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June 2002

The art & life of Dostoevsky

by Gary Saul Morson

A review of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

A review of Dostoevsky: the mantle of the prophet, 1870-1881 by Joseph Frank.

Fashions of literary criticism seem to have a half-life of about ten years. Interestingly enough, through all the changes of schools and approaches, the biography of writers has continued to compel an undiminished interest. Read not only by literature professors but also by interested nonprofessional readers, the lives of novelists rival in popularity the great novels themselves.

What sustains this interest? At times, something resembling high-level gossip is at work, as we learn of the sex lives, foibles, jealousies, and petty actions of the great. Or biographers indulge the desire to take the writer down a peg or two by “explaining” his achievements as the product of some psychopathology, as a mere apology for some heinous social practice, or as the predictable result of shoddy intellectual influences. Such explanations fail to convince, because there are always many people who suffer from a given complex, want to apologize for some aspect of their society, or read the currently influential thinkers, but very few respond with Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, or War and Peace. The gap between the ordinary facts of a life and the amazing artistic accomplishment remains. The real problem of biography is to bridge this gap. That goal is ultimately unreachable, but some accounts go further than others. Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, completed with the present contribution,[1] does as well or better than any I have ever read. It is far and away the best comprehensive account of a Russian writer.

The basic facts of Dostoevsky’s life were by no means ordinary and were already a legend while he lived. His readers all knew, for instance, that he had, as a youth, been arrested for participation in a socialist discussion group, spent months in the dungeons of the Peter and Paul Fortress, and then been told he was to be executed. Led out to the Senate Square to face a firing squad, he and other prisoners were given last rites and offered blindfolds. Turning to one of his fellow conspirators, Dostoevsky, who was a believer, promised that “today we will be in paradise”; but his companion, an atheist and materialist, mocked all such hopes by scornfully intoning, “a handful of dust!” At the last possible moment, however, an imperial courier galloped up to report that, in his infinite mercy, Tsar Nicholas, Emperor of All the Russias, had commuted their sentence to a term of Siberian imprisonment. Can one wonder at the psychopathology of Dostoevsky’s characters when one reflects that the mock execution had been planned in advance as a part of the punishment?

Dostoevsky never ceased to reflect on those moments when he was fully convinced that he was about to die. In The Idiot, the hero repeatedly asks us to imagine the sequence of thoughts of a man being led to execution. After one such lengthy description, he observes that perhaps there exists some man who has actually endured this torture and then been pardoned at the last minute—“he, perhaps, could tell us about it.” As every reader of this novel knew, there was such a man and he was telling us.

Readers were also well aware that Dostoevsky had served four years in a Siberian prison camp under horrific conditions, an experience described in fictional form in his Notes from the House of the Dead. In Siberia he renounced his socialist convictions. That way of thinking now seemed terribly out of touch with the real life of the Russian people, who, it turned out, were nothing like “the Parisian mob” that radicals imagined. Dostoevsky recalled that for four years he was never alone. He came to appreciate the importance of privacy and free choice, even irrational choice, for one’s fundamental human nature. A life in which everything is chosen for one, whether as paradise or punishment, cannot be one’s own life, and one’s humanity will sooner or later rebel against it. He repeatedly compared socialist society, if it could be achieved, to an ant-heap. Upon his return to European Russia, Dostoevsky grew increasingly politically incorrect. Radical young readers found it especially hard to forgive him for The Devils, which is now usually regarded as the greatest political novel every written. It satirizes liberals and revolutionaries and, as we now know, accurately predicted what totalitarianism would be like.

Dostoevsky was also known to be an epileptic who saw visions of eternal harmony during his seizures. In the moment before the fit, he sometimes experienced a joy so intense that, as the epileptic hero of The Idiot observes, “for such a moment one would give one’s whole life… . This must be the very moment that was not long enough for a drop of water to fall from Mohamed’s picture though the epileptic prophet had time to gaze upon all the habitations of Allah.” As if all these biographical facts did not provide enough intensity, Dostoevsky was also a compulsive gambler, who, like the hero of his novel- la “The Gambler,” could not resist the metaphysical jolt of perhaps transforming his entire condition with a few turns of the roulette wheel. Gambling, like socialism, seemed to promise absolute freedom but actually led to complete enslavement.

All these features of Dostoevsky’s life are described in detail in Frank’s biography, so that we appreciate both the legend and the rather more complex reality behind it. Those joyous moments of epilepsy left Dostoevsky so disoriented that he often could not remember where he was and did not recover for days. He could forget his own novels and read them almost as if someone else had written them. In Frank’s final volume, we see Dostoevsky trying to persuade idealistic youth, who had lately given up utilitarian nihilism for radical populism based on Christian values, that Christian values could only be sustained with actual Christian belief. One such youth was his proofreader Timofeeva, whose memoirs conjure up an amazing portrait of what it was like to work for Dostoevsky, with his outbursts of temper and his sense of guilt for such misbehavior, his basic kindness and his frenetic devotion to ideas. He hated fanaticism fanatically, and Timofeeva describes him pounding on his desk and proclaiming, “like a mullah in his minaret,” that soon there will be an end to all this liberal talk because the Antichrist is coming. She did not know what to make of such pronouncements: were they the sign of an imminent epileptic seizure?

The last decade of Dostoevsky’s life, as described by Frank, saw Dostoevsky at his best and his worst. He was at his best when he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, so often considered the finest novel ever written. His worst is present in two ways: in an unsuccessful novel, The Raw Youth, and in some repellent journalism. Frank is at his best in explaining why the novel failed. In order to persuade radical youth to become Christians, Dostoevsky published The Raw Youth in one of their journals as a “Trojan horse”: it was designed to show them that their own populist convictions should lead them to adopt the faith of the common people. The trouble was that, publishing in a radical journal, Dostoevsky restrained himself, and the novel suffered. One hallmark of Dostoevsky’s greatness is that both his plots and his characters’ psychology are fused with ideology: one character memorably says that he can “feel ideas.” As a result, the most surprising sequence of events makes sense since it follows the inner logic of ideological pathology. But in this novel, Dostoevsky distorted or had to conceal the ideological element. He wound up resorting to utter- ly shopworn plot devices—secret letters, eavesdropping, etc.—and so the book’s best passages seem to hang in the air. Just because it was a Trojan horse, the novel was wooden.

Dostoevsky was also at his worst in journalistic pronouncements concerning foreign policy. As if he had been infected by the same madness as some of his characters, he concluded that History, like one of his own novels, was about to reach a shocking denouement. The final battle between good and evil was imminent, and then (as soon as Russia occupied Constantinople) the kingdom of God would begin, with universal love and reconciliation of all peoples. Unfortunately, a vast conspiracy was trying to prevent such an outcome. Dostoevsky hesitated whether the Antichrist was the Pope or Disraeli. The former represented the ideas of Catholicism and socialism, which for Dostoevsky were two versions of the same view of man as happiest without free choice. The latter led the Jewish attempt to destroy Christian love with a lifeless materialism. Most biographers and critics have ignored these very unpleasant facts of Dostoevsky’s last decade, and the few who have discussed them have done so crudely. Frank manages to analyze even Dostoevsky’s most awful anti-Semitic statements without for a moment losing sight of his literary genius and even his deep humanitarianism. He allows us to comprehend the sources of Dostoevsky’s contradictions.

Frank’s basic way of closing the gap between life and work is through what he calls a “condensed intellectual history.” This method would not work for most writers—I can’t imagine applying it to Jane Austen, for instance—but Russian life at this period was ideologically saturated and Dostoevsky seemed to live every moment in terms of the “accursed questions.” Consider the story of how he met his second wife. Dostoevsky had been trying to remarry, but he was attracted to strong, independent women. They were mostly atheist radicals and would have nothing to do with this pious older man, who was, in addition, indebted, difficult, and epileptic. As it happens, he had, in exchange for an advance, signed a contract with an unscrupulous publisher to provide a novel by a certain date; the forfeit provisions, on which the publisher counted, would have ruined him. One month before the deadline, he realized he could not finish Crime and Punishment in time. He seized on the suggestion that he employ someone trained in the new “science” of stenography and dictate a novel off the top of his head.

The stenographer’s memoirs describe the weird first impression Dostoevsky made: “But it was his eyes that really struck me. They weren’t alike—one was dark-brown, while the other had a pupil so dilated that you couldn’t see the iris at all.” She did not know that Dostoevsky had recently fallen during an epileptic seizure and injured one eye. The key moment of their meeting came when Dostoevsky offered her a cigarette and she refused. Given the ideological codes of the day, which gave political meaning to every aspect of daily behavior, a nihilist had to smoke: so if she did not, then this woman might even believe in God! In fact, she did, and Dostoevsky had at last found an independent woman who was not an atheist. He completed the novel on time and married the stenographer.

Many biographers have told the story of Dostoevsky’s marrying his stenographer, but only Frank has noticed the significance of the cigarette. His constant method is not to dwell on the ordinary facts of biography and then somehow cross over to a great novel, but rather to center on the ideology of Dostoevsky’s milieu, the idea-saturated world in which he and his characters lived, and then discuss both the life and the art in these terms. As a result, we grasp all sorts of perplexing actions of his life that would otherwise have seemed merely idiosyncratic, and we see the larger significance of many perplexing moments of his fiction and journalism.

This approach demands a condensed history of Russian thought, not only in its broad outlines, but even in its yearly changes. When Dostoevsky undertook the editorship of a conservative journal, The Citizen, he informed one colleague of his ideological purpose: “My idea is that Socialism and Christianity are opposites.” Most readers, including myself, have bypassed this statement, inasmuch as it had long been a commonplace, among both Christians and socialists, that the two were antithetical. Frank points out, however, that a comment not worth making a few years earlier had by this time acquired a new meaning, since the young populists had recently begun to claim that the two ways of thinking were indeed compatible. Only by recreating the changing ideological winds of the culture can one appreciate the point of many such comments, and only Frank has had the patience and insight to follow Dostoevsky and his contemporaries through all the twists and turns of Russian life.

Of course, no amount of detail will account for the products of sheer genius, like the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, the central chapter of The Brothers Karamazov and arguably Dostoevsky’s greatest achievement. But as Frank traces the progress of Dostoevsky’s thought, we see, if not how Dostoevsky made such a leap, at least where he was leaping from. Someone provokes Dostoevsky with an argument he finds dangerous, and he replies more thoroughly than necessary; in retrospect, we can see the beginnings of an idea that he later developed in the Inquisitor legend. Frank notes each of these as they happen and so we have a sort of window on the author’s emerging thought, tending in directions even he did not yet foresee.

Ivan Karamazov’s Inquisitor legend, it will be recalled, describes how, in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Jesus, moved by pity for those who thirst for the Second Coming, decides to make a brief visit to earth. Although everyone recognizes Him, the common people do nothing when the Grand Inquisitor orders His arrest. Visiting Him in his cell, the Inquisitor outlines how he and the Church (and in an anachronistic implication, the socialists of later centuries) have completely rejected the essence of Jesus’s message and presented as Christian teaching what is in fact its opposite. For Jesus came to make men free, so they can choose good in a world of radical uncertainty where they cannot even be sure what good is, where they are bound to make mistakes and suffer guilt, and where they must grope in the dark “with only Thy image as a guide.” Choice involves risk, guessing, insecurity: this is what freedom really is.

But man, the Inquisitor contends, does not want to be free: he wants certainty and security, not only material but also spiritual. He needs to know that his beliefs are true and his actions the right ones. Jesus should therefore have accepted the three temptations of the devil, should have agreed to “turn stones into bread” precisely because “man does not live by bread alone.” For bread—material power—is something certain, and so, ironically enough, the attraction of materialism is itself spiritual. The Inquisitor tells the silent Jesus: The Church has therefore “corrected Thy work” and, out of love for mankind, has accepted the devil’s temptations because they, and not freedom, will make people happy. The Inquisitor is even ready to go to hell for betraying Christ and he therefore claims to outdo him: for Jesus gave his earthly life out of love for humanity, but the Inquisitor is prepared to give his immortal soul. But is his perverted sacrifice really love, or is it contempt bordering on hatred that somehow emerged from love?

Love of humanity turned to hatred: this is a possibility Dostoevsky had explored earlier when explaining to the socialist youth that love of the people must be based on faith or it runs the risk of being transformed into its opposite. An atheist who loves humanity but who finds he cannot really help it will soon begin to hate it, much as, Dostoevsky writes, parents who helplessly watch their children starve will actually begin to hate them—“precisely because of the intolerableness of their suffering… . I assert that the realization of one’s utter impotence to help, to render service, or to bring alleviations to suffering mankind, coupled with one’s complete conviction of the existence of that suffering can even transform the love of humanity in your heart into hatred for humanity.”

Or consider another sketch, which also led to the Inquisitor legend. In 1876, Dostoevsky was amused both by the Russian craze for spiritualism (communication with the dead by séances) and with the attempt of Russian skeptics, like the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, to show that spiritualism was a fraud. The believers were apparently peculiar materialists still craving spiritual meaning and thus weirdly conceiving of spirit as another kind of matter; Mendeleev labored under the delusion that anyone who could entertain such beliefs would be dissuaded by logic. Dostoevsky chose to focus on one skeptic’s observation that these devils must be fake because any genuine devil would prove his reality by giving us inventions we do not already have, whereas these devils just repeat things that everyone knows. Adopting his most whimsical tone, Dostoevsky claims that this charge against the devils is unwarranted, because only very stupid devils would shower us with inventions. If they did, after all, we would soon reach that perfect materialist utopia of which our socialists dream, in which everything would be provided for us. The problem is that our joy at such an outcome would hardly last, because with everything provided there would be nothing to strive for; we could not show our love for others by sacrificing our labor for them; we would have lost the essence of our humanness, which consists in making choices in a world of uncertainty so that our efforts actually matter: “happiness lies not in happiness but in its pursuit.” This emphasis on freedom and risk as definitive of the human, on happiness as a process rather than a gift: here is another idea that will shape the Inquisitor legend.

By such means, Frank prepares us for Dostoevsky’s greatest accomplishments. Strangely enough, though, our knowledge of where the strokes of genius came from turns out only to increase our wonder at them. Dostoevsky himself never tired of arguing that one can know everything about a person and still not be able to predict what he will do next; and if the situation could be repeated, the same person in the same circumstances might do something else. There is nothing inevitable about human actions. All the more so with great achievements: Frank is well aware that, though we may have all the building blocks for Karamazov, the novel exceeds everything that led up to it.


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  1. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881, by Joseph Frank; Princeton University Press, 812 pages, $35.00. Go back to the text.


Gary Saul Morson is Chair of Slavic Languages & Literature at Northwestern University.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 June 2002, on page 83

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