Dostoevsky in the twentieth century

\”By the way: when will you be returning, and will you be spending all your time in Austria only? Italy is right next to you. Is it possible that you\’re not tempted to visit it? What a lucky person you are! How many times from earliest childhood have I dreamt of going to Italy… To Italy, to Italy! But instead of Italy I landed in Semipalatinsk, and before that in the Dead House.\”

So Dostoevsky wrote the poet Vjacheslav Polonskij who was visiting Austria in the summer of 1861.

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends: we honor Dostoevsky at this 4th Symposium of the International Dostoevsky Society; we honor the 100th anniversary of his death; but we honor him in Italy – the land whose art he loved: the land of Dante and Petrarch, Michelangelo und Raffaelo, Ariosto and Tasso, Leopardi and Manzoni, Gabriele D\’Annunzio and Montale; the land of our hosts and of the brilliant Italian language; and I would like at the outset to thank our hosts, and the city and University of Bergamo, for giving us this wonderful opportunity. Last but not least, as President of the International Dostoevsky Society, I want to welcome all the members of our Society, participants and visitors to our international symposium.

This – the 100th anniversary of Dostoevsky\’s death – is a momentous occasion in the history of literature. One hundred years have passed since Dostoevsky\’s death: one hundred years of unprecedented upheavals and changes, heroic struggles and unbelievable tragedies to individuals, whole peoples and nations. One cannot say that Dostoevsky was unprepared for these events; one cannot say that he did not sense both in Russia and Europe the approaching cataclysm. \”A colossal eruption,\” Dostoevsky wrote in his notebook in 1875, \”a colossal eruption and all is crumbling, falling, being negated, as though it had not even existed. And not only externally, as in the West, but internally, morally.\” In his \”Diary of a Writer\” in 1873, Dostoevsky spoke of the world as entering a \”transitional period\” that would be marked by profound \”shocks in the life of people, doubts and negations, scepticism and vacillations regarding fundamental convictions. But with us this is more possible than anywhere else, and precisely in our times.\” \”Everybody is in a state of suspense,\” he writes again in \”Diary of a Writer\” in September 1876. \”Everybody is alarmed; some kind of nightmare hangs over everybody; everybody has bad dreams. Just who or what this piccola bestia is which is causing all the upheavals is impossible to determine, because some kind of general madness is moving upon us.\” Europe is changing from hour to hour, Dostoevsky writes again in the \”Diary of a Writer\” in November 1877. \”The fact is that we are just now on the eve of the greatest and most shocking events and upheavals in Europe, and this is said without any exaggeration.\” \”The point is, that, to my way of thinking, the present period, too, will end in old Europe with something colossal, i. e. perhaps not literally identical with the events which brought to an end the eighteenth century, nevertheless equally gigantic, elemental and dreadful – and also entailing a change in the face of the whole world, or, at least, in the West, of Old Europe.\”

Dostoevsky\’s words are impressive; it has taken us one hundred years fully to appreciate them. His vision of contemporary history was that of a roman-tragediia (novel-tragedy). Of course, we are not going to resurrect the worn image of Dostoevsky the \”prophet\”: much that he anticipated, it is true, came to pass; but much that he hoped for did not occur; and what occurred did not always happen when or where he expected it. Neither Russia, nor Europe, nor Asia has proceeded along a precise or prescribed course, and we would be ill-advised to look to Dostoevsky any more than to Marx for exact blueprints, that is, to regard his statement as anything more than an impressive metaphor prefiguring impending upheaval, chaos and change – much that Nietzsche later was to term the \”crisis of European nihilism.\”

Yet while we turn away from the much abused notion of Dostoevsky the prophet, I think we can speak confidently of his contemporaneity in our world – both East and West. The special place of Dostoevsky, first of all, in any confrontation with Russian life, literature, and history is indisputable. A Soviet Russian scholar, recently discussing Dostoevsky\’s place in Soviet Russian literature, acknowledges that \”even in quarrelling with Dostoevsky, even in refuting him, even in renouncing him, Soviet writing could not get away from him. The relations between F. M. Dostoevsky and Soviet literature,\” the author concludes with admirable understatement, \”have always been dramatic.\”1 Yes, it is impossible to get away from Dostoevsky; impossible, because one cannot study or depict Russian reality and ignore Dostoevsky; or put another way, one cannot study or write about Dostoevsky and ignore Russian reality. His artistic thought, his literary reality, engages some of the most painful and tragic sides of Russian history and consciousness, just as it embodies some of the most glorious and transcendent qualities of the Russian spirit. The Russian scholar and Marxist sociologist, V. F. Pereverzev, whose important studies on Dostoevsky and Gogol have not been republished for more than half a century, insisted in 1922 that all of modern literature \”follows in Dostoevsky\’s footsteps.\” He spoke, too, of the special relevance of Dostoevsky for contemporary

Dostoevsky remains a contemporary writer. Our times have by no means outlived the problems he takes up in his work. For us to speak about Dostoevsky still means to speak about the most painful and  rooted problems of our contemporary life. Caught up in the whirlwind of a great revolution; buffeted about amid the problems posed by it; passionately and painfully responding to all the peripeteia of the revolutionary tragedy, we find in Dostoevsky our very own selves; we find in the way he poses the problems of revolution the kind of passion and intensity we might expect to find in a writer who was passing through the revolutionary storm with us.2

Pereverzev, of course, had in mind, in particular, the novel \”The Devils\” – a work whose relevance to the Russian revolution he analyzes at length.

The historicophilosophical theme of Dostoevsky and Russia is central in the study of Russian literature and culture. In the broadest sense, of course, Dostoevsky speaks of the painful problems of our contemporary life in the West as well, and of modern man in general. But I would suggest that it is because Dostoevsky is so profoundly national and Russian – that is, deeply rooted in the concrete historical life of his people, its present and its rich medieval past, its culture and religion – that we may speak of him as truly universal and international. The words \”Dostoevsky and the West\” certainly have a special meaning for us. Hardly a writer or thinker of importance in the past half a century has escaped his influence – moral, spiritual, aesthetic or philosophical. Western writers could not and cannot get away from him. Not without reason does the outstanding Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez speak of Dostoevsky and Sophocles as his greatest mentors. And yet we must say that for us today, as for the Russians, Dostoevsky is an exploded universe, and we are its drifting fragments: the unity of central vision that he shared with Tolstoj has eluded us. As Pasternak\’s hero, Dr. Zhivago keenly remarked, \”We have lost half our memories.\”

Dostoevsky\’s place in Western culture, nonetheless, is somewhat different from his place in Russian culture – both prerevolutionary and post-revo­lutionary. Russian culture has always been divided about Dostoevsky; a part of it has always quarrelled with, or questioned, one or another aspect of Dostoevsky. In the popular sense he has never been accorded the high rank that he has received in the West; indeed, Westerners are often chided for being too Dostoevsky-conscious, for being too absorbed with Dostoevsky, for seeing Dostoevsky everywhere. Perhaps. It is, indeed, not all accidental that the International Dostoevsky Society was founded in the West.

I do not wish to dwell here upon the complex reasons for the love/hate relationship towards Dostoevsky that one finds among some Russians -one that is reflected most profoundly and poignantly in the noble, but tragic figure of, Maksim Gorkij. Russia has always been too close to Dostoevsky and to the problems he raises – too close for comfort; and, perhaps, it will fully overcome its ambivalence and uncertainty only when – like Elizabethan England – it is prepared to stage its own chronicle plays and speak openly of the life and death of its kings. We must not, however, misunderstand Russia\’s anxiety over Dostoevsky. What its best representatives have sometimes rejected in Dostoevsky has pointed often to a fervent desire to transcend all that it accused Dostoevsky – quite wrongly, we believe – of revelling in. Mikhajlovskij\’s essay, \”A Cruel Talent\” (1882) might be mentioned here. Turgenev held views similar to those of Mikhajlovskij. Chekhov also takes his distance from Dostoevsky, although he fully acknowledges in his art the bitter insights of the great novelist. Perhaps the best illustration of our point is Gorkij\’s insistence in a letter to the literary historian D. Ovsjaniko-Kulikovskij in 1911 that Dostoevsky was a writer who \”with the greatest power and lucidity depicted the spiritual illnesses grafted upon us from the Mongol,, the mutilations inflicted on our soul by painful Muscovite history.\”3 The renowned optimism of Gorkij, it need hardly be said, concealed a deep pessimism; and his lifelong duel with Dostoevsky, a kind of misplaced Don Quixotism, is the record of an inner conflict that had deep roots in his tragic perception of Russian life and history.

What I have characterized as an ambivalent attitude towards Dostoevsky, of course, may also be found in the West, but, with the exception of Conrad, we do not find the special anguish of identity, the peculiar terror before Russian life and history that is reflected in the attitudes of so many Russian writers and thinkers, notably, of course, in Dostoevsky himself. We have tolerated Dostoevsky better, perhaps, because he seemed to come from afar. Nonetheless, in speaking of the Western response to Dostoevsky, I am reminded, here, of the special relationship Dostoevsky saw between Schiller and Russia. Recalling that the French Convention of 1793 sent a certificate of citizenship \’Au poète allemand Schiller, l\’ami de l\’humanité ,\” – an act which Dostoevsky called \”stately and prophetic\” – recalling this act Dostoevsky goes on to say that the French Convention \”did not suspect that at the other end of Europe, in barbarous Russia, that same Schiller was far more national and far more akin to the barbarian Russians than to France – not only in those days, but even later, throughout our whole century… He was absorbed by the Russian spirit,\” Dostoevsky concluded \”left an impression upon it, and almost constituted an epoch in the history of our development\” (\”Diary of a Writer,\” June, 1876). So may we say of the fate of Dostoevsky in the West: at a time when he was almost denied cultural citizenship in his homeland, he saturated our soil and, perhaps, has almost marked an epoch in the history of our development.

Characteristically, perhaps, it was a Russian in the West – the emigre writer Georgij Adamovich – who struck a negative note in evaluating Dostoevsky\’s impact on literature and culture. Adamovich holds Russia \”responsible for the ostentatious, uncontrolled anxiety which gushed through the fissure he had broken open, for the imprudence in basic point of view… for the certitude that one can imagine anything and depict whatever one pleases, as the world, anyhow, every year becomes more and more like a madhouse. In short, he is responsible for the fundamental lawlessness in themes and situation, for the mad metaphysic \’all is permissible\’ which, once having broken loose, will not easily and quickly be brought under control.\” I do not think that Dostoevsky, any more than Nietzsche, can be held responsible for so-called \’lawlessness\’ in literature, culture, or society, though it is another thing to admit that their works live a life of their own. What is noteworthy, all the same, about Adamovich\’s remarks is the typically Russian moral and social concern that marks his criticism.

There have been other critics of Dostoevsky, to be sure, in the West. The case of Conrad and his novel \”Under Western Eyes\” may be cited here. But Conrad\’s dislike of Dostoevsky is, perhaps, rooted as much in his Polish origins (and Poland\’s painful history with Russia) as it is in a literary sensibility that clearly preferred the \”absolute sanity\” and \”perfect measure\” of a Turgenev. Yet a number of Conrad\’s works suggest that deep affinities with Dostoevsky also, as in the case of Gorkij, may have given power to his recoil from the great Russian writer. But the example of Conrad, in any case, is not typical. The reception of Dostoevsky in the West for the most part has been overwhelmingly positive. Western European literature, often following the lead of Russian and early Soviet Russian writers, such as Zamjatin, Leonov or Olesha, may be said to have explored the great meaning of Dostoevsky for twentieth century man, and not merely in psychological, social or philosophical terms, but often in the choice of experimental forms of literature itself. Finally, Western writers and thinkers have seen in Dostoevsky a champion of our Western social ideals.

But have we always in the West really understood, or taken in, all of Dostoevsky? Or, rather, have we always taken to heart his challenges to many features of our own Western civilization? At times one perceives a note of undeserved self-congratulation, of self-satisfaction, of holier-than-thou, of self-delusion in the popular Western appropriation of the Dostoevsky who so mercilessly exposed anti-utopia and defended freedom of conscience. Have we pondered how inimical to Dostoevsky were those bourgeois values, that rampant materialism, that self- inter­ested egoism and individualism, that worship of things and mania for \”goods\” that has overtaken so much of American and West European life, and now seems fated to reach the shores of the post – capitalist world? In \”Winter Notes on Summer Impressions\” Dostoevsky attacks not merely the poverty and inequities of nineteenth century industrial capitalism and its worship of trade and the market, but \”the workers themselves who are proprietors in their hearts.\” In \”The Gambler\” – one of Dostoevsky\’s most brilliant and profounds works – Dostoevsky explored the fatal inter­weaving of economics and psychology in social man. \”Roulettenburg\” – the name of the city in which the action of the novel takes place, and the original title of the novel – is in many respects the classic city of capitalism, and Dostoevsky\’s analysis of this city and its inhabitants is, among other things, a classic critique of the money and market oriented bourgeois world. Here Marx and Dostoevsky meet. In \”The Brothers Karamazov,\” Dostoevsky seems to have anticipated something profoundly characteristic of middle class life when, through Zosima, he pictures contemporary man \”in bondage to the innumerable needs which he has created for himself.\” Dostoevsky\’s words speak to the heart of the so-called American way of life. \”Interpreting freedom,\” Zosima goes on, \”as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of needs, men distort their own nature – for many senseless and foolish desires, habits and absurd fancies are fostered in them.\” \”Is this freedom?\” Zosima asks.

The great ideal that Dostoevksy nourished in his heart, of course, was neither sauve qui peut Western individualism and the ethics of the market, which he so mercilessly criticized, nor the life style of the Russian bureaucratic ant hill state, one that is based – as Herzen so aptly put it – \”on the insulting conviction that the individual will endure anything.\”5 It is no accident that the social – philosophical theme of patience or endurance – the obverse side of the theme of explosive rebellion – runs through all of Dostoevsky\’s works: \”one gets used to everything\” (\”ko vsemu privyknesh\’ \”), says Devushkin. In any case, Dostoevsky\’s ideal – set forth in \”Winter Notes on Summer Impres­sions\” – was one in which both individual and society voluntarily yielded their absolute demands upon one another. Dostoevsky\’s social ideal was informed by the Christian ideal of love and self-sacrifice; and, of course, he parted from Rousseau\’s Social Contract in that he categorically rejected the notion that in the ideal society – as Rousseau put it – the malefactor \”may have to be forced to be free.\” Nothing is more alien to Dostoevsky than compulsion and reactionary Utopia, whether conceived in rationalistic or theological terms. He was fully capable of distinguishing between the false harmonies of autocracy – whether those of Peter or Nicholas – and the spiritual unities of sobornost\’. Dostoevsky\’s own social – spiritual ideal was certainly a Utopian one, in the best sense of the word, but it was the only one which he felt it was worthwhile striving for. \”To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn onto another path psychologically,\” Zosima remarks. Dostoevsky, to be sure, did not find his ideal either in Russia or the West. \”Lik sego mira mne ochen\’ ne nravitsia\” – \”I very much dislike the countenance of this world\” – he once remarked. There is little doubt that he would utter the same words today, and much more emphatically, I fear. His art, of course, attests to his deep disgust with the world\’s \”countenance\”; he seemed to feel, too, that his disgust found a certain negative reflection in his work. Of this he writes with unusual candour in a letter to A. L. Ozhigina in 1878: \”You think I am one of those people who save souls, offer spiritual balm, put grief to flight. Sometimes people write this about me, but I know for certain that I am capable of instilling disillusionment and revulsion. I am not skilled in writing lullabies, though I have occasionally had a go at it. And, of course, many people demand nothing more than that they be lulled.\”

In his speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in June 1880, Dostoevsky spoke of the great poet as \”prophecy and signal.\” Pushkin\’s appearance, Dostoevsky wrote, \”did much to illuminate our dark path with a new guiding light.\” I do not think we would use the same words to describe Dostoevsky\’s meaning for us. Rather, I think we should say that it is Dostoevsky\’s \”dark road\” – one barely leading us out of the forest – that has come to symbolize for us our own route and our own moments – barely.  Yet, paradoxically, Dostoevsky\’s art is not pessimistic. The main focus of his work, as Vasilij Rozanov noted in his seminal study, \”The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,\” (1894) has been the \”struggle between the negation of life and its affirmation, between the corruption of the human con­science and its flourishing.\”6 In its depiction of this struggle the art of Dostoevsky has always been profoundly affirmative; yet not in the sickly way of socialist realism or American advertising with their ineradicable beatific smiles, but in a genuinely healthy way.\’But how is it possible that an artist who believed he wrote work that was capable of disillusioning people, in fact created out of the material of human reality an art that, indeed, elevates the hearts and minds of readers? I do not think the answer lies alone, or even primarily, in Dostoevsky\’s passionate idealism and in his pronounced and beautiful Christian spirituality, though these are inseparable from his art. Dostoevsky is a tragedian. \”Tragedy,\” Nietzsche once wrote, \”does not teach \’resignation\’. To represent terrible and questionable things is in itself an instinct for power and magnificence in an artist; he does not fear them. There is no such thing as pessimistic art. Art affirms. Job affirms.\” And at this point Nietzsche remarks with an exclamation mark: \”How liberating is Dostoevsky!\”7

This willingness to \”represent terrible and questionable things\”, this philosophical realism, this fearlessness, this readiness to face reality – to avoid distorting it even when he wished to see it differently – was profoundly characteristic of Dostoevsky in his art. It is this quality that links him with Job, with the giants of antiquity, Aeschylus and Sophocles, with Shakespeare and with his great peers Nietzsche and Tolstoj; it is this quality that the Russian Symbolist poet and philosopher Vjacheslav I. Ivanov emphasized in his superb studies of Dostoevsky: \”True tragedy, like true mysticism\”, Ivanov writes, \”is possible only on the soil of a deeply realistic view of the world. The tragic struggle must be fought out between the actual and effective realities\” – effective realities here understood by Ivanov as the power in man of free thought, free imagina­tion, free conscience. \”For tragedy,\” Ivanov writes again, \”is only thinkable as a relationship between actual and free entities.\”

Here, let me say in conclusion, are the central attributes of Dostoevsky\’s art – and, I may add, of all great Russian literature that is guided by its heart and not its head: a deeply realistic view of man and the world; a readiness, like the Bible, to confront everything and anything – the sufferings and disasters of a nation, a people, an individual; a trans­cendent vision, a vision of the ideal, yet an aversion – in spite of all opposite impulses – for lullabies. As Leo Tolstoj so aptly put it in a letter to N. Strakhov in January 1877: \”There is only one negative quality needed for everything in life, particularly in art: not to lie.\” With these words of Tolstoj I should like to open the 4th Symposium of the International Dostoevsky Society – one dedicated to the memory of a great Russian writer who passed away 100 years ago. 

E. V. Starikova, \”Dostoevskij i sovetskaja literatura (k postanovke voprosa),\” in \”Dostoevski): khudozhnik i myslitel\’ \” (Moscow, 1972), pp. 603, 615. See also my discussion of Dostoevsky and Soviet literature in \”Dostoevsky\’s Underground Man in Russian Literature\” (The Hague, 1958), pp. 147-214.
V. F. Pereverzev, \”Tvorchestvo Dostoevskogo,\” 2d ed. (Moscow, 1922), p. 4.
Cf. S. Ia. Balukhatyj i V. A. Desnickij (eds.), \”M. Gor\’kij: Materialy i issledovanija (Leningrad, 1931), III, 136.
G. Adamovich, \”Kommentarii,\” in \”Opyty,\” (New York, 1953), I, 88-89.
A. I. Gercen, \”S togo berega,\” in \”Izbrannye filosofskie proizve- denija,\” (Moscow, 1946), II, 13.
V. Rozanov, \”Legenda o velikom inkvisitore F. M. Dostoevskogo,\” (Berlin, 1924), p. 18.
Friedrich Nietzsche, \”The Will to Power,\” Ed. Walter Kaufmann, Trans, by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, 1967), p. 434-435.
V. Ivanov, \”Freedom and the Tragic Life\” (New York, 1952), p. 40.
\”Dostojewskij: Tragödie, Mythos, Mystik,\” Trans, by Alexander Kresling (Tubingen), 1932, p. 3.