“That you can’t end, that makes you great.”Goethe
IT is difficult and responsible to speak worthily of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (11 November 1821 – 9 February 1881) and his importance for our inner world, because Dostoevsky requires a new measure of vastness and violence.
An enclosed work, a poet to strives to first find the near and then discovers the limitless, a cosmos with its own circling stars and other music of the spheres. The sense of ever completely penetrating this world becomes discouraged: its magic is too foreign on our first acquaintance, its thoughts are too alien to bring us infinity, their message too foreign for the soul to suddenly look up into this new heaven. Dostoevsky is nothing, if not experienced from within.
In the deepest we must first examine and steel our own power of compassion and compassion to a new increased receptivity: we have to dig up to the lowest secret roots of our being in order to discover the connections with its first fantastic and then wonderfully true humanity. Only there, in the lowest, in the eternal and unchangeable of our being, root in root, can we hope to unite Dostoevsky; because how strange seems to external view this Russian landscape, which, like the steppes of his homeland, pathless and so alien to our own world! Nothing friendly or sweetly familiar greets the view there.
Mystical twilight of feeling, pregnant with lightning, alternates with a frosty, often icy clarity of mind., instead of warm sun a mysteriously bleeding northern lights flares from the sky. The primeval landscape, the mystical world, has been entered into Dostoevsky’s sphere, ancient and new at the same time, and sweet horror strikes you as before any closeness of eternal elements.
Soon admiration longs to linger in faith, and yet a hunch warns the moved heart that here it must not become at home forever, as it must return to our warmer, friendlier, but also narrower world. Too big, one feels ashamed, this foreign landscape for the daily view, too strong, too oppressive this soon icy, soon fiery air for the trembling breath. And the soul would flee from the majesty of such horror, if an infinite sky of goodness were not stretched out over this relentlessly tragic, horribly earthly landscape, heaven also of our world, but vaulted higher into infinity in such sharp spiritual frost than in our lime zones. A calmed view from this landscape to its sky only feels the infinite consolation of this infinite earthly grief, and senses the greatness in the horror, the God in the dark.
Only such a glance at his last sense can transform our reverence for Dostoevsky’s work into a burning love, only the innermost insight into his peculiarity can make clear to us the deeply fraternal, the all-human of this Russian man. But how far and how labyrinthine is this descent to the innermost heart of the mighty; powerful in its vastness, frightened by its distance, this only work becomes more mysterious to the same extent as we seek to penetrate from its infinite vastness into its infinite depth. Because everywhere it is soaked with mystery. From each of his figures, a shaft leads down into the demonic abysses of the earthly, every upswing into the spiritual touches with its swing to God’s face.
Behind every wall of his work, every face of his people, every fold of his veils lies the eternal night and the eternal light shines: for Dostoevsky is completely twinned to all the mysteries of being through the purpose of life and the shaping of fate. Between death and madness, dream and burning clear reality stands his world. Everywhere his personal problem borders on an unsolvable one of humanity, every single exposed surface reflects infinity. As a human being, as a poet, as a Russian, as a politician, as a prophet: everywhere his essence radiates of eternal meaning. No path leads to his end, no question to the lowest abyss of his heart. Only enthusiasm may draw close to him, and only humbly in the shame of being less than his own loving reverence for the mystery of man.
He himself, Dostoevsky, never raised his hand to help us get to himself. The other builders of the mighty in our time revealed their will. Wagner placed in addition to his work the programmatic explanation, the polemical defense, Tolstoy tore open all the doors of his daily life, every curiosity access, every question to give accountability. But he, Dostoevsky, never betrayed his intention other than in the completed work, he burned the plans in the embers of creation. He was silent and shy all his life, hardly the external, the physical of his existence is necessarily attested. He had friends only as a young man, the man was lonely: like a reduction in his love for all humanity, it seemed to him to give himself to individuals. His letters also betray only the necessity of existence, the torment of the tortured body, all of them have closed lips, as much as they are a complaint and an emergency call. Many years, his whole childhood is shaded by darkness, and already today he, whose gaze some in our time still saw burning, has become humanly something very distant and nonsensical, a legend, a hero and a saint. That twilight of truth and hunch that surrounds the sublime life images of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare also reveals his face. Not from documents, but only from knowing love can his fate be shaped.
Alone and leaderless, one must seek to feel down into the heart of this labyrinth and detach the thread of Ariadnes, the soul, from the tangle of one’s own passion for life. Because the deeper we sink into it, the deeper we feel ourselves. Only when we reach out to our true all-human nature are we close to Him. Whoever knows a lot about himself also knows a lot about him, who or no one has been the last measure of all humanity. And this passage into his work leads through all the purgatorias of passion, through the hell of vices, leads over all stages of earthly torment: torment of man, torment of humanity, torment of the artist and the last, the cruelest, the torment of God. The path is dark, and from within one must glow in passion and the will to truth in order not to go astray: we must first wander through our own depth before we venture into his own. He does not send messengers, only the experience leads to Dostoevsky. And he has no witnesses, no other than the artist’s mystical trinity in flesh and spirit: his face, his fate and his work.
This essay is translated from the original German of THREE MASTERS: BALZAC,
DICKENS and DOSTOEVSKY by Stefan Zweig (1922)