Fyodor Dostoevsky


The famous scene in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov is questioned by detective Porfiry Petrovich.  (From the excellent 2002 BBC adaptation of the novel.)

On this date in 1849 a Russian court sentenced Fyodor Dostoevsky to death for anti-government activities linked to a radical intellectual group; his sentence was later commuted to hard labor.

Frye puts Dostoevsky in very good company in this illuminating moment from Creation and Recreation:

Recently a collection of early reviews of mine was published, and on looking over it I was amused to see how preoccupied I had been then with two writers, Spengler and Frazer, who haunted me contantly, though I was well aware all the time I was studying them that they were rather stupid men and often slovenly scholars.  But I found them, or rather their central visions, unforgettable, while there are hundreds of books by more intelligent and scrupulous people which I have forgotten having read.  Some of them are people who have utterly refuted the claims of Spengler and Frazer to be taken seriously.  But the thinker who was annihilated on Tuesday has to be annihilated all over again on Wednesday: the fortress of thought is a Valhalla, not an abattoir.

This is not merely my own perversity: we all find that it is not only, perhaps not even primarily, the balanced and judicious people that we turn to for insight.  It is also such people as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Holderlin, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, all of them liars in Wilde’s sense of the word, as Wilde was himself.  They were people whose lives got smashed up in various ways, but who rescued fragments from the smash of an intensity that the steady-state people seldom get to hear about.  Their vision is penetrating because it is partial and distorted: it is truthful because it is falsified.  To the Old Testament’s question, “Where shall wisdom be found?’ [Job 28-12] there is often only the New Testament’s answer: “Well, not among the wise, at any rate” [cf. 1 Corinthians 1:19-20].  (CW 4, 39-40)

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