Joseph Frank

ISBN 978-0-691-17896-7 Princeton  £25.

Reviewed by Alan Dent

 Joseph Frank (1918-2013) was Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford and Princeton and the author of the renowned five volume biography of Dostoyevsky. This book collects seven essays and appends a review of the biography by David Foster Wallace which appeared in Village Voice and was Frank’s favourite. Frank is a healthily clear writer, thankfully free of the depressing intellectual treacle discharged by the structuralists, post-structuralists, deconstructionists and others who tried to assimilate literary criticism to science. His thinking, however, is not so limpid as his writing. 

Wallace argues convincingly in his compelling review that Dostoyevsky is an ideological writer; not in the sense that he bashes the reader with his convictions, but the opposite: he is willing to take on serious ideas and explore them in and through fiction,even when that means putting his own convictions in question. Wallace is right that today the cynical publishing/reviewing industry would raise a cool eyebrow and crack an ironic smile at such a thing. Our literature is vapid because we are afraid to wrestle with the big questions as Dostoyevsky did. Our ostensibly non-ideological literature is thoroughly ideological. It accepts the status quo and looks at the sales figures. It is almost completely without principle, and for the most part, not worth reading. 

Frank tends to focus on the ideology at the expense of the aesthetics; understandable and justified, in a way, given the writer Dostoyevsky was; but Wallace makes the important point: Dostoyevsky was a supremely good novelist. His plots are terrific but it is in his characterisation (that and tone are the difficult matters which separate the real novelist from the phoney) he proves himself. You can read Dostoyevsky and be carried away by it whether on not you agree with anything of his ideology. 

Dostoyevsky was confused. He belonged to a confused age and a confused society. Ours may be no less so but we have some advantages. He inherited a religious, philosophical, political tradition and fought with it to try to work out his truth but the traditions tended to set the limits of his thinking. Frank explains very well Dostoyevsky’s essential positions: he rejected utopian socialism because the collective denied individual freedom; he rejected reason because faith requires no proof; he rejected determinism because he believed god gave man free will; he believed that reason was egotistical and truth is revealed through the heart, through feeling; he believed in the liberating power of the irrational; altruism can only be expressed through Christian self-sacrifice; Christ is the model of the good person and even atheists accept that; reason eliminates feeling and only feeling offers us the truth.  

The essential failure in Dostoyevsky’s thinking is absence of paradox. For example, the individual is a social creation. Individuality isn’t a thing but a relationship. If individuality were inherent in the biological individual, then the Wild Boy of Aveyron would have emerged from the woods a perfectly formed individual. In fact, he came out on all fours howling like a wolf. Darwin understood the essence of this in his comment that language is “An instinct to acquire an art.” Language is our biological inheritance but it needs a social trigger, which means the social trigger is our biological inheritance too. Dostoyevsky rejected determinism because he thought it denied free will, but the paradox is, the determinism of nature has wired us for free will. We are free to make moral choices because nature has made us that way. Yet that’s slightly misleading: we are forced to make moral choices because nature has made us that way. Try to eliminate language from your mind. Try to stop thinking. The only way you can try is to think about not thinking. We don’t choose to think, nature made us thinking creatures and we think whether we like it or not. Nature also made us moral. We don’t choose to be moral, that’s the way nature made us, but the paradox is that because of that determinism, we have choice. The choice of course, is not without limits, which is what Milan Kundera is getting at in his idea of the “anthropological scandal”: no one can be in two places at once or leap a hundred yards in the air. These are limits set by nature, but within the limits we have choice.   Dostoyevsky sees complements as oppositions. He thinks in absolutes rather than paradoxes. Thus, individual freedom must be absolute or not at all. Collectivism must be absolute or not at all.  

Of course, in his time, more or less everyone was guilty of the same intellectual errors and Dostoyevsky was therefore right in recognising that if the idea of the rights of the collective was pushed to an absolute limit, the result would be appalling tyranny, as in the Soviet Union. He was wrong though in not recognising that if collective solutions were combined with democracy and respect for individual rights they could produce benefits like the British NHS, a more liberating than oppressive collective enterprise and one which points towards a social, rather than a State, health system ( and who would want to be thrown back on their mere individual resources in the face of Covid 19?). 

The question qui parle? arises. There is a kind of free indirect style at work in some of the essays which makes it hard, and at certain points, impossible, to tell whether Frank is expressing Dostoyevsky’s views or his own. He seems to have a Christian agenda which he tends to set against rationalism, socialism, anarchism, social democracy. Inevitably, he falls into Dostoyevsky’s mistakes: god wants people to choose Christ freely: but if the choice is free they might not, and why is god granting humanity free will any less a form of determinism than nature doing so?  

The emphasis on ideology detracts from discussion of Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a writer. In his characterisation for example, he is very astute about how his culture promotes power over love. They are sworn enemies for a reason he couldn’t have known: they spark up different parts of the brain and as the principle of attention means that when the neurons implicated in power are lit up, others shut down, love must take a back seat. Raskolnikov commits murder in pursuit of power, to be a “great man” but his egotism destroys him. What makes Dostoyevsky a great novelist is his ability to site the conflicts of his time in his characters. Their humanity attracts us, their abuse of it appals us. He was struggling to define what it meant to be good and how being good could be realised. He was right that his culture promoted a destructive egotism, a battle of each against all in which a meagre, compensatory sense of selfhood rose from the inability of people to satisfy their needs adequately, including and perhaps most importantly, their moral needs. His genius was his depiction of characters in which the conflicts this gave rise to were lived out, mostly tragically. These characters are still modern because our culture  promotes the same nonsense. We are morally adrift, like the worst of Dostoyevsky’s characters, not because we have lost our faith in a deity, but because we are irrational. We pursue money at the cost of making the planet uninhabitable. We assert ourselves as superior because of the colour of our skin or because some dubious verses in the Bible say some deity we know nothing of gave land to a mythical figure. Reason is what saves us. It doesn’t deny our emotional nature but arises from it.

One of the reasons Dostoyevsky lost faith in social reform was the very peasants he had sought to help by his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle, reviled him as an enemy because of his class position when he was in prison with them. This is somewhat characteristic of the naivety of paternalistic motivations: those you seek to help are not certain to want to be helped or to thank you. Dostoyevsky over-compensated. He was amongst very disaffected, ignorant and more or less hopeless people. He needed to adjust his thinking but not rush to an extreme. Thankfully, he chose art rather than polemic and though Frank is right that there is a polemical cast to his work, it is as an honest artist he stands as extraordinary and memorable. If this book encourages people to read or re-read him perhaps we could even see the emergence of seriousness in our crippled and tawdry fiction.