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Monday, February 14, 2005

My friend, M., has been teaching a class in twentieth century history this winter. She is teaching a session on Lenin and the Russian Revolution this week.

This made LI daydream about how we’d teach Lenin.

LI thinks that we’d turn to Chekhov’s novella, The Duel, as a sort of exegetical parable to illuminate the cultural conditions that made Lenin possible. History, of course, tells us that Lenin was strictly inevitable, meaning that he is part of the core of fact through which history courses, and which makes its bed out of destroyed alternatives. The constitutive element of alternative histories is that they were destroyed by actual histories – to try to get around that is to revert to a revolting form of childishness, which is why philosophers who take possible worlds too seriously always exude a slight air of the idiot savant: Kripke and Lewis spring to mind.

There’s an article (Whom did the Devil Tempt, and Why?) in the Russian Social Science Review, by Vladimir Kantor, that revives the old Cold War notion that Dostoevsky mapped out the spirit of Bolshevism before it was actualized in fact. This reading sees Bolshevism and Marxism in general as a monstrous extension of Nechaev’s personality. That personality, in turn, arose out of the decay introduced by liberalism into the certainties of Christian civilization. When competition, instead of salvation, becomes a society’s master-trope, what happens? The American conservative answer is that salvation and competition can be reconciled, as the Lion lies down with the lamb, a la Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom.” The conservative Russian answer is much grimmer.

We don’t dismiss either of these theses entirely, although we do think the bizarre nature of postwar American conservatism comes from the fact that both were held simultaneously by the core conservative intellectuals.

Kantor’s essay is strictly about The Brothers Karamazov. He wants to make two points:

1. “A close reading of The Brothers Karamazov will give us no difficulty in understanding that its nerve center, its basic motive force, is the endless temptations that all the novel’s characters experience—each on his own level, of course. Grushenka—the “temptress,” the “infernal” being,
as she is called in the novel—tempts old man Karamazov and Mitya and even Alyosha, when she sits on his knee (after the death of the Elder Zosima). Temptation comes to the Elder Zosima’s mysterious visitor and to Zosima himself (the duel). Mitya is tempted by Smerdyakov and Fyodor Pavlovitch to commit murder (Smerdyakov’s report of Grushenka’s visit to the old man, and the father’s insults to the memory of Mitya’s dead mother and the withholding of Mitya’s maternal inheritance). Ivan tempts
Alyosha with stories of suffering children, causing him to make the radically uncharacteristic statement that the perpetrator should be shot. Smerdyakov tempts the young Ilyusha, by persuading him to kill the dog Zhuchka. Grushenka is tempted by her love for her former lover. Katerina Ivanovna experiences a diabolical temptation, when, with the intention of saving Ivan, she destroys Mitya. Smerdyakov is tempted to use stolen money to open up a business in Petersburg. Finally, the one most beset by temptation is Ivan Karamazov, who is first tempted by the disorder in the world (working on the assumption that “this world” belongs to God, not to the Devil) and then is
directly tempted by Smerdyakov (who seeks his permission to commit patricide) and is treated to a personal visit from the Devil—the very same who, by the latter’s own admission, tempted believers with the odor of corruption that emanated from the corpse of the Elder Zosima. It is in Ivan’s poem that the Grand Inquisitor recalls how “the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness” tempted Christ on three separate occasions. In fact, Christ’s three temptations create a kind of backdrop for the novel’s entire philosophical problem set.

Kantor’s second point (2) is to complicate the tradition, running through the Russian conservative tradition, which sees Ivan as the spiritual double of Smerdyakov. In this tradition, Ivan is the endpoint of the intellectual collapse into nihilism that produced Lenin. But Kantor builds another case, built upon the meaning of temptation itself. He quotes the dialogue of Ivan and the Devil:

“So the only ones who can be tempted are the righteous, the seekers after a higher, spiritual, moral life. Even the Devil expatiates on this subject. Ivan asks his uninvited nocturnal guest: “Fool! did you ever tempt those holy men who ate locusts and prayed seventeen years in the wilderness till they were overgrown with moss?” And he receives this reply: “My dear fellow, I’ve done nothing else. One forgets the whole world and all the worlds, and sticks to one such saint, because he is a very precious diamond. One such soul, you know, is sometimes worth a whole constellation. We have our system of reckoning, you know. The conquest is priceless! And some of them, on my word, are [no less developed than you], though you won’t believe it. They can contemplate such depths of belief and disbelief at the same moment that sometimes it really seems that they are within a hair-breadth of being ‘turned upside down,’”

Kantor wants to complicate Ivan in order to complicate the picture of a decadent intelligentsia that has become conventional wisdom in the conservative response to Bolshevism. This image was taken over, wholesale, by the American right, where it happily merged with the right’s paranoid style.

We will say more about this, and The Duel, in our next post.

PS -- As our link to the review of Kantor's book shows, deviations from the Cold War image of Dostoevsky are treated summarily as Marxist -- as though any form of "socialism" immediately reduces to Marxism. So much for the triumph of the merger of salvation and competition in the American mindset.

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