Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     In his analysis of Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky remarks in passing: "Anna Karenina is by no means an innocent thing." I quite agree! One must be exceptionally naïve to see nothing but poetry in Count Tolstoy's creative work. It is, however, curious that somewhat earlier, before the last part of Anna Karenina was published (it came out in a separate edition), this same Dostoevsky called Levin a man "of pure heart." Don't you agree that in certain cases, one should treat commonly accepted words with great care? A man of pure heart - after all, that is the same "innocence" mentioned above - yet Levin is the hero of Anna Karenina; the whole point of the novel is in him. But Dostoevsky, appearing in the role of literary critic, felt obliged quand même to support all sorts of ideals; therefore, he even applied so childishly tender an epithet to Levin. As a matter of fact, Dostoevsky was well aware of Levin's worth, and if at first he intended to keep his knowledge to himself, he had an important reason to do so. The publication of the last part of Anna Karenina, in which Count Tolstoy permits himself to ridicule the enthusiasm for the volunteer movement, [Russian volunteers fought on the side of the Serbs in the latter's war against Turkey in 1876 - S.R.] aroused Dostoevsky's indignation and made him say more than his literary position and the duties of a devout preacher would allow.

     Besides, Count Tolstoy had given too much leeway in Anna Karenina to the "underground man." Levin, for example, bluntly declares that "there is no immediate feeling for the oppression of the Slays, nor can there be," and he finds strong support in the old Prince (a character whom the author finds most likeable, as becomes evident during the course of the novel). "And I, too," says the Prince, "was at a complete loss to understand why all the Russians had suddenly begun to love their Slavic brothers, while I feel no love for them whatsoever. But I calmed down when I arrived here and saw that there are people besides myself who are interested only in Russia, and not in our Slavic brothers. Konstantin, for instance." Such utterances from the mouths of positive characters in Tolstoy's novel Dostoevsky finds inappropriate. All this may be said, but with appropriate commentary, at least in the manner in which it is said in War and Peace. There, even if people do feel indifferent to the fate of their country, they at least pretend to be passionately interested in the war, and thus seem to admit their "guilt." But here, Levin declares point-blank that he does not want to know a thing about the sufferings of the Slays. He has only to add: as long as all goes well with me. But Count Tolstoy was not that bold, and therefore, Dostoevsky, in his own name, had to make Levin say a few words of this nature. [Dostoevsky, op. cit., XI, 264]

     This clash of the two great writers of the Russian land over the question of sympathy for the suffering of the Slays is highly significant. How did it happen that "reason and conscience," such infallible judges, which Count Tolstoy praised to his dying day, prompted such diverse conclusions to these two equally remarkable men? Dostoevsky painfully sensed all the insult contained in the possibility of such a clash, and bitterly concluded his article: "People such as the author of Anna Karenina are teachers of society, our teachers, and we are but their students. What in the world are they teaching us?"

     Nevertheless, the clash of these prophets was a matter of pure chance! Were it not for the Slavic affair, Dostoevsky could have found all the elements in Anna Karenina that had captivated him in War and Peace, and thus the readers would not have learned that "reason and conscience" do not always speak one and the same language. Evidently, Dostoevsky had become worked up over nothing. What if Levin did express his indifference to the fate of the Slays somewhat more sharply than was necessary, what if he did blurt out the "poet's secret" - he makes up for it when the opportunity presents itself, and even when it does not, by extolling other exceedingly lofty ideals that are by no means alien to Dostoevsky. His renunciation of the Slays does not at all indicate that he is ready to encroach on the sovereignty of "reason and conscience." On the contrary, it was Tolstoy's custom to attempt the unusual only with their most gracious consent and authorization. Recall, for example, Levin's conversation with his wife in Part VI, Chapter 3, of the novel. Levin is "discontented with himself"; he feels "guilty" and "inferior" in comparison with others, even with Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshov (whom at heart he hates and tries his best to despise); in brief, his exceedingly demanding conscience and exceedingly strict reason must be gratified by his loyal feelings. The unusual tenderness and mellowness of Levin's heart in this scene almost borders on the absurd. His flirting with "good" reminds one of the way Gogol's clerk courts Solokha [in "The Night before Christmas" - S.R.]. But Count Tolstoy is not speaking ironically of his hero. No, he is serious, although deep in his heart, it seems that he, too, senses the insolence in such an attitude toward ideals. The more his Levin withdraws into the narrow sphere of his personal interests the more "brazen" (this word was used in reference to Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and justice demands that it be applied to Levin as well) he becomes in his praise of "good."

     Oh, Anna Karenina is by no means an innocent thing! Levin despairs, Levin sees himself on the way to the eternal underground, to penal servitude while at liberty, to destruction - and he saves himself without even looking into the various means of salvation. "A man of pure heart!" Dostoevsky had good reason to praise him: the raven had smelled decay and could not conceal its joy! Look carefully into Levin's life, and you will be convinced that he was not only lying to "good" when he expressed his deep gratitude to it, but also deceiving "happiness," when he assured Kitty and himself that he was happy. lit is all untrue, from the first word to the last. Levin was never happy - neither when he was engaged to Kitty, nor when he was married to her. He only feigned happiness. And as a matter of fact, is such a timid soul as Kitty (whoever wishes may omit the epithet) fit to be a lifelong companion for Levin? Could he really fall in love with her? And, generally speaking, is family life the proper atmosphere for Levin? The scenes in which this strange couple is depicted, despite the fact that they are written with unusual care and talent, show Levin as a man determined to do everything that happy and loving people do in certain situations. On the eve of his wedding, Levin, too, cannot sleep all night; in his confusion, as befits a bridegroom, he goes to extremes; he plans to embrace everyone, et cetera. When Kitty is pregnant, Levin watches over her every step, he is fidgety, he trembles. Finally, Vasenka Veselovsky pays them a visit, and this happy husband, as if he can hardly wait for the opportunity, makes for his wife a most absurd scene of jealousy accompanied by flashing eyes, clenched fists, and all that usually accompanies such occasions. The apotheosis of all this is Vasenka’s banishment. Levin, a man of Christian meekness, who is unwilling to offend the Turks, literally throws his guest out of the house without a moment's hesitation. And moreover, he is not only not sorry, he is glad: not, however, because of his courage, which he does not even think of. He is glad that he, like everyone else, is capable of jealousy, and that his jealousy knows no bounds. Count Tolstoy, in one of his letters, says that he was filled with disgust as he worked on Anna Karenina. I think this is credible if we keep in mind the task that Levin had set him. What can be more disgusting than having at any cost to portray a man as happy and "good," when he is as alien to goodness as he is far-removed from happiness? Yet this is precisely what Count Tolstoy was trying to do. He had at any cost to adjust Levin to everyday life, i.e., to provide him with an occupation, a family, and so on. At the provincial elections, Levin has a conversation with a landowner acquaintance which is seemingly insignificant but worthy of attention:

     "‘You're married, I hear,’ asked the landowner.
     ‘Yes,’ Levin answered with proud satisfaction."

     With proud satisfaction! What is there to be proud about? A man has married - hardly a great deed. But for Levin, marriage was not simply marriage, as for everyone else. For him, it was proof that he was no worse than anyone else. That is why, contrary to his custom, he does not so much verify his love for Kitty as he seeks appropriate outward ways to express it. That is why he forgives Kitty her past and agrees to follow sur les brisées (as Prince Andrey Bolkonsky put it in War and Peace) of Vronsky. For Levin to forego a family would mean dooming himself to capitis diminutio maxima; it would mean losing one of the universally acknowledged stays of life, and that would have been the most horrible thing of all for him. So he marries Kitty, as he would have married Dolly or any other woman of his circle who was not too disagreeable to him and who, at the same time, was sufficiently respectable to give his life an outwardly handsome appearance. But his love, solicitude, and jealousy - all this is merely nerves acting out a comedy for the eyes of himself and of others.

     It goes without saying that such a marriage produces a feeling of pride in a man: "I, too," he says to himself, "have ground under my feet." And everything, absolutely everything, that Levin does, has one purpose: to convince himself and others that he has acquired sturdy roots so deep in the earth that no storm will ever topple him. Levin's task is at the same time Tolstoy's task as well. Yet, this great writer knows that there are both people who are falling and people who have fallen, people who are never to rise again. He frequently speaks of them; he concocts theories reconciling us to the fall. But is he himself to end up in the category of the fallen, to assume capitis diminutio maxima, to lose the right of protection by human and divine laws? He would not voluntarily consent to that for anything in the world. Anything would be better than that. Better to marry Kitty, better to farm, better to play the hypocrite before "good," better to deceive himself, better to be like everyone else - if only he is not cut off from other people, if only he does not end up being "buried alive." It was exactly the same with Dostoevsky. The only difference was that Count Tolstoy still had the purely outward possibility of returning to people, whereas Dostoevsky had already lost it. It no longer mattered to Dostoevsky ("The Dream of a Ridiculous Man"). He knew that he would not escape his fate. But Count Tolstoy still had hope, and to his dying day he struggled against the horrible phantom of hopelessness, which never left him for long in peace.

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