Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Such was the first stage in the birth of his convictions: hope for the new life about which he had so often dreamed while at penal servitude disappeared, and along with it went his faith in a doctrine that previously seemed stable and eternally true. There can be no doubt: hope had not been supported by doctrine, but vice versa, doctrine, by hope. With this acknowledgment, there ends for man the thousand-year reign of "reason and conscience"; a new era begins - that of "psychology," which Dostoevsky was the first in Russia to discover. Incidentally, few people have hitherto openly dared to acknowledge the obvious antagonism between "reason and conscience" on the one hand and "psychology" on the other. The majority thinks it possible to retain the old hierarchy, in which psychology is obliged to occupy a subordinate position. Its job is merely to report what goes on in man's soul, but the supreme legislative rights are reserved, as before, for reason and conscience, who have the power to decide what should and what should not be. Such an assumption is shared by even those people who have done the most to further the progress of psychology. Thus, for example, Count Tolstoy, who for dozens of years in his books has been undermining our faith in the legitimacy of claims of all kinds of absolutes, at least as much as Dostoevsky has, still continues to praise "reason and conscience" above all else. He has a special art of saying these words in such a tone that any doubt as to their sanctity and inviolability begins to seem outrageous blasphemy.

     In this respect, Dostoevsky could never compare with Count Tolstoy. However, neither of them succeeded in combining the uncombinable. Their restless attempts to return to the "good old words" merely attest to the fact that the business of destruction not only is not less difficult, but much more so than the business of creation. Only that person decides to destroy who can no longer live otherwise. And if Dostoevsky went further in this direction than Count Tolstoy, it was by no means because he was more conscientious, honest, or sincere. No, in such matters, the degree of determination is decided by completely different laws. Man does his utmost to preserve his inherited faith, and he renounces his rights only when it is utterly impossible to retain them. Dostoevsky, as is evident from the epilogue to. A Raw Youth, dreamed of writing in the manner of Count Tolstoy. "Even Pushkin," he says "selected the subject for his future novels in "Legends of Russian Family Life," [See Eugene Onegin, Chapter III, Verses XIII-XIV - S.R.] and, believe me, everything that has thus far been beautiful in our life is contained therein. At least everything that has been brought to some degree of perfection." And later on, when discussing a novelist who would tackle a plot such as those selected by Pushkin, he continues: "Such a work, if created by a person of great talent, would belong not so much to Russian literature as to Russian history. The grandson of those heroes who have been depicted in a picture portraying three consecutive generations of a Russian family of the upper-middle cultivated class, side by side with and in connection with Russian history - this descendant of his ancestors could not be depicted in his present-day type other than in a somewhat misanthropic, solitary, and distinctly melancholy aspect. He would even have to appear as something of an eccentric."

     If we recall that, later on, Dostoevsky, in referring to Anna Karenina, called Count Tolstoy the historian of the upper-middle class, it will be quite clear that the quotations above refer to War and Peace and the types depicted in that novel. The beauty and perfection of Tolstoy's characters fascinated Dostoevsky. He, too, would have liked precision, clarity, and fullness of life; but he had to admit that such "happiness" had been swallowed once and for all by history, and that present-day man can only recall the past, which can never be returned. Resigned to fate, he turned to his solitary and misanthropic eccentrics. However, Dostoevsky is not entirely correct in these judgments of his. He himself, of course, has no place among the heroes of War and Peace. For him, these people are history, and only history. But their creator, Count Tolstoy, viewed them in an entirely different way and by no means wanted to turn them into a mirage of the past. On the contrary, he wanted to see in them what is eternally true and unchangeable. For him, Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha, Rostov, and Princess Marya were not people who had long since passed away, after having been compelled to yield their places to the new "solitary and misanthropic" man, i.e., the man from the underground; he insists that all his heroes are of the present day. True, his insistence is sometimes exaggerated and shrill, so that to a certain extent he betrays himself by it. War and Peace is the work of a man who needs not only to remember and tell a good deal, but also to forget a thing or two and ignore several others.

     Here we do not have that natural strength and stability that one senses in The Captain's Daughter. Unlike Pushkin, Count Tolstoy does not limit himself to the role of narrator and artist. He is constantly examining the sincerity and truth of almost every word his characters say. He needs to know whether they really believe in everything they do, whether they really know where they are going. Like Dostoevsky, he is a psychologist, i.e., he also seeks roots. And, as you know, all roots lie deep in the earth; consequently, Count Tolstoy, too, is familiar with the lonely work of the underground. He does not achieve that Homeric, patriarchal ingenuousness that is ascribed to him, although he strives for it with all his might. In these matters, "free will" betrays the man. He wants faith, but occupies himself with verification, and that kills every faith. It is only to his colossal creative talent that Count Tolstoy is indebted for the reading public's failure to sense how much art (I am almost ready to say artificiality) this great writer of the Russian land needed to produce his remarkable works. And not only Count Tolstoy's creative work, his whole life bears traces of an unceasing struggle with "psychology," with the underground. But it is still premature to judge his life. His writing, however, is one long attempt in some way or other - by force, cunning, or deceit - to vanquish the stubborn foe that is undermining the very foundations of a potentially happy and bright existence. And to a considerable extent he achieves this. He pays his tribute to the underground - proper and constant tribute - but always with a mien suggesting that it is not tribute, but a voluntary offering permitted by "reason and conscience." Dostoevsky's underground man, upon noting the falsehood of his life, becomes horrified and immediately severs himself from his entire past.

     But Count Tolstoy's heroes never cease to believe in "the lofty and beautiful." Even in those moments when the incompatibility of reality with ideals becomes crystal clear to them, they let reality come into its own; but never for a moment do they cease to revere ideals. Thus, the defeats of the Russian troops, the surrender of Moscow, et cetera, never have a too depressing effect on any of the heroes of War and Peace not directly participating in the military operations. Count Tolstoy mentions this fact repeatedly, so that, strictly speaking, the same effect should be produced as by the underground man's words to Liza: "I say that the world can go to pot, as long as I always get my tea." But such an effect is not produced. For example, Nikolai Rostov chats with Princess Marya, and, of course, their conversation touches on the latest news. But how do they react to the great tragedy being played out before their eyes? "The conversation was most ordinary and insignificant [!]. They spoke of the war, automatically, as everyone else, exaggerating their sorrow for this event." A bit later, Count Tolstoy explains further: "It was obvious that she (Princess Marya) could speak dissemblingly about Russia's misfortunes, but her brother was an object too close to her heart, and she was unwilling and unable to speak lightly of him."

     These remarks are unusually characteristic of War and Peace. Wherever Count Tolstoy can, he reminds us that Russia's misfortunes meant less to the upper classes of 1812 than their own personal afflictions. But while reminding us of this, he is able to preserve a semblance of unusual serenity of soul, as if nothing in particular had happened, indeed as if reason and conscience could watch with composure this display of such appalling egoism. And reason and conscience really do remain composed. Evidently they need only outward respect. One must be able merely to speak with them in a certain tone, as with capricious despots, and they grow quite tame. What an uproar they would have raised if Princess Marya, for example, instead of "dissembling" grief for Russia's misfortunes, had frankly declared in the manner of the underground man: "Is Russia to go to pot, or am I to go without my tea? I tell you, let Russia go to pot, as long as I can get my tea." Essentially, Count Tolstoy's characters Princess Marya and Nikolai Rostov are saying this very thing. And all the other characters in the novel (those of quality, of course - precisely those of quality - for the common ones do not permit themselves such frankness) scarcely surpass them in their patriotism. Ultimately, Count Tolstoy reduces everything in a roundabout way to a display of human egoism.

     Nevertheless, the lofty and beautiful do not end up in quotation marks, but retain their former position of respect. Count Tolstoy finds it possible, without any bitterness, to accept life as it is. Cautiously, unnoticed by the reader, he deprives reason and conscience of their sovereign rights and makes himself, or to put it more simply, everyman, the measure of all things. But he wants a complete theoretical victory ("the sanction of truth," as Dostoevsky says), and therefore does not openly overthrow all the former authorities; he merely deprives them virtually and gradually (Count Tolstoy does everything gradually) of all influence on life. And he knows what he is doing. In certain instances, he must still maintain the prestige and charm of the old authorities. Of course, he will no longer serve them, but they will still serve him. In all those instances when he is unable to wage the struggle with his own powers, he will turn to them for their miraculous assistance, and they will support him in difficult moments with their imperious voices.

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