In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident


     We must conclude this study: not that I have exhausted my subject, for Dostoevsky's works are inexhaustible. There are few who have so laid bare their whole souls to the ultimate mysteries of human existence. But before ending, I should like to say a few words about the journalist, as he appears to us in The Diary of a Writer.

     We may remember that Dostoevsky concludes his fantastic story, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," with an appeal to preaching. It suddenly appeared to him that he was called upon not only to contemplate, but also to act; that action was the sole worthy crown of contemplation. He forgot the terrible thing which he had himself told us, how he had already tried to teach and how this teaching had corrupted the beings who were so pure that they did not know what shame was. He forgot also the Biblical threat that he who has tasted of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil shall die. Perhaps he did not forget it in the exact sense of the word, just as he did not forget the other truths which his second sight had showed him; he forgot only one thing, that those truths were "useless" by their very nature, and that any attempt to make them useful, good for all men at all times, universal and necessary, will immediately turn them from truths into lies.

     "There" he had glimpsed the absolute liberty of which his Grand Inquisitor speaks. But what to do with this liberty among men who are more afraid of it than of anything else, who need only something to adore, in whose eyes unshakable authority is preferable to anything in the world, even life? He who wishes to propagate his ideas, and teach in this world with any success, must replace liberty by authority, just as Catholicism has done, according to Dostoevsky, or Luther, according to Harnack.

     The Diary of a Writer is not even Dostoevsky's diary; that is, it never, or hardly ever (for all the same it does contain "A Gentle Soul," "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," and some other similar pages), reflects Dostoevsky's most intimate thoughts and feelings. It is a series of articles in which a man teaches other men how to live and what to do. We have already seen that Dostoevsky sometimes tried, even in his novels, to play this part. We discovered this teaching in Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Possessed. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's last novel, this tendency is particularly marked. The author tries there to present the ideal type of the Master under the figure of Father Zossima. But we have only to compare the pale and bloodless harangues of Father Zossima with the burning and inspired words of Dimitri and Ivan Karamazov to realize that Dostoevsky's truths fear general validity as greatly, and submit to it as hardly, as the average man to liberty. It is the author who speaks through the mouth of Zossima, just as much as through the mouth of his underground hero, but in the former case we hear nothing but the words of "omnitude" or common consciousness. See what happened to Dostoevsky with Father Therapont; when Dostoevsky tried to paint a great solitary, a Stylite who should please the fancy of common consciousness, he only succeeded in painting a figure that was almost comic... But when he painted Kirilov, whom he felt obliged to sentence to suicide, this silent, solitary man became under his pen a formidable, profoundly moving character.

     Dostoevsky wanted Father Zossima's words to be intelligible to all, even to Claude Bernard. And, in fact, they pleased every one; they bring relaxation to those readers, who know quite well what life is and what death. But in reading these interminable sermons, one is amazed at the patience Dostoevsky must have expended on composing them. There is no trace of that spiritual tension, of those "imponderables" with which Dostoevsky knew how to move souls so deeply, and which gave Pascal the mysterious right to oppose his thinking reed against the whole universe.

     It is astonishing that Dostoevsky dares to call Smerdiakov himself (though only once, it is true) a "contemplative" while Zossima and Alyosha, are men of "action"; who belong, therefore, to those representatives of common consciousness in whose eyes there is nothing above certainty and those self-evident truths which demand guarantees for everything, even for caprice. Most of Dostoevsky's journalistic work is a repetition of the words, speeches, and writings of Zossima and Therapont. Zossima advised, treated the sick, gave alms and consolation. Therapont exorcised. In order to act Dostoevsky saw himself forced to submit his second sight to his ordinary, normal, human vision, which agreed with the findings of his other senses, as with his reason. He wanted to teach men how to live, or, to use his own expression, how to come to an arrangement on earth with God". But it is even less possible to come to an arrangement on earth with God than without Him. Dostoevsky has told us so himself in "The Grand Inquisitor". Revelations are not given to man to make the life of man easier or to transform stones into bread; neither to change the course of history. History knows only one course, from the past, through the present, direct into the future; but revelation presupposes some second path. Any one wanting to gain a "historic" influence must give up his liberty and submit himself to necessity. Therefore, the Evil Spirit, the tempter, said to Christ: If thou wouldst possess "all the kingdoms of the world", thou must worship me! Any one who refuses to bow down and worship "twice two is four" will never become master of the world.

     It is not I who say all these things; they are Dostoevsky's own words, when he is alone with himself. But once he is with others he tries to become like them. His own experience, what he had seen with his own eyes, became a heavy burden to him. Men want that experience of which Kant speaks, of which scientific philosophy speaks, the experience which turns stones into bread, into what can "satisfy" the world, and will once and for all transform caprice, the living individual, and the exception into the general principle, which will put law above life, regarding it as the very essence of life itself and viewing the intractability of "twice two is four", and the other "self-evident facts", as proof of their divine origin.

     The result is extraordinary. Forced into the mould of "omnitude", Dostoevsky's ecstasies become slaves of daily necessity. Sometimes he will merely put the seal of the other world on the common opinions. He prophesies, strengthens the weak in spirit, quickens hope, persuades, sometimes even, like Therapont, he exorcises. None of hi s prophecies have been realized. He said that Russia would win Constantinople, that she would never know class warfare, that Western Europe would come to a bloody end and implore Russia's help in its agony, etc. One cannot arrange one's life on earth without God, but according to him one can arrange it with God. We see today how cruelly he was mistaken. Russia is drowned in blood, is the scene of horrors such as Europe has never known. And strange as it may seem, this happens, perhaps, precisely because those men who decided Russia's destiny for centuries tried to come to an arrangement with God on earth; they wished to be guided by those truths which were revealed to Dostoevsky through his second sight, but hidden from themselves.

     Dostoevsky saw this himself; he tells us with enthusiasm in "The Grand Inquisitor" that men had forsaken God because He would not trouble about their earthly prosperity, would not "guarantee" their caprice. And yet he goes on preaching, transforming truths of the other world into judgments of universal validity. By his contact with the other world he had glimpsed ultimate freedom, but when he spoke to his fellow-men, he repeated with the Slavophiles that Russia was the freest country in existence and demanded, like a tyrant, that all should think as he did. He remembered what his experience had shown him, "a man may perhaps prefer suffering to well-being, destruction to construction"; here "everything has a beginning and nothing has an end"; "God demands the impossible"; "'twice two is four' is the principle of death", etc. And out of all these sudden, undefined, capricious, uncertain truths he tries to elaborate a political program, a collection of rules to form a guide to practical life.

     The result is not difficult to imagine. The thirst for absolute liberty which torments him finally results in that naÔve Slavophile statement that Russia is the most free of all countries; a statement which Dostoevsky, who was not afraid of the law of contradiction, proclaims in the face of the despotic regime which led Russia over the brink of the abyss. "A man may perhaps prefer suffering to well-being" transforms itself for purposes of "action" into a formula somewhat similar in appearance, yet quite different in reality: "the Russian people love suffering". This truth was all too well known, even without Dostoevsky, to those who ruled Russia's destinies and who, by multiplying the sufferings of its people brought about the situation which we are witnessing today. One could speak at length on this subject, but I think silence would be preferable; all those to whom the destinies of Russia are dear understand only too well that those who control them "cannot defy both common sense and science with impunity".

One cannot demonstrate God. One cannot seek Him in history. God is "caprice" incarnate, who rejects all guarantees. He is outside history, like all that people hold to be to timiŰtaton.

This is the meaning of all Dostoevsky's works; and this too is the meaning of the enigmatical words of Euripides which we quoted at the head of this study:

tis d'oÓden, ei to dzÍn men esti katthaneÓn,
to katthaneÓv de dzÍn;

September 1921.

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