Mr. Murry boldly faces the difficulty and attempts the definition. To him Dostoevsky’s work is “the record of a great mind seeking for a way of life; it is more than a record of struggle, it is the struggle itself.” Dostoevsky himself is a man of genius “lifted out of the living world,” and unable to descend to it again. Mr. Murry confesses that at times, as he reads him, he is “seized by a supersensual terror.”
For an awful moment I seem to see things with the eye of eternity, and have a vision of suns grown cold, and hear the echo of voices calling without sound across the waste and frozen universe. And those voices take shape in certain unforgettable fragments of dialogue that have been spoken by one spirit to another in some ugly, mean tavern, set in surrounding darkness.
Dostoevsky’s people, it is suggested, “are not so much men and women as disembodied spirits who have for the moment put on mortality.”
They have no physical being. Ultimately they are the creations, not of a man who desired to be, but of a spirit which sought to know. They are the imaginations of a God-tormented mind. ... Because they are possessed they are no longer men and women.
This is all in a measure true. Dostoevsky was no realist. Nor, on the other hand, was he a novelist of horrors for horrors’ sake. He could never have written Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar like Poe for the sake of the aesthetic thrill.
None the less he remains a novelist who dramatized his spiritual experiences through the medium of actions performed by human beings. Clearly he believed that human beings—though not ordinary human beings—were capable of performing the actions he narrates with such energy. Mr. Murry will have it that the actions in the novels take place in a “timeless” world, largely because Dostoevsky has the habit of crowding an impossible rout of incidents into a single day. But surely the Greeks took the same license with events. This habit of packing into a few hours actions enough to fill a lifetime seems to me in Dostoevsky to be a novelist’s device rather than the result of a spiritual escape into timelessness.
To say this is not to deny the spiritual content of Dostoevsky’s work—the anguish of the imprisoned soul as it battles with doubt and denial and despair. There is in Dostoevsky a suggestion of Caliban trying to discover some better god than Setebos. At the same time one would be going a great deal too far in accepting the description of himself as “a child of unbelief.” The ultimate attitude of Dostoevsky is as Christian as the Apostle Peter’s, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!” When Dostoevsky writes, “If any one could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I shall prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth,” Mr. Murry interprets this as a denial of Christ. It is surely a kind of faith, though a despairing kind. And beyond the dark night of suffering, and dissipating the night, Dostoevsky still sees the light of Christian compassion. His work is all earthquake and eclipse and dead stars apart from this.