Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy

Skepticism and pessimism arouse the same mystical horror in the underground man as in Count Tolstoy, but the former has not been given the possibility of returning to commonplaceness, not even the possibility of decently pretending to himself and others that he has returned there (he might just try that). He knows that the past has long been forgotten, that granite, aere perennius, things not made by human hands - in brief, everything on which people have hitherto based their stability, all their a prioris - have been irretrievably lost for him. And with the boldness of a man bereft of hope, he suddenly decides to cross the fatal boundary, to take that fearful step against which he had been warned both by precepts of the past and his own experience gained from forty years of life. It is impossible to overcome his unhappiness and doubts by means of idealism. All attempts at struggle in this direction have come to naught: "The ‘lofty and beautiful’ has weighed so heavily on my neck these forty years," says Dostoevsky's underground man. One thing remains: to abandon the fruitless struggle and follow skepticism and pessimism in order to see where they will lead. This means saying to himself: "Everything that has been valued, everything that has been regarded as lofty and beautiful, is forbidden fruit for me in this life. But I continue to live, I shall go on living for a long time in new and terrible circumstances. Therefore I shall create for myself my own concept of the lofty and beautiful."

In other words, there begins a "revaluation of all values." Idealism, quite unexpectedly to itself, turns from the innocent judge into the accused. Dostoevsky is ashamed to recall that he himself was once an idealist. He would like to renounce his past, and because it is impossible to deceive himself, he tries to imagine his recent life in a different light; he invents extenuating circumstances for himself. "Among us Russians, generally speaking, there have never been any of those silly transcendental German and particularly French romantics on whom nothing has any effect, even if the earth were to give way under their feet, even if all France were to perish at the barricades - they are always the same, even for decency's sake they do not change, and they will go on singing their transcendental songs, so to say, to the grave, because they are fools. But with us here in Russia, there are no fools." [Dostoevsky, op. cit.. III (2), 106-107]. As if there are no "fools" in Russia! Who sang the praises of Makar Devushkin night after night? Who shed tears over Natasha, even at a time when the earth was already crumbling away under his feet? Alas, one cannot erase from the memory these pages from the past, no matter how much cunning one resorts to. Of all our romantics, Dostoevsky was the most fanciful, the most transcendental, the most sincere.

Now that Judgment Day had come, and he saw that the ways of its court differ from those promised by Socrates and Plato, and that, despite his virtues, he had been driven into outer darkness along with a multitude of people like him, he wanted to vindicate himself, at least a little. Perhaps he recalled - in such cases, as we know, memory is always tediously obliging - perhaps he recalled that, after all, people had warned him. They had told him that this court rejoices more over one repentant sinner than over a hundred righteous men. He must have understood that the righteous, all those "transcendental romantics," are considered ordinary, and that on Judgment Day, in their capacity as ordinary people, they cannot expect to be pardoned. Formerly, he had not heard or had not comprehended the warning voice, and now - now it is almost too late; now, remorse and sell-torture are of no avail. He is doomed, and, of course, for all eternity. On Judgment Day, there are no other sentences. It is not the same as with Count Tolstoy and his dealings with conscience, which imposes humane, suspended sentences in which there is justice, mercy, and, above all, a promise of pardon. In this case, there is no pardon. But even worse is the fact that resignation, on which moralists always rely so heavily, does not help.

Here is the testimony of the underground man, who is well versed in these matters: "Confronted by a wall, the direct people give up in all sincerity. For them, the wall is no evasion, as it is, for example, for us - no pretext to turn aside. No, they throw up their hands in all sincerity. For them, the wall has something soothing, morally assuaging, and final - perhaps even something mystical." [Ibid., 77] The language is, of course, different, but who would fail to recognize in this wall the Kantian a priori standing before the Ding an sich? They were a great satisfaction to philosophers, but Dostoevsky, who needed this "soothing, morally assuaging, and final" thing more than all else in the world, consciously preferred to dash his head against the wall rather than to reconcile himself to its impenetrability. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" You see that "eternal" truths were devised by the sages not so much for the people needing consolation as for the consolers, i.e., for themselves. This thought horrifies Dostoevsky. After all, his entire life, his entire past, had been the personification of the idea of the consoler. He was a novelist who taught people to believe that the horrible fate of the humiliated and insulted is expiated by the tears and good sentiments of the readers and writers. His happiness, his inspiration was nourished by the "humblest man, our brother. Only when man sees for himself that for years on end he had been able to cherish such a hideous lie in his soul and revere it as a great and sacred truth, only then does he begin to understand that "ideas" must not be believed, to understand what splendid and alluring forms our basest impulses can assume if they need to gain ascendance over our souls. And indeed, what can be more terrible than a singer of "poor folk" watering his poetic flower garden with the tears of Makar Devushkin and Natasha?

Now it is clear why Dostoevsky cannot return to his former state of tranquillity, to the wall that contains so much that is morally assuaging and final for direct people. Better any truth at all than such a lie, he says to himself - and thence the valor with which he looks reality in the face. Do you remember the almost nonsensical, but brilliant, statement of Shakespeare's Lear: "Thou’dst shun a bear; but if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea, thou’dst meet the bear i’ th’ mouth." [Act II, Scene 4]. Dostoevsky fled reality, but he met idealism on the way and turned back: all the horrors of life are not so terrible as the ideas invented by reason and conscience. Rather than shedding tears over Devushkin, it is better to tell the truth: let the world go to pot, as long as I can have my tea. It was not easy for Dostoevsky to accept such a "truth." And what is a man to do with it whose past included Makar Devushkin and penal servitude, and whose present includes epilepsy and all the delights of the life of a struggling, middle-aged Petersburg writer who is practically just beginning his career?

At one time it was thought that "truth" consoles and strengthens man and bolsters his spirits. But the truth of the underground is of an entirely different breed than its magnanimous predecessors. It does not think of man at all, and if, metaphorically speaking, any intentions can be attributed it, they are not, at any rate, benevolent ones. Its business is not to console. Perhaps to ridicule, to offend - it is still capable of that. "More than anything else, the laws of nature have constantly offended me throughout my life," says the underground man. Is it any wonder then that he can feel no tenderness either for truths or ideals, if both of them, now in the form of the laws of nature, now in the form of lofty doctrines of morality, do nothing but offend and humiliate a childishly trusting and totally innocent being? How is one to respond to such masters? What feeling other than perpetual, implacable hatred can one have for the natural order and for humanity? Spencer preached accommodation, the moralists - submission to fate. But that is all very well if one assumes that accommodation is still possible and that submission can at least bring peace. "If one assumes!" But psychology has already shown us that all assumptions are devised solely for the assumers, and that even Count Tolstoy participated in the conspiracy against the humiliated and insulted. ...

Lev Shestov


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