One of the great mysteries of Dostoevsky is how we are to understand the relationship between his cold-eyed cynicism, his withering sarcasm towards all things idealistic; and his burning, even rabid Orthodoxy, the mad pronouncements of his prophetic voice. This struggle between cynicism and faith is the fundamental characteristic of Dostoevsky’s life and work after 1866.
How do we reconcile the writer of such sentiments as these:
How can a man of consciousness have any respect for himself?
Man is a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful.
Man alone is able to curse, which is what distinguishes him from animals.
The sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble.
If you’re going to mix God up in it, we’ll get nowhere…
Isn’t it possible to simply eat me without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me?
Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy. Life now is given in exchange for pain and fear, and that’s the whole deceit.
With sentiments such as these:
Russia must reveal to the world her own Russian Christ, whom as yet the peoples know not.
There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ.
What does God do for you? He does everything.
God created both the world and the law, and created yet another miracle: he showed us the law through Christ.
Whoever has no ground under his feet also has no God.
It is not Christ’s teaching that will save the world, but precisely faith that the word became flesh.
The answer may perhaps be found in a highly significant letter written to Strakhov in May 1871, in which he meditates on the fall of the Paris Commune and the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War. In it he writes:
That school (French socialism) has dreamed of the setting up of earthly paradises… and then directly it came to action, has shown a contemptible incapacity for any practical expression of itself.
He further goes on to say:
At bottom the entire movement is but a repetition of the Russian delusion that man can construct the world by reason and experience (positivism).
In other words, not only are the theories wrong, but men are incapable of implementing any of their theories. Humanity is incapable of either thinking or acting a better world. All attempts to do so end in the violence of The Reign of Terror, or in vicious reprisals against the instigators of revolt once they have failed: Why do they cut off heads? Because it’s the simplest thing to do. The world is incapable of being reformed or improved, reality is far too grim: ‘Good’ is a fantasy never yet ratified by experience. … a moral basis (taken from Positivist teachings) for society is not only incapable of producing any results whatever, but can’t possibly even define itself to itself, and so must always lose its way amid aspirations and ideals. Have we not sufficient evidence by this time to be able to prove that a society is not in this way to be built up?… All attempts to improve things are, by their very nature, doomed to failure. This is a profound cynicism.
But out of this blackest cynicism, he moves towards a solution: an acceptance of the way things are under the mantle of Russian Orthodoxy. An acceptance of the Russian Christ can at least improve one’s relationship with the world, if not the world itself. Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy was borne from a profound cynicism, even nihilism, of any attempts to improve the world.
The existentialist found a consolation to this cynicism in the sense of the absurd; Diderot found it in healing companiable laughter and story telling; Rabelais in the pleasures of the flesh. For Dostoevsky, the only really consoling answer is in a contemplation of beauty. He saw the archetype of this beauty embodied in the figure of the Russian Orthodox Christ, but the reverence for beauty was also the prime tenet of his poetics. The contemplation of beauty is what he means when he says: beauty will save the world.