Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     The Preface greatly hindered a correct understanding of The House of the Dead. Why was it necessary? Why did Dostoevsky have to tell an invented story according to which the notes belong to Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, who had been exiled to hard labor for the murder of his wife? Because of the censor? But, as you know, he makes no effort in The House of the Dead to conceal the fact that Goryanchikov was sentenced to penal servitude for political reasons. Thus, when the latter takes it into his head to support the prisoners’ grievances, the other political exiles remind him that his participation can only ruin the whole affair: "Remember," they tell him, "why we came here." And furthermore, there are very clear hints in other connections that the author of the notes has been jailed, not for criminal reasons, but political ones. In brief, the Preface could not deceive the censor. If it deceived anyone, it was the reader, by presenting Goryanchikov, the narrator of the story, in a false light. Judging by the Preface, we are dealing with a man who is irrevocably lost to life. He speaks with no one, reads nothing, and lives out his last days in a remote corner of Siberia, leaving his cubbyhole only to earn a few meager kopecks from lessons. And he dies alone, having forgotten everyone, and being forgotten by them as well.

     Of course, there are such people who are buried alive - not only in prison, but on the outside as well. But such people do not write their memoirs, and if they do, it is most certainly not in the tone of The House of the Dead. Where would they get the eyes to see convicts’ fun and relaxation? Where would they get the vitality to be moved by the various manifestations of "good" that Dostoevsky found in prison. Goryanchikov could have described (if he had tried to describe - I repeat, such people seldom write) a hopeless, eternal hell. He has no hope. Doesn't that mean that there is no longer any hope for the whole world? I do not want to establish this as a principle - there is no need as yet for the reader to protest; for the time being, I am only speaking "psychologically." While Dostoevsky was compiling these notes and during his entire period of hard labor, he was the complete opposite of Goryanchikov. He was, above all, a man of hope - of great hope even; and therefore his way of understanding the world, his philosophy, was also a philosophy of hope. And this protected his heart from rust; this was also the reason why he brought back intact from penal servitude all the "humanity" he had taken there with him. Would humanity have helped him if there had been an everlasting curse on his soul as there was on Goryanchikov’s? Would his spirit have been sustained by "convictions" as he himself tells it, or, on the contrary, would the "convictions" themselves, despite all their loftiness, have needed support? This question is appropriate, precisely at this point.

     Goryanchikov would not have written The House of the Dead, but Dostoevsky did. And if a harsh note of dissonance can be heard from time to time in this novel, if at times one finds individual scenes and observations that unexpectedly destroy the general harmony of the "humane" mood, then this must be put down to the fickleness and inconstancy of hope. After all, she is a most capricious creature: she comes and goes at her own sweet will. Most likely, during Dostoevsky's stay in prison, she often forsook him, and for long periods at a time. And in those moments, when he felt himself doomed, indeed forever and ever, to comparison with the "humblest man," there appeared to him those new and terrible spiritual elements which were later on destined to develop into an entirely different philosophy, into a true philosophy of penal servitude, of hopelessness, into the philosophy of the underground man. We shall more than once, later on, have to deal with all this. But for the time being, it is still concealed; for the time being, "humanity" stands firm; for the time being, Dostoevsky wants but one thing: to return to his former life, to do his former work, only better, more carefully, without retreat, weakness, or concession. For the time being, there can be no question of a "regeneration" of convictions. The natural order of things has not yet raised its voice, and humanity triumphs.

     In this respect, Dostoevsky's journalistic articles relating to the period in question are exceedingly important and interesting. There are only a few of them. They were published in the magazine Time in 1861. Despite their predominantly polemical nature, their quiet tone, their respectful attitude toward the adversary, together with a feeling of self-respect and a vigor of language and thought appropriate to it, they are truly unprecedented. Not that they were unprecedented for Dostoevsky, whose polemics (for example, his sharp remarks to Professor Gradovsky) were sometimes simply disgraceful, but unprecedented for literature as a whole.[On the occasion of Dostoevsky's speech at the Pushkin Celebration in 1880 - S.R.]. Usually, as soon as polemics begin, even the very subject of the argument is immediately forgotten. The adversaries merely try to outdo one another in wit, resourcefulness, dialectics, and erudition. But in Dostoevsky's articles, there is none of this. He wants peace, not the sword. Peace, even with Dobrolyubov [N.A. Dobrolyubov (1836-1861), an ultra radical literary critic - S.R.], whom he values as a talented writer despite the extremity of his views; peace, even with the Slavophiles, whom he reproaches for their fanatic contempt for the merits of all non-Slavophile literature. Significant here also is the fact that Dostoevsky is seeking reconciliation - that same Dostoevsky, who many years later, after his Pushkin Speech, in which he called so fervently for the uniting of all parties, could not bear even the first objection and immediately threw off his "artfully donned" mask of universal humanity. But at the same time, his sharp remarks to the Slavophiles about the newspaper Day, which had just begun publication, must not be forgotten, especially by people who value his prophetic gift. Or perhaps it is just the reverse: such people should completely forget his polemic against Day, for it decidedly compromises Dostoevsky's prophetic abilities. What sort of prophet is he, if he cannot foresee his own almost immediate future - if in 1861, he so seriously and sincerely reproached the Slavophiles for their inability to appreciate the merits of the Westerners and so passionately defended the Westerners, in whom he himself was subsequently to see nothing but tittering liberals? It is permissible for a man, even a remarkable one, even a genius, to err; but, after all, a prophet is a prophet only because he always infallibly knows the future.

     The article in question here is little known. Therefore, it will not be redundant to quote two or three passages from it. They will convince the reader once and for all that Dostoevsky did not forget his faith while he was at penal servitude. Here is the first one (I have chosen it almost at random - the entire article is written in such a vein): "Let's come right out and say it: the Slavophile leaders are known to be honorable men. And if this is so, then how can they say that this entire body of literature [i.e., the literature of the Westerners] is ‘indifferent to the misery of the common man?’ How dare they say: ‘The lie is in their censuring our nationality, not because of indignant ardent love, but because of an inner dishonesty [Dostoevsky's italics] that is instinctively hostile to all that honor and duty hold sacred?’ What fanatic hostility! Who but a person in the last stages of raving madness could say a thing like that? Why, it reeks of the stake and the rack." [Dostoevsky, Op. cit., IX, 154]. Dostoevsky had taken the underlined phrase from an article in Day. It filled him with indignation, and he could not forget it; later, when citing it again, he exclaimed: "How could you bring your hand to write it?" Subsequently, Dostoevsky was to bring his own hand to write sentences a good deal stronger than that. Who, in speaking of the Westerners and their fight against the pre-Reform system, doubted that behind their visible laughter lay invisible tears?! And perhaps the Slavophiles meant something else by "inner dishonesty?"

     But for the time being, Dostoevsky has no idea of the things he would end up saying. For the time being, he staunchly sides with the Westerners: "As if the Westerners did not have the same feeling for the Russian spirit and nationality as the Slavophiles did. [My italics.] They did, but the Westerners did not want to shut their eyes and ears like a fakir to certain phenomena that were incomprehensible to them; they did not want to leave them without an explanation or to regard them at all costs with hostility, as the Slavophiles did; they did not shut their eyes to the world, but wanted to reach the truth through intellect, analysis, and understanding. The Westerners turned to realism, whereas the Slavophiles are still clinging to their vague and undefined ideal." [Ibid., 155-156] And also: "The Westerners were following the path of relentless analysis, and after them went everything in our society that could possibly do so. The realists do not fear the results of their analysis. Suppose there is a lie in this mass, suppose it does contain a mishmash of all those lies that you read over and over again with such pleasure. We do not fear this gloating enumeration of our diseases. They may be lies, but we are guided by truth. We believe in this." [Ibid., 155-156]

     The entire article is written in such a vein. It is not particularly remarkable for its content. The magazines of the sixties were filled with such articles. Important here only is the fact that, at the time, Dostoevsky evidently did not yet suspect how far he would be obliged to deviate from all these ideas, despite the fact that he was already forty years old and had already experienced a good deal of unpleasantness - his quarrel with Belinsky, his penal servitude, and his soldiering. He dared not even think that his faith would soon abandon him. He fervently extolled realism, analysis, and Westernism. Yet, he was already on the eve of a great spiritual upheaval. This was the last tribute he would pay to humanity. A little while longer, and the old ideal would collapse, felled by an invisible foe. The period of the underground would begin.

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