A titan of world literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) needs no introduction. Compared to every other Russian I’ve discussed here, he is a household name. Nikolai Berdyaev once gushed:
So great is the worth of Dostoevsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world; and he will bear witness for his countrymen at the Last Judgment of the nations.
True confession time. Until quite recently, the only thing by Dostoevsky I had read was Crime and Punishment, and that was over three decades ago! I remember liking it, but not enough, apparently, to entice me to read anything else by him. Around that same time I tackled Tolstoy’s War and Peace . . . and got about a third of the way through it. I finished Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which made an impression, but it too, for me, led nowhere. I read a book of Tolstoy’s ideas on education titled, predictably enough, Tolstoy on Education. That’s it. That was the sum total of my encounter with the great, or even not-so-great, Russian writers. At the time, I probably liked the last book – the one on education – best of all, and it doesn’t even count as literature!
But, almost from the beginning of my recent interest in Russian religious philosophy (and in Tarkovsky), it’s been apparent to me that I must return to Dostoevsky. Especially to him. So I recently read the two works of his that Shestov treasured most: the novella Notes from Underground, and the short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” After that, I read “The Meek One” (also known as “A Gentle Spirit”), and I’m just starting The Brothers Karamazov. Now, I get it. Now, I see why Dostoevsky is considered so great, why even Berdyaev could scarcely exaggerate his genius. Thirty years ago, I was a dabbler, and this writing would have meant little to me.
Naturally, to view Dostoevsky through a Shestovian lens means to see a distorted picture. Shestov ransacked every thinker he wrote about, even the ones he valued the most – perhaps especially those. Olga Tabachnikova is right when she says that P. D. Rayfield’s comment about Ivanov-Razumnik could also be applied to Shestov:
He squeezes his writers like lemons for an attitude to life and throws away the fruit.
This “rough handling” is likely to offend the person who comes to Shestov via Dostoevsky, or via Kierkegaard, or via Pascal, and so on. He is apt to think that Shestov’s one-sidedness does an injustice to “his man,” which is not unreasonable, especially given the direction he has traveled. But if he could imagine his path in reverse, e.g. coming to Dostoevsky via Shestov, would this change his perspective at all? For such has been my line of travel, as rare as that may be. Do not read Shestov in search of balanced, comprehensive appraisals of other thinkers. Read him to find out what he thinks.
Although Shestov was kind and generous in his person, and capable of forming deep friendships even with philosophical “enemies” (e.g. Husserl), in his writing he was immensely polemical – a veritable Mr. Cranky of the philosophers’ set. No philosopher of the past three thousand years met with his complete approval. The best thinkers, as Shestov saw them, had moments when they glimpsed the awful cracks in the mind-edifices that they and others had constructed – but they invariably lost their nerve. Or, to use a different metaphor, the best thinkers occasionally tugged at the “loose threads” in the coat of philosophy, but not one of them could bring himself to unravel the whole coat. The emperor (Reason) must not be allowed to go naked . . . or what’s a philosophy for?
Shestov always maintained that it was Dostoevsky, not Kant, who wrote the first critique of reason, when he penned Notes from Underground and “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Of course, Dostoevsky was not a philosopher, had never been trained for it, and had read few, if any, books about it (he did, however, know and converse with men who had done these things). But none of this mattered, because . . . well, let’s hear from Shestov:
It happens sometimes that the Angel of Death, when he comes for a soul, sees that he has come too soon, that the man’s term of life is not yet expired; so he does not take the soul away, does not even show himself to it, but leaves the man one of the innumerable pairs of eyes with which his body is covered. And then the man sees strange and new things, more than other men see and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and he also sees, not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see: that things do not exist “necessarily”, but “freely”, that they are and at the same time are not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear when they appear. The testimony of the old, natural eyes, “everybody’s” eyes, directly contradicts the testimony of the eyes left by the angel. But since all our other organs of sense, and even our reason, agree with our ordinary sight, and since the whole of human “experience”, individual and collective, supports it, the new vision seems to be outside the law, ridiculous, fantastic, the product of a disordered imagination. It seems only a step short to madness; not poetic madness, that inspiration with which even the handbooks of philosophy and aesthetics deal, and which under the names of Eros, Mania, and Ecstasy, has so often been described and justified where and when necessary, but the madness for which men are pent in cells. And then begins a struggle between two kinds of vision, a struggle of which the issue is as mysterious and uncertain as its origin.
Dostoevsky was undoubtedly one of those who possessed this double vision. (In Job’s Balances, pp. 5-6)
Tabachnikova points out:
Shestov was one of the first to distinguish in Dostoevsky’s novels profound philosophical ideas and it is essentially due to Shestov’s articles on Dostoevsky published in France that the latter started to be regarded in the West as a philosopher as well as novelist. Unlike many of those critics who, like for example André Gide – one of the first Western critics of Dostoevsky – viewed him as a humanist, Shestov saw in this great writer a constant and tormenting struggle between faith and atheism, which resulted in total renunciation by Dostoevsky of the idealist convictions of his youth and gave rise to his profound critique of pure reason. (“Treatment of Aesthetics in Lev Shestov’s Search for God,” Aesthetics as a Religious Factor in Eastern and Western Christianity, p. 192)
With these preliminaries out of the way we can turn to Dostoevsky’s remarkable account of, if not our Fall, at least one very much like it. It occurred in his short story “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” which was subtitled, “A Fantastic Story.” Published in 1877, it was Dostoevsky’s last artistic work before The Brothers Karamazov. Nel Grillaert describes this first-person narrative as
in many respects a peculiar text in Dostoevskij’s oeuvre. . . . It lacks the polyphonic pattern of numerous characters, rapidly contiguous events and dialectic of themes that is the hallmark of Dostoevskij’s grand novels . . . The realistic elements in the text are reduced to a minimum, the dream governs the whole story, which thus appears as an exercise in Dostoevskij’s aesthetic creed of fantastic realism. . . . According to this view . . . the full complexity of reality can only come to expression via a fantastic art. . . . In his story the ‘Dream’ Dostoevskij veered to the fantastic to open up a world he could not describe in realistic terms. (“Orthodoxy Regained: The Theological Subtext in Dostoevskij’s ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man,’ “ Russian Literature, vol. LXII (2007), no. II, pp. 158-9)
Grillaert summarizes the story, up to the point where the narrator encounters the denizens of the earth-replica, as follows:
[T]he ridiculous man is an estranged, misanthropic figure, who exists in the margins of Petersburg life. Claiming an absolute metaphysical void, he is convinced that nothing really matters on earth and decides to shoot himself. However, his suicide is put off by a meeting with a little girl, who desperately cries out to help her dying mother. Having chased away the vulnerable girl, the ridiculous man starts to feel some remorse, a sensation that hinders him from killing himself: for, if the world is really meaningless, why then does he feel this guilt? Pondering this inconsistency, he falls asleep and dreams that he shoots himself. Having spent some time in a coffin underground, he is transported to another planet that is physically an exact replica of our earth . . . but is morally a version of Edenic paradise. (Ibid., p. 159)
Since the word count for this entry is approaching fifteen hundred, allow me to “catch my breath” and start a new entry, wherein the ridiculous man will describe what he saw, and what happened, next . . .