HEGEL'S "FRENZY OF SELF-CONCEIT" AS KEY TO THE ANNIHILATION OF INDIVIDUALITY IN DOSTOEVSKY'S "POSSESSED"
Miroslav J. Hanak, East Texas State University
This essay is intended to examine parallel conclusions reached by Hegel and Dostoevsky concerning some of the more dehumanizing results of Utopian rationalism. It avoids purposely the tracing of influences from thinker to thinker, or even the legacy of one climate of opinion to another; it specifically shuns the research methods of comparative literature and those of the history of ideas intended to catalog borrowings, imitations or epigonism that constitute consecutive generations of world views and literary movements. Its purpose is simply to demonstrate by textual analysis of Hegel's "Phenomenology" and Dostoevsky's "Possessed" that the sweeping systematization of Western cultural phenomena in the former closely parallels the underlying existential problems posited by the latter. Both philosopher and novelist deal with the ambiguous function of reason and its role in the shaping of mankind's destiny.
The evaluation of the influence of Hegel's radical rationalization of reality (panlogism) on Dostoevsky's apocalyptic tableaux of suffering humanity has been done, quite satisfactorily, by others. Notable in its scope and accuracy of reasoning is Malcolm Jones' article "Some Echoes of Hegel in Dostoevsky." (1) The author identifies two schools of thought on the subject of Dostoevsky's Hegelianism: one is represented by E.H. Carr's claim that "there are clear traces of Hegel in Dostoevsky," (2) and by R.L. Jackson, who finds kinship between the two in "the field of aesthetics;" (3) others, like Chizhevsky and Bakhtin, "expressly cast Hegel's influence in doubt." (4)
On the whole, Dostoevsky scholars are skeptical about Hegel's influence on Dostoevsky. The opaque Hegelianism of friends, associates and mentors such as Belinskij's, Strakhov's, and Solovev's seems to have been, at best, marginal for the novelist's world view and thought structure. A.S. Dolinin seems to be alone in stressing the central role that "the importance of suffering in Strakhov's Hegelianism" came to play in "Dostoevsky's aesthetics and...(in) the construction of the Dostoevskian hero," (5) but even Dolinin cautions that there is no reason to suppose that Strakhov's Hegelianism basically determined Dostoevsky's artistic method. (6)
Jones' own views on Dostoevskian indebtedness to Hegel tend to be even more restrictive; echoing Joseph Frank's assessment of Dostoevsky's novels as "topical" which would place them in the mainstream of current polemics still tinged with Hegelianism, Jones finds such echoes not to be
"historical" but rather something to be universally encountered "in the mind of a cultured reader." (7) More specifically, Dostoevsky rejected "Belinsky's Hegelian emphasis on the power of Reason," preferring to trust "aesthetic intuition;" moreover, "Dostoevsky's aesthetics were eclectic," and his fundamental adherence to idealism showed no taste for "systematic metaphysical trappings." (8)
As for Dostoevsky's psychology, Jones argues it "owes little or nothing directly to Hegel;" (9) he also questions the propriety of Philip Rahv's identification of Raskolnikov as prototype of Hegel's "world-historical individuals," pointing out that the hero of "Crime and Punishment" "does not see himself ... as participating in the unfolding of the (Hegelian) Idea." (10) Even though Jones admits to "Hegel's
influence in Russia and among Dostoevsky's friends," and to "some positive influence of Hegel on Dostoevsky" due to an "intellectual atmosphere
by Hegelian Idealism," (11) he assumes "there is no sign of the Hegelian dialectic, insofar as there is philosophy of history in Dostoevsky." (12) This paper intends to show that there is, indeed, a rudimentary, covert dialectics animating the psychological and world-historical processes outlined in Dostoevsky's novels. Jones makes an additional concession to direct Hegelian influence in Dostoevsky's "The Possessed;" the "views of Stepan Verkhovensky, an Idealist of the Forties," (13) are in part, directly Hegel-inspired; more importantly, Jones recognizes "a tenuous link" between Hegel's Skeptical consciousness and the attitudes of Dostoevsky's nihilists.
Hegel's discussion of Unhappy Consciousness in "The Phenomenology of the Spirit" shows the dialectic mediation of Skepticism and Stoicism, evolving eventually into the Unhappy Consciousness, a "bitterness of soul-dirernption," due to the "movement of an infinite yearning" after the "unattainable beyond," which "in being seized, escapes." (15) Hegel recognizes in this stage of the Spirit's journey to self-realization a soul-splitting alienation of the individual from the traditionally divinely conceived World Ground. Yet of an even greater relevance for Dostoevsky's concern with the monstrous perversion of the self by Utopian salvationism is a more advanced stage of Spirit's concretization at the level of "rational self-consciousness through itself," (16) which brings about the triumph of the subjectively idealizing Law of the Heart over cold, objective Necessity, i.e., this deterministic realm of natural laws. In this conflict Hegel anticipates the problematic rationalization of mankind that Dostoevsky abstracted in Shigalov's notorious sentence: "Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism." (17)
Hegel's Spirit, at this point self-existent, i.e., alienated from objective reality, and painfully conscious of this self-existence, "recognizes itself as the Law of the Heart." Over against this self-cognition stands
on the one hand a law by which the particular individuality is... oppressed, a violent Ordinance of the World,... and, on the other hand, a humanity suffering under that ordinance... (and) subjected to an alien necessity. (18)
The overthrow of this "violent Ordinance" is carried out by subjectively-oriented Reason, which "does away with the suffering" (19) occasioned by "the heart-throb for the welfare of mankind." (20)
In the ensuing dialectic passage the subjective Law of the Heart realizes, i.e., objectifies itself as a now universal pleasure "which all hearts feel." At this point, Hegel postulates his ever-recurring reservation concerning the dialectic process: Individuality and Necessity have
become concretely unified by the former's "discipline." This
only immediate realization of "undisciplined nature
for a display of excellence and for bringing about the well-being of mankind." (21)
The second negation, i.e., negation of the Law of the Heart which had just triumphed over the alien Ordinance of the World, now sets in. As soon as "the individual fulfills the law of
heart," it becomes another "universal ordinance." Its "pleasure becomes reality" all right, but, as it conforms to the
the law has...escaped the individual...(ceasing) through its very realization to be a law of the heart.
For it thereby takes on the form of actually "being,"
and is now universal power, which holds this particular "heart" to be a matter of indifference. (22)
Having lost his subjective self, the individual "now lives, grows on his own account, and purifies himself of individuality." (23) The resulting world-saving ego is "in itself contradictory, torn to distraction in its inmost being." (24)
The nihilism of such a deindividuated
is described by Hegel unequivocally as "something real and essential for consciousness in general, but not for me;" it is "an ego conscious of nothingness," and the coveted union of the Self and the Other has turned out to be "madness in general," a consciousness "...aware of its self as this individual reality and, at the same time... estranged from it...it is,
qua absolute reality,
aware of its unreality." (25) The final conclusion drawn by Hegel from this operation of consciousness is frighteningly familiar to us from experiences supplied by recent history, especially by the Guyana holocaust engineered by Rev. Jim Jones.
The heart-throb for the welfare of mankind passes therefore into the rage of self-conceit,
into the fury of consciousness to preserve itself from destruction; and to do so by casting out of its life the perversion it really is, and by straining to regard and to express the perversion as something else. The universal ordinance...it...now speaks of is an utter distortion of the law of its heart...,
a perversion invented by fanatical priests, by riotous,
revelling despots who seek to indemnify themselves for their own degradation by degrading...in their turn - a distortion practiced to the nameless misery of deluded mankind.
Anticipating the suicidal drive of nineteenth and twentieth century ideological demonism, Hegel completes his schematic apocalypse.
Consciousness in this its
frenzy of self-conceit proclaims individuality to be deranging, mad and perverted...
It is the heart...or the
consciousness, immediately seeking to be
that is thus raving and perverted. (26)
In his introduction to the Slovak translation of Dostoevsky's "Devils", the Czech Hispanist and comparatist professor Václav Černý identifies three avatars of self-devouring super-individualism. In Stavrogin, Dostoevsky portrayed "absolute pride;" in Kirilov, "absolute existence," and in Petr Verkhovenskij, "absolute power," (27) all three parallel variants of the dialectic tension between Hegel's Law of the Heart alienated from subjectivity by the Frenzy of Self-conceit.
In effect, Černý calls Stavrogin's "pure pride" absolute self-consciousness, a term virtually lifted from the Hegelian dialectic. Černý calls Stavrogin's stance beyond good and evil the ultimate abomination, because it betrays "lukewarmness" and "utter indifference" to being or not being. Seen in the light of Hegelian metaphysics, a consciousness beyond the reach of mutually cancelling opposites and self-destructive paradoxes
lacks the mainspring of spiritual concretization
and is, indeed, spiritual death. Having excluded himself from the admittedly frantic vagaries of Hegel's "heartthrob for the welfare of mankind," Stavrogin remains safe from the perverting and perverted Law of the Heart, but also from the single redeeming virtue of the godless "possessed," that is, an absolute faith in some substitute for the discredited transcendent order. In Černý words, absolute faith "comes closest to absolute belief - only one leap across the precipice separates atheism from God's bosom." (28) Thus Stavrogin has achieved the final reconciliation of the Self with its Otherness, the world, an equivalent to the Hegelian equation of Ego=Ego (29) arrived at statically, so to speak, out of boredom with the insane excesses of the "possessed" struggling and dying for absolute perfection and justice in the here-and-now. Invariably, such possession destroys but it can, in exceptional cases, like in Shatov and Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskij, bring redemption in death. Malcolm Jones' qualification of the older Verkhovenskij as "directly Hegel-inspired" hints at one such exception.
Černý uses another Hegelian concept in explaining Stavrogin's only emotion, an absolutely detached voluptuousness of depravity. Stavrogin
transfigured himself in order to test his endurance under the assumption that for him nothing is impossible. This (brings him) to a
monstrous position of insolent
from which... contemptuous height he rejects all universal human standards... He meets his end in an act of despair that is a Satanic parody of Christ's salvation...a devil of pride who finally sneaked into Golgotha itself, intending...to slyly set himself on the cross in the place of the humble Christ. (30)
Kirilov comes off somewhat nobler than the Luciferian Stavrogin, but his madness proves no less fatal to individuality competing for the vacated post of Absolute Being. He commits what Černý calls "a theological suicide," (31) calculated to usurp the legacy of the defunct transcendent order. Although not emotionally arid like Stavrogin, Kirilov lives in "pure thought," (32) practicing abstract reason at the expense of personal existence. In this, his sin might be compared to Hegel's own metaphysical arrogance, intent on abstracting the sum of phenomenal reality into his, Hegel's personal Absolute Spirit. That this is so Professor Eric Voegelin demonstrates by citing the end of Chapter VI of the "Phenomenology" where Hegel
that is "assured of the certainty of the
within itself...as the God who fully reveals himself" in the middle of those who know themselves as pure knowledge. (33)
For Černý, Kirilov is "another caricature of Christ," a pioneer of mangodhood assuming "the burden of mankind," (34) defined as "the fear of the pain of death." (35) By killing himself as the exemplar of self-overcoming individuality, Kirilov believes he can assure the rise of a higher species of man, "for whom it will be the same to live or to die." By conquering this "pain and terror," the superman of the future "will be himself God." (36) In the final analysis, Kirilov's suicidal rationalism dwarfs even Hegel's deicide suggested in the above-mentioned passage as well as the paradox of self-mirroring ego driven insane by the awareness of its
Kirilov insists that
to recognize that there is no God and not to recognize...that one is God oneself is an absurdity, else one would certainly kill oneself... But one, the first, must kill himself, for else who will begin to prove it. (37)
The "thirst for absolute power," embodied in the younger Verkhovenskij, completes the triad of forces constituting the gravitational field in which the "possessed" struggle for the attribute of secular absoluteness. In Černý’s words, Petr represents "the divorce of contemporary socialist movements from the belief in individual human freedom." Much like their Judeo-Christian predecessor, the new secular religions demand "absolute and unconditional faith," (38) a "new asceticism, a new saintliness and, eventually, a new martyrdom." (39) They thus assume a stance above the "bourgeois fraud" (40) of individuality, excusing its destruction by an
"objective historical necessity."
(41) Once again, Černý's terminology parallels Hegel's Law of the Heart transmuted into
the negation of subjective compassion and, eventually, by a further
sublation, into "an inner perversion of the self," a "conscious self-destruction" which reconciles the struggling forces in a "nameless misery of deluded mankind." (42)
The demons and devils of lesser magnitude that cluster around this nucleus of Satanism-through-absolute-rationalization practice, within their limited lights and powers, what Dostoevsky calls a "vaudeville of devils." (43) Shatov of course looms great as victim of the will to the secular absolute, in himself and around him, representing the second exception to unredeemed "possession". In a way, he embodies the only worthy
Like Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenskij, his faith in the existence of a transcendent Goodness and Truth comes belatedly and remains conditional; he counters Stavrogin's query whether he believes in God with a qualifying assent: "I...I will believe in God." (44)
At the opposite side of the spectrum looms Shigalov's speculation about attaining absolute equality for mankind forcing "nine-tenths of humanity" to "give up all individuality and become a herd" (45) for the sake of the remaining one-tenth. A decade later Nietzsche was to use the term
for the mass or herd-man, a residue of the old, decadent humanity, to be regenerated by a violent act of will of the forthcoming superman. But Dostoevsky anticipates more than Nietzsche; his Shigalov uses the term "final solution" pretty much in the sense it was to acquire in Nazi ideology.
Liputin, Ljamshin, Lebjadkin, even apparent innocents like the latter's crippled sister and Lizaveta Ivanovna—whose young lady's heart had "been trained on the opera," (46) the bungling governor Lembke as well as the two "local Minervas," (47) Lembke's socialite wife Julia Mikhailovna and the ambiguous sponsor of the two Verkhovenskij's, Varvara Petrovna, all of them succumb to the feverish dialectics between the drive for
absolute self-assertion and self-annihilation.
This essay attempted to show that, contrary to Jones' view, (48) Dostoevsky does employ an equivalent of Hegelian dialectics. It appears, at first, in the vagaries of souls starving for the absolute; gradually, it corrodes and explodes the social fabric of a godless humanity. This process resembles the restless movement of Hegel's Spirit shaping the historical destiny of mankind, as it gradually overcomes all imperfections of finite existence.
In direct opposition to Hegel's descriptive method, Dostoevsky works prescriptively. Unlike Hegel, he refuses to write off the shapeless mass of tormenting and tormented humans who can never be normalized by the mere operations of logic. Thus by indirection, but most vigorously, Dostoevsky rejects Hegel's detached vision of cyclically self-cancelling "spiritual shapes" of history which alternately form and fade in an automatic, mutual "sacrifice," "the self-abandonment in which Spirit sets
forth, in the form of free fortuitous happening, its process of becoming Spirit." (49)
Instead, Dostoevsky offers Stepan Trofimovich's attainment of the absolute in the reconciliation of the finite, miserable individual with an idea "so infinitely more just and more happy" that "every man must bow down" (50) before its infinite greatness.