Einstein said that he learned more from Dostoyevsky than from any other author. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) is considered the greatest intuitive psychologist who ever penned a novel and has been called, “the greatest of all novelists”. His prose, however, can’t stand head-to-head with the flowing poetry, similes and metaphors of Pasternak, Dickens, Dreiser, Mitchell, Poe et al, but, with surgical precision, he laid the human mind bare; he grips us with the truth of his character’s thoughts, words and deeds; he tantalizes us with his endless references to great writers and philosophers, and his plots spellbind us, in spite of their elephantine girth, and, he, like all the great Russians, lays bare the culture and zeitgeist of the Russian people. To miss this triumph is to leave a gaping hole in our reading-lexicon.
Who was this brooding genius? Dostoyevsky was one of seven children in a poor family; his mother died when he was 16, and his father, a military staff doctor, was a beast, after whom Dostoyevsky modeled the villainous Fyodor Karamazov, who inspired so much enmity from his sons (Ivan, Dmitri/Mitya, Alexiei/Alyosha, and the tragic epileptic-bastard Pavel Smerdyakov, “the Brothers”) who they killed him. Dostoyevsky was a rebellious socialist, a pre-Communist, who, at age 25, was arrested and sentenced to death for his political activities, but his sentence was commuted, and he was pardoned by the Tsar after four years in prison in Siberia. He was burdened with excessive drinking, gambling and epilepsy. His first book, Poor Folk, was published at age 26 and was followed by a series of short stories. His triumphs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and Brothers Karamazov followed. The latter appeared the year before his death, a fitting epitaph, as it seemed so autobiographical.
Each of Dostoyevsky’s greatest novels is charged with a poignant moral. Crime and Punishment presents the most basic: Thou shalt not kill. The Idiot offers us a Christ-like hero, whose virtue, sacrifice and saintliness fail him in a world of thorny reality, rendering the hero a wise and lovable fool. The Possessed reveals the dangers of nihilism, socialism and the extreme ruthlessness of the revolutionary (a clairvoyant prognosis of the denouement of the Communist Revolution that was to come a half century later and was to brilliantly explained in one of the world’s greatest masterpieces, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago), and the ways in which society and the government crush the individual. Brothers Karamazov is not only a masterful book about Russia; it is a book about mankind and his universal questions; it defines the great battle between God and Satan, the battlefield being the mind and heart of man. “In every man a demon lies hidden.” Like Tolstoy and many others, Dostoyevsky is troubled by his own disbelief; like his characters, Mita and Ivan, all that Dostoyevsky wanted was an answer to his questions – but there came none, and what if God does not exist? Are not then all sins permissible and likely to go unpunished? He was tormented and tortured by these unknowns, and his characters here debate them ad nauseam. In his chapter, The Grand Inquisitor, Christ returns to earth, thinks ill of organized religion and wages a battle with the Devil and seems to lose, but Dostoyevsky believes that Christ-like love wins in the end, but the novel, like life, is inconclusive. The door to the unknown remains open, as it must – recalling the philosopher, Spencer’s, sage comment, “The only honest philosophy is agnosticism.”
Dostoyevsky focuses on the Eternal or Universal Issues: Is there a meaning to life? Is there a god or immortality? What monster could have wrought a universe so disordered, chaotic and cruel beyond comprehension, both the powers of nature and the brutal predatory structure of mankind and animal life? Sending evil souls to Hell does not redeem their sins or erase the pain that they inflicted here nor does their punishment explain, justify or negate those sins at any level. Why do all faiths say, “Abandon your gods and bow down only to ours – or burn in Hell forever?” Some faiths, of course, kill those who refuse; indeed, the Catholic Church burned countless thousands of atheists at the stake and splinter sects of Muslims continue such atrocities today. Religions seem given to cliquish exclusion of non-believers, thus repudiating the most fundamental goal of their faiths: to be loving to all. Must form prevail over substance; must it always be, “My way, or the highway”?
Some memorable Dostoyevsky-quotes include: “All is damned, disorderly, devilishly chaotic…still, I want to live…” [Ivan] “All I ever wanted was an answer to my questions.” [Mitya] “The Devil is in the details.” [Mitya] “There is so terribly much suffering for man on earth…Everything is a riddle…God gave us only riddles…Here the Devil struggles with God and the battlefield is the human mind…” [Mitya] “Paradise exists within all men… Love all of God’s creation…every leaf, animal, plant and child, as they are sinless…Love is like an ocean; it flows and connects…What is Hell…the suffering of not being able to love…” Alyosha’s Manuscript.
So, do we love this novel? I confess that, as much as love literature, it was difficult to read; the paragraphs are painfully long; the endless cacophony of staccato thoughts mirrored the disjointed, disturbing maze that erupts in our brains endlessly. There was so much dialogue, so much inspection and introspection of the human mind, and so little observation of the beauty of his surroundings, the people, their attire, the flowers, the countryside, and the sunsets. He seemed to see none of that or found it too trivial to recount. He was a psychoanalyst, whose mind was often enflamed with alcohol and the vestiges of his epileptic fits, and the rambling dialogue and thoughts presented run through us and over us and overwhelm us for one thousand-plus pages of fine print. In the end, this is masterpiece but not in the sense that I define it (if anyone cares); it is genius, but it is a burden. One must read Dostoyevsky, as one has to know what is there, but would I ever re-read it? Absolutely not – although I have read Dr. Zhivago three times and savored the magic of his poetic prose in every line, every time. Pasternak, too, had multiple themes, and he taught us Russian History with a capital “H”; he explained Communism, the why and the why not of it and how it was viewed, inflicted and felt, before it came to be, when it came to be, and after it came to be. We learned from it, and we learned ever more about how to love life, to love people and to love “the love of our lives”. That, to me, is Greatness. Notwithstanding these very personal perspectives, every adventurous reader MUST read Dostoyevsky’s triumphant novels. One cannot be truly literate without doing so.