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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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14. Dostoevsky as Artist. Russian Pessimism and Décadence


Nietzsche esteemed Dostoevsky not only as a psychologist but also as an artist. As we have already seen, he defined The Landlady as a piece of music, he considered Notes from Underground a piece of mockery done with “a light audacity and joy in his superior power” (#814), and he read The Insulted and Injured “with the greatest respect for the artist Dostoevsky.” (ibid.) He finally counted any kind of Russian book, above all Dostoevsky, among his “greatest reliefs.” (#1134) Commenting on Nietzsche’s reading of Humiliés et offensés, Mejía (2000: 26) poses the following question: how could Nietzsche consider Dostoevsky to be an artist when his art expresses values that are precisely the opposite of his own? In my opinion, Mejía’s query goes directly to the heart of the matter. In order to find an answer to this question, however, we should first understand what kind of artist Nietzsche thought Dostoevsky was.

In the posthumous fragment 9[126], spring-fall 1887, entitled Chief Symptoms of Pessimism, Nietzsche makes a list of different types of pessimism: aesthetic (l’art pour l’art), theoretical (Schopenhauer), and moralistic (Nietzsche himself), among others. Under the category of “Russian pessimism”, Nietzsche mentions the names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Finally, he concludes the note with the following remark:

“Let us distinguish here: / Pessimism as strength – in what? in the energy of its logic, as anarchism and nihilism, as analytic. / Pessimism as decline – in what? as growing effeteness,...

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