Friday, October 29, 2010
'A Writer's Diary' Dostoevsky
You write that I am squandering and abusing my talents on bagatelles in the ‘Diary’. You are not the first from whom I have heard that. And now I want to say this to you and others: I have been driven to the conviction that an artist is bound to make himself acquainted down to the smallest detail, not only with the technique of writing, but with everything – current no less than historical events – relating to that reality which he designs to show forth.
Letter to Mms Altschevsky April 9th 1876
Contexts and Contents
A Writer’s Diary was conceived primarily as a way for Dostoevsky to make money. He had first mentioned the idea of editing something in the shape of a paper in the autumn of 1868, when he was hard at work on The Idiot, and then again in slightly more detail in another letter to his niece in the spring of 1869. Of course, he was an old hand at journalism, having turned out puff as a fueilletonist in the 1840s, and edited and managed two journals with his brother in the 1860s. However, his conception for the Diary was to be the sole author, to use it as a mouthpiece for his views, to build up his reading public, and to -hopefully- provide a source of steady income.
His first opportunity came in 1873 on his return to Russia after his self-imposed European exile, when he was offered the editorship of The Citizen, a journal owned and put out by the right wing Slavophile, Prince Meshchersky. Dostoevsky, in addition to managing the paper and editing contributions, contributed his own column, called A Writer’s Diary. The experience was not a happy one, however, and disagreements between him and the proprietor soon made it impossible for him to continue.
He tried again in 1876, on his own this time, printing the Diary and distributing it himself from his house. This version of the Diary ran from January 1876 to December 1877, when he abandoned it due to pressures of work on Karamazov, and his declining health. He put out a single edition in August 1880, which was concerned mainly with his famous Pushkin speech and the fall-out from that event. In January 1881 he recommenced the Diary, intending to continue indefinitely, but he died of emphysema in February, leaving only one complete issue for that year.
The Diary had an unusual and avant garde form– half journal half letter. It carried no advertising and Dostoevsky was the only contributor. It was what nowadays might be considered or conceived as a blog or an emailing list. It is a form whose modernism is often quite at odds with the reactionary conservatism of its contents.
In 1877, at the height of its success, in a fervid intellectual climate and a market noisy with journals and newspapers, the Diary had 7,000 subscribers. It boasted Pobedonestsov (the tutor to the next Tsar, intimate of the Imperial Family and Procurator of the Holy Synod and the most influential politician in Russia) as one of its regular readers, and involved Dostoevsky in an avalanche of correspondence.
The Diary covers a wide variety of topics presented in short numbered essays – from 6 to 12 in each monthly issue- with long titles. Sometimes the essays stand alone, and at others, there is a common thread linking the entire issue. A number of short stories also appeared in the Diary, including Bobok, A Gentle Creature, A Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and The Peasant Marey. There is a wide array of styles and voices ranging from the irascible and the sarcastic to the prophetic and religious; from aggressive and often unpleasant polemical argumentation to anecdote and reminiscence; from the wildly paradoxical to the most straightforward expression of opinion. It offers a fascinating view of contemporary Russian life and politics, unparalleled in its depth and breadth. In it, through the range of topics he addressed, Dostoevsky sought to clarify his position in the intellectual landscape of his time, particularly in the endless debate between the Westernisers, and the Slavophiles.
The topics covered include, in random order:
biographical information and reminiscences
the Pan Slavic Movement and the Eastern Question
the People and Orthodoxy
the contemporary European situation
Russia and Europe
language, its uses and corruptions
Let’s look at some of these in more detail. In Part 1 we will focus on Dostoevsky’s involvement in the Diary with the wider political and historical questions of his time, and in Part 2 with the deeper issues of morality, language, literature and aesthetics.
In the summer of 1876, the Slavic population of Bulgaria and Serbia rose in revolt against their Ottoman overlords. The revolt failed, and the Ottomans were vicious and bloody in their reprisals, massacring an estimated 12,000 people. News of the massacres spread like wildfire throughout Europe, but had an especial impact in Russia, where there arose a spontaneous movement among the People to aid their brother Slavs. The country was galvanised in support of those Balkan states who had declared war on Turkey. Donations poured in, a unit of volunteer troops was formed under the command of General Chaievsky, and young idealistic women signed up to be nurses behind the lines. Widespread patriotic fervour reached epic proportions when the Tsar declared war on Turkey in the spring of 1877.
The intelligentsia were divided about all this. On the one hand, the Westernizers maintained that Russia could ill afford to alienate the other European powers, and had enough troubles at home without wasting money on expensive foreign campaigns abroad. On the other, the Slavophiles declared that this was a supra national movement of Slavs, and that Russia should seize the opportunity to establish a greater Slavic empire, with Constantinople as its new centre. Dostoevsky was on the Slavophile side of the debate, going so far as to discuss publicly his support for the Constantinople idea. In this, his position had shifted more to right from the 1860s, when he had still been at pains to show the differences between his ideas and the Slavophiles’.
In the Diary, he poured scorn on the Westernizers and those who were against the Pan Slavic movement. He denied categorically (and one has to admit, rather naively given what we know about the Tsar’s territorial ambitions) that Russia had any imperial or territorial interests in the region, and was keen only to provide a standard round which the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe could rally in their struggle to overthrow the Ottoman yoke: Russia is their [the Slavs] protector, and even perhaps their leader, but not their ruler, she is their mother, but not their mistress.
Dostoevsky indeed went further than the Slavophiles, in that he saw the Eastern Question as an opportunity for the resurgence of Orthodoxy. In one illuminating essay in the Dairy, he quoted extensively from a 16th century document: The Book of Predictions by Johann Lichtenburger, which had been sent to him by a reader. One passage in particular caught his attention: The great eagle shall arise in the East, and those who dwell in the islands of the West shall wail…he shall fly to the south to recover that which has been lost…And God shall kindle a love of charity in the eagle of the East that he may fly to this arduous task, his two wings flashing on the heights of Christianity. He saw in this firm proof of Russia’s mission: the eagle was Russia bringing Orthodoxy to Europe. He came to see this as Russia’s Holy Mission, and expressed this view repeatedly in the Diary: Does not Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy alone, contain the truth, and the salvation of the Russian People, and in ages yet to come, the salvation of the whole of humanity? Has not Orthodoxy alone preserved the divine image of Christ in all its purity? And perhaps the principle preordained mission of the Russian People, within the destiny of humanity as a whole, is simply to preserve within it this divine image of Christ in all its purity, and when the time comes, to reveal this image to the world that has lost its way! Russia’s involvement in the Turkish war, her suppression of Polish independence, her support for the Balkan Slavs were all supported by Dostoevsky, not for reasons of Russian imperialist expansionism, however, but for the spread of Orthodoxy, which he saw as a liberating, unifying force for Europe.
The Diary shows the extent of Dostoevsky’s messianic thinking at the time, and how he had come to conflate the very notions of Russia and Orthodoxy. Earlier, in Demons, he had written: He who is not Russian, cannot be Orthodox, and he who is not Orthodox, cannot be Russian. In the Diary, he went even further, conflating Orthodoxy and the People: He who does not understand our People’s Orthodoxy will never understand our People themselves, a position which the liberal, atheistic, European, aristocratic Russians such as Turgenev detested.
Many liberal Westernizers were contemptuous of the religion of the People. The People did not know scripture, they were uneducated, stuck in a morass of bestiality and alcoholism. Dostoevsky refuted this idea. Although he acknowledged that the peasants had been brutalised by their serfdom, and that they were uneducated, and that there was a terrible wave of alcoholism after the emancipation, Dostoevsky maintained that nonetheless, the People knew the truth of scripture. It was part of their oral culture, kept alive in stories and legends and given real truth by the strength it gave them to endure their suffering: The people know Christ, their God, even better than they know ours, perhaps, although they never attended school. They know because for many centuries they endured much suffering and always in their grief they would hear of this God-christ.
Dostoevsky’s own Orthodoxy was problematic. His letters and his fiction attest to the great life long struggle between atheism and Christianity. In 1854 he had written to Fonvizina: I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so until the end of my life. In 1870 he wrote to his friend Maikov: the fundamental idea that has tormented me all my life long is the question of the existence of God. His fiction is based on the eternal dialectic between atheism and belief, culminating in the highly ambiguous and powerful Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. In the Diary, he reveals that his own faith had come to him out of suffering, and that he had learnt it from the People as a prisoner: I know [the People]: it was from them I accepted Christ into my soul again, Christ whom I had known while still a child in my parents’ home and whom I was about to lose when I, in my turn, transformed myself into a European liberal. For Dostoevsky, Orthodoxy was the belief of the People, not of the clergy, and to a certain extent he was anticlerical. The very first reference to Christianity only appeared in his published works in 1862, and his work of the mid 1860s – Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground- are both highly ambivalent about it. By the mid 1870s, the period covered by the Diary, his earlier agnosticism had gradually given way to a rabid but highly individualised version of Russian Orthodoxy. This internal conflict was partly alleviated by down-playing the supernatural elements of Christianity (he was scathing about all forms of mysticism, devoting several essays to debunking spiritualism and seances, which were fashionable at the time), in other words those elements that were harder for an educated 19th Century intellectual to accept, and emphasising what one could call the ‘socialistic’ elements of Christianity, its emphasis on brotherly, neighbourly love, the figure of Christ himself as the redeemer of suffering: In Russian Christianity – real Russian Christianity- there is not even a trace of mysticism; there is only love for humanity and the image of Christ, those are the essentials.
The plight of the People was the key social question of the time. Westernizers were convinced that the only way forward for the People was for them to reject their past utterly, and embrace Western education and science. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, saw the way forward in the traditional peasant communes. Dostoevsky waded into this debate, asserting that the only way forward was for the intellegentsia to bow down before the People and listen to what they had to say, to let the People lead, to heal the dissociation that had existed between the intelligentsia and the People since the reforms of Peter the Great. He held that the emancipation of 1861 had finally come about because the government had been persuaded to bow down to the People: The Russian people were liberated with land precisely because we suddenly resolved to bow down before the People’s truth. Dostoevsky was convinced that the salvation of Russia, indeed of humanity itself, was to be found in the belief of the People: Our People love truth for the sake of truth and not for show. They may be coarse and vile and sinful and unremarkable, but when their hour sounds and the cause of common truth of all the People is to be undertaken, you will be astounded by the degree of freedom of spirit which they will show before the burdens of materialism, passion, the lust for money, and possessions, and even before the fear of the cruellest martyr’s death.
It could be said that Dostoevsky to a certain extent idolised the People. The People are by no means as hopeless, by no means as easily swayed and lacking in form as our cultured stratum. and he even went so far as to call them more developed than the intellectual classes. When he compared the Russian People with the fourth estate in Europe, he warned that the latter were moving towards a revolution which could never happen in Russia, where: Our demos is content… He was always quick to attack the Slavophiles for idealising the peasants: They regarded the Russian peasants almost as some French villagers or shepherdesses on porcelain teacups and seems to have been blind to his own idealisation of the People. However, he was also aware of their depravity, their cruelty, their stupidity, and this aspect of the People also features in the Diary, especially in some of the descriptions of the court cases.
Perhaps the biggest accusation that may be laid at Dostoevsky’s feet was his elevation to a spiritual level of the terrible suffering of the People. I think that the principal and most basic spiritual need of the Russian People is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and in everything he wrote in an early essay in the Diary. By making suffering a spiritual need, rather than a consequence of economic and political inequality, he made it easier for the Slavophiles to neglect to strive for any real practical improvements in the life of the People, improvements that would actually alleviate their suffering. He was quick to criticise the generation of the 1840s for emphasising the idealistic improvement of humanity in general, while continuing to live off the fruits of their own peasants’ labour. After all, one can all to easily learn to live with an abstractedly universal sorrow, nourishing oneself spiritually on the contemplation of one‘s own moral beauty and the flight of one’s civic thought, while still nourishing oneself bodily on the quitrent of those same peasants. However, he seems to have been blind to the fact that his own elevation of suffering as a spiritual need was of a similar species of hypocrisy.
The Contemporary European Situation
In the late 1870s the seeds of what would later become the First World War were being planted on the European continent. The influence of Austria, particularly in Italy, was waning; Bismarck had unified the German states, creating the Prussian empire in the process; Turkey was the sick man of Europe, and everyone knew it was simply a matter of time before the Ottoman empire imploded; England was the driving force of industrial modernity, had undisputed mastery of the sea, and a huge overseas empire; and France was riven by internal divisions between her Republican party, the socialists, and the Bonapartists. Dostoevsky ‘read’ contemporary European history in terms of the interaction of three forces: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy.
Dostoevsky detested Catholicism. Even atheism is preferable to Catholicism he wrote in the Diary. He held that Catholicism peddled a version of Christ who had actually succumbed to the third temptation of the Devil, and thereby gained the kingdoms of the world. This idea first appeared in The Idiot, and was developed as the key idea of The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. This was manifest in the statism of the Roman church, which sought to bring the states of Europe under its spiritual control, and which persisted in behaving as a temporal kingdom. Naturally, people were beginning to reject it, and atheism, materialism and socialism (the three evils of Dostoevsky’s personal ideology, and at the same time, the things he was most attracted to) were a direct result of Catholicism, and grew out of it: Roman Catholicism long ago sold out Christ for the sake of Earthly dominion, forcing humanity to turn away from it and so being the principle cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, quite naturally this Catholicism engendered socialism in Europe. He analysed the internal situation in France, and the power struggles between the French and the Prussians in terms of a giant Catholic conspiracy theory, engineered on the one hand by the Pope, and on the other the Jesuits, whom he called a black army […] outside of humanity, outside of citizenship, outside of civilization. He warned that the Church with the Jesuits, in its effort to cling to temporal power, would finally turn to the people in Europe- in the past it had ignored them in favour of courting their rulers- and cynically sell them a version of Christianity that was similar to what the socialists were selling: It will distort Christ and sell him to them once more, as it sold him so many times before for the sake of earthly dominion, upholding the rights of the Inquisition, torturing people for freedom of conscience in the name of a loving Christ,…it has sold Christ to the Jesuits, and justifying “any means for the cause of Christ.”
As for Protestantism, Dostoevsky saw in it an expression of the German national character, which was defined only by its opposition to Catholicism. Protestantism was essentially a form of protest against the statism of Catholicism, and once Germany had won the battle against Catholicism, and defeated it, it would die out, having no Word of its own to replace the Catholic Word. Dostoevsky followed to a certain extent the thinking of the Slavophile philosopher Komiakov, in that they both saw in Protestantism a divisive, dissociative force, one which emphasised the individual at the expense of unity under the Church. These preachers always destroy the image of faith provided by the church and supply their very own. Dostoevsky especially held that Protestantism resulted in an increasing relativity of morals, a kind of anything-goes approach to moral questions, which naturally he deplored. He also followed Pobedonestsov in the view that Protestants worshipped Humanity, not God, and the emphasis they placed on the Bible was because the book had been of such valuable service to humanity, not because it was the word of God. This brought it perilously close to atheism.
Dostoevsky held that European history was driven by the power struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism: Catholicism is no longer Christianity and is transforming itself into idolatry, while Protestantism is taking giant steps towards atheism and toward inconstant, fashionable, changeable (and not eternal ) morality. He held that the only clear sighted person in Europe (apart from himself of course) was Bismarck, who, he claimed, fully understood the nature of the struggle and the stakes involved. Bismarck supported the French Republicans because he knew that the greatest threat to the peace of Europe was socialism on the one hand, and Rome, on the other. However, Bismarck was incapable of realising the true nature and mission of Russia, which was the proclamation of the Slavic
Word, the Word that would bring peace and unity to all of Europe, if only they would listen: The mission of the Russian is unquestionably pan European and universal.
Since the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia’s relationship with Europe had been fraught. On the one hand the Westernisers saw in European culture an answer to all of Russia’s problems; on the other, the Slavophiles rejected the European Enlightenment. Dostoevsky himself moved from a youthful position of espousing European socialist ideas – indeed he had been imprisoned for them- to a position closer to the Slavophiles in the 1860s. In the Diary in the late 1870s, he put forward views that were more extremely Slavophile. He always recognised European achievements in art, science and industry, and welcomed the benefits they could bring to Russia, but he lambasted Europe for its atheism, its materialism, its warmongering for the sake of market dominance and economic stability, and its socialism. Again and again in the Diary he laments the fact that Europe had no understanding of Russia, that it did not recognise Russia as a European Power with a unique contribution to make to the European scene: For Europe, Russia is a puzzle, and Russia’s every action is a puzzle and so it will be until the very end.
There were fundamental spiritual and moral differences between Europe and Russia: The European spirit is perhaps not as versatile as ours but is more self-enclosed and particular, despite the fact that that spirit has certainly been elaborated with more detail and clarity than ours, and while Russians were equipped to see these differences, Europeans were not. Naturally, Europeans were capable only of understanding Russia through their own eyes, in the light their own mores. They were thus incapable of realising that Russia had no territorial or imperialistic ambitions in Europe. Russia’s whole power, her whole personality, so to say, and her whole future mission lie in her self-denying unselfishness.
The chief obstacle to European understanding of Russia was the view of Russia that the Westernisers – specifically those Russian liberal expatriates who lived in Europe - had emphasised in their interactions with Europeans, a view which stressed the backwardness, exoticism and barbarity of Russia. Those Russians who have settled abroad have an image of Russia and her People as a drunken peasant woman holding a bottle of vodka. Dostoevsky makes it clear in the Dairy that he regarded these kind of Russians as only half Russians, sarcastically calling them ‘wise men’, ‘straightline thinking people’ ‘traitors’. In their rush to espouse Western mores, these people were in effect debasing themselves and betraying Russia.
In his understanding of Europe, his times, and the destiny of Russia, Dostoevsky showed more Hegelian influence than he was perhaps aware of. His idea that European history was driven by a conflict between its three religions betrays a Hegelian way of looking at history, both in the existence of underlying forces and in their triadic interaction. Dostoevsky’s ideas on contemporary politics and history are marred by a religious idealism that at its least malign was simply naïve, and at its most unpleasant was frankly fascist. An example of this is his conviction that nations were guided by a spiritual destiny, and that it was the destiny of Russia to be the servant of all humanity, if only the European powers could see that. He who would be first in the Kingdom of God must become the servant of all. This is how I understand Russia’s destiny in its ideal form.
It’s not at all certain that the Poles, or the Ukranians, or the perpetually restive tribes of the Caucasus would have agreed with this.
Coming next in Part 2: Dostoevsky on literature, language, aesthetics and suicide.