A Writer’s Diary – 1880-1881

This entry is basically for completeness.  Because of ailing health and an increasingly busy social schedule, D. stopped the Writer’s Diary until 1880, when he published a single issue.  I’m a little confused about 1881, because it’s not even acknowledged in the otherwise thorough Frank biography, but then it’s there in the translation that I own.  I read both years’ entries – below are my thoughts.

The biggest thing here is D’s Pushkin lecture, which seems to have taken on an outsized importance in D’s mind.  It’s been a couple of months since I read it, so I might be getting some of the details wrong, but the basic idea is, D was at a literary festival which was a celebration of the life and works of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), poet, dramatist and novelist.  Both D. and rival Turgenev were to speak.  Turgenev went first, and delivered a fairly ordinary pro-liberal-westernizing speech about Pushkin that people responded to positively.

D. delivered his own speech (either the same day or within a few days – I forget) and that speech was met with exultant reactions from students, scholars, and everyone else who listened.  D. was apparently literally carried on the shoulders of the audience out of the hall, and was on an emotional and spiritual high for days afterwards, almost as though he had fulfilled his life’s work as a patriotic Russian intellectual.  The gist of it (the speech is printed in its entirety in A Writer’s Diary) is that in Pushkin we can find the authentic Russian peasant soul, in whose orthodox belief we can find the key to the solution to Russian social and political life.  D. claims to reconcile the urge for westernization with the respect for traditional Russian life in a way that Turgenev’s hollow liberalism cannot.  There are some Pushkin characters discussed that I wasn’t in a position to appreciate or assess, but apparently this speech generated much controversy in the Russian literary press, with different people taking different sides.  Neither the liberals nor the radicals liked it, and the conservatives misappropriated it.

In the 1881 entry, D. elaborates on his idea about the Russian peasantry in more explicitly philosophical, and less literary terms.  The basic idea is that we must begin our study of needed social reform in an appreciative examination of the faith of the simple Russian peasant.  We must move from there to understand the unique father-son relationship that exists between the czar and the peasant.  This will lead us to an appreciation of the organic nature of politics that goes beyond European contractarianism.  In an appreciation of this relationship, we will discover all the potential for freedom and equality available to European conceptions of politics, but beyond this, there will exist an authentic connection to the land and the people which will make reform enduring and stable.  The entry ends with a sort of Turner-esque embrace of Russian expansionism toward Asia as the necessary force in spreading the Russian way of life.  The idea is that spreading into Europe only risks contamination with bourgeois European ideas, but spreading east means a further discovery and elaboration of Russia’a Asiatic roots.

What was striking to me in reading this was the parallel to what I remember in reading Hegel’s later works.  In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel ends up endorsing this organic democracy-monarchy thing that’s supposed to overcome the limitedness of the morality (Moralitiät)-driven civil society, and open up into something he calls Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit).  Hegel’s critique of the “abstract or ought-to-be” as the basis of political theory strikes me as more or less exactly the same idea as Dostoevsky’s criticism of “physician socialists” who claim to diagnose a problem with society standing fully outside of it, and then implement that solution on the body politic, willingly or unwillingly.

The normal criticism of the contextualist approach pushed both by the late Hegel and the late Dostoevsky is that it inevitably lapses into reactionary conservatism.  This is interesting in that both writers had an early “radical” period – Hegel’s was more in the writing of The Phenomenology of Spirit than Dostoevsky’s was in the action of  the Petrashevsky Circle.  It’s almost as though both writers were just constitutionally opposed to the sort of abstract liberalism that was common sense to so many of their contemporaries.  They needed to reject it one way (radically) or the other (reactionarily).

However – I’ve always thought there was something not necessarily reactionary about this mode of social thought.  It is just grounded in its historical context.  It shares something in common, after all, with Marxism, that begins its analysis in an understanding of the standpoint of the proletariat.  There’s a lot more to say about this question of standpoints, of course, and critical theory and all the rest.  It’s just interesting to me where Dostoevsky fits into it.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *