Georg Lukacs 1949
Translator: Rene Wellek;
Source: Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture and Revolution by Georg Lukacs Dell Publishing Co., 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.
I go to prove my soul!
– ROBERT BROWNING
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.” 
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.
Raskolnikov is the Rastignac of the second half of the nineteenth century. Dostoevsky admired Balzac, had translated Eugenie Grandet, and surely quite consciously resumed the theme of his predecessor. The very nature of this connection shows his originality: his poetic grasp of the change of the times, of men, of their psychology and worldview.
Emerson saw the reason for the deep and general effect of Napoleon on the whole intellectual life of Europe in the fact that “the people whom he sways are little Napoleons.” He put his finger on one side of this influence: Napoleon represented all the virtues and vices possessed by the great mass of men in his time and partly also in later times. Balzac and Stendhal turned the question round and made the necessary additions. Napoleon appeared to them as the great example for the saying that since the French Revolution every gifted man carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack, as the great example of the unimpeded rise of talents in a democratic society. Hence as the gauge for the democratic character of a society: Is a Napoleon-like rise possible or not? From this question followed the pessimistic criticism of Balzac and Stendhal: a recognition and admission that the heroic period of bourgeois society – and of the rise of individuals – was over and belonged to the past.
When Dostoevsky appeared, the heroic period had receded even further. The bourgeois society of Western Europe had consolidated itself. Against Napoleonic dreams had been erected inner and outer barriers different and more firm than those erected in the time of Balzac and Stendhal. The Russia of Dostoevsky was barely beginning a social transformation – that is why the Napoleonic dreams of Russian youth were more violent, more passionate than those of their Western European contemporaries. But the transformation encountered at first insuperable obstacles in the existing firm skeleton of the old society (however dead it may seem in the perspective of history). Russia was during this period a contemporary of the Europe after 1848, with its disillusionment with the ideals of the eighteenth century and its dreams of a renovation and reformation of bourgeois society. This contemporaneity with Europe arose, however, in a prerevolutionary period when the Russian ancien regime still ruled unchecked, when the Russian 1789 was still in the distant future.
Even Rastignac saw Napoleon less as the concrete historical heir of the French Revolution than as a “professeur d’energie.” The fascinating figure of Napoleon set an example less by his ultimate aims than by his method, by the kinds and techniques of his action, by his way of overcoming obstacles. Still, in spite of all the psychological and moral attenuations and sublimations of the ideal, the peculiar aims of the generation of the Rastignacs remained clear and socially concrete.
The situation of Raskolnikov is even more decidedly reversed. The moral and psychological problem was for him almost exclusively concrete: the ability of Napoleon to step over men for the sake of great aims – an ability which Napoleon has, for instance, in common with Mohammed.
From such a psychological perspective the concrete action becomes fortuitous – an occasion rather than a real aim or means. The psychological and moral dialectic of the pro and con of the action becomes the crux of the matter: the test whether Raskolnikov has the moral capacity to become a Napoleon. Concrete action becomes a psychological experiment which, however, risks the whole physical and moral existence of the experimenter: an experiment whose “fortuitous occasion” and “fortuitous subject” is, after all, another human being.
In Balzac’s Fere Goriot, Rastignac and his friend Bianchon discuss briefly the moral problem whether one would have the right to press a button in order to kill an unknown Chinese mandarin if one received a million francs for it. In Balzac the conversations are episodes, witty byplay, moral illustrations for the concrete main problems of the novel. In Dostoevsky it becomes the central question: with great and deliberate art it is made the focus. The practical and concrete side of the act is pushed aside with equal deliberation. For example, Raskolnikov does not even know how much he has robbed from the pawnbroker, his murder is carefully planned but he forgets to shut the door, and so on. All these details emphasize the main point: can Raskolnikov morally endure the overstepping of the boundaries? And principally: what are the motives which work in him for and against the crime? what moral forces come into play? what psychological inhibitions affect his decision before and after the crime? what psychic forces is he able to mobilize for this decision and for his perseverance afterwards?
The mental experiment with himself assumes its own dynamism; it continues even when it has lost all practical significance. Thus the day after the murder Raskolnikov goes to the flat of the pawnbroker in order to listen again to the sound of the doorbell which had terrified and upset him so much after the killing and to test again its psychic effects on
himself. The purer the experiment as such, the less can it give a concrete answer to concrete questions. Raskolnikov’s fundamental problem has become an event in world literature – precisely in connection and in contrast to his great predecessor. Just as the rise and effect of Werther would have been impossible without Richardson and Rousseau, so Raskolnikov is unthinkable without Balzac. But the putting of the central question in Crime and Punishment is just as original, stimulating and prophetic as in Werther.
The experiment with oneself, the execution of an action not so much for the sake of the contents and effects of the action, but in order to know oneself once for all, in depth, to the very bottom, is one of the main human problems of the bourgeois and intellectual world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Goethe took a very skeptical attitude toward the slogan “Know thyself,” toward self-knowledge by self-analysis. For him action as a way to self-knowledge was still taken for granted. He possessed a stable system of ideals, though it may not have been expressly formulated. In striving for these ideals, actions which were significant for their contents, for their intimate relations to the ideals, were accomplished of necessity. Self-knowledge thus becomes a by-product of the actions. Man, by acting concretely in society, learns to know himself.
Even when these ideals change, even when – whether realized or not – they lose their weight and become relative, new ideals take the place of the lost ones. Faust, Wilhelm Meister (and of course Goethe himself) have their problems; but they have not become problems to themselves.
The same is true of the great egoists in Balzac. Looked at objectively, the turning inward,
the making subjective of the ideals of individualism, appears very questionable when egoism – the exaltation at any price of the individual – becomes the central issue as it does so constantly in Balzac. But these objective problems lead only very rarely in Balzac to the self-dissolution of the subject. Individualism displays here its tragic (or comic) problems very early; but the individual itself has not yet become problematical.
Only when this individualism turns inward – when it fails to find an Archimedean point either in current social aims or in the spontaneous urge of an egotistical ambition – does the problem of Dostoevsky’s experiments arise. Stavrogin, the hero of The Possessed, gives a summary of these problems in his farewell letter to Dasha Shatov immediately before his suicide:
I tried my strength everywhere. You advised me to do this so as to learn “to know myself.” ... But what to apply my strength to – that’s what I have never seen and don’t see now. ... I can still wish to do something good, as I always could, and that gives me a feeling of pleasure. At the same time I wish to do something evil and that gives me pleasure, too. ... My desires are not strong enough, they cannot guide me. You can cross a river on a log but not on a chip of wood.
Admittedly the case of Stavrogin is very special, very different from that of Raskolnikov and particularly different from these experiments in which the striving for self-knowledge appeals to the soul of other men: as, for instance, when the hero of Notes from the Underground, who lives almost exclusively by such experiments, speaks compassionately to the prostitute Liza in order to test his power over her feelings; or when, in The Idiot, Nastasya Filipovna throws the one hundred thousand rubles brought by Rogozhin into the fire in order fully to know and enjoy the meanness of Ganya Ivolgin, who would get the money if he could pull it from the fire, and so on.
All these cases, however diverse, have something important in common. First of all, they are without exception the actions of lonely men – men who are completely dependent on themselves as they understand life and their environment, who live so deeply and intensely in themselves that the soul of others remains to them forever an unknown country. The other man is to them only a strange and menacing power which either subjugates them or becomes subject to them. When young Dolgoruky in A Raw Youth expounds his “idea” of becoming a Rothschild and describes the experiments to realize his “idea,” which are psychologically very similar to those of Raskolnikov, he defines their nature as “solitude” and “power.” Isolation, separation, loneliness reduces the relations among men to a struggle for superiority or inferiority. The experiment is a sublimated spiritual form, a psychological turning inward of naked struggles for power.
But by this solitude, by this immersion of the subject in itself, the self becomes bottomless. There arises either the anarchy of Stavrogin, a loss of direction in all instincts, or the obsession of a Raskolnikov by an “idea.” A feeling, an aim, an ideal acquires absolute sovereignty over the soul of a man: I, you, all men disappear, turn into shadows, exist only subsumed under the “idea.” This monomania appears in a low form in Pyotr Verkhovensky (The Possessed), who takes men to be what he wishes them to be; in a higher form in the women who were hurt by life. Katerina Ivanovna (The Brothers Karamazov) loves only her own virtue, Nastasya Filipovna (The Idiot), her own humiliation: both imagine that they will find support and satisfaction in this love. We find the highest level of this psychic organization in the men of ideas such as Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov. A horrifying, caricaturing contrast to these is Smerdyakov (The Brothers Karamazov), the ideological and moral effect of the doctrine that “everything is permitted.”
But precisely on the highest level does the overstrained subjectivity most obviously turn into its opposite: the rigid monomania of the “idea” becomes absolute emptiness. The “raw youth,” Dolgoruky, very graphically describes the psychological consequences of his obsession by the “idea” of becoming a Rothschild:
... having something fixed, permanent and overpowering in one’s mind in which one is terribly absorbed, one is, as it were, removed by it from the whole world, and everything that happens (except the one great thing) slips by one. Even one’s impressions are hardly formed correctly. ... Oh, I have my “idea,” nothing else matters, was what I said to myself. ... The “idea” comforted me in disgrace and insignificance. But all the nasty things I did took refuge, as it were, under the “idea.” So to speak, it smoothed over everything, but also put a mist before my eyes.
Hence comes the complete incongruity between action and soul in these people. Hence comes their panic fear of being ridiculous because they are constantly aware of this incongruity. The more extreme this individualism becomes, the more the self turns inward, the stronger it even becomes outwardly and the more it shuts itself off from objective reality with a Chinese wall, the more it loses itself in an inner void. The self which submerges itself in itself, cannot find any more firm ground; what seemed firm ground for a time turns out to be mere surface; everything that temporarily appeared with the claim of giving direction turns into its opposite. The ideal becomes completely subjective, an alluring but always deceptive fata morgana.
Thus the experiment is the desperate attempt to find firm ground within oneself, to know who one is – a desperate attempt to pull down the Chinese wall between the I and the You, between the self and the world – a desperate attempt and always a futile attempt. The tragedy – or the tragicomedy – of the lonely man finds its purest expression in the experiment.
A minor figure in Dostoevsky describes the atmosphere of these novels briefly and pointedly. She says of its characters: “They are all as if at a railroad station.” And this is the essential point.
First of all, for these people every situation is provisional. One stands at a railroad station, waiting for the departure of the train. The railroad station naturally is not home, the train is necessarily a transition. This image expresses a pervasive feeling about life in Dostoevsky’s world. In The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky remarks that even prisoners condemned to twenty years of penal servitude regard their life in prison as something transitory and consider it provisional. In a letter to the critic, Strakhov, Dostoevsky compares his story The Gambler, which he was then planning, with The House of the Dead. He wanted to achieve an effect similar to the one he had achieved in The House of the Dead. The life of a gambler (also a symbolic figure for Dostoevsky and his world) is never life proper but rather only a preparation for the life to come, for real life. These men do not properly live in the present, but only in a constant tense expectation of the decisive turn in their fortune. But even when such a turn occurs – usually as a result of the experiment – nothing essential is changed in the organization of their inner world.
One dream is punctured by the touch of reality: it collapses – and there arises a new dream of a new turn around the corner. One train has left the station, one waits for the next on e- but a railroad station nevertheless remains a railroad station, a place of transit.
Dostoevsky is acutely aware that an adequate expression of such a world places him in complete opposition to the art of the past and the present. At the end of A Rate Youth he expresses this conviction in the form of a critical letter on the memoirs of the hero. He sees clearly that such a world could not possibly be dominated by the beauty of Anna Karenina. But then he justifies his own form, he does not do so by raising a question of pure aesthetics. On the contrary, he thinks that the beauty of Tolstoy’s novels (Dostoevsky does not name them but the allusion is unmistakable) belongs really to the past and not to the present and that these works have, in their essence, already become historical novels. The social criticism concealed behind the aesthetic conflict is made concrete by describing the family whose fate is related in Dolgoruky’s memoirs as not a normal but an “accidental family.” According to the writer of the letter, the contrast of beauty and the new realism is due to a change in the structure of society. On the one hand, the “arbitrariness,” the abnormality of the family appears in the minds of the individuals – the better people of the present age are almost all mentally ill, says a figure of that novel; and on the other hand, all the distortions within the family are only the most conspicuous expression of a deep crisis in the whole society.
In seeing and presenting this, Dostoevsky becomes the first and greatest poet of the modern capitalist metropolis. There were of course poetic treatments of city life long before Dostoevsky: as early as the eighteenth century Defoe’s Moll Flanders emerged as a masterpiece of the city. Dickens, in particular, gave poetic expression to the peculiar solitude of the great city. (Dostoevsky loves and praises Dickens most enthusiastically for this very reason.) And Balzac had sketched the Dantesque circles of a new, contemporary Hell in his picture of Paris.
All this is true and one could add much more. But Dostoevsky was the first – and is still unsurpassed – in drawing the mental deformations that are brought about as a social necessity by life in a modern city. The genius of Dostoevsky consists precisely in his power of recognizing and representing the dynamics of a future social, moral and psychological evolution from germs of something barely beginning.
We must add that Dostoevsky does not confine himself to description and analysis – to mere “morphology,” to use a fashionable term of present-day agnosticism – but offers also a genesis, a dialectic and a perspective.
The problem of genesis is decisive. Dostoevsky sees the starting point of the specific nature of his characters’ psychological organization in the particular form of urban misery. Take the great novels and stories of Dostoevsky’s mature period: Notes from the Underground, The Insulted and the Injured, Crime and Punishment. In each one of them we are shown how the problems that we discussed from the point of view of their psychic consequences, how the psychic organization of Dostoevsky’s characters, how the deformations of their moral ideals grow out of the social misery of the modern metropolis. The insulting and injuring of men in the city is the basis of their morbid individualism, their morbid desire for power over themselves and their neighbors.
In general, Dostoevsky does not like descriptions of external reality: he is not a paysagiste, as Turgenev and Tolstoy are, each in his own manner. But because he grasps with the visionary power of a poet the unity of the inner and the outer – the social and the psychic – organization here in the misery of the city, unsurpassed pictures of Petersburg emerge, particularly in Crime and Punishment, pictures of the new metropolis – from the coffinlike furnished room of the hero through the stifling narrowness of the police station to the center of the slum district, the Haymarket, and the nocturnal streets and bridges.
Yet Dostoevsky is never a specialist in milieu. His work embraces the whole of society, from the “highest” to the “lowest,” from Petersburg to a remote provincial village. But the “primary phenomenon” – and this artistic trait throws a strong light on the social genesis of the books – remains always the same: the misery of Petersburg. What is experienced in Petersburg is generalized by Dostoevsky as valid for the whole of society. Just as in the provincial tragedies, The Possessed and Tlie Brothers Karamazov, Petersburg characters (Stavrogin and Ivan) set the tone, so in the depiction of the whole society the pattern is set by what has grown out from “down there” in misery.
Balzac recognized and represented the deep psychological parallelism between the “upper” and the “lower” and saw clearly that the forms of expression of the socially lower would have great advantages over those of the upper stratum.
But Dostoevsky is concerned with much more than a problem of artistic expression. The Petersburg misery, particularly that of intellectual youth, is for him the purest classical symptom of his “primary phenomenon”: the alienation of the individual from the broad stream of the life of the people, which to Dostoevsky is the last and decisive social reason for all the mental and moral deformations we have sketched above. One can observe the same deformations also in the upper strata. But here one sees rather the psychological results, while in the former the social and psychological process of their genesis comes out much more clearly. “Up there” the historical connection of this psychic organization with the past can be discerned. Gorky very acutely sees in Ivan Karamazov a psychic descendant of the passive nobleman Oblomov. “Down there,” however, the rebellious element gains the upper hand and points to the future.
This divorce between the lonely individual and the life of the people is the prevailing theme of bourgeois literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. This type dominates the bourgeois literature of the West during this period – whether it is accepted or rejected, lyrically idealized or satirically caricatured. But even in the greatest writers, in Flaubert and Ibsen, the psychological and moral consequences appear more prominently than their social basis. Only in Russia, in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, is the problem raised in all its breadth and depth.
Tolstoy contrasts his heroes who have lost contact with the people – and hence have lost the objectivity of their ideals, their moral standards and their psychological support – with the peasant class, which was then apparently quite immobile, but was actually going through a process of complete transformation. Its slow and often contradictory transition to social action became important for the fate of the democratic renewal of Russia only much later.
Dostoevsky investigates the same process of the dissolution of old Russia and the germs of its rebirth primarily in the misery of the cities among the “insulted and injured” of Petersburg. Their involuntary alienation from the old life of the people – which only later became an ideology, a will and activity, their – provisional – inability to “connect” with the popular movement which was still groping for an aim and direction, was Dostoevsky’s “primary social phenomenon.”
Only this point of view illuminates the alienation of the upper strata from the people in Dostoevsky. With a different emphasis, but essentially as in Tolstoy, it is idleness, life without work – the complete isolation of the soul which comes from idleness – which may be tragic or grotesque or, most frequently, tragicomic – but always deforming. Whether it is Svidrigailov, Stavrogin, Versilov, Liza Khokhlakov, Aglaya Yepanchin or Nastasya Filipovna: for Dostoevsky their idle or, at most, aimlessly active lives are always the foundation of their hopeless solitude.
This plebeian trait sharply distinguishes Dostoevsky from parallel Western literary movements which, in part, arose simultaneously with him and, in part, arose at a later stage – under his influence – from the diverse trends of literary psychologism.
In the West this literary trend – which in France Edmond de Goncourt helped to prepare and Bourget, Huysmans and others helped to realize – was primarily a reaction against the plebeian tendencies of naturalism, which were not particularly strong anyway. Goncourt considered the change an artistic conquest of the upper strata of society, while naturalism had concerned itself largely with the lower classes. In the later representatives of this tendency – up to Proust – the aristocratic and mondain trait of literary psychologism comes out even more forcefully.
The cult of the inner life appears as a privilege of the upper classes of society, in contrast to the brutal earthy conflicts of the lower classes that naturalism tried to comprehend artistically by heredity and environment. The cult therefore takes on a double aspect. On the one hand, it is coquettish, vain, highly self-conscious – even in cases where it led individually to tragic destinies. On the other hand, it is decidedly conservative, because most Western authors cannot oppose the mental and moral instability of lonely city
individualists here described with anything more than the old spiritual forces – primarily the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as something that might offer refuge to erring souls.
Dostoevsky’s answers in his journalistic writings – and also in his novels – parallel these tendencies of bourgeois literature in his appeal to the Russian Orthodox Church. But the correctness and depth of his poetic questionings lead him far beyond his narrow horizon and push him into sharp opposition to parallel phenomena in the West.
In particular the world of Dostoevsky lacks any trace of worldly skeptical coquetry, of vain self-consciousness, or of toying with his own loneliness and despair. “We always play, and who knows this, is wise,” says Arthur Schnitzler and thereby expresses the most extreme contrast to the world of Dostoevsky’s characters. For their despair is not the spice of life, which is otherwise bored and idle, but despair in the most genuine, most literal sense. Their despair is an actual banging at closed doors, an embittered, futile struggle for the meaning of life which is lost or in danger of being lost.
Because this despair is genuine, it is a principle of excess, again in sharp contrast to the worldly polished forms of most of the Western skeptics. Dostoevsky shatters all forms – beautiful and ugly, genuine and false – because the desperate man can no longer consider them an adequate expression for what he is seeking for his soul. All the barriers that social convention has erected between men are pulled down in order that nothing but spontaneous sincerity, to the most extreme limits, to the utter lack of shame, may prevail among men. The horror at the loneliness of men erupts here with irresistible power precisely because all these pitiless destructions are still unable to remove the solitude.
The journalist Dostoevsky could speak consolingly in a conservative sense, but the human content, the poetic tempo and the poetic rhythm of his speech, have a rebellious tone and thus find themselves constantly in opposition to his highest political and social intentions.
The struggle of these two tendencies in Dostoevsky’s mind yields very diverse results. Sometimes, rather frequently, the political journalist wins out over the poet: the natural dynamics of his characters, dictated by his vision – independently of his conscious aims – and not by his will are violated and distorted to fit his political opinions. The sharp criticism made by Gorky that Dostoevsky slanders his own characters applies to such cases.
But very frequently the result is rather the opposite. The characters emancipate themselves and lead their own lives to the very end, to the most extreme consequences of their inborn nature. The dialectics of their evolution, their ideological struggle, takes a completely different direction than the consciously envisaged goals of the journalist Dostoevsky. The poetic question, correctly put, triumphs over the political intentions, the social answer of the writer.
Only there does the depth and correctness of Dostoevsky’s questioning assert itself fully. It is a revolt against that moral and psychic deformation of man which is caused by the evolution of capitalism. Dostoevsky’s characters go to the end of the socially necessary self-distortion unafraid, and their self-dissolution, their self-execution, is the most violent protest that could have been made against the organization of life in that time. The experimentation of Dostoevsky’s character is thus put into a new light: it is a desperate attempt to break through the barriers which deform the soul and maim, distort and dismember life. The creator Dostoevsky does not know the correct direction of the breakthrough, and could not know it. The journalist and philosopher pointed in the wrong direction. But that this problem of the breakthrough occurs with every genuine upsurge of the mind points to the future and demonstrates the unbreakable power of humanity which will never be satisfied with half measures and false solutions.
Every genuine man in Dostoevsky breaks through this barrier, even though he perishes in the attempt. The fatal attraction of Raskolnikov and Sonya is only superficially one of extreme opposites. Quite rightly Raskolnikov tells Sonya that by her boundless spirit of self-sacrifice, by the selfless goodness which made her a prostitute in order to save her family, she herself had broken the barrier and transcended the limits – just as he had done by murdering the pawnbroker. For Dostoevsky this transcendence was in Sonya more genuine, more human, more immediate, more plebeian than in Raskolnikov.
Here the light shines in the darkness and not where the journalist Dostoevsky fancied he saw it. Modern solitude is that darkness. “They say,” says a desperate character in Dostoevsky, “that the well-fed cannot understand the hungry, but I would add that the hungry do not always understand the hungry." There is apparently not a ray of light in this darkness. What Dostoevsky thought to be such a ray was only a will-o’-the-wisp.
The ways that Dostoevsky points out for his characters are impassable. As a creator he himself feels these problems deeply. He preaches faith, but in reality – as a creator of men – he does not himself believe that the man of his age can have faith in his sense. It is his atheists who have genuine depth of thought, a genuine fervor for the quest.
He preaches the way of Christian sacrifice. But his first positive hero, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, is fundamentally atypical and pathological because he is unable, largely due to his illness, to overcome inwardly his egoism – even in love. The problem of victory over egoism, to which Prince Myshkin was supposed to find the answer creatively, cannot be put concretely, creatively, because of this pathological foundation. It may be said in passing that the limitless compassion of Myshkin causes at least as much tragic suffering as the darkly individualistic pathos of Raskolnikov.
When, at the end of his career, Dostoevsky wanted to create a healthy positive figure in Alyosha Karamazov, he vacillated constantly between two extremes. In the extant novel Alyosha actually seems to be a healthy counterpart of Prince Myshkin, a Dostoevskean saint. But the novel as we know it – just from the point of view of the main hero – is only a beginning, only the story of his youth. We also know something of Dostoevsky’s plans for a continuation. In a letter to the poet Maikov he writes: “The hero in the course of his life is for a while an atheist, then a believer, then again a zealot and sectarian, and at the end he becomes again an atheist.” This letter fully confirms what Suvorin reports of a conversation with Dostoevsky, which may sound startling at first. Suvorin tells us that “the hero is to commit a political crime at the proper moment and is to be executed; he is a man thirsting for truth who in his quest has quite naturally become a revolutionary.” We cannot know of course whether and how far Dostoevsky would have carried the character of Alyosha in this direction. Still, it is more than characteristic that the inner dynamics of his favorite hero had to take this direction.
Thus the world of Dostoevsky’s characters dissolves his political ideals into chaos. But this chaos itself is great in Dostoevsky: his powerful protest against everything false and distorting in modern bourgeois society. It is no chance that the memory of a picture by Claude Lorrain, Acis and Galathea, recurs several times in his novels. It is always called “The Golden Age” by his heroes and is described as the most powerful symbol of their deepest yearning.
The golden age: genuine and harmonious relations between genuine and harmonious men. Dostoevsky’s characters know that this is a dream in the present age but they cannot and will not abandon the dream. They cannot abandon the dream even when most of their feelings sharply contradict it. This dream is the truly genuine core, the real gold of Dostoevsky’s Utopias; a state of the world in which men may know and love each other, in which culture and civilization will not be an obstacle to the development of men.
The spontaneous, wild and blind revolt of Dostoevsky’s characters occurs in the name of the golden age, whatever the contents of the mental experiment may be. This revolt is poetically great and historically progressive in Dostoevsky: here really shines a light in the darkness of Petersburg misery, a light that illuminates the road to the future of mankind.
1. A letter to A. Suvorin, October 27, 1888. (Translator’s note.)
2. The Possessed. Constance Garnett translation, modified.
3. A Raw Youth. Translated by Constance Garnett.
4. The old Ichmenyev in The Insulted and the Injured. Translated by Constance Garnett. (Translator’s note.)