Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


6

     And when exactly did it begin? The fact is a remarkable one: at the very time when, apparently, the most cherished hopes of the generation of the fifties began to come true. Serfdom fell. Quite a number of reforms - some proposed, some already under way - promised to realize the dream to which Belinsky had devoted himself and over which Natasha (The Humiliated and Insulted) had wept when Ivan Petrovich read her his first story. Up to this point, the "humblest man" had been mentioned only in books; now his rights were recognized by everyone. Up to this point, "humanity" had been a mere abstraction; now it was called upon to exercise its sway over life. The most extreme idealists at the beginning of the sixties had to admit that reality, usually so slow or even motionless, was not this time lagging far behind their dreams. In literature, there was a great celebration. Dostoevsky alone did not share in the general rejoicing. He stood to the side, just as if nothing unusual had happened. More than that, he hid in the underground: Russia's hopes were not his hopes. They were of no concern to him.

     How are we to explain such indifference on the part of the greatest Russian writer to events which were regarded in our literature as marking the dawn of a new era in Russian history? The stock explanation is simple: Dostoevsky was a great artist, but a poor thinker. The value of stock explanations is well known. This one is worth no more than the rest, but like every platitude, it deserves attention. Not without reason did it come into this world. People needed it, not to discover the way to truth, but on the contrary, to block all paths to it, to stifle it, to curb it. Incidentally, there is nothing surprising here if we recall what sort of "truth" is in question here! How could it help but be stifled when Dostoevsky himself was horrified by it? I shall quote just one short passage here from the notes of the underground man. This is what he says to the prostitute who has come to him for "moral support": "Do you know what I really want? That you all go to the devil, that's what. I need peace. Why, I'd sell the whole world right now for a kopeck. Is the world to go to pot, or am I to go without my tea? I say that the world can go to pot, so long as I can always get my tea." [Ibid., III (2), 171] Who is speaking in this way? Who took it into his bead to put such monstrously cynical words into his hero's mouth? That same Dostoevsky, who a short time earlier had so fervently and sincerely said the words about the "humblest man," which I quoted several times already. Now do you understand what an incredibly powerful blow was needed to drive him to such great extremes? Now do you understand which truth it was that must have been revealed to him? Oh, our publicists were right a thousand times over when they sought a platitude to replace such a truth!

     Notes from the Underground is a heart-rending cry of terror that has escaped from a man suddenly convinced that all his life he had been lying and pretending when he assured himself and others that the loftiest purpose in life is to serve the "humblest man." Up to this point, he had considered himself marked by fate to do a great work. But now he suddenly felt that he was not a bit better than anyone else, that he cared as little for all ideas as the most common mortal. Let ideas triumph a thousand times over: let the peasants be freed, let just and merciful courts be set up, let military conscription be abolished - his heart would be no lighter, no happier because of it. He was obliged to tell himself that if, instead of all those great and fortunate events, misfortune were to befall Russia, he would feel no worse-perhaps even better. What in the world is a man to do who has discovered in himself such a hideous and disgusting idea? And particularly a writer accustomed to thinking that he is duty-bound to share with his readers all that goes on in his soul? Is he to tell the truth? To go out to the city square and openly admit to the public that his entire past life, that all of his past words, had been nothing but lies, pretense, and hypocrisy, that while he was crying over Makar Devushkin he was not in the least thinking of the poor wretch, but merely drawing pictures to console himself and the public? And this at the age of forty, when it is impossible to begin a new life, when a break with the past is tantamount to burying oneself alive! Dostoevsky tried to go on speaking in the old way; almost simultaneously with Notes from the Underground, he was writing The Humiliated and Insulted, in which he forced himself to champion the idea of self-renunciation, despite the fact that he staggered beneath its weight.

     But where was he to get the strength for such systematic fraud and self-deception? He was already having difficulty sustaining the tone in The Humiliated and Insulted. Even it has pages in which the ominous light of the new revelation breaks through. True, they are few. The underground man is evident here only in the Prince's talk with Ivan Petrovich (at night in the restaurant), but it is enough for us to realize what a storm was gathering in Dostoevsky's soul. The Prince all the time ridicules "ideals" and "Schiller" in a most brazen way, while poor Ivan Petrovich sits there downcast, unable not only to defend himself, but even to behave with a semblance of dignity. When you let anyone, even in a novel, deride your holy of holies so caustically, it means you have taken the first step toward its denial. True, Dostoevsky lets the Prince triumph just once, and even then only for a moment. Later, in the pages that follow, all the characters seem to flaunt their nobility and selflessness before one another. But one rotten apple can spoil the whole barrel. Dostoevsky's pathos had dried up. Goodness and service to the idea no longer inspired him.

     Notes from the Underground is a public, albeit a veiled, renunciation of his past. "I can't, I simply can't go on pretending. I can't go on living the lie of ideas, and yet I have no other truth. Come what may." That is what these notes say, however much Dostoevsky disclaims them in his comment. Never before had the "word" of a single Russian writer resounded with such hopelessness, with such despair. This accounts for the unprecedented boldness (Count Tolstoy would call it "effrontery" - after all, he spoke that way about Nietzsche) with which Dostoevsky let himself deride the dearest and most sacred human feelings. I have already pointed out that Dostoevsky tells his own story in Notes from the Underground . These words should not, however, be taken to mean that he himself had actually treated a chance female acquaintance so disgracefully; no, the story with Liza is, of course, fictitious. But the horrible thing about the Notes is that Dostoevsky felt the need - even in thought, even in his imagination - to do such a disgraceful thing. It was not Liza he drove away from himself at this point. I am certain there was always enough spontaneous pity in his soul for him to refrain from excessively harsh fits of anger and exasperation. He needed the character Liza merely to deride the "idea" and trample it in the dirt - that same idea that he had served throughout his life. The epigraph to the chapter in which this dreadful story is told is taken from the beginning of Nekrassovís celebrated poem: "When from the Darkness of Error." It was this poem and the holy of holies of those people from whom he had once "fervently accepted" his new doctrine that Dostoevsky was now so madly and blasphemously cursing. But this was the only way out for him. He could no longer remain silent. Something spontaneous, ugly, and horrible had awakened in his soul - and it was something beyond his power to control.

     As we saw, he did everything possible to preserve his old faith. He continued to pray to his former god even when there was almost no hope in his heart that the prayer would be heard. All the time, it seemed to him that his doubts would pass, that this was merely temptation. In these final moments, he continued, now with just his lips, to whisper his incantation: "It deeply moves the heart to realize that the humblest man is also a human being and is called your brother." But the words of this prayer not only did not console him, they were the venom that poisoned Dostoevsky, although people saw in them and still continue to see in them innocent and even soul-fortifying words. Lucky the person who senses nothing but the poetry of brotherhood in that sentence! But how is a person to cope with these works when the insignificance and absurdity of the humblest man's existence keeps pushing its way to the foreground? How can you tolerate it if you know from personal experience all the horrors of such a downtrodden existence? When the poetry of brotherhood is to be reserved for the new people just beginning life, and you must assume the role of Makar Devushkin, the object of sympathy of lofty souls? What will the great idea of humanity provide then? Hope for the future - very far off, of course - dreams of a different, a felicitous organization of mankind? But for the time being there is the unceasing, hateful, and hypocritical role of the priest of all that is "lofty and beautiful." It was not my idea to write the lofty and beautiful in quotation marks. I found it that way in Notes from the Underground. There, all "ideals" are presented in such a guise. There, Schiller, humanity, Nekrassov s poetry, the Crystal Palace, in brief, everything that had once filled Dostoevsky's soul with sympathy and delight - everything - is showered with sarcasms of a most venomous and personal nature. Ideals and sympathy for them arouse in him a feeling of revulsion and horror. Not that he was contesting the possibility of the realization of ideals. He did not even think of that; he did not want to. If the exalted dreams of his youth were destined to come true someday - all the worse. If the ideal of human happiness on earth were destined someday to be realized, Dostoevsky would curse it beforehand. I shall be frank: prior to Dostoevsky, no one dared to express such ideas, even with proper comment. Great despair was needed for such ideas to appear in the human mind; superhuman daring was needed for someone to appear with them in public.

     That is why Dostoevsky never acknowledged them as his own, and always had a reserve supply of ideals for display; the more hysterically he cried out, the more they diverged from the nature of his cherished desires, or if you will, from the desires of his entire being. Every last one of his later works is filled with this duality. The question arises - what are we to look for in them, what are we to value? The demands of his soul, which break through to the surface despite "reason and conscience," to use Tolstoy's favorite words, or the prescriptions for an elevated life, prepared more or less according to a common stereotype? On which side is truth? Hitherto, "reason and conscience" were regarded as the final judges. All that we have in the way of ideals and hopes was created by them alone. But now that a judge has been discovered over these judges, what are we to do? Heed its voice, or remain true to tradition and again reduce it to silence. I say "again," because people heard that voice many times before, but they were seized with terror and always stifled it with solemn cries in honor of the old judges. And Dostoevsky did so himself, although, in this sense, his works remind you of the sermons of those preachers, who, under the pretext of fighting immorality, depict enticing scenes of carnal joy. Whatever the traditionalists may say, there can no longer be any doubt. We must let the man speak in his own way. Forgive him all his sins beforehand - just let him tell the truth. Perhaps - who knows - perhaps this truth, which is so obnoxious at first sight, contains something far better than the charm of the most ostentatious lie. Perhaps the full force of sorrow and despair should not at all be directed toward the preparation of doctrines and ideals suitable for man's everyday life, as the teachers of mankind have hitherto done, while always zealously concealing their own doubts and misfortunes from the eyes of outsiders. Perhaps we should abandon pride, the beauty of dying, and all external embellishments and again try to catch sight of the much-slandered truth? What if the old assumption that the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life is false? It is worth examining this prejudice together with the theory of natural development, which gives rise to it. The soul, insulted for all that it holds sacred, will perhaps find the strength in itself for a new struggle.


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