Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.

 

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a ring-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mudpuddle on April 17, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    i’ve had the sense, reading D, that he was in large measure chasing himself, but running away as fast as he could… rather a quixotic view, paradoxical, but quite human…

    Reply

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. I especially liked the last two lines:

    “I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.”

    “The real 19th century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”
    –Albert Camus.

    _____

    “Russia was a slave in Europe, but would be a master in Asia.”

    –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

    [As quoted in “Dilemmas of Empire 1850-1918: Power, Territory, Identity” by Dominic Livien in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 34, No.2 (April 1999), pp. 180.]

    Reply

    • I think I agree with Camus on this one. Marx’s ideas have not led to teh state “withering away”, as he had predicted: quite the opposite. Dostoyevsky had, on the other hand, foreseen the impossibility of imposing fraternity from outside.

      As for Russia being masters of Asia, I imagine that the inherotors of the great Asian cultural traditions (Indian, Chinese, Persian, Japanese, etc.) may have had a few words to say about that!

      Reply

  3. I much enjoyed your post.

    Well said: “…humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason.” This all-embracing idea underlines most of his novels and, in part, accounts for Dostoyevsky’s antipathy to your presumptuous “Turgenevian liberal”.

    His paradoxical, groping way forward owes more to the numinous than the humanist.

    Reply

    • I am not sure what sort of “-ist” I’d call Dostoyevsky! He certainly, right up to the end, had a great regard for individual human freedom, and a keen awareness of human suffering. And yet, it doesn’t quite seem right to call him a “humanist” either.

      The difficulty arises in great part because Dostoyevsky allows thoughts and ideas free play in his novels. These novels are multi-voiced works, and he allows his characters often to rebel against his own ideas. He presents us with conflicting visions of the world, and refuses to resolve the conflicts neatly. But yes, he remained deeply pessimistic about “reason”, and the ability of “rationality” to resolve human dilemmas; and this naturally placed him very much at odds with people like Turgenev. I personally think that Turgenev was sane, and that Dostoyevsky wasn’t, but that Dostoyevsky’s insanity contains deeper truths than Turgenev’s sanity. I’m not sure if that makes sense – it probably doesn’t! – but I find it equally difficult either to accept or to reject Dostoyevsky’s visions and ideas.

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on April 25, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    I’ve read little Dostoyevsky, just Notes from Underground and a bit of Brothers Karamazov. I get the impression that he was grateful to his oppressors for letting him live, needed to justify that gratitude to himself and perhaps tried to become their tool through his pessimism about reason. A rather dangerous tool though, since totalitarianism can’t really cope with that level of independence of mind, even in support.

    Reply

    • Dostoyevsky was a very complex figure, and I am not sure that so pat an explanation can explain him adequately. It’s better, in any case, to engage with the ideas themselves rather than to speculate on how and why they came about. One thing he definitely wasn’t was a supporter of totalitarianism. In many of his works – most notably, Demons – he prophesied totalitarianism with an uncanny accuracy, and there can be no doubt on how he felt about it.

      I don’t normally read biographies – I feel that a writer’s work should speakak for itself – but Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy too, were such fascinating people in their own right, that I quite fancy reading good biographies of them. Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoyevsky is regarded as a literary masterpiece in its own right, and I think I should read that. Quite apart from anything else, it would be good to have an idea of the political, intellectual and cultural background of his endlessly fascinating novels.

      Reply

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