Monday, November 15, 2010

'A Writer's Diary' Dostoevsky

Part 2

Sometimes I write my diary not only for the public, but for myself – that’s probably why it occasionally contains some rough spots and surprising ideas – I mean ideas quite familiar to me and which I’ve been inwardly elaborating for a long time but which seem to the reader to have sprung up unexpectedly and unconnected to what has preceded them.
1876. Jul.1.1

I’m not very pleased with my Diary. I would have liked to say a hundred times more.
I wanted very much to write about literature, and precisely what no one has written anything about since the thirties: about pure beauty.
Letter to Y. Polonsky.

It is in the nature of a diary to blur public and private voices (who is the intended reader of a diary?) and thus the Diary affords an amazing insight into Dostoevsky’s mind and workshop, prefiguring many of the ideas later to surface in Karamazov, and echoing or developing ideas found in his previous works. In this part, let’s look at what the Diary tells us about Dostoevsky’ s ideas on literature, his views on language, his aesthetics and his personal obsession with suicide.


Coming from the pen of one of the chief literary practitioners in the Russia of the time, the Diary is surprisingly reticent about literature. Dostoevsky himself commented on this, that he wanted to focus more on contemporary life and on issues of greater interest to the general reader than mere professional, literary ones. It is to be lamented that he took this approach, as much of his views on contemporary life are unpleasantly reactionary and  have lost their relevance, as the events which stimulated them have become lost to view. His literary reminiscences, however, are still fascinating to modern readers.

Dostoevsky includes reminiscences and his views on: Belinsky, Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Nekrasov, his late brother Mikhail Mikhailovich, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Cervantes and George Sand. Perhaps most interesting of these are what he says about Chernyshevsky and Tolstoy, his two greatest contemporaries, and his idol, Pushkin.

Chernyshevsky was Dostoevsky’s greatest ideological opponent. An arch rationalist and utilitarian, Westerniser and radical liberal, Chernyshevsky stood for everything Dostoevsky himself hated about the European tendency in Russian life. Dostoevsky’s book Notes from Underground had been written in response and rebuff to Chernyshevsky’s hugely influential novel What Is To Be Done?, written when Chernyshevsky was in prison. Dostoevsky had been accused by his enemies of lampooning Chernyshevsky. In the Diary he set the record straight, describing his growing friendship with Chernyshevsky, which had been interrupted by Chernyshevsky’s arrest, and generously offering his support and solidarity to the prisoner and exile. One can have a good deal of respect for a man, even when one has radically different opinions from him.

In the Diary Dostoevsky called Tolstoy an enormous talent, a remarkable mind and a man highly respected by educated Russians, and devotes a whole chapter to a detailed discussion of Anna Karenina, which appeared in instalments as the Diary was appearing. He was utterly convinced of the greatness of the novel -Anna Karenina is perfection as a work of art…to which nothing in the European literature of this era can compare. He saw that Tolstoy, like himself, was aware of the propensity for light and dark within the human psyche: It is clear  and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human beings than our socialist-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it always has been; that abnormality and sin arise from the soul itself, and finally that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined and so mysterious that there are and cannot be either judges or physicians … Dostoevsky saw all this in Karenina.

However, he thought that Tolstoy was blind to the gulf between the intelligentsia and the People, pouring scorn on Levin’s statement I am also one of the people from Book 8 of Anna Karenina: he’s the son of a Moscow nobleman of the upper middle level whose historian was Count L Tolstoy, critiquing also Tolstoy’s narrow range in focussing only on the upper levels of society in his work. He also attacked Tolstoy for not joining his own side of the debate on the Pan Slavic Movement and the Eastern Question. Tolstoy – like many others- thought the whole thing had been magnified by a hysterical press and could see no benefit for Russia in it. This was a grievous sin in Dostoevsky’s eyes, and placed Tolstoy on the side of Russia’s enemies. Those who were critical of the Pan Slavic movement contributed to the dissociation Dostoevsky saw as the major social ill of the day. He also railed against Tolstoy’s passivism, ranting that Tolstoy, in refusing to support the war against the Turks was thereby condoning the atrocities the Turks had committed against their Slavic populations.  Dostoevsky could be pretty unpleasant in print, and had no compunctions against employing the lowest methods of gutter journalism to attack his opponents. In this case, he reported in graphic detail the atrocities committed by the Turks, and then more or less blamed them on Tolstoy.

Pushkin was Dostoevsky’s literary idol. Pushkin’s star had waned since his death in 1837; poetry had generally been eclipsed by a general movement towards prose, fictional and critical, since the 1840s. There were no public statues or commemorations of Russia’s greatest poet anywhere in Russia, a fact that Dostoevsky bemoaned in 1876. In 1862, a group of students at Pushkin’s old school floated the idea of a memorial and began to raise funds. It took nearly 20 years to get enough public interest. At last in June 1880, a statue was unveiled at a ceremony attended by all the luminaries of Russian literature (except Tolstoy, who declined the invitation). There were a number of speakers, including Dostoevsky, whose keynote speech made a huge impression: people were weeping, there were fainting fits in the crowd and a half hour long ovation. Even Turgenev, Dostoevsky’s old enemy, was moved to tears and embraced his rival. This event was the zenith of Dostoevsky’s career and marked the start of Russian veneration for both writers that continues to this day.

For Dostoevsky, Pushkin was the archetypal Russian, embodying in one person all those qualities that made the Russian character great. A Russian who fails to understand Pushkin has no right to call himself a Russian. He saw in Pushkin three qualities that were especially important. Pushkin was the first to understand and depict the dissociation of the intelligentsia from the People. In his portraits of the ‘wanderers’ Eugene Onegin and Aleko he showed young men of the intellectual class tormented by a sense of boredom and rootlessness due to their separation from the People, from the soil. Second, he embodied Russia’s ability to understand and incorporate foreign influences and make them her own: the capacity to respond to the entire world and to assume completely the form of the genius of other nations in a reincarnation that is almost total.  Third, Pushkin was the first poet to realise the potential of the oral culture of the People, and to see that they were not simply slaves; he was the first to present portraits of the People taken directly from their own truth: Pushkin bowed down before the People and accepted their truth as his truth.  For Dostoevsky, nothing new had been said in Russian literature since Pushkin. The message Pushkin gave the world was this: “The truth is not outside you, but within. Submit yourself to yourself; master yourself, and you shall see the truth. This truth is not to be found in things; it is not outside you or somewhere beyond the sea but is to be found first in your own work to better yourself, conquer yourself, humble yourself and you shall be freer than ever you imagined….” An axiom which he saw contained in Tatiana’s refusal of Onegin.

It’s hard to recognise Pushkin in Dostoevsky’s assessment of him. Many of the themes mentioned in the Pushkin speech and the essays devoted to Pushkin echo the themes in those sections of the Diary that deal with Pan Slavism, the Eastern Question, and Russia’s holy mission. In spite of some of the insights into Pushkin’s great masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, Dostoevsky’s remarks about Pushkin reveal more about Dostoevsky than they do about the poet.


For Dostoevsky, language was intimately connected to thought:  There is no doubt that language is the form, the body, the outer casing of thought… If we do not think in words, ie, by pronouncing words mentally, at least, then we think using the “elemental, fundamental power of that language” in which we prefer to think.  The more flexibly, the more richly, the more diversely we master the language in which we choose to think, the more easily, diversely, and richly we will express our ideas in it. He complains often that one’s ability to think is restricted by the fact that thought can only be expressed in ready-made words or phrases.

Language was also connected to (national and individual) character: Without a knowledge of one’s natural language, without mastering it, one can’t even shape one’s character. He regarded Russians who were brought up speaking French as neither fully French nor fully Russian, incapable of expressing anything accurately or precisely, and rendered frivolous and cynical by the language they used. He likened the influence of French on a growing Russian boy to the pernicious influence of masturbation: those who were forced to learn French in their youth would forever suffer from impotence of thought, just like those prematurely aged young men whose nasty habits have sapped their strength before its time. 

Nothing for Dostoevsky was more indicative of the great gulf between the educated classes and the dark mass of the People than the fact that the former used French and not Russian as their main language. His reverence for Pushkin, Lomonosov and Gogol was in large part due to the prominence they had given Russian. Each of these writers gave new possibilities to the language of the People and raised it from the level of the language of the uneducated to the language of the intelligentsia.  In Dostoevsky’s fiction, French is used to parody the useless idealistic Europeanism of the generation of the 40s. He had a low opinion of the French generally: Are the French really human beings?  he asked sarcastically in the Dairy. He called upon Russian Mamas to make sure their children learnt Russian, not French. This would heal the  great problem at the heart of Russian life, the dissociation between the intelligentsia and the People. Just as the People would regenerate the intelligentsia, so their language would revive Russian as a vehicle for the expression of great thoughts. We will not have our living language until we merge completely with the People. 


In Dostoevsky’s world, with the exception of painting and literature, the other arts are curiously absent. He was indifferent to music, architecture, dance and the other arts of civilisation. However, painting had a huge impact on him; and the first thing he and his wife did on their travels after they had checked into their hotel, was to head straight for the city art gallery. Paintings occupy a key place in many of his novels, and in the Diary.

It’s in the discussion of paintings that Dostoevsky reveals the basic tenets of his aesthetics. In the 19th century debate over the role of art, in which one was either a utilitarian or an aesthete, he was essentially an aesthete. As early as 1861 he had been arguing fiercely for the freedom of art, for art to have no other purpose or benefit than its own nature, and that it was this unhampered, free nature that was of the greatest benefit to mankind: Art will be true to man only if its freedom of movement is not hampered he wrote in an article in his journal Time in 1861. The search for beauty, the appreciation of beauty was a human instinct, and art should be nothing more than this: Beauty is useful because it is beauty, because a constant need for beauty and its highest ideal resides in mankind.

In the Diary his position remains essentially the same. In a review of the great exhibition of contemporary Russian art in March 1873, where Repin’s famous Volga Barge Haulers was exhibited for the first time, he developed his ideas. He warned young artists against the desire to cheapen their art by following the popular trend, or by instilling it with tendencies. He urged them to follow their own artistic instinct and to be free to their own vision: To satisfy social demands, the young poet suppresses his own natural need to express himself in his own images, fearing that he will be censured for ‘idle curiosity’ he suppresses and obliterates the images that arise out of his own soul; he ignores them or leaves them undeveloped, while extracting from himself with painful tremors the images that satisfy common, official,  liberal, and social opinion. What a terrible simple and naïve mistake, what a serious mistake this is! 

Those artists who used art to display their tendencies, to agitate for social change, abused art and themselves. The result was always inferior to art that was free of tendencies. He saw a great lesson in the example of Gogol, whose early art, free of tendencies, was magically life full; while his later art, in which he tried to put forward his religious views, was sadly weak: Gogol, in those passages in Dead Souls where he ceases to be an artist and begins to convey his own views directly, is simply weak and not even characteristic. But his Marriage and Dead Souls are his most profound works, the richest in inner content, precisely because of the artistically rendered characters who appear in them. Dostoevsky took this lesson to heart in his novels, where the range of philosophical arguments displayed never detracts from the truth of the fiction, where the philosophy never overwhelms the art.

Dostoevsky knew that the language and methods of philosophy and art were incompatible. In his fiction he was always prepared to sacrifice the former in the interests of the latter, even at the risk of muddying the clarity of his philosophical ideas. In 1879 he wrote to Pobedonestsov about Brothers Karamazov: [the argument] is here presented not point by point, but, so to speak, in an artistic picture…And here there was a further obligation of art: I had to present a modest and majestic figure…. I was forced, will or nill, by artistic demands to touch upon even the most trivial aspects….. Dostoevsky worked under the obligation of art, and when he did so he believed that this obligation to art came before his obligation to philosophy. This is the same view expressed throughout the Diary.

This is most interesting in terms of Dostoevsky’s thoughts on character in literature. Dostoevsky’s characters voice a range of philosophies from the most sarcastically atheistic to the most prophetically religious. However, one of the most noteworthy qualities of Dostoevsky’s art – and one that he shares with Turgenev-  is that these characters never become mere mouthpieces for the author’s views, they never descend into mere types. In the works of the artist who creates types…the result is something false, he wrote in the Diary. In this respect his great model and idol was Dickens, who, he held, managed through the process of idealising his observations, to create real people, not types: Dickens never saw Pickwick with his own eyes; he perceived him only in a variety of forms of reality that he had observed; he created a character and presented him as the result of his observations. Thus this character is every bit as real as one who really exists, even though Dickens took only an idea of the reality. Dostoevsky’s conception of his own art was one that focuses on characters. All the profundity, all the content of  a work of art thus resides only in its characters. 

Dostoevsky has been called a (social) realist, a label that he would have deplored. He lambasted the realists of his time, especially those who reproduced in their work field notes of sayings and speech patterns taken from real life (he was an addict of this practice himself, however).  He saw a kind of naivity in this. For Dostoevsky, the world was perceived through the senses and mediated by the mind: “One must portray reality as it is,” they say, whereas reality such as this does not exist and never has on earth because the essence of things is inaccessible to man: he perceives nature as it reflected in his ideas, after it has passed through his senses. We see reality almost always in the way we want to see it, as we ourselves, in a preconceived manner, wish to interpret it to ourselves.  Total objectivity, reportage, therefore was impossible, and what the artist should focus on was the quality of the ideas that mediated his experience of the world. What matters is not the subject, but the eye.  The ideal therefore had an essential place in the process of artistic creation. The task of art is not to portray the random bits of daily life, but their general idea, perceptively read and faithfully drawn out from the entire range of similar phenomena of daily life.

Dostoevsky saw himself as a fantasist. He was convinced that if you looked carefully at life, it appeared to be fantastic, miraculous, that there was nothing prosaic about the everyday: What is most miraculous are very often the things that happen in the reality around us... If once in a while we suddenly analyse it and see in the visible not the things we wished to see, but the things that exist in actual fact, then we at once take what we have seen as a miracle...


Dostoevsky was obsessed with suicide. Every major novel from 1866 onwards contains a character who commits suicide, or who intends to. Likewise, the Diary is full of stories of suicide. Perhaps it was true that there was an epidemic of suicides in the late 1870s, but Dostoevsky was certainly convinced there was. In his Diary he tried to find the reason for this, and to give some explanations as to the causes of suicide. For him, suicide went straight to the question of the existence of God.

His explanation was that suicidalists were driven to their action by an inability to satisfactorily resolve questions of belief. This  of course reflects more Dostoevsky’s own obsessions, than the suicidalists’ themselves, who may have had a range of reasons, including economic despair, alcoholism, mental illness and depression. However, Dostoevsky’s thoughts on suicide are worth looking at in detail, as they illuminate many aspects central to his religious thinking towards the end of his life, and how he himself resolved his own life long struggle with faith.

In October 1876 he wrote an essay where he discussed what he called ‘straightline thinking’, the propensity of contemporary thinkers to reach for the most logical conclusions by relying on rationality as the easiest way of resolving dilemmas. What a straight line approach, what quick satisfaction with the petty and insignificant as a means of expression, what a general rush to set one’s mind at rest as quickly as possible, to pronounce judgement so as not to have to trouble oneself any longer. 
Although this was part of a general attack on positivism which the Slavophile philosophers were launching at this time, Dostoevsky went further in saying that this process of simplification actually was harmful: Because of this excessive simplification of views on certain things, the cause itself is sometimes lost. In some instances, simplicity harms the simplifiers themselves. Simplicity does not change, simplicity moves in a straight line and is arrogant above all. Simplicity is the enemy of analysis. He held that positivism eventually reduced everything to zero: What is simpler and more restful than a zero? 

He then cited two cases of suicide which had been in the news. One of them, the suicide of an out-of-work seamstress who had jumped out of a window holding an icon. The other was the tragic suicide of Herzen’s 17 year old daughter, who had killed herself in Florence. Dostoevsky surmised from her suicide note, which had been reported to him by Pobedonestsov, that she had killed herself out of despair with this straightline thinking, which had been passed to her as a habit of thought by her Westernizing father: Here we have the soul of one who has rebelled against the linearity of things, of one who could not tolerate this linearity, which was passed on to her from childhood in her father’s house….her soul instinctively could not tolerate linearity and instinctively demanded something more complex. Of the two suicides, D argued that the second had suffered the most, from atheism, while the first had leapt into the void with the consolation of Christ – or at least religion.

He then followed this essay by printing a suicide note from some someone who had killed themselves out of boredom, as he says in the introduction to the note. Dostoevsky does not offer any provenance for the note, and we now know for sure that it was written by Dostoevsky himself as an attempt to exemplify in fiction the straightline thinking that leads to suicide. It is one of the most searing documents of atheism ever produced: angry, logical, sarcastic. No matter how rationally, righteously, and blessedly humanity might organize itself on earth, it will all be equated tomorrow to that same empty zero. Though there may be some reason why this is essential, in accordance with some almighty, eternal and dead laws of Nature, believe me, this idea shows the most profound disrespect to humanity, it is profoundly insulting to me and all the more unbearable because there is no one here who is to blame. This fictional note has echoes of Ipolit Ivolgin’s ideas from The Idiot, and echoes also Isabella’s speech from Measure for Measure: To Whom shall I complain? It is designed by Dostoevsky to show the paucity of rational atheism, and how it eventually leads to suicide.

This fictional note involved Dostoevsky in a storm of controversy. He was accused of offering an example to potential suicides, and he was forced, in another essay in the Diary to clarify his purpose and his meaning. He had intended the note to show the soul of someone who had lost faith in the immortality of the soul, and the consequences of this: When the idea of immortality is lost, suicide becomes an absolute and inescapable necessity for any person who has even developed slightly above the animal level. For Dostoevsky, immortality of the soul was the foundation of his thinking. Without faith in one’s soul and its immortality, human existence is unnatural, unthinkable and unbearable. 

He developed these ideas about suicide in one of his most remarkable stories, published a few months later in the April 1877 issue of the Diary: A Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this story, a straightline thinker, brought to the brink of suicide, dreams that he has committed suicide, and gone to paradise. As a result of this dream, he returns to his life with a renewed sense that the immortality of the soul is manifested through love: You must love others as you love yourself.

The idea of making it a genuine Diary was really naïve of me. A genuine Dairy is almost impossible: it can only be a work cut about to suit the public taste…
Letter to Mms Altschevsky April 9th 1876

I have decided to discontinue the Diary. There is a combination of many reasons: I’m very tired, my epilepsy has grown worse (precisely because of the Diary), finally, I want to be freer next year, although scarcely do I pass even two months without worrying.  I have a novel in my mind, and heart, and it asks to be expressed…
Letter to S.D. Yanovsky. 1877


Club Balzac said...

You are brilliant as usual. I am envious.


Anthony said...

This is truly an illuminating essay, especially the section on aesthetics. I must go back to Dostoevsky, whom I haven't read in 50 years.

Ridik said...

Thank you for sharing your writing with. I have been enjoying this blog for months now. Thank you.