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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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“They arrive in compact, deep lines. It is the revenge of 1812.1 They will not set fire to Paris; we do not need any help to do that. They will drown it under printer’s ink. Throughout the summer they have furtively proliferated, they have come out of the press. […] I search for a volume of Voltaire: it has disappeared under a stack of Tolstoy’s books. My Racine has disappeared under those of Dostoevsky.”

With these words, which introduce one of several articles on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky published in the French newspapers during the 1880s, the literary critic Eugène Melchior de Vogüé (1886b: 824) alludes to the increasingly widespread diffusion of Russian novels within the Western Europe cultural world at the time. It is precisely within this historical and cultural context that Nietzsche’s discovery of Dostoevsky has to be set. It is the winter of 1886–87. Nietzsche arrives in Nice around the 20th of October. He stays some months, taking advantage of the mild weather of the Mediterranean coast. While browsing in a bookshop, the volume L’esprit souterrain catches his attention. If we trust Nietzsche’s own account, he does not even know the name of the author. Nonetheless, he instinctively feels a sense of affinity and familiarity with him. Nietzsche buys the volume and reads it very carefully. From then on, in his last two years of lucidity, the philosopher conducts a deep inner dialogue with Dostoevsky.

It is no surprise that Dostoevsky’s...

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