Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser: Reading Dostoevsky in Contemporary America

by Justin Trifiro

The following piece derives from a talk delivered at the Jubilee celebration of the Russian major at the University of Montana. It is with hope that we approach the new year together and closer in spirit…

If Dostoevsky were alive and working today, he would be a fearless Facebook stalker and a better tweeter than Trump. A voracious reader of both foreign literatures and the Russian press, Dostoevsky was a seasoned practitioner in a vital human activity that persists in losing momentum and prestige in our postmodern condition: namely, the art of reading. (I hear the voice of Dostoevsky the Paradoxalist chiding me for the earlier comparsion to Trump the President, purportedly a man who has yet to read a book from cover to cover.) Ever an impassioned polemicist and fierce critical thinker, discussion and debate would increasingly become marked concomitant features of the mature Dostoevsky’s engagement with the written word. We come to know ourselves through storytelling.

To know a place is to take in its imagery, cautiously and attentively. To know a man is to reflect on his contours, both bodily and spiritual, to experience his rhythms and gestures as something radically Other and never wholly comprehensible. Knowing as a communicative process, as a motive force—this is the locus of Dostoevsky’s personal and artistic genius. In a letter to his beloved brother Mikhail (dating from August, 1839, shortly after the death of his father), the seventeen-year-old Dostoevsky writes, “Man is a mystery [chelovek est’ taina]. The mystery needs to be unraveled, and if you spend your whole life unraveling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted your time; I am engaged with this mystery because I want to be a human being [Ia zanimaius’ etoi tainoi, ibo khochu byt’ chelovekom].” Years later in April 1864, reflecting on the death of his first wife, Maria, Dostoevsky writes in his notebook, “Man strives on earth toward an ideal that is contrary to his nature [Chelovek stremitsia na zemle k idealu, protivupolozhnomu ego nature].” Robert Louis Jackson considers this to be the writer’s most important philosophical statement. We as autonomous creatures, shrouded in mystery and riddled with contradiction, are ultimately responsible for the cultivation and harvest of an ideal state of being, however curious and confounding the seasons may be.

The season of the world today is one decidedly conditioned by a pervasive sense of fear. This is nothing new. What perhaps most palpably distinguishes our current condition from former times is the astonishing advent of advanced modes of technology. Developments in the realm of social media are of particular gravity and consequence for the viability of interpersonal and cross-cultural relations. We are somehow simultaneously so close to and so far from one another. Some would say we are experiencing a season of shame as Pope Francis recently stated from the Vatican: “Such shame…derives from ‘all those images of devastation, destruction, shipwrecks, that have become routine in our lives.’” The world has probably always been at sixes and sevens, but today, in an image-saturated culture, we are bombarded with visual exigencies from all four corners. We are wounded birds, weary and battle-scarred. What happens to human beings and our collective potential to respond to each other sensitively and temperately when images of deformity and decay become routinized and instrumentalized in the service of deeply-rooted regimes of power and exclusion? Now more than ever we appear to be in need of the insulted and injured, the disenfranchised and misunderstood, the holy fools gracing this rock.

To look, or not to look—such is the concern. But there is more to this all too cozy formulation—how do we responsibly view scenes of unconscionable ugliness? Writing to his friend and frequent correspondent, Nikolai Strakhov, in June 1870, Dostoevsky emphatically states, “…man on the surface of the earth does not have the right to turn away and ignore what is taking place on earth…[…chelovek, na poverkhnosti zemnoi, ne imeet prava otvertyvat’sia I ignorirovat’ to, chto proiskhodit na zemle…].” He is writing in response to a piece recently published by the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (with whom Dostoevsky had, well, complicated relations) on a public execution Turgenev witnessed in France. Dostoevsky himself faced public execution when he was led to the scaffold in 1849 for his participation in an underground socialist circle. At the last minute, Tsar Nicholas I had the sentence commuted to four years in a Siberian prison camp with a subsequent six-year term of military service in Central Asia. Dostoevsky survived his own death. In his later novels (most vividly captured in Prince Myshkin’s reflections on near-death experience in The Idiot), Dostoevsky returns again and again to the theme of facing one’s mortality, directly, without filters. He stages scenes of extraordinary violence and brutality demanding a moral choice on the part of the reader—do I keep reading or shut the book and donate it to Goodwill?

Man is a mystery, and he must be unraveled. This is a categorical assertion that bolsters the necessity for artistic depictions of violence in Dostoevsky’s work. Homo sum et nihil humanum (“I am a man, nothing human is foreign to me”). Terence’s quotation was elevated to a space of great praise during Renaissance humanism, but Dostoevsky questions its infallible merits. If I am a man, then I am capable of engendering tremendous pain and committing all sorts of egregious acts. If none of this is alien to me, then in a sense all is permitted. (It is no accident that Svidrigailov, traditionally viewed as one of the great villains in Dostoevsky’s fiction, utters this phrase shortly before committing suicide toward the end of Crime and Punishment.) It is evident that Dostoevsky considered savagery and barbarity to be immutable realities native to the human condition. As we are all capable of performing considerable injustices to ourselves and to one another, so too we are all responsible for taking a moral inventory of our thoughts, inclinations, and actions.

I have been discussing violence at length because it seems that its presence is endemic to the United States today. The systematic physical and psychological hurt done to minority groups (particularly black men and transgender folk); the vociferous evangelism against immigrants of various skin shades and creeds; the deplorable denigration of drug addicts and the mentally ill—this land increasingly distances itself from the pronoun “our” in favor of binary distinctions proceeding from the rupture of “us” vs. “them.” Terrifyingly, much of this misguided and misdirected vitriol operates from a top-down government apparatus that appears to be fundamentally unaware of the precarity of human life.

A few months short of Donald Trump’s election, Ani Kokobobo contributed a fine piece entitled, “How Dostoevsky predicted Trump’s America.” She writes, “As a professor of Russian literature, I’ve come to realize that it’s never a good sign when real life resembles a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with its riotous rhetoric and steady stream of scandals, calls to mind Dostoevsky’s most political novel, ‘Demons,’ written in 1872. In it, the writer wanted to warn readers of about the destructive force of demagoguery and unchecked rhetoric, and his cautionary messages—largely influenced by 19th-century Russian political chaos—resonate in our present climate.” She goes on to note how Trump’s lack of “impulse control” proved to be extremely effective in working up a mass of frustrated people and inspiring similarly aggressive behaviors from much of his constituency. Kokobobo notes, “When audiences at Trump rallies verbalize violence by screaming ‘Lock her up and ‘Kill her,’ or when Donald Trump—either wittingly or unwittingly—advocates Second Amendment violence, I wonder whether they aren’t coming dangerously close to the primal violence of ‘Demons.’”

Demons is Dostoevsky’s most overtly political novel, a work marked by narrative disarray, intercharacterological agitation, and extreme violence. This artistic statement may be as close as Dostoevsky comes to delineating what he perceives to be the alarmingly short step from socialist aspiration to totalitarian asphyxiation. Whenever Dostoevsky’s name is invoked as a prophet* to modernity or prophesier of the nightmare events of the twentieth-century, the novel Demons typically becomes an integral element of the conversation. The work pivots around a few major points, all of them pertinent to any discussion on some of the major issues plaguing contemporary American culture: the prevalence of a “herd mentality” before a concentrated, “educated” elite; the social ramifications of rumormongering; and perhaps most importantly what Sarah Pratt has termed “bystander (ir)responsibility”—that is, the neglect human beings so often exhibit before the plight of others. (*And here I must thank Robin Miller for reminding me that Dostoevsky is an eminently “fallen” prophet—one need only flip to any page in the Diary [and especially the Diary of the last years] to find much ugliness that is frighteningly resonant with the current administration’s agenda. Heroes are not angels, and men are hardly heroes.)

Toward the end of Dostoevsky’s life, the concept of obosoblenie would come to haunt the writer and inform much of his ethical thought and artistic creation. Obosoblenie, as a socio-cultural crisis in late Imperial Russia, is distinguished by a tendency toward isolation, the compartmentalizing of self. It is a marker of what Charles Taylor has termed the “buffered” individual stance of modern Western man. Centuries of Cartesian dualist and Kantian categorical conditioning have placed a premium on minds and the faculty of reason. Following Tayor (and borrowing a term from Max Weber), we live in a “disenchanted” world, one increasingly devoid of a sense of the ineffable. That which resides outside of phenomenological experience (I am thinking here of spirits and such) no longer holds ontic value as it did for our premodern ancestors. The world has become less mysterious, and so we no longer turn out and physically seek, but mentally fortify and turn inward.

Obosoblenie is a major thread comprising the fabric of what Leonard G. Friesen, in a recent study, has called Dostoevsky’s “orphan’s lament” ethic. This lament is overwhelmingly a clarion call signaling alienation and human disconnect. From Dostoevsky’s first work, Poor People (1846), to his final masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), the theme of withdrawal, and its constitutive elements of loneliness, suspicion, and intemperance, defines the dissonance of a technologically-dependent universe moving at a breakneck tempo away from a primitive fraternity that is predicated on spontaneous, freely suggested interpersonal exchange. It is the crisis of our own age.

If there is anything approaching an answer to the fractured conditions Dostoevsky so presciently diagnosed, it may be found in the attitude of one of his most beloved characters, Father Zosima. The starets advocates a program of “active love” (deiatel’naia liubov’) as a balm for our collective grief. He stresses that loving one’s neighbor actively is hard work—this is because to love another being with tenderness and care is to expose oneself to the very real possibility of being let down, of potentially experiencing all kinds of hurt. To love another actively necessitates loving with a significant degree of uncertainty and vulnerability—it is an act of faith. This is why Ivan Karamazov claims it so much easier to love one’s neighbor when that neighbor doesn’t live next door. Diametrically opposed to the Christian conception of agape (marvelously announced in Kierkegaard’s command: “The first being I see upon opening my door, that one shall I love”), Ivan’s abstract love doesn’t dance—it insulates and atrophies. There is no mystery here, no faith.

We know a good deal in America in 2017, but we are not faithful. Dostoevsky paints a cosmos bereft of faith as one systemically ill, flawed at the root. Where knowledge is stationary, faith is in movement. In the twelfth-century, the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “How then does faith differ from knowledge? In that even though it is no more in doubt than knowledge, we hold what we believe as a mystery, as we do not do with knowledge. When you know something you seek no further. Or if you do, you have not yet known.” Dostoevsky’s gift to the world is fundamentally Dionysian in spirit—it is an ecstatic quest that strives toward moral improvement. In the words of Zosima, “Yesterday I was still a fool, but today I am a bit wiser.”


Justin Trifiro is a PhD student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California.

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