The cherry blossom and the rose – On reading Dostoyevsky

Individuals and collectives – words and pictures

Little by little, bit by bit, I have been patiently reading Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; the book was published in 1880 and certain critics and academics refer to it as his ‘major accomplishment’. As I have been reading this very long work I have been reminded of Iris Murdoch’s remark that authors no longer write in this style. There is a feverish, pyretic, and sometimes delirious tone which often distinguishes the mood and conduct of the various people we meet in his absorbing text. Heightened passion and moments of hysteria are not uncommon as the narrative unfolds. After a while, and once one has become accustomed to this, the effect is compelling! (I think she, Iris Murdoch, also suggested that no one now can really achieve the kind of literary and intellectual heights that writers such as Dostoyevsky once attained.)

Apart from elucidating the existential challenges facing his characters, treating us to the brilliance with which which he depicts their personalities, and, the detailed discourses he elaborates on the meaning of the Christian religion, he also identifies a ‘spirit of the age’ that he discerns in Russia and beyond; his observations are particular interesting because they appear to foreshadow, by way of contrast, the mood and hopes of the subsequent revolution in Russia – but they also, in certain respects, apply to our own times. I have selected a particular passage which appears on page 349 of my ‘Penguin classics’ edition. The remarks are made by Zosima, the elder of a monastery; the discourse he gives occurs a few hours before he dies. As he speaks he refers to the words of a ‘mysterious and earnest man’ – a man who carries with him an unconscionable secret.

Zosima tells us that:

‘In order for the world to be transformed into a new mould it is necessary that human beings themselves shall psychically turn on to another path. Until you really make yourself the brother to all, brotherhood will not arrive. Never, prompted by science or self-interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property, their privileges in harmless fashion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another.

You ask when what I describe will come true. It will come true, but first there must be a period of human solitariness. ‘What kind of solitariness do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘The kind that reigns everywhere now, particularly in our own time, though it has not yet established itself universally, and its hour has not yet come. For each now strives to isolate his person as much as possible from the others, wishing to experience within himself life’s completeness, yet from all his efforts there result’s not life’s completeness, but a complete suicide, for instead of discovering the true nature of their being they lapse into total solitariness. For in our era all are isolated into individuals, each retires solitary within his burrow, each withdraws from the other, conceals himself and that which he possesses, and ends being rejected of men and by rejecting them. He amasses wealth in solitariness, thinking: how strong I am now and how secure, yet he does not know, the witless one, that the more he amasses, the further he will sink into suicidal impotence. For he has become accustomed to relying upon himself alone and has isolated himself from the whole as an individual, has trained his soul not to trust in help from others, in human beings and mankind, and is fearful only of losing his money and the privileges he has acquired.

In every place today the human mind is mockingly starting to lose its awareness of the fact that a person’s true security consists not in his personal, solitary effort but in the common integrity of human kind. But it will certainly be the case that this terrible solitariness will come to an end, and all will comprehend at once how unnaturally they have divided themselves one from the other. Such will be the spirit of the age, and they will be astonished that they have sat in darkness for so long without seeing the light.’

Well, I think it’s a striking piece of writing. Plainly it stands in contrast to what appears to be the prevailing spirit of our time. History also seems to tell us that the ‘common integrity’ of ‘human kind’ is a chimera. Or is it?

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