Sandra Colmenero Vázquez
Nobody can argue the immense impact that Dostoevsky’s work had on European culture during the twentieth century. His novels and thoughts not only influenced the literary field but also had great sway in areas such as philosophy, politics, and sociology. To this day, the Russian novelist remains one of the biggest names of Western civilization.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. The author knew poverty, illness, prison, and exile, among other things. Dostoevsky considers Friedrich Schelling’s conception of art to be essential. Schelling believed that the work of fiction shouldn’t be considered a form of personal expression of the author. Nevertheless, Russian historical drama affected his literature (Alcoriza, 2005, p. 57). It is worth examining the early influences that Dostoevsky had. The Book of Job is one of those. It is clear to see that this biblical reading left a deep impression on him of the suffering of the righteous. In addition, he had an early approach to Russian literature. For instance, he read the historian Nikolay Karamzin and, especially, Alexander Pushkin. The greatest Russian poet of all time had a big impact on Dostoevsky, he felt a great devotion to him. (2005, p. 58).
On the other hand, Dostoevsky was a pan-slavist and a socialist, and he also studied and analyzed the utopias of Saint-Simon, Owen, and Fournier (Borges, 2013, p. 188). He was particularly interested in Saint-Simon’s new Christianity, which even deified the people.
During his youth, he came into contact with German romanticism and French literature. As a result, he translated Balzac and compared Victor Hugo to Homer in his intention to establish a new society. Moreover, he used to attend Bielinski’s gatherings with other intellectuals. Nonetheless, he distanced himself from the critic when the latter changed his ideology and turned to left-wing Hegelianism. In 1849, Dostoevsky was sentenced to the death penalty for his involvement in a literary and intellectual group that was critical of the Russian government’s policies and disseminated the Fourierist ideology. Dostoevsky and other members of the group were accused of reading and discussing banned books, including works that criticized the tsarist regime, as well as publications of French socialists
and philosophers. The death sentence was commuted at the eleventh hour to four years imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia.
While in exile, he experienced a revitalization of his convictions, resulting in the conceptualization of a fraternal community of faith embodied within the people. The experience of exile and forced labor was a turning point in his life. In the katorga, he was impressed by the repertoire of criminal psychology, alongside the innate sense of justice and dignity of his fellow prisoners, which he attributed to an unquenched religious feeling in his spirit (Alcoriza, 2005, p. 59). Stefan Zweig in his book Three masters points out the following regarding Dostoevsky’s time in prison:
Siberia, the katorga, epilepsy, poverty, his craze for gambling, his sensuality, all the crises he
went through, became, thanks to his stupendous powers of sublimation, fruitful assets to his
art. For, just as the most precious of metals are grubbed from the deep recesses of a mine, amid
manifold dangers, far beneath the smooth, safe ways of ordinary existence, so the artist can
secure his most burning truths, his final realizations, only from the most perilous abysses of his
own nature. (1930, pp. 127–128).
Above all, during that time, he developed some ideas that later would become paramount in his writing, topics such as suffering, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil. Undeniably, this ordeal shaped his worldview and profoundly influenced his life and work. Moreover, it is clear to see the link between this experience and some of his greatest works, such as The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from the Underground.
Furthermore, it is significant to examine some of his vast literary production. Dostoevsky published his first book in 1846, Poor Folk, an epistolary novel that sparked critical interest due to the portrayal of underprivileged people. In the following years, he published a range of short novels: Mr. Prokharchin, The Landlady, A Weak Heart, and White Nights. Nevertheless, some of his well-known works are Crime and Punishment published in 1866, The Idiot published in 1869, Demons published in 1872 and The Brothers Karamazov which was released in 1880. Undoubtedly, Dostoevsky’s literary works had a tremendous impact on European culture.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in his book Miscelánea says that he had imagined Dostoevsky as some kind of unfathomable God, able to comprehend and justify all living things (2013, p. 188). This vision of the Russian novelist will prevail throughout a vast generation of intellectuals. As Erich Auerbach points out in Mimesis, what captures the Western reader about Russian realism is
the internal turmoil that is presented by the absence of precedent, an unbounded and passionate approach to life in the characters. The principal representative of this is none other than Fyodor Dostoevsky (1996, p. 397). In addition, it should be noted that the writer embodies the critical conscience of his time.
When Dostoevsky and the great Russian writers became known in Central and Western Europe, the public experienced a sense of revelation. This was due to the directness of expression and the oppositeness of the emotional forces manifested in his works. This revelation meant, for the first time, that true perfection could be achieved in the amalgamation of realism and tragedy.
By the same token, the moral crisis that swept the continent became more conspicuous in the last decades before the First World War, and there was a sense of foreboding of the catastrophes to come.
Indisputably, the influence of the Russian realists was an essential contributory factor.
Dostoyevsky’s influence on the twentieth century was immense, as many of the period’s key ideas can only be fully comprehended through his lens. In the following section, we will explore several people whose work was significantly shaped by the Russian author.
The great German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, acknowledged in Dostoevsky’s work a supreme psychological value. Both share an essential aspect in their thinking, the triumph of the Enlightened idea in a secularised world. For the German philosopher, the latter is epitomized by the concept of the death of God (Alcoriza, 2005, p. 62).
Likewise, Nietzsche’s claim of instinct is also rooted in Dostoevsky’s appreciation of the figure of the criminal in The House of the Dead. The novelist had already warned us against judging crime according to preconceived opinions which may have led Nietzsche to recognize in the portrait of the convicts the type of strong man whose misfortune, having obeyed his instinct, he felt as a fatality.
Nietzsche, like Dostoevsky, disparaged the French Revolution, with the Russian novelist seeing it as an affront to religion and Nietzsche as an attempt to establish Rousseaunian morality (2005, p. 64).
On the whole, Dostoevsky’s works had a profound impact on Nietzschean philosophy, especially in the fields of existentialism and the study of human experience. Dostoevsky’s examination of morality and the essence of good and evil inspired Nietzsche, who valued the Russian author’s perceptions of the complexities of the human condition.
Equally important, André Gide was to a great extent responsible for the dissemination of Dostoevsky’s work in France and Europe. The literary critic contributed interesting insights into Dostoevsky’s work, including the stratification of the soul. We find the intellectual region, that of the passions, and it is in the third, as Gide states, that the “Tolstoyan resurrection” takes place (2005, p. 69).
The ultimate temptation, as Gide points out in the Russian’s work, is to exhaust the human capacity, to answer the question of man’s power in a world without God. According to Gide, despite clearly posing the problem of the übermensch in his novels, evangelical truths ultimately prevail.
Although Nietzsche and Dostoevsky shared their critique of Catholicism, there is a slight discrepancy with Gide in this respect. The literary critic also condemns the assumption of papal authority among Catholics but ends up expressing the Protestant inspiration of the free examination of truth.
A global interpretation of Gide’s work must point out its affinity with Dostoevsky, albeit it cannot fail to see the different way in which Gide draws on the Gospel and gives the claim to truth the persuasive character it has within the limits of the ethics of conduct (2005, p. 71).
The Hungarian literary critic and philosopher Georg Lukács was greatly influenced by Dostoevsky. As one of the most influential Marxist literary theorists of the twentieth century, Lukács recognized in Dostoevsky’s works a powerful critique of bourgeois society as well as a prototype for a revolutionary form of art
The writer of The Theory of the Novel and History and class consciousness looked to Dostoevsky for the traces and forms of the new world he hoped for (2005, p. 79). Lukács also applauded Dostoevsky’s skill at revealing the inner thoughts and motivations of his characters as well as how social and historical factors influence their behavior. He saw this as a way to show how social structure and
personal experience are intertwined, as well as a technique to expose the covert processes of power and oppression in society.
Moreover, the idea of “polyphony,” or the notion that a novel can express a diversity of voices and perspectives rather than a single, unified viewpoint, was one of the major concepts that Lukács drew from Dostoevsky
Lukács’s philosophy of history insisted not only on the contradictory nature of a form that was to be overcome by a new epic, but on the end of the world that reflected in it the anguish resulting from the search for totality; thus, it is no coincidence that the last part of the book was devoted to Russian literature, in which the author saw the “living life” that Western culture no longer had (2005, p. 90).
All in all, according to Lukács, Dostoevsky was a writer who broke free from the confines of bourgeois culture and ideology and provided a vision of a new, more compassionate social structure.
Furthermore, Dostoevsky’s works had a significant impact on the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, particularly on his theories of language, literature, and the novel.Dostoevsky’s concept of “dialogism” which describes the dynamic and open-ended character of language and discourse, was one of the major ideas that Bakhtin drew from him (Bajtín, 2005, p. 97).
The depictions of Dostoevsky of the grotesque and the carnivalesque served as a source of inspiration for Bakhtin as he developed his ideas about the role of laughter and humor in social criticism. He perceived Dostoevsky’s use of these components as a strategy for upending established norms of authority and challenging the culture at large.
On the other hand, Sigmund Freud used Dostoevsky’s work to support some of his psychoanalytical theories. For example, he analyzed the Dostoevskian theme of patricide. Freud also studied the Russian novelist’s imagination using psychoanalytical techniques. Dostoevsky acquired some of those ideas from reading, and some from the depths of his mind, but Freud’s essay should act as a deterrent to everyone against attempting to read Dostoevsky’s novels as autobiographical (Leatherbarrow et al., 2002, p. 138).
The Russian novelist not only influenced the work of those mentioned above but also affected other intellectuals such as Franz Kafka, D. ¡ H. Lawrence, Albert Camus, Jane-Paul Sartre, and Ernest Hemingway among others.
The twentieth-century generation of intellectuals found in Russian novels a vicarious prophecy in the face of the meaninglessness that accompanied the belief in the decadence of the West. The destruction of tradition brought about by the war demanded an effort of reconstruction capable of discriminating what was due to mere exaltation, which made it possible to conceive of the hope of a renaissance in the aftermath.
To conclude, Fyodor Dostoevsky has been considered a prophet of the twentieth century. It does not appear excessive to assert that Dostoevsky, as argued by George Steiner, has delved profoundly into contemporary thought, and he has played a significant role in shaping and defining the psychology and form of modern fiction, more so than any other writer of the nineteenth century.
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Borges, J. L. (2013). Miscelánea. DEBOLSILLO.
Evlampiev, I. I. (2002). Dostoevsky and Nietzsche: Toward a new metaphysics of man. Russian
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