Battle of the dead Russian writers

Fred Sanders examines the opposing worldviews of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy:

In fact, I have long thought that there are basically two kinds of people in the world: Tolstoy people and Dostoevsky people.

Sanders quotes literary scholar George Steiner on the differences between the two authors:

“Dostoevsky, advancing into the labyrinth of the unnatural, into the cellerage and morass of the soul; Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; Tolstoy, the embodiment of health and Olympian vitality; Dostoevsky, the sum of energies charged with illness and possession; Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment…”

I would say that I tend to fall more in the Dostoevsky camp (I’ve also read much more Dostoevsky than Tolstoy), though I find Tolstoy immensely valuable. From my reading of the two authors, the world of Tolstoy is a world that can ultimately be grasped. Dostoevsky’s is a world where the individual is ultimately diminished in the face of a greater, often menacing transcendent order. Tolstoy’s ultimate concern is with all things immanent, where Dostoevsky leans more toward the transcendent.

Christian theology, of course, takes into account both the transcendent and the immanent. The incarnation of Jesus is the immanent embodiment of the transcendent God—the temporal manifestation of the eternal.

I agree with Sanders’ point that a person is either a Dostoevsky–inclined person or a Tolstoy–inclined person, but not both. It should be noted, however, that if a person follows either of these trajectories to the complete exclusion of the other, he or she will miss much.

For more reflections on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, check out my brief reviews of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina.

8 thoughts on “Battle of the dead Russian writers”

  1. Jared-

    I like Dostoyevsky much more as a person — his conservative political and religious views mesh much better with mine than the mystic, utopian Pan-Slavism of Tolstoy. I also despise Tolstoy’s approach to history, which reduces individuals to mere epiphenomena bubbling on the back of the aggregate mass of humanity.

    That said, War and Peace remains one of my favorite novels. It ranks even with Crime and Punishment. So they take away a tie for actual writing. 🙂

    By the way, my anti-spam program marked you as spam for some reason. I just rescued your comment from the bucket. . .

  2. Longtime reader, first time caller – your paragraph on Christian theology is a departure from a great post. Think for a second, how many of the words in that sentence have logical, definable meanings? How many of the nouns refer to tangible, verifiable things? Can this sentence be proved wrong or right, and what is the implication if it can’t? I’ve been reading Dostoevsky as a project and I think he, like other religious speculators, is getting a bit ahead of himself.

    Other authors have written interest essay with a similar theme, from Nietzsche and his Apollonian vs. Dionysian to Tergenev’s division of the world into Hamlets and Don Quixotes.

    Then there is DJW over at blogspot who thinks there are two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t.

    Anyway: great blog. etc. etc.

  3. “How many of the nouns refer to tangible, verifiable things? Can this sentence be proved wrong or right, and what is the implication if it can’t?”

    This doesn’t just apply to theology, but to virtually any philosophical statement. What is your point with this question?

  4. J. Wesley: I haven’t read War and Peace, but Anna Karenina keeps me from writing off Tolstoy as precursor to 20th-century social gospel peddlers. It’s just too good an analysis of the human condition.

    Matt: I’ll concur with J. Wesley here and ask you to clarify your point, if you could. I don’t really follow.

  5. ” It’s just too good an analysis of the human condition.”

    That’s a very fair point. Anna Karenina is fantastic. I like Tolstoy when he’s working on an individual level. I just can’t stand him when he writes history, a la War and Peace.

    *spoiler alert*

    Even when he makes an delightful character, however, such as with the Holly Golightly-esque Natasha Rostova, he sometimes ruins them. I have -never- forgiven him for turning her into some Slavophiles fantasy of the perfect peasant woman. . . Until the end of the novel, she was one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

  6. Sorry for the bad edit on that last post. I’m having some medical issues which are affecting my cognition. It plays out most in the area of language. I’m going to post on my blog about it soon. . . Bleh.

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