Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (3)

Actually, this is Trotsky vs Dostoevsky, part 2, but it's all part of the larger trajectory. So this time, here are the other references to Trotsky I have found in his works, with relevant quotes, as well as an important article by Philip Rahv of Partisan Review and New York Intellectuals fame.

Trotsky’s 1908 tribute to Leo Tolstoy by Leon Trotsky (originally in Die Neue Zeit on September 18, 1908)
Tolstoy’s style is identical with all of his genius: calm, unhurried, frugal, without being miserly or ascetic; it is muscular, on occasion awkward, and rough. It is so simple and always incomparable in its results. (He is just as far removed from Turgenev, who is lyrical, flirtatious, scintillating and aware of the beauty of his language, as he is from Dostoyevsky’s tongue, so sharp, so choked-up and pock-marked.)

In one of his novels Dostoyevsky―the city dweller without rank or title, and the genius with an incurably pincered soul―this voluptuous poet of cruelty and commiseration, counterposes himself profoundly and pointedly, as the artist of the new and “accidental Russian families,” to Count Tolstoy, the singer of the perfected forms of the landlord past.

“If I were a Russian novelist and a talented one,” says Dostoyevsky, speaking through the lips of one of his characters, “I would unfailingly take my heroes from the well-born Russian nobility, because it is only in this type of cultured Russian people that it is possible to catch a glimpse of beautiful order and beautiful impressions ... Saying this, I am not at all joking, although I am not at all a noble myself, which besides, you yourself know ... Believe me, it is here that we have everything truly beautiful among us up till now. At any rate, here is everything among us that is in the least perfected. I do not say it because I unreservedly agree with either the correctness or the truth of this beauty; but here, for example, we have already perfected forms of honor and duty which, apart from the nobility, are not to be found not only perfected anywhere in Russia, but even started ... The position of our novelist,” continues Dostoyevsky without naming Tolstoy but unquestionably having him in mind, “in such a case would be quite definitive. He would not be able to write in any other way except historically, for the beautiful type no longer exists in our own day, and if there are remnants that do exist, then according to the prevailing consensus of opinion, they have not retained any of their beauty.”
Literature and Revolution (1924) by Leon Trotsky:
Chapter 2: The Literary “Fellow-Travellers” of the Revolution"
There is falseness even in Dostoievsky’s pious and submissive figures, for one feels that they are strangers to the author. Be created them in large degree as an antithesis to himself, because Dostoievsky was passionate and bad-tempered in everything, even in his perfidious Christianity.
Literature and Revolution (1924) by Leon Trotsky:
Chapter 7: Communist Policy Toward Art
It is childish to think that bourgeois belles lettres can make a breach in class solidarity. What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc.
A Special Supplement: The Other Dostoevsky by Philip Rahv, The New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (2)

In an old post on Trotsky on religion, a quote from Trotsky mentions Dostoevsky. Here I will extract a short quote from the longer quote:
Religion is a sop and a leash. Religion is a poison precisely during a revolutionary epoch and in a period of the extreme hardships which are succeeding the conquest of power. This was understood by such a counter-revolutionary in political sympathies, but such a deep psychologist, as Dostoevsky. He said: ‘Atheism is inconceivable without socialism and socialism without atheism. Religion denies not only atheism but socialism also.’ He had understood that the heavenly paradise and the earthly paradise negate one another.

-- Leon Trotsky, The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers, Report to the 5th All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (1922). Published in the Bulletin of the Fifth All-Russian Congress of the Russian Communist League of Youth (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1923). Translated by R. Chappel, published 1972.
The sentence about negation reminds me of Bakunin. The contrapoised perspectives of Dostoevsky and Trotsky in this passage are abstract schemata. The Russian context and the particular struggle of the revolution against the clerical despotism of a peasant society give flesh to these schemata. Trotsky doesn't mention specific works, but he acknowledges Dostoevsky as a ‘deep psychologist’, all the more reason to push back against religion.

I am not going to comment further on the argument, except to note that my other posts on Trotsky highlight more of his perspective, which harkens back to Marx and reveals a more subtle conception of how to deal with religion than what was eventually practiced in the USSR, especially under Stalin. Trotsky recognized that irrational ideas germinate and prosper in an irrational society, and hence the social basis of irrationality must be undermined, not just the ideas. But here is the catch: the balance of forces (and I don't mean only opposing political forces) undermine the process of instituting reason in the world. And the pretension to reason itself becomes undermined by a dark irrational undercurrent.

Dostoevsky’s schema, as presented in the first part of Notes from Underground, is as abstract as any rationalism. Yet the underground consciousness must be reckoned with, for even reason, which is already disrespected everywhere, can be irrational. This was the rationale behind Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was also conceptualized too abstractly, alas.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (1)

I have finished Part I of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky and have begun Part II, for the second time. I was supposed to have it read for a book club, but I have missed a meeting for the umpteenth time. I read it once before some years ago, but it didn't register then. At the time I was interested because of its alleged influence on Richard Wright. I found Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground" much more interesting. But this time I'm getting what Dostoevsky wrote.

I'm not buying the world view that I think this is expressing, but there are multiple implications of what is presented. It immediately reminds me of a cultural/ideological crisis perceptible in the mid-19th century, fueled by the social changes I need not summarize coupled with--crucially--the rising dominance of the scientific, naturalistic world view and the displacement of the supernatural conception of man’s place in the cosmos. Dostoevsky radically disrupts the prospective of social progress and the triumph of a rational social order (utopian) via the (underground) recognition of man's irrational drives and stubborn will that at every juncture violates submission to natural law (let alone order) and even mathematical truth (2 + 2 = 4).

This can be taken two ways; both are probably intended at once. One can of course see this as the mushrooming of reactionary irrationalism that one finds in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and on the other hand, as positivism's antagonist, complement, blood brother, and black sheep of the family. Wikipedia, which never lies, tells me that this work is a riposte to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (1863). But this recognition of unconscious drives, of existentialist displacement, of the diremption of the conscious individual and the social collective remains an ineliminable problem regardless of the ideology of its proponents. Pre-Marxist Lukács, having passed through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, at one point saw Dostoevsky as the most advanced proponent of this sensibility and orientation to society, and would not relinquish him as he relinquished the other two.

I am leaving out the other major feature of the work, which is the public self-humiliation of the Underground Man and his total ineffectuality in society, which makes this work unique. But first, I note the philosophical configuration of the work, which remarkably, looks to my semi-educated mind as a phenomenon that erupted in several European nations and in the USA about the same time, as the implications of modernity, crisis, and naturalism were coming into focus, with Imre Madách (The Tragedy of Man, 1861), Jules Verne (his early unpublished 1863 novel Paris in the Twentieth Century), George Eliot, and Herman Melville (Moby-Dick, 1851). As for the crisis of world view, Engels saw what was coming in his 1844 critique of Carlyle.