Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy

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     So, pereat mundus, fiam, let the whole world perish, the underground man will not renounce his rights or exchange them for the "ideals" of pity and all other such blessings that have been specially prepared for him by present-day philosophy and morality. For Dostoevsky, this was a dreadful truth, which he ventured with horror and shame to express through the mouths of the heroes of his novels. With Nietzsche, it was a new and very great "declaration of rights," for the sake of which he had undertaken all his underground work. This also accounts for Nietzsche's cruelty. He does not strive to deliver himself and others from "suffering." In this respect, as in many others, he differs markedly from Schopenhauer, his teacher in youth. The latter, as we know, taught people to seek peace in life. He wrote that one must never buy pleasure at the price of suffering, not even at the risk of suffering, for in so doing, one pays a positive, real price for something negative-that is, for something illusory. On the contrary, whoever sacrifices pleasure in order to escape suffering always comes out ahead. These words are highly characteristic of Schopenhauer's philosophy and of all philosophy in general. The wisdom of the official sages has always regarded suffering as something that, by its very nature, is absurd, senseless, and needless, something that is to be avoided at all costs. And so-called worldly wisdom, in so far as it has found expression in words, has always regarded suffering in exactly this same way. The majority of folk sayings advise moderation and order as the supreme virtues that best guarantee man a happy and peaceful existence. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

     Yet human life, not when it is guided by proverbs and dicta of the sages, but such as it has been in all ages and with all peoples, seems to be just such an everlasting, relentless pursuit of elusive happiness, of the two birds in the band, against which moralists have always cautioned us. People flee in disgust from the bird in the hand, although it is almost forcibly thrust upon them. Henry IV dreamed of providing every peasant with chicken for Sunday dinner. If the peasants had seen the chicken as their ideal and had aspired only to a quiet and peaceful life, while sacrificing their "pleasure" so as not to suffer, as Schopenhauer and proverbs teach us, perhaps the history of mankind would have been less horrible. But the peasants, hike their rulers, had a different view of life and never chose a painless existence as their ideal. On the contrary, man, such as nature created him, is willing to accept long years of suffering and great misfortune for one moment of happiness, for the illusion of happiness. In such instances, he forgets all considerations, all calculations, and pushes ahead toward the unknown, often to certain destruction.

     Where is the truth - in popular wisdom or in reality? Must one really be so afraid of the unknown, of suffering, and of destruction, as we educated people are accustomed to think - we, who draw our judgments from books that have accumulated over the centuries - or is it that the common man, who had never lost the habit of trusting his spontaneous impulses, knows more than the most learned philosophers? From the viewpoint of modern positivist science, there cannot, of course, be even a question here. But Dostoevsky, who had been in a penal colony, had learned a different truth from his fellow prisoners, i.e., from men whose fearlessness in the face of suffering had brought them to the House of the Dead. From penal servitude, he brought with him the "conviction" that man's task consists, not in crying over Makar Devushkin and dreaming of a future in which no one will offend anyone else, and where everyone will spend his days in peace, joy, and pleasure, but in being able to accept reality with all its horrors. He was reluctant - oh, how he was reluctant - to accept this penal truth! At first, he thought that he could rid himself of it by platonic respect and begin to live as before! But it is not man who pursues truth, as Schopenhauer thought, but truth, man. Penal wisdom caught up with Dostoevsky after many years, when he was living a long way from Siberia - in Petersburg in the midst of positivists - and forced him to acknowledge it, to serve it. "The Russian people love to suffer" - this was no paradox, as Dostoevsky's adversaries thought, it was a truth, but a truth from a different world, which writers had forgotten, which they would remember only to say with eyes flashing with indignation: it must not be. It must not be, but it is! Dostoevsky would answer this as follows: love not the people you imagine to be happy, but those who are unhappy, ugly, and disgusting. Let their life be yours. Can you do that, do you want to? But your help, all your projects for reform are the worst possible solution. In this, too, people saw a paradox - those people from "the good and the just," who were prophetically inspired by social ideals and the future happiness of mankind.

     Then, after Dostoevsky, came Nietzsche. He, too, had come from penal servitude - from the underworld, from the realm of tragedy, from which there is no return to the world of the commonplace. Listen to him - he will finish telling you what Dostoevsky did not have time to explain (or perhaps did not even know how to). "But I rejoice," says Zarathustra, "in great sin as my great consolation. Such things, however, are not for long ears. Not every mouth has the right to these words. These are fine, far-away things. And the sheep's hooves must not touch them. Higher men, do you think I came here to put right what you have spoiled? Or to make more comfortable beds for you sufferers? Or show you who have erred and lost the way an easier road? No! No! Thrice no! Ever more and more frequently the better ones of your kind will perish; for you, it will be ever more and more difficult." [Ibid., VI, 420-421] It was necessary to make the reservation: "Not every mouth has the right to these words." The "aboveground" people think differently, they must do so, (for them, the morality of "must" and "must not" is also obligatory). But Dostoevsky and Nietzsche spoke, and they had a right to speak, in the name of the underground people - no one, of course, will contest this, not even those who are unwilling to reckon with their views. However, if they do contest it, no great harm will be done. The philosophy of tragedy by no means seeks popularity or success. It struggles, but not against public opinion; its real enemy is the "laws of nature," whereas human judgments are frightening to it only in so far as they confirm by their existence the permanency and immutability of laws. However brave the solitary thinker may be, he is involuntarily seized from time to time with horror at the thought that the majority, "everyone," whom he learns to despise, is perhaps right after all. But if his speaking and writing colleagues are against him, then he has for him the silent people, who live a special, unexplored, and mysterious life.

     It is not the "clever peasants," from whom Count Tolstoy seeks confirmation of his doctrine, but the unintelligent, crude, common people who must be re-taught, transformed, and enlightened, in brief, adjusted to our ideals. Even when the people know their proverbs, they, in any case, live according to a different wisdom, which we cannot discredit in their eyes by temperance societies, tearooms, schools, edifying literature, or progress. They do not take exception to us; they even agree with us; they occasionally drink our tea; they read and are moved by stories written for them by Count Tolstoy; but they go on living in their own way, seeking their own joys, and intrepidly going to meet their suffering. And it is not only the Russian people who do this, as Dostoevsky wrote, but all people. In France, Italy, and Germany, you will find the same thing as in Russia. Ideals of chicken for Sunday dinner and of universal happiness have always been devised by teachers and scholars. That is probably why these ideals will never be realized, although optimists believe that their kingdom is near. The very fact that it is now possible to have teachers such as Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, who preach love of suffering and proclaim that the best people must perish, in as much as things will become ever worse and worse for them, shows that the rosy hopes of the positivists, materialists, and idealists were mere childish dreams. No social changes whatsoever will banish tragedy from life; therefore, the time has evidently come, not to deny suffering as a kind of fictitious reality from which a person can deliver himself by the magic words "it must not be," as he delivers himself from the devil by the sign of the cross, but by accepting it, by acknowledging it, and perhaps, finally, by understanding it.

     Hitherto, our science has only been able to turn away from all that is horrible in life, as if it were completely nonexistent, and to oppose it with ideals, as if ideals were the true reality. A difficult time has come for the "intelligentsia." Formerly, it would weep over the suffering people, call for justice, demand new procedures, promise (although, by the way, it had no right to do so) different procedures, and rejoice at its readiness to dissemble and lie, as well as at its skill in these matters; in this, it saw its outstanding moral quality. Then a new demand was made on it. Not, of course, by science - after all, science was created by scientists and demanded only what was easiest for scientists to perform. Then life appeared before us with its demands. It does not even think of ideals. With enigmatic severity, it tells us with its mute tongue things the like of which we never heard before, which we never even suspected. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche were merely interpreting its incomprehensible language when they said that things will become ever worse and worse for us. Our calculations have proved wrong. The peasants will not have chicken for Sunday dinner, and we shall be deprived of all the material and spiritual blessings with which science has provided us. And only when there is no longer any real or imaginary hope of finding salvation under the hospitable roof of positivist or idealist doctrine will people abandon their everlasting dreaming and emerge from the semidarkness of their limited horizons, which has hitherto gone by the celebrated name "truth," although it has merely signified the unconscious fear of conservative human nature before that mysterious unknown called tragedy. Then, perhaps, they will understand why Dostoevsky and Nietzsche abandoned humanism for cruelty and inscribed on their banner the strange words: Wille zur Macht.

     Philosophy's task is not to teach us humility, submission, or renunciation. All these words were devised by philosophers not for themselves, but for others. When Count Tolstoy says: Do the will of him who sent you here, and he writes the word "him" with a small letter, we immediately understand that he is following the example of other preachers who had preceded him and is demanding that we do his own will. Without realizing it, he is repeating, in a way that is familiar and therefore inoffensive to the ear, the words of Nietzsche and the underground man: pereat mundus, fiam. For all people, there exists, in the final analysis, just this one law (in Dostoevsky, it is "the supreme idea"). "The great" more or less boldly voice it, but the "nongreat" keep it to themselves. However, the law is the same for everyone. Are we not right in seeing in its universality a sign of its strength, and therefore in admitting that the "sanction of truth" is for the hero of the underground? Arid that the declaration of rights proclaimed by Nietzsche and his Wille zur Macht are something greater than the ideals and pia desideria that have hitherto filled our scholarly books? Perhaps the underground man was unjust to the "laws of nature" when he said that they offended him more than anything else! After all, those laws gave him - an insignificant, despised creature whom everyone had rejected - a proud sense of his human dignity and led him to the conviction that the entire world is worth no more than one underground man!

     In any event, the philosophy of tragedy is, in principle, hostile to the philosophy of commonplaceness. In those instances when commonplaceness says "the end" and turns away, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche see the beginning and start to seek. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there is The story of "the ugliest man," which symbolically depicts Nietzsche's own terrible life. It is too long for me to quote more than a few excerpts here, and I advise those readers who are interested in Nietzsche's philosophy to read it all, if possible in the original. "Suddenly the landscape changed, and Zarathustra entered a realm of death. Black and red cliffs rose rigidly; there was no grass, no tree, no bird's voice. For it was a valley that all animals avoided, even beasts of prey; only a species of ugly, fat green snakes came here to die when they grew old. Therefore the shepherds called this valley "Snakes’ Death." Zarathustra, however, sank into gloomy reminiscence, for he felt as if he had stood in this valley once before. And much that was grave weighed on his mind; he walked slowly, and still more slowly, and finally stood still. But when he opened his eyes, he saw something sitting by the wayside, shaped like a human being, yet scarcely like a human being - something inexpressible." [Ibid., 382-383] It is the "ugliest man," who has withdrawn from people and come to the gloomy valley of "Snakes’ Death." Why has he withdrawn from people? "They [people] persecute me," says the ugly man to Zarathustra. "Now you are my last refuge. They persecute me, not with their hatred, not with their soldiers: I would mock such persecution and be proud and glad of it!

     "Has not all success hitherto been with the well-persecuted? And whoever persecutes well, learns readily how to follow; for he is used to going after somebody else. But it is their pity - it is their pity that I flee, fleeing to you. Oh, Zarathustra, protect me, you my last refuge, the only one who has understood me." [Ibid., 384] Such people, inhabitants of "Snakes’ Death," come seeking hope from Zarathustra. And what do they want? Listen further. The ugliest man says: "Everyone else would have thrown me his alms, his pity, in look and speech. But for that, I am not beggar enough, as you guessed; for that, I am too rich, rich in what is great, in what is terrible, in what is ugliest, in what is most inexpressible. Your shame, Zarathustra, honored me! With difficulty, I escaped the throng of the pitying, to find the only one today who teaches, ‘Pity is obtrusive’ - you, Oh, Zarathustra. Whether it be a god's pity or man's - pity offends the sense of shame. And to be unwilling to help can be nobler than that virtue that jumps to help. But today, pity is called virtue by all the little people: they have no respect for great misfortune, great ugliness, for great failure." [Ibid., 385] They have no respect for great misfortune, great ugliness, for great failure! This is the final word of the philosophy of tragedy. Not to transfer all the horrors of life into the realm of the Ding an sich, outside the bounds of synthetic a priori judgments, but to respect them! Can idealism or positivism respond in this way to "ugliness"? When Gogol burned the manuscript of the second volume of Dead Souls, he was declared insane - otherwise, it would have been impossible to rescue ideals. But Gogol was more correct when he burned his precious manuscript (which could have provided immortality on earth to a whole score of "sane" critics) than he was when he wrote it. This is something idealists will never tolerate; they need "Gogol's works," but they are unconcerned with Gogol himself, with his "great misfortune, great ugliness, and great failure." So let them abandon the realm of philosophy forever! And why do they need it? Are their services insufficiently justified if one refers to railroads, telegraphs, telephones, co-operative societies, and even the first volume of Dead Souls, in so far as it contributes to progress? But philosophy is a philosophy of tragedy. Dostoevsky's novels and Nietzsche's books speak only of the "ugliest" people and their problems. Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and also Gogol were extremely ugly people themselves, and they had none of the commonplace hopes. They tried to find their refuge where no one ever seeks, where, as is generally believed, there is not, and cannot be, anything but eternal chaos and darkness, where even Mill admits the possibility of effect without cause. There, perhaps, every underground man means as much as the whole world; there, perhaps, people of tragedy will indeed find what they have been seeking. People of commonplaceness will not wish to cross the fatal boundary in pursuit of such an incredible "perhaps." But, after all, no one asks them to. Hence, the poet's question: "Aimes-tu les damnés? Dis-moi, connais-tu l’irrémissible?"

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