Literature and Politics: The Impact of Dostoevsky

Topics: The Brothers Karamazov, Political philosophy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky Pages: 28 (9582 words) Published: January 13, 2012

Dostoevsky and the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, by Vasily Rozanov. Translated and with an Afterword by Spencer E. Roberts. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1972. Pp. xi. 232. $12.50.

Political Apocalypse. A Study of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, by Ellis Sandoz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971, Pp. xviii. 263. $13.50.*

ostoevsky's great novels have spawned a vast library of critical 1/literature, a library which extends well beyond traditional literary criticism to cover the range of disciplines dealing with the human condition: philosophy, theology, psychology and sociology in particular. In this effusion of comment the real Dostoevsky is often buried under an avalanche of the commentator's personal views, although few have been so forthright in recognizing this as Andre Gide, who confessed, "Dostoevsky is often only a pretext for me to express my own thoughts here."' And Dostoevsky has indeed served as the pretext for the most disparate and contradictory thoughts. As we approach the centenary of his death, we find not only a lack of scholarly agreement regarding his significance as a man of ideas (perhaps inevitable, in view of the protean character of the views he scattered through his works), but even diametrically opposite interpretations of individual works. After surveying some of the published comment on The

Brothers Karamazov, Robert Belknap was led to observe: "It is 1. Andre Gide, Dostoievsky, 20e edition (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1930), p. 252. 2. Robert L. Belknap, The Structure of The Brothers Karamazov (The Hague, Paris: Mouton, 1967), p. 14. 3. Simon Karlinsky, "Dostoevsky as Rohrschach Test," The New York Times, June 13, 1971, reprinted in Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Norton Critical Edition edited by George Gibian (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), pp. 629-636.

*Rozanov's work will be cited in the text of this essay as "R," and Sandoz' as "S," followed by the page number.



frustrating to find that a single novel can convey views which range from sensualism to asceticism, from atheism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy to satanism." 2 And Simon Karlinsky has published an article, "Dostoevsky as Rohrschach Test," whose apt title highlights the fact that opinions about Dostoevsky often tell us more about the observer than about Dostoevsky.3 The very plethora of views is testimony to the suggestive power of Dostoevsky, just as the continued flow of books and articles on his work demonstrates that he remains an active force on the modern consciousness. But is he relevant to the student of politics? On this question, as on most others, well qualified observers stand in confrontation. Ronald Hingley, who opined that "his views on politics could no longer be held by anyone outside a lunatic asylum," 4 would presumably answer "No!" Ellis Sandoz, in contrast, offers an impassioned "Yes!": "If 'relevance' is a desideratum in what we think and do to understand and resolve the deepening crisis of the world today, then Dostoevsky is more than merely apposite; he is required reading."(S, ix) Since Hingley and Sandoz were referring to the same writer, could they have been thinking of different things? Probably. Sandoz is assessing Dostoevsky's importance for political philosophy, while Hingley's "views on politics" may well refer to the positions Dostoevsky took on the political issues of his day. This supposition, however, still does not dispose of the issue, for even if we distinguish between Dostoevsky's philosophy and his quotidian views, it seems unwise to reject without further examination the proposition that a writer as stimulating, widely read, and politically oriented as Dostoevsky may still exert an influence on political attitudes, particularly in his native land. In considering the impact of Dostoevsky on political thought (both theoretical and practical), three...
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