Academic journal article European Studies

Dostoevsky: A Russian Panacea for Europe

Academic journal article European Studies

Dostoevsky: A Russian Panacea for Europe

Article excerpt


The bitter disillusion and sense of degeneration that spread through Europe in the aftermath of the First World War seems clearly reflected in T.S. Eliot's famous modernist poem The Waste Land (1922). In his appended notes the poet referred to Herman Hesse's Blick ins Chaos (1920), a collection of essays on Dostoevsky in which Hesse portrayed the Russian novelist and his unpredictable characters as prophetic figures, offering 'a glimpse into Chaos' and apparently predicting Europe's future. Eliot, who read German fluently, had come across the book during a visit to Switzerland, where he was recovering from a nervous breakdown. He was particularly struck by the essay 'The Brothers Karamazov or The Downfall of Europe' and Hesse's ominous message that:

Already half of Europe, and at the least half of Eastern Europe, is on the way toward chaos, it is drunkenly driving forward in a holy frenzy toward the abyss, drunkenly singing as if singing hymns, the way Dmitri Karamozov sang. The offended bourgeois laughs over these songs; the holy seer hears them with tears (Rainey 2005, 118).

In expression of his admiration, Eliot wrote to Hesse inviting him to contribute to the new literary journal he was about to establish; The Criterion. A few months later, in May 1922, the two authors met in Montagnola near the lake of Lugano. When the first issue of The Criterion appeared in October 1922, it contained besides The Waste Land, an article by Hesse 'On Recent German Poetry' (Harding 2002, 202-203). In his letter, Eliot had assured the German-Swiss writer of his wish to enhance the reputation of Blick ins Chaos in England, and indeed he had been actively involved in getting it translated by his friend Sydney Schiff (Eliot 1988, 509-510). Hesse's essays on The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot were reprinted in English in several journals before the publication of the complete In Sight of Chaos in 1923 (Muchnic 1939, 20: 201). For at least two decades it would remain Hesse's best-known work in Great Britain (White 1977, 191).

Eliot and Hesse shared their fascination for Dostoevsky with many contemporaries. After the First World War the Russian novelist was welcomed as an eastern panacea for the assumed degeneration of western culture. Around 1920 'Dostoevsky cults' arose in Germany, Austria, Great-Britain and the Netherlands. Although this 'Dostoevsky fever' did not affect the whole of Europe, it is fair to regard it - as illustrated by the example of Eliot and Hesse - as a transnational phenomenon. This chapter not only seeks to explore the reasons behind the enthusiasm in various European countries at that time for Dostoevsky's work but also to focus in particular on the cultural transfer between his German and Dutch admirers.

In addition, two key insights into the process of cultural transfer are to be derived from research presented in the 1980s by the French Germanists Michael Werner and Michel Espagne (Espagne and Werner 1985 and 1987). Firstly, there is the notion that the study of the interac- tion and transfer between different nations, or 'cultural areas', as Werner and Espagne prefer to describe them, often makes more sense than their comparison. This is particularly the case when there are huge differences, as between Germany and the Netherlands, the latter having, for example, remained neutral during the Great War. Indeed, it would be hard to identify common characteristics that make two or more entities comparable. Secondly, there is the observation that the transfer of cultural objects, ideas or thoughts is not a linear process but a transformative act; a process of acculturation in which the imported 'strange' cultural forms are often bequeathed a new meaning, function or place within the receiving 'cultural area'. In this chapter, by focusing on the Dutch perception of Dostoevsky, it will become clear that national circumstances and peculiarities determined the cultural transfer and the appropriation of German interpretation of his works and were decisive for the way this Russian 'Saviour of Europe' was perceived. …

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