- Nietzsche and Dostoevsky: On the Verge of Nihilism by Paolo Stellino
In his late work Nietzsche professed profound admiration for Dostoevsky, calling him “the only psychologist [. . .] from whom I had something to learn” (TI “Skirmishes” 45). He also said, characteristically complicating matters, “I am grateful to him in a remarkable way, however much he goes against my deepest instincts” (KGB III/5, letter 1151). There is, however, another well-established way of connecting the two authors, due to the Symbolist writer and critic Dmitri Merezhkovsky, which regards Dostoevsky as preemptively refuting Nietzsche’s teachings through his portrayal of the nihilistic protagonists of his great novels. [End Page 308]
Paolo Stellino takes up both these ways of connecting the two authors (the latter of which, as he shows, has been remarkably influential in literary circles). They must evidently be approached in different ways: questions of influence have a place in the first approach but not the second. Accordingly, Stellino divides his book into two parts, the first of which is mainly concerned with philological considerations about precisely what Nietzsche read when. The second, considerably shorter, part engages Merezhkovsky’s thesis through a comparative study of the utterances of Dostoevsky’s nihilistic protagonists and those of Nietzsche.
In part I, Stellino sifts the evidence for and against Nietzsche’s having read specific texts. There is, it turns out, no decisive evidence that Nietzsche read any of Dostoevsky’s four great novels, except The Demons. What we do know is that Nietzsche’s reading of Dostoevsky began, at the latest, in the winter of 1886–87, when he claimed to have first stumbled upon Dostoevsky in a bookshop in Nice. From then on he read a series of French volumes published by Plon (listed here with their respective publication dates): L’esprit souterrain (1886), Souvenirs de la maison des morts (1886), Humiliés et offensés (1884), and Les possédés (1886). He also briefly had in his hands a little Reclam volume titled Erzählungen von F. M. Dostojewskij (1886), but disliked the translation, the work of “the awful Jew Goldschmidt (with his synagogue-like rhythm)” (93). (This egregious bit of casual anti-Semitism attracts no comment from Stellino.) Stellino’s intimate familiarity with the French editions has its payoffs. L’esprit souterrain, it turns out, is not a straightforward translation of Notes from Underground, but a composite that amalgamates a translation of Dostoevsky’s story The Landlady with Notes from Underground, the latter appearing in a highly mutilated version that involves transposing one of the characters from The Landlady and turning him into the protagonist of the Notes. When Nietzsche describes the Notes as “a sort of self-ridicule of γνῶθι σαυτόν [know thyself],” this characterization, as Stellino suggests, seems to derive directly from an editorial interpolation (not marked as such) in the French volume.
Part I might well be read as a study in what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence. Stellino repeatedly resists the overhasty conclusions that previous authors have drawn about Nietzsche’s reading of Dostoevsky from the flimsiest evidence and by means of the most contorted and speculative arguments. Much of this previous argumentation seems to involve [End Page 309] a naïve picture of influence that takes it to be a kind of pushing motion that the influencer exercises on the influenced. Such a notion is particularly inapt in the case of Nietzsche, who is almost always a creative appropriator of what he finds in others. As Michael Baxandall taught long ago, to understand the workings of influence we must often know as much about the recipient as the giver (see his Patterns of Intention [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985], 58–62).
Stellino’s account bears out that, if we look closely, we find that often Nietzsche is already operating with some notion or image before finding it in Dostoevsky, and going on to elaborate it further in light of this discovery. Nietzsche had got the term ressentiment from Eugen D...