- Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-81 by Joseph Frank
Princeton, 784 pp, £24.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 691 08665 6
‘The mind is a scoundrel,’ Dostoevsky wrote in his notes for The Brothers Karamazov, ‘but stupidity is straight and honest.’ This wasn’t what he himself thought, or rather, it was only one of the things he thought. In the novel the line is given to Ivan Karamazov, who explains to his younger brother Alyosha that he began their conversation about religion ‘as stupidly as possible’. When Alyosha asks him why, Ivan first says he wanted to be characteristically Russian: ‘Russian conversations on these subjects are all conducted as stupidly as possible.’ Then he says: ‘And second, the stupider, the more to the point. The stupider, the clearer. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while reason hedges and hides. Reason is a scoundrel, stupidity is direct and honest.’ This is the wording of Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 1990 translation – the translation of the notes is by Edward Wasiolek. In David McDuff’s 1993 version we read: ‘The greater the stupidity, the greater the clarity. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while wit equivocates and hides. Wit is a scoundrel, while stupidity is honest and sincere.’ And again, in Constance Garnett’s much older version: ‘The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.’
One word for stupidity and (in English) four words for its opposite. But the meaning is clear enough. ‘Intelligence’, ‘wit’, ‘reason’, ‘mind’, in this context, all mark the realm of reflecting, calculating consciousness, the way we measure our chances and think through our options. In fact, Ivan Karamazov’s mind is not a scoundrel, it is a mind which has tortured itself into an intellectual corner; and Alyosha’s mind is not a scoundrel either, it is a mind of astonishing moral directness and simplicity, almost ‘stupid’ in Ivan’s terms. But minds can be scoundrels, and the first mind we see in close-up in the novel is one of them. Here is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, patriarch of what Dostoevsky’s narrator calls ‘this nice little family’, agreeing to let Alyosha become a novice at the local monastery. He is ‘half drunk’, and having a terrific time. He wonders whether there is ‘anyone in the world’ who will pray for him. He too talks about stupidity, but in this novel, and perhaps elsewhere, only clever people ever think about the term. Pretending to be stupid is one of the things that scoundrels do.
My dear boy, you know, I’m terribly stupid about these things, would you believe it? Terribly stupid. You see, stupid as I am, I still keep thinking about it, I keep thinking, every once in a while, of course, not all the time. Surely it’s impossible, I think, that the devils will forget to drag me down to their place with their hooks when I die. And then I think: hooks? Where do they get them? What are they made of? Iron? Where do they forge them? Have they got some kind of factory down there? You know, in the monastery the monks probably believe there’s a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now me, I’m ready to believe in hell, only there shouldn’t be any ceiling; that would be, as it were, more refined, more enlightened, more Lutheran, in other words. Does it really make a difference – with a ceiling or without a ceiling? But that’s what the damned question is all about! Because if there’s no ceiling, then there are no hooks. And if there are no hooks, the whole thing falls apart, which, again, is unlikely, because then who will drag me down with hooks, because if they don’t drag me down, what then, and where is there any justice in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, just for me, for me alone.
Alyosha says quietly, ‘There are no hooks there,’ but his father has no intention of letting go of his fantasy. ‘Yes, yes,’ he says. ‘Only shadows of hooks. I know, I know. That’s how one Frenchman described hell.’ And he quotes, in French, an evocation of the shadow of a coachman cleaning the shadow of a coach with the shadow of a brush.
The glance at Voltaire, the mention of Luther and the Enlightenment, all indicate, as Joseph Frank says, a crafty parody of advanced Russian thought. Fyodor Pavlovich is not an intellectual, but he knows how intellectuals talk. But of course he is up to other mischief as well. He is teasing his son, he is mocking both doubt and faith, both literal and spiritual interpretations of Christian doctrine, and he is, in his own impeccably insincere way, giving a moment’s thought to the afterlife. He probably doesn’t believe he can escape hell, but he is cheerfully unrepentant, and he likes the idea that the place may be a fable, as Marlowe’s Faustus (erroneously) thought. Frank shrewdly remarks on the ‘strange velleities that suggest some concealed modicum of inner life’ in Fyodor Pavlovich, but the chances are that he has no inner life to speak of, only a kind of genius for intellectual (and other) buffoonery. He then starts to feel sorry for himself and says Alyosha is ‘the only one in the world who hasn’t condemned me’, and begins to ‘snivel’ (Pevear and Volokhonsky) or ‘whimper’ (McDuff). ‘He was sentimental,’ the narrator says. ‘He was wicked and sentimental.’ There is plenty of evidence for the old man’s wickedness elsewhere in the book, but here it seems to consist of using his undoubtedly tricky and lively mind for almost every purpose except understanding.
For all the raging passions of his characters, and for all his own talk of heart and soul, Dostoevsky as a novelist is the great specialist in tricky minds. Even the simplest minds he shows us are working hard, and when Alyosha tells his father there are no hooks in hell this is not unreflecting piety but a considered thought. Similarly when Ivan tells Alyosha why he can accept God but not God’s world, with its extravagant cruelty and its merciless brutality to children, and asks his brother if he would agree to build a world of happiness and peace on the torture of ‘just one tiny creature’, Alyosha says without hesitating: ‘No, I would not agree.’ But the fact that he doesn’t hesitate doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought, and he is refusing both the particular proposition and Ivan’s whole disposition towards moral calculation. Many readers, including myself, regard Ivan’s arguments as irresistible in this context (the price of the ‘higher harmony’ of the world, he says, is that we have to forgive the torturers of children, and we have no right to forgive them, even if the children themselves do), and Dostoevsky uses the word ‘irrefutable’ of these same arguments – meaning they cannot be answered by logic but only by faith and a quite different view of the world. But what Alyosha says is important too. We don’t have to accept God’s world, he suggests, or the torture of children. We have only to accept that a redeemer exists, and that this world can be redeemed. If it were not so miserable it would not need a redeemer. Of himself Dostoevsky wrote in a notebook cited by Frank, ‘It is not like a child that I believe in Christ,’ and: ‘It is not like a fool or a fanatic that I believe in God.’
In this volume, which takes on the last ten years of Dostoevsky’s life, Joseph Frank concludes his magnificent biography, a lengthy project miraculously without longueurs. There are four previous volumes (1976, 1983, 1986 and 1995), and in his preface to the present one, evoking ‘the end of a long journey’, Frank says that if anyone had told him years ago that he would embark on such a project he ‘would certainly have replied that nothing was more unlikely’. He saw himself as a critic rather than a biographer or a historian, and his original plan was ‘to undertake a single, reasonably sized volume on Dostoevsky, devoted mainly to his novels’. What happened? Well, Dostoevsky’s mind and life turned out to be so full of political and social ideas, usually taken to be eccentric or irrelevant to his imaginative work, that Frank felt he had to explore them and see how eccentric or irrelevant they were. Scarcely at all, is his conclusion. Each of the five books, he says, ‘has been dominated by the ideology of the period in which Dostoevsky was creating’ – elsewhere Frank speaks of the writer’s ‘ideological physiognomy’ – and he managed to persuade himself (and me, and many others) that there are different sorts of reasonable size. If you are writing ‘a condensed history of 19th-century Russian culture, with Dostoevsky at the centre’, perhaps five volumes make a pretty modest sum.
So there is a strong and detailed narrative line in these books, and there are lucid accounts of the relation of Dostoevsky’s life and work to the many complicated movements of social and political thought in 19th-century Russia, but there is not much psychobiography. This is not a lapse or a fault. Indeed the first volume contains, as an appendix, a strong refutation of Freud’s theory about the origins of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. Freud followed ‘family traditions’ – that is, the narratives of Dostoevsky’s daughter and second wife – in connecting the onset of the illness with Dostoevsky’s father’s death in 1839, an Oedipal wish spectacularly fulfilled when his father was killed (probably) by his serfs. ‘It is a dangerous thing,’ Freud remarks, putting it mildly, ‘if reality fulfils such repressed wishes.’ We are supposed to work through these things in fantasy and come out the other side. Dostoevsky’s epilepsy was a form of self-punishment for his wish, a revulsion from its extravagant historical completion. According to this logic, Dostoevsky’s actual punishment, in 1849, for his membership of a group of young socialists – along with his fellows he was subjected to a mock execution, led out as if to be shot, but then sent to Siberia – should have relieved the epilepsy, since its punishing role would have been superseded by the sentence of the Tsar, a second father. ‘If it proved to be the case,’ Freud says, ‘that Dostoevsky was free from his seizures in Siberia, that would merely substantiate the view that his seizures were his punishment.’ Unfortunately for this line of thought, Frank very clearly shows, following up on a 1930 article by E.H. Carr, that Dostoevsky’s epilepsy most likely started in Siberia, since all the evidence except ‘family traditions’ points that way.
But why would the family believe and tell such a story? Frank has a fascinating hypothesis which brings him rather closer to Freud than it looked as if he could be, and suggests that if Freud was wrong about Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky would certainly have understood Freud. ‘Who doesn’t wish for his father’s death?’ Ivan Karamazov asks, and his older brother Dmitri comes as close to killing Fyodor Pavlovich as a person could without actually committing the deed: he has the weapon, a brass pestle, in his hand, he has the old man’s unsuspecting head within reach. And since someone else has killed him, both brothers are in the position Freud attributed to Dostoevsky: their eager wish has been granted without their own physical participation.
Here is Frank’s hypothesis. In 1838 Dostoevsky, a student at the Academy of Military Engineers in St Petersburg, wrote to his father in Moscow to give him some bad news: his expected promotion at the Academy was not going to happen. ‘The letter brought on an apoplectic stroke, and the stricken doctor’ – Dostoevsky’s father was an Army doctor – ‘had to be bled in order to relieve his condition. Fyodor himself, as a result of this, fell ill and spent some time in the Academy hospital.’ Frank thinks Dostoevsky must have told his wife this story, which in her mind became entwined with the father’s murder and the son’s epilepsy. He calls her account an ‘innocent falsification’. We can of course imagine father-son relations, even including strokes and psychosomatic illnesses, which have nothing to do with Freud or Oedipus. But the overall picture here, as Frank himself says, suggests Freud was onto something about the Dostoevsky family, even if the dates and the details of his theory were all wrong. The murder and the epilepsy look like variations on an already established theme, gothic elaborations, supplied by history and pathology, of ways of wishing and not wishing for the father’s death.
Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. Even before his association with the young socialists he had resigned his Army commission and published the short story ‘Poor Folk’ (1846). He spent four years in prison camp in Siberia and six years in the Army there. He returned to St Petersburg and literary life in 1860, editing two journals, and publishing The House of the Dead (1860) and Notes from Underground (1864). Then followed two great novels – Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868) – and a spell of living abroad, dodging his own and his brother’s creditors.
Frank’s last volume opens with Dostoevsky’s return to Russia in 1871. At this point, he had published much of The Devils, but hadn’t yet finished the novel, which he did late in 1872. He edited a monthly journal called the Citizen from 1873 to mid-1874, and wrote a column for it called the ‘Diary of a Writer’. Later, he took the title of the column as the name of a monthly he edited and wrote all by himself, an extraordinarily fluent, not to say garrulous, collection of essays, stories, reportage and opinions. A friend wrote that ‘It was the Diary that made his name known in all of Russia, made him the teacher and idol of the youth, yes, and not only the youth.’ He published the novel A Raw Youth serially in 1874-75, and The Brothers Karamazov, also serially, in 1879-80. He died in January 1881, of a rupture of a pulmonary artery, connected with the emphysema that had been diagnosed in 1874, and for the treatment of which he had taken several trips to the German spa of Bad Ems. By the time he died he was famous and laden with literary and social honours, and some thirty thousand people followed his coffin through the streets of St Petersburg. Another friend wrote that ‘there had never before been such a funeral in Russia.’
These were eventful years. Serfdom had been abolished in 1861; there was continuing agitation for the granting of a constitution. And more than agitation. Senior administrators were killed, there were various attempts on the Tsar’s life, including a bomb in the Winter Palace, and in 1880 the country was placed under martial law. A month after Dostoevsky’s death Alexander II was assassinated. Dostoevsky believed in the Russian people and in the Tsar as the father of those people – the good father, not the delinquent rogue father represented by the senior Karamazov. He espoused Greater Russian imperial ambitions in the Balkans, looked forward to ‘the general unification of all people of all the tribes of the great Aryan race’, and he railed against the Jews and their ubiquitous influence in just the loathsome ways you would expect someone with these views to do. There is not much that is interesting in this creed, and much that is repellent. And yet Dostoevsky managed to straddle and articulate widely divergent opinions, especially in his novels but also in the Diary of a Writer, and Frank’s attention to the ‘ideological physiognomy’ becomes significant here.
It’s also worth returning to Ivan Karamazov’s first reason for starting his talk stupidly: ‘Russian conversations on these subjects are all conducted as stupidly as possible.’ If Ivan’s father’s stupidity turns out to be a wily buffoonery, Ivan’s own idea of it turns out to be a compliment disguised as an insult. ‘All of young Russia is talking now only about the eternal questions,’ he says, and Dostoevsky says of Ivan that ‘he is a very young man. How else could he speak out on what he had kept silent for so long . . . without foaming at the mouth’? ‘Stupidly’ means without the constricting self-consciousness or outright loss of control of older Russians and, presumably, young and old people everywhere else. ‘Stupidly’ means like Russians at their best. Still, it’s a tricky and many-edged compliment, and Dostoevsky’s adoration of the Russian people was a complex affair. His famous celebration of the need to suffer – ‘I think that the principal and most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, incessant and unslakable suffering . . . There is always an element of suffering even in the happiness of the Russian people, and without it their happiness is incomplete’ – has become a cliché and the material of many well-worn jokes, but taken slowly it’s an extraordinary mixture of tenderness and pride and hopelessness. Do all those wonderful children in Dostoevsky have to grow up into this? We can ask the same question about his notions of Russian guilt. Unlike Europeans, he thinks, Russians always know when they are guilty, but this doesn’t make them bad people. Quite the reverse. Russia is the opposite of Hamlet’s Denmark, where one can smile and smile and be a villain. In Russia one can kill and kill and be an idealist. ‘And therein lies the real horror: that in Russia one can commit the foulest and most villainous acts without being in the least a villain!’ Again, there is the curious mixture of pride at Russia’s exceptional moral destiny and uneasy, limitless condemnation of its actual results.
The chief political and intellectual movement of the 1870s in Russia, Frank says, was ‘the mutation of Russian radicalism’ towards Populism, which meant a belief in the people, obviously, but also, more surprisingly, a return to the Christian values the previous generation had rejected outright. According to a turn-of-the-century historian Frank quotes, the new generation, although not in any way drawn to organised religion, ‘displayed an unmistakable interest in the Gospels, in Christian ethics, and in Christ the man’. Frank himself says: ‘The Populists had restored the morality of the Christian God (whatever their own opinions about divinity) and were now applying it to His own creation.’ Like Ivan Karamazov, Dostoevsky thought the idea of morality without God was pernicious and impossible (‘Conscience without God is a horror,’ he wrote, ‘it can deviate to the most immoral things’), but he was attracted by the younger generation’s yearning for moral sense, and there was much he could agree with in the Populists’ programme. When Frank says Dostoevsky finally became ‘a revered, symbolic figure who stood above the merciless battle of ideologies’, he means he was in the thick of the battle, but both Right and Left could read him and be moved.
The key element here is youth, or rather Dostoevsky’s idea of the young. When the 28-year-old Vera Zasulich shot and wounded a general who had ordered the flogging of a political prisoner, Dostoevsky gave more weight to her hesitation before shooting than to the act. ‘It is terrible to raise one’s hand against a fellow man,’ she said in court, ‘but I decided that this is what I had to do.’ ‘This vacillation,’ Dostoevsky wrote, ‘is more moral than the shedding of blood itself.’ There is some slippage of logic here: presumably he means the vacillation is more moral than the bloodshed is immoral. However, now he is not thinking of Russians led astray, of villainy committed by non-villains, but of the real possibility that Vera Zasulich was right and her accusers wrong. This is in part because he had a tremendous imagination for moral alternatives, however huge some of his prejudices were, but it is also because she was young. Frank quotes a friend of Dostoevsky on the topic of ‘his fear of ceasing to understand the young generation, of breaking with it . . . In this idée fixe there was not at all any fear of ceasing to be a beloved writer or of decreasing the number of his followers and readers; no, he obviously regarded a disagreement with the young generation as a human downfall, as a moral death.’ Allowing for a little streamlining in the formulation (perhaps Dostoevsky wasn’t completely uninterested in remaining a beloved writer) and for some latitude in the meaning of ‘disagreement’ (presumably he didn’t think he couldn’t argue with the young) this is a remarkable proposition. Dostoevsky felt, it seems, that intelligent and well-intentioned young people could be wrong but not entirely and simply wrong, and ‘moral death’ would be a name for losing touch with their aspirations. The feeling explains a lot about the life of his imagination, and we can wonder how many other largely reactionary thinkers have felt this way.
There is another extraordinary feature of Dostoevsky’s writing which is relevant in this context. Bakhtin wrote of the polyphonic style of the novels, all voices rather than chords or superior harmony, and Frank, in a less aesthetic mode, evokes ‘Dostoevsky’s ability to place himself at a point of view antithetical to his own and give it a powerful and convincing expression.’ These are fine formulations, but they are understatements. Dostoevsky can do almost any point of view, with its quirks, illuminations, distractions and blindnesses, as if there were no other. He slips into the voice of the character, and we are suddenly inside an autonomous, and often cunning or crazy mind – like his own, antithetical or on another wavelength altogether. He does minds the way Tolstoy does characters and vocations. This is both a gift and a principle. I can’t explain the gift, but Dostoevsky himself has an anecdote which defines the principle. In one of the early pieces in the Diary of a Writer, he describes a meeting between Herzen and Belinsky, two formidable intellectuals of an earlier generation. Herzen compliments Belinsky on an article in the form of a conversation, but wonders why Belinsky portrays the figure who clearly represents his opponent as such a shallow person. ‘It’s obvious you’re very clever,’ Herzen says, ‘but whatever made you waste your time talking to a fool like that?’ Belinsky collapses in laughter and says: ‘You’ve got me there, you really have!’ There are no fools in Dostoevsky’s work: only people as clever as he can make them, whatever their views, and quite a few clever people pretending to be stupid.