Stavrogin’s Confession

Georg Lukács


The Soviet government’s much-maligned ‘barbarism’ has made Dostoyevsky’s posthumous works accessible at last. Whole chests of manuscripts have been discovered, and it is likely that we shall soon be able to read in full the literary work of Russia’s greatest writer, a writer who is starting to exert a constantly growing influence on European intellectual life. The first sample to appear has been ‘Stavrogin’s Confession’, a hitherto unpublished chapter from the novel Possessed which Dostoyevsky wrote, almost in the style of a pamphlet, in opposition to Russia’s first revolutionary movements.

The novel itself, considered as a whole, is not one of Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievements: its bias disfigures it. And that is not because Dostoyevsky opposes revolution, but because the work itself becomes ambivalent and contradictory as a result of this stance and more especially his manner of representing it. For the politician and pamphleteer in Dostoyevsky were by no means in such perfect agreement with the imaginative writer as Dostoyevsky tended to assume. Rather, the honest and fearless nature of the writer’s vision, his pursuing of all problems that animated his characters to a conclusion forced him into things that strongly contradict the aims of the pamphleteer. The great writer created characters evoking the living background to the Russian revolution, its social and intellectual environment (and hence its ‘justification’) more vividly than the pamphleteer would have liked. So there was nothing for it but to paper over the resulting crack with a pamphleteer’s devices, thereby making the crack even deeper and more visible—from the artistic angle. Dostoyevsky, as Gorky once rightly observed, libels his own characters.

Nonetheless, or for that very reason, Possessed is one of Dostoyevsky’s most interesting works. For here the inner dichotomy in his nature, which the perfectly shaped individual destinies in his other works prevent from emerging quite overtly, is brought to the surface clearly and visibly by the contradiction between political bias and poetic vision. Dostoyevsky’s greatness as a writer lies in his particular ability to strip without effort, through spontaneous vision, every character, human relationship and conflict of the reified shell in which they are all presented today and to pare them down, to reduce them to their purely spiritual core. Thus he depicts a world in which every inhumanly mechanical and soullessly reified element of capitalist society is simply no longer present, but which still contains the deepest inner conflicts of our age. This is also the source of his utopian outlook, the view that the saving principle for all hardship may be found in pure human relationships, in recognising and loving the human heart in every human being, in love and kindness. This purely individual and individualistic solution, however, undergoes a shift—in a way that is imperceptible even to the writer—and appears as the Christian message of love, indeed as the message of the Russian Orthodox Church. But this gives rise to manifold complications and contradictions. In the first place, it forces Dostoyevsky to equate with Christianity his own religiosity, which proceeded from schismatic Christian opposition to Feuerbach’s influence—thereby forcing him to falsify both positions. In the second place, he cannot help presenting all his characters’ torments and problems, whose social roots he always clearly recognises, as purely personal pathological manifestations of individuals. And on top of this, he is obliged to propose a supra-individual solution for them, namely Christianity. Thus an atmosphere of internal contradictions springs up around the marvellously clearly and profoundly observed and fashioned people in his novels. Admittedly, where the patterns traced by fate can be wholly derived from the purely personal human relationships of individuals, this atmosphere does not obscure their outlines. But as soon as this reduction is not entirely attainable or, as in Possessed, not even sought, it is bound to cast a heavy cloud over the works as a whole.

The fragment of Possessed which has just been published shows the writer’s greatness more strongly than his inner contradictions; at least they are less overt than in the novel itself. The two poles of Dostoyevsky’s world, the ailing man of contemporary society who is eaten up by inner doubts and the preacher of the Christian message of love, confront each other in this fragment in a lonely nocturnal dialogue—and recognise each other as brothers. And not only in the sense that for the man of good-will, every man must be a brother, but also in the more authentic and intimate sense that their inner affinity appears and becomes conscious for both of them. This, then, expresses quite clearly the oft-repeated thesis of Dostoyevsky’s genuine (not dogmatically acquired) religiosity, the thesis that ‘the complete atheist stands on the highest step but one’, that nobody comes closer to real faith than the real atheist. But at the same time, it also conveys that Christianity plays virtually no role of practical significance in the practical, active love of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Christian’. Love and kindness take the form of an intuitive grasping of the heart of a fellow-being. And the help this provides is that the otherwise aimless wanderer has his own path clearly mapped out in his soul (Sonya in Crime and Punishment, Prince Myshkin in The Idiot). Here, however—in the most essential actions of the human type in which Dostoyevsky’s world culminates—the profound inner contradiction in his world-picture is most clearly manifest. For while this now clairvoyant kindness can illuminate the obscure vital basis for despair, while it can lift into the light of consciousness the dark from the human interior, the suffering, wrong-doing and aberrations, it is incapable of transforming this knowledge into a saving deed. Sonya may lead Raskolnikov out of the labyrinth of his abstract sin, which has cut him off from all human society and made it impossible for him to live among men. But the positive element, the new life that is now supposed to open up for him, remains a mere programme. And in the later works where Dostoyevsky sought to portray this very conversion, his artistic honesty obliged him time and again to depict the failure of his supreme human type at the very moment he is faced with a real decision (the end of The Idiot).

This lack of faith on the part of Dostoyevsky the imaginative writer with regard to the tenets and demands of his own theology indicates the gulf—which he never admitted—dividing him from Christianity, even the schismatic revivals of early Christianity. For this Christianity is founded upon the omnipotence of love: the soul turns toward love, loving recognition lays suffering bare and indicates the right path; although social causes may be behind the aberration, salvation from it takes place independently of all non-spiritual constraints. But here Dostoyevsky is—unconsciously—unbelieving. His clairvoyant goodness illuminates suffering—and takes the form of a sort of cynicism that mercilessly declares weakness, uncleanliness, depravity, acknowledging and presupposing the worst of human beings. Love, while it perceives suffering and aberration, is unable to help because both are rooted much too deeply in the existence of suffering beings for them to be removed through the power of recognition, the power of loving human relationships. That is because aberration is rooted in men’s social situation, out of which they cannot tear themselves.

Dostoyevsky, therefore, was bound to fail in his desperate struggle to convert the social element of human existence into pure spirit. But his failure was transformed into an overwhelming artistic triumph, for never before him were precisely the social roots of tragedy in certain human types pursued so far to the purest spiritual utterances and discovered in them and brought to light.

Therein, too, lies the great artistic value of this fragment. Stavrogin, the hero of Possessed, occasionally made a somewhat Lermontov-like, exaggeratedly romantic impression in the novel. Here, in the Christian and oral confession of his most depraved deeds, he first shows himself fully as the person he is: as the greatest representative of that transitional Russian type also portrayed as the ‘superfluous man’ in various forms by Turgenev, Goncharov and Tolstoy. He is the Russian intellectual who possesses strength and abilities (amounting in Stavrogin to demoniac brilliance), but who is unable to make any use of these in the Russian reality. So these qualities, if they do not end in smoke, as in Turgenev’s and Goncharov’s heroes, must lead to aimless, senseless, unworthy and even ridiculous crimes. There now opens up the whole abyss of despair and life’s aimlessness which turned the honest section of the Russian intelligentsia into revolutionaries so early. And we see with a shock that there was nothing left for these people, if they honestly sought a goal in life, except suicide, depravity or revolution. (Stavrogin chooses the first course.) And however passionately Dostoyevsky resisted revolution as a pamphleteer, with whatever conviction he preached a religious solution to these sufferings, he is the very person who convinces one most clearly of revolution’s necessity. His—political—execration of revolution unexpectedly turns into an artistic glorification of its absolute, spiritual necessity.


SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “Stavrogin’s Confession” (1922), in Reviews and Articles from Die rote Fahne, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1983), pp. 44-48.


Quotations from György Lukács

“And I timidly add here—the sole final chord to what has been said—the name of our greatest epic poet, of whom I was thinking constantly while writing this, the sanctified name of Dostoyevsky.”

— “Aesthetic Culture” (1910), final sentence

“Dostoevsky’s people live, without distance, the essence of their souls. Meanwhile the problem of other writers, including even Tolstoy, consists in how a soul can overcome those obstacles by which it is prevented from an attainment, even a glimpse, of itself. Dostoevsky begins where the others end: he describes how the soul lives its own life.”

— “Balázs Béla és akiknek nem kell” (Béla Balazs and his detractors, 1918)


Supplementary Bibliography

Andersen, Zsuzsanna Bjørn. “The Young Lukács and Dostoevsky,” Dostoevsky Studies, vol. 8, 1987, pp. 187-97.

Fehér, Ferenc. “The Last Phase of Romantic Anti-Capitalism: Lukács’ Response to the War,” translated by Jerold Wikoff, New German Critique, no. 10, Winter, 1977, pp. 139-154.

Fehér, Zoltán Andor. Georg Lukács’s role in Dostoevsky’s European reception at the turn of the century: a study in reception. Ph.D. thesis, Slavic Languages and Literatures, UCLA, 1978.

Gedeon, Sarolta. A brief historical overview of the reception of Dostoevsky’s works in the crises of 20th century Hungary - summary.

Kadarkay, Árpád. “The Demonic Self: Max Weber and Georg Lukács,” Hungarian Studies, vol. 9, no. 1-2, 1994, pp. 77-102.

Kitzinger, Chloe Susan Liebmann. Illusion and Instrument: Problems of Mimetic Characterization in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Ph.D. thesis, Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of California, Berkeley, 2016. See esp. Chapter 4 — Lives in Theory: Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s Characters in Bakhtin and Lukács, section 2: Problems of reflection: Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s characters in later Lukács, pp. 182-197.

Löwy, Michael. “Naphta or Settembrini?: Lukács and Romantic Anti-Capitalism,” New German Critique, no. 42, Autumn 1987, pp. 17-31.

Lukács, György. “Aesthetic Culture” (1910), translated by Rita Keresztesi-Treat, edited by Tyrus Miller, The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 11, no. 2, 1998, pp. 365-379.

Lukács, Georg. “Dostoevsky” (1943, published 1949), translated (1962) by René Wellek, in Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture and Revolution by Georg Lukács, edited with introduction by E. San Juan, Jr. (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 179-197.

Lukács, Georg. “Dostoyevsky: Novellas”(1922), in Reviews and Articles from Die rote Fahne, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1983), pp. 49-51.

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature (1914-1915, 1916, 1920), translated by Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971), pp. 151-153 (conclusion of book).

Miles, David H. “Portrait of the Marxist as a Young Hegelian: Lukács’ Theory of the Novel,” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 1, January 1979, pp. 22-35.

Price, Zachary. “Lukács, Dostoevsky, and the Politics of Art: Utopia in The Theory of the Novel and The Brothers Karamazov,” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, Summer 2001, pp. 343-352. Also at JSTOR.

Tihanov, Galin. The Master and the Slave: Lukács, Bakhtin, and the Ideas of Their Time. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000. See chapter 7: Dostoevsky: Lukács: Ethics and Revolution, pp. 165-187. Incorporates:

Tihanov, Galin. “Ethics and Revolution: Lukács’s Responses to Dostoevsky,” The Modern Language Review, vol. 94, no. 3, July, 1999, pp. 609-625.


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