Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Now it is time once again to raise Nietzsche's question: "How is it possible to find comfort in the trivial thought that the motives of all our actions can be reduced to egoism?" Only now, when we have behind us the idea of "eternal recurrence and all the tempestuous longings of Faust, does the word "comfort" prove to be out of place. It must be replaced by another word more appropriate to the occasion. Apparently, we are dealing here with an imperative, and, what is more, with a categorical imperative, against which man is unable to defend himself. Nietzsche had unconsciously, and without even foreseeing where he would end up, started down the path of doubt. More than that even - he was almost certain that he would not arrive at any results whatsoever, and he adhered to his "positivism," mainly because it demanded less pretense and freed him from that solemn language which, with his awareness of his personal insignificance, was most disgusting of all. But isn't it amazing! People are constantly being warned against skepticism and pessimism, they are constantly being persuaded of the necessity of preserving their faith in their ideals at all costs, but neither the warnings nor the persuasion has any effect: we are all being drawn forward by a fatal force to the unknown. Are we not right in seeing in the spontaneity of this attraction a pledge of future success, and should we not, on the strength of this, now seek in pessimism and skepticism not enemies, but unrecognized friends? And wasn't Raskolnikov right in his reasoning: there are indeed two moralities, one for the ordinary people, and the other for the extraordinary, or, to use Nietzsche's blunter but more expressive terminology - a morality of masters and a morality of slaves? And at this point, the most important question of all arises: what is the source of both these moralities?

     At first glance, it probably seems that the decisive factor here is the cast of a person's character; the slaves, or ordinary people, submit, whereas the masters, or extraordinary people, command. Accordingly, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and also Faust must be assigned to the second category. However, Faust lived to a ripe old age before he took it into his head to protest against his "dog's" life, and, if it had not been for Mephistopheles’ fortunate intervention, he would have died in a halo of virtue. The same can be said of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: they were driven by chance from the Wagnerian path of commonplaceness. If it had not been for the penal servitude of the one and the terrible illness of the other, they would never have guessed, as most people never do, that they are bound hand and foot with chains. They would have written well-intentioned books, in which they would have sung the beauty of the world and the loftiness of souls that are submissive to necessity: their early works all too convincingly attest to this. More than that - the reader recalls how horrified Nietzsche became, as he himself admits, each time circumstances compelled him to accept new "knowledge." He wanted to go on living as before, and only when the new knowledge cut him to the quick, when he heard a stern voice above him say: "discern or perish" - only then did he decide to open his eyes.

     And Dostoevsky? How much the mere tone of Notes from the Underground is worth! How much torment, how much agony can be heard behind the desperate words he addresses to Liza. Faust also suffered a great deal before he summoned the devil. In short, all these "extraordinary" men who revolted against the fetters of the coercive laws of nature and human morality did not rebel of their own free will: like serfs grown old in their master's service, they were forced to choose freedom. This was no "revolt of slaves of morality," as Nietzsche teaches, but something for which the human tongue lacks words. Therefore, "character" is irrelevant here, and if there are two moralities, it is not a morality of ordinary and extraordinary people, but a morality of commonplaceness and a morality of tragedy - this correction must be made in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche's terminology. This circumstance, by the way, explains Dostoevsky and Nietzsche's astounding knowledge of the most intricate workings of the "slave's" soul - what people praise as their psychological insight. Nietzsche himself once remarked that he considered himself particularly fortunate for having to side for a time with his future adversaries [Nietzsche, Werke, V, 245]. In doing so, he learned all their "secrets" and later had a powerful weapon for his struggle against them. Dostoevsky does not say this, but, of course, he could have said it. Indeed, the psychology of "good" had never before been revealed with such ruthlessness as in the works of these two writers.

     And Nietzsche must be given his due: in this matter, he sometimes outdoes his illustrious Russian colleague. For Nietzsche, "good" was a synonym of weakness; the "good" are weak but cunning enviers, who have decided that they will retreat before nothing to avenge themselves on their opponents, the "evil," for the unhappiness of their own poor and wretched lives. As an illustration, here is a small sample of Nietzsche's attitude toward the "good": "They are all men of resentment, men physiologically maimed and riddled with worms; it is a whole quivering kingdom of burrowing revenge, indefatigable and insatiable in its attacks on the happy, and also in the art of disguising revenge, of seeking pretexts for it. But when will they really reach their final, fondest, most sublime triumph? Undoubtedly when they succeed in pushing. their own misery, in fact, all misery, into the consciousness of the happy; so that the latter begin one day to be ashamed of their happiness and to say to themselves: ‘It is a shame to be happy! There is too much misery on earth'." [Ibid., VII, 435]

     In these few words, you immediately sense that you are dealing with an expert on the "slave soul." See how the question is put: are the happy, the successful, the strong in body and spirit responsible for the fact that so much unhappiness exists in the world? And must they assume responsibility for the world's grief? There can be no doubt that attempts were and are being made to foist the responsibility on them. Let each person re-examine the history of his dealings with conscience - won't he say that the best moments of his life were poisoned by the realization that it is shameful to be happy when so many of his neighbors are perishing all around him? As for Nietzsche himself - evidently, he can boast a particularly interesting past in this respect: "To my charity," says Zarathustra, "you always sent the most impudent beggars; around my pity you have always crowded the incurably shameless. Thus you wounded the faith of my virtue."[Ibid., VI, 162-163] But this, too, is not the point. When Nietzsche was writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Toward a Genealogy of Morals, the question of insolent beggars and incurably shameless people, as well as all very distant memories, had receded into the background and had long since ceased to bother him. Very likely, the happiness of the happy people also interested him in a theoretical way only, as an argument: the moralists weary us to death with pictures of human grief - why, then, not contrast other pictures with them, why not show the moralists how their "unhappy" neighbors, like an infection, are poisoning the existence of those who have still retained their physical and mental strength?

     I am sorry that space does not permit me to quote one or two chapters here from Nietzsche's Toward a Genealogy of Morals. It would do the Russian reader, who has been brought up on the preaching of Dostoevsky and Count Tolstoy, no harm to be convinced at least once of the fact that the power of eloquence, a fervent tone, and sincerity can be directed not only toward the defense of what in our country is traditionally called "truth," but that one can be just as prophetically inspired by the cause of "evil" as by the cause of "good." If you compare Tolstoy's provocative article on the Moscow census with the work in question here, you will have to admit that there is no less persuasiveness, pathos, and finally, legitimate and righteous indignation in Nietzsche than in Count Tolstoy. But if it is possible to be equally "indignant" in defense of the strong against the weak and the weak against the strong, then where, finally, is the truth? Who is "right," Count Tolstoy or Nietzsche? Or is it that indignation, pathos, and passion are meaningless in themselves and do not in the least guarantee the righteousness of the cause for which they stand? Or is it perhaps that strong or weak, good or evil, right or wrong are but a pretext, and that the pathetic preachers have totally different goals and cares? We have been so plagued with sermons that it is high time such a question were raised.

     And, indeed, why should preachers turn to us with their indignation? Why does Count Tolstoy or Dostoevsky tell us of the tribulations of mankind? Isn't it natural, finally, that we, for our part, should address all these questions to them? Let Count Tolstoy, who up to now has been trying to prove that it is shameful to be happy when there is so much misery in the world, explain to us the source of his own peace of mind, and why he is not ashamed to lead a quiet and joyful (a favorite word of his) life when there is so much grief around him! We could turn to Nietzsche with the same question, after having worded it somewhat differently. We might tell him that before reproaching the unhappy people for their existence, he should be happy himself, and that before demanding that only the healthy in body and the strong in spirit be preserved, he, too, should be strong in body and spirit. And with these questions, it would become clear how important it is when reading books to acquaint oneself with the biography of their authors, i.e., to learn how convictions "are born." Nietzsche, until the age of thirty, played the pitiful role of Wagner's servant (it is difficult to repeat, but I should have said - of Wagner's literary lackey). From thirty to forty-four, he suffered painful and loathsome attacks of an incurable disease; and from forty-four until his death, i.e., for almost eleven years, during which he was m a semiconscious state, he preached against the unhappy and sick, i.e., the physiologically maimed! And at the same then, against their defenders, "the good and the just!" This psychological enigma, after all, is well worth thinking about!

     I would remind you, by the way, that in this regard, as in many others, Nietzsche's "convictions" are surprisingly like Dostoevsky's. Dostoevsky also despised "the good and the just," as was already pointed out in its place: they were embodied for him in liberals and progressives of every hue. Dostoevsky let himself call Nekrasov’s heartfelt and poetic poem "On the Volga," which in the seventies was read not only by representatives of the "thinking proletariat," but by almost the entire Russian intelligentsia, "buffoonery." "Buffoonery," Dostoevsky said, yet Nekrasov’s readers wept pure and sincere tears over his poetry in general and over the poem "On the Volga" in particular! But Dostoevsky and Nietzsche hated those tears of sympathy and that compassion-inspiring poem more than anything in the world. This is the view, or if you will, the "taste" of true convicts, of people of the underground, of people of tragedy. For a long time, they had known no tears; they were aware that tears do not help, and that pity is futile. But, after all, there are many other things besides tears and pity that do not help - why then such hatred for pity? After all, the "evil" are also powerless to change the lot of the hopelessly condemned - why then such aversion to "the good and the just?" Isn't it only because "the good and the just" were poor teachers when they taught Dostoevsky and Nietzsche the theory of self-denial? One can forgive an error, especially an honest error, even if it had to be dearly paid for. Belinsky sincerely regarded his doctrine as the only true one, and he himself suffered a good deal because of it. And Nietzsche's teachers also had no intention of deceiving their students.

     But Nietzsche and Dostoevsky had long since reconciled themselves to the past. They were now fighting for the future. But pity for "the good and the just" was depriving them of their last hope. You recall that Dostoevsky, when he was a prisoner, accepted alms from a young girl, and for a long time afterward he guarded with loving care the mite she had given him. Perhaps Nietzsche also had occasion during his wanderings to accept gratefully a word of love and sympathy from a child or one of the common folk whose understanding of good and evil differed greatly from ours. He rejected both love for his neighbor and pity, which had been elevated to the position of a final principle, and which had become a theory that claimed divine rights. He knew that intelligent people of today would give him not just one mite, but hundreds, even thousands, that they would clothe, warm, feed, and shelter him, that they would look after him as one of their own when he fell ill. But he knew that their care would not be lavished on him free of charge, not unselfishly, and that ultimately they would demand of him, not gratitude - we have now risen above gratitude - but an admission that in return for all the attention and love shown him, he was obligated to feel perfectly content in his heart of hearts, however difficult his situation might be. In his neighbors’ love for him, he must have seen the realization of the supreme ideal, i.e., the first and last demand that a person can make on life. This pity, which had been raised to the level of an ideal, and also its priests aroused in Nietzsche all the indignation of which he was capable. He saw that they wanted to buy his rights of primogeniture with a mess of pottage. And although he himself had almost ceased to believe in these rights, he refused to strike a bargain with them. With contempt and horror, he rejected the gifts offered him, lest he be obliged to renounce a possible struggle.

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