F. M. DOSTOEVSKY (1821 - 1881): PROPHET MANQUE?
Sergei Hackel, University of Sussex
Even in our day a novelist and critic as subtle and as erudite as Nabokov could still dismiss Dostoevsky as 'a prophet, a clap-trap journalist and a slap-dash comedian. ' (1) It may have been an honest judgement. But it was no doubt also a reaction against the standard (Nabokov would have said too often facile) elevation of Dostoevsky to the ranks of the immortals. One way or another Nabokov would have approved of the curious decision of Twayne Publishers to publish no volume on Dostoevsky until 1981 and thus to grade him in their World Authors series no higher than World Author No. 636. (2)
A century ago, when Dostoevsky first began to appear in Western European languages, there was no body of received opinion against which to react. Even so, many of his early readers were not far removed from Nabokov in damning Dostoevsky with faint praise or with none. Thus, although R. L. Stevenson was enthusiastic about "Crime and Punishment" when he wrote to a friend in 1886, he nonetheless noted the novel's incoherence and remarked, 'Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it. ' (3) Apparently Henry James did not care for it because the character of Dostoevsky's hero was 'not objective. ' The book also probably fell into that category of Russian novels which James castigated for being 'fluid puddings' and 'large, loose, baggy monsters. ' (4) 'Not horrible or disgusting, ' noted George Saintsbury, 'but unattractive (. . .). ' (5) Or simply disgusting, according to the "Spectator" of 1887:
Authors desirous of popularity should bear in mind that so - called realism, which consists of a display of deformities, more or less hideous, dragged forth and paraded for the public to gloat over ... is unquestionably unpleasant. (6)
At almost the same time (1882) the Russian critic Mikhajlovskij went one stage further and accused the author himself of gloating over the suffering and deformities of his characters. If anything, Dostoevsky's was 'a cruel talent. ' (7) The designation was to gain some currency in Russia.
But in England there was probably more concern about Dostoevsky's apparently casual attitude to his craft, and therefore to his readers. Even when a Dostoevsky cult was about to be unleashed by the publication of
Constance Garnett's translation of "The Brothers Karamazov" (1912) the "Times Literary Supplement" could still insist on Dostoevsky's formal deficiencies, 'his prolixity, his endless digression, his wild composition. ' (8) Altogether, as an earlier reviewer (1894) had complained, his work was 'deficient in completeness of form. ' (9) 'There is nothing in his books to suggest that he gave any thought to planning of his design in advance. ' (10)
Few of these early critics would have envisaged a centenary celebration for the author whom even a well-read Russian committee (albeit a censorship committee) of 1886 could acknowledge as no more than 'a talented belletrist. ' (11)
Many of these charges hardly need to be refuted today. 'Wild composition' was certainly something that Dostoevsky conscientiously strove to avoid. As for 'completeness of form, ' it was his constant preoccupation.
'Form, form!' he reminded himself with some vehemence in one of his notebooks. '(...) Write in an orderly fashion (and) succinctly
à la Pushkin. ' (12) 'All (depends) on form. ' (13) Admittedly, the early critics were not to know of such private jottings. For it was not until an earlier centenary, the centenary of Dostoevsky's birth in 1921, that the first of Dostoevsky's notebooks were to be ceremonially disinterred from a white tin box in the Soviet state archives and made available to the world of scholarship.
The finished novels, not the notebooks, must ultimately determine how the writer's works are read. But at the very least these notebooks were to introduce the reader to the writer's workshops. They allow him to see what Dostoevsky meant when he wrote that while 'without inspiration, of course, there will be nothing, 'a novel invariably required 'work, and a tremendous amount of it. ' (14) And this work would concern not only the psychological and philosophical registers of a given novel. It would concern also the more primitive circumstantial register of décor and chronology. The notebooks demonstrate Dostoevsky's concern for the least minutiae of everyday life. He can be observed aiming at precision and appropriateness in prices, colours, textures. A mere brick wall will not satisfy him. 'An unrelieved rear
,span style="letter-spacing: 4pt".brick wall' will be amended to 'An unrelieved
unwhitewashed rear wall, ' and the whole setting will acquire a slightly more dismal, more negative aura as a result. (15) A child's age will be adjusted from 'about eight' to 'about seven' presumably to emphasise and to increase the pressures on a poverty-stricken family with other children of 'about five' and six. (16)
Painstaking and discriminating notation of this kind gives Dostoevsky's physical descriptions a peculiar air of conviction. Raskolnikov's claustrophobic room in "Crime and Punishment" or Rogozhin's dark and ominous
house in "The Idiot" (a house 'devoid of architecture') are difficult to forget. Equally haunting is their macrocosm, the fog-ridden and corrupt metropolis of St. Petersburg. Not only is it atmospherically and sociologically convincing: it is also topographically precise. On the basis of Dostoevsky's descriptions visitors to Leningrad can still find their way to the house where Raskolnikov committed his murders (104 Griboedov Canal). And Dostoevsky himself may be said to extend his patronage to such expeditions insofar as he once took his young (second) wife to an obscure backyard and showed her the actual stone under which he had caused the same Raskolnikov to hide his booty. (17)
Yet with all his concern for precision, documentation in its own right was of no concern to Dostoevsky. 'The aim of art is not (to depict) the accidents of everyday life (he wrote), but their general idea, sharply perceived and correctly removed from the total multiplicity of life's interrelated phenomena. ' (18)
The phenomena from which Dostoevsky made his selection were provided almost entirely by the contemporary scene. He wrote no historical novels or short stories, and he thought it curious that someone like Tolstoj should devote so much energy to creating 'nothing more than historical pictures of times long past. ' (19) When a novel like "The Idiot" (1868-1869) begins with the words, 'At the end of November, ' its first readers could safely assume that 'last November' was intended. In any case they needed no dates, for all the current issues would be debated on the pages of the latest Dostoevsky novel.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Dostoevsky read the daily Russian press assiduously, even when abroad - and he was in western Europe continuously during his most creative period, 1867-1871. The papers were a primary source of great importance.
Do you receive any papers? (he asked one of his correspondents in 1867). For God's sake do read them, one can't do otherwise at present, not for the sake of fashion, but in order for the manifest link between all matters, both public and personal, to be strengthened and clarified. (20)
It is in keeping with such remarks that we are eventually to find Ivan Karamazov in the last of Dostoevsky's novels giving pride of place to newspaper accounts of cruelty to children when he formulates his criticism and his rejection of God.
In fact there was the journalist latent in Dostoevsky himself. Admittedly he had been trained to become an engineer. But he turned his back on the engineering profession and gained early and probably disproportionate acclaim as a writer of short stories (1844-1849) before his arrest as a
dissident and would-be revolutionary, his mock execution and his exile to Siberia (1850-1859). It was on his return after a decade of exile that Dostoevsky was to edit and contribute to two ill-fated periodicals in succession. He was also to return to journalism in the 1870s, and his "Diary of a Writer" was to bring him almost as much renown as his novels in the final decade of his life.
Literature as income
As journalist and novelist alike Dostoevsky was mindful of the public who financed him through his sales. He had no other source of income. This may have had some influence on his choice of subject matter. It certainly determined the speed at which he wrote. Moreover, careless spending led to the making of careless commitments to publishers. To meet one such commitment he dictated, completed and submitted "The Gambler" (devoted to one of the principal causes of his current financial embarrassment) in less than a month even while at work on the composition and serial publication of "Crime and Punishment. "He also, it would not be fair to say therefore, married his expert stenographer. Of his four great novels, three were completed in something like six years (1865-1871). All were written against deadlines and for serial publication. None was anywhere near completion when publication was already well advanced. 'If only one could go back, ' he would say to his wife. 'If only one could correct! ' (21)
Not unnaturally, he complained about the pressures on him. At the same time, though he was less eager to acknowledge it, the pressures could have a positive effect. In 1880, at the very end of his life, he noted 'When I work intensely, I grow ill, even physically. ' (22) But the converse could also be true. The young Dostoevsky, imprisoned for the first time in 1849, intensely disturbed physically and psychologically, confided to his brother,
I have long ugly dreams and to crown it all I recently keep feeling as if the floor is heaving under me (...). My nerves are getting out of order.
Yet he was also able to add,
When I was in just such a nervous state before, I made use of it to write; I can always write better and more in this condition (...). (23)
Speed and intensity
The pace and intensity of Dostoevsky's novels should be seen in the light of such attitudes and pressures. Their pace is certainly phenomenal. "Crime and Punishment" takes place in something like a fortnight. Almost all of that vast unfinished novel "The Brothers Karamazov" occupies a mere six days; while the magnificent first part of "The Idiot" (virtually a
quarter of the novel) covers barely twelve hours.
In keeping such a carefully restricted time-scale, Dostoevsky is anxious to avoid diffuseness. And although he stands to lose money on compression (he was, after all, paid by the printed sheet) he would gloss an elaborate plan in his notebooks with a stern reminder to himself, 'All this to be squeezed into four printed sheets (maximum). ' 'Succinctly' he reminds
himself repeatedly. 'Brisk narration. ' (24)
Within these narrow limits crowds of intense and vociferous characters are to pass through a sequence of exacting and unpredictable crises. For there is no such thing as a relaxed or pastoral novel by the mature Dostoevsky. The resulting density of action worried even some of Dostoevsky's closest associates. ' (...) You clutter up your works and make them too complicated, ' wrote one of them in 1871. "If the texture of your stories were simpler, their effect would be stronger. ' (25) Dostoevsky wrote back to acknowledge what he called his chief shortcoming.
A multitude of separate novels and tales is simultaneously squeezed by me into one, so that there is neither measure nor harmony (. . .). And in this way (wrote Dostoevsky in all sincerity) I am ruining myself. (26)
Reality strives towards fragmentation
No one who has read "The Adolescent" (1875) would want to argue that Dostoevsky was incapable of ruining himself in this way. But only a Nabokov would persist in applying Dostoevsky's self-criticism to the body of his work at large. On the contrary, it is the claustrophobic complexity of the novels which for most readers remains one of their most distinctive and most valued features. And those great carnival explosions (the funeral feast in "Crime and Punishment, " the nameday party in "The Idiot, " the literary gala in "The Devils" can hardly be dismissed as the work of a slapdash comedian. Rather are they the product of a penetrating analyst who sees in these explosions the tragic symptoms of a fragmented and disoriented society. As one of Dostoevsky's narrators puts it, 'Reality strives towards fragmentation. ' (27)
Almost fifty years later, Yeats was to write, 'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. ' (28) It was a diagnosis which one of Dostoevsky's buffoons was to anticipate in "The Idiot. "
The binding idea is no more (he insisted). Everything has gone soggy, everything and everyone's got stewed. Each and every one of us, the lot of us, we are stewed. (29)
For there is not only intensity in Dostoevsky's world, there is also disorientation, disorder, chaos. Indeed much of the intensity derives from this. And it is this, as much as anything else, which frustrated Dostoevs-
ky's quest for 'completeness of form' and formerly created the impression of 'wild composition. ' An untidy universe is not necessarily to give rise to beautifully modulated and perfectly proportioned novels.
The role of prophet
'The binding idea is no more. ' Ought that simply to be recorded in ail honesty and without demur? Or should a prophet arise and point the way to what Dostoevsky variously termed the lost 'main idea, ' the 'moral centre, ' the 'integral word' ? (30) 'The aim of art is not (to depict) the accidents of everyday life, but their general idea (. . .), ' he had written in 1873. (31) In one of his notebooks he was prepared to go further:
Reality as a whole is far from exhausted by the everyday, for it exists largely in the form of a latent, as-yet-unexpressed and still anticipated word. At infrequent intervals appear prophets who divine and express this integral word.
and he added,
Shakespeare is (such) a prophet, sent by God to communicate the mystery of man and of the human psyche. (32)
Even in the privacy of his notebook Dostoevsky did not as yet cast himself in this exalted role. But by the end of the 1870s he was to be less reticent about it. And when he was to deliver his celebrated Pushkin speech in 1880 he undoubtedly and without embarrassment took pleasure in telling his wife that at least a section of his Muscovite audience had indeed openly acclaimed him as a prophet. They were following in the footsteps of some strangers who had already burst in on him during the preceding days to tell him, 'You are our prophet. You made us into better people when we read the Karamazovs. ' (33)
There was a great deal of exaltation and euphoria at those Pushkin celebrations: the epithet was not necessarily intended to survive the occasion. And yet it has survived. In various contexts and with various qualifications Dostoevsky has frequently been presented as a sage.
Thus, while D. H. Lawrence could at first curtly dismiss Dostoevsky's great 'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor' as 'just rubbish, ' (34) T. E. Lawrence could go to the opposite extreme and describe the novel that contained it as 'a fifth gospel. ' (35) Another English critic went as far or further (1916): according to him, if the Gospel of St. John were somehow to be blotted out of human ken, the works of Dostoevsky would replace it. (36) According to Thomas Seccombe, there was 'something of the major Hebraic prophets about him. ' (37) No wonder Nabokov used the word 'prophet' so scornfully in his dismissal of Dostoevsky.
But even if loaded words like prophet, sage or seer are to be avoided, the question of Dostoevsky's didactic intentions and/or achievements still deserves to be discussed. And although the achievement may be disputed, the intention, the conscious intention at least, is reasonably clear. In summary form it might be expressed like this:
i. The 'moral centre' may have been eroded and forgotten.
ii. Merely to depict its erosion is ultimately not enough.
iii. The main idea requires fresh justification.
iv. It may be difficult to define or even to depict it.
v. Nonetheless some signposts to it could and therefore should be raised.
Even a work which, more than any other, demonstrates the agonising absence of a moral centre was once supposed to carry signposts of this kind. Whoever could expect such a thing from the "Notes from Underground" (1864), the immediate precursor of "Crime and Punishment" and 'the best overture for Existentialism ever written' ? (38) Yet Dostoevsky claimed that the signposts were all prepared: had it not been for the 'swinish' censors they would have been revealed for all to see.
(. . .) When I made a mockery of everything and sometimes blasphemed for form's sake, That is allowed to pass (he wrote angrily to his brother), but when I deduced from all this the need for faith and Christ, that is forbidden. Are the censors in a plot against the government or something? (39)
In later years Dostoevsky was to suffer repeatedly from one kind of censorship or another. He still suffers from time to time. But his intention to demonstrate what he called 'the need for faith and Christ' was to remain a constant one and it was to be less frustrated in the future.
Certainly, the image of Christ was to be insinuated into most of the great works and at a critical level. In "Crime and Punishment" the murderer Raskolnikov was initially planned to have a vision of Christ towards the end of the novel: (40) with admirable judgment Dostoevsky replaced the projected vision with a gospel reading by the innocent prostitute Sonja and thus achieved the same end. (41) Myshkin in "The Idiot" was at one stage intended to manifest the image of Christ in his own person, (42) though the plan miscarried or at least was not carried through. The culminating point of Alesha Karamazov's career is his dream-vision of a messianic banquet at which (a somewhat distant) Christ himself presides. (43)
Model of perfection: Christ
Ever increasingly, the person or rather the image of Christ becomes one of the two principal touchstones of moral perfection in Dostoevsky's work.
As Dostoevsky put it, 'My model of morality and ideal is Christ. ' (44) More precisely, 'The main thing is the image of Christ, from which all the teaching flows. ' (45) Indeed the image was so compelling that the excitable young Dostoevsky, grateful in his Siberian exile for the gift of a New Testament which (like Raskolnikov) he was to keep under his pillow for the next four years, (46) wrote to its donor in 1854 that
there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more congenial, more wise, more noble or more perfect than Christ (...). Moreover, if someone proved to me that Christ is external to the truth, and if it were really so that the truth excludes Christ, I would still rather remain with Christ than with the truth. (47)
It is not clear whether this statement anticipates the rejection of reason (as in "Notes from Underground") or a challenge to institutionalised Christianity (as in "The Brothers Karamazov"). But one way or the other it involves a personal commitment to a moral centre, a central image, an idea.
Model of perfection: Golden Age
Side by side with the Christ-ideal, Dostoevsky the former Utopian socialist, cherished yet another (at best only loosely-related) ideal, the ideal of a Golden Age, the ideal of a long-lost cosmic harmony to which suffering mankind could still aspire, the distant goal to which the contemplation of beauty could impel it even now. The painting of Acis and Galatea by Claude Lorrain, which Dostoevsky admired (if not venerated) at Dresden provided him with his favourite model, and he was to introduce it three times over into as many works, either into the drafts or into the finished product. (48) Some of Dostoevsky's characters experience a dream-vision of such a Golden Age nostalgically as an earthly paradise lost; others as a paradise yet to be regained.
Christ and the Golden Age separately provide an alternative and an antidote to the present state of affairs, where everything strives towards fragmentation and where it is hardly possible to speak of a centrifugal movement since there i s no centre from which fugacity begins.
Some of Dostoevsky's characters achieve an intimation of the one ideal, some of the other. Both ideals are in some degree merged in the experience of Alesha Karamazov and his mentor, the cheerful and unconventional monastic elder Zosima. Zosima is at once a proponent of Christ-like love (clearly acknowledged to be that) and of a Romantic or Schellingian reverence for creation (not identified as such either by him or by his author). (49) In the vision and elation experienced by Zosima's young disciple immediately after the elder's death, both strands of his teaching play an equal part.
First, the gospel read at the elder's bier prompts that dream-vision of the messianic feast to which, as the elder explains, Christ is perpetually welcoming new guests to partake of the wine of great gladness.
Then, when Alesha Karamazov wakes, he leaves the building for the garden and it is there, beneath the night sky, that he is to have an experience of a Golden Age, an experience of cosmic unity in which
the mystery of the earth was at one with the mystery of the stars. . . (while) threads from all those countless worlds of God's seemed to be linking them to his soul
and reconciling him to the cosmos. The visible sign of this reconciliation is Alesha's kissing of the earth, which he also waters liberally with his tears. (50)
Concern for the message
The passage was meant to move Dostoevsky's nineteenth-century readers. But it was also meant to mark them. Dostoevsky felt responsible for his message, and he spent a disproportionate amount of time on it. When a friend pointed out that the powerful arguments in the preceding section of the novel (which contain Ivan's criticism of God and his 'Grand Inquisitor Legend') required an answer, he replied
Exactly so, and in this all my care and anxiety now reside. For the (next) book (. . .) is intended as an answer to all that
negative side. And so 1 tremble for it in this sense: will it be a
sufficient answer? Especially since the answer is not in fact direct, not an answer point by point, to those theses previously put forward (. . .) but only indirect (. . .). This is what disturbs me, that is, will it be comprehensible, and shall I achieve even part of my aim? (51)
In his conscious mind, therefore, he has no doubts as to the existence of an aim. However, as he proceeds to explain, one of his difficulties is that the directness of his message may be compromised, will need to be compromised by the subtlety with which the messenger requires to be portrayed for 'artistic' reasons. (52)
But at other times the demands of the message were such that he was prepared to dismiss even such considerations as he planned his work. When he wrote to his publisher in 1870 to inform him of his plans for "The Devils" he was not loth to admit,
What I am writing is a tendentious piece, 1 want to have my say with feeling. The nihilists and westernizers will raise an outcry and a half to the effect that I am a reactionary. Well, to hell with them, I'll have my say to the very limit. (53)
On the previous day, writing to another correspondent, he had been even more explicit:
It is my opinion that one must sometimes lower the tone, take the scourge in one's hands and (not wait), not defend oneself but attack with greatly augmented crudity. (54)
The medium, in other words, should defer to the message. Where now his earlier notebook protestations, 'Tone NB NB NB ' ? (55)
Intention and achievement
But these are his intentions and they need to be checked against his achievements. I have already mentioned some readers for whom there is no disparity between the two. Not all are as facile as T. E. Lawrence. Some are as scholarly and perceptive as Konstantin Mochulskij. (56) But they are not alone. And for many another reader the disparity between intention and achievement is so marked as to place even the intention (certainly the unconscious intention) in doubt.
Of these readers, some might give preference to the apparently negative at the expense of the apparently positive characters, and argue that it is in characters like the Underground Man or Ivan Karamazov that we hear Dostoevsky's authentic voice, whether of unreason against reason (the Underground Man) or of reason against faith (Ivan Karamazov).
Others might argue that Dostoevsky's authentic voice is lost beyond recall, that it is ultimately of no account, and that he is fortunately incapable of composing monologues disguised as fiction. As in the case of those three archetypal Russians in discussion with each other who are reputed immediately to generate four conflicting points of view and (in the old days at least) five political parties, Dostoevsky's presentation of almost any subject in his fiction inevitably takes the form of complex dialogues and disputations. More important, the participants in these dialogues are endowed with equal rights. And the author (in this reading of the novels) withdraws from them and prefers even to create a surrogate narrator to deflect attention from his absence. Thus he may be said to renounce his rights as arbitrator. He is certainly no longer omniscient or even manifestly partisan. Like one of his own characters he could have said
I am capable of experiencing in complete comfort two contradictory feelings at one and the same time - and none of this, of course, is of my own volition. (57)
The polyphonic novel
It was in 1929 that the reticent Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin first
proposed the term 'polyphonic novel' to describe Dostoevsky's work. (58) In his submission, the great works are nothing if not multicentred. Each character has his or her own standpoint. The issue of the author's approval or disapproval of this or that character's standpoint is an irrelevant one. By way of interior monologues, confessions, letters, diaries, dreams, dialogues and disputes Dostoevsky creates what Bakhtin calls an unceasing chorus of disputing voices, disputing with each other and, as important, with their own selves. If anyone like the Duchess of "Alice in Wonderland" insists on saying, 'And the moral of that is . . .' the speaker is not to be taken on trust: the moral only adds to the polyphony, it never supersedes it or reduces it to a unison.
Such a reading of Dostoevsky corresponds particularly well with the tendency of his characters (groups and individuals alike) to fragmentation. The novelist, it can be argued, contrary to his own will and expectations, creates a pluralistic world.
Bakhtin's views anticipated structuralist criticism of Dostoevsky and his writings now command a new respect. But they themselves need to play their part in that secondary polyphony to which the whole vast range of Dostoevsky critics make their contribution.
For while there can be no question of constricting Dostoevsky and of determining once for all what his Message or Messages amount to, this is not to say that nothing in his work resists polyphonisation.
Least of all diluted throughout the mature works is Dostoevsky's conviction, born out of his disillusionment with Utopian socialism, that man's dignity depends on his freedom from constraint.
The Man from Underground is one of the earliest of Dostoevsky's characters to assert it, and it is difficult to forget the vehemence with which he does so. 'All man needs is nothing other than an independent choice, ' he urges, 'however dear that independence may cost him, and wherever it may lead him to. ' (59)
The Underground Man, in that extraordinary monologue of his, rejects all that his contemporaries would have considered 'normal. ' He rejects the dictates of reason. He insists that 'twice two equals five' is more liberating a formula than 'twice two equals four. ' He spurns the idea of a Utopian welfare state in which life is to be organised on a rational basis and so as to bring equal security to all. Above all, he fiercely overturns the utilitarian proposition that life should consist of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. On one level, as he points out, pain and pleasure are in any case not necessarily to be distinguished, let alone contrasted. More important, security, comfort and pleasure can seriously diminish man's stature.
Whereas, by contrast, suffering can guarantee his self-awareness. 'After all, ' he urges, 'suffering is the sole cause of consciousness. ' (60) Thus he turns his back on the utilitarians Mill and Chernyshevskij, with whom he is directly at issue. He also casts doubt on the adequacy of Descartes' well-established formulation, 'I think therefore I am. ' It has been well pointed out that the Underground Man would substitute, 'I suffer therefore I am. ' (61)
Dangers of the Crystal Palace
These themes are to recur in much of Dostoevsky's later work. What Dostoevsky called the 'Crystal Palace' or else the 'ant-hill' ideal (62) was to be his constant concern. In miniature this specious ideal is to be propagated by one of the petty revolutionaries of "The Devils, " Shigalev. It is this Shigalev who proposes what he calls 'a final solution to the problem of mankind, ' which would involve dividing humanity into two unequal parts:
One tenth is to be granted total personal freedom and unrestricted powers over the remaining nine-tenths. As for the latter, these must lose their individuality and be turned into something like a herd. And by their boundless obedience, by a series of regenerations, they are to attain a primal innocence something like the original paradise, although, incidentally, they will need to work. (63)
As Shigalev's mentor comments,
All are slaves and equal in their slavery (. . .). Slaves must be equal: without despotism there has never yet been any freedom or equality. But in a herd there is bound to be equality. (64)
It is an amusing parody of Dostoevsky's Golden Age ideal: perhaps somewhat less amusing if related to the Stalinist and Hitlerite experiments of the 1930s and 1940s. It may be noted that the parody retains its sting. There has been no more than one separate Soviet publication of "The Devils" since the 1917 revolution. (65)
Ivan Karamazov was to give a more extended and more carefully reasoned restatement of the same theme in his 'Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. ' In this Legend, Christ turns up in sixteenth-century Seville and attracts a considerable following, much to the Grand Inquisitor's dismay. The Inquisitor has him arrested. During his interrogation , the Inquisitor accuses him of placing an unbearable burden on men's shoulders. For Christ has demanded man's freely -given loyalty and had refused to satisfy his craving for bread, miracles or power. Few have had the moral strength to respond. As for the remainder 'there is unrest, confusion and stress. ' Therefore, the Grand Inquisitor asserts, the Catholic Church has been obliged to correct Christ's work.
And men rejoiced that they were again led like a herd, and that so terrible a gift (freedom), which had brought them so much suffering, was at last lifted from their hearts.
'And all shall be happy, ' he explains, 'all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand or so who will rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, only we shall be unhappy. ' (66) Thus, for apparently worthy, rational and humanitarian reasons, men are liberated from their liberty and thereby degraded.
Positive results of pain
Long before, Dostoevsky had written in one of his notebooks for "Crime and Punishment, " 'Man is not born for happiness. ' And he added, 'Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. ' (67) Earlier still, the Underground Man was not even prepared to discuss happiness: suffering was valid and valuable in its own right.
I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man. I am not a pleasant man at all. I believe there is something wrong with my liver. However I don't know the first thing about my liver, neither do I know what's really wrong with me. I'm not under a doctor, never have been, though it is not as if I didn't respect medicine and doctors (. . .). As a matter of fact, I refuse medical treatment out of spite (. . .). I realise full well that I can't upset the medics by refusing to receive treatment; I realise better than anyone else that this way I'm harming myself and no one else (. . .). So my liver hurts, well all right, let it hurt, let it hurt all the more. (68)
At one end of the scale, therefore, the Utopian Crystal Palace society where suffering is abolished, where order, comfort and security prevail at the cost of man's dependence and his degradation: at the other end, the Underground Man's 'let it hurt all the more' or (as one translator has it) 'the more it hurts the better. ' (68) For suffering is the ground of being; suffering and freedom go hand in hand; suffering is the price of freedom.
Suffering in the life of Dostoevsky
Different characters react to these extremes in different ways. But it is generally not too difficult, it is certainly not impossible, to determine where their author stands in this respect. At times, indeed, some of them speak directly out of his experience. And although there should never be a simplistic reading of the works as merely confessional or autobiographical outpourings it is none the less proper to acknowledge that Dostoevsky himself was well versed in suffering. Some was thrust upon him, some was his birthright, some was 'achieved' or self-imposed.
Dostoevsky's convict years were to find their expression most obviously in his "Notes from the House of the Dead" (1860-1862). But even more important was the gruesome prelude to his Siberian exile, his mock execution of 22 December 1849. Later that same day he was to write to his brother
(. . .) The death sentence was read out to all of us, we were given the Cross to kiss, swords were broken over our heads, last pre-mortem changes were made to our clothing (white shirts). Then three (of us) were placed by the posts for the execution of the sentence. We were called out in threes, consequently I was in the second batch and had not more than a minute to live.
A few moments later, a messenger galloped into the square, 'the retreat was beaten, those who had been tied to the posts were led back, and a statement was read out to us (to the effect that) his Imperial Majesty granted us our lives. Then followed the real sentences. ' (70) These, as they were not to know, had been approved long before. 'The sentence of death had only been a threat, ' noted Dostoevsky later, 'intended as "a lesson never to be forgotten. " ' (71)
At least one of the prisoners was driven out of his mind by the lesson. For his part Dostoevsky was certainly scarred emotionally for life. But he was also left with a new and heightened sense of life's worth and potential.
Never before have such abundant and healthy stores of spiritual life welled up in me as now (he wrote to his brother) (. . .). I was at my last moment, and now
I am alive again!
And he added, 'Now, as my life changes, I am reborn in a new mould. ' (72)
In the course of such an experience, each minute, each second, was charged with extraordinary intensity. More than twenty years later Dostoevsky was still anxious to stress this point, and he returned to the experience more than once in the early chapters of "The Idiot. " (73)
The Idiot himself, Myshkin, is the one who recounts the experience, though it is not his own. But he has his own way of approximating to the experience, which he does share with Dostoevsky. For both Myshkin and his author suffered from a form of epilepsy. (74) As the moments before execution allow the victim to rise above the ephemera and chaos of life, so in the seconds which precede an epileptic fit (explains Myshkin) the sufferer's
sense of being alive, his self-awareness, would increase tenfold (. . .).
His intelligence, his feeling, would be lit up with an extraordinary light; all his worries, all his doubts, would somehow be suddenly resolved into a kind of higher serenity, a serenity replete with clear harmonious joy and reason and hope, filled with (intimations of) the ultimate cause (of things). But these moments, these flashes were merely anticipations of that final second (never more than a second) which began the final fit. That second was, of course, unbearable. (75)
Unbearable, yet elevating: an anguished introduction to what Myshkin (and with him, we can safely presume, Dostoevsky) could describe as glimpses of 'a higher self-awareness (. . .) and consequently also of a "higher existence. " ' (76) And although each of them is well able to define the whole experience as an illness, this was not to dismiss it. The end-product had its value regardless of its cause.
Neither Myshkin nor his author are willing to say anything specific about the 'higher existence' or what he also calls 'the "highest synthesis of life. " ' (77) No attempt is made here to relate these descriptions to any model of a classical or biblical paradise. But although Myshkin's 'higher existence' is cautiously put into quotation marks, its attainment is not thereby discounted. In any case, however authentic it may be, the path to it certainly involves suffering.
If suffering did not result from social or hereditary factors, Dostoevsky could also inflict it on himself. During those most productive years of his career (at least 1867-1871) he was addicted to roulette. It was the potential addict who was already well able to give an analysis of the addiction in "The Gambler. " The anguish of the gambling table is centred on the risk to the gambler's earnings, his living. But the rhetoric of the situation can sometimes bring that risk into line with the anguish of the person about to be executed or subjected to an epileptic fit.
I was in a fever (says Dostoevsky's Gambler), and pushed this whole pile of money on to the red - then suddenly came to my senses. (. . .) Fear sent a cold shiver through my arms and legs. Aghast, I sensed and realised for a second what it would mean if 1 lost. My whole life was at stake! (78)
Such suffering is the fruit of what the Underground Man had called 'one's own unfettered choice, one's own whims, however wild' : it may not be beautiful, it may indeed be immoral or perverse. Certainly, Dostoevsky's own gambling was masochistic. Moreover, he was able to get twice the emotional mileage out of it by using it as a means to bludgeon his young wife, whom he had left behind at Dresden when he proceeded to the casino at Homburg. 'My missing you has seriously prevented me from coming to a successful conclusion with this wretched gambling,' he writes
to her in one of his letters. And having more or less established that it is her fault as much as his that he is losing heavily, he asks her to send him twenty Imperials immediately. (79) Succeeding letters inform her that he regularly loses whatever she sends him. Thus at the very beginning of her first pregnancy, Dostoevsky's wife was reduced to pawning her last trinkets. 'This (business) has shaken our whole marriage, ' commented Dostoevsky in May 1867. (80)
In fact the marriage was not to founder. On the contrary, Dostoevsky's wife was eventually to prove a capable business manager and publisher. By the last year of his life she was able to liquidate his considerable debts. But though the intense period of gambling had ended long before, the memory of it was not thereby extinguished. Fortunately so, for such experiences and such memories of Dostoevsky's masochistic behaviour could also serve to illumine the dark province of what he himself might have classified as perverse suffering. The exploration of such suffering by Dostoevsky's 'cruel talent' was to proceed side by side with his presentation of suffering as a positive force. Both spoke of man's independence. But whereas 'positive' suffering could help Dostoevsky's characters to rise above chaos and fragmentation to 'the highest synthesis of life, ' 'perverse' suffering would serve merely to express that chaos and that fragmentation.
There are some purveyors of perverse suffering who are central to the narrative in Dostoevsky's novels. In "Crime and Punishment, " for example, there is the cultivated degenerate Svidrigajlov, almost the hero's alter ego. Others are central to the argument, like the sadists brought in by Ivan Karamazov from the daily press to bolster his argument against the acceptance of God. Yet others are only of peripheral importance. But whatever their role they would no doubt all support the superficially charming Liza Khokhlakova ("The Brothers Karamazov") in her positive evaluation of the pleasure to be gained from the fantasies on which she dwells.
I have got a book here (she explains), I read about this trial somewhere of a yid who took a four-year old boy, first cut off all his fingers and then crucified him on a wall (. . .). Afterwards, at his trial, he said the boy died soon, after four hours. That's some kind of 'soon' ! The child moaned and groaned, he said, while he stood by admiring it. That's nice (. . .). I sometimes imagine it was me who crucified the child. There he'd be, hanging and moaning away, while I'd sit opposite, eating pineapple compote. I am very fond of pineapple compote. (81)
It is not surprising to find the same Liza responding to Alesha Karamazov's question, 'Have you grown to love disorder? ' with the, eager 'Oh, I want disorder. ' (82)
For there are not only those who recognise that the binding idea is no more, there are also those who delight in the fact and make every effort to further the decomposition of civilised society, the degradation of its
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in "The Devils, " (1872) which ends with a desolate picture of an apparently harmless township undermined by madness, murder, suicide and arson. A small, ill-organised band of revolutionaries (with that same Shigalev in the background) was sufficient to provoke disaster since there was no binding idea to counteract them. Indeed, there is hardly anything in the published version of this book that even speaks of wholeness or holiness, let alone promotes it.
The underground 'where the truth resides'
And although there are other novels in which there does exist a moral centre or central idea, even Dostoevsky the would-be prophet could never lose sight of that underground in which 'positive' suffering not only coexisted with the 'perverse, ' but often failed to overcome it. Such a failure indeed was typical of the contemporary scene. Or so he suggested as late as 1875, when he wrote in one of his notebooks:
I am proud that I was the first to manifest the true person (who is representative of) the Russian majority, and was the first to reveal his
ugly and his tragic aspect (...).! alone brought out the
tragedy of the underground which consists of
self-immolation, of the awareness
of that which is better and of the inability
to attain it (...).
And he continued with some pride, ' "The underground, the underground, the poet of the underground! " The feuilletonists repeat this as something degrading for me. Silly fools! (was his comment). This is
my glory, for here is where the truth resides.' (83)
Inability to achieve the 'main idea'
The underground characters do indeed suffer from the 'awareness of that which is better, and of the inability to attain it. ' But they are not alone in this. Even the most positive characters, some of whom experience those moments of vision or elation, hardly provide a final validation for any one 'main idea. ' Nor does the would-be prophet ever displace the polyphonic novelist sufficiently for doubts about a 'main idea' to be dismissed. Rather does the novelist engage characters and readers alike in a perpetual process of discovery. As one of Dostoevsky's underground characters (Ippolit in "The Idiot") had urged
it is the continuous and perpetual process of discovery (which is important), not at all the discovery itself. (84)
Journalism as an alternative mode ?
In his last years Dostoevsky the journalist was to make a concerted attempt to side-step the complexity of his novelistic world and to propose some short cuts towards discovery in his "Diary of a Writer. " He demonstrated a considerable talent for rhetoric and bombast, little for insight, less for prophecy. In this respect Nabokov was justified in his summary assessment. These journalistic writings give the reader an excellent introduction to Russian chauvinism and messianism at their mot blatant. So much that the Soviet publishing authorities must have found themselves pausing uncomfortably in 1978 when they reached the relevant volumes of the superb "Complete Collected Works" now in progress, and their publication was delayed by more than a year. The publication of the outstanding volumes is eagerly awaited, but more out of scholarly curiosity than in awe of a great writer, whose stature they tend to diminish.
The final attempt
By contrast, the other major work of his last years might (so its author hoped) bring him that much nearer than ever before to a positive discovery, to the utterance of that integral word of which he had spoken earlier.
"The Brothers Karamazov" was to be the latest of the great murder stories with a philosophical or theological resonance. It was to continue in the series of "Crime and Punishment" (which began so magnificently with its double murder), "The Idiot" (in which the murder provides the culminating climax), "The Devils" (with its multiple murders and suicides). It was to be built around the death of two father-figures, the murder of the lecherous Fedor Pavlovich Karamazov and the quiet decease of the venerable Father Zosima.
Ultimate moment of intensity
Meanwhile Dostoevsky himself was making plans for a long life and a creative one. In 1877 he foresaw ten years of activity; (85) three years later (November 1880) he mentioned the possibility of twenty. (86) This would have brought him to the decent age of three score years and twenty.
But it was not to be. His own death was much nearer than anyone could have expected, the ultimate moment of intensity and fulfilment of which the earlier crises had been the prefiguration and the foretaste.
Earlier he had caused one of his characters (Kirillov in "The Devils") to speak haltingly of moments in this life when time is no longer needed, when time is no more: 'There are minutes, you reach minutes, and time suddenly stands still and will become eternal. ' His was a secular nirvana, the attainment of which Kirillov had registered in the simplest, most simplistic manner: 'I stopped the clock. It was twenty three to three. ' (87) In his own lifetime, such a moment of stasis had too often eluded the turbulent Dostoevsky. But when he died someone saw to it that his clock should stop. It was Wednesday 28 January, and the time was 8.38 p. m. The year was 1881.