A. V. Lunacharsky 1929

Dostoyevsky’s Plurality of Voices
(Re the Book Problems of the Works of Dostoyevsky by M. M. Bakhtin)

Written: 1929;
Translator: Y. Ganuskin;
Source: A. Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art Progress Publishers, 1973;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.


In this interesting book M. M. Bakhtin treats only a few of the problems of Dostoyevsky’s writing, specially selecting certain aspects of it and approaching them primarily – indeed, almost exclusively – from the point of view of form. Bakhtin’s interests focus on certain basic features of Dostoyevsky’s method of constructing his novels (and short stories), features which appear to arise naturally – involuntarily, as it were – from the socio-psychological nature of the novelist and which have a decisive effect on the general character of his books. Essentially, the formal methods discussed by Bakhtin all have their origin in one basic phenomenon which he considers particularly important in all Dostoyevsky’s work. This phenomenon is “plurality of voices” – polyphony. Bakhtin is even inclined to consider Dostoyevsky as the “originator” of the polyphonous novel.

What, then, does Bakhtin mean by this plurality of voices?

“A multiplicity of independent and unblended voices and minds? a genuine polyphony, in which each ‘voice’ bears a part complete in itself, is in truth the basic distinguishing feature of Dostoyevsky’s novels,” he says.

And, further “... The consciousness of the hero is represented as a distinct, other consciousness. At the same time, it is not objectivised, not confined to itself, not reduced to the status of an object within the consciousness of the author.”

And this applies not only to the hero but to all the characters, or rather, to all the dramatis personae of Dostoyevsky’s novels.

What Bakhtin is trying to say is that Dostoyevsky neither makes the characters he creates into masks for his own ego, nor arranges them in a planned system of relationships designed, in the last analysis, to fulfil some task which he, as the author, had set himself from the beginning.

Dostoyevsky’s dramatis personae develop quite independently and say what they have to say (and, as Bakhtin quite rightly points out, what they have to say provides, as a rule, the key to the whole novel) without reference to the author, obedient only to the promptings of whatever basic principle of life is dominant in their own character.

Dostoyevsky’s dramatis personae live, struggle and, most of all, argue, expound their credos to one another, etc., free from all arbitrary interference on the part of the author. According to Bakhtin, it is as though the author granted complete autonomy to every character and, as a result, the whole texture of the novel is woven from confrontations between these autonomous characters, confrontations which seem to occur independently of the author’s volition.

Naturally, given this method of construction, the author cannot be certain that his work will, in the last analysis, go to prove what he would like it to prove. In this context, Bakhtin even goes so far as to claim that “at the present time it may be that Dostoyevsky is not only the most powerful influence in Russia, where almost all new prose derives, to a greater or lesser degree, from his works, but in the West also. As an artist, Dostoyevsky is followed by people of the most diverse ideological convictions, many of whom are profoundly opposed to his ideology: his artistic will irresistibly subjects everybody to itself...This artistic will does not achieve precise theoretical consciousness. It seems as though all who plunge into the labyrinth of the polyphonous novel lose their way in it and cannot hear the whole for the clamouring of the separate voices. Frequently, there is a failure to make out even the haziest outlines of the whole. The artistic principles which organise the commingling of the voices escape the ear completely.”

To this it might be added that these principles do not only go unperceived but are, in fact, most probably absent. This particular orchestra not only lacks a conductor, but even a composer, whose score a conductor might have followed. What we have here is a clash of intellects, a clash of wills in an atmosphere of complete laissez-faire on the part of the author. This is what Bakhtin means by the term “polyphony” when he writes of the polyphony of Dostoyevsky.

True, Bakhtin does appear to admit some higher order of artistic unity in Dostoyevsky’s novels, but in what this consists, if Dostoyevsky’s novels are polyphonous in the interpretation of the term we have suggested, it is not easy to understand. If we are to allow that Dostoyevsky, from his previous knowledge of the inmost essence of each of his characters and of the material results to which the conflicts between them are bound to lead, could combine these characters in such a way as to form an intrinsically welded whole while preserving the absolute freedom of the individual voice, then it must be admitted that the whole principle of the “self-sufficiency of the voices” of the various characters, that is, of their absolute independence from the author, can only be accepted with certain very important reservations.

I am rather inclined to agree with Bakhtin that Dostoyevsky -if not at the stage of completion then certainly when working out the first ideas of his novels and the gradual evolution of their plots – hardly ever kept to any preconceived constructive plan, that his method of work was indeed polyphonic in the sense that it was a commingling and interweaving of absolutely free individuals. It is even possible that Dostoyevsky himself was excessively and most intensely interested in the outcome of the ideological and ethic conflicts between the characters which he created (or which might rather be said to have created themselves through him).

I concede, therefore, that Bakhtin has succeeded not only in describing more clearly than anyone has ever done before the immense significance of this plurality of voices in the Dostoyevsky novel and the part played by this plurality as a most vital distinguishing feature of this novel, but also in defining the extraordinary individual autonomy and self-sufficiency of voices – quite unthinkable for the vast majority of other writers – which Dostoyevsky developed with such shattering effect.

I would also like to stress how right Bakhtin is in another of his contentions, when he notes that all those “voices” which play a truly important part in any of the novels represent distinct “convictions” or “ways of looking at the world.” These, of course, are more than just theories; they are theories which are as much a part of their exponent as his particular “blood group,” inseparable from him, his own basic nature. And what is more these theories are active ideas, they drive the characters to commit definite actions and provide the motive forces for distinct patterns of behaviour, individual and social. In a word, they are of a profoundly ethical and social nature, either positive or negative, for they do in fact serve to attract the individual towards society or – as so often happens in

Dostoyevsky’s novels – to draw him away from it.

Dostoyevsky’s novels are superbly staged dialogues.

In these conditions the profound independence of the separate voices becomes, one might even say, peculiarly piquant. One is forced to the conclusion that Dostoyevsky deliberately puts certain vital problems up for discussion before these highly individual “voices,” trembling with passion and flickering with the flame of fanaticism, while he himself remains a mere spectator of the convulsive disputes which ensue, a curious looker-on wondering where it is all leading and how it is going to end. To a great extent, this is a true picture.

Although Bakhtin’s book centres mainly round the formal analysis of Dostoyevsky’s techniques, the critic is by no means averse to embarking on an occasional excursion into their sociological interpretation. He quotes approvingly from Kaus’s Dostoyevsky and His Fate (Dostojewski und sein Schicksal) and, in general, agrees with his opinion. Let us examine, in translation, some of Kaus’s contentions as quoted by Bakhtin.

“Dostoyevsky is master in his own house, a host who knows how to cope with the most motley crowd of guests, who can manage any company, however wild its composition, control it and keep it in a state of tension...Health and strength, the most radical pessimism and the most fiery faith in salvation, thirst for life and death – all these are locked in a struggle seemingly without issue; violence and kindness, arrogance and selfless humility, the inexhaustible fulness of life, etc. He has no need to coerce his characters, he has no need to pronounce the last word as their creator. Dostoyevsky is many-sided and unpredictable, his works are packed with forces and intentions which one would think were separated from one another by impassable chasms.”

Kaus assumes that all this is but the reflection, in Dostoyevsky’s mind, of the contradictions of the capitalist world. Bakhtin gives an excellent exposition of Kaus’s basic thesis.

“Kaus maintains that Dostoyevsky’s world is the most unadulterated and genuine reflection of the spirit of capitalism. The diverse worlds and spheres – social, cultural and ideological – which are brought into head-on collision in the works of Dostoyevsky, were formerly self-contained, isolated from one another, stabilised and justified from within as distinct and separate units. There was no real, material area in which they could, to any appreciable degree, meet and interpenetrate. Capitalism broke down the segregation of these worlds, destroyed the exclusiveness and the inner, ideological self-sufficiency of these social spheres. In accordance with its tendency to level things out, leaving no barrier other than that dividing the proletarian from the capitalist, capitalism tossed these worlds into a common melting-pot as a part of the process of bringing unity out of contradiction. These worlds had not yet lost the stamp of their own individuality which each had acquired in the course of centuries, but they could no longer remain self-contained. The period of blind coexistence, of calm, untroubled mutual ignorance, was at an end, and their mutual contrariety and, at the same time, their interdependence, became increasingly perceptible. In every atom of life trembles this contradictory unity of the capitalist world and of capitalist consciousness, making it impossible for anything to feel comfortabre in its isolation, yet offering no solutions. The spirit of this changing world was more fully expressed in the works of Dostoyevsky than anywhere else.”

He himself adds that Dostoyevsky’s Russia was the ideal forcing-house for the growth of the polyphonous novel. For “here capitalism was establishing itself with almost catastrophic suddenness and had surprised an untouched diversity of social worlds and groups, which had not, as in the West, suffered a slow sapping of their individual exclusiveness in the process of the gradual advance of capitalism. Here, the contradictory essence of this society in the process of formation, which resisted all attempts to bring it within the framework of a quietly contemplative, assured monological scheme of things, must have been particularly evident while, at the same time, the individuality of these worlds which had suddenly been confronted one with another and knocked off their ideological balance must have shown up exceptionally vividly and fully.”

All this is very good and quite true.

What general conclusion is there to be drawn from the opinions of Bakhtin and of Kaus, the former’s authority for the sociological part of his analysis? Dostoyevsky, being the child of his time and therefore reflecting in his own personality the colossal ethical shambles brought about by the violent eruption of the complexity of capitalist social relationships into pre-reform Russia [1] provided in his art a true mirror, an adequate reflection of all this complexity. Life was seething with contradictions. Various individual philosophies of life were coming into collision; various individual moral codes, sometimes consciously worked out as full-fledged theories, at others manifesting their almost entirely subconscious nature through actions and discordant talk, were being brought face to face. In Dostoyevsky’s novels a similar dialogue is in process, an identical struggle. It is as though there were no tuning-fork to set the right pitch to all this cacophony, as though there were no harmony which might have overcome and, as it were, absorbed it, no force strong enough to discipline it into something resembling a chorus.

Bakhtin, however, understands that such a view of Dostoyevsky would not be altogether correct.

Before we go on to set out our further thoughts on the significance of Dostoyevsky’s polyphony or attempt to modify or explain further certain interesting points touched on by Bakhtin, let us make a brief comparison between Dostoyevsky the polyphonist and some other polyphonous writers.

Bakhtin maintains that Dostoyevsky’s type of polyphony is incompatible with drama. Drama, he believes, cannot under any circumstances be polyphonous, and certain specialists’ classification of Dostoyevsky’s novels as a new form of drama strike him as completely false.

Bakhtin’s grounds for objecting to this classification are most profound. He considers that, although, in drama, there are characters who act and speak in a way which implies a certain clash of personalities, they nonetheless remain basically mere puppets in the hands of the author who will inevitably direct them according to some preconceived plan.

Is this really so?

Naturally, it is scarcely possible to suspect Bakhtin, who shows sufficient subtlety of judgment in his book, of presupposing all drama (tragedy, comedy, etc.) to consist of plays with a message. The question of the play which seeks to get across some definite message and of the “free play,” which is simply a dramatised, firmly carpentered slice of life, is an old one which we have no intention of going into here. Yet it does appear strange that Bakhtin, in insisting on the unfeasibility of polyphony in drama, clearly leaves out of account the greatest of all dramatists – Shakespeare. Of course, it is impossible that Bakhtin should really have forgotten about him. Of course, we repeat, Bakhtin does not really think that all drama is automatically “tendentious.” He merely assumes that, since every drama is necessarily a harmonious whole which develops according to certain strict rules, it would be extremely uneconomical, and, indeed, impossible for the author to permit every “voice” to bear its own independent part. This, at least, is the way in which I explain to myself Bakhtin’s uncompromising statement on the necessity of monism in drama.

On this point, however, I permit myself to differ radically from Bakhtin, first and foremost on the evidence of Shakespeare.

Is it not indicative that, for a very long time indeed, it was generally accepted that Shakespeare’s plays were utterly devoid of any guiding ideas or principles? As a playwright, Shakespeare is the most “impersonal” of authors; it is scarcely ever possible to say anything about the tendencies he represents. What is more, in the great majority of his works he is so alien to all tendentiousness that we involuntarily begin to suspect him of a great conscious or unconscious revulsion to such tendentiousness. It is as though Shakespeare were crying out in his every work that life is immense and splendid in itself, even though it does abound in sorrows and catastrophes, and that any opinion expressed on this life must of necessity be insufficient and one-sided and cannot be expected to embrace all its variety, all its dazzling irrationality.

Being thus totally untendentious (according, at least, to long-established opinion), Shakespeare is extremely polyphonic. Here we could cite many extracts from the works of distinguished Shakespearean scholars, and from the sayings of Shakespeare’s imitators and admirers, to show their profound admiration for this very ability to create characters who appear to have a life of their own outside the mind of their author, an endless procession of characters moreover, of an incredible variety, all of whom remain incredibly true to themselves in all they say and do.

Gundolf, to whom, at one point, Bakhtin refers, asserts, in drawing a comparison between Goethe and Shakespeare, that the source of Goethe’s works (at any rate of the most significant) was always his own experience, while his heroes always embodied aspects of his own personality. In this he sees a contrast to Shakespeare who, in his opinion, was able to create human beings quite independent of himself and of his own experience, who seemed to have been created by Nature herself.

It cannot be said of Shakespeare either that his plays were intended to prove some particular thesis or that the “voices” in the great polyphony of Shakespeare’s dramatic world are deprived of their self-sufficiency for the benefit of the dramatic plot, of construction as such.

Yet, when we take a closer look at Shakespeare (helped, perhaps, by the still unproved but very probable hypothesis that Shakespeare was in fact Rutland), we see that his polyphonism is not devoid of a certain organising principle – that he remains, to use Kaus’s simile, “master in his own house.”

True, everything about Shakespeare is extremely obscure, and this obscurity greatly impedes analysis (which only goes to prove once again how mistaken is the attitude of those historians of literature who maintain that an author’s personality and biography are of no help in the interpretation of his works). We cannot even say for sure whether there was in fact one single master-mind behind Shakespeare’s dramatic world. Leaving aside the numerous borrowed passages, the rewriting of other men’s plays and the question of other men’s plays which have been attributed to Shakespeare, it is impossible to ignore Gordon Craig’s original and profound hypothesis, which attributes a quite peculiar form of polyphony to Shakespeare by distinguishing in his plays the voices of more than one author. All this greatly confuses the question of Shakespeare’s polyphony. However, I repeat, if we subject this vast literary phenomenon to closer scrutiny, then we cannot but admit that, behind the works of Shakespeare, we do feel the presence of a personality of some sort, even if it is so many-faceted and titanic as to be hard to define.

What were the social factors reflected in Shakespeare’s polyphonism? Why, of course, in the last analysis, precisely those we find in Dostoyevsky. That colourful Renaissance, broken up into a myriad sparkling fragments, which had given birth to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was, of course, also the result of the stormy irruption of capitalism into the comparative calm of medieval England. Here, as in Dostoyevsky’s Russia, a gigantic break-up was getting under way. The same gigantic shifts were taking place and the same unexpected collisions between traditions of social life and systems of thought which had previously had no real contact with one another.

How did the man we assume to be Shakespeare react to all this? Was he nothing but a passive mirror, capable only of reflecting all this tangle of unprecedentedly diverse forces which existed outside himself? I have already said that this is an idea of Shakespeare which has frequently been advanced. We must, however, bear in mind that if a great writer, equipped with exceptional sensibility and understanding, is to remain true to the very nature of the human mind with its irrepressible inclination to synthesise separate ideas and facts, to create some system of ideas and critical values, he must, inevitably, seek not only to reflect the world but to bring order to it, and harmony, or, at least, to illumine it from some definite point of view.

If this premise is not always borne out by the study of individual great writers, it is because we often leave out of account the variety of forms which this process of synthesis may take. If a writer is also a poet he is, of course, under no obligation to impose unity and order on society and Nature in practice, or even to reduce them to any kind of monism by means of philosophic interpretations. He may, for instance (as, for that matter, the philosopher may also) admit the existence of an irreconcilable pluralism. He may consider irremediable the tragedy of the human condition, which he may be convinced is the inevitable product of a world of warring principles. With great sorrow, he may determine the existence of this universal lack of harmony, he may see no way out. Yet even such a diagnosis as this, to whatever conclusion it may lead – whether the inference is that life is not worth while since the world itself is an absurdity, or that, in spite of its disharmony, or even perhaps, because of it, the world is beautiful in its very irrationality, or that life should assert itself heroically in the face of surrounding chaos – even such a diagnosis is, essentially, a synthetic conception or a synthetic emotion. Without this capacity for synthesis, it is almost impossible to imagine a truly great personality.

As I shall make clear further on, I have no desire to suggest that such great personalities may not themselves be split, either simultaneously or at different periods of their life, so that their various aspects might almost seem to belong to separate people. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims:

The time is out of joint! O, cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right

he is, in my opinion, expressing a profound lyrical impulse on behalf of the author; it must have been Shakespeare’s dream to set his time to rights – again or anew. This is his genuine inner aspiration and in every play which does not end in a reconciliation, it is as though he suffers a defeat.

But let us now leave Shakespeare, merely noting that, while he is undoubtedly no less polyphonic than Dostoyevsky and grants an equal autonomy to the self-sufficient individual voice (something which, it seems to me, Bakhtin should find it impossible to deny), his tendency to pronounce judgment on life, even to change it, shows itself in a manner far removed from all direct contact with the reader.

But is it not clear that such tendencies likewise exist in Dostoyevsky? Once again, Bakhtin will hardly find it possible to deny this. He himself understands that not only Dostoyevsky’s characters but their author, too, aspire to the establishment of some new kind of society. He himself writes of this, he himself stresses that Dostoyevsky was characterised by certain ideas on coinherence[2] and harmony – albeit metaphysical and other-worldly harmony. Dostoyevsky is not just a mirror giving a concentrated and magnified reflection of life and its agonising conflicts. These conflicts are profoundly distressing to him, he has a strong inner desire to resolve them and, for that matter, he is much more concerned with this business, certainly more noticeably so, than is Shakespeare. True, his labours are not crowned with success. But we shall be coming back to that later.

Here, I should like to introduce one more name which Bakhtin does not mention – the name of Balzac. Marx had the greatest regard for Shakespeare as the bard of developing capitalism and of all the infinite variety of the capitalist epoch. He had also a profound admiration for Balzac. Balzac has much in common with Shakespeare. It should not go unnoted that Dostoyevsky, in his turn, was a great admirer of Balzac and translated his works. Balzac’s kinship with Shakespeare lies not only in the extraordinary variety of colours in the world around him, where the capitalist order was establishing itself in its more or less final form after the storms of the Great Revolution, but also in his polyphonism, in the freedom and self-sufficiency of his “voices.” This again is so true that, although we are thoroughly well informed as to Balzac’s biography, it is quite impossible to reconstruct his private opinions. His philosophical and political convictions are of less interest than Dostoyevsky’s. It would be permissible to say that Balzac is a thinker of lesser stature than Dostoyevsky. At the same time it is typical that, whereas in Dostoyevsky’s novels the author never comes forward as mentor and we never hear his voice pointing a moral, in Balzac’s novels we frequently come across long discourses on the facts they describe, woven into the fabric of the story and often making rather dry reading of it. In spite of this, Balzac is far less tendentious than Dostoyevsky. Is it thinkable to maintain that Dostoyevsky has no “God” in the Chekhovian sense? (I am referring to Chekhov’s letter to Suvorin on the absence of God, the absence of any object of reverence or love in the world of the modern writer.) Can it be denied that there is at least a colossal will towards such a “God” in Dostoyevsky and, at certain moments, the conviction that he does indeed possess one? It can be said of Balzac, however, that it is normal for him to drift from one point of view to another and that those points of view are chance – found and even not particularly interesting. Balzac owes his greatness almost exclusively to his polyphonism, that is, to his extraordinary objectivity, his protean ability to imagine himself in the skin of the most diverse types of the society which he had the opportunity to observe.

This, of course, is why Bakhtin is wrong when he says that Dostoyevsky was the originator of polyphony, or even of the polyphonous novel, and of that plurality of voices which allows for the autonomy and self-sufficiency of individual parts.

From this point of view, Balzac undoubtedly goes further than Dostoyevsky. This can, of course, be explained not only by certain distinguishing features of Balzac’s talent, but also by many aspects of the society in which he lived, aspects which affected both the material which he gathered from his surroundings and the structure of his own mind and sensibility. As for Shakespeare, whilst perceiving quite definite individual “tendencies” breaking the surface here and there in the works of this great bard of the era of the origins of English capitalism, we are also bound to emphasise his quite exceptional polyphonism according to the definition we have given in this article.


Let us return to the task which we set ourselves before drawing the above comparisons.

We have seen how in Shakespeare, for all his polyphonism, there is an attempt, of profound and anguished concern to the author, to arrive at some kind of objective or even subjective monism. In Balzac we do not even feel this tendency. We feel his works as polyphony in its purest form.

But Dostoyevsky who is, at the moment, of more immediate concern to us than the two West European titans – what about Dostoyevsky? Apart from the polyphonous principle, the desire to assure the free development of independent voices, is he so entirely free from all tendentiousness?

We have already pointed out in passing that Bakhtin himself does not and, indeed, could not deny that there is evidence of tendentiousness in Dostoyevsky’s books and that, even if he does not, as author, address himself direct to the reader, the reader is nevertheless quite well aware of the presence of his “host,” and perfectly understands on whose side Dostoyevsky’s sympathies lie. Bakhtin himself distinguishes, among the other voices, prescient voices which, undoubtedly, in Dostoyevsky’s opinion, advocate a higher truth, voices “close to God” – that is, as Dostoyevsky understands it, close to the fountain-head of all truth, “God-bearing” voices.

However, even in the cases when these voices are not in evidence, the whole construction of the novel is worked out in such a way as to leave the reader in no doubt as to Dostoyevsky’s own views on what is taking place between its pages. It is, of course, a magnificent illustration of his art that Dostoyevsky does not express these views directly, but we never lose our awareness of the beating of the author’s heart, of the spasmodic irregularities as it contracts over what he is writing.

Our formalists keep on dinning into the reader of today – whom they have not the remotest chance of ever convincing – that writers in general, and even the greatest among them, stand quite aloof from their own works, look on them as an exercise in craftsmanship and are interested in them only from the point of view of form. In respect of Dostoyevsky this kind of assertion sounds particularly monstrous. It is evident that Bakhtin has no intention of making any such assertion. Dostoyevsky listens to the great disputes which take place in word and deed in his novels with the most intense excitement, with love and hatred.

Why, then, are we forced to admit a very considerable degree of truth in Bakhtin’s contention that it is difficult to formulate Dostoyevsky’s final conclusions, if not as a theoretician and a publicist then in that aspect of his work with which we are dealing here, as a novelist and a writer of fiction? Why did his novels produce on Kaus also the impression of “unfinished arguments"? Why is it as though no one ever carries off the final victory? Why, in Dostoyevsky’s conception of the independence and self-sufficiency of voices, is there this deliberate element of withdrawal? Why is it as though Dostoyevsky were to say “I pass” when his turn came to raise his own voice among these other voices which are so far from corresponding to his own convictions, or, rather, to those convictions which he would have liked to have held and which he ascribed to himself? Why, on the other hand, do those voices which obviously command his sympathy (Sonya, Zosima, Alyosha, and others) apparently fail to carry final conviction and so utterly lack the ring of triumph, perhaps even to the considerable exasperation of Dostoyevsky?

In order to explain this phenomenon, without which, of course, Bakhtin’s assertion of the self-sufficiency and independence of Dostoyevsky’s “voices” would be false, we have to take into account not only the fragmentation of the world through which Dostoyevsky’s characters move but also Dostoyevsky’s own split consciousness.

Without claiming to give an answer to all the “problems of Dostoyevsky’s works” in so short an essay (a task of too great a compass, of course, even for Bakhtin’s entire book), without claiming to give so much as an approximately exhaustive idea of this split in Dostoyevsky’s consciousness, we would like to call attention here to one basic irregularity – a morbid and horrifying irregularity which, at the same time, made Dostoyevsky profoundly typical of his epoch or, more exactly, of several decades in the history of Russian culture.

The excessive contrast between the social realities of Russia and the intensified awareness which gradually came into being amongst the best people of the educated classes, first among the nobility and then among the raznochintsy, and which was most typical, of course, for the great writers and the other leaders of the intelligentsia, was an extremely widespread phenomenon the results of which left their mark on over a century.

Leaving aside Novikov and Radishchev, let us recall Pushkin’s horrifying exclamation: “It must have been the Devil’s own idea to have me born in Russia with brains and talent.” Although Pushkin was a man of exceptional adaptability who could get on in any company and showed himself capable of a remarkably supple policy of spiritual and material opportunism, his life was poisoned, and the social scandal to which he fell victim was the natural result of his whole position between the Decembrists, on the one side, and Nicholas the Gendarme on the other.

In this, it goes without saying, Pushkin was not alone. On the contrary, round about him others were suffering even more, and suffering not only in spirit, but in body. That is common knowledge.

The forerunner of the great wave of intelligentsia recruited from outside the nobility was Belinsky. He, too, was distinguished by a full awareness of the horror of his position. He frequently mentions the horror of waking up in full possession of one’s faculties in a land exhausted by suffering, in a land ruled by profoundly ignorant and self-assured sergeant-majors, in a land in which there is no serious opposition, no serious support for the few who are sufficiently mature to criticise and protest.

If Belinsky remained true to his vocation in spite of all this, he was by no means free of hesitation and doubt: the article on Borodino – however one may explain it by an incorrect interpretation of Hegel, though actually one can only speak here of an incorrect application of Hegel’s doctrine – is in fact a profound analogy to the political moods and beliefs of Dostoyevsky. Belinsky very nearly took a header over that same precipice of spiritual opportunism which consists in the acceptance of a series of generalisations and emotional evasions in order to justify one’s own reconciliation with the “reigning evil.” To this it must be added that Belinsky literally had the good fortune to die before he was faced with the terrible trial which fell to the lot of Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky.

I shall not try to assert here that Gogol was, at any period of his life, militantly and consciously protestant in his attitude to everything that was going on around him. Nevertheless, Gogol’s unmistakable if gradual transition from satire to the glorification of autocracy and orthodoxy was a spectacle which, we know, Belinsky and society at large contemplated with deep shame and sorrow.

Psychologically, of course, all this came about in quite a different way from that indicated by superficial students of Gogol’s life. It is completely misleading to suggest that Gogol thought like a died-in-the-wool conservative landlord from the very beginning. Gogol undoubtedly rose to considerable heights of criticism although, understandably, he did not dare to touch on the highest ranks of society. His renunciation of the role of ideological leader in his own country and the unconvincing, essentially unsatisfying even to himself, exchange of this role for that of faithful subject-cum-religious maniac were, undoubtedly, not only the result of his morbid depression but, at the same time, its most profound cause.

The whole epoch was, one might say, strewn with corpses and semi-corpses, some of whom had resisted and been broken, whereas others had compromised and remained alive, surviving as spiritual cripples with clearly expressed pathological tendencies.

Chernyshevsky, a very powerful, lucid personality, who, although the stand he adopted was extremely radical, was never in so isolated a position as Belinsky, was nonetheless very sceptically disposed to the idea of establishing a revolutionary order in his own time. A brilliant and heartbreaking monument to these doubts, to this scientific scepticism of Chernyshevsky’s is his novel Prologue – which has met with so little appreciation from our historians of literature. In spite of everything, Chernyshevsky was doomed to the role of redeeming sacrifice, but he tried to do everything in his power to preserve his strength, the strength of one who has deliberately set out to prepare men for a direct struggle the time for which has not yet arrived. Although Chernyshevsky bore heroically with the trials of forced labour and exile, the contrast between the Chernyshevsky who left for Siberia and the Chernyshevsky who returned is no less deplorable than the collapse of any other giants of our thought and literature.

This list might be prolonged ad infinitum. It is always possible to find people who, having woken up in full possession of their faculties, have taken their bearings in the surrounding darkness and, in some way or another, offered battle to their environment, and in some way or another, been crushed by it – whether physically, or morally and politically, or both.

Here, however, it is impossible to pass over the sad figure of Nekrasov. When all’s said and done, Nekrasov did a great deal for the development of the revolutionary movement, of revolutionary thought in our country; but the degree of his civic consciousness urged him to a far more vivid protest which he failed to deliver – in part from weakness of character, but much more because the sacrifices involved appeared almost self-evidently useless. Nekrasov’s penitential chant rose to the verge of self-torture after one of his particularly striking and notorious “falls” – his glorification of Muravyov the hangman. This, one might say, is a startling witness to the tyranny which bent and broke those citizens who had but recently awakened to a realisation of their position in their own country and, first among them, the writers of that country! It was apropos his ethico-political portrait of Nekrasov that Mikhailovsky spoke of these Russians who were “sick in conscience.” These men who suffered from a “sick conscience” were all more or less deliberate opportunists who had worked out two formulas: either “I see the horror, but I cannot fight it,” or “I see the horror, but I wish to see some blessing in its stead which would allow me not to fight it and, at the same time, not to lose my self-respect.”

Gleb Ivanovich Uspensky had a wonderful gift for portraying such “sufferers.”

“Defaulters” was his word for the majority of the intelligentsia. The most terrible thing was that he himself died with a split personality, announcing that he was possessed, on the one hand, by the holy martyr Gleb, and, on the other, by a cowardly and egoistic little man called Ivanovich. And this in spite of the fact that Gleb Uspensky was the favourite of the progressive public and in the course of his literary career had done a colossal amount for the cause which he considered it his duty to further.

Even Lev Tolstoi looms up before us like a crippled titan. His non-resistance to evil is in fact the same old self-defence against conscience advanced by a man who, in his heart of hearts, is perfectly well aware of all the wicked injustice of life, but cannot make up his mind to commit himself to the direct, total struggle which he knows to be beyond his strength.

It is within the framework of this phenomenon – extremely widespread, as the reader cannot but see even from the incomplete list of relevant facts cited here – that we must place Dostoyevsky.

The social position of Dostoyevsky which reduced him to the status of the lowest of the low, acquainting him with the bitter lot of the injured and insulted, taken in conjunction with his exceptional sensibility, his gift for suffering and compassion, could not fail in his youth to put him on the road to a sufficiently vivid form of protest, on the road to dreams of a radical reformation of the whole social system. Attempts are often made to represent Dostoyevsky’s affiliation with the Petrashevsky circle as a superficial and passing- aberration, and the fact that he was condemned to death for his connection with this circle as just another, completely unprovoked, absurd juridical atrocity on the part of the autocracy. Such an explanation will simply not do, however. One would have to be completely devoid of all psychological sensibility and, moreover, have a whole series of politically responsive strings missing in the instrument of consciousness, in order to doubt (even in the absence of direct proofs) that the young Dostoyevsky was among those who “sought for a city.” He was indubitably full of anger against social injustice and so profoundly so that, at some half-hidden subterranean level, this anger continued its volcanic work throughout his existence. Its grumblings and rumblings can only be ignored by the politically deaf, and the glow it throws up – only by the politically blind.

Dostoyevsky’s clash with autocracy took place in the most violent fashion imaginable. To be condemned to be hung – what could be more violent than that! Forced labour came as an “easing” of situation.

The question of the physiological causes of Dostoyevsky’s illness and of its first origin has still to be solved. While we are on the subject we note in passing that, in this field, Marxist criticism will have to cross swords with modern psychiatry which always interprets what we choose to call morbid phenomena in literature as the result of hereditary diseases or, in any case, of causes which bear no relationship to what might be described as the social biography of the writer in question. Of course, we do not mean by this that Marxists should deny the existence of disease or the influence of mental illness on the works of this or that writer, if he happened at the same time to be a psychiatrist’s patient. It is merely that all these purely psychological factors do seem to follow very logically from certain sociological premises.

In our own good time we shall return to this rich and interesting theme, but we thought it necessary to mention it here in connection with this brief analysis of Dostoyevsky’s split consciousness, which is in itself as important a cause of his “plurality of voices” as were the social conditions during the epoch of the tempestuous growth of capitalism. After all, other writers, Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, lived under the same social conditions, whereas here we have Bakhtin maintaining that Dostoyevsky was the originator of the polyphonic novel – at least on Russian soil.

According to Dostoyevsky himself, his first attack of epilepsy occurred while he was still doing forced labour and took the form of a kind of revelation from above after an argument about religion and his agonised and passionate opposition to the atheist: “No, no, I believe in God!” This fact is in itself most revealing. Here, too, the social and the biological subsoil seem to bring forth the same fruit, or, rather, combine to bring it forth, without clashing with each other. Driven off to forced labour, Dostoyevsky, who, like Gogol, was extremely conscious of his own genius and of the special role he was called upon to play in life, felt with all his being that autocracy was eating him alive. He did not wish to be eaten. He had to adopt a position which would preserve his prophetic calling and yet not lead to further trouble with the authorities, which could only have ended in immediate catastrophe.

I do not mean that Dostoyevsky tried consciously to become a monarchist, adapting himself to the powers that be. Such an assumption would be but poor psychology.

Of course, Dostoyevsky passed through terrible storms of doubt, but “expediency” helped to eliminate, to blur and to weaken the “voices” which called him to protest, struggle and sacrifice. The voices which presented the case for the opposition – not those which were over-frank, nor those which retained the taint of self-preservation, nor even those which cried “in our present conditions this sacrifice will be in vain,” but those which justified a certain opposite position – were, on the contrary, sublimated by this apparently modest and retiring “expediency.”

With the hand of a skilled conjuror, “expediency” illuminated even Dostoyevsky’s instinct for self-preservation and the conservative romanticism born of this instinct in a heroic light. Indeed, did not Dostoyevsky have ahead of him a fearless struggle against the radicals and all progressive society? After all, this, too, requires courage.

So the basic foundation of Dostoyevsky’s future conciliatory position in relation to the autocracy and the social order was laid in tempests and inner conflict. Dostoyevsky went through hell. To the day of his death he could not convince himself – not only his conscious mind, but his subconscious, his mighty social conscience – of the Tightness of this position.

The most superficial analysis of epilepsy, particularly in the form suffered by Dostoyevsky, shows us that aspect which involves a heightening of the sensibility, a kind of exposure of the nerves, and hence, particularly in the difficult conditions of the society in which he lived, constant suffering, often petty in origin, but magnified by the nervous condition. On the other hand, the epileptic attack itself is felt, according to Dostoyevsky’s inside evidence, as the onset of the macrocosm, of a feeling of harmony, of oneness with the whole creation. In other words, it represents the triumph of a kind of emotional optimum.

But how else is it possible to imagine Dostoyevsky’s psychology at that time? What poles of thought and feeling must have manifested themselves in this constant battle? On the one side – disgust and indignation in the face of reality; on the other – a passionate hope in the reconciliation of all contradictions, even if only in the next world, even if only in the sphere of mysticism.

Dostoyevsky’s gifted and passionate nature intensified the first aspect of his condition to that terrible torturing of himself and of others which is one of the dominant features of his writing. The second aspect it raised to the point of ecstasy.

In this way, social causes led Dostoyevsky to the “sacred illness” and, having found, in prerequisites of a purely physiological nature (bound up, undoubtedly, with his very giftedness), a suitable subsoil, proceeded to cultivate in him a particular view of life, a particular style of writing – and his illness. By this, I do not in the least mean that in other circumstances Dostoyevsky would never have suffered from epilepsy. I am referring to that extraordinary coincidence which makes us think of Dostoyevsky as being so exactly suited to the role which he in fact came to play. At the same time, Dostoyevsky, the first great petty-bourgeois writer in the history of our culture, reflected in these moods of his the confusion of a wide section of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia and of the more educated members of this class. To them, he was a very powerful and much-needed organiser, the source of that Dostoyevshchina[3] which continued, for certain wide sections of that petty bourgeoisie, to provide one of the main ways of self-preservation right until the time of Leonid Andreyev and even on into our revolutionary days.

Religion was bound to play an important part in Dostoyevsky’s work, if only because of this “epileptical” character of his social experience and thought. Any mystic system, however, might have served this purpose. Dostoyevsky’s choice fell on Orthodox Christianity. It would be interesting to make a brief digression on this subject.

The Orthodox Church, for all the rough-hewn quality of its dogmatic structure (if we are to compare it with the refined and durable theory of Roman Catholicism or the sharp spirit of rationalist criticism inherent in Protestant creeds), still managed to play a certain positive role in support of Russia’s ruling classes – not only as a basic form of ideological deception for the uncultured masses but also as a kind of pons asinorum on the basis of which people of high culture and refined opportunism could work out a philosophy capable of reconciling them with reality. After all, the Christian religion, even as expounded by the Orthodox Church of that time, spoke of love, of equality and of brotherhood. Orthodoxy was understood as an abstraction, as something above and largely beyond mundane life, but, nevertheless, as something which introduced a certain modicum of light, truth and humanity into earthly relationships.

For the ruling classes, the most agreeable aspect of all this was that it required no actual reforms and sought no real reflection in life apart from such trifles as alms-giving, the exercise of charity, monasteries, etc. Everything in life could and should remain as it was: an Orthodox tsar, Orthodox policemen, Orthodox landowners and industrialists, Orthodox workmen and peasants. The former in all the glory of their function as exploiters; the latter – in all the horror of their position as the exploited; but, all together, “brothers in Christ*’, reconciled, according to the Orthodox Church, by a common ideology, a belief in “divine justice,” which makes itself felt both in the torments of this life on earth and in the punishments to be meted out in the world to come.

Now that the standard of thought in our society is so far removed from what it was in Dostoyevsky’s time, this whole concept appears so childish and, indeed, barbarous, that at times one asks oneself: However was Orthodoxy able to satisfy the ideological requirements even of the uncultured masses? But this line of thought, is, of course, largely artificial. For example, on my last visit to Switzerland I caught myself in a state of what I can only call profoundly naive astonishment that in this country churches are being built and believers are conducting religious services according to the rituals of their various cults. I could not resist laying hands on a specifically ecclesiastical journal and was involuntarily shaken with laughter – once again, very naive laughter – to find myself, in this European atmosphere, reading the foolishly contrived arguments and the stale repetitions which flow from the pens of believers. Yet religious thought and feeling show no signs of dying out in Europe; on the contrary, there are even symptoms of a revival in certain circles, particularly amongst the bourgeois youth of France, Italy, etc.

Be that as it may, the idea of heavenly justice, cunning in its very naivety, was able, in the view of many, to justify all earthly injustice and even to provide some genuine relief (mainly in words but occasionally by “charitable actions”). Thanks to this, it could reconcile to reality minds which had just awoken to sharp criticism, hearts which had begun to contract at the sight of social evil but which, in order to avoid a fatal clash with the powers that be, found it expedient to paralyse such contractions or, at least, to modify them.

If we take, for example, three stages of religion’s being used in this way in Russian literature and choose Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi to illustrate our point, then we obtain the following gradation:

With Gogol the whole business is perfectly straightforward. One has only to think of the great satirist’s famous recommendation in his Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends, in which he advises landowners to read the Gospel to their peasants in order that the latter, having absorbed the word of God, might serve their master the more selflessly and understand that this service is the purpose of their existence. I do not believe that Gogol’s faith was altogether free from flaw, untroubled by inner doubt -perhaps well hidden, or perhaps, only very occasionally troubling his conscious mind – a doubt as to whether all this were really so, as to whether the “word of God” were not, in fact, a handy invention for the benefit of the landowners. As far as I know, there is no direct evidence for this. If anyone really wants to accept Gogol’s faith as something monolithic, there is nothing to prevent him doing so. But even a monolithic faith is still a form of inner social adjustment to the outer world and, for Gogol, whose critical genius, winged with laughter, might at any moment have brought him into violent collision with autocracy and the landowners, it was in the highest degree essential to find a reconciliation with reality, particularly one so sweetly scented with frankincense and myrrh. [4]

At the other extreme of the period we have selected – in the words of Tolstoi – we apparently have something totally different. Tolstoi discards Orthodoxy as such and takes the field as the declared enemy of the Established Church. He is not only fully aware that this Church acts as an apparatus for the stabilisation of slavery, but it is for this reason that he detests it. However, it must be borne in mind that the chief purpose of religious adaptation in such cases is to paralyse, or at least to modify, any possible conflict between conscience and evil. Tolstoi leaves precisely as much religion as will serve to justify his theory of non-resistance. A consistently rationalist view of life (had Tolstoi ever got that far) could not possibly have served as a logical basis for this doctrine, which is in fact an outright rejection of all violent forms of combating evil.

To a certain extent, Dostoyevsky occupies a position betwixt and between. He is much less naively Orthodox than Gogol. On this point it will not even occur to anyone to deny whole simooms and sandstorms of doubts and agonising inner debates.

Dostoyevsky very seldom seeks support in the outward forms of Orthodoxy. This is not important to him. Important to him is the more profound, “inner” understanding of the Church which opened the way for him to contrast it, at least partially, to the state. Indeed, in Dostoyevsky’s books, the Church does not only justify the state by its very existence, the altar does not only hallow and justify the palace, the dungeon, the factory, etc., but it is also shown as a power which, in many things, is opposed to all the rest of life.

Dostoyevsky is, of course, perfectly well aware that the Synod and all the priesthood are officials in the service of the throne, but it is not enough for him that these priests hallow the activities of ministers and district superintendents. It still seems to him that at least the best of these officials of the priesthood and the very “spirit” which informs them are, in their own way, “revolutionary.”

“Let it be!” exclaim the inspired monks of Dostoyevsky’s works. What is it they thus invoke? What is “to be” is that the Church, with its love and brotherhood, will, at some stage, overcome the state and all society founded on private property, that – at some future time – the Church will build a special, almost unearthly socialism. This ecclesiastical Utopia will be based on that coinherence of souls by which Dostoyevsky tries to replace the once-glimpsed and later rejected ideal of socialism to which he was introduced by his friends in the Petrashevsky circle.

However, Dostoyevsky’s “ecclesiastical revolution” takes place in an atmosphere of even greater humility than Tolstoi’s sectarian revolution. It is a task which will take many hundred years, a matter for the distant future, perhaps even for the next world. It is possible that Dostoyevsky, like Tolstoi, is led by the very logic of his thought to perceive this harmonious coinherence as a purely nominative ideal, as something which will be realised only in eternity, in infinity, in the sphere of metaphysics.

In this way, God, Orthodoxy, Christ as a democratic, individual, purely ethical principle of the Church – all this was quite essential to Dostoyevsky, for it gave him the opportunity to avoid a final spiritual break with socialist truth while, at the same time, anathematising materialist socialism.

These positions also gave him the chance to assume a profoundly loyalist attitude in relation to the tsar and to the whole tsarist regime. At the same time, from the altar end of the Church, the end facing the congregation, it was possible to embellish these ecclesiastical modes with all kinds of effective graces. In this way, Dostoyevsky’s Orthodoxy is at once a profoundly conservative principle and, at the same time, a kind of maximalism. Maximalists in the sphere of religion have always been in a position to say to materialists: “You will never dare to include the right to immortality in your programmes, will you? You will never be able to demand absolute bliss and the merging of all men into one ‘all-spirit’, will you? We, on the other hand, can manipulate these beautiful, delicious things as much as we like, representing them as the true reality.”

A less tragic nature than Dostoyevsky’s might, perhaps, have been quite satisfied with this kind of cunningly worked-out self-comforter. But Dostoyevsky, a genius of fathomless profundity, was tormented by his immense conscience, by his acute sensibility. Dostoyevsky challenges his foes again and again under various guises, and these foes are not only philistinism, not only vice in all forms but, first of all and above all, this damnable, self-assured materialism. In his own soul he has killed it, buried it, rolled great stones across the entrance to the tomb. But it is not a corpse which is immured behind these stones. Someone is always moving about, someone’s heart is beating loudly, giving Dostoyevsky no peace. Dostoyevsky continues to feel that it is not only the socialism outside of himself which will not let him rest, not only the developing revolutionary movement in Russia, Chernyshevsky and his theory, the proletariat in the West, etc.; above all he is tormented by materialist socialism in his own self, which must on no account be allowed to emerge from the underground, which must be spat on, trodden into the mire, humiliated, made to look insignificant and ridiculous even in his own eyes. This is what Dostoyevsky does to it. Not once and not twice. In The Possessed he loses all self-control in this respect. And so what? A little time goes by, the smoke of argument dissipates, the mud of insinuation wears off, and the uncompromising disk of real truth begins once again to shine and to beckon.

Of course, after his experience of forced labour, Dostoyevsky did not for one moment have a genuine faith in his materialistic phantom. Yet it was enough for him to feel the stirrings of doubt to lose all peace of mind. On the other hand, he devoted all his genius for thought, feeling and character – drawing to the erection of altars rising to heaven. There is something of everything: the subtlest sophism and the faith of a charcoal-burner; the frenzy of the “fool in Christ” and refined analysis; the poet’s facile gift of winning over the reader by the acute insight attributed to the religious characters, etc. Yet Dostoyevsky returns in doubt again and again to survey his many-storied edifices, understanding that they are not built to last and that, at the first underground tremor caused by the movement of the fettered Titan whom he has buried in his own heart, the whole pile of spillikins is going to collapse.

It seems to me that only if we adopt this approach to Dostoyevsky will we understand the true substructure of that polyphony which Bakhtin has noted in Dostoyevsky’s novels and stories. Only Dostoyevsky’s split consciousness, together with the fragmentation of the young capitalist society in Russia, awoke in him the obsessional need to hear again and again the trial of the principles of socialism and of reality, and to hear this trial under conditions as unfavourable as possible to materialist socialism.

However, if this trial is not given at least an appearance of unbiassed fairness, the hearing of it loses all its comforting, soothing properties and cannot be expected to calm the tempest of the soul. So a long line of characters – from revolutionaries to the most superstitious reactionaries – as soon as they emerge from Dostoyevsky’s inner world and are allowed to run free, immediately get out of hand and begin to argue each in his own voice, and to prove each his own thesis.

For Dostoyevsky this is a pleasure, an agonising pleasure, all the more so because he realises that, as the author, he retains the conductor’s baton, remains the host in whose home all this ill-assorted company have foregathered, and can, in the end, always restore “order,” In that higher artistic unity which Bakhtin senses in Dostoyevsky’s works, but does not define and even appears to consider almost beyond definition, there is always this juggling with the evidence – delicate, subtle, fearful even of itself, then, suddenly, at various points in this trial which goes on and on through every novel and every story, a quite uncamouflaged, coarse policeman’s trick.

Nevertheless, the unheard-of freedom of “voices” in Dostoyevsky’s polyphony which so strikes the reader is in fact a result of the limitations of Dostoyevsky’s power over the spirits he has conjured. He himself guesses this. He himself realises that, although it is within his power to restore “order” for the benefit of the reader on the stage of his own novels, behind the scenes there is still absolutely no way of telling what’s what. There, the actors may escape his control, there they may continue to develop the contradictory lines of thought which they began to trace on the visible horizon and may, in the long run, tear their author to pieces.

If Dostoyevsky the writer is host to his characters and master in his own home, is it possible to say as much for Dostoyevsky the man?

No, Dostoyevsky the man is not master in his own home, and the disintegration of his personality, its tendency to schizophrenia, arises from his desire to believe in something not suggested by what he really does believe and to refute something which refuses to be finally refuted. All this together renders him as an individual peculiarly suited to create the agonising and essential image of the confusion of his epoch.

In order to judge Dostoyevsky we must turn not to any contemporary writer nor, as yet, to any later writer, but only to the events in the world after his death, to the entrance of new forces onto the social arena and to the creation of a completely new historical situation.

However, even our present situation, in which we see all problems from a different angle, does not leave us indifferent towards Dostoyevsky. If we ourselves find no positive ideas in Dostoyevsky we must remember that we are not as yet a majority in the country. Many groups and strata of our society will continue to seek support for their ideas in Dostoyevsky and to suffer from his illnesses. Dostoyevsky is not yet dead, either here or in the West, because capitalism is not yet dead, still less the survivals of capitalism (if we are to speak of our own country). Hence the importance of devoting careful study to all the tragic problems of Dostoyevshchina.

1. Lunacharsky is referring to Russia as it was before the emancipation of the serfs and other reforms of 1860s. – Ed.

2. Lunacharsky uses the Slavophile expression sobornost, the root of which is sobor – Eng. “Council.” Sobornost implies “togetherness,” “exchange” and “interdependence.” – Ed.

3. The suffix “shchina” means much the same as Eng. “ism” but always carries derogatory overtones when added, as here, to a proper name. It implies the superficial imitation of a great man’s more extravagant ideas and eccentric qualities rather than a true cult of his work or doctrine. – Tr.

4. Dostoyevsky, whose whole approach to the matter was more complicated, made fun of Gogol’s prophetic mission and, in particular, of these lines from the Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends, putting them, almost word for word, into the mouth of Foma Opiskin in Selo Stepanchikovo (The Friend of the Family). – Author’s note.