Dostoevsky and Nietzsche
The Philosophy of Tragedy
Aimes-tu les damnés? Dis-moi, connais-tu l’irrémissible?
Do you love the damned? Tell me, do you know the irrevocable?
- CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
"It would be exceedingly difficult for me to tell the story of the regeneration of my convictions, especially as it may not be so interesting," Dostoevsky says in his Diary of a Writer for 1873. [F.M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij, St. Petersburg, 1895, IX, 342]. Difficult, probably so. But hardly anyone would agree that it would not be interesting. The story of a regeneration of convictions - can any story in the entire field of literature be more filled with thrilling and all-absorbing interest? The story of a regeneration of convictions - why, that is first and foremost the story of their birth. Convictions are born for a second time in a man, before his very eyes, at an age when he has enough experience and keenness of observation to follow consciously this great and profound mystery of his soul. Dostoevsky would have been no psychologist if such a process had gone unnoticed by him. And he would have been no writer if he had failed to share his observations with other people. Evidently, the second half of the sentence quoted above was said for no particular reason, for propriety, which demands that a writer disdain, at least outwardly, his own person. As a matter of fact, Dostoevsky knew all too well how crucially important the question of the birth of convictions can be for us; he also knew that there is but one way to clear up this question, if only slightly: by telling one's own story. Do you remember the words of the hero of Notes from the Underground: "What can a decent man talk about with the greatest of pleasure? Answer: himself. So I shall speak about myself." [Ibid., III (2), 74].
To a considerable extent, Dostoevsky's works realize this program. With the years, as his talent developed and matured, he spoke of himself with ever greater daring and truth. But at the same time, he always continued to the end of his life more or less to conceal himself behind the fictitious names of the heroes of his novels. True, this was no longer a matter of literary or social decorum. Towards the end of his career, Dostoevsky would not have been afraid to violate even more serious demands of social relations. But he always felt obliged to say through his leading characters things that even in his consciousness would perhaps not have been cast in such a sharp and definite form, had they not appeared to him in the deceptive shape of judgments and desires, not of his own ego, but of a nonexistent hero of a novel. One is particularly aware of this in his footnote to Notes from the Underground. There, Dostoevsky insists that "the author of the notes and the notes themselves are, of course, invented," and that he merely set himself the task of portraying "one of the representatives of a generation still alive." Methods of this kind, of course, achieve directly opposite results. From the very first pages, the reader is convinced that not the notes and their author have been invented, but the annotation of them. And if Dostoevsky had always adhered to this same system of annotation in his subsequent writings, his work would not have given rise to the most diverse interpretations. But annotation was not a mere formality for him. He himself dreaded to think that the "underground," which he had depicted so vividly, was not something completely alien to him, but something kindred, his very own. He himself was frightened by the horrors that had been revealed to him, and he harnessed all the powers of his soul to protect himself from them, with anything at all, with even the first ideals he came across. Thus were created the characters Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov. Thence also the frenzied sermons that fill his Diary of a Writer to overflowing. All this is merely to remind us that the Raskolnikovs, Ivan Karamazovs, Kirillovs, and other characters of Dostoevsky's novels speak for themselves and have nothing in common with their author. All this is merely a new method of annotation of Notes from the Underground.
Unfortunately, the annotation this time is so closely interwoven with the text that there is no longer any possibility of separating in a purely mechanical way Dostoevsky's actual experiences from the "ideas" that he invented. True, it is to a certain extent possible to indicate the direction in which the separation should be made. Thus, for example, none of the banalities or commonplaces tell us anything about Dostoevsky himself. They have all been borrowed. it is not even hard to guess the sources from which Dostoevsky took them - with, to tell the truth, a fairly unstinting hand. A second sign is the method of presentation. As soon as you detect hysteria, unusually high notes, and an unnatural cry in Dostoevsky's speech, you can conclude that an "annotation" is beginning. Dostoevsky does not believe his own words, and he is trying to replace a lack of faith with "feeling" and eloquence. Such desperate, breathless eloquence does perhaps have an irresistible effect on an untrained ear, but to a more experienced one, it suggests something totally different.
It goes without saying that the signs just pointed out by no means provide a mathematically correct way of solving the problem concerning us here. Even with them, there remains sufficient room for doubt and obscurity. Mistakes are, of course, possible in the interpretation of individual passages of Dostoevsky's works, even of whole novels. In that case, what are we to rely on? On critical instinct? But the reader will not be satisfied with such an answer. It reeks of mythology, antiquity, mustiness, falsehood - even of deliberate falsehood. Well, then, on what? One thing then remains: arbitrary action. Perhaps this word with its explicit candor will be more likely to win the favor of inordinately exacting people who distrust the rights of critical instinct, particularly if they suspect that, après tout, this arbitrary action will not be entirely arbitrary.
At any rate, our task is set. We must do the job that Dostoevsky himself planned, but failed to carry out: tell the story of the regeneration of his convictions. I shall merely note here that the regeneration was indeed an unusual one. Not a trace remained of Dostoevsky's earlier convictions, of what he believed as a youth when he first joined Belinsky’s Circle [Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848), the father of Russian criticism, a leader of the Westerners. - S.R.]. Usually, people continue to regard dethroned idols as gods and abandoned temples as temples. But Dostoevsky not only burned all that he had formerly worshipped, he trampled it in the dirt. He not only hated his earlier faith, he despised it. There are few such instances in the history of literature. Modern times can name in addition to Dostoevsky, only Nietzsche. It was the very same thing with Nietzsche. His break with the ideals and teachers of his youth was no less sharp and tempestuous, and at the same time it was painfully agonizing. Dostoevsky speaks of the regeneration of his convictions; with Nietzsche, it is a question of a revaluation of all values. In effect, both expressions are but different words to denote one and the same process. If we take this circumstance into account, it will probably not seem strange that Nietzsche held such a high opinion of Dostoevsky. Here are his actual words: "Dostoevsky is the only psychologist from whom I was able to learn anything. I rank my acquaintance with him among the most splendid achievements of my life." [F.Nietzsche, Nietzsche's Werke, VIII (Leipzig, 1901), 158]. Nietzsche recognized Dostoevsky as a kindred spirit.
Indeed, if it is a similarity of inner experience rather than a common origin, a common place of residence, and a similarity of character that binds people together and makes them kindred, then Nietzsche and Dostoevsky can without exaggeration be called brothers, even twins. I think that if they had lived together, they would have hated each other with the peculiar hatred that Kirby and Shatov (The Possessed) felt for one another after their American trip, during which time they had to spend four months together, half-starving in a shed. But Nietzsche's acquaintance with Dostoevsky was only through the latter's books, and at a time when Dostoevsky was no longer alive. A dead man can be forgiven all - even the fact that he knows the secret that had been revealed to Kirillov and Shatov in the shed. He will betray nothing.
Nietzsche, however, was mistaken. No one can betray him to such an extent as Dostoevsky. And the reverse is also true: much that is obscure in Dostoevsky is clarified in Nietzsche's works. First of all, let us note one striking circumstance. As is well known, Dostoevsky liked to prophesy. And most of all, he liked to prophesy that Russia was destined to restore the idea of universal brotherhood to Europe, where it had been forgotten. One of the first Russians to gain an influence over the Europeans was Dostoevsky himself. But did his preaching attract many followers? People spoke of it a bit, they were even astonished by it - but they forgot it. The first gift that Europe gratefully accepted from Russia was Dostoevsky's "psychology," i.e., the underground man, with his various subspecies, the Raskolnikovs, Karamazovs, and Kirillovs. What a great irony of fate - don't you agree? But fate likes most of all to laugh at the ideals and prophecies of mortals - and this must be regarded as its way of revealing its great wisdom.