Man, it is often said, cannot jump over his own shadow. The poet—and by “poet” I mean a writer of imaginative works in verse or prose—leaps over the universe.
Sicut erat in principio
et nunc et semper
et in saecula saeculorum.
We not only read a novel, we enter into its created world. We identify a novelist by his world, that is, the world that especially conveys the body of his vision. We relate the novelist’s world to a particular place and time in history, to a particular human condition, and above all to particular physical entities. The novelist’s world becomes both a process of discovery and a journey of revelation. His fictional world makes us more aware of the map of our human world. In the end, what the novelist does, if he is really successful, is to dramatize for us the inner and the outer aspects of the world which we call our home, our universe, our topos. Since too often we know, or think we know, that we possess and control the world we live in, we perhaps take it too much for granted, which means that we do not always see, and see into, our world as fully or incisively as we can or should. The world in all of its forms and shapes, its sunshine and shadows, its sunsets and dawns, which the novelist paints in a work of art, gives, or should give, the reader a shock of recognition. It should help him to comprehend more vividly the world’s infinite mystery, wonder, beauty, as well as its paradox, its enigma, in short, its inspiration and its unfathomability. It is a world with landmarks and touchstones. On its roads and pathways, in its crowded streets, as in its open spaces, we travel, meeting ourselves and others, touching the known and the unknown. Its topography is our most visible connection with the seething immensity of life, as saints, mystics, prophets, philosophers, poets, and painters have testified to from the earliest times. The world comprises a ceaseless double rhythm of creation and of death, of cohesion and of dissolution; it is the alpha and the omega; our whatness, our temptation, our judgment, our beginning and our ending—the final apocalypse. “The world is a closed door,” writes Simone Weil, “It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through.”
The world, as I have tried to describe its encompassing perimeters, fills immensity. Man, it is often said, cannot jump over his own shadow. The poet—and by “poet” I mean a writer of imaginative works in verse or prose—leaps over the universe. He can, in William Blake’s words, “See a World in a grain of sand.” The poet gives us his visions, or sense-perceptions, of the dramatic sense, as well as his imaginative grasp of the human scene in its wondrous totality, and specifically its spirit of place. The poet gives voice to the world. He conveys its most essential qualities of body, of weight, of color. The world is the poet’s center of gravity, a geographical point of actions in convergence. Undoubtedly, one poet’s world will differ from another’s. The primitive world of Homer is our own world from moment to moment. The medieval world of Dante, on the other hand, is a world which we step into. Homer’s is an immediate physical world as it is felt and seen. Dante’s is a prophetic world in which we view the journey of the soul, self-lost, self-sought, self-found. The Iliad tells us about the destruction of the city of man, the greatest of griefs that can afflict man. The Divine Comedy tells us about the attainment of the city of God, the greatest of spiritual joys that can be given. One of the supreme glories of the poet, as both Horner and Dante confirm, is to be able to present the kingdoms of the world in a captured moment of time—the world now and the world to come.
The poet as novelist includes and portrays in his work a particularizing world, a visible landscape, which serves as the stage of what happens in the story that is being told. Of course, this landscape may ultimately indicate something more than what is merely physical in appearance and atmosphere. Indeed, it may have the deepest and widest of implications, connecting story and action and people (or things) with happenings, with significances, of an internalizing nature, of a most profound psychology. The great novelist is one who includes and renders the world’s physical properties in order, as Henry James believes, to make us catch a glimpse of a great space, the complete and profound mystery of the soul and of the conscience of man. In great art, the world attains its true and most relevant meaning in these transcending and transcendent dimensions. These dimensions of great fiction are moral: “…they deal [as James also believes] with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life.” We must make our judgments of discrimination in order to distinguish moral vision from sham vision. Our hesitation to do so merely leads to drifting consequences, for ourselves and for our culture. At the risk, then, of being labeled a traditionalist, I shall here re-assert, and re-affirm, T.S. Eliot’s dismissal of a novelist as useless if he neglects or lacks a “moral preoccupation,” which is the ability to perceive evil and good. At the risk, too, of being labeled as a moralist, I think it necessary to apply Eliot’s criterion to the ways in which the novelist handles his fictive world. If the world into which the novelist lures us, in which he even traps us, does not have its impelling moral interest, it neither contains nor communicates the seriousness and the profundity that Eliot associates with moral preoccupation.
If we are to avoid the awful consequences of non-oriented and disoriented thought in our comprehension of modern literature, and if we are to penetrate more meaningfully into the artist’s world, it is necessary to restrict our attention to the world of the novelist that has its source in the moral imagination, that qualitative imagination which is aware of the difference, the eternal struggle, between good and evil. This requirement is especially pertinent to our tough-minded generation whose moral interest in art is in eclipse. It is hardly necessary for me to note that the super-secular appetites of our age lead increasingly to moral immobility, a condition that spreads dangerously to all areas of personal conduct and collective life. Hence, we need to be severely selective in our reading and reckoning of novelists and to make our selection on the basis of the validity of a work of art in terms of the human awareness and the moral interest it promotes. It is nowhere enough merely to see in a novel a particular world in its intensity of self consciousness, but rather, and above all, to gain a deeper moral knowledge of our world. How a novelist’s world develops in us a real moral understanding; how it shapes first our perception and then our conception of our own world, helping us thus to fathom its meaning and to approach more closely to spiritual reality through physical phenomena; how, in short, the novelist, through the world he creates, can acquaint us with the idea of moral value and character: these should mould our concerns as well as the standards that we should be applying rigorously to imaginative art, if it is to escape inanity and chaos. What I am saying here—the criteria I am trying to define and to defend in relation to separating and saving what is of value from what is of little value—comes down finally to this critical principle: If we believe that the human world is significant, because of its moral significance, then art that is morally rooted can help us recognize the conditions of our existence.
For the true novelist, the burden of vision and responsibility is imperative and unavoidable. Consequently, in his fictional world we are thrown into a world of good and evil; a world in which moral struggle, loneliness, and choice, accompanied by pain and misery and terror, become a transcending and a transforming experience. This experience of moral crisis can be a prelude to moral awareness. Art that provides for this heightening experience belongs to that ancient and higher tradition of wisdom that returns us to the world of the Bible, of Sophocles, of Virgil, of Dante, of Milton. The world that the modern poet novelist creates discloses the extent and the depth of his capacity to be, in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, a “discerner of spirit.” In this redemptive role, he helps us to grow wings, as Plato said, to overcome gravity. A novelist who is a “discerner of spirit” contends with and dramatizes ultimate questions, the “everlastingly accursed questions” as they are called. Such a novelist reveals in the world he portrays a special dimension of moral insight, a special mission, a special aspect of the human situation. He thus reveals the uniqueness of this poetic vision and, inevitably and finally, its identifying moral meaning. To be sure, poetic value is something different from moral value. Yet the two, when they do converge, have a reciprocal effect on our life-outlook and life-values. The novelist’s vision-world engages our rapt, intransitive attention, as Eliseo Vivas describes it. (And the fact remains that we become what we contemplate.) It also enables us to locate a center of values.
In dramatizing his moral concern, the novelist helps us to envision “man in the modern world,” perhaps even “the end of the modern world.” The fictional world of a Franz Kafka, for example, expresses an existential morality. That is, his world contains a permanent hope-defying paradox against which man, both as victim and as assailant, struggles. Kafka’s is a nightmare world: an airless, grotesque, dark, suffocating city world in which it is always three o’clock in the morning. It is a world filled with the intolerable tension of man’s predicament. “If one is not being pursued by the world or carried off by the world, one is running after it,” Austin Warren says of “kosmos Kafka.” In it, one suffers through a never-ending waiting for grace; one is always trying to reach something that, at the same time, is always withdrawing, insofar as that something—call it God—is not-there, not-yet. To the question, “Will a savior ever appear to us?”, Kafka replies that, yes, a savior will come. But he will come “when he is no longer needed, he will arrive the day after his arrival, he will not come on the last of the days, but on the day after the last.” It is true that Kafka’s world depicts man in search of salvation, but his search, with its relentless but elusive moral expectations, has no telos. “There is a goal but no way,” Kafka writes, “what we call the way is only wavering.” We discover in Kafka’s world how moral Angst subsumes moral fantasy and becomes a permanent human condition.
In D.H. Lawrence’s world, on the other hand, we have a naturalistic morality, revolving around the legitimacy and the holiness of the human passions in which he finds man’s infinite possibility and final redemption. His assertion that the true artist “always substitutes a finer morality for a grosser” helps us to gauge Lawrence’s moral perspective and purpose. He refines his moral vision from a natural, a sacred, and a primordial world in which the sun and moon, the “birds, beasts and flowers,” the “city’s gold phosphorescence,” and even the scars on the landscape assume moral implications. Lawrence’s is a paradisal world in which the passions themselves are embarked on a paradisal quest. The very last sentence of The Rainbow (1915) crystallizes Lawrence’s vision of a reborn world: “She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.” In contrast to Kafka’s moral concern, which is existential and metaphysical, Lawrence’s is physical and intuitive. This intuitiveness makes him aware of the vulnerability of “finer morality” that he offers and affirms as good. After the Great War of 1914-18 he saw this vulnerability objectified in “mechanisms of matter” and “dark satanic mills,” the agents of evil debasing and destroying the world. It is the “terror of history” that now appears in Lawrence’s dark and tragic novel, Women in Love (1920). Flood, fire, snow, ice are the apocalyptic images that dominate this novel, in which we view the death of civilization brought on by capitulation to a grosser morality. But let Lawrence describe this process of dissolution, found in those remarkable concluding pages of Women in Love: “It was a grey day, the third day of greyness and stillness. All was white, icy, pallid…. In the distance a slope sheered down from a peak, with many black rock-slides.” The Lawrence we hear in these words is a prophet who seeks to save the modern world from an immoral destiny.
There is one novelist whose moral vision contains all worlds. He is our greatest novelist. I am speaking of Fyodor Dostoevsky, to whom I want now to turn our main attention in the light of some of the critical contexts of my preliminary observations. Dostoevsky defies classification and summary, a fact that in itself gives us a clue to his enormous importance. No other novelist is as threatening or as shattering as is Dostoevsky in his impact. No other novelist is his equal as a subtle psychologist of the life of the spiritual world. One can never be the same after encountering the world of Dostoevsky. Hurling us into unbelievable depths of experience and meaning, it is a world that at times defies language, rational explanation, neat theories, and formulas. Even as we begin to understand Dostoevsky’s world it suddenly and mysteriously makes a mockery of our conclusions. His world can be likened to a moral and spiritual labyrinth in which, as soon as we think we have found a way out, we realize it is only a small opening into still another dark, descending cave. In Kafka’s and in Lawrence’s worlds, we gradually begin to know what to see, what to fear, what to expect. In Dostoevsky’s world strange and unexpected surprises have a way of suddenly snaring us. Such a world finds us unprepared. There is some truth to Nicolas Berdyaev’s remark that Dostoevsky must be read only “in an atmosphere of spiritual manhood.” Berdyaev is simply reminding us that Dostoevsky’s world is not for a pilgrim but rather for a spiritual wrestler. Dostoevsky’s world constitutes an arduous wrestle with and against an uncanny power. Just as one feels that he has finally overcome his adversary, he finds himself astonishingly toppled, needing again to begin another breath-catching effort to disentangle himself and to escape from the power that weighs and presses heavily against him. In Dostoevsky’s world there is undiminishing strain and pressure. Inevitably, one is pushed towards a border situated somewhere between death and life, victory and defeat, dream and reality, being and nothingness. Held tightly within a suspended time-sequence,—caught as he is between two awesome forces,—he has flashes of a frightening knowledge of himself, of others, of his world, of that other world.
In his major fiction—in his great quintet, Crime and Punishment (1867), The Idiot (1868), The Devils (1873), A Raw Youth (1875), The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80)—Dostoevsky endows place, particularly the city of Saint Petersburg, with an identity that goes far beneath and beyond the physiology of an urban landscape. Place, for Dostoevsky, provides map-points, external characteristics that dramatize a special condition or problem such as poverty or isolation. Generally, his fictional world mirrors metaphysical qualities; pictorial details are included, cumulatively, so as to help one penetrate metaphysical depths. Hence Dostoevsky employs sensuous elements in order to heighten and color, to body forth, an inner realm. The material world is a map for the exploration of the spiritual world. How does one converse with the unknown? How does one make his way in that other world once he has entered it? These questions govern and shape Dostoevsky’s moral vision. And they again underline the ferocity of struggle, what I have just imaged as a savage wrestle, that Dostoevsky imposes unconditionally upon anyone who dares to enter the world of his fiction. This world is not a linear one but a world without end, which explains the amazing singularity and complexity of each of the worlds of those five, Dostoevsky’s last, novels. His world contains everything that is found between heaven and hell. It is self-recognition that we undergo in such a world. To view this world is to feel its impinging strength. Each of the novels represents an intensive and an advancing phase of struggle. In Dostoevsky’s multi-dimensional world, we wrestle against flesh and blood, and against powers and principalities. Everything is at stake in this life-and-death struggle.
The city in Dostoevsky’s major novels is an inclusive symbolic world that takes on grotesque shapes and colors and sends forth muffled sounds of anguish; the moans and groans of life lived in fear and trembling. His urban world is one of semi-dark and demon-like tenement houses whose amorphous shadows give the impression of a world that assumes and emits an unending twilight atmosphere. Sordidness, grimness, solitariness, rootlessness become in such a world the substantive conditions that besiege body and soul. A crowded world, it leans mercilessly on its captives: its victims. Black, sooty buildings; slimy rivers and canals; gray autumn days; “the putrid Petersburg fog” are the constituents of Dostoevsky’s “fantastic city.” It is a city of nightmare and oppressiveness. “Tragedy,” Dostoevsky wrote, “consists in the consciousness of monstrosity.” On its dreary topographical surfaces his world can be studied in terms of nineteenth-century social realism and beyond that, as has been argued, of “the romantic realism” of Balzac or Dickens, who, with Dostoevsky, were the first to realize the potentialities of the milieu and the experience of the city as a subject of fiction, of the city as a new sociological entity. Romanticism comes of age in Dostoevsky’s novels as we confront the modern world and as we are compelled to question ourselves. “It asks us [to quote Lionel Trilling] if we are content with ourselves, if we are saved or damned….”
This is the overwhelming question that Dostoevsky never ceases to ask. It impels his imagination and stamps his tragic morality, which includes and yet ascends beyond all morality, whether existential, naturalistic, or humanistic. Whatever its paradoxes, it is a morality riveted in a biblical faith that sees the world with humility and charity. Dostoevsky’s vision of evil is never without a counterpoint in his vision of salvation. The pull of the profane, though brutally tenacious, is not a unilateral one. Divine possibility—or divine wisdom, as Dostoevsky would no doubt prefer to name it—is never completely absent from a world in which perception of the “dark abyss” is even half alive. The on going struggle between the sacred and the profane permeates Dostoevsky’s fictional world. For some of his characters, it is a conscious struggle and for others unconscious, but for all of them it is one of deep suffering. One can never ignore the great amount of energy that is spent by Dostoevsky’s people. Agitation, both physical and spiritual, is one of their irrevocable characteristics. Even in their most passive state, the element of distress, often prompted by that ultimate question Dostoevsky poses at the center of his work, appears relentlessly. When his people are not threatened directly by the world around them, they are tormented by nocturnal dreams and psychic discord. And when they are not examining some profound moral problem, it is the problem itself that is examining them. The crystal palace and the ant-heap image a profane secular world, while the underground images the interior human consciousness, which opposes itself to the world. In their composite unity of fictional form, these images reveal Dostoevsky’s conception of “the tragedy of the world.” He never stops exploring man’s moral “unsightliness.” The results of his explorations, as found in his last great novels, register the transformation of his tragic morality into a religious morality.
Crime and Punishment reveals a world of suffocation in which some titanic force has seized one by the throat. It is the death rattle that we hear. Physical properties of this novel underline the impoverishment and the ugliness that end in the killing of life and of spirit. Evil is symbolized in a city’s sickness. Saint Petersburg can be likened to a dirty prison world—another “house of the dead”—in which its inmates are prone to every thought of escape and freedom at any price. But escape is never concluded and freedom never realized. Self-assertion ends in murder, if not almost in the self-murder of the hero of this novel, Raskolnikov. A blighted, fearsome atmosphere envelops the world of Crime and Punishment: a world of sin, of the boredom of non-being, of nausea. Both the physical world of this novel and the human psyche, in their interpenetration, epitomize a living death; Raskolnikov’s lodging, for instance, is repeatedly likened to a “coffin.” The action takes place in the summer, reinforcing the atmosphere of the city, arid, airless, cramped, gloomy. Moral confusion as a sign of a wrong state of soul is everywhere evident and is heightened, even indexed, by circuitous streets and alleyways of darkness, by dimly lit staircases, by foul-smelling taverns. Heat, rain, wind, and lightning assault the flesh. (Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth come vividly to mind here: “Now o’er the one-half world, / Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse / The cur tain’d sleep.”) Disorder-symbolism extends to eternity itself, which is seen by Svidrigaylov, Dostoevsky’s most “calculating tactician of debauchery,” as “just a little room… something like a village bath house, grimy, and spiders in every corner.” Crime and Punishment is the first of his great quintet in which Dostoevsky definitively pursues one of his monumental themes and presents one of his direst prophetic warnings: Men of unbelief are haunted men who live in a world with no exit.
In The Idiot, Dostoevsky’s second major novel, we are pulled into a deeper darkness. Here he gives greater emphasis to an inner, fallen world. Darkness is the overarching image, containing not only the action of this novel but also its sensuality, which ends in murder. Death goes hand-in-hand with “the sickness unto death.” Nihilism is in arrogant command; by the end of the novel, whatsoever sacredness, of attitude or of action, exists is routed and annihilated. The main figure, Prince Myshkin, alone and isolated, represents an absolutely powerless innocence for whom an empirical world has nothing but contempt and hatred. Dostoevsky, always preoccupied with the subject of the arrogance of power, focuses on the power of evil in the world. “From the right of force,” he states, “it is not far from the right of tigers and crocodiles.” If in Crime and Punishment there are glimmerings of repentance, and if the voice of conscience is never completely stilled, in The Idiot the impenetrable darkness allows no moment of light. In the terrifying world of this novel we view prisoners of damnation as if trapped between four walls that, slowly and mechanically, press inwards towards the victims with the sole purpose of crushing them. The external world which Dostoevsky delineates in Crime and Punishment is, in The Idiot, implicit. That is to say, the poetics of the city becomes now the poetics of terror. What we have, in effect, is a demonic mutation, darkly evoked. The evil that is done here is done in darkness, as if too terrible for human eyes. Physical affliction and spiritual deprivation characterize man’s venture “down to the depths,” there to face head-on the terrible things of the world. Dostoevsky’s aesthetic consciousness was heavily marked by his reading of the Bible, which, as he said, he knew “almost from the cradle.” The world of The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s fictional counterpart of the “bottomless pit” that is described in the Book of Revelation (in Verse 2, Chapter 9): “And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.” In his own life, it should be observed, Dostoevsky himself had gone through the furnace of doubt. In The Idiot crisis of faith becomes a collective experience of terror.
The novel entitled The Devils (also known as The Possessed) stands at the mid-center of Dostoevsky’s great quintet. And significantly it is the figure of the devil, completely unmasked, on which there is a focus. The startling powers of Dostoevsky’s creative perception illuminate, this novel, as he continues his exploration of the world. In this novel, his vision surges; it includes the visual elements of the two previous novels and also goes beyond them as Dostoevsky, a master of metaphor, looks into the face not only of the world of evil but also of the prince of that world, Satan. Dostoevsky’s imagination is at its fiercest point of reference—and of moral rage. It is a fallen world that he portrays here. He contends with the totality of world evil, which he renders both in visual and in auditory images. And it is the total effects of Satanism that he seeks to establish. His spiritual intuition is perhaps at its highest in The Devils, if only because the problem and the experience that Dostoevsky views here are pictured on a gigantic scale. Inevitably any struggle with the devil must be prodigious and all consuming. Accordingly, in this novel Dostoevsky associates the active power of evil as something lurking in the world and that ignites an unparalleled atmosphere of rapacity, cruelty, bodily pain. The crisis of tragedy and the fury of elements conjoin. This frightful process recalls the summarizing relevance of Shakespeare’s words in King Lear about the “all-shaking thunder” that “Strike[s] flat the thick rotundity o’ the world.” The Devils is Dostoevsky’s most passionate contemplation of the menace of evil that Shakespeare images, and that, in the Book of Job, is shown as that mighty, elemental power which has “gone round about the earth and walked through it.”
In this novel, the world deteriorates into “the vaudeville of devils.” The figure of Satan assumes various faces and human disguises, as seen in the central character of this novel, Stavrogin. Dostoevsky’s and our own, confrontation with Stavrogin is an open confrontation with the full, cynical power of evil in the world. Not unlike other diabolic types in the earlier novels, Stavrogin possesses appealing charm, handsomeness, even grandeur, although, to be sure, it is only an atrophied grandeur. The enigma of evil, Dostoevsky is saying, can be fascinating; it can also be terribly misleading and morally fatal. Stavrogin inhabits a world of hideousness, murkiness, fear; often he is linked to the lowest animal life and is imaged a spider, a vampire, a monster, a wild, clawing beast, a boa constrictor. Children shriek in his presence. Winds hiss and howl. The paths on which he walks are soggy and slippery. He literally dives into the dark abyss. A sinister silence surrounds and a malevolent aura exudes from him. A malignant condition of negation—the negation arising from un-belief—defiles his every action and utterance, or as Dostoevsky writes: “If Stavrogin believes in God, then he doesn’t believe that he believes. And if he doesn’t believe, then he doesn’t believe that he doesn’t believe.” Whatever and whomever he touches turns into ashes; Stavrogin embodies a burning hell. Again, in the imagery of this novel, Dostoevsky’s poetic qualities are supreme in a Shakespearian sense. The experience of the world of Stavrogin is like the dream of hell that the Duke of Oarence has in Shakespeare’s Richard III, when “a legion of foul fiends / Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears / Such hideous cries, that with the very noise / I trembling waked, and for a season after / Could not believe that I was in hell.” Stavrogin is Dostoevsky’s prince of the devils and God of this world. Gathered around and inspired by him are lesser satellites, but equally diabolic. Their aims belong to the “algebra of revolution.” To overturn mountains, to arouse political troubles, to reduce man into an obedient wretch, to bring unheard of depravity: these are their obsessive ambitions. “We will proclaim destruction,” one of Stavrogin’s rebellious dark angels screams, “We’ll set fires going…. We’ll set legends going…. Russia will be overwhelmed with darkness, the earth will weep for its old gods….” No words could be more prophetic of the empire of might that Dostoevsky saw devouring the world and turning it into a “furnace of fire.”
Dostoevsky’s vision of a world cloaked in evil and of man arrested in the dark night of the soul is not a static vision. The meaning of his art does not stop at the infinite edge of darkness. Dostoevsky is not simply a novelist of the last hour. What shines finally in his tragic vision is a moral faith which subsumes and transforms his moral imagination into what Tolstoy calls “religious art.” The world of despair and gloom, of sin and dread, as found in Crime and Punishment, in The Idiot, and in The Devils, does not contain the whole of the Dostoevskian world. In the worlds of these three novels, it is, to be sure, a “state of pain” that is one of the main conditions of existence. We are at the point, in fact, where the world is as bad as possible in terms of the range and depth of evil. For Dostoevsky, however, the world of evil is not an absolute one. There is always the possibility, and the revelation, of the world beyond, at a stage where evil becomes innocence. In the last two novels of his quintet, A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov, it is this greater world that is within reach; that holds and conveys the promise of redemption. In these novels, we step hesitantly but firmly on holy ground. The temporal abysms of hell are no longer unassailable; the “darkness and shadow of death” is no longer completely oppressive or spirit-killing. Dostoevsky’s last two novels represent a brave leap toward the future, toward the eternal that, as Kierkegaard reminds us, is both the future and the past. Thus, in these two novels, the world of the past, with its schisms, its terror, its demonism, continues to exert its force of presence. The voice of the world continues to be heard. It is a blasphemous voice that Dostoevsky captures in all of its horror. And yet the voice of the future also now rings more clearly than ever in the world of Dostoevsky. It is a voice which tells how affirmation rises from denial, and which reminds us, as Simone Weil expresses it, that “Faith is the indispensable condition.” This voice belongs to Dostoevsky’s “messengers of eternity,” those mediaries between the world and God.
Though the cityscape of A Raw Youth remains harsh and grim, the human experience that transpires here ignites feelings of compassion. Somehow we move upwards in this novel and have glimpses of a better world. Respite, even in the midst of disorder, is now possible. The great spiritual wrestle continues, but the stranglehold of evil is somewhat broken, though new dangers and traps are never absent from every new encounter. A Raw Youth can be described as the story of a young man gradually awakening to his consciousness of his true relation to his natural father and to his supernatural Father. The renovation of personality is a key factor in this young man’s “new life”—of selfhood purified and then liberated from both the “imperial self” and the tyranny of the objective world. The “raw youth” seeks to attain his spiritual identity in a world where “nothing is sacred,” or as Dostoevsky was to write in his notebooks: “…disintegration is present everywhere, for everything is falling apart, and there are no remaining ties not only in the Russian family, but even simply between people. Even children are apart.” Central to this novel is the recognition of the human need for purgation. The consciousness of God is also allied to this recognition, which in turn is mirrored in the raw youth’s search for his lost father and for the absent God. He seeks to find the redeeming love that has eluded him during most of his young life. This fateful deprivation characterizes not only the raw youth but also the young nihilists who appear in the novel. Dostoevsky discloses the never ending tragedy of a fatherless generation that has lost connection with values, those very values that the raw youth’s father has violated or scorned. We have here a morally confused and paralyzed world, appropriately imaged in the novel as a whirlpool.
The role of the profligate father in the life of the raw youth is all-important, and, for Dostoevsky, signifies the consequences of the paternal absence of moral responsibility and how it affects the next generation. Universal moral truths are being emphasized throughout. In the raw youth’s father the elements of nature are mixed; passion and compassion collide in his heart, as he, too, slowly sees his own tragic dimension—what he calls his “second self “—in its disordering effects on his own life and on that of his son. The sins of this “second self” intersperse the novel and have a startling impact on the raw youth, who comes, at last, into closer contact with his long-lost father. His dawning recognition of his father’s ambivalence and aberrations have, in fact, a purgative counter effect on the father. In place of murder—and this is the only novel in which the act of murder is absent—we view, in the father, “the gift of tears.” Dostoevsky withholds judgment in this novel: Though the father has been both irresponsible and non-responsible, his fate is not one 0f malediction. Rather, it is one of spiritual affliction, that sorrowing condition which, to recall Simone Weil again, finds the sufferer “at the foot of the Cross, almost at the greatest possible distance from God.”
Distance from God is emphasized, but also shortened, in Dostoevsky’s last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Significantly, the main action occurs in a provincial town (Skotoprigonevsk), far from the musty world of Saint Petersburg. Part of the action, too, takes place in a white monastery located at the gates of the town. An alleviating, stronger color contrast is sensitively associated with atmosphere, emotions, or themes, appropriate, it could be said, to Dostoevsky’s contention that physical and spiritual beauty can save the world. The darkness symbolism, so pervasive in the preceding novels, is not as pronounced now. The forces of darkness, whether of persons, of places, or of things, are not without their opposing flashes of light, of whiteness and fairness. Those radiant contrasts which form human life and faith itself are distinguishing and differentiating. Struggle, scoundrelism, laceration, rebellion—those familiar Dostoevskian subjects—are present, but so is the growing perception of the “eternal questions.” The “Euclidean earthly mind” does not go unchallenged in the world of the Karamazovs. Dostoevsky’s emphasis on the contrasts between the profane and the sacred; between the lecherous father of the Karamazov family, and the old and saintly monk, Father Zossima; between the Karamazovs’ house in the center of the town (infested with the rats which the father likes to have for company) and the nearby monastery, with its beautiful flower beds and serene orderliness, must not go unnoticed. We find ourselves ominously fixed between two worlds, two ways, two voices, two fatherhoods. And Dostoevsky moves us to make life and moral judgments as we view and weigh the drama of two clashing worlds. It is precisely at this point that the individual and the universal dimensions coincide. The choice between alternatives that we make, the questions that we must answer, the beliefs that we follow, the actions that we take, culminate, Dostoevsky is saying, in murder or in love. “What is hell?” Father Zossima asks, and he goes on to reply: “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox spirituality, embodied in Father Zossima and in the young apprentice-monk, Alyosha Karamazov, occupies a major place in this novel. But it is much more than just two religious figures and their spiritual significance that Dostoevsky strives to present. His poetic vision, far too complex for reductionist theories or simplistic conclusions, never ignores the peril and yet the need of penetrating the physical world in order to find ultimate reality. Though Dostoevsky emphasizes the life of belief and holiness, as expressed by Father Zossima, he is also resolutely attuned to the world in all of its frailty. He neither forgets nor underestimates the immediate world that belongs to time and space, even as he recognizes the tenuousness of holiness in its encounter with diabolism. The moral tensions of his art emerge precisely from this encounter, in all of its ramifications, and account for the dark colors and torrential passions in Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the human world. The world of the Karamazovs, epitomized by the bestiality of the father, but even more so by the titanic intellectualism of the second son, Ivan, is a fallen world. It is the fate of man in the world of Lucifer, prince of the fallen, which Dostoevsky perceives and renders. Dostoevsky’s neglect of the natural world in its iridescence (except as found in several mystical experiences that he includes in his quintet) comes from a tragic view of man trapped in a world that glorifies the rational, the relativistic, the positivistic, and, above all, the atheistic. The Brothers Karamazov marks the poetic triumph of his moral and prophetic vision as it dramatizes the spiritual crisis that results from man’s belief that his basic and final relationship with things is a material and intellectual relationship.
It is the modern world, and its fundamental assumptions about itself, that is on trial in Dostoevsky’s last novel. As in any crucial trial the questions to be asked (and answered) are of immense consequence. What are we to say about the fact of evil? What are we to do about a world in “confusion and desolation?” What makes Dostoevsky’s fiction so demanding is the relentlessness with which such questions are asked, and as they are even more relentlessly dramatized. Inevitably, in the world of Dostoevsky,—in the world that is on trial,—moral discernment and judgment evolve. The Brothers Karamazov contains Dostoevsky’s prophecy of evil, and, as in all great prophecy, it enables us to see the evil which is limitless and which turns suffering into violence. Father Zossima is a witness to the aggressiveness of evil as a force of denial unceasingly building the prison-house of unbelief. By teaching that the pain of suffering must be turned into love, Father Zossima is one of the very few characters in Dostoevsky’s novels to have escaped from the fate of such a secular prison. His enemy is the arch-intellectual, the man-God Ivan Karamazov, who defiantly rejects God and refuses salvation; who submits to the tyranny of the world. Even in his death Father Zossima hears witness against this tyranny, which now seeks to extinguish him with “the breath of corruption.” No less than the Evangelist, Dostoevsky knew that another name for Satan is Legion!
The world of Dostoevsky stands in sharp opposition to the modern theories of scientific cosmology. As an artist, he approaches and paints the world with an implicitly religious sense. It is his grasp of this religious sense that leads him to certain inviolable criteria of the imagination: He refuses to separate the temporal from the eternal. He insists that man belongs to two orders: to the human, political, historical order and to the divine, eternal order. He discloses time and again that no given life or historical period can escape finiteness, sin, and tragedy. He dramatizes the dreadful tensions that evolve from the collision of these two orders, particularly when man attempts to deny the reality of a divine order. Dostoevsky’s fiction is essentially about the discord that invades and defiles the human world, when the religious sense is no longer accepted as an intrinsic part of life and when the human act has lost its religious validity. Dostoevsky’s major fiction, taken as a whole, presents to us an ascending crisis of faith in the modern world. Hence, what he shows with astonishing prophetic power is the great unrest that grips people without belief and that leads them aimlessly up and down dark streets that have no name and no end. In particular, what he focuses on is the darkness that he sees increasingly shrouding the life of the soul. Accordingly, he portrays physical conditions in terms of a dark chaos, reflecting modern man’s spiritual lostness. Of course, it is more than an artistic symbolism that Dostoevsky is employing. The fact remains that his is a metaphysical and tragic symbolism, one which contains and exercises a moral conscience. Dostoevsky’s “titans,” of course, would do away with such a conscience in order to attain the limitless freedom enabling them to assert that everything is possible and that two and two are five. Before these theories and ideas the world retreats, and it is this retreat that Dostoevsky images in such dark colors and symbols. Chaos, malady, pestilence, madness, murder, blasphemy emblematize for Dostoevsky a world at war.
The world that Dostoevsky reveals is essentially a world of denial, a world without grace, into which his men and women are fatefully “thrown,” and in which physical and spiritual suffering prevails. In the Dostoevskian world, the quest for self meaning is invariably a tormenting one since it brings one into direct, naked contact with the deepest currents of his soul. In one way or another Dostoevsky’s characters are wrestling with their souls. What results from such an exhaustive conflict is either a form of recovery or that of suicide and death. His heroes and, indeed, his devils, are desperately, terrifyingly, daringly immersed in their destiny and in the destiny of the world itself. They move restlessly in a world that seems to have come, or has been brought, to a stop. They seem to have momentarily captured the world and to have made it a prisoner of their ideas. And it is their shadow that enfolds and darkens the world, a fact that perhaps explains the reasons why nature in Dostoevsky’s novels has become an alien. Yet, the world of Dostoevsky does not end at the frontier of nothingness. Both as a man and as an artist, Dostoevsky possessed the “spirit of the gladiator.” He knew that tragedy itself was intended to be transcended and transfigured: “Truth dawns in adversity,” he wrote in a letter from Siberia (in February, 1854). For him, the experience of suffering was a dynamic form of purification; inertia, on the other hand, signified cheap consolation. Suffering testifies to the world’s imperfection; it should lead to the contemplation of man’s limitations and misery. Misery is undoubtedly a preponderant, if not an excessive, condition that infects the whole of Dostoevsky’s universe. His novels, with a kind of progressive repetition, revolve around and meditate on this condition. He understood that a prophet was concurrently a teacher who must impart his lessons as repeated disciplinary forms of spiritual exercise. And the central lesson that Dostoevsky, as prophet and teacher, keeps repeating in his novels is that which Simone Weil cogently expresses when she writes: “Man’s misery consists in the fact that he is not God. Man is continually forgetting this.”
D.H. Lawrence describes Dostoevsky as a “marvelous seer,” a description that crystallizes the astonishing magnitude of the Russian novelist’s vision. As an artist, as a poet,—and Dostoevsky spoke of himself as being more of a poet than an artist, he thought in images and was guided by feelings, as his friend Strakhov insisted. In his portrayal of the world, it is as a poet that Dostoevsky speaks. In his understanding of the world, in the intrinsic value that he assigns to it and to the men and women who live and die in it, he speaks from a religious ground of being. What must be therefore kept in mind, and stressed, in any attempt to estimate the consummate significance of Dostoevsky’s view of the world is that, as a great poet, he accumulates his sensuous perceptions in order to articulate his spiritual intuitions. The nature of his greatness is such that any estimation of his worth can be defined only by asserting that he belongs to that highest constellation of imaginative geniuses that includes Dante, Shakespeare, Blake. But not only is he to be included in this constellation. It could also be observed that, if the seismic measure of his importance and relevance is ever to be gauged, these three literary luminaries are included in Dostoevsky! Dante’s epic realization of the life of the inward world, Shakespeare’s tragic sense of the world, Blake’s apocalyptic visions of the world are precisely those realms of imaginative genius that combine and cohere in Dostoevsky’s last five novels and that make his world so immense and yet so real that to venture into it is to comprehend The Great Unfathomable. Berdyaev makes far more than just a patriotic claim when he thus declares, “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….”
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Volume 22, No. 4, 1978).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is “Six Tuscan Poets” (1569) by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.