Home » Philosophy of Literature » Readings of Dostoevsky in ‘Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy’ by Lev Shestov

Readings of Dostoevsky in ‘Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy’ by Lev Shestov

Marina Jijina-Ogden
University of the Arts, London

Written in 1899 -1903, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: The Philosophy of Tragedy (1903) is among the earlier works written by Russian philosopher Lev Shestov. For possibly the first time in Russian literature, these two great thinkers of the nineteenth century  (Dostoevsky and Nietzsche) were brought into a comparative discussion, subjected to a critical analysis and evaluated on a single philosophical level. It is well known that Shestov’s discovery of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work in the 1890s had a stratospheric influence on his thinking (Finkenthal, 2010, p.30).  And as Bernard Martin points out in his introduction to the book, it was from Nietzsche that Shestov drew the inspiration for his own lifelong polemic against the power of universal moral rules and the domination of reason (Martin, 1966, VII). For Shestov, like for Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, the focus of philosophy moves from the universal to the individual. In his advance towards a notion of tragic philosophy, he relies on the experiences of these two precursors, adopting the underground man as the spokesman for his critical thought. He develops a philosophical perspective that rests on the absurd, or as he defines it, the ‘ugly reality’ (Shestov, 1969, pp.148-149).

Opening his discussion of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre Shestov highlights the importance and significance of a writer being able to tell his own personal story through his literary works: the story of the ‘regeneration of his convictions’ (Shestov, p.143/157). Shestov argues that Dostoevsky would not have become a writer had he failed to share his observations with others (ibid. p.143). He does, however, suggest that several years of practice would pass before the author of Notes from the Underground would be able to speak of himself  ‘with ever greater daring and truth’ (ibid, p.144).

Dostoevsky’s earlier works – Poor Folk (Bednue Ludi, 1845), The Double (Dvoinik, 1846), White Nights (Beluye Nochi, 1848), and Netochka Nezvanova (1849) – express an idea of ‘humanity’ and a hope in a brighter future in the lives of its characters. Shestov claims that Dostoevsky borrowed this conception of ‘humanity’ from this teacher Belinsky, who had in turn sourced it from the West (ibid. p.152).

From Shestov’s point of view, Dostoevsky’s most significant work is Notes from the Underground (Zapiski is Podpolja, 1864). In this book Shestov finds the key to his interpretation of the rest of Dostoevsky’s writing. At the start of his analysis Shestov quotes the main character, the narrator: ‘What can a decent man talk about with the greatest of pleasure? Answer: himself. So I shall speak about myself’ (Shestov, p. 144). Shestov draws the attention of the reader to the footnote on the first page of the novel: it informs us that all its characters and events are fictitious – but Shestov quite contrarily suggests it is precisely and indirectly autobiographical.

According to him, Dostoevsky reveals the story of his own life’s convictions and the painful renunciation of his past (ibid. p.170). Shestov focuses on his close encounter with imminent death in 1849, when he was convicted of political crimes against the Russian state and subsequently sentenced to death; he claims it was the most important event in Dostoevsky’s becoming the ‘psychological’ writer we remember today (ibid. pp.156-157). His execution was pardoned in exchange for eight years (later shortened to four) in a prison labour camp in Tobolsk, Western Siberia, where he remained from January 1850 to January 1854 (Terras, 1985, p.103).

The experience of waiting for execution in the Fortress of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, arriving at the Semyonovsky Square to be shot, reprieved only moments before the gun was fired, had a life-long impact on Dostoevsky’s imagination. In 1873 he wrote in his diary, ‘The sentence of death by shooting, which was read to each of us beforehand, had been read in all seriousness; almost all the condemned were certain that it would be carried out, and they suffered at least ten terrible, inordinately horrible, minutes awaiting death. In those last minutes, some of us (I know this for certain) instinctively withdrew into ourselves and, while hastily examining the whole of our very young lives, we perhaps even repented of some of our serious deeds (the kind that secretly remain on everyone’s conscience throughout his life); but the deed for which we had been condemned, the thoughts, the ideas that had possessed our minds, seemed to us not only something that did not demand repentance, but even something that purified us, a martyrdom for which much would be forgiven!’ (qtd. in Shestov, 1969 p.156).

Focusing on this poignant, life-changing episode in Dostoevsky’s biography, Shestov suggests a view of the writer’s literary work in its progressive development. He divides Dostoevsky’s literary works into two periods: the first beginning with Poor Folk in 1845 and ending with The House of the Dead in1861-2; the second beginning with Notes from the Underground in 1864 and ending with The Pushkin Speech in 1880.

Shestov refers to Dostoevsky’s earlier work with a touch of irony, describing him as ‘a novelist who taught people to believe that the horrible fate of the humiliated and insulted is expiated by the tears and good sentiments of the readers and writers’ (ibid. pp.163-169/204). For him, idealism cannot withstand the pressure of reality ‘when a man, who by the will of the Fates has collided head-on with real life, suddenly sees to his horror that all the fine a priori judgements were false, then for the first time only is he seized by that irrepressible doubt that instantly destroys the seemingly very solid walls of the old air castles’ (Shestov, 1969, p.197).

Shestov argues that during the later era of the writer’s work, he underwent a number of fundamental changes. Significantly, Notes from the Underground comes between the two aformentioned periods, written at the time when Dostoevsky was going through ‘one of the most horrible crises, that only the human soul is capable of preparing for itself and bearing’ (ibid. p.148). Paradoxically, and according to Shestov, this crisis is not directly linked to Dostoevsky’s experience of the years of hard labour in isolation, nor the miserable conditions in Siberia. He observes that the author began to write ‘feverishly’ upon his release from penal servitude, motivated by a feeling of freedom and the desire to forget all the horrors he had suffered.

But the writing of his next book, of The Village of Stepanchikovo (1858) does not bear the scars of his years in penal servitude. The ending is a happy one, like ‘a pastoral idyll’ (ibid. p.158), and the story is arranged in line with Dostoevsky’s earlier beliefs, i.e. that good triumphs gloriously over evil. Shestov concludes that the crisis that Dostoevsky faced several years later was of a much deeper nature.

The fetters on Dostoevsky’s legs, the miserable food, and the lack of privacy in the prison barracks left physical and psychological bruising on the writer, bruising which lasted more than a decade (Terras, 1985, p.103). Arguably, and according to Shestov, Dostoevsky was ‘enlightened’ by his experience; he ‘patiently bore the burden of his talent’ up until the age of forty, and was then ‘on the eve of a great spiritual upheaval’, about to embark on the biggest struggle of his life. This challenge, Shestov says, is the renunciation of all past ‘lofty and beautiful’ ideas and principles the writer once held sacred. Dostoevsky could not remain silent any longer, because ‘something spontaneous, ugly and horrible had awakened in his soul, almost beyond the power of his control’ (Shestov, 1969, p.170).

Shestov defines Dostoevsky’s state of mind at the time of his writing Notes from the Underground as ‘a heart-rending cry of terror that has escaped from a man suddenly convinced that all his life he had been lying and pretending when he assured himself and others that the loftiest purpose in life is to serve the “humblest man’’’(ibid. pp.152- 170). The discovery that there is no goal or purpose to human existence led to Dostoevsky’s subsequent abolishment of his erstwhile beliefs in ‘humanity’ and ‘the good,’ as he suddenly ‘understood that the natural order of things laughs at humanity’ (ibid. p.154).

Everything Dostoevsky previously valued was from there on depicted with a sarcasm of ‘a most venomous and personal nature;’ the former ideas of sympathy aroused only revulsion and horror (ibid. pp. 169-174). Shestov praises Dostoevsky for abandoning his ideals and becoming a realist: when hope and faith are lost forever, the only remaining certainty is found in reality, the ugly reality never before displayed (ibid. p.198). ‘A new truth’, Shestov claims, ‘is always as disgusting and hideous as a newborn child’ (p.157).

At a time when such established intellectuals as Belinsky, Nekrasov, Turgenev, Grigorovich and Herzen were cultivating the ideals of reason and morality in their writing, Dostoevsky brought murderers, thieves, arsonists and bandits to the fore as main characters in his novels (ibid. p. 209). ‘Not only a great despair was needed for such thoughts to arise in the human mind, but also a superhuman bravery – to share these thoughts with people’ (Shestov, 1899).

Thus, penal ‘wisdom’ caught up with Dostoevsky several years after his release (ibid. p.316). In this newly established way of rebellion, as Shestov points out, Dostoevsky’s teachers are convicts: ‘like Nietzsche, he was still obliged to side with his inexorable foes, to acknowledge them- and, I repeat, not out of fear, not out of the greatness of his heart and its compassion for the humblest man, but out of conscience – as his teachers, as the best and most talented people, whose existence justifies all that is ugly, insignificant, and useless in life’ (ibid. pp.210-211). Accordingly, Dostoevsky’s four most generally accepted masterworks, written years following his release from the prison camp, depict murder explicitly: Crime and Punishment (Prestupleniye I Nakazaiye, 1866), The Idiot, 1868, The Posessed (Besy, 1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (Bratya Karamazovy, 1880).

When the reign of reason comes to an end, the doctrine of hope that accompanies it is also lost (ibid. pp.173-174). It was precisely after Dostoevsky abandoned his faith and the belief in the victory of good over evil that the underground man was born (Shestov, 1969, p.167).  And like Dostoevsky himself, the underground man ‘becomes horrified and immediately severs himself from his entire past’ (ibid. p.177). Confronted by his own scepticism and pessimism, the underground man experiences a sort of mystical horror (ibid. pp. 203- 204). Nevertheless, Shestov remarks that ‘all the horrors of life are not as terrible as the ideas invented by reason and conscience,’ and the ultimate goal of finding truth requires one to free oneself from all commonplaceness (ibid. p.205/201). And from there on, Dostoevsky referred to ‘humanity’ in a distinctly ironic way.

‘Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths a lofty soul, a feeling suffering creature, one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! There are so many of them, hundreds of them, and we are all to blame for them […]. If they drive God form the earth, we shelter Him underground’, says Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) (Dostoevsky, 1888, p.668). Shestov concludes that the question of duality in Dostoevsky’s struggle with the loss of faith and at the same time his persistent and simultaneous attempts to keep it are particularly characteristic of the second half of the writer’s literary career. But it does not have anything to do with a dialectical perception of being, he reassures the reader: Dostoevsky does not preach universal happiness, nor does he want to preserve this division into the future and the present; rather ‘he prefers to beat his head against the wall to the point of exhaustion’, in order to find consolation in the human ideal (ibid. p.207). And according to Shestov, the collision with the stone wall is a symbol of the awakening of the self in the presence of the other, or the unknown.

Asserting Dostoevsky’s position among other Russian thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Shestov considers the fundamental divisions within the Russian intellectual circles: that of Slavophiles and Westerners (ibid. p.165). In the mid-1850s, German philosophers were widely read by intellectuals in Russia; the members of the intelligentsia debated the works of Kant, Hegel, Schelling and Schopenhauer (Terras, 1985, p.43). The proponents of the Slavophiles saw the future of Russia in indigenous Russian values in line with an Orthodox Christian conception of the world (Groys, p.35). The Westerners, on the other hand, were predominantly atheists and believed that Russia should develop a society founded on democratic principles similar to the rest of Europe (Shestov, 1969, p.167).

Shestov asserts, that Dostoevsky takes on a challenge to discover a new doctrine in his philosophical vision. Although his writing ‘extolled realism, analysis and ‘Westernism’, the emergence of the underground man takes the writer away from the Westerners. The abolishment of the ethical opposition eventually brings him to a realization about the absurdity of the human condition, and in Nietzsche’s words, the revaluation of all values (ibid. p.171/ 202). Dostoevsky does not agree with the Slavophiles’ resentment of credible non-Slavophile literature and ‘hides in the underground’, as Shestov explains, now ‘Russia’s hopes were not his hopes’ (ibid. pp.165-168).

In this book Shestov argues that Dostoevsky, like Nietzsche, attempted to give a voice to an unspeakable, paradoxical truth. For him, tragedy is ‘the mysterious unknown.’ He believes that no social changes will banish tragedy from life, and that suffering must therefore be acknowledged and accepted (ibid. p.319). Dostoevsky is first of all a writer who shares with his readers all that goes on in his own soul. Never before did the ‘word’ of a Russian writer ring with such hopelessness and despair, and only a few contemporary thinkers dare to acknowledge the antagonism between reason and conscience with such striking intensity, so that ‘even Hegel would throw up his hands before Dostoevsky’s underground philosopher’ (ibid. p.170/174). With regard to the writer’s psychological journey though, Dostoevsky’s penal servitude lasted not four years, but a lifetime (ibid. p.201). According to Shestov, Dostoevsky’s ‘psychology,’ presented in the underground man and other various forms of this character, is ‘the first gift that Europe gratefully accepted from Russia’ (ibid. p.147). Shestov believes a true philosophy is based in reality, in life; it is ‘the philosophy of penal servitude’ and therefore ‘the philosophy of tragedy’ (ibid. p. 201).



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