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Dostoevsky The Sensationalist

( Originally Published 1919 )

MR. GEORGE MOORE once summed up Crime and Punishment as " Gaboriau with psychological sauce." He afterwards apologized for the epigram, but he insisted that all the same there is a certain amount of truth in it. And so there is.

Dostoevsky's visible world was a world of sensationalism. He may in the last analysis be a great mystic or a great psychologist ; but he almost always reveals his genius on a stage crowded with people who behave like the men and women one reads about in the police news. There are more murders and attempted murders in his books than in those of any other great novelist. His people more nearly resemble madmen and wild beasts than normal human beings.

He releases them from most of the ordinary inhibitions. He is fascinated by the loss of self-control--by the disturbance and excitement which this produces, often in the most respectable circles. He is beyond all his rivals the novelist of " scenes." His characters get drunk, or go mad with jealousy, or fall in epileptic fits, or rave hysterically. If Dostoevsky had had less vision he would have been Strindberg. If his vision had been sthetic and sensual, he might have been D'Annunzio.

Like them, he is a novelist of torture. Turgenev found in his work something Sadistic, because of the intensity with which he dwells on cruelty and pain. Certainly the lust of cruelty—the lust of destruction for destruction's sake—is the most conspicuous of the deadly sins in Dostoevsky's men and women. He may not be a cruel author." Mr.J. Middleton Murry, in his very able " critical ,study," Dostoevsky, denies the charge indignantly. But it is the sensational drama of a cruel world that most persistently haunts his imagination.

Love itself is with him, as with Strindberg and D'Annunzio, for the most part only a sort of rearrangement of hatred. Or, rather, both hatred and love are volcanic outbursts of the same passion. He does also portray an almost Christ-like love, a love that is outside the body and has the nature of a melting and exquisite charity, He sometimes even portrays the two kinds of love in the same person. But they are never in balance ; they are always in demoniacal conflict. Their ups and downs are like the ups and downs in a fight between cat and dog. Even the lust is never, or hardly ever, the lust of a more or less sane man. It is always lust with a knife.

Dostoevsky could not have described the sin of Nekhludov in Resurrection. His passions are such as come before the criminal rather than the civil courts. His people are possessed with devils as the people in all but religious fiction have long ceased to be. " This is a madhouse," cries some one in The Idiot. The cry is, I fancy, repeated in others of Dostoevsky's novels. His world is an inferno.

One result of this is a multiplicity of action. There was never so much talk in any other novels, and there was never so much action. Even the talk is of actions more than of ideas. Dostoevsky's characters describe the execution of a criminal, the whipping of an ass, the torture of a child. He sows violent deeds, not with the hand, but with the sack. Even Prince Myshkin, the Christ-like sufferer in The Idiot, narrates atrocities, though he perpetrates none. Here, for example, is a characteristic Dostoevsky story put in the Prince's mouth :

In the evening I stopped for the night at a provincial hotel, and a murder had been committed there the night before. . . . Two peasants, middle-aged men, friends who had known each other for a long time and were not drunk, had had tea and were meaning to go to bed in the same room. But one had noticed during those last two days that the other was wearing a silver watch on a yellow bead chain, which he seems not to have seen on him before. The man was not a thief ; he was an honest man, in fact, and by a peasant's standard by no means poor. But he was so taken with that watch and so fascinated by it that at last he could not restrain himself. He took a knife, and when his friend had turned away, he approached him cautiously from behind, took aim, turned his eyes heavenwards, crossed himself, and praying fervently " God forgive me, for Christ's sake ! " he cut his friend's throat at one stroke like a sheep and took his watch.

One would not accept that incident from any Western author. One would not even accept it from Tolstoi or Turgenev. It is too abnormal, too obviously tainted with madness. Yet to Dostoevsky such aberrations of conduct make a continuous and overwhelming appeal. The crimes in his books seem to spring, not from' more or less rational causes, but from, some seed of lunacy.

He never paints Everyman ; he always projects Dostoevsky, or a nightmare of Dostoevsky. That 'is why Crime and Punishment belongs to a lower range of fiction than Anna Karénina or Fathers and Sons. Raskolnikov's crime is the cold-blooded crime of a diseased mind. It interests us like a story from Suetonius or like Bluebeard. But there is no communicable passion in it such as we find in Agamemnon or Othello. We sympathize, indeed, with the fears, the bravado, the despair that succeed the crime. But when all is said, the central figure of the book' is born out of fantasy. He is a grotesque, made alive by sheer imaginative intensity and passion. He is as distantly related to the humanity we knows in life and the humanity we know in literature as the sober peasant who cut his friend's throat, saying, God forgive me,for Christ's sake !"

One does not grudge an artist an abnormal character or two. Dostoevsky, however, has created a whole flock of these abnormal characters and watches over them as a hen over her chickens. He invents vicious grotesques as Dickens invents comic grotesques. In The Brothers Karamazov he reveals the malignance of Smerdyakov by telling us that he was one who, in his childhood, was very fond of hanging cats, and burying them with great ceremony. He used to dress up in a sheet as though it were a surplice, and sang, and waved some object over the dead cat as though it were a censer.

As for the Karamazovs themselves, he portrays the old father and the eldest of his sons hating each other and fighting like brutal maniacs :

Dmitri threw up both hands and suddenly clutched the old man by the two tufts of hair that remained on his temples, tugged at them, and flung him with a crash on the floor. He kicked him two or three times with his heel in the face. The old man moaned shrilly. Ivan, though not so strong as Dmitri, threw his arms round him, and with all his might pulled him away. Alyosha helped him with his slender strength, holding Dmitri in front.

" Madman 1 You've killed him ! cried Ivan.

" Serve him right ! " shouted Dmitri, breathlessly. " If I haven't killed him, I'll come again and kill him."

It is easy to see why Dostoevsky has become a popular author. Incident follows breathlessly upon incident. No melodramatist ever poured out incident upon the stage from such a horn of plenty. His people are energetic and untamed, like cowboys or runaway horses. They might be described as runaway human beings.

And Dostoevsky knows how to crowd his stage as only the inveterate melodramatists know. Scenes that in an ordinary novel would take place with two or three figures on the stage are represented in Dostoevsky as taking place before a howling, seething mob. " A dozen men have broken in," a maid announces in one place in The Idiot, " and they are all drunk." " Show them all in at once," she is bidden. Dostoevsky is always ready to show them all in 'at once.

It is one of the triumphs of his genius that, however many persons he introduces, he never allows them to be confused into a hopeless chaos. His story finds its way unimpeded through the mob. On two opposite pages of The Idiot one finds the following characters brought in by name : General Epanchin, Prince S., Adelaïda Ivanovna, Lizaveta Prokofyevna, Yevgeny Pavlovitch Radomsky, Princess ByeIokonsky, Aglaia, Prince Myshkin, Kolya Ivolgin, Ippolit, Varya, Ferdyshchenko, Nastasya Filippovna, Nina Alexandrovna, Ganya, Ptitsyn, and General Ivolgin. And yet practically all of them remain separate and created beings. That is characteristic at once of Dostoevsk'y's mastery and his monstrous profusion.

But the secret of Dostoevsky's appeal is something more than the multitude and thrill of his incidents and characters. So incongruous, indeed, is the sensational framework of his stories with the immense and sombre genius that broods over them that Mr. Murry is inclined to regard the incidents as a sort of wild spiritual algebra rather than as events occurring on the plane of reality. " Dostoevsky," he declares, " is not a novelist. What he is is more difficult to define."

Mr. Murry boldly faces the difficulty and attempts the definition., To him Dostoevsky's work' is " the record of a great mind seeking for a way of life ; it is more than a record of struggle, it is the struggle itself." Dostoevsky himself is a man of genius " lifted out of the living world," and unable to descend to it again. Mr. Murry confesses that at times, as he reads him, he is " seized by a supersensual terror."

For an awful moment I seem to see things with the eye of eternity, and have a vision of suns grown cold, and hear the echo of voices calling without sound across the waste and frozen universe. And those voices take shape in certain unforgettable fragments of dialogue that have been spoken by one spirit to another in some ugly, mean tavern, set in surrounding darkness.

Dostoevsky's people, it is suggested, " are not so much men and women as disembodied spirits who have for the moment put on mortality."

They have no physical being. Ultimately they are the creations, not of a man who desired to be, but of a spirit which sought to know. They are the imaginations of a God-tormented mind. . . . Because they are possessed they are no longer men and women.

This is all in a measure true. Destoevsky was no realist. Nor, on the other hand, was he a novelist of horrors for horrors' sake. He could never have written Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar like Poe for the sake of the aesthetic thrill.

None the less he remains a novelist who dramatized his spiritual experiences through the medium of actions performed by human beings. Clearly he believed that human beings—though not ordinary human beings—were capable of performing the actions he narrates with such energy. Mr. Murry will have it that the actions in the novels take place in a " timeless " world, largely because Dostoevsky has,' the habit of crowding an impossible rout of incidents into a single day. But surely the Greeks took the same license with events. This habit of packing into a few hours actions enough to fill a lifetime seems to me in Dostoevsky to be a novelist's device rather than the result of a spiritual escape into timelessness.

To say this is not to deny the spiritual content of Dostoevsky's work—the anguish of the imprisoned soul as it battles with doubt and denial and despair. There is in Dostoevsky a suggestion of Caliban trying to discover some better god than Setebes, At the same time one would be going a great deal too far in accepting the description of himself as " a child of unbelief. The ultimate attitude of Dostoevsky is as Christian as the Apostle Peter's, " Lord, I believe,; help Thou mine unbelief ! " When Dostoevsky writes, " If any one could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I shall prefer to stay with. Christ and not with the truth," Mr. Murry interprets this as a denial of Christ. It is surely a kind of faith, though a despairing kind. And beyond the dark night of suffering, and dissipating the night, Dostoevsky still sees the light of Christian compassion. His work is all earthquake and eclipse and dead stars apart from this.

He does not, Mr. Murry urges, believe, ,as has often been said, that men are purified by suffering. It seems to me that Dostoevsky believes that men are purified, if not by their own sufferings, at least by the sufferings of others. Or even by the compassion of others, like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. But the truth is, it is by no means easy to systematize the creed of a creature at war with life, as Dostoevsky was—a man tortured by the eternal conflict of the devilish and the divine in his own breast.

His work, like his face, bears the mark of this terrible conflict. The novels are the perfect image of the man. As to the man himself, the Vicomte de Vogüé described him as he saw him in the last years of his life : —

Short, lean, neurotic, worn and bowed down with sixty years of misfortune, faded rather than aged, with a look of an invalid of uncertain age, with a long beard and hair still fair, and for all that still breathing forth the " cat-life." . . . The face was that of a Russian peasant ; a real Moscow mujik, with a flat nose, small, sharp eyes deeply set, sometimes dark and gloomy, sometimes gentle and mild. The forehead was large and lumpy, the temples were hollow as if hammered in. His drawn, twitching features seemed to press down on his sad-looking mouth. . . . Eyelids, lips, and every muscle of his face twitched nervously the whole Urne, When he became excited on certain point, one could have sworn that one had seen him before seated on a bench in a police-court awaiting trial, or among vagabonds who passed their time begging before the prison doors. At all other times he carried that look of sad d gentle meekness seen on the images of old Slavonic saints.

That is the portrait of the man one sees behind Dostoevsky's novels—a portrait one might almost have inferred from the novels. It is a figure that at once fascinates and repels. It is a figure that leads one to the edge of the abyss. One cannot live at all times with such an author. But his books will endure as the confession of the most terrible spiritual and imaginative experiences that modern literature has given us.

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