The Russian Review/Volume 1/June 1916/Dostoyevsky and His Message to the World

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Dostoyevsky and His Message to the World.

By Zinaida Vengerova.

This article is based on a lecture which the writer, a well-known literary critic in Russia, has delivered at Oxford and the universities of London and Edinburgh.—Ed.

I often wonder what quality of Russian literature is the one which appeals more particularly to English readers. Russian literary types have certainly a universal scope, but Russian writers seem to attract much more by their originality than by what they have in common with the western ideals. There is another peculiarity of all our best literature which accounts with more right for its bearing on the Western mind. It is the tense atmosphere of Russian novels, of Russian poetry and drama. They all deal with vast problems—social, moral, as well as religious ones—and this is due to a large extent to the rather abnormal conditions of Russian life.

In all the countries of western Europe literature is a world in itself and pursues its own calling. It is not concerned with immediate issues of any kind. The situation in Russia is quite different. We are deprived of free speech and of free action in our public life, and the social progress of Russia is mainly due to the high standard of our literature which is the true mirror of national aspirations and national ideals. The free and progressive instincts of the Russian mind crave to assert themselves; their realization in actual life is still some way off, and literature remains the only means to solve, at least in an ideal way, the problems which some day will be solved in reality. That is the reason why Russian novelists, Russian poets, and even philosophers dealing in metaphysics are imbued with a profound sense of national duties and responsibilities. There is always lurking behind every Russian work of art a sort of mystic image, that of Russia which longs to express her soul, and the highest aim of all Russian literature is to redeem the national spirit from the silence to which it is doomed by the conditions of Russian life. Every Russian author, if he is of any consequence whatever, longs to express the spiritual essence of Russia and to solve her problems.

When it comes to the greatest of our writers, to those who have a world-wide fame, this fundamental tendency of Russian literature rises to its highest expression. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are not only our social and religious reformers; they are the prophets of the Russian land. They reflect the destinies of Russia and show the way to the fulfillment of Russia's message to the world. Different as their ideas are, they represent the two sides of the national spirit, the rationalistic and the mystic one, and we look up to their teachings to help us in our national needs and in the inner battles of every individual conscience. In the life-time of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky both of them had been approached by more men and women in Russia with the question: "How ought I to live?" than any priest had ever been asked the question by his flock: "What must I do to save my soul?"

Now the prophets are dead, but the prophetic value of their work still remains. The mystic genius of Dostoyevsky is even more closely linked with the national problems than that of Tolstoy. He has taken up the revelations of national character from some of the earlier Russian writers and has carried them on to deeper truths and to vaster issues.

Two writers must be taken into consideration if we want to get at the roots of the problems evolved by Dostoyevsky—Pushkin and Gogol. The poet Pushkin died in 1837, slain in a duel. He is the head of modern Russian literature and has created our literary language and style, both in poetry and in prose. His greatest achievement was to have raised Russian literature to the level of universal art, and, on the other hand, to have gone deep into the source of Russian genius, to have discovered the creative power of the Russian peasantry. He found in the Russian folklore, in the fairy tales, the songs, the habits of the peasants, an inexhaustible source for his art.

Dostoyevsky did not only admire these qualities of Pushkin; he saw in them the revelation of the national ideal—a revelation and a prophecy. The prophetic spirit hovers over all Russian literature, or, at least, is perceptible in it to the Russian mind. In 1881, a few months before his death, Dostoyevsky delivered a speech on Pushkin, in connection with a celebration of the poet's memory. The speech is famous and is generally considered one of the deepest manifestations of Dostoyevsky's genius. It is an extraordinarily lucid and inspired expression of what Dostoyevsky calls the national ideal of Russia and of his own intimate relation to it. Speaking of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky points to the universality, to what he calls the "all-humanity" of the great poet, meaning Pushkin's wonderful gift of assimilation with the genius and the emotions of other nations. Dostoyevsky considers this quality of Pushkin as deeply characteristic of the Russian mind.

Pushkin was the masterful singer of Don Juan, of the glowing Spanish south and the distinctly catholic tragedy of passion in revolt against the rule of the Church. He found inspired melodies to express the ecstasy of a mediaeval knight who fights in the name of the Madonna and remains true to his vow of chastity and poverty. This stands in the eyes of Dostoyevsky for the all-embracing humanitarian spirit of Russia. And the other side of Pushkin's art appealed to Dostoyevsky even more than his "all-humanity." Dostoyevsky inherited Pushkin's deep faith in the "Russian truth" of our peasants and developed it into a prophetic vision of the "Russian Christ" of a new Christianity based on the redeeming power of endurance and self-sacrifice. This religious teaching is at the bottom of every single work of Dostoyevsky, and none of his novels can be fully understood unless the mystic foundation of his art is taken into consideration. Dostoyevsky questions in all his novels the problem of suffering humanity, and insists with what could even seem a pathological inquisitiveness on the subtlest shades of moral pain. And in every single case his arguments point to the religious truth. He justifies and sanctifies all suffering, raising it to what would be a Slav climax of ecstatic agony.

The national and religious ideals of Dostoyevsky have evolved from Pushkin, but in his literary methods and as a novelist he is closely connected with another of his predecessors—with Gogol, the author of the famous novel, "Dead Souls," of the comedy, "The Inspector General," and, in fact, the father of the Russian realistic novel. Gogol has satirized the Russian bureaucracy of his time with its contrasts of arrogancy based on excessive arbitrary power, and of abject servility. He has created immortal types of Russian land- and serf-owners before the abolition of serfdom, some of them appallingly cruel and self-indulgent, and the majority petty, ignorant, ridiculously narrow-minded, and leading a sort of animal life, overeating, and punishing their serfs just to idle away the lazy hours.

Dostoyevsky took up the realistic vein of Gogol, but changed its spirit. He transformed Gogol's satirical vision of the "dead souls" into a mystic tale of humiliated and suffering souls redeemed by what they have endured. They both, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, have looked at the same realities of Russian life, and with the same sharp, uncompromising instinct of truth which detects all human failings. But Gogol laughed at what he discovered; he believed in the beneficial effect of sane, unprejudiced laughter. And Dostoyevsky loved erring humanity, and did better than to judge it; he pitied it. This did not stand in the way of his realism, as there certainly has never been a more true and outspoken painter of Russian life and psychology than Dostoyevsky, the "cruel genius," as he was called by the Russian critics. But his realism was strangely blended with a visionary mysticism. "They call me a psychologist," wrote Dostoyevsky himself, "but I think I am a realist in the higher sense of the word. I describe the depth of the human soul." And on another occasion, writing about himself in his "Diary of a Man of Letters" he said, "I am devoted to realism in art—to realism which reaches the borders of the fantastic. To my eyes there is nothing more fantastic than reality itself. What the majority of people call fantastic and exceptional is to me the very essence of actual reality."

The vast scope of Dostoyevsky's creations is due to his genius, but his amazing psychological knowledge of life and pain is also founded on the experiences of his own life. Not many writers have paid such a high price as Dostoyevsky in mental and physical agony for the revelations of their genius. His life is, in this respect, a striking contrast to the life of Tolstoy, and this again is highly characteristic of the mystic spirit of Russia. Tolstoy was a spoiled child of Fortune; in addition to his genius he had all the advantages of a high social standing and a happy, independent life. But in accordance with his deep national aspirations he longed for sacrifice, for his personal share of universal suffering. He did everything to get it; he was ready to give up his advantages, but all the anguish he could secure for himself was that of not having been able to sacrifice enough. This has become his intense tragedy which hastened his death. He suffered to see his followers persecuted for his own ideas whilst he himself seemed exempt from all responsibility, and in an impressive article, speaking of the frequent executions of political offenders in Russia, he exclaimed, "Oh, for a rope, a well-soaped rope, to have it put round my own neck to make me share the fate of those who suffer and are put to death in my country!"

All that was so ardently desired by Tolstoy in his longing for self-sacrifice was freely given to Dostoyevsky by fate. Tolstoy wanted to suffer, Dostoyevsky did suffer. Even the "well-soaped rope"—the supreme wish of Tolstoy—was not spared to the prophet of the "Russian Christ," who had been brought up for execution (not exactly to be hanged, but to be shot) to the Semenovsky Square in St. Petersburg. The Western mind might feel more keenly the opposition—the contrast in the lives of the two great writers, but Russians are more aware of what unites them in the essence of their different fates. The inner law of Russia is endurance, her moral impulses are rooted in the spirit of sacrifice, and Dostoyevsky, who had suffered in body and mind, as well as Tolstoy who felt the agonizing desire to suffer, represent to us the same national truth.

Dostoyevsky, Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, to call him by his full Russian name, was born in Moscow, in 1821, as the son of a hospital doctor. He received his primary and secondary education in his native town and came to the Engineering School in St. Petersburg when he was eighteen. He did not acquire much scientific knowledge at the school. The training there was too formalistic to be thorough, and he loathed the militaristic system of the place. Yet an important side of Dostoyevsky's genius is connected with his education at this particular school. In order to enter it he came to St. Petersburg and lived there all his life with the exception of the time of his exile and the years he spent abroad. This means that he left as a boy the more rationalistic and business-like atmosphere of Moscow, and that his self-consciousness developed in the intensely nervous and imaginative surroundings of Peter the Great's city. Dostoyevsky was attracted by all that is strange and exclusive in the town created out of a Finnish swamp by the imperative will of a genius. He found the reflection of his own soul in the atmosphere of the town, then called St. Petersburg, with its white nights and cruel frosts and the severe beauty of its magnificent river. All the heroes of Dostoyevsky seem to come out of the November fogs that envelop St. Petersburg described by Dostoyevsky as "the most abstract and most artificial town, a town of apparitions clad in flesh and blood which seems not to exist in reality but to be somebody's strange dream."

The first novel of Dostoyevsky, called "Poor Folks," appeared in 1844, and it was a masterpiece. He was far from being conscious of the merits and the promise of his first literary venture, and handed the manuscript with the greatest misgivings to the poet Nekrasov, the editor of an important literary review. Nekrasov began to read it together with his co-editor, the greatest literary critic of the period, Bielinsky. They both felt at once fascinated by the originality and the beauty of the novel. They went on reading it to the end, and it was two o'clock in the morning when they finished it. Bielinsky insisted on going at once to Dostoyevsky to tell him their impressions. He would not listen to Nekrasov who objected that it was too late and that Dostoyevsky had probably gone to bed. "We will wake him up if he sleeps!" exclaimed Bielinsky. "This is more important than sleep. This is genius." They actually went and roused Dostoyevsky out of his bed, to the young author's great surprise and still greater delight. The finest and subtlest Russian critic revealing to the future great writer of Russia the promise of his genius, at 3 A. M., on a fantastic night in St. Petersburg! Is not that a characteristic picture of the intensity and the nervous impatience of Russian intellectual life?

"Poor Folks" is a very simple story, yet its very simplicity is one of the master achievements of Dostoyevsky, and the uneventful life of Dostoyevsky's pathetic and humble hero, Makar Dievushkin, widens in the narrative into a vision of broad and warm humanity. Makar is a weak character; he indulges in drink, and, worst of all, he is abjectly servile in his attitude towards his superiors. Yet, in the letters he writes to a young girl (the novel is written in the form of letters they exchange), every single event, every single emotion, shows the heroic self-denial of a quaintly free soul—free in spite of an almost slave-like psychology. There is one scene in the novel which had been particularly admired by Bielinsky, and remains in fact an immortal page in the works of Dostoyevsky. It is the description old Makar gives of the kindness shown to him by "His Excellency," the head of the department in Makar's office. The high official has noticed the shabbiness of Makar, and was attracted by the expression of Makar s face. In an impulse of generosity he summoned him to his office, said a few kind words to him, and presented him with a hundred rouble note as a friendly help. Makar was overpowered by so much condescension on the part of his chief. He felt the honor and the kindness much more keenly than the actual help. And a most pathetic thing happened. Just at the moment when "His Excellency" spoke so kindly to Makar, a loose button on Makar's outworn uniform fell on the floor. Makar was overcome with shame and terror, and before he could come to his senses, his chief picked up the button and handed it to him. Makar is full of painfully servile admiration for "His Excellency" when he describes the scene in the office, and feels tragically humble in regard to his own insignificance. Yet what would appear basely undignified on the surface of his emotions is magically transformed into a picture of a great soul—great in its love and its humility.

"Are you aware that you have discovered a sublime side in servility, the most abject of all instincts?" was Bielinsky's first question on that memorable night, after he had read the manuscript of "Poor Folks." This was the miracle worked by Dostoyevsky's penetrating pity. It made him see so deep into the human heart that he was able to discover the divine element hidden in all genuine emotions.

After the publication of his first novel there came a long break in the literary career of Dostoyevsky. That was the time of the great tragedy of his life, the one which became the source of the prophetic inspiration of his later works. In the lifetime of Dante the people of Florence used to say when they met him in the streets, "This is the man who has been to Hell." What was true in an imaginative sense as applied to Dante might be said more directly of Dostoyevsky in connection with what happened to him after he had so brilliantly started as a novelist. He had actually been in hell—in a hell upon earth, and the miracle is that he returned from it with a message of all-forgiving love.

Dostoyevsky was interested, as a young man, in social problems, yet chiefly in the humane side of them. He was haunted from the beginning of his conscious life with schemes and dreams of universal happiness for mankind, and was naturally attracted by the teachings of such idealistic social reformers as Fourier and Robert Owen. He joined a group of friends in a sort of debating society with the purpose of studying and discussing some works on social questions. The members of the group did not aim at any political propaganda, yet at that time all interest for social reform was regarded as criminal by the authorities. And what made the situation still more serious was the supposed circulation of Bielinsky's letter to Gogol, a letter accusing Gogol of reactionary tendencies and exposing a few liberal opinions. Dostoyevsky was actually not guilty even of what seems now such a trifling charge as having circulated a liberal pamphlet. Yet he was tried, together with the other members of the group, and was sentenced to death. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was brought to the scaffold, saw the car with the coffin prepared for his body, had his eyes bandaged, and lived through the agony of those minutes which he thought to be his last. A few moments before the execution, arrived the message of the amnesty and of the commutation of the death penalty into a sentence to four years of hard labor in the Siberian mines.

Dostoyevsky never forgot the scene on the Semenovsky Square. It was in all probability the primary cause of the epileptic fits from which he suffered all his life. The fits developed into a dironic disease during the years of Siberia, which again, as all that Dostoyevsky suffered in his body and mind, became a source of inspiration to his genius.

Dostoyevsky spent seven years in the exile to Siberia. He worked part of the time in the mines, and was then transferred to a Siberian regiment as a private. In 1856 he was restored in his civil rights and promoted to the rank of an office. In 1859 he was permitted to return to St. Petersburg and to settle there. It was then only that he was able to resume his literary work after the long years of enforced silence. He resumed it, however, in a very changed spirit. The time spent "tra la perduta gente" in the mines, in close communion with the worst criminals, and following that the hard military service as a common soldier, the humiliations to which he was subjected, the solitary thoughts and the nervous fits made a deep impression on his mind but did not break his spirit. On the contrary, his experiences brought him nearer to the soul of the Russian people. "The years of hard labor have taught me the essential truth," wrote Dostoyevsky after his return, "the truth hidden in the soul of the Russian people. It is there in spite of the fact that the masses of our peasants consist of drunkards and thieves." He returned from Siberia with the fortifying conviction that the knowledge of the Russian masses has deepened his insight into his own soul, and he strongly believed ever since that the Russian intellectuals will gain everything if they trust the wisdom of the common people, the light revealed by the endurance—the wisdom of the "Russian Christ." Before his exile Dostoyevsky was naturally inclined to see and to cherish the warm glow of love in humble and humiliated souls. After his hard experiences and trials he was ever anxious to discover the divine spark, the religious truth in souls possessed by the temptations of evil.

And even the harmful effect of the Siberian trials on the health of Dostoyevsky, his epileptic fits, "the sacred disease," as they were sometimes called, became an additional power of his genius. They opened to him visionary horizons which a more balanced mind would not have perceived. Dostoyevsky's favorite hero, Prince Myshkin, "the Idiot," is an epileptic, and Dostoyevsky describes in his name the strange ecstasy of just one moment before the unconsciousness brought about by an epileptic fit—the feeling of perfect harmony with the universe, a sensation as if time did no more exist, and all life was blended in complete unity. Dostoyevsky has many times experienced such a state of ecstasy. He considered it a foretaste of the ultimate divine absorption of the human soul in God, and he did not think too high the price of pain he had to pay for his mystic visions of harmony. He knew that all that is divine must arise from the bottom of deepest agony. He had discovered this truth in the soul of the Russian people.

The great productive epoch of Dostoyevsky's life began in the year 1860. All his great novels—most of them works of exceptional length—as well as a number of short stories, were written in the course of the following twenty years up to his death in 1881. He also was very active in other ways. He edited during a couple of years an important literary review, he spent several years abroad, and travelled a great deal in France, Germany, Italy, and England. He had a great admiration for the standards of Western culture as well as for the literature and art of Western Europe. His great object in going "to the West" was to find there the realization of his dream of universal happiness. He, however, experienced great disappointments when he came into closer touch with the different countries he visited. During the Franco-Prussian War, Dostoyevsky's attitude towards Western culture changed entirely. He became violently opposed to the spirit of European life; he thought it irreligious and materialistic. He denounced the perversity of Western morals with the passion of a Biblical prophet, and he believed with the passionate faith of a Biblical prophet that the nations of the West would be redeemed and the reign of the spirit would be restored by the light from the East, from Russia and her people. The novels of Dostoyevsky abound in arguments and in prophecies on national subjects. The full scope of his nationalistic teachings is given in the periodical called "The Diary of a Man of Letters," which Dostoyevsky published at varying intervals in the last ten years of his life. His extreme Slavophile views in politics were violently opposed by the so-called "Westerners," and his last years were very much embittered by the attacks of his political adversaries. Yet, viewed from a distance, the ideas of Dostoyevsky ought not to be judged by a political standard. He was not a politician, he was a prophet with a mission. And however wrong he might have been in his views on immediate political questions, he was right in the spirit.

"Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," "The Possessed," "A Lad of Twenty," "The Brothers Karamazov," are the great novels of Dostoyevsky. The most accessible to Western readers is certainly "Crime and Punishment." Raskolnikov, who aspired to be a sort of Napoleon in the domain of moral problems, is more or less a universal type of the intellectual. He wished to assert his proud will, to dare to be free in his revolt. He was a super-man before Nietzsche. The Russian part of the Raskolnikov problem begins with his repentance which overflows his soul with an elemental force. "She was no better than vermin, the woman I killed—and yet I must atone for my crime as if it had been of the greatest consequence."

This is the central point of the novel. "Go at once," urges Sonia, who is Raskolnikov's spiritual guide, "go this very minute, stop at the crossing of the roads, bow to the earth, kiss the soil thou hast defiled, bow then to all the world, to all the four sides, and say in a loud voice: 'I have killed.'" Raskolnikov kisses the earth with an ecstasy of joy. His repentance and his atonement are his moral victory, the achievement of the heroic ideal he vainly aspired to achieve by violence.

"Crime and Punishment" is a complete novel in itself; it puts up a problem and solves it to the end. All the other novels are each part of Dostoyevsky's teaching, and the characters which appear in them are related to each other, some of them representing the aspiring mystic faith, and some the revolted agnosticism fighting against it. The hero of "The Idiot," Prince Myshkin, represents the fullest realization of Dostoyevsky's ideal of those "who are of the future city of light." He is an idiot, an epileptic, unsound in the eyes of ordinary people, but his "flaming' brain" sees visions of a harmonic universe, and he is ready to pay the price of his life for a moment of these revelations. His inner fight helps all the suffering humanity that surrounds him, all those who are entangled in the problems of their passions, whose love is a cruel desire to subjugate and to victimize the weaker souls or to fight the stronger ones. He loves no one with an exclusive love but he pities all, and his pity is a miraculous means to come to a simple harmony of life, to achieve in each single soul its individual problem. The character opposed to him, Rogozhine, is a man out of the "real city," a man rooted in reality with all his contradictory passions, a man of the Russian soil. Yet in the eyes of Dostoyevsky, Myshkin, who passes like a vision through the novel, represents the true—the mystic reality, and the real men and women are apparitions, "dreams in a dream."

"The Idiot," as well as "Crime and Punishment," deals chiefly and almost exclusively with individual problems. In "The Possessed" and in his most synthetic novel, "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoyevsky plunges into the deepest religious and national problems. "The Possessed" was conceived partly as a satire against the Russian revolutionaries. In his strong opposition to all violence as being contrary to the spirit of Russia, Dostoyevsky became an adversary of revolutionary ways in politics; his chief grievance against the socialists was their agnosticism. This forms the foundation of "The Possessed" (the title points to the revolutionaries possessed by evil spirits), but the novel is much more than a satire. It contains the religious teaching of Dostoyevsky, the ideal of the "God-man," of the man who sees his salvation in the submergence of his human individuality in God, in the closest communion with Christ, in the readiness to take upon himself the sacrifice of Christ and to unite with the Son of the Lord in God the Father, to disappear as a personality for the supreme resurrection in the all-embracing unity of God. The contrast of the "God-man" in the teaching of Dostoyevsky is the "man-God" the Antichrist, the revolted agnostic whose desire is to destroy the faith in order to become God himself. No human being can exist without an ideal, without a symbol of sacredness. If his temple is empty he will put his own image on the altar. This is how Dostoyevsky explains the psychology of all the agnostics he pictures in "The Possessed." There is a large collection of them in the novel. The chief, the most fascinating, the real Antichrist is Nikolai Stavrogin, the leader of the socialist group. He wants to be the god of all those he fascinates and seduces by his intellectual power. He is ready to offer shrewd arguments to support the idea of "God-man" when he speaks to those whose faith is yet unshaken; but he does it in order to gain them over to his own proud agnosticism and to his self-assertion. He is an eloquent agnostic and preacher of a man-God ideal when addressing his followers. He dares much, he destroys many souls, but he is wrecked because he dared too much. He becomes a prey to the "evil spirits" and commits suicide. So does the other "possessed" of the novel, Kirilov. He preached the man-God theory all his life, but the desire to commune with the living God, the mystic thirst becomes such an agony to his soul that he puts an end to his doubts by taking his own life. And all the "possessed" are the victims of their doubts and their revolt against the divine truth of the universe.

"The Brothers Karamazov" contains the national message of Dostoyevsky, intimately connected with his religious ideals. Those of the future "city of light" are represented in the novel by the most inspired creations of Dostoyevsky, by the saintly recluse, Father Zosima, and the youngest of the Karamazovs, the pure boy, Alesha. They both know how the contest between the theories of God-man and man-God can and ought to be solved. They found the issue in the soul of the Russian peasant who unites the truth on earth, the truth of the earth, which is the life and the work on the land, with the divine truth which is not yet revealed but will be revealed. The almost identical Russian word for Christian and peasant (krestianin and khristianin) is in the eyes of Dostoyevsky a symbol of the mystic message of the Russian peasant to the universe. This message is, according to Dostoyevsky, the universal spiritual union of all men in Christ. The opposed element, the revolt against faith, is represented in the novel by powerful symbolic figures: by the devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov and tempts him with arguments of materialistic reason mystically tinged by revelations of supernatural truth. The other Antichrist of the novel is the Spanish Jesuit, the head of the Counsel of Inquisition. He defends the power of the Church against Christ himself. His argument is that the safeguard of the human conscience lies in the Church and that men are not prepared and not fit to exist on earth in the presence of Christ Between the two extremes of faith and revolt moves the criminal family of the Karamazovs, representing all of suffering and erring humanity. To them, to the whole of Russia, and to the whole universe does Dostoyevsky address his message of mystical pity and redeeming endurance and love which he has discovered in the soul of the Russian peasant.

In the rest of his novels Dostoyevsky studies the same problems, penetrating into all the shades of human passions, of human doubts and failings, and discovering the mystic issues they reveal. Dostoyevsky felt so absolutely united with all that is contained in the soul of the Russian people that we always think he was the truest mirror of Russia. The Western readers of his works must feel the truth of it. If they are won by the fascination of his genius, they certainly will love in his art his country, which was the greatest love of Dostoyevsky.