“The sun gets warmer and brighter with each day; the air smells of spring and has a stimulating effect on the organism. The coming beautiful days excite the fettered man, too, and in him, too, give rise to certain desires, yearnings, longings. It seems the pining for freedom is still stronger under a bright ray of sunlight than on a grey autumn or winter day.”
These lines from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House draw on the Russian author’s experiences in Siberia, where, in 1849 – following his involvement in the politically subversive Petrashevsky Circle, and a harrowing mock execution – he was sentenced to four years’ hard labour.
To avoid attention from government censors following his release, Dostoevsky sketched the emotions of a fictional common-law criminal. Yet within these semi-fictional accounts lies a touching timelessness. One that not only helps us understand the psychological effects on Dostoevsky, during his political imprisonment in Russia, in the 19th century, but that also speaks to our experience of confinement as a global phenomenon in the 21st century.
As the world went into lockdown in spring of last year, I was far removed from the experiences of Dostoevsky’s “unfortunates”. Being housebound in the quiet backwaters of rural India amid a coronavirus outbreak was a far cry from internment in a forced-labour camp on the steppes of Siberia. But I could relate on a level. Indeed perhaps we all could, as, out of nowhere, we were thrown into the prisons of our homes.
“Here everyone’s a dreamer”, says the narrator of Notes from a Dead House, as he speaks of the prisoners’ anguish; of suppressed longings and desires. We know that Dostoevsky satisfied his own yearnings for escape and freedom via smuggled magazines and Dickens novels. In those first confusing weeks of lockdown (in between Netflix binges and family Zoom meetings) many of us turned to Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace – some via Yiyun Li’s virtual book club Tolstoy Together – for its power of imagination and ability to transport.
Heartwarming evocations of love and life, which even throws in a festive sleigh ride through snow-laden provincial Russia, certainly awoke the dreamer in me, sating, perhaps, a yearning for life on my home continent. And in my adopted home of Santiniketan, it was under the brightest rays of sunlight, when the rudra-palash lit up like Christmas trees, that my thirst for freedom was strongest.
For a book that encompasses the whole of humanity in its breadth of vision, War and Peace certainly chimed with those first sunny weeks of solidarity. But as the keen spring gave way to a summer of apathy and restlessness, it was to Dostoevsky’s own novels some would turn, for freedom and distraction.
For the humanity in Notes from a Dead House (1860-62), but also to later works, books profoundly nourished by his transformative experiences in captivity: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons (1871-2), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). To find strange comfort in their labyrinthine psychology; all the more poignant when read against an historical event which gave us strange and disorienting chunks of time for mass introspection.
“In my isolation I reviewed my past life down to the smallest detail”, says Alexandr Petrovich, in Dostoevsky’s “dead house”. And perhaps so did we, as we got a good look at ourselves, our foibles, and attendant demons.
Demons: The making of a modernist
Dostoevsky’s bringing together of all classes and religions, amidst the harshest conditions of penal servitude, touched a topic eternally close to Leo Tolstoy’s heart, who considered Notes from a Dead House “the best book in all modern literature, Pushkin included”.
Throughout his life Tolstoy lived in freedom. Barring a pretty catastrophic midlife crisis, he wrote in peace. Dostoevsky, however, spent much of his life after prison paying off creditors for huge gambling debts.
Most of his post-prison novels were written from a position of chronic anxiety and financial bankruptcy, which – along with a neurological condition we now know as Geschwind Syndrome – fed into his manic-driven narratives. There was a shift from the Romanticism of his early fiction, as his books became darker, reflected in a convulsive prose which began to explore the deeper recesses of the human heart and mind.
“He is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence”, praised James Joyce. There was an almost primal force to his writing, claimed Joyce, which made Dostoevsky so modern.
And we see this influence in the work of many other esteemed writers of the 20th century, from the time-compressed tragicomedies of Iris Murdoch, to the Southern-gothic tales of William Faulkner, whose “stream-of-consciousness” style, which displays a kindred obsession with the inner conflicts of individuals in a changing society, shows why Faulkner continues to be seen as Dostoevsky’s foremost student.
Such tensions between individual, community and modernity animate most of Dostoevsky’s post-prison writing. But it is his social and political satire, Demons – the book Iris Murdoch would go on to call “the greatest novel in the world” – which perhaps best describes the modern condition. Particularly in the realm of mass politics, in its portrayal of humans as creatures forever slaves to their animal instincts.
In Demons, also known as The Possessed (translated 1913), dreams turn to nightmares as Dostoevsky shows what happens when people become in thrall to (or “possessed” by) ideas which come to be seen as, in some way, more real than human beings. Written some 50 years before the 1917 Leninist Revolution, such ideas are presented in the class-based utopian ideals of Verkhovensky and Stavrogin, leaders of a cell of revolutionary conspirators who devote themselves to a single idea, despite the tragedy it brings to the provincial town they descend on.
Dostoevsky used the novel to suggest that it is such ideologues, with grandiose ideas about ways to improve humanity, who we should be most wary of. Especially those who justify any means to serve their beliefs.
Like his prison accounts, Demons becomes, paradoxically, a meditation on freedom. His views were (as ever) complex: Dostoevsky believed that freedom for human beings was a psychological necessity, but also an intolerable burden, which is why we’re so readily prepared to surrender it, and even our “humanness”, to political philosophies which claim to hold all the answers.
Indeed, in his pre-prison years as a young radical, Dostoevsky believed, like Verkhovensky and Stavrogin, that, given the right kind of social organisation, freedom would no longer be required. Dostoevsky invariably gave his loudest voice to characters whose ideas least reflected his own. His imaginary realist plots therefore tell us how not to behave, as he settled old scores with the type of intellectual dogmatism he once embraced, prior to his adoption – following his 10-year Siberian exile – of a kind of “pan-humanism”.
Home and the world: Prophets, east and west
It is perhaps not entirely surprising, then, that parallels have occasionally been drawn with that other pan-humanist, India’s first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Some even point to possible influences on the Bengali polymath, owing to distinct parallels between Demons and Tagore’s Home and the World (1915-16) – a story, incidentally, also conceived partially out of personal experiences of confinement (albeit from the greater comfort of an aristocratic household, and at a much younger age).
Whether or not there was any direct influence, the similarities are striking. Set against the backdrop of the Bengal partition of 1905, Home and the World follows the trials and tribulations of the female protagonist Bimala, a humble, educated woman – wedded to Tagore’s alter ego, the gentle and noble Nikhilesh – who, drawn by certain nihilistic impulses, becomes captivated by the charismatic fervour of the antihero, Sandip, a militant nationalist revolutionary – and kind of Nietzschean Superman figure – who wields his ideological influence by way of power and force; this at a time when she’s first entering the world, after her initial confinement to the home.
Bimala thus comes to represent the identity of her country, vis-à-vis her fate in the modern world. Demons contains no single counterpart, but several; female characters who symbolise a “Motherland”, and who, in their struggles to be at home in the world, are allured by the seductive but destructive ways of a new westernised elite. Dostoevsky thought that such demagogues – with unyielding ideas built upon supposedly self-evident axioms – were destined to become figureheads of a dangerous new kind of religion.
Tagore feared the deification of the nation, with its messianic leaders. But both apprehended the fatal attraction of the idols of ideology in the modern world, and why those who promise to relieve us of our “burden” of freedom – in return for the security of certainty in the world – always command a following.
The rise of such figures in recent years shows that such characters are seldom confined to the lands of fiction, and still thrive in political climates where they’re able to exploit the intuitive impulses of the masses. Dostoevsky censured the revolutionary left. Tagore reserved his fiercest criticism for the nationalist right. But both pointed to an irrationality in mass politics when seemingly rational ideologies are taken to their logical conclusions. Especially in times of uncertainty, when they can so easily take on a life of their own.
Dostoevsky’s prophetic allegory anticipated the rise of totalitarianism in twentieth-century Europe, and beyond, and Tagore’s timely fable foresaw the insidious rise of an exclusionary nationalist politics, of the type we see around the world today. As in India, where the politics of Hindutva is fast becoming the animating ideology of the Indian Republic.
Freedom through the crucible of art
Dostoevsky’s and Tagore’s novels were equally prescient in their diagnosis of the modern predicament. And their prescriptions weren’t a million miles apart. Both spent their lives struggling with huge political and social changes put in motion since the Petrine reforms, in Russia, and the advent of British colonialism, in subcontinental India. Each came to see his own country as predestined to achieve a social fusion: a cultural synthesis between East and West; tradition and modernity; “home and the world”.
They would eventually alight on the same belief that the only true route to human freedom was one which cut through all given binaries, including “self” and “other” (and ultimately even “spiritual” and “material”), to evolve a universal humanism. Both would turn to the medium of art as their vital means of expression.
Dostoevsky’s books were dark and melancholic. Yet they retained a streak of Romanticism at their heart. In his reflections on the human struggle to become good, Dostoevsky’s philosophy would mirror Friedrich Schiller’s notion that art – which naturally points to the ideal of beauty and perfection – could provide a supreme service to humanity, for its “direction of the good”.
“[It is] the greatest secret of art, that the image of beauty created by it immediately becomes an idol unconditionally…It is a necessary need of the human organism…It is harmony; in it lies the guarantee of tranquility; it embodies the ideals of man and of mankind”, Dostoevsky once wrote, in consonance with the German playwright.
His views also chimed closely with those of Tagore, who also believed (writing several decades later) that art, which transcends borders, could point towards certain universal moral ideals. Tagore went further, in his 1913 essay The Realisation of Beauty, to suggest that the purest, most unifying art form was music (and you need only recall the solidarity shown via online performances last year to appreciate why), as his own songs undoubtedly proved, in 1905-1911, and again during the 1971 War of Liberation, when they were used to sing an ever-more divided Bengal into a nation.
Tagore likewise grappled with the problem of “self”, its relation to the world, and its connection to the wider moral universe of the community. Dostoevsky came from a different cultural universe, yet if he reached any similar conclusion to the Bard of Bengal it is best expressed in Home and the World’s most salient line, that, “the quest for one’s identity seldom leads inwards – it lies somewhere out in the world”.
Indeed, Tagore’s all-embracing moral philosophy would closely resemble Dostoevsky’s overarching project of an inclusive kind of love. One which represented an almost Buddhistic move towards selfless compassion, despite our manifold differences and outlooks on life, and an understanding that real freedom isn’t brought about by the perfect social structure or abstract ideology, but one human heart at a time, and through a realisation that it is the ego – and the imposition of our own ideals upon the world, for which it depends – that is responsible for most of the human suffering in this world; a part of Dostoevsky’s thinking that would eventually go on to inspire Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing”, an ethical ideal – also born out of Murdoch’s intuitive assertion that “philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious” – which would bind her broad and brilliant oeuvre of fiction and non-fiction, including her seminal treatise, The Sovereignty of Good.
Divided, righteous minds
Morality both binds and blinds. Such universalist dreams of shedding our “mind-forg’d manacles” – and bids to transcend our “fat relentless egos” via re-imaginings of the Platonic Form of the Good – in today’s world seem at best unfashionable and, at worst, wholly naïve, as we see a global trend towards political polarisation and isolationist nationalism, each driven by exclusivist, inward-looking forms of identification and moral reasoning.
Dostoevsky’s Demons obliterated the basic assumptions of identity-based thought. Yet we continue to see the rise of a politics of collective identity and exclusionary group belonging; bullying tribalisms and cancel cultures which reject the need for context or nuance (let alone the virtues of kindness, tolerance or forgiveness); and extremisms on both sides of the political divide. One thing such phenomena share is their failure to see what brings us together. As we scramble to our ideological teams we continue to see only what sets us apart.
There is of course an irony in that, in his bid to abandon ideology, Dostoevsky wasn’t immune to such totalising ideas himself, some of which gave rise to undeniable forms of xenophobia, as well as what some consider to have been a kind of “mystical nationalism”. As an agnostic, who frequently veers towards atheism, I, like many, find some of his ultimate prescriptions, which leant heavily on Russian Orthodoxy, a little hard to swallow. Yet you don’t have to approve of all of a writer’s stances to find value in their work.
What Dostoevsky realised is that many of the problems in human societies aren’t a battle between “good” and “bad” people. We’re creatures of flesh and blood. Each human heart (or mind, if you prefer) carries a battle between our impulses to do good and our impulses to do bad.
Dostoevsky was a deeply moral thinker, whose tumultuous life led him to realise that the only true path to social harmony was one by which no-one was excluded from the right to autonomy and human dignity, even as he acknowledged the positive spirit of group cohesion and the communal ties that bind (and he arguably went too far in the latter regard). But, perhaps more importantly, one which, in recognising the power of bad ideas, fully accepted the sometimes unwelcome fact that we’re a fallible species, formed of intellect and instinct; reason and intuition.
“The laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges”, Dostoevsky observed in his review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, as he praised the psychological acuity of his kindred contemporary. Like Tolstoy and Tagore, Dostoevsky applauded the advances of science, but was equally concerned that its elevation in all areas of human life had brought about an overly mechanistic way of seeing the world, one that would eventually even permeate the social sciences and reduce human beings to material objects, overlooking our multidimensional natures and infinite capacity to surprise.
Dostoevsky believed the humanities and sciences could learn from each other. But, ever mindful of the probable limits of human knowledge, he also knew that answers to our biggest questions may remain forever incomplete, particularly when it came to our understanding of human nature. Which is why – in his efforts to reconcile empirical observation of human behaviour with his Platonic idealism – he turned to metaphorical narrative. Especially when addressing that most insoluble human problem, of identity.
‘Man on earth strives for an ideal that is contrary to his nature’
In the 200th year since his birth, Dostoevsky will be remembered by many as a passionate, forthright sceptic. One who endeavoured never to lose sight of the bigger picture, and who, in detesting hatred and repression in all its manifestations (even as he fell victim to such discriminatory beliefs himself), strove to resist the temptation to miniaturise our identities out of constructive use, or for personal gain.
In an online world of sound bites and blind conviction it’s difficult to imagine that future generations will be interested in reading a thousand-page Dostoevsky novel. But they should. Dostoevsky’s books – with their unique mix of dark comedy and pathos – are notoriously gloomy. Yet they can be oddly uplifting. In them he tested the very limits of human freedom: in prison he bore witness to the darkest sides of human nature; in his later years in freedom he agonised over our natural dogmatism and self-destructiveness.
He struggled to find solace and liberation. Yet the times he did – in prison and in freedom – it was in our universal ideals and common humanity.
“Man on earth strives for an ideal that is contrary to his nature”, says one telling notebook entry of April 16, 1864 – which became Dostoevsky’s most paradoxical conundrum, and most succinct explanation for what he saw as the tragedy of the human condition. Towards the end of his life he would admonish humans not for the presence of evil, vanity or selfishness, but for succumbing to inflexible ideas that would lead us to lose sight of – and consequently the impetus to even strive for – our common ideals. His work often raised as many questions as answers, yet contained more than a kernel of truth.
As Iris Murdoch once said, “if a fiction is necessary enough, it is not a lie”. A hundred and fifty years after its first serialised publication, Demons contains as much truth about the human predicament as the very latest books on genetics. And, as Dostoevsky’s most prophetic novel went on to show, the intuition of the artist can shed light on the future long before the rest of us are able to see it; as Tagore demonstrated, and as later literary modernists would go on to prove: including George Orwell, whose dystopian tale, 1984 – not so incidentally – owed much, whether directly or indirectly, to Dostoevsky’s works of fiction.
Sadly, as humanities degrees are devalued by employers, and governments prioritise STEM subjects, we continue to see the number of arts and humanities students falling. If the last 20 months have shown us anything, it is that pathogens and viruses pose an existential threat. Music and art transcend borders, but viruses do too.
As we move forward in the world – and also face a looming environmental crisis – we’ll need the sciences more than ever. But the political fallout of such calamities could arrive sooner than we expect, particularly as we confront the ongoing manifestations of global inequality and social injustice. And we surely won’t meet such huge challenges if we can’t muster the volition to strive even for our most basic common ideals. Which is why we’ll need the beating hearts of the arts and the humanities, and their hard-earned wisdom, even more – as we face our erstwhile demons, become more evolved human beings, and pass on lessons learned.
The Dostoevskys of this world – the thinkers and dreamers: the Tagores; the Murdochs; the Tolstoys – whose legacies today appear more marginalised than ever, remain relevant. And they’ll continue to be, for as long as we languish in the prisons of confined identity. Dostoevsky’s Alexandr Petrovich, said: “The prisoner knows that he is a prisoner; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being”.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, in another semi-autobiographical account of prison life, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wrote: “you can’t expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold”. This is perhaps true. Yet one warm man, from a small Indian town called Santiniketan, could. And in the spring of 2020, in one passing moment in the home and the world, we all could too.