Anatoly Lunacharsky 1931
First published: 1931 in Great Soviet Encyclopedia, first edition, Volume 23, pp. 334-345
Source: Great Soviet Encyclopedia
Translated by: Anton P.
The works of Dostoyevsky play an exceptional role in Russian literature and secure for him one of the first places among its greatest writers. The works of Dostoyevsky have acquired (especially recently) enormous, almost world-wide significance. Understanding of the main features of Dostoyevsky as a writer, thinker, and social activist can be possible only in connection with the entire history of our public, in particular with that moment in which Dostoevsky was directly involved. There are three main social elements reflected in Dostoevsky’s work.
The main social elements, reflected in the work of Dostoevsky, can be considered. Firstly, the contemporary disintegration of social foundations for him, and at the same time of social consciousness, morality, household forms, which were brought along with a more or less rapidly advancing capitalism. In particular, the then St. Petersburg was a highly Europeanized city with all that thirst for profit and career, with all that confusion of various individuals torn off from each other, with all that irrepressible intersection of old and new views, the likes of which Balzac described in the Paris of the 1830s-40s. This chaos of the period of intensive original accumulation turned into a particularly painful side for the petty bourleoisie, discarding old cracking traditions and kindling the will to wealth, to power, to pleasure. At the same time, the epoch hit hard on the vast majority of the representatives of this group, plunging them into the ranks of the losers and the exploited. Excessive painful dreams, new sufferings from constant grievances, a sense of the uncertainty of one’s position; all this created a special torn hysterical psyche for this social stratum. There were no firm ideas about good and evil, about what was permissible and what was not. A person who had recently left the patriarchal church of the Old Testament circle, falling into the raging sea of capitalist competition, often desperately tried to grab hold of the scraps of old foundations, to convince himself of some kind of solidity, to return to the calm coast and with horror looked at the other side; the all-permitting, seductive abyss of the big city, with its lust for crime. It is possible to note many features of the striking similarity between the ideological world and the actions of the then Russian petty bourgeoisie, especially its educated, conscious part, which the great writers of the West portray, who had similar social phenomena and worked on the same social material (especially Balzac, Zola).
The second element that left its mark on the socially creative personality of Dostoyevsky was the thirst for salvation from this chaos by reshaping society in an orderly way. For many people, the strongest minds of this era, in the breadth of mental and emotional coverage of the surrounding phenomena, the transition to socialism, which had already lit bright beacons of its then utopian thought in the West, seemed the most serious way out. The agonizing contradictions, the bestial struggle between the people of the highest and the lowest, everything will be reconciled in the utopian kingdom of labor and equality. The proletarian and revolutionary paths to the true realization of socialism were, of course, extremely unclear. They were vaguely pictured even by the most consistent progressive thinkers who were able to break all the fetters of the past and who had the ability to think with the utmost intellectual power. Such were Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov and some others. For the rest, socialist ideas were easily intertwined with the responses of the sermons of Christian love, with all mystical dogmas and the most vague fantasy. In the Petrashevsky circle we see various types, who, however, fit entirely within the framework of a very vague utopian socialism. The autocracy nevertheless responded to this kind of thoughts, especially when their representatives turned to propaganda, with unlimited ferocity. Dostoyevsky became an adherent of this socialism and suffered for it. Utopian socialism, which the writer carried away from the Petrashevsky circle, never left Dostoyevsky, always continued to live in him in a peculiar way. This ideal was constantly returning as a hope or a heavy reproach, demanding its replacement by some other teaching, which would at least somewhat illuminate the hopeless hell of life. The third element, which was reflected in Dostoyevsky’s personal fate and on his work, was the autocracy itself, as an organization of the ruling classes, including here its support, the official church. This force hit Dostoevsky and not only made him experience one of the most terrible moments that can be imagined in the fate of a person, but also go through humiliations that threatened to destroy his life and prematurely bury those creative forces that he felt in himself and whose survival seemed to be his mission. Unable to fight the autocracy, which, as it seemed to him, immeasurably surpassed his own forces, pursued by him, like Pushkin’s Eugene the Bronze Horseman, Dostoyevsky made a half-artificial, half-sincere revision of his world outlook. He retained much from his condemnation of lawlessness and violence in society, from his thirst for harmony. But it was gradually constructed into a theory, a system that was supposed to impress both him and everyone around him with its goodness, with its perspicacity and at the same time lead him to some kind of conflict with the central and dominant evil itself, i.e. the dictatorship of the ruling classes and their state system.
And this horror of life was recognized by Dostoyevsky throughout his literary career. The metaphysical question of the origin of evil, the question of what is fate out of all the good will of God, which Dostoyevsky tried to accept and understand, a sea of evil arises that surrounded the writer and it was impossible to calm down. Dostoyevsky often posed this question with utmost force, and he could not be quieted by the simple answer that human evil will is to blame. In the famous tirade of Ivan Karamazov about the suffering child, Dostoyevsky powerfully castigates the cruelty of the world and, indirectly albeit clearly, of God who created it. However, he could never make ends meet, bearing in himself, on the one hand, pain for the ugliness of social life, and on the other, a thirst for religious faith in providence. Pathetic attempts to avoid the conflict of these principles by pointing out the sinless and patient full of love Christ who suffered for us, could not even for a moment convince the critical mind. The metaphysical question deeply agitated Dostoevsky, and he did not find any logical solution, even if it was strongly saturated with emotion. In any case, Dostoyevsky avoided the simple idea that the main responsibility for the prevailing evil was borne by the ruling class and its government. It was quite impossible to expect that Dostoyevsky would approach this issue materialistically and see its true root in the very development of society, and the healing from it in the growth of the productive forces of mankind and the revolutionary upheaval, that the proletariat brings with it. Dostoyevsky was looking for another explanation, which also seemed to him profound, but which actually says nothing, namely the recognition by each one of his own guilt for the general “disorder”, recognizing all as the culprits of the misfortune of human existence. Direct, practical ways to resolve the socio-philosophical question turned out to be forced on Dostoyevsky partly by the bourgeois-intellectual inability for genuinely scientific generalizations, partly by an internal self- imposed taboo not to expose the continuous crime that the autocracy was.
His mind, like the mind of Gogol (in the words of Merezhkovsky), was “a huge mind, but a dark one.” In any case, this mind was great enough to perceive the presence of directions next to it, going in other ways. The best part of the modern democrats of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia, without approaching a clear presentiment of capitalism and the proletariat being born in its place, nevertheless on the basis of the Russian experience (the fate and needs of the peasantry) and the European experience (a series of revolutions from the end of the 18th century to the time of Dostoyevsky) narrowly created for itself (especially in Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov) a bright concept, a bright position, which served as a great preface to the events we are experiencing today, to the world outlook of the revolutionary proletariat. Dostoyevsky however, after such a painfully-ended attempt to join the Petrashevists, he perceived this revolutionary solution to the problem of life as the main temptation, as the main enemy, and therefore set himself the most reactionary and base task of fully exposing the revolution and the bearers of its ideals. If Tolstoy paid much attention to polemics with progressive commoners, then in his lordly quest for a powerful enough protest against impending capitalism he was able to treat the revolutionaries with relative complacency, while recognizing other moral merits for them (“Resurrection”). But Dostoyevsky was different. Himself a tortured, half-crushed bourgeois raznochin (commoner), he seemed to the whole course of his fate and his time to be a revolutionary herald of the “insulted and humiliated” against the oppressors and offenders. However, this mission of his turned out to be smashed against the inexorable wall of the still too strong feudal order. The fragments remained. These fragments got stuck in the mind, in the nature of Dostoyevsky and tormented him. All the more mercilessly Dostoyevsky strove again and again to the moral extermination of the revolution. This should have made and it partly, but only partly, made Dostoyevsky a writer clearly reactionary. Dostoevsky tries to overturn this seductive attempt at creating a harmonious society by means of rebellion, not by considerations of the external difficulties of this task, but spitting on the attempt itself, for example, by the most deceitful interpretation of the internally pure and noblest theory of the progressive commoners of that time, the theory of “egoism”, that is, the doctrine that man, even in his self-annihilation and self-denial, is led by no higher divine principles, but by his own beliefs, feelings, instincts that make him a social being. Dostoyevsky portrayed this “egoism” as a natural continuation of the gloomy careerism, the gloomy spirit of profit, which his class as a whole, the philistine and, to a large extent, Dostoyevsky himself possessed. It was his base animal instincts that Dostoyevsky drew from the bottom of his rich personality. it was precisely his primordial philistine that he pulled out into the light in order to paint the figures of revolutionaries with this mud.
The main engine of the revolution, according to Dostoyevsky, is Smerdyakov, the worst embodiment of Karamazism, the worst bearer of a voluptuous luscious attitude towards life and society. In the other Karamazovs, their petty bourgeois voluptuousness and passionate lust is brightened up, balanced by various higher principles, but in their illegitimate brother, the lackey Smerdyakov, whose image must be understood as the image of the lower masses, called on by the revolution to be active, in the slogan “everything is permitted,” egoism is transformed into an even more monstrous cynicism, an even more bestial greed than that of old Karamazov. And, as Dostoyevsky says, even if Ivan Karamazov is wonderful with his intellectual ascent, his high spiritual development, he forgets that the godless principles of freedom he is pursuing actually mean only a gesture of pressing the button of that hellish machine, which is the spontaneous greed of the Smerdyakovs, with an elegant wave of his hand. In the novel The Demons, the hateful war against the revolution took the form of a continuous – ingenious, of course – but from beginning to end surreal image of the revolutionary world distorted by malice.
Why, however, Dostoyevsky cannot be recognized as simply a reactionary writer, even on the basis of his most reactionary novels and chapters? The fact is that his hatred stems from the inner consciousness of the strength of his opponent. The revolutionary movement of his outraged heart he tried to bury. But this hated and at the same time sacred grave never wanted to close. The dead man buried alive constantly raised his voice, and Dostoyevsky again, with anguish and fury, tried to muffle this voice and oppose it with his poisonous invectives or fragile arguments. Dostoyevsky is a great philistine who could become a revolutionary, but was thrown by the will of fate from this path, crippled as a result of this endless titanic struggle with himself, with the best part of himself, moreover, a struggle without victory. Huge, true talent manifested itself in the fact that Dostoyevsky was again and again forced to give free rein to his “Satan”, his “Prometheus”, whom he himself chained to a rock in Tartarus, and at the same time such brilliant arguments were put into the mouth of the “enemy” that all the weapons of the victorious Dostoyevsky, the “official” Dostoyevsky, the bearer of Christian truth, turned out to be weak. This is the undoubted involuntary objective revolutionary spirit of Dostoyevsky.
One of the main weapons that Dostoyevsky used in this struggle was Christian ideology. In the stinking world of official reality, he tried to find a bright side. He began to pray frantically before the smoky icon, which was supposed to be a shrine for the entire gloomy old casemate of Russia. He tried to listen attentively, to reflect on the distant voices of those democratic strata, in whose midst Christianity was once created. Miserable, perverted, used for the most vile purposes, these voices nevertheless repeated something about forgiveness, about love, about faith in the coming kingdom of heaven, where all contradictions will be resolved and all torments will be healed.
All this structure, very naive for an educated person of that time, was shattered by one blow of the powerful hand of the Dostoyevsky the revolutionary. Ivan Karamazov with his statement about the “returning the ticket to God”, when Karamazov, consumed by the immense sea of tears and grief, is presented with the bribe of a pass to the delightful gardens of the Lord, this historical messianism, which has always been only an attempt to oppose at least some hope to the genuine hopelessness in the existence of powerless classes. But Dostoyevsky feverishly sought allies in the monastic faces, in Zosima, in the warriors of the church, thirsting for her victory over the secular state by mystical methods and stubbornly repeating “and wake up and wake up”, in the benevolent angelic Alyosha. However, all these mystical props did not satisfy him. And every time when, among the smooth speeches of Orthodox sages, the red flame of revolutionary and rebellious speeches breaks out, it becomes obvious how easy it is for this flame to devour the religious cardboard houses.. The writer is the spokesman for a particular public. But of course the writer is not at all equal to every one of his contemporaries. Otherwise, all contemporaries could be writers and even great writers. But the great writer is somehow different from his contemporaries, he has something that makes him especially vivid and in this sense especially typical. Epochs of crises, epochs of painful changes find their heralds in sick, exhausted people. A healthy, balanced psychology, if it is generated in such an era, cannot express its anguish for that part of contemporaries who feel them quite acutely. Only such a person can shout about pain in artistic images, whose nerves are especially sensitive to this pain, and the entire emotional structure of the era is looking for such a suitable instrument. The thunderous music of the revolution cannot be contained in a flute, just as it is impossible to play a gentle madrigal on bells and brass sirens.
Dostoyevsky’s fate naturally evolved painfully and disharmoniously, since such was the life around him. This was further aggravated by his innate nervousness, in which his artistic impressionability and artistic expressiveness were rooted. The colossal exertion of his creative will in his striving to overcome the world and its contradictions did not help him find a way out.. His social function – to seek solutions to contradictions, rejecting the only true path, the path of revolution – itself represented an enormous dangers to its bearer.
Dostoyevsky was an epileptic. To what extent epilepsy was a prerequisite for his artistic and teaching mission, or to what extent, on the contrary, it was a product of it is a difficult question. Probably both took place here. The social stream rushes along the channel that is most adapted for it. The social stream of the hopeless torment of the bourgeoisie, thirsting for a bright life and wiped out by capitalism, could most easily rush through a sick psyche. But this flow itself had to aggravate the “disease.” This was the case with Dostoyevsky. Epileptic seizure, which both Dostoyevsky himself and many others describe as a moment of bliss, seizures that have always been a pathological material substrate of all kinds of mystical ecstasies, helped Dostoyevsky. It seemed to him that at these moments he was in contact with that higher truth, which will conquer in the end the painful disharmony of being (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot). But on such paths, pathological in their essence and savage in their social appearance, it is certainly impossible to acquire a genuine influence on the health of the mass of readers. Therefore, Dostoevsky constantly tried to act also with logic, straining his mind, his “thinking in images” in order to convince others of the correctness of his position and ignite the fire of hope. And he himself was inwardly aware of the unconvincingness of painful ecstasies, their terrible and dark side. Returning to the world, Dostoevsky again found its contradictions and again began his colossal Sisyphean struggle, which never led to any kind of conclusion and remained a monument to his duality, majestic in its suffering. The other side of his personal psychology, which made him a brother and a leading sage of the philistine, this huge heterogeneous petty-bourgeois mass of the intelligentsia, was precisely his Karamazovian, voluptuous attitude to life. What amazes in Dostoyevsky, what captivates in him, rivets to itself, is a quivering fiery passion that bubbled up all the time in his works. Dostoyevsky wants to live with every fiber of his being: he wants some exorbitant experiences, pleasures, for the full acuteness of which pain is also needed, a frame of suffering and cruelty. It is the bourgeoisie, awakened by capitalism, driven in all directions by its winds, carried away by its brilliance, by its alluring lights, that can generate such an insatiable, because it is always unsatisfied, desire for pleasure. Tormented by all torments and doubts, Dostoevsky himself, in an ingeniously painful form, seeks to find pleasure in self-abasement, in suffering itself. Every minute, ready to trample underfoot with his feet and gouge out those standing next to him with his teeth, a typical bourgeois-philistine, awakened by capitalism, torn from his usual rut, receives the highest rapture in causing suffering to others. And this is by no means alien to Dostoevsky. His thirst for life gave rise to all the immense wealth of his human gallery. He himself lives in everyone, he himself wants to be in everyone. It was his exorbitant and dammed will to live, powerfully shattered into the foam, playing with a colorful rainbow, dazzling and painful.
All this explains the peculiarities of his style. His style is determined not only by subjective elements that arise from certain social roots, but also by purely objective ones, that is, by taking into account the tastes of the new public. It is not difficult to see his dependence on Balzac, Hugo, Georges Sand, especially on Eugene Sue. The new large public must be entertained and carried away by a complex plot, unexpected effects, amazing outcomes, after which the knot is tied again, wonderful events, hyperbolic, almost caricatured reliefs of physiognomy, the melodramatic opposition of light types to dark ones, etc.. Anyone who, in Dostoevsky, does not feel the French novelists who have found crowds of readers in small people, he does not feel the very essence of the techniques of Dostoyevsky. Of course Dostoyevsky is more talented than Sue, more philosophically deep than Hugo, more tragic than Balzac, but his manner is reminiscent of these writers in many ways. However, it is impossible to reduce the complex tortuous development of the plot by him only to a thirst to get the appropriate reader. Dostoevsky himself was a reader of this kind. His manner suited his own taste. The agitated epoch, which tore the bourgeois personality from its way of life and confused it, found expression in such a plot structure. Likewise, not only an outwardly spectacular device, but also something that met the inner needs of Dostoyevsky was his manner of conveying events through the narrator. This storyteller, whether he is one of the characters, or just a narrator, is always intensely interested in his story. He giggles all the time, hints, worries, runs ahead. It seems that passion prevents him from speaking. And it is this that greatly enhances the dynamism of the story. Finally, Dostoyevsky’s most valuable literary device is that, ignoring things in their passivity, almost abandoning the landscape, he is entirely occupied with the relationship of people, behind whom, in essence, are ideas. However, if people in Dostoyevsky are always more or less hidden masks of ideas, then these ideas, in turn, are connected, perhaps not fully realized for Dostoyevsky himself, by their roots with the social status of people. The huge turbulent public sea was a multitude of individuals thrown out of the usual forms of life, moving like molecules of bodies turned into a gaseous state in all directions. At the same time, a confusing variety is created: the most diverse fates refract their consciousness and the subconscious sphere of their mental life. When they collide with each other, whole abysses of contradictions open up. And hence the endless dispute. This dispute is often a genuine dialogue. The dispute is led by two or more participants. But this is not just a dispute between different systems of thought. This often resembles a conversation between two enemies before a fight. It is necessary to convince each other, to understand each other, because otherwise it is impossible to live further together in the world. This is how Dostoevsky’s novels and stories turn into gigantic philosophical dramas. Social and philosophical richness does not interfere with the volatile drama of the action. Dostoevsky knew how to choose such carriers for his ideas so that the clash of ideas would turn into a clash of wills in life, and at the same time the same leitmotifs always sound mercilessly: passion for life, suppressed or distorted, hammered or perverted, and the constant thought of redemption, the constant thought of redemption, accompanied by a struggle against the only concrete redemptive idea: against the revolution.
Dostoyevsky was a new type of writer in Russian literature. He was aware of this. He bitterly disliked the past and still vividly developing nearby noble literature. He lamented that the nobles, provided for by someone else’s labor, can conscientiously polish their works, while this is denied to him, Dostoyevsky, always in a hurry in order to feed his family. He sent at times very irreverent arrows to the camp of noble writers. Everyone loves those rather transparent caricatures that were given to them on Gogol (in Selo Stepanchikovo), on Turgenev and Granovsky (in Demons), etc.
In his amazingly profound analysis of Tolstoy, Lenin pointed out that this gentleman, who transferred his master’s misfortune to the village, became great because he was an indirect, but vivid reflection of the agonizing transitional state of the peasantry with the destruction of feudal life and its replacement with capitalist ones. The situation with Dostoyevsky is somewhat different. In his personality and in his works, he was only a reflection of the colossal tragedy that was undergone by wide sections of the bourgeoisie, that is, the petty urban bourgeoisie and, in particular, the diverse intelligentsia. Precisely because Dostoyevsky was the classic spokesman for troubled drama, Europe, in those countries and in those strata that are going through something similar (for example, post-war Germany), experiences the inexpressibly attractive power of this brilliant singer and martyr of social decay. Dostoyevsky died surrounded by glory and some vague bewilderment, but no one knew exactly who he was in essence. The dispute about this continues to this day. Certain elements of revolutionary spirit, as can be seen from all the preceding, cannot be denied in the dialectic. But during almost his entire life (after the “execution”) Dostoyevsky considered these elements alien to himself, did everything in his power to subdue them, to destroy them. And we can say that it was not his fault, and certainly not his merit, if these revolutionary aspects of objective life made some revolutionary strings of our consciousness tremble responsively and turned out to be so strong that we cannot fail to recognize their significance. However, they need to be unearthed, separating them from the heaps, from the innumerable layers of the publicist Dostoyevsky, who wholly served the counter-revolution.
Dostoevsky’s greatness stems from the dynamism of his work, from the wealth of his emotions, from his unquestionably sincere and impassioned struggle with himself and the whole world. But it is unlikely that his manner and his techniques can paint some road for the proletarian artistic literature, which has a very bright future. Dostoyevsky was a patient with talent, he was overwhelmed by the crisis experienced by the whole class, a difficult era for this class. The dynamism of the proletariat, the approval and denial of its struggle, is polarly far from the definition of Dostoyevsky and the elements of his class in its era. Then about Dostoyevsky this must be said especially: To experience Dostoevsky critically is necessary. It is good self-discipline. But to pass through this fiery haze, across these dark abysses, beneath these lowering black clouds, before these rows of faces, distorted with rage and suffering, through the high-pitched noise of these quarrels and imprecations, the reader must be clad in the armour of mature class consciousness. Such a reader will emerge from Dostoevsky wiser with a fresh knowledge of life, especially of those elements with which the proletariat must deal, either by fighting against them or for them. But to submit to the direct influence of Dostoevsky in anything is out of the question. This would not only be harmful to the proletariat, it would be shameful and is, in fact, hardly possible. Should such influence be observed in anyone, it would be proof of philistine individualism in the person thus influenced, whether he be a writer or merely a reader.