Dostoyevsky and the crime of orthodoxy

Daniel Villar reflects on how Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s religious beliefs influenced his literature as the anniversary of his death approaches on 9 February

Bust of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Tallinn (Source: www.flickr.com

In 1919, shortly after the end of a war that destroyed the world he knew, the Jewish Viennese writer Stefan Zweig wrote a book on the greatest authors of the 19th century titled Three Masters. Focusing on, appropriately enough, three authors, it contained three extended essays on the lives and works of Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Of the three, Zweig said it was nearly impossible to write adequately about one of them, that one of the masters was a voyager to the Cosmos, of whom “the breadth and power of this one individual demand from us a new standard of measurement”. This master of masters was the writer of the Russian peasant, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoyevsky was born on the 11 November 1821, in the ancient religious capital of the Russian Empire, Moskva, otherwise known as Moscow, and died on the 9 February 1881 in the capital of the new, profoundly European Russia, St. Petersburg.

In a way, the geography of his life runs parallel to that of his thought. As a young man he was a nihilist and a revolutionary who was a member of the utopian, reformist Petrashevsky Circle. By the time he died, he was a Slavophile, a close confidant of the reactionary Tsar Alexander III, and a member of the monarchist intellectual circle surrounding Konstantin Pobedonostsev. And throughout that period, he let his own political beliefs cloud his own novelistic genius, creating works which are at once transcendent of all time, and tethered to the political and theological minutia of his own day.

Take Dostoyevsky’s most widely read novel, Crime and Punishment. In it, we see a man tortured by whether he is an ubermensch. Raskolnikov is driven to insanity by his own cleverness and by the fact that he had to murder Lizaveta in addition to Alyona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker.

The character is one who is attempting to leave his pessimistic and cynical view of the world, tortured by the fact that his own intelligence means that he cannot delude himself into thinking that there is any moral meaning to his actions. He is a physical man who cannot be physical yet at the same time cannot be a physical ubermensch due to his weak body and character. All of this makes for a fascinating study of the psychology of a madman. And yet Dostoyevsky chooses to bring down this work of genius at the last moment of his novel.

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By this I do not mean when Raskolnikov turned himself to the police. At that moment he was still a nihilistic cynic, who turned himself in not due to any true sense of remorse, but due to his relationship with Sonya.

When he is sent off to the Siberian camp, he is still fundamentally the same man he was at the beginning of the novel; a tortured intellectual who is too clever by half. However, he then watches a few peasants by a river at a distance, and he becomes a fully devout Christian. And not just a Christian, but an Orthodox Christian of the sort who supports the three pillars of the reactionary ideology of the Tsar, transforming the novel into an endorsement of the ruling regime.

It is wholly out of character, a stapled end to a novel which leads to drastic change in character that does not come due to literary or aesthetic considerations, but due to the political and theological views of the author, ideology driving the book in its final chapter rather than being a subtext for the reader to discover.

This doesn’t just occur in Crime and Punishment—Dostoyevsky also clouds his genius with his politics in his other novels. Sometimes it works because it is integral to the purpose of the novel, such as how Ivan Karamazov is portrayed in The Brothers Karamazov, because the novel is just as much a philosophical tract, defending religious orthodoxy, as a novel, engaged in a classical narrative.

However, often Dostoyevsky does tack on portions to his work that make no sense save in the light of his own politics. And that is the great tragedy of Dostoyevsky. For though he wrote the greatest novels of the western canon in the last quarter millennia, such as The Possessed, The Idiot, Notes From Underground, and yes, The Brothers Karamazov, at all times it is clear he could have been even greater than he was. But sadly he let his genius be stunted by that most pernicious killer of artistic genius: dogmatic, religious orthodoxy.