Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     This struggle is characteristic of all of Count Tolstoy's creative work. In his person, we have the unique example of a genius striving at all costs to be compared with a mediocrity, to become a mediocrity himself. Of course, he fails to achieve this. However much he protects himself from the demands of his nature, it reveals its presence in him each time by stormy and impatient outbursts. In War and Peace, it seemed that he had summed up once and for all the conclusions and observations of his life. Everything he had seen is definitely and firmly secured in its place. And, above all, it is arranged so that, in general, it makes a reassuring and eye-appealing picture, despite the fact that none of the horrors of life which undermine man's confidence in his neighbor and Creator are forgotten in it. Prince Andrey dies an agonizing death after living an agonizing life; Petya Rostov is shot through the head by the French; the old Countess turns almost into an idiot before our eyes; Count Ilya Andreyevich, having ruined his children, retires inconspicuously, into the background; Sonya becomes a parasite, et cetera. But all this is arranged in the picture so that instead of weakening the general bracing impression, it strengthens it even more. Dostoevsky could never grasp the secret of this aspect of Tolstoy's art. He imagined that a menacing cry, an imperious tone, a decisiveness of statement, and a few righteous and pious words can always cope with the anxiety in every human heart, his own included.

     Thus, for example, in The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin plays the role of the conciliatory spirit, we find the following highly characteristic dialogue. After the nocturnal reading in the garden, Ippolit, who is doomed to die, meets Prince Myshkin and asks him a "question." "Tell me frankly," he says, "what, in your opinion, is the best way for me to die? That is, so that it turns out to be as virtuous as possible? Well, tell me." How do you like a "question" like that? According to the basic idea of the novel, Prince Myshkin is always supposed to distinguish himself; he must be able to understand everything and to emerge the victor from the most difficult situations. But in that case, it must be thought that Dostoevsky, by arranging a meeting for him with Ippolit, had simply decided to ridicule his hero. Can there be any other reason for asking questions, which, however hard you try, you will never be able to answer sensibly or even in a remotely satisfactory way? And note the form of the question: "So that it turns out to be as virtuous as possible!" It seems as if Dostoevsky, in accordance with the old custom of the underground man, suddenly felt the irrepressible urge to stick out his tongue at his own wisdom. And indeed if Ippolit’s question is impertinent, then Prince Myshkin’s answer is shocking. Here it is: "‘Pass us by, and forgive us our happiness,’ the Prince said in a quiet [!] voice." Ippolit bursts out laughing right in his face. Dostoevsky did not have the courage to make the poor boy submit to the Prince's impudent sanctimony. And the quiet voice, always particularly efficacious in such instances, had no effect whatsoever - nor did the magical words "forgive us." Oh, no, Dostoevsky did not know how, he did not have the slightest idea how to use dark colors. He imagined that it was enough to think up a pious-sounding name for the scene, and its subject would be justified. Or, better put, he wanted to obtain the true answer to Ippolit’s question, and not just give the public a work of art.

     With Count Tolstoy, it was quite a different matter. He was deeply convinced that there is no answer, and consequently that he must use artistic invention to insulate not only the readers, but himself as well from reality. In this respect, War and Peace is a masterpiece. Everything in it is carefully calculated; both the insignificant and the significant have their place in it. Daring questions are not forgotten, but they not only do not trouble the reader, they even seem to be answered as he reads along. No one comes to the dying Prince Andrey to report in a quiet voice that he has penetrated the mysteries of the world. On the contrary, the people around him are silent, and they remain silent, for they are frightened and devastated by the mystery and severity of the event. Prince Andrey is given all the honors a dying man could possibly wish, and no one further ventures to annoy him with his exacting demands. And, after all, that is the only correct and proper way to give a sound burial, for all eternity, to a man who is dying before his time. Count Tolstoy took it from the common practice of everyday life. As much grief, humility, weeping, and solemnity as possible - all this opens the way to the new life, all this will in the end reconcile one to any loss whatsoever. But this is not enough for Count Tolstoy. He dispatches his corpses to the next world in a way that they can no longer be of any importance whatsoever to the people who go on living. For this purpose, he is not even averse to using Schopenhauer's philosophy, after modifying it only slightly in accordance with the demands of art. In dying, Prince Andrey does not become "nothing" - no, he merely returns to the womb from which he came. Only his individuality is lost; but it is lost so completely that for some time before his death, all living things, even his own son, seem quite alien and unimportant to him.

     This purely Schopenhauerian "immortality of the soul," as depicted by Count Tolstoy, has an unusually soothing and reassuring effect on those who remain alive. Death is the awakening from life. "And as for the duration of life, it did not seem to him [Prince Andrey] any slower than the awakening from a dream as compared with its duration." These lines Count Tolstoy took almost verbatim from The World as Will and Idea, as he did his entire theory of death. This is strange. Generally speaking, Count Tolstoy dislikes borrowing, but this time he makes an exception. Schopenhauer's view seemed most appropriate to the needs of the moment. It does not, of course, promise true immortality; the immortality is not for the dying man, but for those who go on living. But who is going to think of the dead! Let them rest peacefully in the grave, and let the living enjoy life. Therefore, even death must be considered not from the standpoint of those departing, but from the standpoint of those remaining here on earth. In this sense, Count Tolstoy's portrayal is the height of perfection. It seems as if he has reached the limits of human knowledge; it seems that one step more, and the great mystery of life will be revealed to us. But this is an optical illusion. As a matter of fact, it is just the reverse: everything has been done here to see that the mystery remains eternally unrevealed. Death is presented as something totally different from life, and therefore completely incomprehensible to the living. In dying, Prince Andrey loses his human individuality, which, as it gradually dissolves and diffuses, finally disappears into something completely different from anything we can imagine.

     This different thing, this Ding an sich or "will" is in any case something that has its origin in Kant and Schopenhauer, and it is the "immortality" awaiting man. For the living, such a vast horizon seems an interesting spectacle. But the dying would not give two cents for such immortality. The late poems of Heine, who, by the way, was Count Tolstoy's favorite poet, can clarify a good deal on this score to anyone who is curious: The great German lyricist could be exceedingly sincere and truthful. But Count Tolstoy does not want to become involved with people who lack earthly hopes. The matter of Prince Andrey is not his personal matter. Prince Andrey must merely be dispatched from life in a decorous manner. He must be buried as deeply as possible in the earth and, in addition, must have a huge stone placed on his grave so that his corpse cannot rise and disturb the nocturnal slumber of the living - or better still, he must be turned into the Ding an sich.

     Herein lies the task of Tolstoy's art; herein lies the meaning of Kant's idealist philosophy: all the disturbing questions of life must in some way or other be transferred to the realm of the unknowable. Only then will there appear on earth that tranquillity which people who have once been frightened by a ghost value more than anything else in life. With Kant, this is not yet so evident; his anxiety was of a purely theoretical, abstract nature. His ghost was nothing but Hume's skepticism, which was threatening to undermine his faith in the apodictic nature of science. But Count Tolstoy had encountered a different kind of skepticism: an abyss had opened before him which threatened to swallow him; he saw the triumph of death on earth; he saw himself a living corpse. Terror-stricken, he cursed all the higher demands of his soul and turned for knowledge to mediocrity, averageness, to vulgarity, having correctly sensed that only from these elements can that wall be raised which will conceal the horrible "truth" from our eyes, if not forever at least for a long time. And he found his Ding an sich and his synthetic a priori judgments, that is, he learned how man rids himself of all that is problematical and creates fixed principles by which he can live. I suppose that no one will dispute the validity of "that is": after all, with a priori judgments, it is not their origin that is vital, but their apodictic nature, i.e., their universality and necessity. But we shall have more to say about the Ding an sich later on.

Orphus system

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