Dostoevsky by Georg Lukacs 1949

It is a strange, but often repeated fact that the literary embodiment of a new human type with all its problems comes to the civilized world from a young nation. Thus in the eighteenth century Werther came from Germany and prevailed in England and France: thus in the second half of the nineteenth century Raskolnikov came from far-off, unknown, almost legendary Russia to speak for the whole civilized West.

There is nothing unusual in the fact that a backward country produces powerful works. The historical sense developed in the nineteenth century has accustomed us to enjoy the literature and art of the whole globe and the whole past. Works of art that have influenced the entire world originated in the remotest countries and ages: from Negro sculpture to Chinese woodcuts, from the Kalevala to Rabindranath Tagore.

But the cases of Werther and Raskolnikov are very different. Their effect is not touched in the slightest by a craving for the exotic, “Suddenly” there appeared from an underdeveloped country, where the troubles and conflicts of contemporary civilization could not yet have been fully unfolded, works that stated – imaginatively – all the problems of human culture at its highest point, stirred up ultimate depths, and presented a totality hitherto never achieved and never since surpassed, embracing the spiritual, moral, and philosophical questions of that age.

The word question must be underscored and must be supplemented by the assertion that it is a poetic, creative question and not a question put in philosophical terms. For this was and is the mission of poetry and fiction: to put questions, to raise problems in the form of new men and new fates of men. The concrete answers that naturally are given by poetic works frequently have – seen from this distance – an arbitrary character in bourgeois literature. They may even throw the actual poetic problem into confusion. Goethe very soon saw this himself with Werther. Only a few years later he made Werther exhort the reader in a poem: “Be a man and don’t follow me.”

Ibsen quite deliberately considered questioning the task of the poet and declined, on principle, any obligation to answer his questions. Chekhov made a definitive statement about this whole matter when he drew a sharp distinction between “the solution of a question and the correct putting of the question. Only the last is required of the artist. In Anna Karenina and Onegin not a single question is solved yet these works satisfy us fully only because all questions are put in them correctly.” [1]

This insight is particularly important for a judgment of Dostoevsky for many – even most – of his political and social answers are false, have nothing to do with present-day reality or with the strivings of the best today. They were obsolete, even reactionary, when they were pronounced.

Still, Dostoevsky is a writer of world eminence. For he knew how during a crisis of his country and the whole human race, to put questions in an imaginatively decisive sense. He created men whose destiny and inner life, whose conflicts and interrelations with other characters, whose attraction and rejection of men and ideas illuminated all the deepest questions of that age, sooner, more deeply, and more widely than in average life itself. This imaginative anticipation of the spiritual and moral development of the civilized world assured the powerful and lasting effect of Dostoevsky’s works. These works have become even more topical and more fresh as time goes on.

Dostoevsky by Georg Lukacs 1949


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