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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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3. L’esprit souterrain (Lisa, Notes from Underground)


If The Landlady caught Nietzsche’s attention, the French adaptation of Notes from Underground definitively proved to him that he had found in Dostoevsky a kindred spirit. Indeed, let us recall, Nietzsche described the second part of L’esprit souterrain as “a stroke of genius in psychology, a sort of self-ridicule of γνῶθι σαυτόν” in the letter to Overbeck of 23 February, 1887 and as “a true stroke of genius in psychology – a frightening and cruel piece of mockery of γνῶθι σαυτόν, but done with such a light audacity and joy in his superior power, that I was drunk with delight” in the letter to Gast of 7 March, 1887. It is immediately clear that Nietzsche’s attention was mainly drawn to two strictly related themes: psychology and self-knowledge. In what follows, I will begin my analysis by focusing on the latter issue.

The first question we need to ask is: why did Nietzsche define the Notes as a “self-ridicule” and “mockery” of γνῶθι σαυτόν? Curiously, Nietzsche’s definition derives from an interpolation of the translators.21 Indeed, in the apocryphal introduction to the second part of L’esprit souterrain, an anonymous narrator (added by translators Halpérine and Morice) describes the story of the underground man as a sad response to the Delphic maxim “know thyself” and concludes that it is no good for man to know himself: “Car cet homme se vit et se connut, et son destin est une triste réponse à l’antique maxime : «connais-toi. » – Non, il n’est pas bon à l’homme de se connaître...

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