Dostoyevsky’s Karamazovism as Nietzsche’s Dionysian

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s aesthetic greatness is unquestionable. In his last published work, The Brothers Karamazov, this greatness is invested in the multiple voices (and views) he allows to play out in full throughout the text. This is what Mihail Bactin referred to as a “dialectic of polyphony”, or a polyphonic text. Of course, one might worry that there are natural rifts in such a style — and they may be correctly gesturing at something — but Dostoevsky calms these worries by clear distinctions such that the reader can clearly establish a subtext within each voice. It is through Alyosha’s voice (as an echo of Zossima’s) that we grasp the notion of a practical Christianity, through Ivan’s that we see the result of a certain Nihilism, and through Dimitri’s that we see the Romantic Russian. All of these voices, however, share a foundation in common: Karamazovism.

This Karamazovism, I will argue, shares many qualities with the Nietzschean self. Nietzsche, had he read The Brothers Karamazov, would have viewed Dostoevsky not merely as the philosopher of ressentiment — as he wrote about the Russian author — but also the philosopher of the Dyonisian. Thus, in this essay I aim to focus on Dostoevsky’s Karamazovism, and, through using the lens of Nietzsche’s theories of art forwarded in The Birth of Tragedy, show that they were concerned with the same question: namely, how to depict the Dyonisian attitude toward life. Of course, the two used very different names and terminology to describe this, so my main claim is that Nietzsche’s concepts of the Dyonisian vision and amor fati are parallels to Dostoevsky’s sensualism and kenoticism, respectively.

It seems appropriate here to ask flatly, what is this Nietzschean self? From where did it arise? The answer, although at times obscure and complex, is interesting and is the beginning of our parallel with Karamosovism. It stems, in my interpretation, from his particular aesthetics; namely, from his distinction between the Dyonisian and the Apollonian. These, for Nietzsche qua the literary critique, are the two artistic drives that spawned Greek Tragedy and the Attic response. Of course, he generalizes and makes these two artistic drives the drives by which all human art (and livelihood) is created and thereby interpreted. The Dyonisian and Apollonian artistic drives can be understood as dream-like image-making and imageless sensations one finds through music, respectively.

The Apollonian is the static, individuated image. The Dyonisian is the a-tonal, musical and Heraclitean flux of sensation. It is an important question to ask how these two are connected, if at all. This, considering that human experience is, in fact, composed of both image and sensation, seems necessary to answer before we move on. Nietzsche’s answer is that the two drives also compel a unique entanglement between them, as sensations can bring about illusory, dream-like states (as when one listens to Vivaldi), and images can bring about sensations or intangible feelings or sentiment (as when one observes a Delacroix oil painting) within someone. However, it is important to recognize that Nietzsche saw the Dyonisian as true and the Appolonian as a necessary, non-moral falsehood.

To better understand, consider this analogy: One can understand that it would be a miscomprehension and a falsehood to assert that Lady Liberty Leading the People is more than oil painting on canvas; to say that she and the brave men behind her have basis in reality is absurd. Yet, for Nietzche, just as the ancient Greeks presented this static (statuesque) art to us through Apollo, the symbol of the principium individuationis, we present to ourselves, and believe, within the pleasurable, beautiful dreamworld of the Appolonian, to be individuated beings. Moreover, Apollo secures himself as the one, the sole consummation of “the perpetually attained goal of the primal unity”, the combination and simultaneity of the Apolline and Dionysian drives. This symbol of Apollo, for Nietzsche, is that in which we believe ourselves to be gods over ourselves through the principium individuationis, which can only be exercised through this primal unity of sentiment and images. To put it plainly: to believe ourselves to be individuated beings (gods) is a lie we use to protect us from the unbearable truth of the Dyonisian. It is, like that of Greek tragedy, only the acceptance of the Dyonisan chorus’s intoxication along with the Apollonian figures that we get the full human experience depicted in art.

This, of course plays into Nietzsche’s conception of the human will to power and the rest of his philosophical system, but the key point for our concerns is to understand that the Dyonisian is the passionate, sensual return to unindividuated (flux) harmony with “man and man”, a togetherness that is expressed only through non-rational sentiment. It contains in it, all of life, as it were; that is, both pain and suffering, pleasure and strife — an artistic polyphony of emotions. This is why Nietzsche argues against Aristotle’s conception of tragedy: it is not a catharsis that motivated the tragic, but a kenosis of emotions that can only be understood as a Dyonisian point.

It is here, through this intoxicating, Dyonisian vision that we see the first glimpse of Karamosovism, but we will return to this point later on.

Here it is worth introducing an overview of Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati (literally meaning “the love of life or fate”). This notion is correspondent to the Dyonisian which entails a notion of pleasure and a notion of suffering. This love of life means to portray a love of all of life, the affirmation of life in the face of pleasures and pains, of strengths and weaknesses. In Nietzsche’s own words he writes that:

“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — , but to love it . . .” and that “The highest state to which a philosopher can attain: to maintain a Dionysian attitude to Life — my formula for this is amor fati.”

Thus, if we understand the Dyonisian we understand the concept of amor fati as an embrace of the both-and; that is, contradictory ideas of pleasure and suffering that both need to be marshalled, for that is what a life consists of. This may seem counterintuitive, as we often try to avoid pain, to fight back against our weaknesses, but Nietzsche’s thinking tells us the “overman” (the individual who accepts these tenants and thrives on their acceptance) needs to take on these inconsistencies — this is his defiance to the world and the general standard of ethics, his rebellion. This too will play a part in Karamazovism, of which we shall now turn the discussion towards.

We must begin with a description and analysis of what, precisely, Karamazovism is such that we can use the Nietzschean lens upon it and see Dostoevsky as the author and philosopher of the theory of the Dyonisan. At its true core, Karamazovism is a sensualism. This particular sensualism is extreme, almost parodic. The father of this clan is Fyodor Karamazov or “Old Pavlovich”. If one were to take the Aristotlilian approach, Fyodor Pavlovich, being the father of this family, would be seen as he who provides the form (as opposed to matter) of his sons. Of course, one need not be an expert in Aristotelian metaphysics to understand the usefulness of this analogy.

That is, like Aristotle’s conception of fatherhood providing the form and thereby telos of a given animal, so too does Fyodor Pavlovich pass down his almost genetic sensualism to his sons, such that they are constantly at a battle between it and their intellect. Thus, the first quality of this sensualism is its being essential; i.e., sensualism is what it is to be a Karamazov. Regardless of whether one superimposes Christian belief, rationalism, or romanticism atop it (as we see from the three brothers), a Karamazov will always have to confront the tendency towards the sensual or the vitalistic; it is their true nature.

We see Alyosha fight against his sensualism when he is confronted by his father in Zossima’s cell, Rakitin’s vulgarity, Lise’s rejection, and indeed at Grushenka’s attempt to seduce him. All throughout, Alyosha comes closest to the ideal; that is, he masters this trait best of all his brothers. However, this is not the case with the other brothers. It appears clear in Ivan, in part through his madness, and in part through his attempt at rationalism. His eventual breakdown into delirium is perhaps best understood as a failure of modern Rationalism; on the one hand it is a commentary about Rationalism leading toward nihilistic destruction of civilizations, and on the other it is a complete failure to fight back against his sensualism — for “he is most like his father.”

And as for Mitya, he nearly accepts this sensualism, though he puts a romantic spin upon it. Every moment that Mitya is faced with, especially as seen throughout the investigation, is told to the reader through random, manic emotivisms. Because of this, it is worth dwelling for a moment on Mitya’s displays of Karamazovism as a sensualism. Consider an example from the text: his conversation with Alyosha in Book 3, “The Sensualists”.

Here the reader is introduced to the immense ability Mitya has for self-reflection, something that hinders rather than assists Mitya throughout the novel; in fact, it is a great source of guilt for him during the investigation. In this episode, however, Mitya is reflecting on not only himself, but the Karamazovs in general. He goes on to say:

“I am that insect, brother, and it is said of me specially. All we Karamazovs are such insects, and, angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood. Tempests, because sensual lust is a tempest — worse than a tempest! Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side.”

Here we see the self-reflection by Mitya, but also an attempt at a definition through this self-reflection. The insect, or the Karamazovism, is unavoidable; it is essential to being a Karamazov (as the Dyonisan is essential to being human). The contradictions he speaks of are related to his ability to hold many opposing claims, including his believing Katya to be good while wanting to run away with Grushenka, and, indeed, his strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, the prosecutor of the case, Ippolit Kirillovitch, even claims in his concluding speech that Karamazov (the specimen) often does “contemplate two extremes both at once.” That is, through Karamazovism as a sensualism, a Karamazov has a both — and view of the world such that two extremes coincide in the action of Mitya.

Thus, the notion of opposed duality, of the pleasure and the pain, of Katya and Grushenka, of two extremes both at once is identical in form to that of Nietzsches’ amor fati, the affirmation of life in the face of pleasure and suffering. Moreover, this conception of the true nature, of course, is precisely the way in which Nietzsche understood his Dyonisian. That is, like the sensualism of the Karamazovs is the true reality behind the necessary, but nonetheless false superimpositions, the Dyonisian is the true reality behind our use of an Appolonian dream-world of imagistic, individuated beings.

This Nietzschean reading presents a text that is preoccupied with the very question of representing this unrepresentable reality of the Dyonisian vision. There is one other interesting connection worth examining between the Nietzschean perspective and The Brothers Karamazov and Karamazovism: Russian kenoticism. And of that we shall turn to next.

If our reader recalls the discussion we have had on amor fati, she will remember that this love of life, or love of fate, entails loving both the pleasures and the pains one faces such that she, would she have to live life again, would not yearn to change any part of it, but instead master it as such. There is a significant gesture at this type of thinking through Dostoevsky’s notion of suffering in the text of the novel. This is seen largely through Father Zossima’s sermons (as echoed by Alyosha) and indeed through much of Mitya. To understand this, however, one must understand the broader Russian tradition that Dostoevsky is relying upon in this gesture; namely, Russian kenoticism.

It would be an overestimation to suggest that Russian culture glorifies or takes part in sado-masochistic leanings, but many theologians identify an embrace of suffering — often without much consideration of its causes or results — as part of the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition beginning with St. Theodosius. This kenoticism was a type of ascetic monasticism that claimed hardship was a requisite quality of walking like Christ, and therefore should be embraced as such. It is worth noting the kenotic, or kenosis, literally means a type of “self-emptying”. This stems from the idea that God, through Christ, emptied himself of all his power to be human and walk amongst us (see Cherkasova 2009). Thus, his hardship and Passion is indicative of what a holy life requires. This practice is thematized in perpetuity in The Brothers Karamazov, and indeed one can see, qua a Nietzschean reading, the attempt to represent this generative-destructive force of suffering throughout the text.

That is, Dostoevsky’s characters seem to worship a kenotic Christ such that they seek suffering as worthy in life for its own sake, which, as we have described, is an extreme exhibition of amor fati.

Consider Zossima’s — and indeed Alyosha’s — teachings throughout the novel. His “we are all guilty for each other” (as he learned it from his older brother, Markel) doctrine is what guides Zossima’s life after the army, Alyosha’s life after he is sent out into the world, and even Mitya’s life when he is considering his “new man” and its manifestation in Siberia. Zossima’s teaching and insight is this: we are all guilty for one another as sinners and even as criminals; we are thereby responsible for each other, as the guilt is unavoidable due to our being “responsible to all men for all and everything” in life.

This is why one might suffer for a crime she did not commit; because she is worse than all and all are worse than she. When one realizes this, one judges no one, and fears nothing — but instead embraces the suffering given as a triumph in accepting Christ’s way. When one learns this, a tranquility of mind and power on earth arises such that it is Paradise realized on earth.

This is clearly a Christianized version of the Nietzschean concept amor fati and the overman. He or she who can embrace the pleasure and suffering of life through kenoticism (that is, embrace the Dyonisan attitude of life through amor fati) and continue in their path firm in their beliefs and ideals is he or she who lives as the overman, the kenotic Christ. This too, then, is a large part of Karamazovism, although it pulls the characters in a different (opposite) direction than the aspect of sensualism does.

After an overview of Frederich Nietzcshe’s key concepts regarding the Apollonian, the Dyonisian, self-truth, and amor fati, I began upon an analysis of Dostoevsky’s Karamazovism couched in these concepts. In this essay, more specifically, I have attempted to provide a unique reading of Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamazov by way of two related Nietzschean concepts: the Dyonisian and amor fati. Through this reading I have attempted to show that the two thinkers were preoccupied, in some sense, with the same question; namely, how to represent the overfulness of life, which consists of pleasures and suffering. I have claimed that this overlap of preoccupation is centered in Dostoevsky’s notion of Karamazovism in two distinct ways. First, the Dyonisian-Appolonian distinction parallels Karamazovism in its sensualism through its being the true nature of the brothers, despite what superimpositions veil it. Second, Karamazovism’s notion of suffering through the kenotic Christ parallels Nietzcshe’s notion of amor fati through its requirement of the embrace of suffering; one leads to the Dyonisan attitude of life, the other toward the way of Christ.

Through these connections, one may now read Dostoevsky not only as the philosopher of nihilism, Christendom, and ressentiment, but also of the Dyonisian. It is through these claims and observations that I believe we have made some progress in providing something novel in the literature surrounding Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov, of which so much has already been written.

Anthony DiMauro is a freelance writer in New York City. J.D. Candidate. NYU philosophy alum. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyMDiMauro

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store