When Timeless Works Respond to the Folly of Their Age: Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky
Our seniors at The Saint Constantine School just completed reading and discussing one of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s best known masterpieces, Crime and Punishment (1866). It’s probably the most accessible work of Dostoevsky’s long fiction, and yet still greatly rewards the re-reader. It’s astonishing as a novel, as a psychological exploration into the depth of its characters, and as a philosophical investigation.
And yet this great classic work fails in what was perhaps Dostoevsky’s central goal, to refute the ideas of a different book: a rote, poorly written, didactic, and wildly influential novel. And unless you’ve spent some time reading about Dostoevsky, you’ve probably never heard of it.
That book was Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 publication, What Is To Be Done? and without it, there is no Dostoevsky as we know him. Not only that, but What Is To Be Done? captured the spirit of generations of Russians and greatly fueled the supporters of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of What Is To Be Done? As books go, it’s a dumb one. The writing is insipid. The characters are flat. The intrigue is boring. The message of aspiring rational egoism and future Utopian socialism justified by a naive scientism is so dogmatic and predictable that it makes the most cartoonish of propaganda films look nuanced.
When I pick this book up, I laugh. I read my wife selections and she makes me stop! I don’t know if I’d like to meet a Chernyshevsky enthusiast or not. On the one hand, perhaps the discussion would challenge me to reconsider and correct my views for the better. On the other hand, that book is so aesthetically uninspired and intellectually unprovoking, I think I’d assume the (uncharitable) position that this guy must be a sucker to buy this snake oil.
A good example from What Is To Be Done? which illustrates the philosophy splattered across its pages comes early in the novel. A character, Lopukhov, introduces the main character, Vera Pavlovna, to the philosophy of egoism—as in, this is the first time she’s heard of it—and the following dialogue ensues.
“In other words, those cold and practical people are telling the truth when they say that man is governed exclusively by the calculation of his own advantage?”
“Yes, they are telling the truth…” (where the ellipsis represents half a page of Lopukhov talking about his jobs and school)
“Let’s assume that you’re right—yes, you are right.”1
Note how Vera Pavlovna doesn’t spend any time considering the bold and contentious philosophic claim that all human actions are reducible to advancing what is in one’s own self interest. Lopukhov makes a radical claim, generalized over all human actions for all humans at all times, with significant implications if true, and there isn’t the slightest consideration before absolute acceptance.
Each conversation like this serves merely as a vehicle for the message to get through. And Chernyshevsky does this with materialism and atheism, too. Contrast this easy solving of philosophical problems to the characters and ideas discussed in Dostoevsky (or Tolstoy, or Jane Austen, or George Eliot, but especially Dostoevsky), in which an idea can be so significant and moving for a character (and most of them are indeed dynamic and full-blooded), they wrestle for 500 pages with it.
Unlike an egoist like Ayn Rand (whose aesthetic sensibilities and philosophical justifications are only mildly better than Chernyshevsky’s), Chernyshevsky’s egoism develops not into a defense of capitalism (a la Rand), but a defense of revolutionary socialism. Dreams tell Vera to believe in a revolution2 and a socialist utopia3, and she believes them. And in Russia in the 1860s, these ideas catch on.
Dostoevsky, after being celebrated in his early career for his socialism and socialist writings, getting arrested and sentenced to a (fake!) execution for his membership in the revolutionary Petrovsky Circle, getting exiled to Siberia, converting to Christianity, and returning to St. Petersburg a decade later, sees these Chernyshevskian ideas circulating. And he sees through them. Mainly, he sees them as simplistically reductive and pregnant with nihilism.
That is, the rational egoism-cum-socialism of Chernyshevsky dangerously describes humans (and God, and moral ideas like goodness, and aesthetic ideas like beauty) the way a blind-folded child might draw one. And those simplistic descriptions about the world entail nihilism.4
So, Dostoevsky responds to Chernyshevsky. He responds in Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), Demons (1871)—where the nihilists are literally the children of the Chernyshevskian socialists, The Idiot (1868-9), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He responds to Chernyshevsy’s stupid book with what are arguably some of the world’s greatest novels.
I will be focusing solely on the work we read this year, Crime and Punishment. In Crime and Punishment, the student Raskolnikov plots and commits a murder, and as a result, deeply suffers physically, mentally, and spiritually. And he commits this crime because he “wanted to become a Napoleon.”5
According to an article Raskolnikov had previously written, a Napoleon is an exceptional man, such that, “if such a man needs, for the sake of his idea, to step right over a corpse, over blood, then in my view he may, inside himself, as a matter of conscience, grant himself permission to step over this blood—though this depends, please note, on the idea and its magnitude.”6 This man only need meet two conditions:
- He is exceptional.
- His idea is big enough, that that man may “step right over a corpse,”—murder. And if he can get away with it, he can murder with impunity.
Behind this nihilism in Crime and Punishment, are all of the philosophical elements which make up Chernyshevsky’s socialism. There are the people he overhears in the tavern casually talk about killing someone for the utilitarian benefit to society.7 We see rational egoism in the character of Luzhin, echoing Chernyshevsky, “Prosperity, or progress, as it is now called, does exist, at least in the name of science and economic truth…science says: love yourself before loving anyone else, for everything in this world is founded on self-interest.”8 In response to which Raskolnikov concludes that “bumping people off is perfectly acceptable!”9 There’s even an entire character, Lebezyatnikov, whose sole purpose seems to be parodying Chernyshevsky. Raskolnikov himself goes though each of these utilitarian, then egoistic justifications for his murder when he confesses.
As the novel progresses, it acts as a reductio ad absurdum to Raskolnikov’s nihilism. If one person theoretically can kill because he thinks himself to be great enough to justify it, and be right, then the maintaining of right and wrong is merely conventional for others. Lip service is paid to the moral catalog of rights, goods, rules, virtue, etc. for the many, but it’s only for the many.
In an appropriate reversal of Kierkegaard, Raskolnikov’s ideas exhibit a moral truth Kierkegaard shies away from: if one person can suspend the ethical, and be right, then there is no ethical. Rejecting good and evil seem to be the logical conclusion of reducing good and evil to pleasure and pain, or advantage/disadvantage (a la Chernyshevsky). But in Crime and Punishment, it doesn’t work like that. Raskolnikov’s experience after the murder is indicative of the appropriate moral horror that happens when one human murders another.
The murdered person’s humanity cries out for dignity, and the soul of the murderer wastes away under the weight of his crime. Dostoevsky is as deeply committed to his ideas as Chernyshevsky; he wants to affirm the existence of God and goodness and evil and sin, and deny reductions of human behavior. But for him the novel becomes the cauldron through which the characters test the ideas, not merely the billboard where ideas are proclaimed.
So Dostoevsky opposes these Chernyshevskian ideas and sees in them the nascent well-spring of full blown nihilism. Dostoevsky articulates the Nietzschian ‘Ubermench’ a generation before Nietzsche. And as David Foster Wallace says, “without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche.”10
And yet…Dostoevsky fails to refute Chernyshevsky.
I should be more precise. It isn’t that Dostoevsky’s position is false, or that the arguments inherent in his novels fail to undermine the tenets of Chernyshevsky’s egoistical socialism. I believe that they do. But Dostoevsky fails to convince the readers of Chernyshevsky.
The subsequent generations of Russians after Dostoevsky are persuaded by Chernyshevsky. Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank emphasizes Chernyshevsky’s shocking influence. According to Frank, it is not to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to claim the moniker of most influential 19th Century Russian novel, but What Is To Be Done?. He says, “No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, can compete…in its effect on human lives and its power to make history. For Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.”11
Vladimir Lenin loves it so much, he reads it five times one summer, and abuses people who criticize it. He writes his own book titled, cleverly enough, What Is To Be Done? Chernyshevsky clearly fails the argument, but he manages to convince his readers to change Russia. And in changing Russia, the 20th century changes.
One commentator in the 1950s put it thusly, “So, for the last ninety years, we have witnessed in Russia a kind of match between Dostoevsky and Marx. The first round was won by Dostoevsky, since he had written a masterpiece; the second round went to Marx, since his theories produced a revolution; yet the third round seems to have been won by Dostoevsky.”12 Substitute “Chernyshevsky” for “Marx,” given Chernyshevsky’s “emotional dynamic,” and the same thing follows.
Chernyshevsky (and his surrogate Marx) won the culture battles of Russia for a while, with disastrous consequences. But it is Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the ideas within them, that still stand long after the Soviet Union has fallen.
Dostoyevsky’s ultimate triumph is a testament to the universality of good art and true ideas. Now, you’ve never even heard of Chernyshevsky and we will continue to read Crime and Punishment for generations. Great works sort themselves out over time as they are tested against the ebb and flow of politics and popular culture. As the wheels of history churn, countless Chernyshevskys turn to forgotten insipidity while the great ideas live on.
1. N.G. Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done?, Cornell University Press, (1989), 115.
2. Ibid., 182.
3. Ibid., 370.
4. Dostoevsky biographer, Joseph Frank, says it thus, “Such conceptions, which spread very quickly among the younger generation, provided the philosophical underpinnings for the new morality preached by the radical ideology of the 1860s; and no ideas could have set Dostoevsky’s teeth more on edge. For if he had acquired any new convictions at all during the searing experiences of his last ten years, if the blows he had suffered at the hands of fate had taught him any lesson, it was to convince him profoundly of two ineluctable truths. One was that the human psyche would never, under any conditions, surrender its desire to assert its freedom; the other was that a Christian morality of love and self-sacrifice was a supreme necessity for both the individual and society at large.” Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation 1860-1865, 33.
5. Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment, translated by Oliver Ready, Penguin, (2014), 389.
6. Ibid., 242.
7. Ibid., 61.
8. Ibid., 139.
9. Ibid., 142.
10. David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” in Consider the Lobster, Back Bay Books, New York (2006), 264 n 14.
11. Quoted in Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner’s, “Introduction: Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done? and the Russian Intelligentsia,” N.G. Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done?, 1.
12. Alberto Moravia, “The Marx-Dostoevsky Duel”, in Feodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Edited by George Gibian, Norton Critical Edition, (1964), 644.