Saturday, April 03, 2010

Dostoevski and the west

"To Dostoevski every object and every act is merely a symbol for some elusive spiritual truth. From this point of view comes an outlook which makes his characters almost incomprehensible to the average person in the Western tradition: if such a character obtains a fortune, he cries, "I am ruined!" If he is acquitted on a murder charge, or seems likely to be, he exclaims, "I am condemned," and seeks to incriminate himself in order to ensure the punishment which is so necessary for his own spiritual self-acquittal. If he deliberately misses his opponent in a duel, he has a guilty conscience, and says, "I should not have injured him thus; I should have killed him!" In each case the speaker cares nothing about property, punishment, or life. He cares only about spiritual values: asceticism, guilt, remorse, injury to one's self-respect." - Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, p.104

Although his observations about Dostoevski are correct, I do not find his characters incomprehensible as Quigley does. Certainly, there are scenes--in The Idiot especially--in which the characters' reactions seem sentimental, if not slightly mad. But do we really blame Roskolinikov for the guilt he feels, or for the way in which he seeks redemption for the crime he has committed? Nor do I find Alyosha Karamazov's boasts of his own evil to be impossible to understand. For, granted that he is the most morally righteous character of the novel, Alyosha was aware of the potential for evil which resides in every human heart.

Quigley may be right that "Dostoevski was a precursor of the Bolsheviks." Still, I think one ought to read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov not merely in an attempt to catch a glimpse into the Russia soul, but as one would read any other great work of fiction.

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