Paradoxes, Prophecies and Parodies, on the Difference Between Private and Public Writing, and the Benefits of Ambiguity
It was rather a curious incident. When he had just left the university and was preparing to go abroad upon his two thousand roubles, Ivan Fyodorovitch published in one of the more important journals a strange article, which attracted general notice,….What was most striking about the article was its tone, and its unexpected conclusion. Many of the Church party regarded him unquestioningly as on their side. And yet not only the secularists but even atheists joined them in their applause. Finally some sagacious persons opined that the article was nothing but an impudent satirical burlesque.
The Brothers Karamazov 1.1.3
Peter Ustinov called Dostoevsky ‘the prophet of paradoxes’, and this is true in two ways, in that Dostoevsky’s prophecies are often profoundly paradoxical, and in that he employs a paradoxical tone to sound his prophecies.
A paradox works by playing with an inversion of terms and thereby sustaining mutual incompatibilities. The greatest paradoxicalist in the world, Oscar Wilde, wrote: if one is going to go to the trouble of having parents, one must undertake to bring them up. This paradox works by substituting the term ‘parents’ for its opposite ‘children’, thus turning a profoundly banal statement that is really not worth the trouble of uttering, into something witty, possibly absurd, but on deeper reflection actually quite profound, in this case, hinting at the often painful process of growing individuation and the assertion of oneself in the face of parental or familial pressures.
In his public non-fiction writings Dostoevsky is addicted to this kind of paradoxical utterance, in which he inverts the normal terms for their opposites: War fosters brotherly love and unites nations. 1876. Apr.2.2, he writes, substituting ‘war’ for ‘peace’ in this case.
In one essay in the Dairy, called 'A Paradoxicalist', Dostoevsky reports a conversation with a man who utters a string of witty paradoxes:
Humanity loves war in order to be part of some noble idea. It is a human need.
A prolonged peace hardens people’s hearts. 1876. Apr.2.2
Science and the arts flourish particularly in the immediate postwar period. War renews and refreshes them…1876. Apr.2.2
It is specifically for the people that war has the finest and the most sublime consequences. 1876. Apr.2.2
We encounter the paradoxicalist again a few months later, when in a discussion about bon ton, he utters, among other things:
Every fashionable society is good in that it is in closer touch with nature than every other society, even agricultural ones, which mostly all still live in an unnatural fashion. 1876. Jul.4.1
Dostoevsky seems to parodying by these means the war-mongerers of Europe, and Russia and perhaps those Westernisers who saw in European civilisation the best of all possible worlds. By the use of paradox, he is signalling that he doesn’t really believe these terrible things. We read, we smile, we say, how charmingly paradoxical, how outrageous, how witty.
So it is a shock then to discover that the very same ideas expressed in public by the paradoxicalist are found in a private letter, written by Dostoevsky to his niece in 1870: With your views on war, I can’t possibly agree. Without war, people grow torpid in riches and comfort and lose the power of thinking and feeling nobly, they get brutal, and fall back into barbarism. Without pain, one comprehends not joy. Ideals are purified by suffering, as gold is by fire….You write: “People kill and wound and then nurse the wounded.” Do but think of the noblest words that ever yet were spoken: “I desire love and not sacrifice.” Here, in private, Dostoevsky reveals that what appear to be paradoxes in his public writing, are actually straightforward expressions of opinion, passionately held convictions, Jeremiads, prophecies.
Leaving aside the whole problematics of the nature of the prophecies (Dostoevsky passionately believes that war is an act of Christian love, that it is more enobling than peace…), what is profoundly disquieting about this addiction to a paradoxical tone in his public utterances is that it calls into question every belief or opinion that Dostoevsky voices in his fiction and in his journalism, both the religious and the atheistic.
Parody and Burlesque
We have already seen how, in Dostoevsky’s fiction, laughter from other characters often accompanies statements of the loftiest idealism as well as statements of the deepest depravity, and this laughter serves to place these statements in a field of ambiguity, where the statement has two simultaneously existing statuses: as a profundity, and as a parody of a profundity.
Dostoevsky employs laughter in certain places to foreground this double stance. But that doesn’t mean to say that where there is no laughter, there is no ambiguity; that this ambiguity exists only where there is laughter to highlight it.
The paradoxical tone has the potential to infect every utterance even without the presence of laughter from the characters, so that we can no longer take anything Dostoevsky says as having one, stable meaning: it means one thing, but it also means its opposite. As the narrator says in Brothers Karamazov, it’s a double edged sword.
Some Examples of the Double Edged Sword
How can I believe in God without a God to believe in?
Profundity or Parody? For an atheist, or for someone earnestly struggling with questions of belief, this is a profundity. But we have to acknowledge the fact that Dostoevsky possibly intended it as a parody of the kind of soul searching that atheists go in for; we have to face the fact, based on his private writings, that Dostoevsky himself found this kind of statement ludicrously stupid, and that he is actually scorning this kind of soul searching.
I have seen the truth, and its living image has filled my soul for ever.
Profundity or parody? For an atheist, this is a parody of the kind of profundity that fundamentalists utter. We know Dostoevsky regarded this a profundity because his private writings are full of this kind of stuff, but the paradoxical tone of his public writing opens it up to the possibility that it can be read as a parody of the religious.
What makes Dostoevsky profoundly modern is that the paradoxical nature of his writing not only forces a conscious interpretative decision upon the reader -parody or profundity? – but it also allows both interpretative choices to exist simultaneously. (This is a characteristic of 19th century Russian philosophy which is full of examples of thinkers who were able to simultaneously hold beliefs regarded by Western thinkers as opposites and therefore mutually exclusive.) This in part accounts for the fierceness with which atheists, nihilists, and Christian fundamentalists alike claim Dostoevsky as their prophet.
Dostoevsky was haunted by the fear of being misunderstood, and he complained many times in his public and private writing that his words had been misinterpreted as paradoxical, when he had intended them as prophecies, and vice versa. Let’s look at two examples, first from his letters, and second from the Diary. In the first he complains that what he had intended as straight talk had been interpreted as parody, and in the second, that what he had intended as parody had been interpreted as prophecy.
Example 1: Private
In July 1876 he wrote to his friend Solovyev complaining about the reception an essay from the Dairy had received: And then there happened precisely what I had expected: even those newspapers and magazines which are friendly to me raised an outcry, saying that my whole article was hopelessly paradoxical; while the others bestowed not the smallest attention on it – and here I am who believe that I have opened up the most important of all questions!
The essay in question, published in the June issue of the Diary consisted of four chapters, entitled, ‘My Paradox, ‘Deduction from My Paradox’, ‘The Eastern Question’, and ‘The Utopian Conception of History’. In them Dostoevsky rehearsed at length his view of Russia’s spiritual mission, with nasty sideswipes at the Jews and the Westernizers. In it we find utterances such as these:
We are revolutionaries out of some internal necessity, even out of conservatism. 1876. Jun.2.2
Russia’s whole power, her whole personality, so to say, and her whole future mission lie in her self-denying unselfishness. 1876. Jun.2.3
Conservative revolutionaries? Unselfishness as a form of power? These are classic paradoxes, in which terms are inverted and mutual incompatibilities are sustained.
What’s most interesting about Dostoevsky’s complaint to Solvyev, however, is that a) he precisely expected this response, and b) that he believed his audience would recognise his sincerity. It’s not surprising that his audience thought he was being paradoxical, given the titles he gave the chapters. On the other hand, it’s very surprising that, given these titles and the tone, Dostoevsky genuinely expected his audience would see his real intention, would see through the parody to the prophecy.
Example 2: Public
Our second example has Dostoevsky putting his complaint and his explanation entirely in the public sphere.
In the October 1876 issue of the Diary, Dostoevsky wrote about suicide, about the possible reasons for (what was perceived then as) an epidemic of suicides among the young. In one chapter, called ‘The Sentence’, Dostoevsky presented a suicide note from a materialist, of course, who committed suicide out of boredom. After accusing Nature for having created him against his will, having endowed him with the burden of consciousness only to extinguish it at death, the writer of the note passes sentence on Nature: Therefore, in my incontrovertible capacity as plaintiff and defendant judge and accused, I condemn this nature, which has so brazenly and unceremoniously inflicted this suffering… since I am unable to destroy Nature, I am destroying myself, solely out of weariness of having to endure a tyranny in which there is no guilty party. 1876. Oct.1.4.
The whole tone of the essay is once more steeped in paradox but at the same time, is one of the most profound justifications of atheism in literature, an expression of pure absurdism that anticipates Camus, Becket, Keirkegaard and Sartre.
Dostoevsky was inundated with letters about this essay. He was accused of justifying suicide (a potentially dangerous accusation given the Orthodox stance on suicide and Dostoevsky’s past as a political prisoner), accused of putting dangerous ideas into the heads of the young and disillusioned. His words were taken seriously as prophecies.
Two months later, in the December issue of the Diary, he answered these accusations in an essay called ‘A Belated Moral’: Good lord! Do I have many readers like this? [Do people] seriously believe that I described this case to win him sympathy?
In this second essay, Dostoevsky describes how his friends had urged him to insert a moral into ‘The Sentence’ to make his intention clear. Dostoevsky remarks in this second essay: I myself while writing the article (The Sentence) felt that a moral was essential, yet somehow I felt embarrassed to add one. I felt ashamed to assume that even the most naïve of readers would be so simple minded as to miss the inner sense of the article, its intent and its moral. Its intent was so clear to me that I could not help but assume that it was equally clear to everyone. It seems that I was mistaken. 1876 Dec 1.2.
In a further essay, he reveals that he had intended ‘The Sentence’ to be a parody of atheism, a burlesque of logical positivism, what he called ‘straightline thinking’.
The Benefits of Ambiguity
What’s significant in these two examples is that Dostoevsky reveals that he expected this kind of response, a response wildly different from his intention. If that is the case, what prompted him to employ this kind of style? What was the reason for couching his most heartfelt convictions and most strenuous oppositions, his prophecies, in a style that was so paradoxical that it opened up a huge gulf between the intention of the author and the reception by the reader, a style that rendered his utterances capable of being interpreted as prophecy and at the same time as a burlesque of prophecy?
Part of the answer can be found in the same letter to Solovyev we looked at earlier:
One can set up any paradox one likes, and so long as one doesn’t carry it to its ultimate conclusion, everyone will think it most subtle, witty, comme il faut; but once blurt out the last word, and quite frankly (not by implication) declare: “This is the Messiah!” why, nobody will believe in you any more – for it was so silly of you to push your idea to its ultimate conclusion.
He then goes on to mention Voltaire, a writer Dostoevsky intensely admired, and a famous master of paradox: If many a famous wit, such as Voltaire, had resolved for once to rout all hints, allusions, and esotericisms by force of his genuine beliefs, to show the real Himself, he would quite certainly not have had a tithe of the success he enjoyed. He would merely have been laughed at. For a man instinctively avoids saying his last word, he has a prejudice against ‘thoughts said’.
He then quotes a line from one of the most beautiful and famous poems of 19th century Russian literature, Silentium, by Tchyutchev: A thought once uttered is untrue.
The Paradoxical Prophecy, and the Prophetic Paradox
For Dostoevsky, the paradoxical prophecy, the prophetic paradox, was a way of deliberately sustaining ambiguity because ambiguity was in itself a virtue that–most superficially perhaps- guaranteed success as a writer by allowing a wider range of responses from his audience. A self-conscious, deliberately maintained ambiguity of intention- which he learnt in the early part of his journalistic career as a way of cheating the censor - was a way of dealing with the slipperiness and unreliability of language, where many a slip happens between mind and lip, between author and reader. At the same time, it allowed the true self of the author to remain hidden from view within the work of art, and the final word on the matter to remain forever unspoken.
Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard...
take in their song and speak no word.
Beauty’s an awesome terrible thing! It’s awesome because it’s indefinable; as indefinable and mysterious as everything in God’s creation! It’s where opposites converge, where contradictions rule!
Brother Ivan, never mind being an atheist, writes religious articles for a practical joke…