Dostoyevski and Didacticism

I’m reading “Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevski for the first (and probably only) time.  I love literature and I love philosophy, but not the two mixed; “Brothers” is heralded as a great success for this sort of mixing.

Chesterton, for example, is always confusing his literature with his theology.  His flowery material is quotable enough, and powerful in many cases, but I get frustrated when trying to systematize his thought.  (Saying, for instance, that “the poet wants his head in the heavens, while the logician wants the heavens in his head”, is all well and good until it’s realized that Chesterton himself must have played the role of the logician, at least long enough to get his few pet-truths down on paper).

The Southern Agrarian poet Donald Davidson (my favorite of the Agrarians), routinely thrashed “didacticism” in literature and poetry, preferring subtle and organic plot twists to blatant semonizing; if the main character, and thus the reader, is to learn a lesson, let it be in sober reflection of the narrative, instead of laid out, Aesop-style, in obvious and explicit language.  (Poe, an agrarian at heart, also wrote that “didacticism was the worst of the heresies”).  It seems that, all too often, when an author mixes his literature and philosophy, the philosophy wins out, commandeering the narrative and using it as mere flowery trappings in which to place a sermon.

All this said, I think Dostoyevski succeeds where Chesterton fails (let the reader understand:  I don’t think Chesterton *always* fails in this way.  Matter of fact, I’ve benefited greatly from a number of his works.  But I do maintain that he falls into didacticism on numerous occasions.  For any who would argue he did so on purpose, to move his short stories into allegory…fine.)

Dostoyevski’s novel flows naturally and when the characters philosophize, it’s only because they’re actually doing so in the novel.  They don’t arbitrarily burst into soliloquies about the nature of reality – no, their soliloquies (or, the narrator’s) are fitting and serve to drive the narrative.

He’s woven his tale in a meandering way so that it hits these high points of philosophy, covering diverse topics from metaphysics, to church government, to how a man ought to treat women.  He’s even had a character hint at proper monetary policy.  All this is done in a way that doesn’t seem forced, and in a way that carries the reader along so that natural interest is inspired in the fictional conversation, just as it would be in a real life one.

You may think it boring to read about ecclesiology in the Russian Orthodox church community, for instance, but come across co-workers debating about it in the break room one day, and you’re bound to listen in – in the same way, listening in while also knowing the conversation is advancing the plot somehow, adds additional levels of excitement.

I hereby officially absolve Dostoyevski from the charges of didaciticsm, and admit that his work deserves its cherished place in the canon of classic literature.

And there is one final thing I need to point out before concluding this tirade:  I don’t intend to demean authors.  It’s not as if philosophy has all the important truths, leaving the poet with flowery and emotionalistic scraps, which (as far as the Logical Positivists are concerned), are charming, but meaningless.

To the contrary – at times Chesterton has observations that are far more profound than any systematic theologian is able to conceive.  Shakespeare, in my view, is a far more insightful and important “philosopher” than Immanuel Kant could ever hope to be (if by “philosopher” we mean: someone who articulates God’s truth about the human condition).

If I could risk over-simplifying my view, I’d say it’s the poet’s job to grasp the big picture, while the philosopher’s job is to support said picture by filling in the microscopic cracks.

The two tasks shouldn’t be confused.  The one needs power and conviction.  The other needs precision and cold intellectual operation.

And the philosopher should always yield to and support the poet.

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One Response to Dostoyevski and Didacticism

  1. Nice essay, “Shotgun”!


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