea clearly or in detail. Several times in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he begins to speak of it, but each time he breaks off almost in the middle of a word. So that one involuntarily suspects that "eternal recurrence" was, in the final analysis, merely an incomplete and inadequate expression of the sudden rapture that Nietzsche had experienced.

     This seems probable, especially as the idea itself is old and does not belong to Nietzsche. The Pythagoreans had spoken of it, and Nietzsche, a classical philologist, could not, of course, help knowing it. Obviously, it had a different meaning for him than for the ancients, and, accordingly, he could link other hopes with it. And, indeed, what new meaning could the promise of eternal recurrence give his life? What could he derive from the conviction that his life, such as it was, with all its horrors, had already been repeated countless times, and furthermore, that it must again be repeated an equal number of countless times without the slightest change? If Nietzsche saw in "eternal recurrence" only what the Pythagoreans had spoken of, it must have given him very few new hopes! And vice versa, if "eternal recurrence gave him new strength, it was because it promised him something other than a mere repetition of what he in fact already had.

     Therefore, one can safely say that for Nietzsche, this idea was first and foremost a symbolic protest against the now prevalent theory of knowledge and its practical conclusions concerning the role and the significance of the individual in the world. It did not express all that Nietzsche thought it did. That is why, although he calls himself the teacher of eternal recurrence, he teaches anything he feels like except recurrence, and refuses to come right out and tell his "final idea." Evidently, in the presence of mankind's millennial prejudices and convictions, even "madness" does not have the courage to be completely candid. Here is the passage from Zarathustra’s conversation with life that attests to this: "Life thoughtfully looked back and said quietly: ‘Oh, Zarathustra, you are not faithful enough to me! You love me not nearly so much as you say; I know you are thinking of leaving me soon. There is an old, extremely heavy droning bell; at night, its ringing can be heard as far as your cave. When you hear this bell strike the hour at midnight, then you think between one and twelve - you think, Oh, Zarathustra, I know it, of how you want to leave me soon.'

     "‘Yes,’ I answered hesitantly, ‘but you also know - and I whispered something into her ear, right through her tangled, yellow, foolish tresses. ‘You know that, Oh, Zarathustra? Nobody knows that.’ And we again looked at each other and at the green meadow over which the cool evening was running just then, and we wept together. But then life was dearer to me than all my wisdom ever was." [Also sprach Zarathustra, "Das andere Tanzlied."] What did Zarathustra whisper to life? What is the secret that no one knows but Zarathustra? Evidently, it is directly related to "eternal recurrence," but, at any rate, it is less abstract and empty. life has tormented Zarathustra, and he wants to part from it, but the secret known only to him reconciles him to his suffering and teaches him to love reality more than wisdom. Immediately following the conversation with life, there is inserted as the third part of the same song (‘The Other Dance Song") a strange, but extremely interesting poem, evidently intended to explain, at least in part, the meaning of the "secret." It consists of twelve lines, corresponding to the twelve strokes of the midnight bell:
Oh, man! Take heed!
What does the deep voice of midnight say?
I was sleeping, I was sleeping.
I awakened from a deep sleep.
The world is deep.
And deeper than day had thought.
Deep is its sorrow.
Joy - deeper yet than suffering.
Sorrow says: Go!
But all joy wants eternity.
- Wants deep, deep eternity.
     You see that the important thing in "eternal recurrence is not the word being defined, but the word doing the defining, i.e., not recurrence, but eternity. However deep sorrow may be, it must pass and yield its place to everlasting joy. And day (i.e., Mill and Kant) cannot judge the profundity of the world. Isn't this the secret that Zarathustra whispered to life? And wasn't this what was revealed to him when he was first struck by the idea of eternal recurrence "at six hundred feet above sea level, and even higher above all human thoughts?" But let us lay aside our conjectures about Nietzsche's unrevealed secrets: if he remained silent, he had reason to do so; there are things about which one may think, but about which one must not speak except in symbols and hints. At least, one must not speak of them now, as long as Mill's hypothesis of effect without cause is accepted by us as valid only for distant planets or for the even more distant future, as long as day judges the world. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we find quite a number of attempts by mental effort alone to break away from the authority of modern theories. I might, for example, point to Zarathustra’s speech which concludes the second part of the book ("The Stillest Hour"), or "The Convalescent," "The Seven Seals," et cetera, from the third part. Nietzsche had by no means accustomed himself as yet to his new midnight reality. As the heir of his ancestors, he could abandon the customary atmosphere of positivism only for a few moments at a time; for him, life beyond the boundaries of what is called the cognizable world, however much it attracted him, was not yet the "normal" life. Each time the ground gave way under his feet, he was seized with mystical horror; he himself did not know what was happening to him: whether he was seeing a new reality or merely dreaming terrible dreams. Before him, therefore, was a perpetual tragic alternative: on the one hand, reality - positive, but spiritually bankrupt and empty; on the other, a new life - alluring and promising, but frightening as a ghost. It is not surprising that he constantly hesitated in choosing his path, and that at one time he would call forth his "final idea" with horrible incantations, while at another, he would lapse into complete apathy, almost torpor, to rest from extreme mental strain. You will not find a single writer in modern literature who experienced such rapidly changing moods as those you observe in Nietzsche: at almost one and the same moment, you can find him at two diametrically opposite poles of human thought.

     Professor Riehl was correct in noting that Nietzsche is not fit to be a teacher. His works do not and cannot provide hard-and-fast rules for the guidance of students. He is always experimenting, subjecting himself to tests. Sometimes it seems to him that our life is merely an "experiment in cognition." But does philosophy exist only for "students"? Of course, youth, or "the younger generation," as our people used to say in the old days, needs guidance; it needs an answer to the question: what are we to do? But there is no need to turn with this question to Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, or Count Tolstoy, i.e., to men who are unsettled themselves. If we had no other grounds, it would suffice to mention the instability of their own convictions to disqualify them as teachers. How can we entrust a young soul to them if they themselves cannot Vouch for the future? Count Tolstoy, for example, after having arranged for such a solemn apotheosis of Levin's family life, wrote, just a few years after Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and then even The Kreutzer Sonata. The story of Levin's marriage and his family life on the one hand, and that of Ivan Ilyich and Pozdnyshov on the other, are, in the final analysis, one and the same story, but told in a different way and elucidated, or if you prefer, evaluated differently.

     In order to convince oneself of this, it is enough to read Anna Karenina and The Kreutzer Sonata in succession. The relationship between Levin and Kitty is exactly the same as that between Pozdnyshov and his wife: there can be no doubt about it. However, Levin's family life is recommended to us as exemplary, while Pozdnyshov says of his life: "We lived like swine." Why did Count Tolstoy omit from Levin's story what he emphasized in Pozdnyshov’s? What can a student learn from a teacher like Count Tolstoy? Generally speaking, once a person has betrayed his convictions, he is no longer fit to be a teacher, because convictions for a limited time only are worthless. Surely their chief merit lies in the fact that they promise a foundation for life. Convictions are not proved, but accepted - if not wholly, at least in part - on faith; one can believe only in what is stable, in what has not been subject to vacillation, at least not before one's eyes. And a real teacher, a person whom one can with a clear conscience recommend as a leader of youth, must, above all, be able to provide his students with the greatest possible number of "eternal" principles, which are valid for all ages and for all situations. Such teachers never completely die out; there are many of them - the younger generation usually turns to them for edification and guidance, and from them it obtains all that it needs.

     Even more than that - these teachers know how to protect their students from dangerous contact with writers such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Count Tolstoy. Take a look at the textbooks on literary history and see what the Germans have made of their Goethe! With the existing commentaries, it is no longer such a terrible thing to put Faust even into the hands of an adolescent. Yet, from the "teacher's" viewpoint, can there be a more harmful and immoral work? Count Tolstoy had reason to repudiate Goethe in What is Art! And as a matter of fact, what does Faust need? He has lived a long, honest, and industrious life; he enjoys the respect and esteem of the public, and he is able to inspire his students, who flock to him from all over, with ideas of good and to impart to them knowledge - Of a limited, but useful nature-which he managed to acquire through long years of persistent study. It would seem that he would rejoice in his old age, but, no, he is discontent; he becomes involved with the devil, and sells his soul to the enemy of mankind in exchange for Gretchen. What does it all mean? Of course, in simple language, it means that the later love comes, the more it burns.

     The only thing that surprises me here is that Count Tolstoy did not recall this wonderful Russian proverb in connection with Faust. The people he liked best to talk with, those "clever peasants," would surely have reasoned thus. From their point of view, Wagner [the character in Faust, of course - S.R.] is much more moral and lofty than Faust, and yet in Goethe, he is presented as the caricature of a fool, and only because, as Mill and Kant teach, he remained within the bounds of the cognizable world and had no dealings with demons. Try to apply Kant's moral principle to Faust: what would happen if all people did as Faust - abandoned their respectable and useful scholarly work and in old age fell in love with a Gretchen? But Wagner is true to the Kantian principle to the end! And, according to Mill's utilitarian point of view, he would be right, and Spinoza would be obliged to praise him. Kant and Goethe wrote almost simultaneously. But Kant strictly forbade all sorts of thoughts of eternal recurrence, demons, and Gretchens to disturb his philosophical peace of mind: their place is in the intelligible (or, as is usually said, the unintelligible) world. But Goethe had summoned them to him and left it to the Wagners to live according to Kant's system of morality. Evidently, Raskolnikov was right, and there really are two standards, one for the ordinary people, the other for the extraordinary. The Fausts do not lose our respect, despite the fact that they ignore all sage proverbs and philosophical doctrines and permit themselves to disparage commonly accepted morality; they turn their backs on the ideal blessings provided by the scholar's library and his teaching and seek life for themselves. Was Faust an "egoist"? Are the greatest men egoists, and is the morality of self-denial left to the mediocre Wagners?

     But, I repeat once again, moral ideas, much more so than all other systems, have thus far rested on premises obtained entirely from observations of outward human relations. The moralists were guided by the same instinctive desire to limit the field of observation as were the scholars when they formulated their theories of natural development. Kant's categorical imperative and Mill's utilitarian principles had one purpose only - to bind man to the average, customary norms of life, which were assumed to be equally valid for absolutely all men. Both Kant and Mill firmly believed that the moral law is just as binding, comprehensible, and dear to the heart of every man as is the law of causation. Even if there is a possibility of its losing its binding nature, it probably can only be somewhere on another planet or in the infinitely distant future (with Kant, in the intelligible world), but here on earth it must be acknowledged by all mortals without exception. But if there are those who are unwilling to repudiate "effect without cause," and who, rather than seek traces of randomness in spheres inaccessible to and of no concern to us, try to discover the absence of regularity right here on earth, in their immediate environment, then how can we count on their readiness to subject their will, which they know is free, to universal norms, solely for the triumph of the scientific order, which they detest more than anything else? Isn't it natural that they would behave quite differently, and like the gentleman with the retrograde physiognomy in Notes from the Underground, would violate the rules merely to destroy every law? Neither the profundity of Kant's thought, nor the clarity and persuasiveness of Mill's arguments would make any impression on them. The insight of these people will not surprise you, and as for dialectics, even Hegel himself would throw up his hands before Dostoevsky's underground philosopher. It is not by chance or even by virtue of their restless nature that they seek chaos and randomness on our earth, where science has found so much strict harmony and order: harmony and order stifle them; they choke in an atmosphere of. naturalism and regularity. And no science, no preaching will attach them to that reality, which in the judgment of recognized sages has hitherto been acknowledged as the only real one. For the time being, they have made a relative reconciliation with "cause and effect": they were forced to do so by outward necessity. But if it had been in their power, they would long ago have moved mountains and turned back rivers, without the slightest concern that such action on their part would threaten international trade, navigation, and sessions of parliament with the worst possible disruption. But that is not in their power. They can only exult over the fact that the law of causation is not a priori (Mill's priceless admission! - if the men of the underground had made it, no one would have believed them; they would not even have believed themselves), and that even the serene and lucid Mill must at least have had moments when he felt uneasy about the disorder prevailing on another planet. They secretly hope that future Mills will, in this regard, have to experience even greater misery. But in the field of moral relations, where their freedom is in no way restricted except by the abstract prescriptions of moralists - here only is it possible for them to celebrate their victory. Despite all efforts on the part of Kant and Mill, their kingdom is here, (the underground people no longer doubt this). It is a kingdom of whim, uncertainty, and an infinite number of completely new and untried possibilities. Here, miracles happen right before your eyes; here, what was strength yesterday, becomes weakness today; here, mountains move; here, "saints" bow down before convicts; here, genius yields to mediocrity; here, Mill and Kant would have lost their scholarly-oriented heads if they had even for a moment decided to leave their little world, which is fortified with a priori judgments, and glance into the realm of the underworld. Spinoza maintained that constancy is the predicate of perfection, and he made this "axiom" the foundation of his mathematically constructed system of ethics. The underground men think differently: for them, constancy is the predicate of the greatest possible imperfection, and accordingly, in their revaluation of all values," they by no means assign the chief places to the representatives of idealism, positivism, and materialism - in brief, to all those systems which, under the guise of philosophy, proclaim to mankind that in the old world, all is well.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC