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Nietzsche and Dostoevsky

On the Verge of Nihilism


Paolo Stellino

The first time that Nietzsche crossed the path of Dostoevsky was in the winter of 1886–87. While in Nice, Nietzsche discovered in a bookshop the volume L’esprit souterrain. Two years later, he defined Dostoevsky as the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. The second, metaphorical encounter between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky happened on the verge of nihilism. Nietzsche announced the death of God, whereas Dostoevsky warned against the danger of atheism.
This book describes the double encounter between Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Following the chronological thread offered by Nietzsche’s correspondence, the author provides a detailed analysis of Nietzsche’s engagement with Dostoevsky from the very beginning of his discovery to the last days before his mental breakdown. The second part of this book aims to dismiss the wide-spread and stereotypical reading according to which Dostoevsky foretold and criticized in his major novels some of Nietzsche’s most dangerous and nihilistic theories. In order to reject such reading, the author focuses on the following moral dilemma: If God does not exist, is everything permitted?
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1. Nietzsche’s Discovery of Dostoevsky


The first mention of Dostoevsky in Nietzsche’s correspondence can be found in a letter that Nietzsche sent to his friend Franz Overbeck on 12 February, 1887. This letter contained the following postscript: “Did I write you of H. Taine? And that he finds me ‘infiniment suggestif’? And of Dostoevsky?” (#798) This first brief mention is followed by a second reference in a letter sent the following day to Peter Gast: “Do you know Dostoevsky? With the exception of Stendhal, no one has given me so much pleasure and astonishment: a psychologist whom ‘I agree with’.” (#800) Although brief, this passage contains two important elements that Nietzsche will often repeat when speaking of Dostoevsky: the comparison with the French novelist Stendhal and the definition of Dostoevsky as a psychologist. Peter Gast, who was living in Venice at that time, answered Nietzsche’s question with a letter dated 20 February, 1887. Gast confessed to his friend that he did not even know the name of the Russian writer: “I do not know anything about Dostoevsky who, on the contrary, is certainly a Pole;4 yes, I hear this name from you for the first time. Since you seem to care so much for him, I will note his name and take it to my bosom.” (#434) Gast’s ignorance of Dostoevsky, who was not Polish at all, should not surprise us: these are precisely the years in which Dostoevsky’s works began to be widely circulated in Europe.

These brief and...

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