In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident


     The House of the Dead, and The Notes from Underground, are the sources from which all Dostoevsky's other works are derived. The great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov, are merely a series of vast commentaries on these two works. It is always a matter of confronting natural vision with the supernatural vision which is the gift of the Angel of Death. Self-evidence, authoritative as ever, exacts recognition and submission from Dostoevsky. For him, too, the circle of chalk is a wall which it is impossible to displace and impossible to break. "Twice two is four " always constitutes an eternal law which is fully conscious of its rights towards and against others, and fears neither mockery nor anger. Life goes on its way, normal men triumph, "science" develops and gathers strength, "balance" shows itself the supreme principle, superior even to Time the devourer. As for poor caprice, it goes on asking for some sort of guarantee, but all the guarantees have already been appropriated, and it is disregarded. Dostoevsky may say as loud as he likes: "Let the whole world perish, so long as I get my cup of tea!" The world remains in its place, while, as for the tea, sometimes one gets it, but more often not. And as for the glass palace, one must stop thinking about it; on all sides there are chicken-houses, ant-heaps, stables, and, to protect oneself against bad weather, one must slip under the first roof one sees, no matter how dirty.

     It looks as though the time had long since come to give up the battle and yield to the victor's mercy. But Dostoevsky still has one last "argument" in reserve, which most people would find no more cogent than all the others. It sometimes happens that a man will prefer suffering to well-being, chaos and destruction may appeal to him more than order and creation. Dostoevsky never gives up this idea. All his work is inspired by it; one can always see traces of it, even in The Diary of a Writer. One might say that it is not really an idea, that it is always the same caprice which, one knows not why, has invested itself in the sumptuous garments of an idea, which are quite unsuitable to its humble character. It is impossible to deny that this gala dress is not becoming to Dostoevsky's argument. Although he constantly makes use of the word "idea", he has no right to it. All ideas have been left far behind with reason. Where reason no longer exists there can be chaos and caprice, but not ideas.

     We see this already in Crime and Punishment. It seems that there is, and that there should be, some idea in the novel; even its title gives us the right to expect as much. Where there is crime there is punishment: this is an idea, and an idea perfectly comprehensible to normal consciousness. It is this re-establishment of antique justice, of balance, of principle, of watchful Adrasteia, of "twice two is four", of everything which the underground man derided so offensively. And it is a fact that whereas The Notes from Underground passed unnoticed, and is very little read to this day, Crime and Punishment had an enormous success and laid the foundation of Dostoevsky's literary fame. The story of Raskolnikov appeared perfectly obvious to every one; he wished to escape from common consciousness, and was changed, rightly, not into a god but into a wild beast. And he remained one so long as he "was not conscious of the lie that was in him and in his convictions". Only this consciousness, Dostoevsky explains, "can presage the crisis through which he has to pass to his future resurrection and his new conception of existence".

     You catch here an echo of the sentiments that Dostoevsky has already described in The House of the Dead. Here is the same little corner of blue sky, full of promise, to be seen above the prison wall: here is the same free life among free men of which Dostoevsky dreamed in the convict settlement. He uses almost the same expressions.

     "Raskolnikov came out of the shed, sat down by the banks of the river on the piles of wood disposed along the foot of the wall, and began to gaze at the wide, empty stream. A song from the other bank was hardly audible on this side. Over there on the boundless, sunlit steppe the tents of the nomads could be seen as little, almost imperceptible dots. Over there was liberty; other men lived there, who were quite different from the men over here; time itself seemed to stand still over there, as though the days of Abraham and his flocks had never passed away."

     In this solemn hour, Sonia is by his side. For the second time in this novel, the murderer and the prostitute find themselves together. But the first time they had met to read the eternal scriptures together, and this time they are before the face of eternal nature. And a miracle occurs: "How it happened he did not know himself; something suddenly shook him and flung him at her feet. And he wept and embraced her knees."

     Why "suddenly"? What does this "suddenly" mean? When Raskolnikov returned to the prison on the evening of the same day he naturally thought of what had happened. But he thought quite differently from the way that other men think. His thoughts pressed upon him in a disordered rush:

     "All, even the crime, even the sentence and his banishment, now appeared to him in his transport, as a series of strange facts, exterior to himself, and as though they had happened to another man."

     And, in fact, this "past" of Raskolnikov's, which Dostoevsky has described to us with such minute care, was not really Raskolnikov's past. He had a right to ask if it was really he who had killed the old woman Lisaveta? I do not think that any attentive reader of Dostoevsky, and least of all Dostoevsky himself, would have been able to answer this question in the affirmative. Perhaps he had killed her, or perhaps not. In either case, the important thing is not whether the crime had been committed or not what really matters is that the punishment did most certainly take place. In Dostoevsky's last novel, punishment strikes Dimitri Karamazov, who, the author tells us, was not guilty of the crime. And Dostoevsky triumphs: "the peasants did what was expected of them they condemned an innocent man.

     Probably every one will agree with me that Raskolnikov was as little guilty of murder as Dimitri Karamazov. Or it would be better to say that neither Raskolnikov nor Dimitri Karamazov ever existed, and both were completely indifferent to Dostoevsky: "I am always telling of something different, something different, but I am speaking about myself. Of what else can an honest man speak but of himself?" Dostoevsky only spoke to us about himself. He always had the mad, hideous thought, which he never gave up, and which with unequaled cynicism he put into the mouths of the underground man: "Let the whole world perish so long as I get my cup of tea."

     It is another case of this caprice demanding its guarantee, in whose name Dostoevsky declared his revolt against science; it is the little ugly duckling suddenly born in the midst of all the high and noble thoughts which lit the darkness of the convict prison with their pure radiance. Strange though it may be, one must admit that Dostoevsky always cherished the hope that his ugly duckling 'would one day be transformed into a beautiful swan. Long afterwards, when Dostoevsky was writing his Diary of a Writer, shortly before his death, and said that humanity had never had but one preoccupation, which was the immortality of the soul, he was only repeating the words of his underground hero. It is the same voice, the same persistence, the same convulsed face: "I declare that love of humanity is inconceivable, incomprehensible, and quite impossible without faith in the immortality of the soul."

     Do you really not recognize this voice? Will you still maintain that Dostoevsky and his underground hero are not one and the same man? It is always the same ugly little duckling. The beautiful swan is still a long way off, even though all the great novels, including The Brothers Karamazov, have already been written. One can still see the same ugly duckling in the speech which he made on the fiftieth anniversary of Pushkin, and in his polemic with Professor Gradovsky about this speech. The swan is still as far off as ever. But I am not expressing myself exactly. "Far off!" I ought rather to say that it is the effect of the double sight and the double organs of vision making itself felt. With his own eyes Dostoevsky can see the ugly duckling; but the other eyes, the eyes of the Angel, show him a beautiful swan. The fight between the natural and the supernatural vision never ceases for a moment; on the contrary,it grows increasingly bitter. The old vision demands proofs, it wants all impressions to harmonize with the testimony furnished by the other senses, it does not even understand or listen to the voice of reason. The law of contradiction is, naturally, furious, and the "old man" does not know what to do. Finally, he tries to~ reestablish peace in his soul, by giving special names to his contradictory ways of seeing things. He says: "My new eyes are not knowledge, they are faith." But reason is not appeased, for reason does not admit an autonomous faith. Reason lays claim to omnipotence and to the keys of heaven, and if faith wishes to be accepted, it must justify itself before reason and submit to its laws.

Dostoevsky, the same Dostoevsky who made such mock of the pretensions of reason in The Notes from Underground, and who made Claude Bernard (only as we know, it was not Claude Bernard, but Aristotle whom he meant) - made Claude Bernard and his science bow down to Dimitri Karamazov, an almost illiterate man, Dostoevsky, who said in The Idiot, "No reasoning can grasp the essence of religious feeling, there is something else there, something else over which atheists will always slide, without being able to penetrate to its heart" - this same Dostoevsky was himself unable to live in constant open warfare with reason. There were moments when he was oppressed by his second sight and by the state of continual questioning created by the contradictions which it provoked; at such times he turned from his supernatural vision and tried to recapture the harmony so necessary to mankind. These intervals are what reconciles the reader to his work nearly all the novels end with a perfect major chord which triumphantly solves all the torturing doubts that have arisen in the course of the book. This is the ending of Crime and Punishment:
"But here begins a new story, the story of the progressive renewal of the man, the story of his slow transformation, of his passage from one world to another, of the discovery which he made of a new and hitherto unknown reality. But that would be the subject of another story. Our story is ended."
Is it really ended? Yes, certainly, if a perfect major chord, and the promise to show us the passage to a new life, and a gradual one at that (that is to say, the most reasonable that one could imagine; for gradualness solves every mystery, every riddle, all caprice, all the unexpected, in a word, all that irrational and visionary side of life, of which Dostoevsky has told us so much) - if these are a reply to those crushing questions which have pursued us throughout the pages of the novel, then the author can honestly allow himself, not only to put a full stop and break off his story, but to write the word "finis".

     But this promise was never realized. Fifteen years later, only a short time before his death, Dostoevsky once more repeats this same undertaking in The Brothers Karamazov; he realizes that it is time to fulfill his promise, but takes no step towards doing so. It is obvious that he has set himself an impossible task; slow and gradual transformations are possible, they even happen quite frequently, but they do not lead us to a new life; they only take us from one old life to another old life. The new life always makes itself known abruptly, without any approach or preparation, and it keeps its strange enigmatical character in the midst of events whose course has been determined by the old laws. Dostoevsky says of Raskolnikov that he severed the ties which bound him to other men as though he cut them with a knife. No earthly force could knit up again relations which had been so brutally destroyed. In Crime and Punishment, as in his other works, Dostoevsky makes the greatest efforts to make his underground man, i.e. himself, more normal; but the harder he tries the less he succeeds.

     In The idiot, which was written immediately after Crime and Punishment, he wants to show us in Prince Myshkin a figure of that new life of which he had told us so much. The work is remarkable, but one does not see new life in it. Dostoevsky is unable to achieve it, for his second sight makes him see that on earth "everything has a beginning and nothing has an end." He repeats it constantly and at every opportunity, together with this other thought which is so dear to him: "Man loves destruction just as much as construction." But if this is so; if everything has a beginning and nothing has an end, if man loves destruction no less than construction - how, then, can there be a new life on earth? Indeed, look at the way Prince Myshkin lives and what he brings to mankind - and in the eyes of his author he is being transformed and renewed to his depths.

     We find the same heavy, supersaturated atmosphere in The Idiot as in Dostoevsky's other novels. The author wants, as it were, to force into a story regulated and protected by the laws of contradiction and causality, events of the human soul which can have no place in it, in the secret hope that the laws, unable to resist this strong pressure from within, will suddenly break up and give way, and that he will then find the second dimension of time, where those things continue and conclude themselves invisibly, which now we can only perceive in the first dimension as beginning, but having no end.

     Prince Myshkin meets Rogozhin and Ptitzyn one morning, in a railway carriage, and in the course of the same day, makes the acquaintance of almost all the innumerable characters of the novel. Event succeeds event with dizzy rapidity; in the ante-room of General Epanchin, the prince confides his deepest and most intimate feelings to the servant. Then comes the scene in Epanchin's own room, with the portrait of Nastasya Filippovna, the General's family, the Ivolgin family, the meeting with Nastasya Filippovna, the Olavs, etc., till the evening, with the arrival of Rogozhin and his band of drunkards and wastrels come to congratulate the lady of the house on her name day, etc. It is superfluous to remark that Myshkin, Rogozhin, and all the rest are not living men, but mere masks. Dostoevsky never described a living man. All the different masks only conceal one real personage, the author himself, who, forgetful of all others, and concentrated solely on himself, goes on with the only business which interests him, his struggle with his old adversary, "twice two is four". "Twice two is four" lies in one of the balances, heavy, inert, immovable, with all its train of traditional, eternal, self-evident truths. Into the other Dostoevsky with trembling, feverish hand throws his imponderables, injustice, terror, joy, triumph, despair, beauty, the future, ugliness, slavery, freedom, and all the rest that Plotinus has summed up in the phrase to timi˘taton.

It must at once be obvious to every one that "twice two is four" must be much heavier, not only than to timi˘taton which Dostoevsky threw overboard in the course of a single day, but than all the events in the whole of the world's history. Is "twice two is four" going to be affected by a hair's breadth by the wrongs that Nastasya Filippovna suffers at the hands of Totsky, or by the courage of Rogozhin who, having only seen Nastasya Filippovna once, is not afraid to provoke the fury of his brutal father, or by the fact that Myshkin suffered the blow of Ivolgin's Olav with Christian meekness? Aye, even if Dostoevsky had been able to contain the whole history of the world within the limits of that single day described in the first part of The Idiot, all history, with the acts of the saints, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the heroism of Regulus and Brutus, the revelations of the Prophets, the inspired words of Plato and Plotinus, with all that there has been of great and beautiful, of terrible and ugly, with its aspirations and hopes, its catastrophes and despairs, the heroism and the crimes of all who have lived on earth - had he been able to throw all this into that balance, in which he put his to timi˘taton, he would not have lightened the infinite weight of "twice two is four" by a single grain. Consequently our last hope would have vanished of discovering were it only a trace of that second dimension of time where those things end which only begin here and do not end, where all the caprices rejected by history might find an abiding place, the caprices which no one will recognize and no one protect, but for which Dostoevsky wants to find a guarantee in the teeth of the whole world. And Dostoevsky knows this just as well as Spinoza. More than this, Spinoza himself put the same question with the clarity and intentional stressing of the hopelessness of finding any solution which are characteristic of that remarkable philosopher's whole work.
"Postquam homines sibi persuaserunt, omnia quae fiunt propter ipsos fieri, id in unaquaque re praecipuum judicare debuerunt, quod ipsis utilissimum et illa omnia praestantissima aestimare, a quibus optime afficiebantur. Unde has formare debuerunt notiones, quibus rerum naturas explicarent, scilicet bonum, malum, ordinem, confusionem, calidum, frigidum, pulchritudinem, deformitatem... Veritas humanum genus in aeternum lateret nisi mathesis, quae non circa fines, sed circa figurarum essentias et proprietates versatur, aliam veritatis normam hominibus ostendisset." (Ethics, Part I, Appendix.)

[When men convinced themselves that all that happened, happened for their sakes, they had to hold in each thing the most important part to be that which was most useful to them, and to esteem those things as most valuable which affected them most agreeably. Therefore they had to form those ideas by which they explained the nature of things: good, evil, order, confusion, heat, cold, beauty, ugliness... Truth would eternally be hidden from the human race, had not mathematics, which deals, not with ends, but with the nature and properties of figures, shown to man another norm of truth.]
You will see these two united before the same balances, before the same terrible, thousand-year-old riddle - the modern Russian author, the unlearned man, and the lonely scholar, the philosopher unknown and despised in his own day, although now so famous. It is generally thought that Spinoza stopped short at mathematics, finding in them the answer to the riddle which he asked himself. But if one not only reads Spinoza carefully, but also listens to the tone of his voice, one can hear in the words which I have just quoted, and in the whole of the Appendix which concludes the first part of the Ethics, an echo of the same problem which Dostoevsky pursued with such persistence throughout all his works. Spinoza consciously tramples the good, the beautiful, and all that was ever sacred to man underfoot, as though he were asking, like the prophet: "How many times must we be smitten?"

     He has taken everything from us; he has left us nothing but "twice two is four". Will man be able to bear this? Can I bear it myself? Or will my "consciousness", all human consciousness, be finally crushed under this burden? And then we shall not only feel, but see, if only for a moment, that "here" everything is but beginning, and that what begins here does not finish here, where there is as yet neither beauty, nor ugliness, nor good, nor evil, but only hot and cold, agreeable and disagreeable, where it is not liberty that reigns, but necessity, to which even God Himself is subject, where human will and reason are as unlike the will and reason of the Creator as the dog, the barking animal, is unlike the dog-star.

     Dostoevsky's nature was two-fold, like Spinoza's, and like that of nearly all those who try to awaken humanity from its torpor. Therefore he was bound at times to shut his second pair of eyes and to look at the world through his ordinary, blind eyes; to resolve his discords into harmonious chords. Even he took shelter, and more than once, under the shadow of those rules and laws against which he had declared war to the death; he fled to the enemy's camp to warm himself at their fires. It is the source of constant and painful misunderstanding for the reader. He does not know where to seek the real Dostoevsky. Is he where things both begin and end, or where they only begin, but do not end; where balance is maintained, or where it is upset? Where time has only one dimension, or where one can perceive the second dimension and where the scale which bears the timi˘taton seems to begin gently to sink...? It is all the harder to determine, because it is impossible to fix exactly the fundamental idea of any one of the novels. Even their subject, though always more or less in accordance with the accepted rules, is so complicated, so full of ramifications, that it is not possible to be sure exactly what the author intended. Secondary episodes constantly interrupt the main course of the novel, and these episodes are of such importance, both in subject and in treatment, that they push the principal theme into the background and completely obscure it. Nevertheless all Dostoevsky's stories show one common characteristic.

     His heroes seem to have neither the will nor the capacity to act, to create; destruction and death dog their footsteps everywhere. This is clearly done in order that the reader should not have even the illusion of an ending. Myshkin, whom the author means for a saint, disinterestedness incarnate, is no exception to this general rule; in spite of all his efforts, he not only does not succeed in helping any one, but regularly adds to the forces of evil. A cruel destiny weighs on every one, all are doomed. Spinoza might well have quoted scenes from The Idiot as a proof of the sovereign power of necessity, Luther might have used them to illustrate his De Servo Arbitrio. If Darwin had seen in life what Dostoevsky saw, he would not have talked of the law of the preservation of species, but of its destruction. If the historians and theorists of knowledge had studied with Dostoevsky they would have replaced the law of sufficient reason by that of absolute unreason. Nothing in Dostoevsky's novels is determined by anything else. It is the logic of Tertullian, the logic of dreams which rules in them: non pudet quia pudendum est, prorsus credibile est quia incertum, certum est quia impossibile. I am not ashamed, because it is shameful; it is absolutely credible, because it is absurd; it is certain, because it is impossible.

     Prince Myshkin busies himself with other people's affairs because he has no need to do so; Rogozhin kills Nastasya Filippovna just because it is the most senseless thing he could have done; Nastasya Filippovna aspires to sainthood because she knows perfectly well that she will never attain it.

     It is the same thing with Dostoevsky's other novels; perpetual crises, perpetual ecstasies. All Dostoevsky's heroes strive after the things that will destroy them. The Brothers Karamazov takes for its motto one of the most enigmatical verses of the Fourth Gospel: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." It is one of those verses on which Dostoevsky himself comments in The Brothers Karamazov: "It is terrible what one finds in those books" (the Bible). "It is easy enough to thrust them under our noses - but who wrote them? Were they really men?" Yes, who were they who wrote these books? Were they men? And could Dostoevsky, who has made their thoughts his own, remain still a man?

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