Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     "It deeply moves your heart to realize that the most downtrodden man, the lowest of the low, is also a human being, and is called your brother." These words fully express the idea for the sake of which Dostoevsky first embarked on his literary career. As you see, it is not striking for its originality. It was not striking for that quality even at the time when Dostoevsky began to write. He was not the first to proclaim it. In the fifties and for a long time afterward, it dominated the minds of all the better Russian people. At that time, its most outstanding spokesman was Belinsky, to whom it in turn had come from the West under the then fascinating name "humanity." Although Belinsky was a critic as far as his literary responsibilities were concerned, he can more readily be called a great preacher by mentality. Indeed, he viewed all the greatest works of literature in the light of a single moral idea. Three-fourths of his articles on Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov are an unbroken hymn to humanity. Belinsky aspired, at least in literature if it was impossible to do so in other spheres that were broader but inaccessible to his influence, to proclaim that solemn declaration of the rights of man, which in its time had caused such a vast upheaval in France, from where, as is well known, our new ideas mainly came. Along with the declaration of the rights of man before society, there was brought to us as its complement and, as was thought at the time, its necessary presupposition the idea of the natural interpretability of the world order.

     Natural interpretability had indeed played its emancipatory role in the West. In order to unbind their hands, reformers had to declare that the entire social order of the past was the result of a blind play of forces. Of course, we, too, had reckoned on this. But at the time, we were unable to ascribe an auxiliary meaning to truth. Truth is first and foremost truth. And natural necessity had been established as dogma right along with "humanity." The tragedy of uniting these two ideas was not obvious to anyone at the time (with the partial exception of Belinsky himself - but about that, below). No one yet sensed that along with the declaration of the rights of man before society (humanity), we had also been brought the declaration of his lack of rights - before nature. And Dostoevsky least of all suspected this. With all the ardor of a young and enthused man, he pounced upon these new ideas. He had known Belinsky earlier from the latter's magazine articles. But personal acquaintance with him fortified Dostoevsky's faith even more. Many years later, in The Diary of a Writer, he said: "Belinsky never took a liking to me; but at the time, I fervently accepted his entire doctrine." [Ibid., IX, 175]. Dostoevsky does not explain in detail why Belinsky did not take a liking to him. He limits himself to just a few words of a general, but significant nature: "We separated for various reasons - which, by the way, were most unimportant in every respect." [Ibid., IX, 172]. As far as we know, there had indeed been no serious misunderstandings between them. But on the other hand, it has been attested that Dostoevsky never felt at ease in Belinsky’s Circle. Every one in it, Belinsky included, insulted him. And it must be assumed that those insults had an unusually powerful effect on this already morbidly impressionable youth. They embedded themselves so deeply in his soul that later on, twenty-five years after Belinsky’s death, he seized the first possible opportunity to get even for them. In the same issue of The Citizen from which we quoted Dostoevsky's words above, you find quite a number of unusually venomous remarks about Belinsky which Dostoevsky had long borne in his soul. Evidently the old wounds were exceedingly painful and the unavenged insults grievous to recall if it was necessary to pour out so much venom on his long-deceased teacher.

     But Dostoevsky was right. There are things a person cannot forgive, and consequently, there are insults that cannot be forgotten. It is impossible to reconcile yourself to the fact that the teacher from whom you so joyfully, so wholeheartedly, and so impetuously received your faith has rebuffed and ridiculed you. But that is exactly what happened in the case of Dostoevsky and Belinsky. When the young and ardent disciple would visit his master to hear what he had to say on the subject of "the most downtrodden man, the lowest of the low," the master would be playing cards and talking about irrelevant matters. That was painful to bear for a person so gentle and trusting as Dostoevsky was at the time. But Belinsky’s disciple was also irksome to him. Do you know that for some teachers there is no greater torment on earth than to have students who are too trusting and consistent? Belinsky was already approaching the end of his literary career when Dostoevsky was just beginning his. As a man enlightened by experience, he sensed all too deeply how much danger is concealed in every inordinately fervent enthusiasm for an idea. He already knew that an unsolvable contradiction lies concealed deep in the idea, and therefore he tried to confine himself to its surface. He understood that the natural order of things laughs at humanity, which in turn can merely bow its head submissively before the invincible foe. You, of course, recall Belinsky’s celebrated letter, in which he demands that an account be rendered for "every blood brother." This means that the contradiction had already become crystal clear to him and that humanity no longer satisfied him. But Dostoevsky did not understand this, he could not understand it, and with all the ardor of a neophyte, he constantly returned in his conversation and writing to "the humblest man." You can imagine how distressing it was for Belinsky to listen to his young friend, especially as he himself could not openly confess his own thoughts and feelings!

     As a result, the disciple, for "unimportant reasons," abandoned his master, who by now was bored even with Poor Folk, and who called Dostoevsky's next work "nervous twaddle." The story, as you see, is not a cheerful one. But the ball comes to the player. Both friends took with them painful memories of their short-lived acquaintance. Belinsky soon died, but Dostoevsky had for more than thirty years to bear within himself the memories of a teacher who had repudiated him and to contend with the agonizing contradiction that he had inherited along with humanity from the "furious Vissarion." I might note here that in his late works, Dostoevsky used the word "humanity" in an ionic sense only, and he always wrote it in quotation marks. Consequently, it had cost him dearly! Could he have believed this when he was rejoicing over his Devushkin and embracing Belinsky, Nekrassov, and Grigorovich? [N.A. Nekrassov (1821-1877), a Russian poet whose main theme was the Russian people, particularly the peasants and their suffering; D. V. Grigorovich (1822-1899), a sentimental realist whose novels describe the hard life of the peasant. - S.R.]

     The break with Belinsky was the first test that Dostoevsky had to stand. And he stood it with flying colors. He not only did not betray his faith, on the contrary, he seemed to give himself up to it even more passionately than before, although he was filled with so much fervor from the very beginning that the comparative degree is perhaps inappropriate here. The second test was his arrest in connection with the Petrashevsky affair. Dostoevsky was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to hard labor. But here, too, he remained firm and unshaken - not only outwardly, but, as is evident from his own reminiscences, even in the depths of his soul. His testimony relates to 1873, i.e., to the time when he recalled his past with disgust and indignation, when he was even ready to slander it. Therefore, it is of particular value, and we shall quote it here in toto: "The sentence of death by shooting, which was read to each of us beforehand, had been read in all seriousness; almost all the condemned were certain that it would be carried out, and they suffered at least ten terrible, inordinately horrible, minutes awaiting death. In those last minutes, some of us (I know this for certain) instinctively withdrew into ourselves and, while hastily examining the whole of our still very young lives, we perhaps even repented of some of our serious deeds (the kind that secretly remain on everyone's conscience throughout his life); but the deed for which we had been condemned, the thoughts, the ideas that had possessed our minds, seemed to us not only something that did not demand repentance, but even something that purified us, a martyrdom for which much would be forgiven! And thus it continued for a long time. Not the years of exile, not the suffering broke us. On the contrary, nothing broke us, and our convictions merely bolstered our spirits with an awareness of an obligation fulfilled." [Ibid., IX, 342].

     Thus the man recalls his past after a quarter of a century. Consequently, the "humblest man" was dear to his heart; consequently, his bond with Belinsky’s ideas was strong, and the recently disseminated opinion that Dostoevsky had been reckoned as a member of Belinsky’s Circle only through a misunderstanding, when in fact his heart belonged to a different world even in early youth, is completely unfounded. And why, one might ask, was such a fabrication necessary? To uphold Dostoevsky's honor? But where is the honor in it? Is it really so necessary for a person still in diapers to have his "convictions" completely formulated for the rest of his life? In my opinion, it is not. A person lives and learns from life. And he who has lived to old age without having seen anything new is more likely to astonish us for his lack of perceptiveness than to command our respect. However, I want least of all here to praise Dostoevsky for his perceptiveness. Generally speaking, this is no place to appraise his mental attributes. There is no question that this writer was an extraordinary man - at least in the eyes of someone who decides to study and speak about him so many years after his death. But precisely for this reason is it least of all necessary to ascribe to or invent for him special mental attributes. Here, more than anywhere else, one must bridle one's personal sympathies and antipathies and avoid overwhelming the reader with one's own convictions, however noble and lofty they may be.

     For us, Dostoevsky is a psychological enigma. The key to it can be found in one way only - by adhering as strictly as possible to truth and reality. And if he himself openly attested to a "regeneration of his convictions," then all efforts to pass silently over this exceedingly important event in his life for fear that it will impose unexpected and unusual conclusions on us deserve the severest possible censure. "Fear" is inappropriate here. Or, in other words, we must find the strength in ourselves to overcome it. A new truth, when first discovered, is always as disgusting and hideous as a newborn child. But in that case, we must turn our backs on Dostoevsky's entire life, on all his work, for his life was an involuntary and unbroken quest for that "ugliness" which is in question here. After all, the man had reason to spend dozens of years in the underground and at penal servitude; after all, he had reason from early youth on to associate solely with the Devushkins, Golyadkins, Natashas, Raskolnikovs, and Karamazovs, and not to see God's world. Evidently, there was no other path to the truth except through penal servitude, the dungeon, and the underground. But do all paths to the truth lie underground? And is every depth an underground? But about what else, if not about this, do Dostoevsky's works tell us?

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