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Dostoevsky and the Pleasure of Taking Offense

Much of history is a tale of excessive offense-taking.

· 14 min read
Dostoevsky and the Pleasure of Taking Offense
Dostoevsky in 1872, portrait by Vasily Perov. Wikimedia Commons
“A man who lies to himself is the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea—he knows all that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility.”

This passage appears in the opening chapters of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The Karamazov family has gathered in the chambers of a monk named Father Zosima in order to settle a dispute. Rather than allowing for a peaceful arbitration, though, the soon-to-be-murdered Fyodor Karamazov heightens the mutual resentment by taking disproportionate offense to his son Dmitry’s attitude. In an attempt to soothe Fyodor, Father Zosima provides this miniature discourse on offense. He does not deny that offenses exist, nor does he suggest that it is an egregious thing to offend others. But like all great teachers, he adjusts his lessons to the learner. In this case, Fyodor Karamazov is an unwitting student who has yet to realize that his fondness for taking offense can be as destructive to relationships as giving offense.

In response to this decidedly obvious revelation, Fyodor Karamazov responds giddily:

“Precisely, precisely, it feels good to be offended. You put it so well, I’ve never heard it before. Precisely, precisely, all my life I’ve been getting offended for the pleasure of it, for the aesthetics of it, because it’s not only a pleasure, sometimes it’s beautiful to be offended.”

This exchange may be of some comfort to anyone who is alarmed by the seemingly new development of offense-taking as a cultural pastime. While novel forms of media have heightened the reach of individuals who claim offense to enhance their own self-worth or to subdue their moral opponents, the strategy appears to have been prevalent since the origin of organized society. When Agamemnon offended Achilles by exerting political power and stealing his concubine, the great warrior refused to fight against the Trojans thereby endangering all Greek soldiers who did not take his own embittered side. When Socrates offended the Athenians by questioning their complacent certitudes, they had him executed. And in the Gospels, although he repeatedly says, “Blessed are those who are not offended by me,” we learn rather quickly that those offended by Christ put him to a horrific death. Much of history, both before and after these examples, is a tale of excessive offense-taking.

I want to emphasize the offense-commentary passage from The Brothers Karamazov because, along with Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky is probably the greatest of all writers on the topic of offense—and yet he was at the peak of his activity about 150 years ago, well before the Twitter mob had any ostracizing power. But Dostoevsky is not merely a historical comfort to those concerned with cancel culture. He is also a psychological prophet who painstakingly depicts the problem of exploitative offense-mongers. Whole plots and subplots in Dostoevsky’s fiction turn on offenses both real and imagined. One could even say that if rage is the most explicit theme of the Iliad, offense is the most explicit theme not only of The Brothers Karamazov but also of all of Dostoevsky’s late novels. In each of these, Dostoevsky reveals the unconscious or subconscious conditions for the self-promotion, or self-victimization, entailed in offense-mongering.

If Father Zosima is right that self-deceptive individuals are the first to take offense, we need to ask how offense-taking can be pleasurable. Why do we invent offenses for the beauty of it, and why are self-deceivers the most likely to take offense? A scholar of Russian literature named Gary Saul Morson recently responded to such questions when talking of The Brothers Karamazov. “We appreciate that people, far from maximizing their own advantage, sometimes deliberately make victims of themselves in order, for example, to feel morally superior.” In this sense, taking offense can transform humiliation into the pride of victimhood, thus embodying the contradictory commixture we all experience, at least minimally, of self-importance and the feeling of inadequacy around others who appear to have an advantage. Offense-taking invigorates a righteous indignation in which disgrace and self-importance are merged into a false victory. To react with indignation suggests an inviolable personal center that, by the sheer magnitude of the outburst, seems to demonstrate its own validity. In this way, offense-taking can manifest the inward inconsistencies and the quiet lies we tell ourselves.

Because of his wealth of self-deceptive characters, almost every social interaction in Dostoevsky’s fiction becomes a sort of duel. It matters little whether the relationship in question is categorized as a friendship, love affair, marriage, familial tie, or an explicit rivalry (several commentators, including Michael Holquist and Richard Pevear, have already made this point). And this is to say nothing of the violence and abuses Dostoevsky’s characters hurl at each other, nor of the arguments and spats that fill his pages, the humiliations, insults, and rivalries. Virtually every scene in Dostoevsky, every public engagement, and even those scenes in which a character is alone and merely imagining the thoughts of others assumes some form of interpersonal combat between “offender” and “offended.” The combatants are, more often than not, men and women who lie to themselves, for there are very few characters who are honest and unafraid of humiliation or ridicule. Equally alarming is the list of characters who have fought in actual duels, which even includes Father Zosima, one of the three saintliest men in the author’s entire corpus.

Dmitri Karamazov fought in a duel before the opening of The Brothers Karamazov. Stavrogin from Demons fought in several duels, one of which I will summarize momentarily. In Notes from Underground, the underground man, 17 years prior to his narration, was insulted in a tavern when an officer “took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing … Oh, if this officer had been one of those who would agree to fight a duel!” Though there are only two onstage duels in Dostoevsky’s novels, seldom is the possibility of an actual duel far off, seldom is dueling not a part of some family or individual history, for dueling is the culmination of offended interpersonal relations.

The first onstage duel takes place in Demons. In the town where this novel takes place, at the social club one evening, a respectable older man named Gaganov tells a trivial but self-aggrandizing anecdote to his friends. He concludes by exclaiming, “No, sir, they won’t lead me by the nose!” Stavrogin, an enigmatic young man, has been standing apart from the group, appearing to mind his own business. As soon as Gaganov flourishes his concluding line, “No sir, they won’t lead me by the nose!” Stavrogin approaches, grabs Gaganov’s nose firmly between two fingers and manages to pull him a few steps across the room. The club members surround Stavrogin in a flurry and demand an apology. He does apologize, but with such insouciance that it amounts to a fresh insult. Stavrogin’s behavior is so unprecedented that soon the community attempts to explain away his behavior by suggesting he must be experiencing brain fever or madness. By referring to a vague mental illness, in other words, the local society manages to dismiss the gesture rather than admit its disruptive power.

After four years in Switzerland and Petersburg, Stavrogin returns to the town where the incident occurred. Even though his insult has been more or less forgotten, Gaganov’s son has never accepted the brain fever resolution. He believes that the offense was much more significant than the public now admits, and he remains indignant after all this time. He sends insulting letters to Stavrogin until a duel becomes inevitable. Stavrogin is resistant, not from lack of physical courage but simply because of his intense indifference to the spectacle of most social customs. And yet because of his intense indifference to all things, he ultimately finds it easier to consent to a duel than to continue absorbing Gaganov junior’s mosquito-like attacks. During the duel, Stavrogin deliberately misses three times by firing his pistol into the woods. The gesture is so disdainful that his actions amount to yet a third insult, further enraging Gaganov Jr., who aims with killer intent but also misses because of his nervous irritation. According to the pre-established rules, the duel ends after three misses from each gentleman. Before Jr. gathers his thoughts, Stavrogin has galloped off on his horse.

Gaganov Sr.’s means of expressing himself are dependent on certain social cues, norms, codifications of speech and conduct, and metaphors both linguistic and physical—in short, little niceties that, with the slightest reference, allow him to use aesthetics to formalize his moral feeling of independence and shrewdness. “No sir, they won’t lead me by the nose!” is equivalent to saying, “No sir, I won’t relinquish my independence. I remain independent because I refuse to be duped. I am both enlightened and self-determined.” Then, like a thunderclap, Stavrogin shows that he, Gaganov Sr., has been duped all along, and he can very easily, and quite literally, be led by the nose, and that he is not only entirely dependent on the aesthetic–moral order but also that that very order is itself an illusion, a delicate semantic veil cast over a meaningless void. He collapses Garganov Sr.’s house of cards and inverts the man’s sense of self-worth. Stavrogin shows that, while Gaganov Sr. devotes all his energies to communicating something, in the end, he communicates nothing. He shows that Gaganov Sr. is in a state of insignificance because of the total misalignment between his external appearances and his inward emptiness and banality.

Certainly, Stavogrin’s gesture is offensive, but it is contingent on a pre-existing self-deceit. Not only does the nose-pulling invert the significance of Gaganov Sr.’s communication, showing him to be a contradiction, but it also reveals to everyone in the social club the void over which they, too, hover. Rather than reflecting on the inauthenticity of their social cues and metaphors, they bustle about Stavrogin and demand the impossible: a retraction. The silent and unwritten rules of society that structure the everyday order require at least that everyone nods and smiles at such stories and witticisms as Gaganov Sr.’s. Yet here comes Stavrogin, who cannot resist the urge to demolish the illusion. This gesture is “so unlike anything else, so different from what is usually done that it violates all understanding of social norms, and this so suddenly and brazenly as to be without precedent,” as the narrator explains.

What is noteworthy is that the most microscopic gesture of grabbing and pulling someone’s nose can lead to the most macroscopic activity of a public duel with loaded pistols, a life-and-death scenario. It is reminiscent of something Carl Jung once wrote, namely that the atomic world “is demonstrating before our eyes that the more deeply the investigator penetrates the universe of microphysics, the more devastating are the explosive forces he finds enchained there. That the greatest effects come from the smallest causes has become patently clear not only in physics but in the field of psychological research as well.” In Dostoevsky, atomic moments and even atomic thoughts radiate outward with explosive consequences—and this becomes more likely the more the people in question remain oblivious to their own inconsistencies and duplicities. Any little gesture has the power to lacerate so long as it has the power to illuminate the self-deceit of its recipient.

Why would the gesture of pulling a man’s nose—a little joke and nothing more—have the effect of affronting a whole society, unless Stavrogin’s fingers pulled along with Gaganov’s nose the curtain behind which the individuals of that society hid? The psychologically atomic is so powerful because it depends on the fragility of our self-protective cognitive barriers. Although an emotional blow may be slight, it can cause a chain reaction precisely because the disturbance is effective at demonstrating the instability of the entire structure holding up the established order. All a society can do is pretend that it was not a sane and calculated gesture created to have that effect, instead calling it an act of insanity: that is, continue lying. If this is not managed correctly, Stavrogin’s gesture could potentially take with it all of the neighboring moral and aesthetic illusions in rapid sequence until everyone is forced to acknowledge their rampant unintelligibility. The disproportion between a duel, in which one risks one’s life, and plucking someone by the nose, is the perfect indication of how deeply pride and dissimulation control our lives by deluding us into the belief that we have control over what, in fact, controls us: the received structures of self-deceit within a given demographic.

When we take offense, we prolong, highlight, and even perpetuate the affront we pretend we wished had never happened. If something shameful, embarrassing, or insulting occurs, why do we heighten the public’s awareness of it by challenging our offender to a duel (or, in more minor cases, trying to create a public outcry by broadcasting the offense and vilifying the moral decrepitude of the offender, slapping the wrongdoer, or creating a call to arms among others who never would have given it a second thought)? Why do we call more attention to the offense if it is something so shameful? In this case, why does Gaganov Jr. revive the offense when it has been forgotten? Does offense-taking archive rather than erase the insult?

Obviously, in interpersonal relations, giving offense is always a possibility; but the possibility of offense is indistinguishable from the possibility of love. Without the possibility of offense, that is, love is merely performative, for if lovers and friends cannot be honest and mutually critical, then the relationship is meaningless. And if love cannot be removed, then love does not exist in the first place. On top of this, there is a subtle difference between being offended and taking offense. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, the possibility of offense is a fork in the road; to be sure, someone else can give offense but, it is an impossibility if you do not take offense. In proposing a duel, the “offended” individual is announcing to the world, in effect, “my pride is so violated that I am willing to risk death to recover it—my pride is higher than my life, therefore it is justified as pride—and my pride is indicative of my worth as an individual.” In this way, the prideful reaction to an offender works in an empty circle.

The more pride I have, the more I seem to value what I take pride in, not realizing that I am not taking pride in anything other than my pride. The one who instigates the duel—in this case, Gaganov’s son, who has been stewing in a bath of hot pride for four years—possesses a psychology that is stuck in the Hegelian master–slave dialectic. He wants recognition, and nothing more, because he believes his pride is a manifestation of a spirit that cannot be divided. He wants to maintain or restore the original offensive activity so that he can take offense; and in taking offense, he wants to make it a matter of life and death to validate the strength of his inner personhood. But even the most perfunctory examination shows that pride results from self-division, not self-consolidation.

As I mentioned, there is one other onstage duel in Dostoevsky. On his deathbed, just two days after talking with Fyodor Karamazov about the allures of taking offense, Father Zosima speaks with his fellow monks, beseeching them to ask forgiveness rather than taking offense. For these purposes, he tells a story of the duel that led him to become a monk. Stationed as a military officer in a small society town, the young Zosima develops an attachment to a reputable girl from a wealthy family. But, being additionally attached to the depravities of bachelor life, he refrains from offering the woman his hand, even if he occasionally drops hints about a proposal. When he returns to the town after two months in another district, he discovers that the girl has already married a wealthy landowner. He even learns that they had been engaged for some time before his two-month absence, “and that was what offended me most of all … that almost everyone knew, and I alone knew nothing.” This girl and her new husband, had they been laughing at him as he foolishly dropped his hints of love? Was he the object of quiet ridicule throughout the town? Did everyone but Zosima know the truth all along: that he was making a fool of himself based on his false expectations? Zosima pits himself against a society of antagonists who, he believes, have conspired in a sort of silent mockery of him. A desire for revenge wells up in him—one which he artificially enflames to the point of real moral ugliness. At the right moment, at some festive gathering, Zosima publicly insults his rival and challenges him to a duel.

On the eve of the duel, Zosima brutally strikes his servant. In the morning, however, upon waking and hearing the birds and seeing the light of the sun, he breaks into sobs. “And suddenly the whole truth appeared to me in its full enlightenment: what was I setting out to do? I was setting out to kill a kind, intelligent, noble man, who was not at fault before me in any way, thereby depriving his wife of happiness forever…” Momentarily, in a fit of remorse, just as he is about to depart for the field where the duel is to take place, Zosima rushes to his servant, prostrates himself, and personally begs for forgiveness. The two men embrace, each humbling himself before the other, and Zosima finally departs in a philanthropic rapture. Somehow, in asking forgiveness, he has released himself from the hierarchical contradictions he had entangled himself within. For why should he, Zosima, be offended that a man of high station has married the woman he loves, when he, Zosima, considered it completely within his rights to physically assault a helpless servant who had done nothing wrong? Viewed from a place of dispassion, which is the greater offense? Which is malicious and abusive, and which is merely circumstantially unfortunate?

The first shot goes to the wealthy landowner, whose bullet grazes Zosima’s cheek. Instead of taking his own shot in return, however, Zosima throws his pistol into the trees. Then he walks toward his erstwhile rival and begs forgiveness. The landowner’s initial reaction is similar to Gaganov’s reaction to Stavrogin’s firing into the woods: he believes the gesture is an act of contempt. Zosima’s witness (or “second”) in the duel, a fellow officer, shouts about the disgrace he will bring upon the whole regiment, since he interprets the refusal to continue as an act of cowardice. But with his humility and sincerity, Zosima is slowly able to convince everyone that his withdrawal is not from cowardice or indifference to the honor of his adversary, but rather that it emerged from a renewed sense of the gift of life, and a new understanding of the repugnance of worldly arrangements that allow for such a barbaric custom as dueling. He manages to restore his adversary’s honor, as well as his own and his regiment’s, and the fact that he tossed the gun into the woods only after bracing for the first shot goes a long way to show his courage. Then he surprises everyone by immediately resigning from his military post to become a monk, specifically so that he might better live out the notion that this world is a paradise, and the human being alone is foolish and guilty.

In Notes from a Dead House, Dostoevsky’s fictionalized account of his four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, the author writes:

“Every man, whoever he may be and however humiliated, still requires, even if instinctively, respect for his human dignity. The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner, an outcast, and he knows his place before his superior; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being.”

This strikes me as a beautifully articulated point about the need to respect others, to treat every individual—and most especially those who view themselves as marginalized, alienated, ridiculed, or cast out—as a unique and important human being. On the other hand, it reveals how those who perceive themselves as victims may develop a self-deceptive scheme for reestablishing their own sense of humanity. In an age where the feeling of alienation is almost impossible to avoid, where global circumstances and the morass of media coverage can make us all feel like Dostoevskyan prisoners, it makes sense that exaggerated offense-taking is one strategy for combining self-humiliation and self-exaltation—and in such a way that the commixture conceals both from the surfaces of individual self-consciousness.

But what if our hardest task is to avoid taking offense, to resist the spasmodic outrage that takes trivial interferences to our own identities as major, criminal violations? What if we cease to succumb to the pleasures of taking offense? What if Zosima’s example of asking forgiveness rather than taking offense is the true manner of eradicating self-deception? If Father Zosima was correct when he asserted that “a man who lies to himself is the first to take offense”—or even if not—blessed are those who are not offended by his words.

Anthony Eagan

Anthony Eagan is a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, where he studies aesthetics and epistemology.

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