Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Glenn Davis as he discusses Fyodor Dostoevsky and the concept that “beauty will save the world.” —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Readers of The Imaginative Conservative know well the phrase “beauty will save the world.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn borrowed it from Fyodor Dostoevsky to set the theme of his Nobel Lecture in 1970. British conservative writer Roger Scruton has written extensively about how aesthetics—and beauty in particular—enlarges our vision of humanity, helps us find meaning in our lives, and provides knowledge of our world’s intrinsic values. And Gregory Wolfe used the phrase for the title of his recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the theme of which is the importance of an aesthetic understanding for sustaining a civilized culture. Wolfe’s approach is especially appropriate for readers of this site in that he addresses the decline of an aesthetic appreciation in the conservative movement over the previous thirty years which has resulted in a highly politicized conservatism without vision and without deep cultural roots.
As a long time student of Russian culture, I find it inspiring that imaginative conservatives are attaching to a concept (“beauty will save the world”) articulated by Fyodor Dostoevsky one hundred fifty years ago in reference to his own battles against a severe ideological movement bent on politicizing the culture of nineteenth-century Russia. The contentious aesthetic rivalries that defined the last half of that century ultimately resulted by the 1920s in the devastation of imaginative literature in Russia. The roots of this nightmare of aesthetic dispute were watered by the political upheavals in the 1850s and 1860s and Dostoevsky wrote indefatigably to defend Russian art, enliven the Russian imagination, and nurture the human soul. It is a period in history which, I believe, given the arguments of Wolfe and others, imaginative conservatives will find interesting and fertile for thought.
The battle for the Russian imagination and for humane letters in the middle decades of the nineteenth-century was dominated by two literary movements: writers who supported and nurtured an aesthetic approach and the writers who favored a social/political approach based on utilitarian and materialist beliefs. Dostoevsky was one of the great representative figures of the aesthetic movement for he conceived of imaginative literature as the form best able to plumb the depths of the human soul. The radicals, on the other hand, led by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov, and Dmitry Pisarev, who largely denied the soul and stated that art is inferior to reality, kept mostly to philosophical writings and literary and social criticism as means to argue for political and social change. The central issue of the time, which demanded the attention of the cultural elites and defined the intellectual milieu, was, of course, the issue of servitude. For Russians in the nineteenth-century, just as for Americans, the issue of servitude overwhelmingly infused Russian literary culture with powerful, and at times brilliant, political, social, and literary polemics. But as the United States had a cathartic purging of the issue through the national tragedy of civil war, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 only seemed to aggravate the political situation. Because of the historically oppressive nature of the Russian system, political issues could not be addressed openly in the public square; instead, they had to be addressed indirectly, often through humane letters. Consequently, literature and literary criticism became the means whereby the great political and social issues of the day were discussed. The culture favored politicized literature and, as the radical Pisarev exclaimed, “aesthetics [was] my nightmare.”
The radical critics were best represented by Pisarev and Cherynyshevsky. They advocated a politicized literature and were strongly suspicious of the imaginative arts. Chernyshevsky argued that “art is inferior to reality,” and that a materialist and utilitarian worldview should inform not simply social and political policy but literary works as well. Pisarev went one further in his damning of beauty:
Be it noted in praise of human nature in general and of the human mind in particular that up to now, apparently, hardly anyone has ever gone to his death for the sake of something he considered beautiful, while on the other hand there are infinite numbers of people who have given their lives for that which they considered true and socially useful… Art never has had and never can have any martyrs.
This radical worldview was a powerful and vocal force in the latter half of the nineteenth-century, influencing many of the cultural and political elite. (Ultimately, it grew into something truly nefarious as Lenin grasped hold of Chernyshevsky’s proto-Bolshevik—and, by critical consensus, terrible—novel, What is to Be Done, and declared it his favorite. By the 1930s it had become one of the models for Soviet socialist realism.) These radicals, taking their war cry from the fictional nihilist, Yevgeny Bazarov (from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children), declared “one good chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet.” Transcendent ideals as communicated through art and literature terrified the radical critics because transcendent ideals were inherently independent of scientific ways of knowing. As Charles Moser has argued, the radicals supported a monistic theory that would unify all aspects of reality and rejected and denounced any dualistic philosophical or theological approach to knowledge. It is in this intellectual climate that Fyodor Dostoevsky engaged his genius for imagination. We know from his statements and from his extensive diaries that he wrote many of his works as rejoinders to the utilitarian didacticism that Chernyshevsky and his followers on the left were endeavoring to effect on the literary culture of the time.
As the radicals sacrificed aesthetic quality and bound their critique to political and social ideology for the good of the cause, the aesthetes nurtured the transcendent ideals. Dostoevsky, in particular, a profoundly intelligent and philosophic mind, purposely rejected discursive philosophy for art, enlivening his works through the imaginative use of theological, psychological, and poetic language. As Robert Louis Jackson has argued, all of Dostoevsky’s life was a “quest for form” believing as he did that life itself was an art and only art could provide the ultimate truth about human nature and human experience. Dostoevsky’s aesthetic approach to life was a direct affront to the radical critics, who unabashedly declared art to be deficient and subservient to reality.
It is readily apparent to the reader of his novels and notebooks that Dostoevsky esteemed art as a higher way of knowing. His statement that “beauty will save the world” is found in his notes on his novel, The Idiot, but we must remember that this statement was followed with no explanation by a second scrawl which reads “two kinds of beauty.” From the notes, we also know that Dostoevsky’s attempts to portray beauty were terribly taxing and largely unsuccessful from his point of view. About The Idiot, he wrote, “For a long time now a certain idea has tormented me, but I’ve been afraid to make a novel out of it, because the thought is too difficult and I’m not ready for it, although the thought is most tempting and I love it. This idea—to portray a wholly beautiful individual. There can be, in my opinion, nothing more difficult than this, in our age especially.” Konstantin Mochulsky, one of Dostoevsky’s best readers, interpreted the novelist’s notes this way:
Sanctity is not a literary theme. In order to create the image of a saint, one has to be a saint oneself. Sanctity is a miracle; the writer cannot be a miracle-worker. Christ only is holy, but a novel about Christ is impossible. Dostoevsky was facing the problem of religious art which tormented poor Gogol to death.
It is clear from his works that Dostoevsky was aware of the theological questions surrounding the depiction of beautiful images throughout the history of Christendom, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy. His achievement lends credence to the argument put forth by Jaroslav Pelikan that within the triad of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, it is the Beautiful which is most difficult and the most dangerous for the Christian writer to present. The Iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries bear witness that rendering the beautiful as holy demands extraordinary consideration. “It is noteworthy,” writes Pelikan, “that both the Second Commandment itself and the message of the Hebrew prophets singled out the identification of the Holy with the Beautiful as the special temptation to sin.” For Dostoevsky, this is spiritually and aesthetically agonizing:
All writers…who but undertook the depiction of the positively beautiful, have always had to give up. Because this task is immeasurable. The beautiful is an ideal, but neither our ideal nor that of civilized Europe has been in the least perfected. On earth there is only one positively beautiful person—Christ, so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, an infinite miracle in itself.
Dostoevsky was well aware of this aesthetic temptation to miss the mark and we, as readers, struggle along with his characters in his great works, The Idiot, The Devils (often known in English as The Possessed), and The Brothers Karamazov as they contend with the Beautiful.
Through his efforts to flesh out a better understanding of beauty and its moral implications, Dostoevsky resolved that there are two kinds of beauty—a higher level or “idealistic” beauty, embodied in the divine personality of Christ, and a lower level or sensualist understanding of beauty. This lower type, by stimulating the passions, often incites violence. We find evidence of this in the three novels that most directly address the aesthetics of beauty. In The Idiot, we meet the “wholly beautiful individual,” Prince Myshkin, who, at best, is helpless to prevent, but at a more profound level is deeply guilty of causing, the death of the “astonishingly beautiful” (udivitel’no khorosha) Nastasya Filippovna; in The Devils, the beautiful Stepan Verkhovensky (whom we know from his notes the author deeply loved and respected), chides his nihilist compatriots for denying the sacred as they destroy a community in the name of the Good; and in The Brothers Karamazov, the pious and innocent Alyosha proves incapable of staving off the murder of his father. Many of Dostoevsky’s characters rise and fall with their understanding of the claims of beauty. We see this in the character of Dmitry Karamazov, who curses the very injustice of the divinely created world:
Beauty! Here I cannot bear the fact that a man, a man even with a lofty heart and with a lofty mind begins with the ideal of the Madonna, yet ends with the ideal of Sodom… Is there beauty in Sodom? Rest assured that it is to be found in Sodom for the overwhelming majority of people… What is awful is that beauty is not only terrible, but also a mysterious thing. Here the devil struggles with God, but the field of battle is the heart of men.
Dostoevsky’s renditions of beauty and his personal quest for form relentlessly tormented him. Yet it is through his suffering that Russian literature and the voice of the Russian soul survived. In a Russia whose culture was increasingly threatened by an ideological straitjacket, Dostoevsky unleashed his aesthetic powers of discernment to advocate for the transcendent ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness. He utilized his extensive talents to combat the narrowing political ideologies of Cherynshevsky, Pisarev, and others. His literary imagination was large enough to embrace the great contradictions in human nature, for he knew that with evil times impending, only a large moral imagination could hope to stem the tide of degradation. Prophetic, he created fictional characters embodying the deep feelings and ideas of mid-nineteenth century Russia that played out in a manner timelessly significant.
Fyodor Dostoevsky died in 1881 and by the latter half of the nineteenth-century, much of the Russian literary world had succumbed to the ideas of the radicals. Realism in the arts, social utilitarianism, and didactic aims had “assumed the character of a national tendency,” in the words of Marc Slonim. Yet, for a brief period at the turn of the century, the aesthetes returned in force. In 1893, Dmitry Merezhkovsky set the groundwork for a renascence of new artistic writing in his essay, “On the Reasons for the Decline and on the New Trends in Contemporary Russian Literature.” Merezhkovsky excoriated the forces of positivism and utilitarianism then reigning over Russian educated society. He called for a rebirth of the Russian imagination by appealing to idealism, symbolism, and spirituality. His appeal to transcendent values was an extenuation of Dostoevsky’s belief that “beauty will save the world.” With Dostoevsky’s death and Tolstoy’s diminishing powers, Merezhkovsky set himself forth as the writer to re-stimulate imaginative literature in an increasingly difficult political time in Russian history.
During the next few decades, Russian culture moved through a “Silver Age,” in which we see tremendous activity in the literary and visual arts. New literary movements included Symbolism, Acmeism, Impressionism, and various schools of Futurism. Magnificent imaginative writing blossomed; writers and poets such as Aleksander Blok, Andrey Bely, Valery Bryusov, and young Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelshtam, among many others quickened the Russian soul for a time. Also, the call for a transcendent imaginative art advanced a flowering in Russian theology and philosophy by such figures as Nikolai Fyodorov, Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Pavel Florensky. Disastrously, much of this blooming of the Russian imagination was eradicated by Lenin and his heirs with their suffocating and at times lethal cultural doctrines that were first seeded by the utilitarian radicals in the mid-nineteenth-century. Many of these leading lights of the fin de siecle succumbed to the dictates of the revolution or moved to the West; in either case, more often than not, their lots ended badly.
In Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe writes the following:
Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West could only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics, I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic. This does not mean that I have withdrawn into some anti-intellectual Palace of Art. Rather, it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces, but are shaped by the pre-political roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.
Despite the neglect of the arts among many on the right, it has been a truism of the Kirkian school of Anglo-American thought that “imagination rules the world,” and that in order for the world to be ruled justly and fairly, the imagination must be nurtured by the enlivening powers of literature, history, and religion. As Dr. Kirk put it in Enemies of the Permanent Things, “we learn from literature, far more than from personal experience, the character of the saint, the hero, and the philosopher. We learn from literature those insights into the human condition which make life worth living.” What people read and how they approach the arts leads to a deeper understanding of who they are.
Like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, conservatives must come up from politics and recognize that the roots of a truer just order are watered with the permanent ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty. The insights of the arts of life are vital to making life worth living. As Wolfe argues, if we are willing to invest our hearts and minds in the arts and reject the ingrained philistinism endemic to politics, we can once again enliven the conservative mind. We must “once again put contemplation before action,” seek the permanent things, and nurture the roots that can help us transcend those issues that divide us and can lead us individually and corporately to reconciliation and redemption. We must endeavor through the arts to redeem the time before those roots dry up.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2013.
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Clowes, Edith W. Fiction’s Overcoat: Russian Literary Culture and the Question of Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004).
Jackson, Robert Louis. Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art (New Haven: Yale UP, 1966).