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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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13. Demons


Dostoevsky’s Demons was published in The Russian Messenger between 1871 and 1872. The following year the novel appeared, extensively revised, in book format. As with Dostoevsky’s other novels, Nietzsche read this work in French translation.154 Since Nietzsche did not mention reading this work in the correspondence, we cannot know exactly when he read Dostoevsky’s novel. However, in notebook W II 3 (November 1887-March 1888, according to Colli and Montinari’s chronology) Nietzsche transcribed and translated several passages from Les possédés into German.155 It is very likely therefore that Nietzsche, having returned to Nice at the end of October 1887, looked for more novels by the psychologist Dostoevsky and then found and read Les possédés.

Dostoevsky’s Demons basically describes how the liberal ideas of the generation of the 1840s (that of Turgenev, Herzen, and Belinsky) had turned into the dangerous nihilist theories of the atheist and revolutionary socialism held by the new generation of the 1860s (represented in the novel by Pyotr Verkhovensky and his followers). This metamorphosis constitutes the historical background against which the plot is developed: the nihilist ideas, spread among the younger generation, are the ultimate cause of the tragic ending of the novel. It is interesting to note that Nietzsche’s attention was drawn to several features of this novel, as the selection of the passages he copied into the notebook shows. In the following pages, the attention will be focused on those aspects that seem to have been the most...

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