I am rather sure that I was not the only member of my generation (which came of age during the early 30’s) to have felt especially rewarded in coming, suddenly, on the novels of Dostoevsky. But for what were we being rewarded? What direction of thought had we already taken which made our discovery of his novels the confirmation of some judgment already forming in us? As I look back, it seems to me that what I find my own experience to have been, I can assume some others to have had.
Now, what I realized on my first reading of The Brothers Karamazov—in 1931 or ’32—was that here was the model for a kind of narrative writing that was of the highest seriousness, and yet without any trace of moralism: moreover, it was not aesthetically distanced from lived experience as were the novels of Flaubert, or the Ulysses of James Joyce. While there were some real innovations of form in Dostoevsky’s great novel, the intent of the novelist was clearly not to be innovative without some larger purpose than invention for its own sake. Whatever this novelist invented, it appeared, had been required for the clarity and meaning of the story he was telling; never had his purpose been to exhibit his skill as a storyteller. Thus, Dostoevsky was able to represent to one who read him in the 30’s an escape from the other two possibilities for narrative art which past literature offered as paradigms—the novels with a moral bent of Tolstoy and of Zola on the one hand, and the novels of Flaubert and Joyce, exalting the aesthetic, on the other.
Was it the same interest which led Andre Gide, of an earlier generation (he, like us, had a period of pro-Communism), to admire Dostoevsky and to devote to him one of the best works yet written on the Russian novelist? Here I am not at all sure. What can be said, though, is that Dostoevsky strongly influenced Gide, so that the latter’s novel, The Counterfeiters, is a refined version of Dostoevsky’s narrative style. In fact, the style of The Counterfeiters is so perfected that I would go so far as to say it is the right style for any modern novel involving a highly charged dramatic action. For that I would put the style of this novel above the styles of Céline, Faulkner, or Camus. Unfortunately, Gide was not able to present characters sufficiently driven by passion or an intrigue plausible and exciting enough to make a real masterpiece of what he termed his first and only novel.
It is interesting to note, too, that the style Gide was able to envision as a result of reading Dostoevsky so dazzled and so blinded him that he was unable to see the real virtues of the impressionistic and complex style of Proust, and turned down Remembrance of Things Past when it was offered to him as editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française. Proust, for his part, had a great understanding of Dostoevsky’s art, although his own novel is addressed entirely to the remembrance of past events and is most unlike Dostoevsky’s highly dramatic novels, the plots of which, never determined in advance, carry us into the future acts of hurtfully colliding characters. So if Gide was drawn to Dostoevsky for the same reasons that members of my generation were, Proust, we may suppose, admired Dostoevsky for reasons quite his own.
Since I have made a point of the special appeal Dostoevsky had to members of my generation, I must instance the response to him of someone other than myself. The late Harold Rosenberg comes immediately to mind. During the 30’s he talked brilliantly of Dostoevsky, and I heard much about the brilliance of his lectures on Dostoevsky during the late 60’s and early 70’s at the University of Chicago. On the other hand, the only essay we have by him on the work of Dostoevsky, written in the late 60’s, is rather pedestrian, and shows little of the forcefulness of the views he expressed in conversation during the 30’s; it appears as an introduction to a new translation of The Idiot by Henry and Olga Carlisle. By the time he came to write this piece, Rosenberg had begun to consult the opinions of his audience in formulating his own. This had not been a handicap to his art criticism, but it was hardly proper in judging a writer like Dostoevsky.
In any case, the biases of the period infected Rosenberg’s introduction. In the plays of the 60’s, the audience was often brought up on the stage: thus, according to Rosenberg, this was what was happening in The Idiot. Dostoevsky’s hero, Myshkin, Rosenberg called a spectator of the action. On the contrary, he is the most active figure in the novel, as he would have to be, given the fact that he represents Christian love. For the Christian is defined spiritually by the activity to which his faith commits him. Necessarily, Rosenberg had to suggest that Dostoevsky was rather less religious than others have taken him to be. Finally, Rosenberg called Myshkin “sick,” no doubt in deference to the Freudian view, then widely held, and of which I shall have something more to say later.
Nor is there anything to praise in the writings of the late Philip Rahv, also of my generation, on Dostoevsky. The pieces he wrote on The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov in Partisan Review, and the essay on Dostoevsky he did for the New York Review of Books during the 60’s, are ponderous, politically motivated, and unilluminating. In his New York Review of Books piece, Rahv disputed the claim that has been made by Russian critics that Dostoevsky was something of a philosopher, arguing that Russians have not been very good at philosophy. Now, of course, there has not been a Russian contribution to cognitive thought comparable to those made by Descartes, Hume, or Kant; nevertheless, in the discussion of alternative views of life, such as we find in Dostoevsky’s novels—this gives us the right to call the novelist philosophical—Russians have thought, in whatever genre, as deeply as any other people of Europe.
During the 70’s when I was still teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I decided to give a course on Dostoevsky’s novels, and I expected to have my students read the essays of Rosenberg and of Rahv, but when I reread these pieces, I was deeply disappointed by them, and was unable to recommend them to my students. The only critical writings on Dostoevsky that I found clarifying were the articles by Joseph Frank on Notes from Underground and The Possessed, which had just appeared in various magazines.
These essays were advance notices of the great work on Dostoevsky Joseph Frank was beginning to put together. We now have the first two volumes.1 These are beautiful books, and deserve better than what even the most enthusiastic reviewers have thus far said of them. Frank’s work has been called a biography, but it is much more than that. It is a careful setting of the events of Dostoevsky’s life and the books he wrote within the cultural conflicts which took place in Russia in the middle of the 19th century.
Frank’s work has been compared to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats and to Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, but the comparison is not at all apt. These books were fine and graceful works, but they involved no serious thought about ideology, theology, or social theory. Frank, in his books, has had to resolve any number of problematic issues, and he has done so with a quiet tact and authority that call for the very highest praise. Such questions as the basis for a Freudian interpretation of Dostoevsky’s writings and character, questions as to the writer’s religiosity, his views on socialism and revolution in his youth, and of czarism as a mature man, his attitude toward nationalism, Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, toward the peasants before and after he became aware of their alienation from and hostility to him—all these and many other questions are handled with the greatest care and with a satisfying clarity. Frank even discusses the particular kind of epilepsy Dostoevsky was afflicted with, and in terms of the latest medical, as well as literary, scholarship. The only works which I think can be compared to Frank’s Dostoevsky are Tolstoy in the Sixties and Tolstoy in the Seventies, by the Russian critic Boris Eichenbaum. These great books are also not properly designated when called biographies, and Joseph Frank tells me that they set the standard by which he has tried to judge his own accomplishment.
It may be asked: were there not other models of narrative writing for my generation besides those provided by moralists and aesthetes? What about the plays of Bernard Shaw, so highly charged ideologically, so extraordinary, and so deft? And behind Shaw there was of course the even greater figure of Voltaire. Yet somehow the very success of these writers, who had so perfected their peculiar skills, made them unserviceable to us as models during the 30’s. We felt that their modes of expression, based on talents we did not have, had already served, and in that sense could not serve us. We simply could not fight off the appeal of aesthetic innovators like Joyce and Flaubert by following the example set by writers like Voltaire and Shaw.
And there was something else, too, at issue here. We noticed, for example, that in Shaw’s plays, all the characters were perfectly logical and yet nobody was ever refuted. This made us think that Shaw’s world was not quite real. What we wanted were literary works in which a refutation of some of the characters was really possible. Without such a refutation, how could we send anyone, even in imagination, before a firing squad? And in the 30’s this is what we desired: to be able to send someone refuted before a firing squad, at least in print.
Then why did those of us who did write about Dostoevsky write so poorly about him, Rahv so portentously, and so emptily, Rosenberg with so little of the wit and insight which graced his commentary on art and politics? I think the mistake made by them, and by me, for I had a share in it too, though I did not write the bad pieces they did, was this: we thought that Dostoevsky had expressed a political philosophy. Yet what is true of him is what the late Leo Strauss in his last book, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, said of Nietzsche and Heidegger. He claimed they supported the gods and the poets, and were against political philosophy.
There are not a few who may find it hard to believe that Dostoevsky can be properly classed with writers who were against political philosophy. After all, he had been a member of the Petrashevsky group; he was sentenced first to death and then to ten years of exile for subversive activity. And he defended himself stoutly against the czar’s interrogators. Returned from Siberia, he did change his view of the Russian government. He came to support the czar, and the liberals of that period called him a reactionary. Some of our contemporary liberals and radicals still do. So in what sense can I say of him what Leo Strauss said of Heidegger and Nietzsche? Can one indeed say of Dostoevsky that he was with the gods—or at least the Christian God—and the poets, and against political philosophy?
Now, it is one thing to support a legitimate government and be critical of its critics, and quite another to present a program for reforming that government or for preventing its reform. It is only in connection with some program of either of these kinds that one can speak of a “political philosophy.” In Dostoevsky’s novels and stories no program of either sort is promulgated, or if one is, it is only for the purpose of ridiculing it, as in the famous proposal of Shigalov for creating a wholly free society every single member of which was to be a spy. So while it would be quite right to say of Dostoevsky that he was politically conservative, it is simply false to say that he was reactionary, and one may be conservative without upholding or being in opposition to any kind of philosophy that is based fundamentally on politics. Dostoevsky’s beliefs after his conversion in Siberia were religious, but with a dash of nationalism. But even Dostoevsky’s nationalism is not truly seen when its politics is made too emphatic. Dostoevsky’s nationalism, I should say, has more to do with the poets and saints of Russia than with its bureaucrats or czars.
We were drawn to Dostoevsky because his novels dealt with life at its most serious moments, in its most profound aspects. But there was something else that drew us to him. To explain this particular attraction I must first note a remark of Joseph Frank about Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in an article Frank published some years ago in the French review Critique, and which will no doubt be included in one of the future volumes of his work. Here Frank compares Dostoevsky’s story to a conte philosophique, a philosophical tale, of the kind perfected by Voltaire. However, Notes from Underground is in one way not at all like the tales told by Voltaire, though it is in a very important way philosophical. What makes it different from the conte philosophique is that in even the very best of these, there is little attention to character or characterization. The portraits of Candide and of Dr. Pangloss are the sketches of a caricaturist interested in his design, not in the elements that enter into it. But in Dostoevsky’s story the characters are presented in depth, they have the author’s fullest interest.
Dostoevsky has been called an ideological writer, and so he is, maybe even the greatest of ideological writers. But there is no other like him, for ideological writers in general do not have the interest that Dostoevsky had in character. This, too, is what drew us to Dostoevsky. It has been said that there is a conflict between plot and character. And so there is. There are masters of plot who cannot convince us of the reality of those entangled in their consummate scheming, and there are masters of characterization who cannot fit their realized characters into a dramatic scheme of any kind. However, the very greatest novelists and dramatists overcome the difficulties of inserting a real character into a plausible plot. For that we did not require the art of Dostoevsky. He faced quite another difficulty: that of being an ideological writer while protecting his characters from an ideological judgment that would reduce them to caricatural sketchiness. It was the depth of Dostoevsky’s creation of characters inserted into a highly ideological world that attracted us during the 30’s and made us think we had found a writer whose achievement we could pit against the masterpieces of modernist aestheticism.
So far I have dealt with what the word conte may mean in relation to Dostoevsky. But what about the term philosophique? In what sense are Dostoevsky’s novels philosophical?
Certainly they are not philosophical in the sense modern philosophy has tried to be what Edmund Husserl required it to be: a rigorous science. In making this demand Husserl pointed out that philosophy would have to give up any effort to describe a view of life as a whole, aiming at achieving wisdom. The modern philosopher, to be competent, had to give up the hope of being wise, and in this sense I think all of contemporary philosophy that is interesting has been in line with Husserl’s judgment.
But the other part of philosophy, that part which past philosophers of other periods have included in their quest for rigor, that part which aimed at wisdom, is the part of philosophy we encounter in Dostoevsky’s novels, in those of his characters who generalize their experience and justify these generalizations. Many of Dostoevsky’s characters represent views of life carried to a dramatic extreme, and the testing of the character in his encounters with others is also a testing of his extreme view, as of theirs. Views of life in pitched battle: that is not an unfair description of what occurs in one of Dostoevsky’s stories or novels, and these battles are battles in which life is at risk as well as the coherence of one’s judgment. These are battles for ideas which may eventuate in life or in death.
To be sure, there are other writers who have presented characters embodying different world views. Certainly Shylock has a different world view from his antagonist Antonio, the merchant of Venice, and being a Jew, has a different religion from that of Portia, who invokes Christian mercy in judging between Shylock and Antonio. And once again, surely there is a difference of world views between Othello, whom Wyndham Lewis called a “feudal lion,” and Iago, called by the same writer a “bourgeois fox.” One can easily multiply the instances of characters in our literature who embody different views of life or of the world. But let us just remain with the two instances I have just given, and contrast what Shakespeare does in each case with what Dostoevsky does, in pitting one character embodying one view against another, with a contrasting or alternative view of the world. I shall take the second instance, from Shakespeare, first.
In Othello Shakespeare never tries to refute Iago’s view of the world, but merely manages, by a circumstance which may well seem implausible, to catch Iago out and send him off to torture and execution. Iago is defeated, Shakespeare sees to that, but Iago is never convinced that his view of life is wrong. Strikingly different is what Dostoevsky does with his protagonist Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, after his crime, comes to recognize that the view of life which he held in committing it was a false one, and voluntarily accedes to being punished for it. Let me put the difference in this way. Iago is partly defeated in his effort, in part he succeeds in it; Raskolnikov is not defeated but refuted, or rather, the view of life he held is refuted, and with its refutation he becomes a different man.
Now let us look at the first instance, from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock against Antonio and against Portia. The latter defeats Shylock’s effort at revenge with a casuistic lawyer’s trick. No one will believe that, having lost the pound of flesh he wanted, Shylock has lost his hankering for revenge. Converted to Christianity, Shylock will still be Shylock. For he has not found within his own experience anything to contradict the reasoning inspired in him by humiliation and by hate. He may be defeated, he has still to be refuted.
In The Possessed, Dostoevsky’s protagonist Stavrogin recognizes at the end of the novel that his experience has been one of error and wrongdoing and commits suicide. He realizes that he cannot feel superior and in fact must feel inferior to all the persons he influenced and in part created. He cannot believe any of the doctrines or views of life he convinced others of, and he has recognized that a man’s worth is measured by the quality of his belief, yet he himself believes in nothing. His suicide, then, is a confirmation of the fact that his view of the world has been refuted; not so the views of the others he took to be his inferiors. Dostoevsky does not try to catch his characters out, he tries to refute them as if they were philosophical arguments, and it is this attitude toward his characters and their beliefs which has made so many critics call Dostoevsky philosophical, the philosopher par excellence of the novel.
This opinion, however, is not held at all by the great Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.2 According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky had the ability to set down characters with different views of life and allow these different views to collide without involving his own judgment as to their meaning and their worth. This, by what I suppose Bakhtin took to be a “negative capability” with respect to alternative views of life. But to assume any such “negative capability” is just unreasonable, and if this is what Bakhtin meant by the “dialogical imagination” he attributed to the Russian novelist, then I have to say there is no such thing, and the term, however useful to Bakhtin, actually tells us nothing. Without consulting his own judgment of Western socialism and Russian socialism, of anarchism, nihilism, Western Catholicism, and Greek Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky would hardly have been able to present a single one of his major characters. That Dostoevsky was able to present his characters and their view of life fairly was due to the charity inherent in his own Christianity rather than to a suspension for the writing of his novels of his own deeply held beliefs.
There is some excuse for Bakhtin’s mishandling of the term “dialogical” but there is none for a Western critic like Michael Holquist, who has not tried to explain it but taken it at face value. Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky appeared in 1929, at the beginning of the Five Year Plan and the fanatic leftism which was soon to condemn millions to starvation and forced labor. Even to write at that time of Dostoevsky, regarded by Stalin as a reactionary though a genius, was to risk exile, forced labor, even death.
What Bakhtin did in his book was to treat Dostoevsky as an innovator in the form of the novel, and to leave out of account all the ideological questions which entered into the motives of his characters. This was probably the only safe way of treating Dostoevsky at that time, and Bakhtin had many insights into Dostoevsky’s aesthetic devices that are immensely valuable, so I do not want it to be thought that I am underrating his contribution. But the important element in that contribution is not the notion of the dialogical as opposed to the monological. I think we can better understand and better evaluate Dostoevsky’s writings without referring to either of these terms.
I must add that in the most intelligent comment yet made here or in Europe on Bakhtin’s work, Rene Wellek (in the New Criterion for June 1984) has convincingly refuted Bakhtin’s notion that Dostoevsky’s characters were independent of his own viewpoint. Wellek quotes Dostoevsky as saying (in a review of a play) that “It is too little to display all the given qualities of a character; rather one should resolutely illuminate it by one’s own artistic point of view. An artist must not remain on the same level with the character he depicts.” And Wellek rightly asks: “Isn’t Shakespeare at least as ‘polyphonic’ as Dostoevsky? We still argue about Shakespeare’s world view, while there cannot be any doubt about Dostoevsky’s, at least in its outlines.”
I say Dostoevsky’s Christianity was charitable but it was also highly ideological. This Joseph Frank has made clear in one of the most original and interesting chapters of his second volume, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859.
As Joseph Frank recounts the story—it is based, of course, on Dostoevsky’s own text—an important element in the novelist’s conversion was his inner feeling of identification with rowdy Russian peasant convicts he had himself despised, making common cause with them against the Polish convicts who had expressed contempt for them. Thus, in Dostoevsky’s moment of conversion there was, according to Frank, a nationalist element. He writes:
What occurred to Dostoevsky, then, bears all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience; and it also involves, as we see, a recovery of faith. But it is not faith in God or Christ that is in question; rather, it is a faith in the Russian common people as, in some sense, the human image of Christ. And this aspect of Dostoevsky’s regeneration—the fact that it centers primarily on his relations with the people—must be strongly stressed in face of the only serious alternative explanation. In his enormously influential essay on Dostoevsky, Freud has argued that his arrest, the mock execution, and then his imprisonment triggered a masochistic need to submit to the punishment of the Czar-Father as a means of relieving the unconscious guilt caused by Dostoevsky’s repressed Oedipal desire to commit parricide. But there is not the slightest empirical evidence to prove that Dostoevsky submitted to or sought punishment from the Czar-Father; his unyielding conduct throughout the interrogation, when directly confronted with authority figures representing the Czar, indicates the exact contrary. It was only from the people that Dostoevsky sought absolution. . . .
This could hardly be better said. And I must also commend Frank for relying in his analysis of Dostoevsky’s moment of conversion on notions put forward by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, a work which, as Frank notes, is “unsurpassed.” And I was greatly pleased to see Frank turn aside from Freud’s rather forced lucubrations about Dostoevsky. Freud is hardly one to follow in commenting on a religious thinker, considering the poverty of thought in the book Freud devoted to religion, The Future of an Illusion, which, as Gershom Scholem has well said, “. . . is an absolutely terrible book. If not for the fact of Freud’s signature, everyone would reject it as a feeble work. . . .”
I said that most of what was written by members of my generation on Dostoevsky has turned out to be of little value. And I stand on that statement. However, here I want to make one caveat. Nothing that was written by members of my generation in the way of criticism of Dostoevsky has been valid, but if I can include Andre Malraux in my own generation, then at least one member of that generation was inspired by Dostoevsky to write something great in the Russian novelist’s manner. I have in mind Malraux’s Man’s Fate. In this highly dramatic novel of political adventure in revolutionary China in 1927, Malraux availed himself of Gide’s aesthetic purification (in The Counterfeiters) of Dostoevsky’s narrative style, to which he added the intensity of the revolutionary situation in Shanghai and the highly charged passions of the Chinese revolutionaries and terrorists. Moreover, Malraux’s sympathy with all of his characters had a Dostoevskian depth. So I think it can be said that if no one of my generation wrote greatly on Dostoevsky, at least someone of my generation wrote greatly because of Dostoevsky.
And all this has something to do with the motivation of Joseph Frank in addressing the task he set himself. Frank is not a member of my own generation; I think he belongs to the generation which came just after mine. Before he began this present work on Dostoevsky, he had planned a book on a number of writers, including Malraux, who could be connected with each other as having some relationship with the ideas of existentialism, which at that time was being widely discussed. Some of the particular pieces Frank brought off have been published, and in one of them he wrote eloquently about Malraux’s “existential humanism.” So he may very well have found his way to Dostoevsky through his own reading of Malraux.
All this is, of course, purely speculative, and perhaps Joseph Frank will tell us in one of his later volumes just what led him to the project he has begun so successfully. But surely the interest he had in existentialism in the early 50’s must have been one of his promptings. Existentialism was one contemporary philosophical trend which tried to set forth a definite view of life. What made it different from past efforts of this kind in philosophy was that it did not aim at achieving wisdom, and ended up in accepting a form of absurdism. And now a British scholar, John Jones, has published a study of Dostoevsky’s work,3 in which the claim is made that the Russian novelist can be best understood when seen as belonging to the absurdist side of existentialism.
Joseph Frank has already commented on this effort—I think too generously—in the (London) Times Literary Supplement. In discussing Jones’s interpretation of Dostoevsky’s story The Double, Frank notes: “. . . for Jones . . . ‘when Mr. Golyadkin pays his cabby to do nothing, The Double leaps into focus as an absurd fable contemporary in spirit with Camus and a metaphysical one even more akin to Sartre.’ Well, since we have gradually come to accept the idea that all reading is ‘misreading,’ why not?”
My reason for not agreeing would be that neither Dostoevsky nor his major characters—with the exception of Stavrogin, and finally perhaps not even he—were ready to settle for absurdism. Certainly the Russian novelist never gave up the hope of attaining the Christian equivalent of the love of wisdom, what Heidegger has finely called “the wisdom of love.”
1 Volume I: Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849; Volume II: Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, Princeton University Press, Volume I (1976), 401 pp., $36.00; Volume II (1984), 320 pp., $25.00.
2 Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 335 pp., $35.00.
3 Dostoevsky, Oxford University Press, 378 pp., $29.95.