In 1851, a politicized young Russian was driven by dog sleigh across the wintry wastes of the Russian steppe and into exile in a freezing Siberian prison. He was not yet a great writer, but his experiences there would make him one. His name of course, was Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Like his parents (and unlike most other 19th century Russian writers) Dostoevsky was intensely religious. According to biographer Joseph Frank, he and his siblings were taught to read the bible “almost from the cradle”. Dostoevsky’s emotional and cultural loyalty to these ideals would last for the rest of his life, but whilst his faith never really left him, it was at times, sorely tested. As a deep thinker (and one prone to depressive bouts) we can be fairly sure that his faith was no blind acceptance. It was something he questioned again and again – always coming back to the same conclusion – that there is meaning and purpose in the universe.
His unsheltered childhood was spent in and around the grounds of an urban hospital for the poor. An example of the type of incident that the young Dostoevsky would have been exposed to, and which his literary peers surely wouldn’t have been, can be seen in an incident that occurred when he was a young boy. Playing in the yard one day, he was suddenly beckoned by a crowd of hysterical locals. They begged him to run swiftly and fetch his father who was a doctor, to attend to a young girl who had been raped by a tramp.
These kind of experiences are indelible. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s formative experiences as a child living in the suburbs of Moscow undoubtedly influenced his development as a person and as a writer. Throughout his youth, and much of his life, he felt that he didn’t fit in. And he didn’t! He seemed to exist on the outer edge of whichever social milieu he happened to find himself in. During his earliest years he was more privileged than the urban Muscovites that surrounded him in his own community, but he was also poorer than the students at the schools where his ambitious father sent him to be educated. All of this dissonance seeped into his first work, Poor Folk, which was published in 1846 when he was just twenty-four years old.
Poor Folk was initially hailed as a sensation by the terminally opinionated critic Vissarion Belinsky, and the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, both of whom championed Dostoevsky and gave him a considerable leg-up into literary fame. Through the endorsement of these two men Dostoevsky became something of a hipster’s obsession in the echo chamber of St Petersburg’s intelligentsia. This time, being different was a plus. Dostoevsky was more ‘street’ than these other intellectuals. He knew things that they didn’t know. He provided a window into a world that they had no direct experience of. Whirl-wind platonic love affairs ensued, with the likes of novelist Ivan Turgenev hanging on his every word (and vice versa). But whilst these affections rocketed Dostoevsky’s sense of self-esteem, it seems they also rather went to his head. Before too long his volcanic temper, forged by his unassailable life-long insecurity, had driven everyone away.
Dostoevsky’s ultimate downfall occurred when he came under suspicion of the Tsar’s secret police for being a member of a radical group known as the Petrashevsky circle. The Petrashevsky circle were in reality, a fairly toothless gathering of utopian socialists, but in those paranoid and tumultuous times, the Tsar (Alexander II) was taking no chances. Despite himself, and his actual misgivings regarding political radicalism (what would become socialism), Dostoevsky began proselytizing loudly regarding the emancipation of the serfs. Kindly friends warned him that he was headed for disaster, but he seems to have been unable or unwilling to alter his trajectory. Eventually Dostoevsky was rounded up along with many others put on trial, culminating in a mock execution. (Surely about as traumatic as it gets). Any momentary spiritual awakening brought on by this close call with death was short-lived as he was immediately carted off to prison and exile in Siberia for ten years.
Dostoevsky’s experiences in the Russian katorga (or prison camp) were what really made a man out of him, in existential terms at least. He was just 28 years old when he descended into this shocking and subterranean new world. Its denizens provided him with jewels of insight into the meaning of life that few other experiences could have done. Once again, he did not fit in, but this time it was on account of being a gentleman. After a long and difficult initiation however, he eventually found fellowship with these ordinary (and sometimes diabolical) men. This appears to have been his salvation. Dostoevsky’s soul was saved not by the priesthood of the church or the pen, but by exposure to ill-mannered, unsophisticated and damaged men. According to Joseph Frank;
“… he would sink to the lowest depths of society, live with outcasts and criminals, and listen to the talk of sadists and murderers for whom the very notion of morality was a farce”.
This exposure to the harsher realities of life demanded of Dostoevsky a radical ‘attitudinal shift’. As a result of this, during the ten years he was in prison and exile, he became more and more inclined towards the spiritual beliefs of his childhood rather than the ideologies of his former contemporaries. This spiritual re-affirmation (rather like Tolstoy’s mid-life crisis) was imparted to him by the ordinary Russians that surrounded him every day. It was the seedy and low-down realities of prison life that re-affirmed his faith, not the pronouncements of dogma from the mouths of the great and the good. Seeing the simple humility of the prisoners around him, and the respect that they showed for their church, their country and their tradition (despite any injustices it had dealt them) impressed itself on Dostoevsky in a powerful way, and these events are outlined at length in his semi-autobiographical novel House of the Dead, and inform most of the themes that occur and re-occur in all of his post-Siberian work.
There are several strong veins of what we might call existential philosophy in all of Dostoevsky’s mature work. Firstly, is the idea that there is meaning and purpose in life. He hides this, alludes to it, and engages a number of other subtle tactics to make it less obvious, but it is there, clearly and unmistakably. Secondly (and this is particularly noticeable in his magnum opus Crime and Punishment) he points clearly to the idea that man cannot re-invent himself endlessly, or decide arbitrarily as to what is right and wrong merely to suit himself. In fact, he constantly portrays men as having a distinct capacity for perverse acts of self-sabotage, and thus questions again and again, the existence of free will (with Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, being the best example of this). Lastly, Dostoevsky consistently puts forward the idea that man is not in search of happiness, but conversely, that he requires turmoil and challenge in order to come to know himself better.
There is some evidence that Nietzsche read Dostoevsky and was thrilled by the latter’s literary brilliance and philosophical ideas. Dostoevsky however, probably never read Nietzsche. And yet he was posing the same existential questions. What is the meaning in life? Is morality objective or subjective? Do we have free will? But whilst he was posing the same questions, he was coming to rather different conclusions.
For Dostoevsky, Nietzsche’s superman would probably have been a suspect figure. The ‘Superman’ – a man who could rise above the petty morals of religious orthodoxy and be sustained by his own value system – was the perennial obsession of the radicals who surrounded him in Petersburg, and to whom he had formerly (often reluctantly) been in agreement. For Dostoevsky – such an Übermensch was a childish dream. Through his life experiences he came to see that we are never beyond the reach of our conscience. He didn’t believe this– he knew it. He knew it as anyone who has experienced complete psychological annihilation does. Four years of hard labour, six years of exile, and increasing brushes with his own devilry (gambling addiction and a chaotic love life) had beaten this idealism out of him. He appears to have believed instead, that our conscience exists as an independent aspect of self, and that it lies juxtaposed with our dark and unwholesome qualities. To deny either was foolhardy – a theme that he explored again and again – most especially in Crime and Punishment.
The protagonist in Crime and Punishment is Rodion Raskolnikov, a morally nihilistic and poverty-stricken student. In a fast-changing society Raskolnikov has come under the influence of radicalism and has decided to take the ideal of social justice to its most extreme conclusion by committing the murder of ‘a louse’ – a pawnbroker named Alyona. This is a murder which nobody is going to get overly worked up about because Alyona is a usurious, penny pinching parasite who is feeding off the poor of St Petersburg. Therefore, this is a justifiable homicide in the ideologically motivated eyes of Raskolnikov – a murder which is only truly wrong when judged by the morality of a dying belief system – Christianity – which Raskolnikov rejects. (In fact, Raskolnikov looks very much like the young, pre-Siberian Dostoevsky).
Alyona’s money would be more useful if it was redistributed, or so Raskolnikov rationalizes. And so he dares himself to step beyond the pale. Will he, in fact, be judged. In one of the most realistic murder scenes ever written, the pathetic young student axes the old miser, as well as an innocent girl who is unfortunate enough to be a bystander. This twist is itself a moral statement. When we reinvent the rule book to right perceived injustices in a way that requires our direct and radical intervention – unexpected things tend to happen. Usually bad things.
Raskolnikov seems partially conscious of the fact that he is courting disaster. But only partially. As much as he tries to deny it by application of his reasoning faculties, his conscience nevertheless has a will all of its own. And slowly but surely it begins to give him away. Through a series of glaring errors and slips of the tongue, Raskolnikov reveals himself to the detective in charge of the murder case. As it becomes clear that he will eventually be punished, he seems to almost will it to happen. The reader is forced to ask – is this what he is truly seeking. Like a self-harmer who cuts himself just to feel alive – the nihilist must tear the fabric of existence apart in order that God (or morality) might reveal itself. And so it is that we are able to observe Raskolnikov’s unbearable guilt as it builds momentum and sends him half insane, manifesting in his dreams and waking fantasies.
What we can take from Dostoevsky, is that despite our best intentions to rip up the rule book of life and invent our own more progressive rule book, our morals and behavioural commandments are more entrenched than we might like to think, and are not to be so easily discarded. Like pain, they are an immovable object in the way of our delusion of self-governance. To throw them away, is to throw ourselves away. Raskolnikov found that he had offended something deeper than his own socialization. His conscience was more at one with the Universe than his ideologies were. And herein lies a sublime truth. Sometimes it is the wrongful actions that we ourselves have perpetrated which traumatize us the most, because such actions are at odds with a value system which is as older than we are, and quite possibly as old as our species. (For example, Chimpanzees are as likely to assassinate despots, or display altruistic behaviour, as humans are).
It is in this way that our transgressions have the potential to permanently alter our consciousness and destroy us, regardless of how newer, more contrived ways of thinking might seek to legitimize them. Departing from ‘natural’ law creates terrible dissonance, but also, by way of that dissonance -the capacity for profound change.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky shows us that the taking of a life to prove a point, or to prove that one can exist as a post-moral Superman, is a horrific and arrogant interjection into the territory of the creator – whatever that creator is. For Dostoevsky, the existence of an independent moral force is a given. These are natural laws – sea bed laws – savannah laws – they are ancient, primal, indestructible.