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Fifth part



3. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Fully-Renewed Epic

For Lukács, the works of Dostoevsky are so decidedly epic that he cannot include them in his analysis on novels. “He belongs to the new world,”1 the world of which we can see glimpses in the works of Tolstoy and a precursor in the work of Gogol’. Dostoevsky’s style developed at a time in which Gogol’ and Tolstoy had already established a strong precedent of subverting the novel form, and his strongly Slavophilic motives encouraged this (although he was not always in complete agreement with the Slavophile school.)2 Out of all the writers addressed by Lukács it is Dostoevsky who most clearly evaded the problems of the novel form.

Dostoevsky’s career as a writer began auspiciously with his celebrated 1846 novella, Poor Folk, and continued with his somewhat less appreciated story The Double. Dostoevsky’s early work is not very strongly Slavophilic or epic; while he was not actually a Westernizer at this point, neither did he have the distinctly anti-Western agenda that was necessary to problematize the novel form. However, Dostoevsky’s early writings do show continuity with his later works in that they demonstrate a profound sympathy for the impoverished that would remain throughout his life.

At this point in his career Dostoevsky was active in the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of liberal intellectuals who were influenced by the writings of the French socialist Charles Fourier. The radical opinions of this group led to their arrest in 1849, and Dostoevsky was exiled in Siberia until 1854.3 Dostoevsky’s Siberian period inspired a major shift in his philosophy and outlook. Whereas before Siberia he had been an advocate of social reform according to Western ideas, he now rejected those ideas as incompatible with real life, despite their Utopian attractiveness.4 And if before he had been only sympathetic to the lot of the poor and the peasantry, he now began to hold them up as an ideal of unspoiled wisdom and childlike faith. Instead of remaining the erudite intellectual who embraced his Western education and published translations of Sand and Balzac, Dostoevsky emerged from exile a devoutly Orthodox admirer of Russian culture. He describes some of this transition in The Peasant Marey, a story from the first volume of A Writer’s Diary, which frames an interaction with one of his family’s peasants as a first-person memory during his Siberian exile. The story depicts exactly the kind of nationalistic admiration of totality that would require a complete reinvention of the novel.

At the story’s beginning, it is the second day of Easter Week and the prisoners are enjoying the holiday with riotous, violent behavior and contraband alcohol. Dostoevsky is disheartened by their behavior, and a Polish fellow-prisoner is utterly disgusted: “Je hais ces brigands!”5 he exclaims. Dostoevsky retires to his bunk and has an extremely vivid, almost involuntary memory, in which all the nuances of a childhood experience present themselves. In this memory, he is nine years old, enjoying the last few weeks of summer on his family’s country estate, before returning to boarding school. While playing on the outskirts of the forest, he hears a shout: “Wolf! Wolf!” He screams in terror, and runs toward a peasant who is plowing a field. The peasant treats him with completely genuine and altruistic tenderness, making the sign of the cross over him and assuring him that there are no wolves in the area. Dostoevsky realizes that he must have imagined the shout, and returns to his play.6

Back in the prison barracks, the memory of Marey’s natural goodness of heart reassures the grown Dostoevsky of the essential value of Russian culture and the Russian people:

Of course, anyone would try to reassure a child, but in that isolated meeting it was as though something very different had happened. If I had been his own son, his face could not have shone with a brighter look of love, and who could have made him do that? He was our serf, on our land, and I was his master’s son; no one would learn how he tenderly touched my face; no one would reward him for it. Perhaps he had a special fondness for little children? There are such people. The meeting was surrounded by nothing but empty field, and only God saw, from above, what profound and enlightened human feeling and what delicate, almost feminine tenderness can fill the heart of a rough, brutally ignorant Russian serf, who at that time did not even have an inkling or hope for his freedom. Tell me, is this not what Konstantin Aksakov meant, when he spoke of the highly developed nature of our people?
So, when I got out of my bunk and looked around, I recall that suddenly I could see these miserable people (the unruly prisoners) with completely different eyes; and that suddenly, all the hatred and anger in my heart had miraculously disappeared. This is how I now looked at the faces of the people I had just met. This disgraced and shaven man, branded on his face, drunk and hoarsely bawling out a song, might perhaps be the very same Marey—after all, I cannot look into his heart. That evening, I met M-cki (the Pole) again. Wretched man! He had no memories of any Mareys; he could have no other view of these people than “Je hais ces brigands!” No, the Poles had to bear a greater burden than we!7

Marey’s totality is palpable; in fact, it is inseparable from the unconscious goodness that guides him to behave admirably: he clearly does not mentally catalogue the reasons why it might be morally right or personally advantageous to comfort a frightened child. It is this unconscious, perfectly sincere goodness in totality that Dostoevsky identifies as characteristically Russian, and he concludes that even though it may be obscured by harsh circumstances, it remains superior to the artificiality of Western cultures. This essential goodness and totality became Dostoevsky’s ideal of Russia, leading to the problematization of the interiority of the novel.
As a result, in many of Dostoevsky’s works, interiority is a subject to be consciously decried. He frequently displays a shocking, truly unmistakable awareness of interiority, not only depicting it in his characters but sometimes even allowing them to address it. The prime example of this is in his 1864 short novel, Notes from Underground. The primary subject of this book is the inner musings of an unnamed protagonist who is as tortured as he is loathsome. Being educated, the protagonist cannot escape his interiority, but this does not prevent him from recognizing it as an element of his misery. He also ridicules Fourierism and other Western philosophies, but his first philosophical assertion condemns what he calls an “overdose of consciousness:”

I swear to you, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness—a real, genuine disease. For normal human needs, ordinary human consciousness is more than enough; it would suffice to have half, even a quarter of the share that falls to the cultivated man of our unhappy nineteenth century, especially he who has the misfortune to live in St Petersburg, the most abstract and premeditated city on the whole earth. (Cities may be intentional or unintentional.) It would be enough, for example, to have just the allotment of consciousness in which all “direct persons” and “men of action” live.8

At first, it may appear that this “disease of consciousness” refers simply to the exaggerated sensitivity to unpleasantness that would result from a heightened consciousness of the senses. But the later sentences in the paragraph eliminate that possibility: the narrator is truly asking, “Who can evade the relentless emergence of interiority, the inevitable development of an isolated individual self, when one must lead a cultivated existence and even lives within a city that is a work of conscious art?” Interiority has here been problematized to an astounding degree; it is not only a subject but the subject, and it is not praised as an element of cultured living but criticized from within as a disease of the spirit, an origin of malcontent.

But to recognize and criticize interiority does not in itself create the renewed epic. Tolstoy criticizes interiority through his anguished and lonely characters, yet does not fully cross over into epic because his answer to interiority is not of this world. Dostoevsky’s nationalism and Orthodoxy, though, led him to offer the solution that totality could be regained on earth, in an immersion of the self in a life of dedication to the people, to Christ, and to the soil. Orthodoxy in its fullest expression was for Dostoevsky inseparable from sacrificial service to others, with the goal being to finally lose all distinction between the self and the beneficiary of one’s service—to sympathize so perfectly with one’s brothers that it becomes truly natural to rejoice in their benefit as one would in one’s own. This kind of perfect unselfishness is displayed in all of Dostoevsky’s “positively beautiful individuals,”9 and it is manifest in the untouched and divinely perfect totality of the otherworldly people in the story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Dostoevsky often preferred to illustrate his answers to philosophical problems through story rather than through direct description (this is the approach taken by Crime and Punishment, for example), but in The Brothers Karamazov, an entire chapter allows the wise and saintly elder monk Zosima to describe the answer to interiority on earth in beautiful detail. Of note is that Zosima describes his life before religion as having been dissolute and full of mental agony, a life in which interiority was no doubt present. He also tells of his brother Markel, once an atheist and a Westernizer, who attained spiritual resolution and serene totality in the weeks before his early death. As Zosima’s exhortations make clear, totality for Dostoevsky is not pure ideal, not out of reach once interiority emerges; but a goal that can be attained in life:

Brothers, do not fear man’s sin; love a person even in his sin, for this is divine love and the very height of love on earth. Love all God’s creation, down to every grain of sand, every leaf—every ray of God’s love. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you will only love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things; you will comprehend it entire in a single instant, while still gaining greater knowledge of it without ceasing, day by day. At last you will come to love the whole world with a complete and universal love...My brother asked forgiveness of the birds; it seems pointless, but it is true; because everything is like an ocean, everything flows and comes into contact with everything else and a touch to one part can touch the other end of the globe. It may seem madness to beg the birds for forgiveness, but life would be better for the birds and every creature around you if you were better than you are now, if only by a single drop. Everything is like an ocean, I tell you. Then you will begin to pray to the birds, to be totally consumed by the ecstasy of all-embracing love, and pray that they would forgive your sins. Value this ecstasy, no matter how senseless it seems to men...

If evil people distress you and move you to indignation and grief, or even to revenge, flee this feeling above all else. Immediately go and look for suffering, as if you yourself had committed the crime. Endure and accept your torments, and extinguish the malice in your heart; then you will understand that you too are guilty, because you might have shone a light on the evildoers, even as an isolated light of blamelessness; yet you did not. If you had been such a light, you would have illuminated your path as well as that of the evildoer, and the one who committed the evil would perhaps never have taken that road. And even if your light is shining, yet despite that people do not turn from their evil, then remain steadfast and do not doubt the power of the heavenly light; believe that if they are not saved, then their children will be saved, for your light will not die even after you are long dead. The righteous man departs, but his light remains; salvation is always founded upon the death of a Savior. Men beat their prophets and reject them, but they love their martyrs and honor those whom they tortured. Work for the whole; work for the future. Recognition is of no consequence, for even your reward in this earth is already great: it is the spiritual joy that only the righteous can know. Fear not the rich, or the strong, but be wise and always winsome. Know the marks of these times; study these things. Whenever you are alone, pray. Love to throw yourself to the ground and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with a tireless, consuming love; love everyone and everything; seek out rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with tears of joy and love those tears. Do not be ashamed of ecstasy; prize it, for it is a great and precious gift of God, given only to the elect.10

Zosima notes that this renewed spiritual totality can be gained not only in the life of the monk, but also within the world: he sends his beloved protégé, Alexei Karamazov, to “sojourn as a monk in the world.” It is clearly possible to strive productively towards a renewed totality of the spirit regardless of one’s situation; and indeed as the book closes it appears that several of the characters hope to attain this goal. (Dostoevsky intended to write a sequel to The Brothers Karamazov, but died before this was possible; thus the characters’ ultimate ends are unclear. The end of the extant book is resoundingly hopeful, however.) Dostoevsky’s awareness of interiority allowed him to criticize it, and his Slavophilic love for Russian culture and Russian Orthodoxy allowed him to depict an immersion in the life of Russia as the ultimate answer to the problem of interiority.



1 Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel, p. 152. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
2 Lantz, Kenneth. The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia, p. 399.
3 Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849, pp. 239-257. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
4 Lantz, Kenneth. The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia, pp. 145-146.
5 French: “I despise these brigands!”
6 Dostoevsky notes that such hallucinations were common during his childhood, and that they eventually passed.
7 Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich: Complete Collected Works in Thirty Volumes (Полное собрание сочинений в тридцати томах), volume 22: Diary of a Writer (Дневник писателя), p. 49. Leningrad: Science Publishing, Leningrad Department (Издательство «наука», Ленинградское отделение). 1981.
8 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья), p. 7. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1982.
9 This is a type of realistically human and yet morally-blameless character that Dostoevsky strove to depict numerous times in his novels; the term is taken from one of his letters. Dostoevsky saw the creation of these characters as a good deed and a service to mankind, and yet almost impossible; because according to his Orthodox beliefs, the only purely good man to live on earth has been Christ. See Mochulsky, Konstantin: Dostoevsky, His Life and Work, p. 845. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
10 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы), vol. 1, pp. 416-421. Paris: YMCA-Press, 1946.


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