Happy Birthday, Dostoevsky! A short appreciation and fiction homage...
Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, born on this day in 1821, is a giant of literature. He remains relevant, today, because he raises the Big Questions of our existence, concerning free will, morality, good and evil as well as the role of faith in our lives.
I imagine there is a special intimacy to reading him in his native tongue (Russian). But I also believe that what is profound in great literature is beyond language.
How else to account for the fact that my inner life was (trans)formed by Russian, French, German & Persian literature, in translation.
As a young man, his Notes from the Underground set me alight. Later on in life, as an angry young man full of Existentialist doubt, it's The Grand Inquisitor chapter in Brothers Karamazov that did it for me -- when the Christ figure responds, wordlessly, to the frustrations of his accuser ('I, respectfully, return my ticket') with a kiss. Sigh
Crime and Punishment, which I also enjoyed immensely, is on the surface a psychological thriller. But, past that, it is an excellent example of a classic work of art that collapses false distinctions between psychology, literature, philosophy and, ultimately, spirituality.
Here is a fine quote of Dostoevsky from his masterwork, Brothers Karamazov a 1000 page philosophical epic that tackled all of his major themes and was to be his final novel:
Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.
I remember being awestruck to discover this complicated and complex prophet as a voracious reader in my teens. If memory swerves correctly, I was so caught up reading his darkly entertaining Notes from Underground that I hardly noticed that the train I was on had derailed!
When I did (because everyone else was panicking and scrambling to get off the tram), I proceeded to disembark, in measured pace, without tearing my eyes off his delirious, passionate prose.
In fact, I was so enamored by the voice of the narrator of this unsettling novella that I attempted to emulate it.
Here's an excerpt of an early work of fiction of mine:
An homage to Dostoevsky
Abominable Ladies and Gentleman, thank me for coming!
Tonight, I empathize with every one of you. I’m overcome by a peculiar affection encompassing all and, almost, myself. I do not lie . . . now! Just how long I shall continue to experience this curious condition, I do not know. There are no constants and there are no certainties. Yes, there are none, certainly. We are merely figures of fun moved by unseen forces, which have no right to make any claims to knowing ourselves. (Nor can we assume any credit for our actions, only blame).
It’s important, therefore, that we recognize the notion that we should accept ourselves, fully, for what it truly is: a fallacy. We most certainly should do no such thing. To accept oneself, fully, is to assume responsibility for all that wanders in the wasteland of our heads and, that is a most dangerous thing to do. Instead, one should only judge oneself by their actions, and not for their thoughts. Thought is thwarted action, impotent action, unactualized action; active but not action. The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we don’t define us to ourselves.
Only partially, of course, for one can never fully know themselves, nor should they want to. The over examined life is even less worth living than the unexamined one, trust me. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, true, but a lot is absolutely fatal . . . particularly self-knowledge. It is a wonder that people are able to identify on any level at all with others -family, friends, or lovers—when they are unable to identify with themselves.
How they do it, I shall never know. Which is not to say that I should not care to know but, the truth is, I do not care to know. I care much more for extraordinary personalities than I do for ordinary persons; and I shall continue to be consumed by character until the day I live (which must account for my most shameful self-absorption).
But, I do hope you don’t believe every word I’ve said, however, even I don’t. Or, perhaps, especially I don’t. But more likely, affectations aside, I don’t entirely. Believe every word I’ve said, that is. You see, I most certainly do not ‘see the world steadily and whole’. Rather, I see it oscillating wildly and fragmented. But, everything is difficult to see when one will not open their eyes.
I know that. I’m aware that I am walking around with one eye firmly shut, and the other half open. Don’t be alarmed. I’m all too aware that I only say half-truths, and that I’ve lived even less than what little I’ve seen, all theory and hardly any practice.
With me, there can only be so very little life in my life for it to be livable; any more life and I could not continue; any more light and I would go blind. Yes, I’m all too aware of that. I am aware. I have the suffering of awareness, though, and not merely the awareness of suffering (which is only its offspring). But, please, don’t take me too seriously—it’s enough that I do.
I’m sorry if you do not find the program amusing so far; I don’t either. Why should I make myself amusing to you when I can’t find myself amusing? Why should you be able to enjoy me, when I can’t enjoy myself? Don’t answer me!
An answer would rob me of my uncertainty, and that is all I have left. Without it I am left with nothing. Please, don’t answer me. But, believe me, I wasn’t always this way. I wasn’t always a haunted man. You would not have recognized me then, just as I do not recognize myself, now.