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Dostoevsky, a book review

10 October 2016

DostoevskyDostoevsky by Nikolai A. Berdyaev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book nearly 50 years ago, and started reading it several times, but never got further than the first couple of chapters, perhaps because I thought I should be more familiar with Dostoevsky’s own works before reading this one, but perhaps it should be read concurrently.

I’ve made a few other attempts since then, but not until now have I managed to read it all the way through. It’s a mixture of literary criticism, theology and philosophy, and Berdyaev makes a point of comparing Dostoevsky with Tolstoy, usually to the detriment of the latter.

The first part makes the point that Dostoevsky writes from a Christian point of view, with a strong stress on human freedom. There is no hint of predestination here, and Dostoevsky’s theodicy is that evil is found in the world because man has freedom to choose it, and the way to combat evil is through redemptive suffering. Calvinists probably won’t find much to agree with here.

The prime expression of this is in the legend of The Grand Inquisitor as told in The Brothers Karamazov The Grand Inquisitor (who in Berdyaev’s description sounds very like Mustapha Mond in Brave New World) maintains that men are unhappy when free, and it is much better to organise their lives for them. Freedom, of a sort, might be for a small elite.

So far it seems to make a lot of sense, and makes sense of Dostoevsky’s novels — the ones I have read, anyway. There is even a kind of defence of the current slogan #alllivesmatter, which some Americans regard as very politically incorrect.

All things are not allowable because, as immanent experience proves, human nature is created in the image of God and every man has an absolute value in himself and as such. The spiritual nature of man forbids the arbitrary killing of the least and most harmful of men: it means the loss of one’s essential humanity and the dissolution of personality; it is a crime that no “idea” or “higher end” can justify. Our neighbour is more precious than an abstract notion, any human life and person is worth more here and now than some future bettering of society. That is the Christian conception, and it is Dostoievsky’s. Even if be believes himself Napoleon, or a god, the man who infringes the limits of that human nature which is made in the divine likeness falls crashing down: he discovers that he is not a superman but a weak, abject, unreliable creature — as did Raskolnikov.

But there are things that I have more doubts about. Berdyaev regards socialism as necessarily atheistic and anti-Christian, which seems to conflict with what he has written elsewhere, and it is only right at the end that he brings in the qualification that he is referring to socialism as a religion, and not as a social or economic system. It might have helped if the had made that clear from the beginning.

Nowadays we hear quite a bit about American Exceptionalism, and at times in the book Berdyaev seems to be preaching a kind of Russian exceptionalism. He goes off into long strings of abstractions, wittering on about the “Russian mind” and the “Russian soul”. One gathers that the Russian mind is apocalyptic, but it’s never quite clear in what way, though at times the language seems to be over-hyped: “the spiritual warp of Dostoievsky’s disciples was different. Their eyes were turned to an unknown but threatening future, apocalyptic waves broke over them, they were dashed from one extremity to its opposite; above all they were to experience that inner division that the men of the ‘forties did not undergo…”

That sort of prose puts me in mind of videos of tsunamis in Japan and Indonesia.

And then there are such generalisations as this:

The Russian gladly rids himself of all cultural trappings in the hope that in the “state of nature” true being may be revealed to him; of course it is not, because culture is in fact the way that leads to the reality of being: divine life itself is the highest culture of the spirit.

Several different interpretations of this have occurred to me, and I’ve already forgotten some of them. So if anyone is still reading this, I’ll leave you to come up with your own.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    11 October 2016 10:22 am

    what does he mean by the ‘state of nature’?

    • 11 October 2016 4:49 pm

      Well that’s just it — what does he mean by any of his abstractions? They sound impressive, and look as though they mean something, until you think about them a bit more, and then you think he must be assuming some context that he hasn’t managed to communicate. Perhaps it is something that only the “Russian soul” is capable of understanding.

      I find it interesting that Berdyaev was almost an exact contemporary of G.K. Chesterton, yet Chesterton’s prose is far more lucid, though perhaps not if you translated it into Russian.

      My first introduction to Berdyaev was through sound-bites, I suppose — pithy little quotes that other authors placed beneath their chapter headings. But when I started to read Bedyaev’s own works, I found long barren stretches in between.

  2. Phil Saxby permalink
    13 October 2016 6:23 am

    Delighted to see this review, as I have treasured memories of the book, dating back many years. It opened up to me a view of the “Russian soul”. Rebecca West’s admiration of the Slavs had a similar effect on me.

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