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I have had this experience three times now, on three different occasions, in admittedly similar circumstances, but not similar enough to explain the coincidence: I am speaking from a podium to a fairly large audience on the topics of—to put it broadly—evil, suffering, and God; I have been talking for several minutes about Ivan Karamazov, and about things I have written on Dostoevsky, to what seems general approbation; then, for some reason or other, I happen to remark that, considered purely as an artist, Dostoevsky is immeasurably inferior to Tolstoy; at this, a single pained gasp of incredulity breaks out somewhat to the right of the podium, and I turn my head to see a woman with long brown hair, somewhere in her middle thirties, seated in the third or fourth row, shaking her head in wide-eyed astonishment at my loutish stupidity. It is not, I hasten to add, the same woman on each occasion; it is, apparently, a single ideal type in three distinct instantiations.

My assumption in each case is that she is an American convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, probably from the Episcopal Church, whose defection to the Christian orient was in large part inspired by reading The Brothers Karamazov at an impressionable age, and so she simply cannot imagine what depraved aesthetic criteria could prompt anyone to deliver himself of so bizarre an opinion.

I understand her distress, of course. I love the wild tumults and tourbillions of Dostoevsky’s fiction as much as anyone, and I acknowledge that he was a profounder thinker than Tolstoy in any number of ways, and was blessed (or cursed) with far greater perspicacity and a far more terrible consciousness of the perversity of the human will.

But, that said, is there really any plausibly disputable question as to which of these men was the greater writer: which, that is, produced books that—in their individual parts and in their totality—are more accomplished, more capacious, more sophisticated, more true to experience, and more beautiful?

Certainly the consensus of most educated and literate Russians over the years has been preponderantly on Tolstoy’s side. And, as much as Bakhtin may have taught us to admire Dostoevsky’s “polyphonic poetics,” most judicious readers of Russian—like the great Prince D. S. Mirsky—have recognized in Tolstoy’s art the kind of serene sublimity and fullness of vision that places it naturally and worthily in the company of Shakespeare’s plays, Dante’s Commedia, and the Homeric epics. It is certainly no denigration of Dostoevsky’s genius to admit that the same cannot—or, at any rate, should not—be said of his books, at least not as works of art.

In any event, I was recently reminded of my encounter with that woman—those women, rather—while reading Boris Jakim’s new translation of Notes from Underground (Eerdmans 2009), which is quite splendid and which should certainly now be regarded as the standard version in English. No other translator to this point has captured the frantic, nervous, querulous, acid, and occasionally coarse tone of the Russian original nearly so well.

In Jakim’s rendering, the voice of the Underground Man achieves something of the startling novelty it no doubt had in the ears of those who first heard it, when the book made its debut and a new, altogether indispensable fictional personality entered the canon of modern literature.

Once again, the Underground Man appears before us as the perfect compendium of every spiritual pathology of the modern age; his resentments, irrationalities, rationalizations, contradictions, perversities, protests of innocence, admissions of guilt, fits of self-laceration, displays of moral impotence, self-justifications, self-accusations—all of it rings out with extraordinary immediacy. None of it, though, is quite real.

I do not mean that it is not realistic. Realism is a worthless standard to apply to any work of art, and what we call realism is as often as not a cheap parlor trick, a mediocre writer’s attempt to distract us from his lack of poetic range by flaunting an overdeveloped talent for mimicry or an unrestrained appetite for inventories of inconsequential detail (Zola comes to mind).

At the same time, one must acknowledge that part of the special enchantment of the novel, considered as a distinct literary form, is the illusion it can create of a fully realized world; a truly great novel is like a magic mirror, whose surface reflects not only the appearances, but the souls of living men and women. Precisely because of its special combination of immensity and intimacy, it affords its author room, scope, time for the subtlest gestures and finest strokes of psychological portraiture. And among the very few novelists who have succeeded at keeping all the forces of the novel in balance—the great and the small, the epic and the homely, the architectonic and the decorative—Tolstoy is unsurpassed. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is brilliant wherever extreme effects are called for, but almost hopeless at creating a substantial world around the delightful clamor of his characters’ voices, or at creating a credible psychological personality behind any of those voices.

This last claim, I know, will strike many readers as patently ludicrous. After all, even in his own time Dostoevsky was acclaimed as a brilliant psychologist. Nietzsche thought him unrivalled in the field. And it would indeed be foolish to deny how perfectly Dostoevsky captures certain states of mind or certain traits of character. The exaggerated heartiness of Raskolnikov in the presence of the police, for instance, summons up some recollection in each of us—usually from childhood—of how it feels to be guilty of something whose penalty we dread and yet too clumsily anxious to hide that guilt. And all of Dostoevsky’s better characters are vivid and rich, and we feel we know them by the ends of their tales.

It is not, however, the accuracy of Dostoevsky’s psychological observations that I would question, but—again—the credibility of the personalities by which they are illustrated. We recognize a single character called Prince Myshkin as an aesthetic effect; we become familiar with the style of his presentation and the sound of his sentences; we know his innocence, his fragility, and his ardor. Similarly, each of the Karamazov brothers stands out for us as a fictional constant running through the texture of the novel. Their words and actions are seemingly consistent.

But, if we look too closely, we will inevitably come to see that, however brilliantly Dostoevsky has fused together an ensemble of psychological convulsions and habits of temperament in each of these characters, the result of that fusion is in every case a creature that could never exist outside of the novel. One cannot enter into these characters; when one attempts to do so, they dissolve back into multiplicity. Not one of them is as plainly, poignantly, unexceptionally alive as, say, Pierre in War and Peace.

This is not a reproach. I am not even sure it would have constituted much of an artistic triumph if Dostoevsky had succeeded in producing a fuller illusion of reality for characters of such opulently farraginous psychic states. Far better, perhaps, to allow them to occupy the realm of the grotesque and exorbitant, of the fantastic and febrile. As mere personalities, they might be perfectly insufferable; but, as the fabulous psychological chimaeras they are, their grand absurdity and pathos often casts a new (if somewhat lurid) light back upon the ordinary world of our experience.

In a wonderfully concise passage in his 1940 preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, Jorge Luis Borges—taking issue with Ortega y Gasset’s elevation of “psychological” fiction over the “fantastic”—offers a devastating critique of the pretensions of a great deal of modern “psychological realism”:

The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos.

But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism.

We can, of course, recognize any number of Russian writers in this caricature, including Tolstoy. After all, it is Levin in Anna Karenina who—married to the woman he loves, the father of a new child, living on his estate in his beloved countryside—has to avoid lengths of rope and loaded guns lest his personal spiritual crisis cause him suddenly to seize on any opportunity to kill himself. But, without question, the writer Borges’ words most immediately brings to mind is Dostoevsky. And this raises a question.

What precisely does it mean, really, when we call Dostoevsky a psychologist? Frankly, I suspect that what we often mean is that his characters are violently contradictory, and since we know that the human mind often contradicts itself, the more contradictory his characters become the more psychologically profound their depiction must seem to us.

The Underground Man is a wonderful invention, and we would be poorer without him; but, as a fictional personality, he is only a vast collection of antic gestures, a tour de force of contradictions, and the nearer his wild emotional and intellectual oscillations approach a state of absolute incoherence, the more we are persuaded that he is a genuine psychological “type,” whose mysteries Dostoevsky has disclosed to us.

Personally, I prefer not to read Dostoevsky as a psychologist at all, while still acknowledging the genius of his phenomenology of certain extreme states of spiritual perturbation. Indeed, I prefer to ignore the very category of “psychological fiction” as an error of judgment.

I do admire, however, any writer who can create the beautiful effect of an emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually complete and vivid and utterly believable personality. And, in this, Tolstoy’s art so far surpasses Dostoevsky’s that any comparison can only be invidious.

I can think of two very good examples of what I mean off the top of my head, both of them from Anna Karenina. One is the scene in which Dolly is on her way to visit Anna at Vronsky’s estate in the country; as she travels, the narrative takes us into her thoughts, which are perfectly ordinary: her anxieties as a mother, principally, and as a wife, and her moral uncertainties; but it is all rendered with such confident and seemingly omniscient artistry that one almost feels as if one has momentarily become this woman, and can think and feel as she does; and more than one female critic has called attention to how well Tolstoy succeeds here at imagining his way into the worries and regrets of a wife and mother.

And the other example is the startlingly brilliant and heartbreaking passage in which Tolstoy describes the thoughts and internal apprehensions of Anna’s child Seryozha in the long days since his mother went away—a scene that is more or less indescribable and that one must read to appreciate.

In either case, Tolstoy’s ability to immerse himself entirely in a seemingly real consciousness other than his own and then emerge again appears utterly effortless (though obviously it is not). Both of these scenes—as well as innumerable others like them in Tolstoy’s fiction—are simply far beyond Dostoevsky’s range as a writer; he could never have produced anything remotely like them. And both scenes possess a psychological truth that no mere psychology could ever approach.

It might be protested, I acknowledge, that I am simply expressing the disposition of my own private sensibility. After all, the two novelists are, as George Steiner so well argued in his Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, very different in their intentions, techniques, and (above all) artistic temperaments. Tolstoy, for instance, is an epic writer, whose books overflow with physical details and frequently threaten to overflow their own narrative structures and become as vast and as inconclusive as life itself, while Dostoevsky is a dramatic writer, whose books are full of fraught and urgent voices, at times almost disembodied, trapped in situations of immediate and pressing crisis, and surrounded by a physical world usually having no more substance than a collection of painted canvasses or pasteboard silhouettes at the back of the stage. And so on.

But I am convinced that this is a matter not of personal taste—I love drama as much as epic, in the abstract, and I probably enjoy Dostoevsky’s books as much as Tolstoy’s, if in a very different way—but simply of good taste. The truth is that Tolstoy, as an epic writer, is majestically brilliant at his craft, while Dostoevsky, as a dramatic writer, has his many moments of genius (Mitya and Grushenka’s night together just before Mitya’s arrest, for instance), but all too often falls into the worst conventions of nineteenth century melodramatic theatre.

There are too many passages in Dostoevsky’s fiction that one simply has to tolerate, for the sake of the whole, and all too often they are crucial passages. One that I find especially difficult to endure is the climactic conversation between Raskolnikov and Sonya in book four of Crime and Punishment, with its unremittingly forced portentousness and the embarrassingly obvious (but entirely unconvincing) device of Raskolnikov asking Sonya to read the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel—which culminates in one of the most egregious displays of authorial heavy-handedness in the history of serious literature.

In the Constance Garnett translation:

“That is all about the raising of Lazarus,” she whispered severely and abruptly, and turning away she stood motionless, not daring to raise her eyes to him. She still trembled feverishly. The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book.

That, I suppose, is just in case the reader had failed to notice. One almost feels that three or four exclamation marks might have been inserted at that juncture as well, just to make absolutely certain we get the point. It is hard at such moments not to feel the justice in Vladimir Nabokov’s remark that Dostoevsky often seemed to write with a bludgeon.

Of course, in making so much out of my encounters with that oddly recurrent (yet oddly variable) woman in the third or fourth row, I am probably engaging in the wrong argument. I should remember that, in many circles, a preference for Dostoevsky over Tolstoy is practically de rigueur on purely ideological grounds.

Among converts to Orthodoxy, for instance, as well as among many cradle Orthodox of a particularly rigorist kind, Dostoevsky is especially honored for having held firmly to Chalcedonian orthodoxy and having introduced the greater world to the figure of Father Zosima, from whom all the light of Eastern Christian contemplative spirituality shines out; and, more generally, among Christians of many confessions, Dostoevsky is revered as a prophet, the great Christian anti-Nietzsche, the voice of ancient Christian truth crying out in the spiritual desert of the modern West.

Tolstoy, by contrast, was practically a liberal Protestant, who thought of Jesus principally as a divinely inspired teacher of moral truth; he was not only indifferent to, but scornful of dogmatic tradition; he was even excommunicated, for goodness’ sake.

Fair enough, I suppose. I would observe, however, that there are all kinds of orthodoxy and all kinds of heresy. It is true that Dostoevsky personally assented—despite occasional episodes of doubt—to the creeds of the ancient church, and that he believed deeply in the mystical and sacramental traditions of the Orthodox church, and that in general his vision of things was shaped by traditional Christian understandings of sin and redemption.

That said, it is also true that his Chalcedonian orthodoxy was often almost inextricably confused with a dark, semipagan mysticism of the “Russian Christ” and of Russian blood and soil, and that he nursed slightly deranged fantasies of an Eastern Christian crusade to recapture Constantinople by violence, and that his virulent and contemptible anti-Semitism was anything but an accidental feature of his moral philosophy.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, despite his creedal heterodoxy, at least believed that, say, the sermon on the mount should be taken quite literally, and that Christ’s injunction to love our enemies and Paul’s claim that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek (and so forth) meant that Christians really ought not to kill Turks or hate Jews. If we were really to make conformity to Christian teaching our chief criterion of comparison between the two men, I would still hesitate to concede Dostoevsky the advantage.

Anyway, that is neither here nor there, I suppose. The claim on my part that always elicits that same gasp of dismay from that same quarter of the audience is a purely aesthetic claim. It is quite possible to acknowledge Dostoevsky’s greatness as a novelist, and to concede his unquestionable preeminence as a moral and religious philosopher among modern thinkers, and to marvel at how uncannily accurate his predictions regarding the modern age were proved to be by the events of the twentieth century, and still think Tolstoy the far greater writer.

This is only, after all, a relative evaluation made between two figures of monumental accomplishments, neither of whom has ever been threatened by many plausible rivals in his special field of achievement. Even so, it seems to me nothing but simple justice to grant the one his prophet’s mantle and his tragic wisdom, but still to grant the other the supremacy of his art.

David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.

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