The Novelist as Liar

Some of Dostoevsky’s best friends were philosophers. He was not himself one, though he pondered many of the deepest philosophical problems much of his adult life. But when he came to conclusions he was often conflicted and his novels reflect the many levels of awareness that he came to as well as the many opposing positions he seemed to allow. He was a poet who embraced paradox, something that would repel the philosopher. He did not think systematically, he thought intuitively. He worked in metaphors and images and usually avoided discursive thought, though some of his characters were given to philosophical reflection from time to time.

If you read Dostoevsky’s notebooks, where he planned his novels, you will see a number of options and character sketches and even rough outlines of a plot. But when the poet sat down to write the novels they took on a life of their own. And Dostoevsky was enough the poet to allow that to happen; he rarely demanded that the novel conform to preconceived ideas. One obvious exception is the epilogue to Crime and Punishment which I have argued elsewhere flaws the novel as a work of art. In that epilogue, Dostoevsky the man took the novel away from Dostoevsky the poet.The same thing happens in Notes From Underground.

To be sure, Notes was one of the more philosophical works that Dostoevsky wrote. The first part is an extended series of reflections that reads like a journal in which the author draws a number of tentative conclusions about freedom and suffering, two themes that recur in a number of his novels. The underground man says, near the end  of the first part, “I’m certain that man will never renounce real suffering. . . why, this is the sole cause of consciousness.”  This comment echoes almost exactly a remark Dostoevsky made while preparing for Crime and Punishment. In his notebook he says, “Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There’s no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness. . . .is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self.” This is a thesis that a number of critics have, reasonably, attributed to Dostoevsky himself through the years: the necessity for suffering in order to achieve full humanity. But if you read the novels themselves, and even the second part of Notes, you come to the realization that Dostoevsky was of two minds (at least) on the subject of suffering.

In that second part. his hero, who is unnamed, suffers dreadfully and makes a young prostitute suffer as well. This tortured relationship seems to suggest that suffering does not lead anywhere, except to a breakdown of the psyche of the one who suffers and also those he makes suffer. Granted, the hero is close to a breakdown as the novel begins, but by the end he is over the edge. If as the author suggests in the first part, suffering leads to a deeper humanity, the second part of the novella gives the lie to that claim. No one benefits from the suffering that the hero has brought on himself and inflicted on the young woman who reaches out to him and is crushed.

In the end, we must say that Dostoevsky was conflicted about the possible value of human suffering. The poet was too sensitive to close his eyes and mind to the terrible price the sufferer pays — as he himself knew first hand. So the philosophical conclusion that suffering is necessary for human freedom, or a deeper awareness of the world around you, may have been a thesis that Dostoevsky, the man, embraced as part of his deep convictions about the truth he found in the New Testament. But Dostoevsky the poet worked closer to the fact of human suffering and he wept. The poet could see no value in suffering, while the man was convinced it was worth the price.

As D.H. Lawrence reminds us, if we want to know what the novel says we must read the novel. “As for the novelist, he is a dribbling liar.” If we want to know what Dostoevsky really believed about the value of human suffering, it is wise to read his novels.

Poets uncover the hidden truths that are deep within human experience; philosophers occasionally mull over those truths and try to make systematic wholes out of them. At times Dostoevsky confused the two roles and tried to play them both. He almost pulls it off, but in the first part of Notes, and the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment, he failed.

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