Dostoevsky, on the Fall: the story ends; Shestov’s interpretation of it

The point in the text where we left off in the last entry isn’t the end of Dostoevsky’s story.  In the morning, the ridiculous man awakes from his “dream” a changed man.  The sight of the revolver he had wanted to kill himself with only the night before is repellent to him now:

Oh, life, life now!  I lifted up my arms and called out to the eternal truth; did not call out, but wept; rapture, boundless rapture, elevated my whole being.  Yes, life and – preaching!  I decided on preaching that same moment, and, of course, for the rest of my life!  I’m going out to preach, I want to preach – what?  The truth, for I saw it, saw it with my own eyes, saw all its glory!  . . .

But how to set up paradise – I don’t know, because I’m unable to put it into words.  After my dream, I lost words.  At least all the main words, the most necessary ones.  . . .  I’ll say more: let it never, let it never come true, and let there be no paradise (that I can understand!) – well, but I will preach all the same.  And yet it’s so simple: in one day, in one hour – it could all be set up at once!  The main thing is – love others as yourself, that’s the main thing, and it’s everything, there’s no need for anything else at all: it will immediately be discovered how to set things up.  . . .  If only everyone wants it, everything can be set up at once.  (The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, pp. 298-300)

This ending – but only the ending – was very disappointing to Shestov.  All but mocking the ridiculous man’s vow to preach the truth, he wrote this:

In other words, I will make a gift of it to common consciousness, which, before accepting it, will without doubt insist that it should first submit to the laws.  You understand what that means?  For the second time that “frightful” thing of which he has told us happened to Dostoievsky, not in sleep, but waking.  He had betrayed the eternal truth revealed to him, and sold it to its mortal enemy.  He told us that in a dream he had corrupted the spotless inhabitants of paradise.  Now he hurried towards men, to repeat, in full possession of his faculties, the same crime at which he had so shuddered in his dream.  (In Job’s Balances, pp. 66-7)

and this:

He forgot the terrible thing which he had himself told us, how he had already tried to teach and how this teaching had corrupted the beings who were so pure that they did not know what shame was.  He forgot also the Biblical threat that he who has tasted of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil shall die.  Perhaps he did not forget it in the exact sense of the word, just as he did not forget the other truths which his second sight had showed him; he forgot only one thing, that those truths were “useless” by their very nature, and that any attempt to make them useful, good for all men at all times, universal and necessary, will immediately turn them from truths into lies.  (In Job’s Balances, pp. 78-9)

While it might appear from the above passages that Shestov failed to distinguish the innermost beliefs of a character (the ridiculous man) from those of an author (Dostoevsky), it seems clear from the following passage that this was not the case, at least not in an obvious, naive way:

The Diary of a Writer is not even Dostoievsky’s diary; that is, it never, or hardly ever (for all the same it does contain “A Gentle Soul,” “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” and some other similar pages), reflects Dostoievsky’s most intimate thoughts and feelings.  It is a series of articles in which a man teaches other men how to live and what to do.  We have already seen that Dostoievsky sometimes tried, even in his novels, to play this part.  (Ibid., p. 79)

Indeed, Shestov had no patience with, or use for, the “didactic” side of Dostoevsky.  With his trademark sardonicism, Shestov once wrote that

Solovyov “forgave” Dostoevsky the underground man for the sake of the starets Zossima without noticing, apparently, that the true saint is the eternally disturbed underground man, while the starets Zossima is only an ordinary cheap print – blue eyes, carefully combed beard, and a golden ringlet around his head.  (Speculation and Revelation, p. 62)

and that

[i]n order to act Dostoievsky saw himself forced to submit his second sight to his ordinary, normal, human vision, which agreed with the findings of his other senses, as with his reason.  He wanted to teach men how to live, or, to use his own expression, how “to come to an arrangement on earth with God”.  But it is even less possible to come to an arrangement on earth with God than without Him.  Dostoievsky has told us so himself in “The Grand Inquisitor”.  Revelations are not given to man to make the life of man easier or to transform stones into bread; neither to change the course of history.  (In Job’s Balances, p. 80)

For, make no mistake, Shestov believed that the ridiculous man’s “dream” was a revelation, in the literal sense of that word, even to Dostoevsky himself:

The reader can see that Dostoievsky did not invent this truth himself; he could not have invented it.  He speaks of the “revelation” of truth, because truth was revealed to him.  It is that truth which, although known to every one, although recorded in the one book which has been read more often than any other, yet remains eternally hidden.  (Ibid., p. 66)

What is this truth?  In an article devoted to his fellow philosopher, countryman and friend, Nikolai Berdyaev, which whom he sparred constantly, Shestov indicated it with these words:

Paradisical ignorance is by no means poorer than the knowledge of the fallen man.  It is qualitatively different and endlessly richer and fuller in content than all our knowledge.  Some people (for instance, Dostoevsky in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”) have been able to catch a glimpse of this mystery and even to tell about it.  . . .  For God nothing is impossible: truths as well as reality are in His hands.  Human destinies are decided on Job’s balances, not on the balances of speculation.  (Speculation and Revelation, pp. 257-8)

Of course, in literary circles, which is where “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” has usually been interpreted (as opposed to in religious-philosophical circles), the story’s reception has been less “apocalyptic” and “metaphysical,” though perhaps no less admiring.  We will turn to a particularly attentive reading from that domain next . . .

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This entry was posted in Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Fall of man, Fall of man, series of posts, Russian literature, Russian religious philosophy, Shestov, Lev, Solovyov, Vladimir. Bookmark the permalink.

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