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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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2. L’esprit souterrain (Katia, The Landlady)


Concerning the first part of L’esprit souterrain, what has surprised scholars the most is the positive opinion that Nietzsche expressed of The Landlady. The Russian literary critic Belinsky, who had hailed Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk with great enthusiasm, strongly criticized his later work, arguing that:

“[Dostoevsky] wished to try to reconcile Marlinsky and Hoffmann, adding to this mixture a little humor in the latest fashion, and thickly covering all this with the varnish of a Russian folk-style. […] Throughout the whole of this story there is not a single simple or living word or expression: everything is far-fetched, exaggerated, stilted, spurious and false.” (quoted in Frank 1976: 179)

Dostoevsky himself changed his attitude towards The Landlady after the critics’ negative evaluation. In the letter of 1 February, 1849 to Kraevsky, he wrote:

“In order to keep my word and deliver on time, I pushed myself, wrote, by the way, such bad things or (in the singular) – such a bad thing as ‘The Landlady,’ as a result of which I gave way to bewilderment and self-deprecation and for a long time afterward could not get down to writing anything serious and decent.” (CL 1: 161)

Among other nineteenth century critics, Terras (1969: 231) confirmed Belinsky’s negative judgment and described Dostoevsky’s long story as a complete failure: “The style of expression in The Landlady is outré in almost every conceivable way, featuring accumulation, repetition, exclamatory rhetoric, extravagant imagery, unrestrained emotionality, and...

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