DOSTOEVSKY AND "THE GOLDEN AGE"
Richard Peace, University of Hull
In the so called "banned chapter" of "The Devils" ("U Tikhona") Stavrogin describes an almost mystical experience which he had in Germany:
I dreamed a dream, which was completely unexpected for me, because
I had never had anything like it. In the gallery in Dresden there exists a painting by Claude Lorrain, which according to the catalogue, is, I think, "Acis and Galatea, " but I always called it "The Golden Age, " I don't myself know why. I had already seen it before, and now, three days ago, I had noticed it once more, on my journey through. It was this picture I dreamed of, but not as a picture, but as though it were something factually real (a kak budto k a k aj a - t o b y
l ' ).
It is - a part of the Greek archipelago, there are gentle blue waves, islands and cliffs, a flowering coastline, a magic panorama in the distance and a beckoning setting sun. You can't put it into words. Here, preserved in his memory, is the cradle of European man. Here were the first mythological scenes, his paradise on earth . . . Here there lived beautiful people (prekrasnye ljudi). They got up and went to sleep, happy and innocent. The groves were full of their happy songs. A great surplus of untapped energy went into love and naive joy. The sun bathed these islands and sea with its rays, rejoicing at its beautiful children. A wonderful dream! An elevated aberration! The most improbable of all the dreams there have been, and for which the whole of humanity has been devoting all its energies the whole of its life, for which it has sacrificed everything, for which people have been crucified and prophets killed, and without which nations do not want to live and even cannot die. It was as though I lived through all these sensations in that dream. I do not know what it was precisely I did dream, but the cliffs and the sea and the slanting rays of the setting sun - all this I still seemed to see when I woke up and opened my eyes, which for the first time in my life were literally bathed in tears. A feeling of happiness, as yet unknown to me, went through my heart, to the point where it even caused pain. It was already late evening, and through the window of my little room and the greenery of the flowers on the window sill a whole shaft of the bright slanting rays of the setting sun poured in and bathed me in light. I quickly closed my eyes again, as if yearning to make the dream which had passed return, but suddenly, as though in the middle of bright, bright, light, I saw some sort of tiny speck. It assumed a
form and suddenly I was plainly aware of a tiny little red spider. I immediately remembered it on a geranium leaf when the slanting rays of the setting sun also poured in in the same way. It was as though something sharp plunged into me and I raised myself and sat on the bed. . . Just as it happened then!)
I saw before me (oh, not in reality! If only, if only it were a real apparition!) I saw Matresha, emaciated and with feverish eyes, exactly as then, when she stood before me on my threshold, and shaking her head at me, lifted her tiny little fist at me. (1)
The same dream, inspired by the very same painting, is described almost word for word by another of Dostoevsky's wandering, westernised noblemen - Versilov in "A Raw Youth. " For both men the idyll glimpsed in a dream is almost immediately negated, though the negation takes different forms.
In the Waking world Stavrogin's dream of the Golden Age is blotted out by a symbol of personal guilt - the little red spider he watched as the fourteen year old Matresha committed suicide. For Versilov the sun setting on the first day of European man in his dream turns, in the waking world, into the sun setting on the last day of European man. Versilov himself comments: "Then particularly the ringing of a funeral bell seemed to be heard over Europe" and he says that he has not merely the Franco- Prussian war in: mind, or the burning of the art treasures of the Tuileries by the Paris Commune but his own sense that the whole face of the old European world will perish and that this to him, as a Russian European (russkijevrop e e c ), is inconceivable. (2)
A rnuch more extended interpretation of the dream of the Golden Age is to be found in a story first published in "The Writer's Diary" for 1877 - "The Dream of the Comic Man" ("Son smeshnogo cheloveka"). The landscape of the dream is the same, even though on this occasion the picture, of Claude Lorrain is? not referred to specifically. (3) In this account, however, the central figure does not merely observe the idyll as a dreamer. The phrase of the earlier versions: "it was as though I lived through all this sensation in that dream" (4) is given narrative substance. The comic man experiences the idyll directly by living among the people of the Golden Age. But unfortunately he brings with him the values of a "modern Russian progressive and vile St. Petersburger. " (sovremennyj russkij progressist i gnusnyj peterburzhec) He corrupts the people of the Golden Age! Under his influence they pass through all the successive stages of civilisation that Western Europe has itself gone through, so that the destruction of the idyll combines Versilov's premonition of "the sun setting on the last day of European man" with a sense of personal guilt not unlike that which suddenly confronts Stavrogin. Indeed the link with the personal guilt of Stavrogin, the failure of civilised westernised man to show "active love, " seems almost explicit. For it is after refusing to help a- little girl in distress that the comic man has his dream, as though in answer to this act of callous indifference. The experience of the dream
radically changes his attitude, and the final words of the story are marked out typographically from what has gone before: "But that little girl I searched and found . . . And I shall go! I shall go!"
At the beginning of the story the comic man is revealed as a nihilist. His philosophy of vse ravno is not unlike the moral indifference to which Stavrogin admits. In similar fashion, Stavrogin, who is the figurehead for the nihilists in "The Devils, " speculates about the sense of immunity one might feel on earth, if one had done something foolish or criminal on the moon, (5) but the ethical implications of such space travel are more fundamental for "The Dream of the Comic Man. " This nihilist i s transported to another world (if only in a dream) and the life he sees there, and his own actions on that planet, deeply affect him once he has come down to earth.
He describes himself as a trichina in the effect that he has had on the lives of those who live on that far away planet. Trichina is a worm affecting pigs (as well as men) and this self-identification on the part of the comic man suggests that same allegory of "nihilism" which lies behind "The Devils" - the parable of the Gadarene swine. It also suggests another dream - the one experienced by Raskolnikov in the Epilogue of "Crime and Punishment": the dream of a disease sweeping Europe, an epidemic of nihilism, which is also ascribed to trichina. (6)
In offering his "Golden Age" as a refutation of nihilism, Dostoevsky, as elsewhere in his writings, is engaged in obvious polemics, and it is further significant that the perfect man (prekrasnyj chelovek) is presented through the vehicle of a dream; for the perfect society of the nihilists (using that term loosely) had also been presented in a dream: Vera Pavlovna's Fourth Dream in "What is to be done?" For the characters of Chernyshevskij's novel, the golden age can only be in the future. As Kirsanov tells Lopukhov:
The golden age - it will be, Dmitrij, that we know, but it is still ahead. That of iron is passing, has almost passed, but that of gold has not yet come. (7)
Rather strangely the symbolic metal of this golden age turns out to be not gold but aluminium. Vera Pavlovna's dream reveals the perfect society of the future to be housed in crystal palaces (at one point Chernyshevskij actually uses the phrase khrustal'nyi dvorec) of cast iron and glass, or aluminium and glass. Such architecture does not as yet exist, although Chernyshevskij concedes that there is a hint at it in "the palace which stands on Sydenham Hill. " (8)
"What is to be done?" was published in 1863 and in the same year Dostoevsky was bringing out his "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" in which the real Crystal Palace in London is interpreted, not as embodying a great architectural and scientific achievement, but as some sort of bogus ideal for humanity which must be resisted:
The Crystal Palace, the Universal Exhibition . . . Yes, the exhibition is striking. You feel the terrible force which has here united, as one flock, all that countless number of people who have come from all over the world. You are conscious of a gigantic idea; you feel that here something has already been achieved, that there is a victory and triumph here. Yet, it is as though you begin to be frightened of something or other. However detached you might be, for some reason you feel afraid. Yet, you think, is it not in fact an ideal which has been achieved? Is there not an end here? Is this not, after all the 'one flock' ? Should not one, in fact, accept this as complete truth and be finally dumbfounded. All this is so triumphant, victorious, proud -that the soul seems cramped and confined. You look at these hundreds of thousands, at these millions of people, flowing here meekly from all corners of the earth - people who have come with one thought, who are crowding into this colossal palace with quiet resolution, and you feel that here something has finally been achieved; it has been achieved and here is an end. It is a scene from the Bible, reminiscent of Babylon; a prophecy from the Apocalypse fulfilled before one's eyes. You feel that an eternal amount of spiritual resistance and rejection is called for, in order not to give in and submit to the impression it makes; in order not to bow down before the fact and turn Baal into an idol - that is not to accept as one's ideal that which exists. (9)
The power of this image for Dostoevsky is undoubted, yet he feels that the Crystal Palace must be rejected, whatever it may cost in spiritual energy to do so. A dozen or so pages later he tentatively puts forward another possible Utopia, one not based on reason and science, but on the notion of men loving one another. The individual surrenders his rights to his brother men and they in return guarantee his individuality and freedom ("Love one another, and all this shall be added unto you. "):
Here, you see, you have indeed a Utopia, Gentlemen! Everything is based on feeling, on nature and not on reason. It is you see, even a sort of humiliation for reason. What do you think? Is this Utopia or not? (10)
Compared with the impassioned flood of his musings on the Crystal Palace, the presentation of this alternative Utopia seems very tame, almost shamefaced. He has every right to feel hesitant: what he is proposing is little more than a romantic cliche, a rudimentary Rousseau-ism. Indeed Rousseau, with his cult of feeling and Voltaire, the champion of reason, seem to assume almost emblematic significance for a debate going on within Dostoevsky himself. Visiting the Pantheon in Paris, he is struck by a paradox about these two writers, which reveals a very Dostoevskian truth on the coexistence of warring opposites:
How strange. . . of these two great men, one all his life called the other a liar and a wicked man, and the first called the second a mere fool. Yet here they come together almost side by side. (11)
The debate is carried on in "Notes from Underground" where that reasoning anti-rationalist, the supreme paradoxalist, attacks a Utopia based on science and human reason, but offers nothing in its place. This lack is attributed to the activities of the censor, but there is also, perhaps, something more fundamental. For the Utopia which Dostoevsky rejects he has an artistic image; it is once more the Crystal Palace. But for the Utopia he could accept, the image has not yet been found, and in a writer who thinks in images this is a serious artistic flaw. To substitute bare platitudes about "love" is scarcely adequate, after all Chernyshevs-kij's "Crystal Palace" is also based on love. Vera Pavlovna's Fourth Dream begins by rejecting successive ages in the past (primitive nomads, ancient Athens and the chivalrous Middle Ages) and rejects them precisely because of the inadequacy of their concept of love. (12) Vera Pavlovna then goes on to dream of a golden age in the future. By contrast Dostoevsky's heroes dream of one in the past - a Utopia for which there is now an image: "Acis and Galatea" by Claude Lorrain. But whereas Vera Pavlovna's
dream shows sexual love developing
through the ages, what the comic man witnesses is the progressive decline of
brother1y love from its original
The polemical aspects of the theme of the Golden Age are obviously important. Yet, as often in Dostoevsky's writing, positive ideas are conditioned by what he rejects. In "The Dream of the Comic Man" we come close to a quintessential expression of Dostoevsky's positive thought. Such a view may seem extreme, particularly as the values of the dream are not religious in any conventional sense. The bliss of the Golden Age is that of a pure, all-permeating love which links man with the whole of nature, the whole of the universe:
They showed me their trees, and I could not understand with what degree of love they regarded them; it was as though they were conversing with creatures like themselves. And you know it would perhaps not be wrong to say that they did, in fact, speak to them. Yes they had discovered their language, and I am convinced that the trees understood them. They looked on the whole of nature in the same way - the animals which lived peaceably with them did not attack them and loved them, won over by the love of these people themselves. They pointed to the stars and talked to me about them, telling me something which I could not understand, but I am convinced that they were in some way in contact with these heavenly stars, not merely in thought but in some vital way. Oh these people did not strain after making me understand them, they loved me without that. (13)
There is something close to pantheism in this sense of universal adoration (the nearest it comes to Christian doctrine is to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi). Yet here are people for whom religion seems unnecessary:
They scarcely understood me when I asked about eternal life, but evidently were so convinced about it without any need for reflection, that the question never arose. They had no temples, but they maintained a fundamental, vital, uninterrupted union with the Whole of the universe. They had no faith, but they had a firm knowledge that when their earthly joy was full to the limits of their earthly nature, then an even greater broadening of contact with the Whole of nature would come for them, both for the living and the dead. (14)
Such values are in essence antithetical to conventional religion. These people have no temples and no faith. It is only when they have become corrupted that they build temples, pray and talk of the merciful judge who will judge them. The need for religion is a mark of their fall. Indeed the view of man as a religious animal, which the story presents, is strangely close to Feuerbach's view in his "Essence of Christianity": "With Christianity man lost the capability of conceiving himself as part of Nature, of the universe. " (15)
Positive Christian ideas in Dostoevsky's art are expressed through Zosima in "The Brothers Karamazov. " Yet here, too, the theme of nature has a dominant role. Zosima describes how he once spent a night on a river bank in the company of a simple peasant lad:
We fell to talking about the beauty of God's world and about its great mystery. Every blade of grass, every little beetle, every ant, every golden bee, everything so amazingly knows its own course even though it has no mind: it witnesses God's mystery and is itself continually fulfilling it. And I saw the heart of the dear youth was filled with enthusiasm; he confessed to me that he loved the forest and the forest birds. He was a bird-catcher; he understood all their calls and could bring to him any bird he wanted. 'I know of nothing better than to be in the forest, ' he said, 'everything is good. ' 'That is true, ' he replied, 'Everything is good and wonderful, because everything is the truth. ' And I said to him, 'Look at a horse, a great animal which is close to man, or at an ox which feeds man, and works for him, an animal that is bowed down and pensive. Look at their faces: what gentleness! What lack of malice there is in their faces! What trust and what beauty! It is touching, even, to realise that they are without sin; for everything is perfect; everything, apart from man, is sinless, and Christ was with them even before he was with us. ' 'But surely, ' asks the boy, 'how can it be that Christ is with them?' 'How can it be otherwise,' I tell him, 'for the word is for all, for all creation and for all creatures. Every little leaf strives towards the word, sings praises to God, weeps to Christ unknown to itself, fulfils this by the mystery of its sinless existence. ' (16)
Thus Zosima regards the whole of nature as good, with the exception of man: "Everything is perfect; everything, apart from man, is sinless, " and we see from "The Dream of the Comic Man" that the Golden Age was a period when man himself was an integral and unquestioning part of universal goodness.
Nevertheless the "orthodoxy" of Zosima's ideas and practices is challenged within the monastery itself. He is denouced by Ferapont, and the strong emphasis on the beauty and goodness of nature in his teachings seems in danger of passing over into a pre-Christian cult of the earth - he instructs his followers to fall down and kiss the earth. The motif is a recurrent one in Dostoevsky's writings. In "Crime and Punishment" Sonja calls on Raskolnikov to fall down and kiss the ground at the crossroads. In "The Devils" Marija Lebjadkina is told by a heretic banished to the monastery that the madonna is damp mother earth (mat' syra zemlja) and that she must fall down and kiss the earth and water it with her tears. (17) The motif is present, too, in "The Dream of the Comic Man, " who does not tell the people of the Golden Age about the earth from which he has come, but falls down in their presence and kisses the earth on which they live.
In this act of kissing the earth (of what is in fact another world), we have the elements of Alesha's mystical experience after the death of Zosima. He, too, fell down, kissed the earth, and felt that he was in touch with other worlds. The Golden Age of which the comic man dreams is itself another world - that very star which he had earlier seen on his way home through the streets of St. Petersburg, and which had then seemed to confirm his nihilism and strengthen his resolve to commit suicide. But this is another world where the people are themselves in touch with other worlds, and the comic man's sudden contact with this other world of the Golden Age opens his eyes to the possibilities of life on his own earth.
If "The Dream of the Comic Man" is a sort of extended parable on Zosima's teaching about other worlds, then not only does the element of earth worship appear as un-Christian, but the doctrine of other worlds is also of doubtful Orthodox validity. The idea of the existence of other worlds was condemned by the Holy Synod in the eighteenth century, and the church was mocked for this in Lornonosov's anti-clerical poem "Hymn to the Beard" ("Gimn borode"). The synod replied in 1757 by requesting the empress to issue an ukase which unquestionably had Lomonosov in its sights: "in order that none henceforth shall dare to write or print anything either of the multitude of worlds or of anything else in opposition to the sacred faith or in disagreement with honourable morals, under the penalty of most severe punishment. " (18)
Although some four years later Lomonosov himself attempted to justify the
concept of the "multitude of worlds" by quoting texts of Basil the Great and
John of Damascus, the position of the Holy Synod on this issue is nevertheless
Further problems are raised by the painting which Dostoevsky identifies with the dream of the Golden Age. It has a mythological subject (both the dreams of Stavrogin and Versilov state: "Here were the first mythological
scenes") yet the myth of Acis and Galatea hardly seems consonant with the dream it appears to evoke. In the first place the setting is not Greece, as Dostoevsky supposes, but Sicily, the slopes of Mt. Etna. Nor does it depict man living communally in a state of oneness with nature - but a man and a woman, Acis and Galatea, in mutual adoration, oblivious of the world around them, and actually screened off from the nature which forms the background of the picture by a rudimentary tent-like shelter.
There are, moreover, details of which Dostoevsky hardly seems aware: little cupids and boats on the sea. (20) Ovid, from whom the story of Acis and Galatea is taken, tells us that the only reason that boats were able to pass unchallenged was because of the effect Galatea had on another figure. The Cyclops, Polypheme, who inhabited this coast line, was also in love with her and was so distracted that:
His unstaunched thirst for blood is quenched: ships may pass
And repass safely. (21)
This ogre of jealousy is actually in the picture, sitting up on the cliffs behind the couple, and we know from the myth that he will hurl a rock at Acis and kill him. Here then is Dostoevsky's conception of the Golden Age: a plot of passionate and unrestrained love, jealousy and violence against the backdrop of a volcano - a plot not unlike a typical Dostoevskian novel! Claude has caught the scene at an idyllic moment of repose, but it is an idyll soon cruelly and violently to be shattered. Curiously, this also corresponds with Dostoevsky's own presentation of the Golden Age. In the dreams of Stavrogin, Versilov and the comic man, the idyll is glimpsed only to be shattered. It is destroyed by the imperfections of man himself: Stavrogin's personal guilt; Versilov's sense of a disintegrating civilisation; the corruption brought to the idyll by the comic man himself.
The ideal of "paradise on earth" negated by man's own imperfections brings us back to Notes from Underground. The underground man rejects the Crystal Palace on arguments based on the nature of man: "Man loves to create and to lay down roads, that cannot be contested, but why then does he also passionately love destruction and chaos? " (22) Although the underground man denies the Crystal Palace in the hope of something better, it is obvious that this "ill, malicious and unattractive man" will himself shatter every image of perfection he is offered, most of all that tentative Utopia put forward in "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions" -the Utopia based on brotherhood and love.
It is this tragic dichotomy of idyll and chaos to which Claude's painting gives visual expression. The picture is clearly in two parts. The foreground with its idealisation of a human relationship is separated from the larger panorama of nature by an inlet of the sea, and in this background lurks another human shape, lonely and grotesque, an embodiment of malice about to destroy what it cannot attain - the very paradigm of a central Dostevskian dilemma.
The comic man, too, has the role of Poypheme in his own dream of the Golden Age, but even though he knows that he himself destroyed the idyll, and that after all it was only a dream, he nevertheless believes passionately in its reality. The fact that to others he may seem prey to an hallucination does not matter, he has been afforded a vivid insight which cannot be taken from him. Such a defiant view is a striking parallel of Myshkin's attitude to the mystic experience which precedes his epileptic fits: "What does it matter that it is illness? How does it affect the matter that is an abnormal state of tension, if its result, if this moment of sensation recalled and examined later in a state of health, reveals itself as the highest degree of harmony and beauty, gives an hitherto unheard-of and undreamed-of feeling of completion, of a sense of proportion, of reconciliation and of an ecstatic, prayerful fusion with the very highest synthesis of life? " (23)
This, we know, is Dostoevsky's own experience of the epileptic fit. A moment of perfection, harmony and beauty perceived at the very point of the onset of destructive chaos. It is this, too, which the dichotomy of Claude's picture expresses so clearly: the idyll of the foreground is menaced by incipient chaos from the background. The picture is, in this sense, emblematic of the antithetical experiences contained in the epileptic fit.
Myshkin feels unable to put his positive message into words, and in this he is at one with the comic man: "After my dream I was at a loss for words. At least all the important words, the most necessary ones. " (24) Nevertheless, of the two verbal points which he does make at the end of the story, one goes back to the tentative Utopia based on love, which had been advanced in "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions": "The important thing - love others as yourself, that's the important thing and it's everything, absolutely nothing more is needed" ; the second, a negative point, takes up the polemic waged in "Notes from Underground" against the corrosive, reflective consciousness of civilised man:
Consciousness of life is higher than life, knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness. That's what one must fight against! and I shall do. (25)
The positive message seems trite, as the comic man is the first to admit: "But after all, it's only an old truth, which has been repeated and read a billion times, but it hasn't taken on! " In "The Golden Age in one's Pocket, " published in the "Writer's Diary" of 1876 Dostoevsky had returned to the theme of realising this age-old dream. He describes his disillusionment with the false, constrained behaviour of those at a society ball (in contrast to the children's ball which preceded it) and maintains that if only these grown-ups would realise their full beauty and potential as human beings; realise that each one is cleverer than Voltaire, more sensitive than Rousseau, then the Golden Age would immediately come about. "Surely, surely, " he exclaims, "the Golden Age does not just exist on china cups? " (26)
Put into words, and this time they are those of Dostoevsky himself, the message is insubstantial, naive, trite, but it is not words which ultimately confirm the possibility of the Golden Age: it is a direct experience communicated by a picture.
The title of Claude's picture contains a hint, of which Dostoevsky may, or may not, have been aware; for the name Galatea evokes another myth, also to be found in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" ; that of art taking on real life in the story of Pygmalion and his statue, which, through love, turned into the perfect woman Galatea. Image becoming reality is the strange property attributed to Claude's picture in the dreams of Versilov, Stavrogin and the comic man. It is not mere art, it is alive: "kak budto kakaja-to byl" ("as though it were something factually real").
Writing of another famous statue, the Apollo Belvedere, in his earlier polemic conducted against Dobroljubov on the nature of aesthetic experience, Dostoevsky had asked:
Who knows, perhaps a kind of internal change takes place in man at the impact of such beauty, at such a nervous shock; a kind of movement of particles or galvanic current that in one moment transforms what has been before into something different, a piece of ordinary iron into a magnet. (27)
Art, he suggests, has the power to act on men's minds in a fundamental way: it can transform ordinary iron into a magnet - base metal into a golden age. "Beauty will save the world" is one of the thoughts ascribed to Myshkin, yet he knows the terrible reality behind his own mystic glimpse of beauty and harmony. Dmitrij Karamazov also knows that beauty is a terrible force, that it contains irreconcilable opposites - much as the gulf which separates Acis and Galatea from the Cyclops and Etna (28) is contained within a single aesthetic composition. Nevertheless, we are told more than once by Dostoevsky's characters that true harmony comes from the visual perception of beauty, the ability to look and see:
Do you know, I do not know how one can pass a tree and not be happy that you see it; speak to a man and not be happy that you love him? Oh! I just cannot express. . . and how many things at each step; such beautiful things, which even the most despairing of men finds beautiful. Look at a child; look at God's sunset; look at the grass as it grows; look into the eyes which look at you and love you! (29)
Significantly, Myshkin's words are uttered at that brief mystical moment which precedes his epileptic fit. Moreover, he mentions elements also found in Claude's picture: the trees; the sunset and the eyes that love. Thus it is by looking at beauty that man can be happy; Zosima also exhorts his followers to look at the beauty and harmony of the created world.
Pictures played a large part in Dostoevsky's own sense of well-being and harmony. Anna Grigorevna's memoirs and diaries eloquently testify to the
importance of art galleries during the years they spent abroad. In particular she records in her diary how Dostoevsky in a post-epileptic state of irritation insisted on standing on a chair in the Dresden art gallery in order to get a better look at the Sistine Madonna. Yet, on the other hand, her memoirs reveal that he was so overwhelmed by Hans Holbein's painting of Christ in Basle, that after he had stood looking at it for a long time, Anna noticed the terrified look on his face which she associated with the onset of an epileptic fit. (30) Both these paintings are given particular symbolic weight in Dostoevsky's writing, and the pictures which recur are all masterpieces of Western European art. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky himself does not look at them with a Western eye, but rather as an Orthodox Christian looks at an icon: they are not mere pictures on religious themes, they are a visual focus on a whole spiritual world beyond. It is in this sense that paintings for Dostoevsky are icons - an observation equally true for the non-religious painting "Acis and Galatea. " Yet, if this is the case, it is surely anomalous that icons themselves figure so briefly and infrequently in his writing. Their flickering lights, along with the rats, keep old man Karamazov company at night; Versilov symbolically breaks an old believers' icon in two; Kirillov points to an icon of the Saviour; but the real iconographic experience in the novels comes from the masters of the West. It is their works which create a higher spiritual harmony, or in the case of Holbein's picture, spiritual discord.
It is strange, given Dostoevsky's apparent obsession with the "Russian Christ, " that real Russian icons do not figure more prominently in his work. Yet, equally strange, given the ideological weight attached to the beauty of nature by Zosima, Markel, Myshkin (even the comic man himself), is the lack of sustained natural description in Dostoevsky's novels. It may be objected that this is because they are set in towns rather than in the countryside. Yet whenever Raskolnikov sees one of St. Petersburg's most impressive views, he feels not happiness, but an unaccountable sadness, (31) and we have already seen that Myshkin, exhorting his hearers to look at the beauty of nature and be happy, suddenly falls down in an epileptic fit. There is, however, ample scope for natural description in "The Devils" and "The Brothers Karamazov" since they are set, not in the capital cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, but in small provincial towns. The role of natural description in "The Devils" is particularly striking. It is scarcely the backdrop of joy, be it Stavrogin's strange rain-drenched garden with its crooked paths, or the gloomy park in which Shatov is murdered, and when the governor Von Lembke drives out into the country and picks flowers - it marks the onset of his madness. (32)
Moreover, nature as it is described in "The Dream of the Comic Man" lacks artistic substantiality. It is stylised: grass is not t r a v a - it is the poetic folk-word
m u r a v a . Indeed, Dostoevsky's presentation of nature surprisingly is less poetic, less ecstatic, than Chernyshevskij's description of nature at the opening of Vera Pavlovna's "Fourth Dream": a description carried along lyrically by quotations from Goethe's "Mailied" (a device one might have thought more typical of Dostoevsky himself). (33)
The picture which Dostoevsky identifies with the Golden Age also treats nature in a rather academic, even forbidding, manner. Although there are two trees in the foreground, it seems significant that the real natural panorama is contained in the upper half of the picture, and that this is separated from the idealised figures in the foreground by the gulf of the sea. This "magic panorama in the distance" (as it is described in the dreams of Stavrogin and Versilov) is, in the picture itself, severe and forbidding with its gnarled rock faces, precipitous cliffs, and its volcano, but most forbidding of all is the one-eyed monster who sits in its midst. (34) Contrary to Dostoevsky's interpretation, the picture itself actually suggests that the people of the golden age are oblivious to nature, are physically separated from it, and above all that it is from the natural background that the real threat to their happiness will come.
Dostoevsky's attitude to nature confronts us with a paradox: on the one hand ideological ecstasy; on the other - terror, or at the very least descriptive awkwardness and reticence. Certain autobiographical hints may help shed some light on the problem. One of the first passages of natural description occurs in "Poor Folk" as part of Varvara Alekseevna's account of her childhood in the country. Commentators have seen this as based on Dostoevsky's own childhood experiences on his father's small estate. (35) Varvara describes the pleasures of the autumn, but says that if she lagged behind on a walk and found herself alone, she would begin to feel frightened, and would hear a voice whispering: "Run, run, child, don't be late - it will be terrifying here in a moment, run child! " She would then run, out of breath until she reached home with its happy, bustling, reassuring atmosphere. (36) This passage seems to look forward to the autobiographical story entitled "Peasant Marej" which appeared in the "Writer's Diary" in 1876. Here Dostoevsky recalls an incident on his father's small estate when he was nine years old. It was late August and he was walking alone in a wood when he suddenly heard a voice call out: "a wolf is running. " He ran in panic and sought comfort from a peasant -the peasant Marej of the title - who was ploughing nearby. (37) The call was, of course, an hallucination and Dostoevsky confesses that he had heard similar voices before. The whole incident seems to suggest an irrational fear of being alone in nature, and the contrary need for human contact and support.
It is man cutting himself off from others which is the cause of the decline of the Golden Age in "The Dream of the Comic Man. " It is also the evil against which Zosima warns:
ot'edinenie i uedinenie (the comic man refers to
obosoblenie). In Dostoevsky's novels men who cut themselves off from others, such as the underground man, Raskolnikov, Kirillov, become prey to extreme, negative, and destructive ideas. These are the intellectual hermits of the towns, but in the countryside it is possible to feel even more alone and a stranger, as Myshkin finds out amid the breathtaking natural scenery of Switzerland:
He looked for a long time in anguish. He remembered now how he had
stretched out his hands towards that, bright, endless blue and had cried. What tormented him was that he was a complete stranger to all this. (38)
It was, of course, physically dangerous for an epileptic like Myshkin to be alone in such wild surroundings, and Dostoevsky's strange ambiguity of response to nature may itself be conditioned by the epileptic experience. On the one hand it yielded that sense of harmony with the natural world and the whole universe in that brief moment before the fit itself, on the other there lurked real terror, even danger for the epileptic alone in nature without human succour.
Dostoevsky's novels are full of people. His characters need contact, and those of them who lose contact are lost themselves. A salient feature of his own life is the pressing need for companionship, but the stability he sought from marriage suffered constant threat from the destructive irrationality of his own personality, under the death-like blows of epilepsy. After the failure of his first marriage, the tempestuous affaire with Suslova, the rejection by Korvin-Krukovskaja, he ultimately found the stability he was seeking in his marriage to Anna Grigorevna Snitkina; but it was a harmony achieved after years of mental anguish, during which his young wife was put severely to the test.
If we look at Claude's picture again, we can see that what it celebrates is not a community of innocent men living in perfect harmony, as its interpretation in the three dreams would suggest. Its theme quite unambiguously is the idealised
love of a couple, and significantly, the woman appears to be kneeling in
adoration to the man. (39) Nor, like the people of the dream of the Golden Age,
are these lovers at one with nature: they are totally absorbed in each other,
and actually appear to have screened nature off. Yet the flimsy shelter they
have erected against the precipitous cliffs which loom behind them, offers no
real protection from that hostile force which lurks in the natural background.
At any moment the Cyclops' stone will strike.
Thus we have seen that the theme of the Golden Age, like much else in Dostoevsky's writing, is not without its polemical aspects, particularly as it is developed in "The Dream of the Comic Man. " Dostoevsky's dream of man living in perfect harmony must be set beside Vera Pavlovna's dream of Utopia in "What is to be Done?" But whereas for Chernyshevskij the conditioning image is the Crystal Palace in London, with its hint of a future age of science, Dostoevsky quite specifically rejects the Crystal Palace. His Utopia is based not on the progress of human reason, but on the retention of innocent primal feelings; for him the Golden Age is not in the future but in the past, and its image derives not from a construction of science but from a work of art.
Paintings for Dostoevsky have iconographic power. They are no mere presentations; they open up to a spiritual world beyond. The power of Claude's picture is such that it makes the harmony of the Golden Age a psychological reality - a beauty that could "save the world. " Nevertheless, it seems strange that Dostoevsky should identify the Golden Age with the myth of Acis and Galatea, and with a picture which has caught the idyll on the very eve of violent destruction. Yet, significantly, Dostoevsky himself seems incapable of presenting his own idyll in any other terms, as we clearly see from the three separate dreams of the Golden Age which the picture inspired.
At a conscious level of the allegory, destruction in all three dreams derives from the imperfect nature of civilised man, and there is more than a suggestion that a rejecting underground man skulks within the dreamer, much as the destructive Cyclops lurks within the picture itself. But the allegory operates also at a deeper and more personal level for Dostoevsky himself: the mystical glimpse of harmony and beauty before the sudden onset of chaos and oblivion is Dostoevsky's own experience of the epileptic fit, and the vividness of that perception could not be negated by the chaos which followed, even by the idea that it might itself be only a product of that chaos.
The objective details of Claude's picture are, in nearly every respect, at variance with their subjective reinterpretation as the "dream of the Golden Age" in the versions of Stavrogin, Versilov and the comic man. Nevertheless, the distortion and suppression of detail has subjective significance for Dostoevsky himself: it hints at private hopes and fears. At this level the picture reveals the beauty and the terror of a fragile moment of glimpsed perfection; the ambiguity of a nature which offers the hope of harmony, but also the threat of ogres, volcanoes and wolves. Above all the picture celebrates an intimate, loving relationship and its flimsy shelter: the only shield against the violence and destruction which could at any moment erupt.
A coda might be added. Gogol also depicted the idyll of the perfect love of a couple surrounded by nature in his "Old World Landowners. " He too linked his figures through painting (hypothetical in this case) to a mythological subject to be found in Ovid's "Metamorphoses. " Thus his narrator says: "If I were a painter and wanted to depict Philemon and Baucis on a canvas, 1 would never choose any other original but them. " (40) Gogol's idyll is shattered by forces lurking outside the still centre of the couple's world, forces in nature itself, represented by the omen of the cat which escapes to the wild tomcats in the woods. But the shattering of the idyll (again through death) evokes a personal reminiscence from the narrator. He recalls how in childhood he would frequently hear a voice calling him when he was alone in the garden and everything was still. In terror he would then run until he was reassured by meeting someone.
This personal note is strikingly close to the experience related in "Peasant Marej. " Indeed the idylls of both Dostoevsky and Gogol reveal a similar
substratum of private anguish. Gogol's view of an ideal society is put forward in "Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends" ; it is Christian, feudal, authoritarian. Its values are clearly those of the past, and "The Old World Landowners" may be seen as its earlier artistic expression; yet, strangely, as in Dostoevsky's Golden Age, religion here has almost no part. Although in many basic respects these two idealised worlds are completely different, what is significant is that both authors in portraying their respective idylls are at the same time giving oblique expression to their most secret fears.