Anatoly Lunacharsky 1921

Dostoyevsky as an Artist and Thinker

Written: 1921
First published: 1921 (a transcript of a speech delivered by A. V. Lunacharsky at the celebration in honor of the centenary of the birth of F. M. Dostoevsky.)
Translated by: Anton P.

Comrades! I do not mean to give a lecture today or give a talk about Dostoevsky. Even within the limits of the theme that the organizers of this evening assigned me, I am only going to outline a few main ideas or those that seem to me to be the main ones in Dostoevsky’s work.

So, Dostoevsky as an artist.

Of course, there is hardly a person bold enough to doubt that Dostoevsky is an artist and, moreover, a great one. And using the example of Dostoevsky as an artist, it is especially easy to show the entire inconsistency of those ideas about the artist, which lately, if they do not dominate in our country over other ideas, then nevertheless make themselves extremely noisy.

We have repeatedly heard in this very room from art theorists that “form and content are inseparable in art.” That it is – perfect old age to distinguish them among themselves. That the work of art matches its form. That the artist is primarily the “shaper” of his work. To be an artist means to seek the perfection of form!

So, if it is from this point of view to approach Dostoevsky, then he is a weak artist. There is no perfection of form in his works. On the contrary, most of his works are not completed, somehow not finished, outwardly not polished. But this weakness is completely atoned for by the titanic nature of the artistic content.

With regard to this idea, which is almost dominant in our country, about the inseparability of form and content in art, Comrade Mayakovsky, a talented man, once said sharp words: “These people! For them, form and content in art is the same as a general in a uniform!”. In our thought, this definition may seem very funny at first glance; however, in fact, it is, indeed, approximately so. There are artists whose work is like a uniform without a general, there are those whose art is like a general in a uniform, and there are also works like a general without a uniform.

There were such artists who used the most magnificent, most beautiful colors and forms for their creativity and put this luxurious appearance on a mannequin. True, such works have a lot of external beauty, dexterous line-up, external ornamentation, but they still remain a mannequin dressed in a frock coat sewn by a good tailor, a tailor who, apart from such a well-sewn frock coat, can give nothing more. In a word, this is a uniform without a general.

However, undoubtedly, there are also such artists who have this general, and one who is capable of commanding entire columns of people for centuries and who, however, walks almost naked. And Dostoevsky is just such an artist. He doesn’t care about the toilet. His general very often walks around even unkempt, but still Dostoevsky remains a great artist.

Dostoevsky, as you know, was in hard labor for four years. In fact, he was in hard labor almost all his life. For most of his life he was in dire need. He often, very often, for the sake of bread, had to bake chapter after chapter of his novels, not working them at all, not even finishing them properly. He constantly grieves about this in his letters. It goes without saying that under such circumstances Dostoevsky cannot be blamed for not finding, or rather, not looking for crystallized forms, say, such as those that Pushkin spoils us with. But then, what explains the fact that these unfinished, formally not perfect works are still at the pinnacle of art?

In one of his letters, Chekhov said about writers who are contemporary to him: “We are very skillful in terms of form. We will be able to portray everything very stylishly. We know how to construct a phrase, a chapter, etc., but we do not have one thing, the most important thing: God. There is not what we believe in, because we are all children of timelessness.”

I also remember the words of the Apostle Paul, surprisingly appropriate in this case: “If you speak all human languages, but do not have love, you will be like a clattering cymbal.” The more, the wider a person has what is meant here by love, a living, deep feeling, the more capable such a person is to be an artist. Let the form of his works be imperfect, but if there is a powerful content in his soul, then such an artist can enjoy immeasurable fame for centuries. If, on the contrary, there is only one form, a beautiful, ringing cymbal, then such an artist will only be a fashion. He will only enjoy instant fame. He can only be assigned a separate page in the history of literature, but such an artist-writer will not enter the Pantheon of world literature.

Dostoevsky had this God about whom Chekhov speaks. He had a huge, painful, gradually developing credo. He had his own, very special way of refracting his experiences through the prism of his consciousness. He was so filled with his God, he was so obsessed with thought-images that for us he is as much an artist as a prophet and publicist. Both are inextricably fused with him.

Dostoevsky was a lyric artist who, in particular, wrote about himself, for himself and from himself. All his stories and novels are one fiery river of his own experiences. This is a continuous confession of your innermost soul. It is a passionate desire to confess your inner truth. This is the first and main moment in his work. The second is the constant desire to infect, convince, shock the reader and confess his faith to him. These two properties of Dostoevsky’s creativity are inherent in him like no other lyrics, if by lyrics we mean the call of a shocked soul.

Thus, Dostoevsky is a great and profound lyricist. But a lyricist doesn’t have to be an artist, does he? He can express his experiences in different ways, in the form of journalism, in sermons, for example. They don’t have to be artistic. Dostoevsky expresses his feelings and confessions not in a direct form, but in an imaginary epic form. He closes his confessions, the passionate calls of his soul, into stories of incidents. He writes stories and novels. Approaching his works, we must completely abandon the requirements of formal beauty. Dostoevsky does not care about external beauty. Look at his stories and novels. In them, the phrase is extremely artless. The vast majority of the protagonists speak the same language. Look at the very construction of his novels, the construction of the chapters in them. It is extremely curious. It is often even interesting to solve this problem – where the will played a role for Dostoevsky, when constructing chapters of novels, and where it is just chance. His novel often takes on the most bizarre forms. And as a geologist understands how some eruption of Etna or Fujiyama happened, it is so interesting to understand here. What’s the difference, for example, with Dante, who was recently honored: everything is there from the general array to the smallest detail – architecturally, everything obeys the plan and the firm will of the architect. You will not find beautiful descriptions in Dostoevsky’s works. He walks completely indifferently past nature. In a word, as I said, there is no external beauty in his works. But the point is that in Dostoevsky you do not stop at the genius of the content. He bypasses this unnecessary form. He seeks to quickly infect, shock you, confess to you. And these are the first two engines, which determine by themselves the most basic in the work of Dostoevsky. But if only these properties were on the face, then Dostoevsky would not have had an incentive to lure us, to capture us the way he does in epic artistic forms. He does this because over all his aspirations to speak out, to reveal his inner truth, another main motive dominates: a huge, immense, powerful desire to live. Everything is erased before this passionate yearning of life. It is as if this person feels that more material has been released to him for life than can be experienced in one existence. It is this passionate, invincible desire to live that makes Dostoevsky an artist in the first place. And he creates both great and low, both gods and creatures. Maybe in his real life he does not live as intensely as then, when he gives birth to the world of his heroes, all these people, who are all his children and who are al he himself in different masks. Dostoevsky is connected by the closest threads with all his heroes. His blood flows in their veins. His heart beats in all the images he creates. Dostoevsky does not just give birth; he creates his own images. He gives birth to them in agony, with a fast-beating heart and with difficult breathing. He goes to the crime together with his heroes. He lives with them a titanic hectic life. He repents with them. He is with them, shaking heaven and earth in his thoughts. And because the desire to live is inherent in him to the strongest degree, an understanding of the innermost depths of life is given, therefore he is capable of the gift of prophecy, for if we put into this word the concept of divination, then it is precisely such a soul as Dostoevsky, always striving to reveal its inner truth, to confess its deepest experiences, contains the most data for divination. Such a soul can express the mysterious depths of a person and human destinies. Dostoevsky manifests his prophetic gift in dreams about the possibilities of life, about how he could possibly live. And because of this need to experience himself in concretely scary, more and more new adventures, he shocks us like no one else. But besides the fact that Dostoevsky himself experiences all the incidents with his heroes, he himself is tormented by their torments, he also relishes these experiences. He constantly notices all sorts of little things in order to concretize his life before hallucination. He needs them, these little things, in order to savor them as a true inner life.

It is necessary to note one more feature of Dostoevsky’s work. Since he is interested in the very “subject” in the experiences, and the experiences themselves as such, he dwells very little on the description of the environment surrounding his hero of the situation. Passing this, he seeks to quickly bring the reader to the stream, to the kaleidoscope of thoughts, to the music of his hero’s feelings. That is why Dostoevsky is called a writer-psychologist.

In a letter to his brother, after he started Stepanchikovo Village, he writes: “I started writing a comedy, things are progressing, but I left the comedy form, I want to live longer with my heroes, tell more about them, and the story comes out.” Dostoevsky cannot write briefly. He deliberately drags on his works, because, creating heroes, he lives the same life with them. At the same time, Dostoevsky does not care what his hero does. It matters to him what he thinks and says. Dostoevsky is a passionate talker. In his works long monologues and dialogues are constantly going on, but this is precisely what makes us come close to the human soul, look to the very bottom of it and see what is going on there.

Dostoevsky writes novels and stories. But these novels and stories are essentially dramas. Dramas, extremely scenic, moreover. Everything in them is based on the experiences of the human soul. The rest is hurt in passing. His brief notes about the costumes of the characters, about the situation are similar to remarks.

So, Dostoevsky is called a psychologist, since he is most interested in the experiences of the human soul. But in my opinion he is not so much a psychologist as in his works one can find material for psychology, for by a psychologist we mean a person who not only knows how to analyze the human soul, but also deduce some psychological laws from this analysis.

To understand what Dostoevsky is doing with the psyche, let’s take at least such an example: water. In order to give a person a complete picture of water, to make them embrace all its properties, it is necessary to show them water, steam, ice, divide the water into its component parts, show what a quiet lake is, a river majestically rolling its waves, a waterfall, a fountain and etc. In a word, he needs to show all the properties, all the internal dynamics of water. And, however, this will still not be enough. Perhaps, in order to understand the dynamics of water, it is necessary to exceed these possibilities and fantastically imagine Niagara to a person, a hundred times more grandiose than the real one. Here is Dostoevsky and seeks to overcome reality and show the human spirit with all its immeasurable heights and inexplicable depths from all sides. How Michelangelo twists human bodies in convulsions, in agony, so Dostoevsky’s human spirit sometimes inflates to hyperbole, then compresses to complete destruction, mixes it with dirt, casts it down into the depths of hell, then suddenly soars into the highest empyrean of heaven. With these flights of the human spirit, Dostoevsky not only rivets our attention, captures us, reveals to us new unexplored beauties, but gives us a lot to our knowledge, showing us the depths of the soul that we do not suspect.

Dostoevsky wants to live. This is not enough. Dostoevsky enjoys life, enjoys passionately, painfully, to the point of pain. All his novels are a gigantic act of lust. And he himself perfectly understood this. He repeatedly dwelled on the idea that he experiences all the failures of life as a pleasure that even pain itself delivers.

The documents Dostoevsky left after were opened yesterday. Among them are found two new chapters from his novel The Demons. These chapters will now be printed. There is one place in them where Stavrogin says: “If the viscount, from whom I received a slap in the face, had grabbed me by the hair, but would have stooped more, then maybe I did not feel any anger.” In these chapters, Dostoevsky analyzes the delight of suffering, crime and humiliation in the most vivid and definite way.

As has been repeatedly noted, the central driving stimulus of artistic creation is the sexual feeling. The same feeling serves as a stimulus in striving for fame, for success in life, etc. This same feeling is acutely manifested in the work of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky embraced the Madonnas in his heart and rushed to the Sabbath with shameless witches. From here he paints the convulsions of the spirit with his magic brush. There is definitely not a single smallest moment that would not be reflected in his soul as pleasure. Not as happiness, not as harmony, but as voluptuousness that can include the most painful experiences.

The presence of these properties is Dostoevsky’s “demonic”. Is it possible to find another writer whose demon would have such wide and dark wings? True, in this respect Balzac is terrible, but he does not reach the immeasurable demonism of Dostoevsky.

However, is Dostoevsky fully described in this? Not completely, for Dostoevsky is not only an artist, but also a thinker. Here he is also huge. Not in the sense that lessons of light thought can be found with him. No. He who seeks this turns to Dostoevsky’s weakest point, to the empty drawer of his desk. Dostoevsky, as a thinker, possesses only those properties that follow from the foundations of his spirit. Each thought that he expresses has its place, as a definite value in the general system of his spirit.

Dostoevsky knows how to turn reality into pleasure. He often dips his magic brush into a muddy swamp and enjoys this mud. But this does not mean that he justifies it. No. He suffers from mundane dirt. He often returns to the idea that suffering has a redemptive meaning. He believes that everyone should suffer, for everyone is guilty for every sin in every crime. Crime is universal, the punishment must be imposed on everyone. This is Dostoevsky’s understanding of the world. Thinking so, he rebelles and protests against one, against the suffering of the innocent. Especially against childhood suffering. Who dared, not excluding God, to make the innocent suffer? He makes his Ivan go in rebellion against God for this. But it is not only sin that attracts him to itself. Dostoevsky also infinitely loves the above-star regions of the sky, and they are open to him. He has been to heaven. He knows about what the angels are singing there, as Lermontov’s soul knew. He knows how to understand and feel the harmony of being. And now he is seized by the desire to harmonize life and redemption. This makes him go to the Petrashevites. This makes him feel the charm of utopian socialism. Yes, Dostoevsky is a socialist. Dostoevsky is a revolutionary! He is in the greatest measure inherent in the idea that people should build for themselves a new kingdom on earth. And this ideal of paradise on earth, harmonious life in the full sense of the word is again fully inherent in Dostoevsky. Therefore, Dostoevsky could not help but feel on himself the oppression of the autocracy and all the horrors of evil, sin and crime, closely linked with it. And Dostoevsky knew that there is only one way to overcome the autocracy: the revolutionary way. When a person, stepping on it, says: I am the Collective All-Man, with these my hands I will transform the earth and I will dictate to the world what it should be – what an immense human pride! But at the same time, the thought of humility, even the desire for humiliation, was strong in him, for he also found pleasure in humiliation. In this respect, Dostoevsky was characterized by a certain masochism.

It is precisely this passive side, precisely this desire to suffer, to enjoy in suffering, to humble ourselves in suffering – that grew in Dostoevsky under the influence of the oppression of the autocracy. The autocracy sent Dostoevsky to hard labor and his crime was far from the fact that the writer’s outer life was undermined, that he was inflicted with great physical and moral torment, it is even more terrible, because it drove inside the great soul of Dostoevsky, his proud impulses, his humanism, his socialism, and forced his soul to seek for itself another, essentially distorted, channel. Religion turned out to be such a channel not only for him, but also for great souls mutilated by the same autocracy, like Gogol and Tolstoy. The stream of Dostoevsky’s spirit fell into this channel, so to speak, bypassing and bending around the dumpy autocracy.

Hard labor humiliated Dostoevsky, and it is painful to read these words, imbued with a tone of self-abasement: “I was punished by the Tsar’s right hand, but I am ready to kiss it”, these letters to relatives “benefactors, merciful”, whom he asks not to forget him.

Dostoevsky – the chained Prometheus – does not threaten Zeus in the Promethean way. The protest would have seemed ridiculous and powerless to him. Therefore, Dostoevsky humbles himself, looking for some kind of new pride in the observance of this humility.

Dostoevsky, already from the depths of his family, which possessed a strong Orthodox way of life, emerged with the premises of Christianity. Now, when he needed justification for his humility, Christianity turned out to be a suitable worldview for him. Dostoevsky introduced the maximum of revolutionary spirit into his Christianity.

Autocracy is a gloomy casemate, but entering it, you will see there, in a dark corner, someone’s image and in front of him a glowing inextinguishable lamp. When you look into the features of this or that whose image is depicted on this wooden board, then you will see the emaciated face of Christ or his Mother full of sorrow. After all, this is the God and Goddess, whom the autocrat himself prays to. Where did they come from? From us, from the proletarians, from those social lower classes who, in about two thousand years, in a painful struggle, forged for themselves a religion that justified their obedience. How much anger, revenge and amazing perversions of the human spirit are in it! What is not here: the rejection of all the delights of the world and at the same time the dream of bliss, of the ultimate and even limitless pleasures.

He bitterly realized that reality and its peak – the state – contradicted not only its ideal of brotherhood and the redemption of mankind from sin, but also the Christian ideal, the church. You remember this scene from The Brothers Karamazov, when a monk proves that the only correct government is the church and that the church will once absorb the state and alone will rule over the souls and bodies of people. “And wake up, and wake up”, – exclaims the monk, supported by his associates. This church, the triumph of which is awaiting Dostoevsky, as his distant predecessors, the prophets of Israel and Judea, were waiting for the kingdom of Jehovah in their time to replace the kingdom of kings, is not the current church of the rulers, but the reconstituted church of the oppressed and disadvantaged, the church of the true Christ, and not the Grand Inquisitor. The Russian version of primitive Christianity with its peculiar asceticism and its peculiar contradictions attracted Dostoevsky and gave him a basis for his ardent idealism and at the same time, I repeat, justified his obedience to the powers that be. The saints with their excesses, asceticism, self-sacrifice, all these catacombs with flickering lights, all this tremendous spiritual power of martyrs and preachers and all the teasing depth of such positions as the famous Russian proverb “you won’t sin – you won’t repent, you won’t repent – you won’t be saved”, that’s all these parables so akin to Dostoevsky are based on repentance and forgiveness (The Prodigal Son, the Prostitute at the feet of Christ). However, one must remember that all this is only a collection of psychological curiosities, only more or less beautiful archeology, if there is no faith. Dostoevsky believes, Dostoevsky struggles to believe. But as soon as a critical thought confronts him with the concept of the Creator and Provider of the universe, the world that is full of falsehoods, a spiritual tragedy begins again and again. Doubt gnaws at him.

Ivan’s formula: “I accept God, but I do not accept the world” undoubtedly overturns God himself, for God is known to us only through the medium of the world. God is the creator who created this very world of torment, in which Dostoevsky’s soul floats voluptuously choking in bloody tears, such a God cannot be accepted by him as Justice. And how is Dostoevsky shielded from his own criticism, put into the mouth of Ivan by Christ, who is put forward by Alyosha. Christ himself suffered. Dostoevsky resorts to the absurdity lurking within Christianity, that God himself is imperfect, that he himself is a sufferer. The deed of Christ actually asserts that God made a mistake, creating the world, creating Adam, and that in order to correct the mistake, he was forced to give up his only begotten Son, in essence himself, to a humiliating execution. It is behind this Christian absurdity that Dostoevsky is hiding. The autocracy gave a crushing impetus to the fate of Dostoevsky and directed him along this path. But his soul often strives to straighten up. Hell blazes in the depths of his humble world outlook. This is a peculiar feature of a genius, when he is beaten, to sound the gospel to the whole world. The autocracy did everything to cripple Dostoevsky. But the crippled Dostoevsky remained a giant.

The great seeker of social harmony, at least through mysticism, religion and Christianity, Dostoevsky was also a patriot. He pictured Russia as one indefatigable immeasurable soul, as an ocean of immense contradictions. But it was precisely this barbaric, ignorant country of Peter the Great and the self-incinerators, lagging in the tail of civilization, that he depicted as the most capable of completing the building, giving the world something new, bright and great. It was Russia, he believed, who would undertake this difficult feat of achieving great goals in torment, the bright future of mankind. Belief in the mystical essence of their homeland gradually migrates from West to East, although it began in the East and found its most violent expression in the biblical prophets. France, in the era of the Great Revolution, proclaimed itself the beacon of the world, the redeemer of mankind, and declared war on palaces and peace in huts. In Prussia plundered by Napoleon, the great Fichte proclaimed that the people of philosophers and poets, the deep German people, would bring salvation to humanity. Further, the defeated Poland, through the mouth of the Towianskis and Mickiewiczes, proclaimed the exhausted Polish clap, thirsty for truth, the new Christ. And in his famous speech about Pushkin, Dostoevsky, following some of the Slavophiles, but with much more, fully proclaimed the Russian people the chosen people. It is from its rejection, from its torment, from its chains that the Russian people, according to Dostoevsky, can endure all those necessary highest spiritual qualities that the renegade West will never acquire. And, well, skepticism in front of this prophecy of Dostoevsky should fade in our days? In fact, Russia is playing the role of the leader of the whole world of the proletarians of the West and the colonial slaves of the East. Of course, the work has just begun, but it has begun undoubtedly. Of course, this shift comes at a terrible cost, in suffering and struggles. But did Dostoevsky suppose that Russia’s call to the service of the world would happen without sin and murder, without hunger, without suffering? No, a rosy, clean revolution would have seemed to Dostoevsky a mockery of the impulses and aspirations of enthusiastic souls. For him, the future of Russia was intertwined with the idea of a heroic deed, the concept of which includes both torment and victory.

If Dostoevsky had been resurrected, he, of course, would have found enough truthful and bright enough colors to make us feel all the need for the feat we are accomplishing and all the holiness of the cross that we carry on our shoulders. Dostoevsky would have done more. He would teach us to find pleasure in this feat, to find pleasure in the very torments and with eyes full of horror and admiration at the same time, to follow the rumbling stream of the revolution.

Blok, the late Blok was a prophetic enough disciple to follow before us, as if in the spirit of Dostoevsky. And he said: “The stream of revolution destroys your hopes, your dreams. It carries with it a lot of mud and dirt. But listen to what he is talking about! Its hum always sounds great.”

Russia is moving forward in a painful, but glorious way, and behind her, blessing on this path, stand the figures of her great prophets, and among them, perhaps, the most charming and beautiful figure of Fyodor Dostoevsky.