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  • Dostoevsky and Schiller:National Renewal Through Aesthetic Education
  • Susan McReynolds

Dostoevsky's novels pivot upon scenes of spiritual transformation, moments of revelation that resolve dilemmas for which no logical solution can be found. Raskolnikov, for example, analyzes his crime from philosophical and sociological angles until he almost dies; he is saved by his dream of the plague and by the image of Sonia's face. When insight and progress come to Dostoevsky's fictional characters, they come as dream, memory, and rapture before images of beauty and suffering. The choice between spiritual and logical solutions confronting Dostoevsky's characters is also a choice between Russia and the West. The rationalism and corollary doctrine of egoism that drives characters like Svidrigailov, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov to madness and death are clearly associated in Dostoevsky's novels with Western philosophy. The ability to surrender to the beneficial power of images is associated with characters like Dmitry Karamazov, who is able to accept the primacy of spiritual truth—the truth of his need for expiation—over the fact of his legal innocence of his father's murder. The breadth of spirit that renders Dmitry receptive to the truth revealed in his dream image of the suffering child is clearly identified in The Brothers Karamazov as a distinctively Russian national trait.

The contrast between reason, death, and the West, on the one hand, and receptiveness to imagistic truth, salvation, and Russia, on the other, [End Page 353] drives the plots of Dostoevsky's novels. This familiar feature of Dostoevsky's art is first articulated in texts unfamiliar to most readers; the historical essays of the early 1860s that were among his first published works after his return from exile. In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, an association dedicated to disseminating the tenets of Western socialism in Russia. For his participation in the Circle, Dostoevsky was initially condemned to death; the sentence was commuted to four years of hard labor in Siberian prison camp, to be followed by an indefinite period of military service in Siberian exile.

When Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg and public life in 1860, he and his older brother Mikhail launched the journal Time. Mikhail served as editor. Dostoevsky would publish The Insulted and Injured and Notes from the House of the Dead in its pages, in addition to numerous essays dedicated to contemporary literature and events. The essays on Russia and Europe published in Time were a creative workshop in which some basic features of his later novels—most notably the contrast between Western positivism and Russian spirituality, conceived as the capacity to embrace imagistic revelations of the truth—were first developed. The pressure of Dostoevsky's developing artistic craft is clearly apparent in these non-fictional texts from the early 1860s, which narrate modern Russian and European history as a story structured by a dual plot of death and redemption.

Before Dostoevsky wrote novels structured around the contrast between characters like Dmitry and Ivan Karamazov, he wrote essays structured around the contrast between Russia and Western nations like France and England. Before Crime and Punishment portrayed Raskolnikov's resurrection as the surrender to images offering glimpses of something that eludes rational analysis, Dostoevsky's essays in Time predicted national renewal for Russia through her embrace of the truths conveyed by the images of fine art. Some essays in Time compose a plot of national rebirth through the effects of artistic images for Russia, but others admonish readers with what Dostoevsky believed would be the terrible consequences of positivism for the West. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, published in Time in 1863, casts France and England as mortally ill victims of a materialist worldview that can only grasp the challenges of modernity as scientific and political problems. The spiritual solutions that will be revealed to Russia through images of beauty, Dostoevsky warns, will elude nations ensnared in rational approaches to their problems. [End Page 354]

Throughout his post-exile life, Dostoevsky believed that political improvement results from changes in the moral condition of individuals, inner changes that are catalyzed by images, not reached through rational deliberation. In 1861, he writes of the Imperial edict...


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