Notes on Dostoevsky 6
Russian 19th century literary culture
What is to be done? Who is to blame? Who is happy in Russia now? What is Oblomovism? What is progress? When will there be day?
From the middle of the 19th century, Russian culture was exercised by what was known as the ‘cursed questions’, namely questions about the future direction of the country, of the state of things, about the peasants, about their relationship to history and about their position between Europe and Asia. This was nothing new. Russian culture had always been peculiarly self conscious about its historical and cultural destiny, in a way that no other country in Europe was, largely due to the idealistic historicism inherent in Russian Orthodoxy, and Romanov imperial legend.
However, since the reforms of Peter the Great in the 17th century, which had dragged the country virtually kicking and screaming out of Medievalism into the Early Modern Age, followed by the birth of the intelligentsia in the early decades of the 19th, and then during the 1840s, under the repressive rule of the autocratic Tsar Nicholas 1st, these questions intensified and defined themselves into two broad areas of opinion: Westernisers, and Slavophiles. The former faced outward to Europe, Dostoevsky’s unreal city on the Neva symbolising their European dreams, the latter faced inward to Russia’s own Slavic Kievan Rus culture. Each put forward their own answers to the cursed questions in works with the titles cited above, debated hotly the proposals put forward by the other camp, and created a climate of intense discussion and controversy, even of crisis, carried on in the universities, and in the huge number of journals, newspapers and publications put out in both Moscow and Petersburg.
There was no consistent shade of opinion within each camp. Both camps, for example, had their right, centre and leftist positions politically; and utilitarian, aesthetic positions artistically. Both camps altered their views over time under the influence of external events. The Crimean war debacle and defeat, for example, was a key factor in the increased chaos and intensification of the debate. Both camps put forward their views in a range of different journals whose names are often translated differently. Editors and critics and writers moved around from journal to journal, motivated by the search for better financial rewards and more exposure for their writing, each one with his own (changing) view of matters. The whole field was fluid; and any attempt to understand it must take this into account.
Arriving at a richer understanding of Dostoevsky’s non-fiction writing of the 1860s, how it was received, the forces that went into its creation, the ideas and situations depicted in it, even sometimes its very language, means understanding the main positions of the Westernisers and Slavophiles.
Among the key Slavophile thinkers were the Aksakovs: father Sergei, and his two sons Konstantin and Ivan; Komiakov, Kireevsky and Samarin. Aksakov pere was the author of an idyllic novel about family life under Catherine, and a close personal friend of Gogol; Konstantine was initially an ardent Westerniser, but he became one of the main leaders of the Slavophile camp, died early, outlived by his father and younger brother Ivan, who was particularly active in the Pan-Slavic movement of the 70s. Komiakov and Kireevsky were the main Slavophile theologians, and their impact on Orthodoxy is still living. Samarin was a political Slavophile, one of the drafters of the proclamation emancipating the serfs in 1861. The main Slavophile journals were: Moscow Miscellany, The Muscovite, The Day, and Dawn.
A richer knowledge of the Slavophile camp is gained by understanding the basic elements of Russian Orthodoxy, especially in the way Orthodoxy differed from the other branches of Christianity: Western Catholic, Western Protestant, and Greek Orthodoxy, or Byzantium. Komiakov, one of the key Slavophile thinkers, put forward the view that the difference between Orthodoxy and the other branches of the tree lies in their attitude towards the relationship between unity and freedom. On the one hand, Catholicism sacrifices the freedom of the individual in his relationship to God in favour of unity under the one Church, universal and indivisible. On the other, Protestantism emphasises the freedom of the individual to have a direct relationship with the Lord, at the price of a bewildering fragmentation of denominations. Byzantium, and Russian Orthodoxy were common in that they both sought the freedom of the individual within the unity of the Church, thus dissolving what they saw as a false dichotomy. Greek and Russian Orthodoxy differed from each other in their attitude towards what we might call taste in forms of belief: the former preferring the Byzantine complexities and dynamics of scholarly debate, a theology of the word; the latter preferring the beauteous and static simplicities of icon painting, a theology of vision. This image of the freedom of the individual within the wide wooden halls of Orthodoxy was the foundation of Slavophile thinking on social and political matters.
In addition, Slavophile thought in general was characterised by an anti-rationalism which was held to be peculiarly Russian. Outside the main course of European history, Russia had been untouched by the Latinate rationality of Roman law, which they saw as the curse of Europe. Reason was held by the Slavophiles to be only one style of thinking, and a divisive, atomistic one at that. Kireevsky wrote: Logical thinking, when separated from the other cognitive faculties, is a natural attribute of a mind that has lost its own wholeness. This is quite in keeping with the non-dialectical, static nature of Orthodox theology.
In terms of social thought, the Slavophiles made a connection between the atomistic nature of reason and its deleterious effect on social structures. The tyranny of reason in the sphere of philosophy, faith and conscience has its practical counterpart in the tyranny of the central government in the sphere of social relations, wrote Samarin. In place of a society governed by divisive laws and the social contract, they posited the concept of sobornost, a term coined by Komiakov, which can be translated as ‘councillorism’ and by which it seems they meant a free association of mutually supporting individuals, a community, as opposed to a mere society. They saw this quality in the traditional peasant forms of self government: the obshchina, a village commune based on common use of land, mutual support and agreement, and the maintenance of traditions and customs; and the mir, or the council of elders who governed the obshchina, dealing with disputes through unanimity rather than majority decisions.
In terms of political thought, the Slavophiles saw the relationship between the people and the government as one of mutual trust. They conceived -and worked towards this goal – of the Russian state as one vast obshchina, and the government as a mir. Freedom to them meant not political freedom, but the freedom from politics. The people entrusted the government to make political decisions based on the interests of the people, leaving the people free to get on with their business, which was chiefly agriculture. They thus saw a division between Land and State under the auspices of the Church.
The key Westernisers were Belinsky and Herzen, and later the two Nikolais: Dobroliubov and Chernyeshevsky. The key figure was Belinsky, “Furious Vissarion”, as he was known, who, in the early 40s, set the tone and defined the parameters of the debate for the Westernisers. Herzen, also a key figure, spent much of his life in voluntary exile in London, where he put out a Russian Free Press, something which was impossible in Russia. His journal: The Bell was smuggled in to the country and eagerly and secretly read, exercising a huge influence on the debate. Dobroliobov and Chernyashevsky were the leading critics of the 60s, the former dying early of TB, and the latter spending his final years in prison and exile. The main Westerniser journals were: Notes of the Fatherland, The Contemporary, Russian Word.
In much the same way that Orthodoxy provided a foundation for Slavophile thought, the philosophy of Hegel underpinned much of the Westernisers’ views. Two ideas of Hegel provided the impetus for the Westernisers. First, his view of history as ineluctable progress proceeding in recurring stages of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis; and second, his view that the tenor of an age, its historical character, could be discerned in its culture, and that the ideas prevalent in the culture effected the direction of history.
These ideas exercised a kind of paradox on the Westernisers: if the process of history was inevitable, what was the point of struggling against it? Surely a passive acceptance: a recognition of reality, as Hegel called it, was better than incessant struggle. Many Westernisers, notable among them Belinsky, adopted this position in their youth. However, the tenor of their times, in which they saw injustice and Tzarist oppression everywhere soon drove them to the other extreme: if history proceeded towards synthesis by thesis-antithesis, then exactly now was the time for struggle. And if the tenor of the time was seen in its culture, then culture had a role in this struggle too, for only by the correct understanding of history could the individual effect change in the unfolding process of history. It is this conflation of ideas which partly accounts for the overlap between the discourses of social critique and literary criticism as well as the utilitarian views on literature and art in general which was such a noticeable feature of all the Westernisers’ output.
In terms of social thought, the goal the Westernisers were working towards was clearly articulated by Granovsky, Professor of History at Moscow University: The goal of history is the morally enlightened individual, emancipated from the fatalist pressure of external determinations, and a society founded on his postulate, that is, a free society in which the rational personality could develop to its fullest extent unaffected by historical circumstances, which in Russia’s case meant Tzarist and Orthodox oppression. Belinsky wrote, in a direct attack on the Slavophiles: Russia sees that her salvation lies not in mysticism or in asceticism, or in pietism, but in the progress of civilisation, education, humanitarian values. What she needs are not sermons (she has heard enough of them) or prayers (she has babbled enough of them) but the awakening of human dignity that is, Enlightenment thought and its attendant modern advances in law, industrialisation and science which had made Europe the engine of world history. Key to these was, of course, the liberation of the serfs, an overhaul of Russia’s antiquated legal system, and universal civil rights, including freedom of speech and a free press.
In terms of political thought the Westerniser camp was not so coherent as the Slavophile, and included positions ranging from the radical revolutionism of Bakunin, the ‘Russain socialism of Herzen’, the gentrified liberalism of Annenkov and Botkin. As the century wore on, the debate between the liberal ‘Fathers’ of the forties and the nihilist ‘Sons’ of the sixties intensified in bitterness and passion. All agreed, however, in the crucial role of the educated intelligentsia in leading the country forward.
Dostoevsky and the Slavophiles and Westernisers
In his non-fiction writing of the 1860s Dostoevsky was keen to mark out his own territory and to distinguish his position from the Slavophiles and Westernisers both. This was in part due to his desire to bridge the damaging split in Russian culture between the two camps, and partly to his own need to assert an independent voice and vision and find a niche market for his journals Time and then later Epoch. Generally speaking, during his life, Dostoevsky moved steadily from a youthful Westerniser (even revolutionary) position to a mature Slavophile one, with the 1860s marking the halfway point in this transition. During this decade he wrote more non-fiction than in the 40s, when he was mostly intent on establishing himself as a fiction writer. During the 50s he was in prison and exile and was forbidden to write and publish. During the 60s, for the first time, he had a platform in his journals and something to say.
His relationship to the Slavophiles was roughly as follows. Dostoevsky warned that the Slavophiles’ view of the past was unrealistic, that it was mediated by texts (the ancient chronicles and Enlightenment historians such as Shcherbakov and Karamzin), and not based on reality. In his literary criticism, Dostoevsky was acutely aware of the way social and political ‘realities’ are generally mediated through text -foreshadowing the later theories of Kristeva and Foucault- and more specifically, how knowledge of Russia and her problems was arrived at through reading about them, in European and Russian texts. Every time we consider ourselves, he said, the data and facts of our own life, we look at them through some kind of coloured spectacles we had bought at the Palace Royal, or the Leipzig Fair, or our own flea market. The ‘Palace Royal’ represents French texts on Russia, the ‘Leipzig Fair’ symbolizes German texts on Russia, and ‘our own flea market’ stands for the Medieval Russian hagiographies and chronicles. In 1861 he wrote: with Slavophilism we are sharing the poetic illusion of reconstructing Russia according to an ideal view of its ancient manner of life, a view that has been set down in place of a genuine understanding of Russia, some kind of ballet décor, pretty, but false and abstract. The Slavophile view of the peasant generally, his mode of life and self-government in particular, he saw as artificial as a stage set.
He also objected to the class relationships of the Slavophiles, most of whom were the scions of large, ancient, and very wealthy land (and therefore serf) owners. He wrote to his brother that the Slavophiles have a certain striking aristocratic satiety in their resolution of social questions. They were more interested in maintaining the status quo of their relationship with the peasants -which many to right of the Slavophile camp, including Gogol in his infamous Selected Passages, held was divinely sanctioned- rather than in improving their lot. About this he was savagely rude in print: Think of the state of complete idiocy a man has to reach to be convinced of the divine legality of serfdom.
Another objection to the Slavophiles was their paternalism and their didacticism, which he saw as part of their narrow mindedness: you will still continue to teach us (see how he distances himself from the Slavophiles with these pronouns) with unbearable disdain, go on teaching, go on teaching forever laughing at our mistakes, refusing to acknowledge our torments and suffering, condemning them with all the cruelty of frenzied idealism. During the 1860s Dostoevsky particularly admired the openness and practicality of the Westernisers, and lambasted the narrow minded and inflexible idealism of the Slavophiles: Idealism stupefies, fascinates, and kills. He warned prophetically against the stultification of thought which he believed would occur in the kind of Russia the Orthodox Slavophiles wanted: The freedom of conscience and convictions is the first and foremost freedom in the world. He blamed them for the increasing polarisation and rancour of the debate which occurred as the decade wore on. He (unfairly perhaps) held that their contribution to the debate was only obstructionist, that they had no positive ideas of their own to contribute, and could only criticise (a characteristic of both camps): The Slavophiles possess the rare ability of being unable to recognize their own and to understand anything of contemporary reality. To see only the bad is worse than seeing nothing.
Dostoevsky’s attitude to the Westernisers was roughly as follows. He recognised the enormous contribution that Western science, art, and civil consciousness had contributed to Russia. He held that Western knowledge had introduced a new element into Russian life without harming it in any way, without forcing it to deviate from its normal way, on the contrary, enlarging our mental outlook… He saw it as the impetus for Russia’s awakening to its true nature: Europeanism, Westernism, realism are still renascent life, the beginning of consciousness, the beginning of will-power, the beginning of new forms of life. At the same time he castigated the Westernisers for the way their unreasoning servile worship for all things Western had blinded them to the good things in Russian culture: I have never in my life met a man more passionately Russian than Belinsky, though no one has been so boldly and at times so blindly indignant as he toward much of what is native to us: he apparently disdained everything that was Russian.
He also warned that Western influence was the prime factor in the alienation between the educated upper classes, and the ‘dark people’, the vast mass of the peasantry, who now regarded each other with mutual suspicion: We ourselves are so wonderful, so civilized, so European that even the people are ready to vomit from looking at us. He saw Western influences as divisive, creating a split both within society and within the individual.
Philosophically, he held that the two great European virtues lauded by the Westernisers: reason and individuality, were in fact overrated, and alien to the spirit of Russia. Reason has proved untenable in the face of reality, indeed the very wisest of most learned of men are now beginning to teach that there are no arguments of pure reason, that nowhere in the world does pure reason exist. He was possibly referring to Chaadaev, Schelling, Odoevsky, and his own friend and colleague Grigoriev. While the Slavophiles also levelled the same critique against the Westernisers but for reasons related to the unquestioning character of Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky was coming at this from a slightly different angle. He had already in his fictional work of the 1840s shown the power of the irrational, shown how reason was always effected by emotional and physiological factors (c.f.: Mr Golyadkin freezing behind the woodpile; Mr Prokharchin with his vast treasure hidden in his flea-ridden bed). He was to develop this idea of the irrational as a critique against Aristotle’s maxim of ‘never knowingly working against your best interests’ in his next great fictional masterpiece Notes from the Underground. The principle of rational individuality which lay at the heart of Western philosophy and which was lauded by the Westernisers he saw as incompatible with Russian nature. In focussing on this struggle in his fiction he more or less created modern psychology and a new theory of the self.
Historically, he was convinced that the influence of Europe on Russian affairs had reached its limits, and that it had nothing left to teach Russia: Now we are grown up and fully European. It had reached its historical turning point and Russia was now ready to take control of her own affairs and find her own solutions to her problems. Historically the process of European civilisation in our country is at an end.
Together with their regular contributors and critics Grigoriev and Strakhov, the Dostoevsky brothers came to be known as the advocates of a ‘return to the soil’ or pochvenniki. The extent to which Dostoevsky influenced or was influenced by Strakhov and Grigoriev is a moot question. While the writings of these two critics have more or less become assimilated into the background of history, and into the wider Slavophile movement, Dostoevsky’s writing remains isolated in the foreground. We’ve already looked at how Dostoevsky sought to differentiate himself from the Slavophiles and the Westernisers. Now let’s look at the positive features of Dostoevsky’s thought –Dostoevskyism- of the 1860s. There are three broad overlapping areas: the notion of ‘the return to the soil’, the Russian personality, and brotherhood.
The Return to the Soil
The key concept of Dostoevskyism is the ‘return to the soil’. This concept became something of a mantra for Dostoevsky, but it is not at all clear what he meant by this. At times he seems to mean a straightforward nationalism: Russian society must unite with its national soil and must admit its national element, which he saw as the only way to heal the rifts in the culture, through union with our national source. At others he seems to mean a more mystical union with the land of Russia itself: Can it be, he asked, that there is in fact some kind of chemical bond between the human spirit and its native soil, so that you cannot tear yourself away from it, and even if you do tear yourself away, you nonetheless return? At others, the ‘soil’ seems to be a mere synonym for ‘the people’: It is only with education that we can fill up the deep ravine which separates us from the native soil. And at still other times he seems to mean literally the soil itself, a kind of talisman or mascot for Russian emigrants who took with them a handful of soil from their native land to bequeath to their children.
The ambiguity was deliberate, allowing Dostoevsky to argue for the land rights of peasants on the one hand: One cannot be a Russian without the general right to land, and on the other for a greater emphasis on an exploration of the hitherto neglected fruits of the Russian soul. The real purpose of the notion of ‘the soil’ was both an implied critique of the Westernisers’ denigration of Russian culture and a critique of the Slavophiles’ worship of an unreal, textually-mediated version of Russia. The notion of ‘the soil’ was intended as a corrective to both parties to focus on the present realities of Russian life, to ground their speculations, and to unify all Russians: The soil is something which everyone clings and holds on to.
The Russian Personality
Another key concern of Dostoevskyism is the Russian personality. The ‘personality principle’ was a burning question in 19th century Russian thought. The Russian identity was divided between European ‘civilisation’ and Asiatic or Slavic ‘backwardness’. We can still remember how we used to abuse ourselves for being Slavs wrote Dostoevsky, but he called for this anxiety to be put aside, and for the unique qualities of the Russian character to be celebrated instead of agonised over.
For Dostoevsky, the Russian character is completely different from the European. One of the special qualities of the Russian personality is its ability to reconcile conflicting beliefs, its ability to see its way out of false dichotomies, its ability to synthesize: quite often [it] discovers the point of unity and reconciliation in completely contrary and rival ideas of two different European nations, ideas that, unhappily, they can find no way of reconciling at home. Dostoevsky may have had his finger on something here. The history of Russian thought is full of personalities who display a capacity for synthesising differing arguments, for slithering out of paradoxes, for uncovering the false dichotomies lurking within all the different philosophical trends, and for reconciling opposing positions regarded as completely irreconcilable by Western philosophers. Komiakov’s response to the unity-freedom dichotomy is just one example. Another special quality of the Russian personality is its instinct for self analysis, its great self-awareness and lack of illusions about its true nature: The Russian displays a talent for completely sound self-criticism, a completely sober view of himself and the absence of any self-exaltation, which is so harmful to the freedom of action. In Notes from the House of Death, he called this quality: inner mockery primarily directed at the self.
In contrast to others, who regarded the Russian personality as either backward, naïve or irrational, in thrall to European culture or sunk in the depravity and violence of peasant ignorance, Dostoevsky regarded the Russian personality as something that had complete honesty and wholeness beyond the reach of reason: The Russian ideal is complete integrity, complete universality and complete reconciliation. He saw it as something that both yearned naturally for universal values regardless of class…the extraordinary aspiration of the Russian tribe for universal human values… and as the only type of personality in which those human values could become synthesised and reach their most developed form: The Russian sympathises with humanity at large without distinction for nationality, blood or soil. This he saw as a sacred attribute. In spite of the various vicissitudes of history, and the different degrees of education, the Russian personality had always remained true to itself and to its ideals: The peculiarity of the Russian character consists of the unconscious and extreme steadfastness with which the Russian people cling to their idea, their strong and keen resistance to everything that contradicts it, and their everlasting, beneficial and untroubled faith in truth and justice.
Whether such idealistic universalism was (is) an accurate description of the Russian character or not, it undoubtedly describes the Dostoevskyan character, and is a useful key to understanding many of the figures and ideas in his fiction.
Concomitant to the idea of the Russian personality and the unifying power of ‘the soil’ is the idea of brotherhood, which the writer posited in place of the paternalism of both Slavophiles and the Westernisers. For Dostoevsky, this ideal of fraternalism involves a reciprocal sacrifice on the part of the individual and society: In true brotherhood it is not the separate personality, not the I, that must plead for the right to its own equality and equal value of everyone else, but rather this ‘everyone else’ must on its own come to the one demanding his right to individuality… and on its own, without his asking, must recognise his equality and equal value to itself, that is, to everyone else in the world. Only in the ideal of brotherhood could the personality reach its highest apotheosis, and it was only in the most highly developed personalities that brotherhood was possible: sacrifice of the self, for the sake of all, is, in my opinion, a sign of the very highest development of the personality… the greatest freedom of one’s own will.
While brotherhood exists in the social sphere, within the individual the motivating force for it is love. Love is the basis of one’s motive, the pledge of its strength. Love conquers cities. Now, since Christianity has appropriated this most noble of human feelings for its own nefarious ends, it is difficult to read about this kind of social love without thinking of it in Christian terms. Be that as it may, it is a fact that nowhere in Dostoevsky’s published writing does Christianity appear until 1863, in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions. There, it appears three times; and in each, Dostoevsky’s attitude to it is thoroughly negative. He notes the Catholic missionaries working in London and calls their efforts subtle and calculating propaganda; he lambasts the Anglican priests for their laziness and greed in much the same way that Dickens did; and decries the use of Scripture in America to justify slavery. And that is it. There is no discussion of his attitude towards Orthodoxy. Which means that we must assume his version of love was not Christian, or at least, that he did not want it to appear so at this stage in his career. For Dostoevsky, love, beyond religion, beyond philosophy or politics, was one of the universal human values which he saw as being embodied in the fully developed personality which alone was capable of brotherhood. Only the sincerity of brotherly love could unite all classes of Russia: Love is more comprehensible than anything, than any stratagems or diplomatic subtleties. It can be recognised and distinguished at once. The common people are quick to catch on and they are grateful: they know who loves them. Only those who love them remain in the memory of the common people. (It’s true that he used the analogy of the Monarch’s love for his people, but this smacks of insincerity and may have been a sop to the authorities and the censors.)
The Sources of Dostoevskyism
It’s tempting to look for the key to Dostoevskyism in the writer’s biography. Three factors stand out: his relationship with his brother, his prison experience, and his first trip to Europe.
Throughout the first forty three years of his life the person Dostoevsky was closest to, and who was closest to him, was his older brother Mikhail Mikhailovich. His earliest youthful letters were to his brother, and in them he poured out his passion for literature, and like Makar Devushkin, created himself. During his mock execution, his last thoughts, as he thought they were, were of Mikhail; and his brother was the first person he wrote to, on the very same day immediately after the ‘execution’: in that last moment you alone were in my mind, then first I learnt how very much I love you, my beloved brother. His brother was also the first person he wrote to upon his release from prison, when he was once more allowed contact with the outside world. They worked on translations of Schiller and Balzac together when they were young, and were business partners in the journal Time in their middle age. On his brother’s death in 1864, Dostoevsky took on himself the financial burden of his widow and children. Some of the intensity of his brotherly love passed into his last great masterpiece, and seems to have inspired his ideal of fraternity, a relationship between equals founded on mutual respect and interest, beyond the social contract, and surpassing the reciprocal obligations of mere civil amity, even of friendship, irrational, ineluctably in the blood, ordained.
His prison experience made him unique in the circles of his place and epoch. Of course other revolutionaries had been exiled and imprisoned. But, out of all of them, only Dostoevsky returned to St Petersburg to take up his pen and once more attain a position of prominence within the culture. His prison experiences gave Dostoevsky a feeling for an (all male) communal environment similar to the monastic, which had always been a key element of Orthodoxy, but which was missing from the Slavophiles’ philosophy. Unlike his colleagues and literary adversaries, he knew the peasants intimately from prolonged close contact, knew their fraternity towards their own kind, knew at first hand their historical hatred of the nobility, their ability to cut through bullshit with blunt words (Who is that mummer hanging around here?, one of the peasants remarks to another when their owner turns up at a village meeting wearing Russian costume in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his serfs), their fierce mocking resistance to all attempts to ‘return them to themselves’. His experience in prison gave irresistible force to his words: They will never never trust you, and in spite of themselves, the other intellectuals resented him for this.
Finally, his first trip to Europe in the summer of 1862 acted as a catalyst, throwing all his ideas into new and forceful relationships with each other. Experiencing for himself the reality of European complacency, materialism and hypocrisy, he saw a hollowness in the Westernisers’ worship of all things Western, and saw how alien these things had become to the problems Russia now faced. The West would never be capable of true brotherhood because of the rationalist, individualist, Latinate, legalistic basis of Western thought and society: The Western personality…demands with the use of force, demands its rights, it wants to be separate, and so brotherhood does not come.
I only know that it was, and ceased to be; and that I have written, and there I leave it.
The books are there; one can look them up.