FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters…
Although his legacy is controversial the conversation on Russian literature is incomplete without him; if Dostoevsky is left out of the picture it is incomplete. It’s akin to writing about the beginning of a truly American literature and not mentioning Mark Twain. And, with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov, who had no fondness for the ‘novel of ideas’ approach, and [Joseph] Conrad, who, in his own words, thought, ‘Dostoevsky reaches far back into the first chaotic mouthings [sic] of the Earth.’ That’s one hell of a review, insult or not.
Because his work evokes a madness, a mania, a tempest of animalistic, flailing and pathetic people, the natural assumption is that these are exaggerations intended as a type of satire, parody or social commentary, and I’m sure in many situations that’s exactly what it is—as certainly Prince Mishkin was in The Idiot and the Underground Man was in Notes from the Underground. What I believe is more interesting than the myriad of opposing people and their conflicting philosophies, are all internal, warring aspects of this author’s soul. He was a psychiatrist—his own; writing was his therapy.
“All the novels [written] by Dostoievski [sic] were Crime and Punishment,” wrote Marcel Proust in his collection of essays, Art and Literature.
I’d say that’s about right.
Dostoevsky was a man at war—at war with ideas and philosophy; with destiny and himself. Each of his characters embody a characteristic of their creator either consciously or unconsciously created as such. As he writes, he is revealing more about himself than about his characters. As was said in Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, the work revealed much more about the artist than the subject.
(I paraphrase; it has been many, many years since I last read that book.)
As for madness, I would say that Dostoevsky was a kind of madman, sure. He once robbed the famous Russian author of Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev. He was mad, truly, but not a sporadic writer. He wrote with clarity and patience, often by dictation. Through this dissection, he attempts to excise the within himself to find some sort of peace, as well as the more popular notion that the central thematic element in all of Dostoevsky’s work is the necessity for suffering in attaining spiritual redemption. He is adamant, across his entire body of work, that suffering is a necessary condition for development and salvation.
All of Dostoevsky’s literary characterizations are not only externalizations of inner struggles, they also served to contrast competing political, ideological, and theological attitudes in Russia as it neared the turn of the century. Perhaps as a wink of acknowledgment, Dostoevsky introduced the abstract behind this dual analytic projection in The Double; his meaning there inverse to the doppelganger, though sometimes it gets murky; it is a person of the very opposite of your ideals and beliefs. For example, if you were left handed, your double would be right handed. If you were deeply religious, your double would be a staunch atheist. A double is an intrinsically linked literary antiparticle, such as the positron—an extant example of anti-matter, being the anti-particle of the proton.
In Demons, what Dostoevsky is calling demons are ideas. Specifically, the ideas that possess; the ideas are the demons. They cause war and destruction and can lead to murder, betrayal, and sin. He uses the concept of the double and ideas as demons in his final work, The Brothers Karamazov. Each of his works have an ideological relationship.
Prince Mishkin, the idiot from The Idiot, is a brother in spirit with the ‘hero’ in The Brothers Karamazov, the youngest brother, Alyosha. The double concept is also heavily featured in the novel. This is done not by direct contrast, and never made concrete; it is done by playing characteristics of one character against another in the background, reacting to unspoken provocation to the others’ expressed beliefs within independent, unconnected scenes—connected only in the manner of the anti-particle: Ivan Karamazov’s pairing with father Zossima is a good example. The former is a skeptic of the highest order, atheist, and intellectual. The latter is the leader of a religious order; a faith healer, and a devout Christian. This is a way in which Dostoevsky goes above and beyond the call of duty and gives his personality to the shadow of his characters.
Dostoevsky understood the poor in the same way Tolstoy understood the aristocracy. He was a notorious gambler, and to pay for more money to gamble, he wrote a novel entitled, The Gambler. And, to avoid being counted among the peasantry, the hopelessly poor folk of the country, he wrote a novel called, Poor Folk.
Dostoevsky had a well documented case off epilepsy and Smerdyakov, the bastard child of Fyodor Pavlovich and Stinking Lizavetta in The Brothers Karamazov. In his private letters, which were recounted in Sigmund Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide, it is shown that, just maybe, Dostoevsky had more in common with Smerdyakov than epilepsy; Freud linked this neurosis to the loss of his mother (What else is wrong with people, Freud?) but was later rebuffed when Dostoevsky’s surviving children were diagnosed with epilepsy.
It is not by accident that Raskolnikov (the anti-hero from Crime and Punishment) has the same possessive demons that characterized the main character in Demons, Stepan Trofimovich, who could also be said to have been possessed by an idea. In this case, the Double is becoming more of a doppelganger than an inversion, but the double is meant to define by contrast, or tie together by resemblance in expression. Both Raskolnikov and Trofimovich are lead to ruin by their possession, by their possessors, these demons.
In the culmination of his life’s work, The Brothers Karamazov, all of his work leading up to it features in some way—through demons and doubles
You have the intellectual; Ivan Karamazov is a brother in spirit to the Underground Man from Notes from the Underground, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, Stepan from Demons; all of these characters are linked together, each one third of the trinity Dostoevsky is constructing within the framework of the sons of Fyodor Karamazov. In giving the wastrel, buffoonish patriarch Fyodor Karamazov his own Christian name, he at least identifies the trio—the trio in harmony. But what of the sickness that creeps in and disturbs this trinity?
The Russian Orthodox Church believes that the mind, the body, and soul are elements within the Godhead. The mind:
Ivan Karamazov, Raskolnikov, the underground man, Stepan; the body: Dmitri Karamazov, Alexie from the Gambler, Grushenka, Marmeladov; the soul; Prince Mishkin, Alyosha, Grigory the housekeeper, adoptive father of Dmitri.
What do all Dostoevsky characters have in common? They all in some fashion gamble with everything they have on the table. More often than not, they lose. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is off to prison for a crime he did not commit; Ivan is “on death’s door,” and Alyosha, seems the only brother with a full life ahead of him.
Through these characters the trinity remains in balance until a poison, something toxic weeds its way into it, disturbing this holy order, making it unnatural: Smerdyakov, the bastard child, the reeking one, unacknowledged, the irrational strain just outside—a new breed of degenerate cropping up in Russian society, the real murderer of his father Fyodor Karamazov. And what was Smerdyakov? Another in a long line of possessed whose ideas lead them to ruin—and in the end he hangs himself; all real problems seem to be self-terminating.
At the end of his life, at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, we have the idiot, the simpleton, the soul, giving the famous speech at the stone, exalting the virtues of simplicity, tenderness, and kindness. Through this Dostoevsky withstands the harshest indictment ever created against the orthodoxy (which he himself delivered through Ivan Karamazov in Rebellion, and The Grand Inquisitor, respectively) and found a kind of peace.
What Dostoevsky had inside him was purged through this literary exorcism. With Smerdyakov hanging in Grigor’s basement, the trinity in balance, Dostoevsky was set free. After a life of such passion and intensity I hope that at least in the days before his death he managed to get a good night’s sleep with the knowledge that he had contributed more to the literary culture of the world than he (or anyone, for that matter) ever thought he could.