Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Upon his release from penal servitude, Dostoevsky immediately began to write feverishly. The first significant fruit of his new creative activity was the story The Village of Stepanchikovo and Its Inhabitants. In this work, the sharpest eye will not find even a hint that its author had been a convict. On the contrary, you sense in the narrator a good-natured, kind, and witty man. He is so good-natured that he allows the happiest possible outcome for the involved circumstances. The uncle, who has suffered a good deal of torment from Foma Opiskin and the General's wife, at the critical moment displays unprecedented energy and, by the way, even more unprecedented physical strength. From one blow by the uncle, Foma Opiskin is sent flying through the closed door, out to the porch, and from the porch into the yard, and the "tyrant" who had tormented everyone for so long is then and there deposed. But even this is too little for Dostoevsky. He does not even want to punish this tyrant too severely. Foma soon returns to the hospitable Stepanchikovo, but, of course, he does not behave so disgracefully as before; however, he is allowed somewhat to nag the people around him so that he will not feel too offended. Everyone is exceedingly pleased, and the uncle marries Nastenka. Dostoevsky had never before displayed such good humor in a single one of his works - either before or after his penal servitude. His heroes meet almost any fate imaginable; they kill or are killed, go mad, hang themselves, suffer delirium tremens, die from tuberculosis, are sentenced to hard labor - but what happened in The Village of Stepanchikovo, where there is even a chapter at the end entitled: "Foma Fomich Makes Everyone Happy," was never again to be repeated in his novels. And the ending - well, it is simply a pastoral idyll. You involuntarily ask yourself in amazement: can penal servitude have left no scars on this man? Can there be such incorrigible idealists that, no matter what one does to them, they continue to cherish their ideals and are able to turn every hell into a heaven? Just what didn't Dostoevsky see during penal servitude! But in his writing, he is so naïve that, exactly like a twenty-year-old youth, he arranges for the triumph of good over evil. How much longer must the man be beaten?

     However strange that may be, Dostoevsky had but one feeling and one desire upon being released from penal servitude: a feeling of freedom and a desire to forget all the horrors he had suffered. What does it matter if someone else is now where he was? The burden has been removed from him, and he celebrates, rejoices, and again throws himself into the arms of the life that had once pushed him so sternly aside. You see that "invention" and "reality" are not one and the same thing. It was possible to shed tears over invention and make Makar Devushkin the subject of poetry; but it was necessary to flee penal servitude. It was possible to spend nights on end with the sad images of his imagination, in that blissful state called artistic inspiration. There, the greater the insult depicted, the more hopeless the grief described, the more dismal the past, the more hopeless the future - the greater the honor for the writer. After all, the highest praise an artist can be given is in the words: he captured and conveyed a genuinely tragic moment. But the conveyers of tragic moments fear real tragedy, tragedy in real life, no less than everyone else.

     I am not saying this to reproach Dostoevsky. And, in general, I would be most grateful if the reader would remember once and for all that my objectives lie beyond the spheres of accusation and vindication. It would spare me unnecessary reservations, which are always annoying. Although the matter in question here is apropos Dostoevsky, it is not about him, at least not only about him. It is important for me merely to establish the following obvious principle: Dostoevsky, like everyone else, did not want tragedy in his own life, and he avoided it in every possible way; and if he did not escape it, it was through no fault of his, but because of outside circumstances over which he had no control. He did everything possible to forget his penal servitude, but his penal servitude did not forget him. With all his heart, he wanted to reconcile himself with life, but life did not want to reconcile itself with him. This is not only evident from the story in question above - it is revealed in everything else he wrote in the first years after his release from penal servitude. From his new experience, he brought only an awareness that there are die horrors and monstrous tragedies on this earth, and - for a writer this is not much - that everyone who can, must flee these horrors. Just as in the case of a sinking ship: sauve qui peut. What was it in his solitary meditations, about which he speaks so eloquently in The House of the Dead, that inspired him, that gave him faith, strength, and courage? An awareness that he was not doomed to share the fate of his fellow prisoners, that a new life awaited him. He accepted what was happening to him, he submitted to fate, for he was expecting something else. Here is what he said: "What hopes made my heart thump in those days! I believed, I resolved, I swore to myself that in my future life, there would be none of the mistakes or lapses as before. I mapped out a program for my entire future and firmly resolved to follow it. There was revived in me a blind faith that I could and would carry all this out. I looked forward to freedom, I prayed for it to come as soon as possible, I wanted to test myself again in a new struggle. At times, I was seized with feverish impatience." [Ibid., III (1), 288-289]

     That is how Dostoevsky spoke of his penal servitude. He wanted and was able to see it as merely a temporary ordeal, and he valued it only in so far as it was connected with great and new hope. And in the light of this new hope, he sees the whole of his penal life. That is what gives The House of the Dead a mellow tone, thanks to which it is held in particular esteem by critics and is liked even by those readers who see nothing in Dostoevsky's later works but intemperate, needless cruelty. There is cruelty in The House of the Dead, but it is within reasonable bounds, just as much as is necessary - necessary, of course, for the readers. Here, too, of course, there are ghastly, staggering descriptions of both the unbridled behavior of the prisoners and the callousness of the prison authorities. But they are all of "moral significance." On the one hand, people are reminded that the prisoner is "also a human being and is called your brother." For this purpose, stories of the convicts’ brutality are placed side by side with stirring scenes depicting the kind of feelings of the inmates of the House of the Dead. The Christmas Play, the purchase of the bay horse, the prison animals - the goat and the young eagle-all those idyllic moments, which Dostoevsky reproduced with such skill and sincerity, won him the well-deserved fame of an outstanding artist and a man of great heart. If his heart did not grow callous in prison, if in the midst of unbearable physical and moral torment he was able to preserve such sympathy in himself for all mankind, it meant that he had great strength concealed within him! And hence, people also came to the philosophical conclusion that no amount of penal servitude can prevail over genuine, deep-seated conviction. In all these raptures and conclusions, the "humblest man" was forgotten; he was left to live out his days in the "House of the Dead" or somewhere in another prison, in shackles, in chains, under the perpetual surveillance of soldiers - that "lifer," whom Dostoevsky had compared to a man buried alive. (A clever comparison, isn't it?) At the same time, people even forgot to ask exactly what it was that protected Dostoevsky's heart from rust. Was it really made of pure gold - or was some other reason involved here? The question is, of course, an interesting one. It never hurts to verify the legend of golden hearts, if only to have extra proof of its plausibility.

     The passage quoted above arouses some doubt in the reader: the golden heart expects too much for itself! But the expectation of a new life always attended and consoled Dostoevsky during his period of penal servitude. In The House of the Dead, "a new life" is recalled each time the person in whose name the story is being told is, for some reason or other, overcome by a particularly strong awareness of his difficult situation. Thus, for example, Goryanchikov happens to awake in the night after the first theatrical performance. "In terror," he says, "I raise my head and look about at my comrades sleeping in the flickering light of the cheap prison candle. I look at their pale faces, at their poor beds, at their utter poverty and misery, and it is as if I want to convince myself that all this is really true, and not the continuation of a hideous dream." [Ibid., III, 168] And how does Dostoevsky cope with this horrible sight? After all, it is an excellent opportunity to shed tears: no amount of invention can compare with what lie saw. But in prison, one does not cry. We shall hear more about this in still greater detail from Dostoevsky. But for the time being, here is his ingenuous answer: "‘I won't be here forever, only for a few years,’ I thought, and lay my head back on the pillow." [Ibid., III, 168] Do you hear? Only an answer like that fits the question just asked. I hope you noted the question. There is no reference to the theater, the goat, or the bay horse. There is no recollection of even the humane arguments that one meets elsewhere in the book. He can be reconciled by a single thought - that his penal servitude is not forever, but for a limited time only. Dostoevsky did not for a single minute forget this while he was a prisoner. He said: "I wanted to go on living after my release from prison." [Ibid., 232]

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