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The philosophy of Dostoevsky: Introduction and Chapter 1 Review

Introduction

I first read Dostoevsky when I was at Cambridge doing my Ph.D.  I can’t remember why I decided to begin the Brothers Karamazov. I must have first heard of Dostoevsky when I was about eighteen. I think I saw someone reading Crime and Punishment and asked about it. I came away with the impression that Dostoevsky was rather hard. I have always liked challenges and so I must have stored away the idea that I should read him.

I was studying Søren Kierkegaard. I came to him by chance too. Perhaps I read somewhere that there were similarities between Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. Someone might have mentioned that the Brothers Karamazov contains a good deal that is philosophical and theological.

I read the Brothers Karamazov in the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. It had only just come out. I read the novel like I would read any other novel. I liked it but found it tough going and certainly didn’t understand all of it. The plot could be condensed down to about two hundred pages. But stretched to over a thousand pages with long stretches of dialogue it is possible to lose sight of what is going on.

People sometimes ask which translation they should read. I usually answer that it doesn’t much matter. Each translation has its merits and each has its faults. There are I think too ways to translate. Either you set out to produce a text that is as close as possible to the original or you try to create a text that is the best possible English even if it is not so close to the original.

I much prefer the King James Version of the Bible because it is the best possible English. It is rather archaic now, but then so is Shakespeare and so especially is Chaucer. What does being archaic have to do with the issue anyway? But although I much prefer the language of the King James Bible, I accept that it is not always terribly accurate. Bible scholarship has moved on and we can produce more accurate translations. They are usually rather ugly however. The difference is between “Lead me not into temptation” “Save us from the time of trial” The one is beautiful and clearly expresses the meaning in general, the latter is more accurate, but ugly. It depends on what you are looking for.

Vladimir Nabokov brilliantly translated Pushkin’s poem Evgeny Onegin. It sets out to reproduce as accurately as possible the Russian text. It is not of course completely literal. Russian is very far indeed from English. I always illustrate this in a couple of ways. In Russian there isn’t really a verb “to be” in the present tense. You can’t say “I am Russian”, you just say “I Russian”. There isn’t really a verb “to have” in the sense that we use it. You don’t usually say “I have a car” rather you say “At me is a car”. Russian tends to use passive constructions more than English. You don’t say “I am twenty”, but rather “To me is twenty years”. You don’t say “I am called John”, but rather “They call me John”. There is no word for “a” and no word for “the”. To attempt therefore to translate Russian completely literally leads to something quite horrible. What this means is that a balance has to be struck. You have no choice but to paraphrase to an extent.

Nabokov’s Onegin is as close as you can possibly get to reproducing Pushkin in English. For a student following Pushkin’s Russian text this translation is invaluable, but it in no way is able to show what is beautiful about Pushkin and why everyone thinks that Pushkin was the greatest Russian writer. The poetry has been lost in the translation. The only way to keep the poetry is to get a writer who is the equal of Pushkin to use Pushkin’s text as a basis for a new poem. This was done with Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer. In that case the translation may not be especially accurate, but it will at least be great writing.

This is our problem. We read a novel by a great writer called Dostoevsky, but when reading a translation we read not one of his words. All of the words we read are by a translator. But is this translator a great writer? Nabokov was a fine writer, but rarely do translators even approach this level. Usually a translator’s skill is in knowing foreign languages. But this does not make you a good writer, let alone a great one.

With regard to Dostoevsky I think that Pevear and Volokhonsky are accurate, but the English frequently is poor. As I understand it Volokhonsky produces a literal translation and her husband then turns it into better English. The result is a text that is very close to Dostoevsky. It is therefore very useful for someone who is following the Russian text and using a translation to help them. The result however I find to be stylistically poor. Perhaps it is that Pevear just isn’t a very good writer. I find his introductions to be full of ugly English too. Perhaps this method of translating will always produce a text that is too literal. I have read that Pevear’s Russian is not especially fluent. Who knows if this true? But it may be that neither of this husband and wife team could produce a reasonable translation on their own. It is perhaps for this reason that while I use it myself precisely because it is literal I would not recommend it to someone who didn’t speak Russian.

What does it matter to you really if the translation is literal, you will never read or compare it with the original. Better by far to pick the translation with the best style. Dostoevsky is difficult enough without making the English difficult and convoluted. His style cannot be reproduced anyway.

There are translators who are far better writers than Pevear. I would recommend David McDuff in penguin and Ignat Avsey in Oxford World Classics. I will continue to use Pevear, but only because I can read Russian.

Ideally of course you should learn Russian. But this is hardly realistic for everyone. There are always going to be novels in languages which we don’t know. We cannot learn every language. At least I can’t. But in the case of Dostoevsky what is most interesting is neither his plots nor his style.

I keep returning to Dostoevsky, though I think Tolstoy and Pushkin are better writers. Dostoevsky’s style takes some getting used to. The dialogue is frequently impossibly unrealistic. His grammar is convoluted and you can get lost in long sentences that go on and on. There are times when I find him to be obscure. There are sentences and whole chapters where I’m not that sure what he means. But sometimes this is my fault. On re-reading a chapter, on returning to a novel after the gap of some years I find my understanding has improved. There are ideas in Dostoevsky that are very deep indeed. These are not lost in translation.

I don’t intend much to comment on plot. I will focus almost entirely on the Brothers Karamazov, but I will include a few pieces from other novels. I think the Brothers Karamazov is by far the most interesting of Dostoevsky’s novels in terms of philosophy and theology. Perhaps this is just because, this is the novel that I have studied the most. There are no doubt other seams that can be mined in the Idiot, Crime and Punishment and Demons. Perhaps I will go on to mine them, but as yet most of the ideas that I find interesting are in the Brothers Karamazov.

These ideas are not everywhere. There are whole chunks of the Dostoevsky that are not about philosophy and not about theology. There are whole chunks that are only to do with character and plot. These are of course interesting, but they are not what I am writing about. I am not doing literary criticism. I find the activity of academics who write poorly criticising writers who write well to be peculiarly self-defeating and presumptuous. Why would I want to read such people rather than the texts themselves?

For this reason also my method of writing is not scholarly. You will not find many footnotes here. This is not how I write. When I was at Cambridge I took a book by Kierkegaard and wrote about it in great detail. I wrote about the text and only about the text. Later because this was the game that we had to play I went to the library and read a whole chunk of secondary sources and put them in footnotes. But I only ever read indexes and only ever used the odd sentence which I could put into the footnote. The purpose was just to play the game. But I find this game to be pointless. You too can search in a library or an online database for books and articles about Dostoevsky. You don’t need my help.

But if you want to read one person’s response to the text then that is what you will get. Of course this method may be self-defeating. If I don’t read secondary sources, why should you. Quite right it is better by far that you should read Dostoevsky than read me. But perhaps you are seeking a guide, someone who may have some interesting ideas about a writer that you like. If that is so, then you may find this book interesting.

I will not explain very much about the novels I discuss, their characters or their plots. I start from the assumption that you have already read the novels. Much of what I write will be perfectly comprehensible even if you haven’t yet read the novels, but some will not.

I write only about those chapters where I think I have something interesting to say. Large chunks of the novels I pass over in silence. Each chapter will be unconnected with the others and can be read separately in any order, but I can find a way of unifying them later I will do so. Dixi.

Chapter 1

Women of Faith

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding the Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky in general is that the world he is writing about is quite different from the world in which most of us live today.

Even when I first went to Russia in the latter years of the twentieth century I found it to be at times startling different from the Britain in which I had grown up. Here was a country that for the most part had not gone through the upheaval of the 1960s. It had next to no experience of immigration from places anywhere other than the former Soviet Union. People appeared to have a morality that was similar to Britain in the 1940s. Most startling of all and a huge surprise to me was that Christian faith was alive and well. Ordinary people believed even if they sometimes had little conception of what they were believing. In busses it was common to come across icons. There were newly build churches and people went to them. Moreover when I talked to people I often found that they really did believe and believed quite literally.

How much stranger still is the Russia from the time of the Brothers Karamazov? Faith is at the heart of the novel and unless you can overcome the barriers to reading about this faith you will get little from the novel. If you simple dismiss it, then why read the Brothers Karamazov? It has nothing to say to you. Really. Nothing at all. Read something else.

Nowhere is this distance better shown than in Book two chapter 3 “Women of Faith”. The elder Zozima has gone out to speak to some women who have been waiting to talk to him. One of them approaches on her knees asking for absolution and says “I have sinned, dear father, I am afraid of my sin” (p. 51)

How many of us nowadays talk about having sinned? It is a concept that belongs almost exclusively to a church ritual that for most of us is dead. Yet this woman is not talking ritually. She is talking quite literally. But more startling yet, when did you last hear someone say they were afraid of sin. What is there to be afraid of?

Imagine if I have done some wrong, nothing illegal, but something that I consider to be wrong. No-one knows about it and it seems I’ve got away with it. Why would I be afraid? Of what would I be afraid? I might have told my husband a lie. I might have had an affair with someone else. But given that no-one will ever know, in what sense can I be said to be afraid of this “sin”. It is hard to imagine anyone in contemporary Britain feeling sin in this way, let alone being afraid of it. This is the distance between us and the time of which Dostoevsky is writing.

The woman goes on to describe her sin. She says “My married life was hard, he was old, he beat me badly. Once he was sick in bed. I was looking at him and I thought: What if he recovers, gets up on his feet again, what then? And then the thought came to me …” (p. 51) This doesn’t seem to be much of a sin. Indeed in our modern world we would certainly describe the husband as the sinner rather than the wife. He has committed the unforgivable sin of beating his wife. What did she do? She didn’t actually do anything. She certainly didn’t do anything that anyone else could ever find out. All that happened was that one day she hoped that her husband wouldn’t get well. That I think must be the thought that occurred to her. She didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t put him out of his misery. She just thought it might be easier for me if he didn’t recover. Which of us has not thought something similar to this even when we have never been beaten?

The woman then goes on to describe how she has come about one hundred kilometres to see the elder. She has been feeling this sense of sin for three years and that the grief has made her ill. In today’s world if I talked to a priest and said once three years ago I wished that my husband was dead because we had a terrible argument, but now I’m sorry about it, the priest I imagine would simply say that this is nothing at all. Everyone has idle thoughts. If the worst thing that I ever did was to think such thoughts I wouldn’t be much of a sinner. But the elder takes the woman very seriously. The reason is that the woman is afraid of her sin. But in what does the fear consist?

She says “I am afraid, afraid to die”

Here we begin to overcome the distance between Dostoevsky’s time and today. No matter how much we have renounced religion most of us are still afraid to die.

In wartime there are some people like Siegfried Sassoon who behave recklessly who are in a sense not afraid to die. I imagine this is one way of coping with combat. But most soldiers to not behave in this way. Most are very much afraid to die.

The modern world in which we live is far safer than the world in which Dostoevsky’s characters lived. Many diseases have been defeated by medicine. War is less common than it once was. Yet we share the fear of this woman. Or do we?

What is she afraid of? Is it death? In part it is death. But really she is afraid of dying with a sin that has not been absolved. So the distance between her and us opens up again. Which of us is scared of dying with a sin rather than simply dying?

The elder responds to the woman’s fear in this way “Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything” (p. 52) Why should I not grieve? It is for the same reason that I should not be afraid. If there is nothing to be afraid of about death then there is nothing to grieve. The concept of grief implies that death involves loss. Well naturally I am afraid of losing something precious in myself and with regard to others. But if God preserves everything and everyone then there is nothing to grieve and also nothing to fear.

But does God save everyone? This is an interesting concept. All along most of us have had an idea that Christianity involves a sorting of the sheep from the goats and that only the virtuous will be saved. Is Zosima saying that everyone will be saved? Perhaps he is, but not quite I thing. It is conditional. If you repent continuously you will be saved.

But why should repentance matter so much. Does God need this repentance to save me? Is it some sort of bargain? But Milton is right in this respect “God doth not need either man’s work or his own gifts” God needs nothing from me. It is simply presumptuous to suppose that God requires my repentance or indeed my praise. He may want these things. He may love me and want what is best for me. But he has no need.

The elder goes on “There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it”. This answers the question that sometimes comes up in theology. But what of Judas? Is Judas damned? Did he commit the unforgivable sin? The problem for Judas is perhaps that he died before he had the chance to fully repent. No sin is unforgivable but it is possible to die without repenting. It is this that we should be afraid of.

But why should repenting be so crucial. I think the elder answers this question. He says “If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God”

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself and in doing so relates to another. This other is God and also other people. But the way that it relates is through love. Sin means that I cannot love myself and cannot love other people. Sin puts forward a barrier to the authenticity and the directness of the relationship. The woman’s sense of sin means that she cannot love herself and cannot love the memory of her husband. It is this that hinders her sense of self. And it is for this reason that she is afraid to die. To die when full of self-hatred and hatred to God is to die without a soul. There is nothing for God to save. But if by loving God and loving yourself then this creates the soul that God can save.

Thus the elder advises “Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you, be reconciled with him truly” If I am upset with people if I take offence then I cease to love them. But in doing so I damage myself. My self is my relationship with them. If it loving, then my relation to self and my relation to others is strong. But if there is hate in my self then I fail to be an authentic self at all. Even when her husband did her great wrong, she must forgive both him and forgive herself for the thoughts that she had about him.

This may all seem terribly unlikely. But it is important to realise that the self is such that it beyond our understanding. The elder says “Believe that God loves you so that you cannot conceive of it, even with your sin and in your sin he loves you”. The relationship that we have to God cannot be comprehended and cannot properly be thought. In the past people simply accepted this. Now we are in rebellion. Because we do not understand Christianity we reject it. But we are rejecting ourselves.

What saves the soul and what is the condition for immortality is that we love both ourselves and others. Above all we must love God. But it is not a bargain. God is not choosing between the sheep and the goats. Rather we are choosing by our loving or failing to love to be a soul or not to be a soul. The tragedy of atheism is that it is correct. By failing to love himself and by failing to love God, the atheist condemns himself.

Or perhaps there is hope. The elder concludes “Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins. Go and do not be afraid”

Perhaps by loving the person who rejects God it is possible to redeem him. Perhaps by praying for the soul of someone who never believed he had one is enough to keep flickering that flame. These are all speculations. We know nothing of these things and we are all just guessing.

There is a barrier to getting into Dostoevsky’s world. You need to leap over the time between now and then. To many this story of someone being afraid of sin and how they can cease to be afraid will simply be rejected as odd views that we no longer need to consider because we are more enlightened. Fair enough if that is your view I cannot prove it to be false. I can prove nothing. Nothing whatsoever. My speculations are idle.  But if you really think that. If you are sure that faith is all lies and nonsense, you will gain nothing from the Brothers Karamazov. Better by far to find another book to read.

The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/06/the-philosophy-of-dostoevsky.html

About Effie Deans

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Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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