Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, the second child of a civil servant, a surgeon in a hospital for the poor. Despite their love of literature, Dostoevsky’s father compelled his sons to attend the St. Petersburg Academy of Engineers to prepare for stable careers. In 1839, the father—a strict, irritable, and cruel personality—died. Although historians now argue that the cause of death was probably stroke, Dostoevsky believed throughout his life that his father had been murdered by his serfs, angered at his ill treatment of them. For the rest of his life, Dostoevsky would suffer guilt over his father’s death, the product of his own ambivalent feelings.
Having published his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was praised by an influential critic as Russia’s first significant social novel, and in the same year, a second but less well-received novel The Double, in 1847, Dostoevsky began to form a connection with the “Petrashevsky Circle,” a moderately revolutionary group. The members of the group, including Dostoevsky, were arrested and convicted of conspiracy and subversion. The tsar, in order to emphasize his benevolence, staged a false execution before a firing squad, which was called off seconds before Dostoevsky believed his life would end. His time was then spent working off an eight-year sentence to hard labor and military service in Siberia. These experiences revived Dostoevsky’s philosophy with spiritual revelations based on Christian love, redemption, and absolution.
In 1864, Dostoevsky published Notes from the Underground, in which he demonstrates that freedom is an essential attribute of man, yet argues against the notion that man (and the society organized around him) is rational. Man desires freedom, but unchecked freedom may lead to destruction. Dostoevsky subsequently published a number of major novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1867–69), The Possessed (1871–72). The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80) is particularly noted for its section entitled “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in which the figure of Christ conceives of man as capable of handling true freedom, while the Grand Inquisitor, the Devil, argues that man is cowardly, menial, and unable to endure freedom. Much of Dostoevsky’s writing challenges rational, scientific humanitarianism and insists on the need for faith in God to achieve real freedom. Soon after completing this last work and already planning a sequel to it, Dostoevsky died of a pulmonary hemorrhage.
As Gene Fitzgerald describes The Diary of a Writer (1873–81), from which these selections are taken, Dostoevsky works out a rather developed scheme concerning the human being and “rectilinearity” (прямолинейность). In doing so, he establishes a basic requirement for his notion of what it is to be human. He divides people into two cateogories—those who are “reflective thinkers” and those who are “enthusiasts.” The reflective thinkers continue to think and question their own conclusions and, while they sincerely believe in their ideas for a time, because they never stop thinking, they ultimately contradict, qualify, or negate them and can even “laugh at them” as somewhat ridiculous if warranted. Enthusiasts, on the other hand, are rectilinear thinkers, believing in and accepting their mental constructs as absolutes. Once they have constructed a belief system, they can “put their mind to rest” and, secure in their beliefs, they no longer need to question them. Thus, enthusiasts stop thinking; for this, Dostoevsky castigates them as “cast iron people” with “cast iron beliefs” who have become inert and have willingly given up the freedom of their consciousness. Such people, he asserts, have become spiritually dead. Clearly, for Dostoevsky, constant thought is a basic requirement for earning the right to be called a human being.
In the Diary, Dostoevsky examines various cases of suicide, comparing and examining their differing motivations against the background of Russian society. In the view of Kenneth Lantz, Dostoevsky selects suicides that reveal fundamental spiritual crises in Russian life. “We have many inappropriate ideas,” Dostoevsky wrote, “. . . In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself.” It is the seeming unexplainedness of these differences that Dostoevsky explores.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer, tr. Boris Brasol. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949, pp. 157-158, 335-338, 468-473, 538-547, 590-592, 676-678. Material in introduction from Gene Fitzgerald.
from THE DIARY OF A WRITER
In Lieu of a Preface on the Great and Little Bears, on the Prayer of the Great Goethe and, Generally, on Bad Habits
Nowadays all people have perfect peace of mind: they are calm and, perhaps, even happy. It is doubtful if anyone renders an account to oneself; everybody is acting “simply,” and this already is complete happiness. Nowadays, much as heretofore, everybody is corroded with egoism, but heretofore egoism used to enter timidly, feverishly looking around, staring at faces. “Did I enter as I should have? Did I speak as I should have?”—But nowadays everyone, entering anywhere, is convinced from the start that everything belongs to him alone. And, if not to him, he does not even grow angry, but instantly settles the problem. Haven’t you heard about little epistles such as:
“Dear papa, I am twenty-three, and as yet I have accomplished nothing; being convinced that nothing will come of me, I have decided to commit suicide. . .”
And he shoots himself. Still, here at least something may be comprehended: “What, if not pride, is the point of living?” But another fellow will look around, will roam awhile and will silently shoot himself, solely because he has no money to hire a mistress. This is already utter swinishness.
It is being maintained in the press that theirs is a case of too much thinking: “He thinks and thinks and then he emerges exactly at the contemplated spot.” On the contrary, I am convinced that he does not think at all; that he is wholly incapable of forming a judgment; that he is savagely undeveloped, and if he should long for anything, he could be longing not consciously but in an animal-like fashion-simply perfect swinishness-and there is nothing liberal about it.
And in this connection-not a single Hamletian question:
But that the dread of something after death…
And in this there is much that is strange. Is it possible that it is thoughtlessness in Russian nature?—I say: thoughtlessness, and not absurdity. All right: do not believe, but at least give thought. In our felo-de-se there is even no shadow of doubt, no shadow of suspicion that he is called “I” and that he is an immortal creature. It seems as if he had even never heard anything about this. And yet neither is he an atheist. Do recall former atheists: having lost faith in one thing they would promptly start passionately believing something else. Do recall the fervent faith of Diderot, Voltaire. . . . In our case-a perfect tabularasa, and where does Voltaire come in here?—Simply, there’s no money to hire a mistress; nothing more.
The self-destroyer Werther, when committing suicide, in the last lines left by him, expresses regret that he would nevermore behold “the beautiful constellation of the Great Bear” and he bids it farewell. Oh, how was the then still youthful Goethe revealed in this little trait I Why were these constellations so dear to young Werther?—Because, whenever contemplating them, he realized that he was by no means an atom and a nonentity compared with them; that all these numberless mysterious, divine miracles were in no sense higher than his thought and consciousness; not higher than the ideal of beauty confined in his soul, and, therefore, they were equal to him and made him akin to the infinity of being. . . . And for the happiness to perceive this great thought which reveals to him who he is, he is indebted exclusively to his human image.
“Great Spirit, I thank Thee for the human image bestowed on me by Thee.”
Such must have been the lifelong prayer of the great Goethe. In our midst this image bestowed upon man is being smashed quite simply and with no German tricks, while no one would think of bidding farewell not only to the Great, but even to the Little, Bear, and even if one should think of it he would not do it: he would feel too much ashamed.
However, just now I mentioned the word “independence.” But do we love independence?—That’s the question. And what is our independence? Are there any two persons who would understand it in one and the same sense? Nor do I know if there is among us even a single idea which would be seriously believed. Our rank and file—whether rich or poor—love to think about nothing and, without giving much thought, simply to indulge in debauch as long as strength permits and one does not become bored with it. Men standing away from the routine “segregate” themselves into groups and pretend that they believe something; but it would seem that they are straining themselves, merely as a matter of diversion. There is also a special kind of people who have adopted, and are exploring, the formula “the worse—the better.” Finally, there are paradoxicalists—sometimes even very honest, but usually rather inept; among these, especially the honest ones, countless suicides are being committed. And in truth of late, suicides in Russia have become so frequent that nobody even speaks of them. The Russian soil seems to have lost the strength to hold people on it. And how many unquestionably honest men, particularly, honest women!
We have many inappropriate ideas, and that is what oppresses one. In Russia an idea crashes upon a man as an enormous stone and half crushes him. And so he shrivels under it, knowing not how to extricate himself. One fellow is willing to live, though in a half-crushed state; but another one is unwilling and kills himself . . . .Very typical is a letter of a girl who took her life into her own hands; it has appeared in The New Times; it is a long letter. She was twenty-five years old. Her name was Pisareva; she was the daughter of formerly well-to-do landowners. But she came to Petersburg and paid her tribute to progress by becoming a midwife. She succeeded in passing the examinations and found a position as a zemstvo midwife. She herself admitted that she was not in need, and was able to earn a decent living; but she grew tired, very tired—so tired that she decided to take a rest. “And where can one rest better than in a grave?” As a matter of fact, she did become exceedingly tired. Even the letter of this unfortunate girl is permeated with fatigue. This is a snarling, impatient letter: “Do but leave me alone! I am tired, tired! … Don’t forget to pull off me the new shirt and stockings: on my night table you will find an old shirt and a pair of old stockings. These should be put on me.” She did not use the words “take off,” but wrote—”pull off”; and so it is in everything: terrible impatience. All these harsh words are caused by impatience, and impatience—by fatigue. She even uses abusive language: “Did you really believe that I was going home? What the devil would I go there for?” Or: “Now, Lipareva, forgive me, and let Petrova forgive me [it was in the latter’s apartment that Pisareva took poison]—particularly Petrova. I am committing a swinish act, a filthy thing . . . . “Apparently she was fond of her relatives, but she wrote: “Don’t let Lizanka know, because she will inform sister, and she will come here and will start howling. I don’t wish that people should be howling over me, but all relatives without exception howl over their relations.”—”Howl” and not “weep”—all this is, apparently, the result of grumbling, impatient fatigue: “Let’s hurry, lets get it over as quickly as possible—and let me rest” Of grumbling and cynical incredulity there was much, painfully much, in her; she did not believe even in Lipareva and Petrova, for whom she had so much affection. Here are the opening words of the letter: “Don’t lose your head! Don’t start crying ‘ah!’ and ‘oh!.’ Make an effort and read to the end, and then decide what’s the best course. Don’t frighten Petrova. Maybe nothing will come of it, anyway, except laughter. My passport is in the cover of the trunk.”
“Except laughter!” This thought that she, her wretched body, will be laughed at and who would be the ones to laugh?—Lipareva and Petrova? This thought flashed through her mind in a moment such as this! That’s awful!
The financial instructions concerning the paltry sum which she had left preoccupied her to the point of queerness: “Such and such monies should not be taken by the relatives; this sum should be given to Petrova; twenty-five rubles which the Chechotkins loaned me for the journey should be returned to them.” The importance attributed to money was, perhaps, the last echo of the main prejudice of her whole life—”that these stones be made bread.” In a word, there may be discerned the guiding conviction of her whole life, i.e., “if everyone were provided for, everybody would be happy; there would be no poor and no crimes. There are no crimes at all. Crime is a pathological condition resulting from poverty and unhappy environment,” etc., etc. It is precisely of this that consists that petty, conventional and most typical finite catechism of convictions to which they dedicate themselves during their lives with such ardent faith (despite the fact that very soon they grow tired of both their convictions and of life), and for which they substitute everything: the élan of life, the ties with the soil, faith in truth—everything, everything. Obviously, she had grown tired because of the tedium of life, having lost all faith in truth, all faith in any kind of duty. In a word—a total loss of the sublime of existence.
And thus, a good girl has died. I am not howling over you, poor girl, but at least let me pity you; do permit me this. Let me hope for your soul a resurrection to a life in which you would no longer grow weary. You, nice, good, honest girls—(all these qualities you possess!)—whither do you depart? Why is that dark, dull grave so dear to you? Look: a bright spring sun shines in the sky; trees are budding but you feel tired even without having lived! How, then, can your mothers help but howl over you—those mothers who have brought you up and who have so admired you when you were still infants! Here, I look at all these “outcasts”: how they long to live, how boldly they declare their right to exist! You, too, were an infant and you also desired to live; and your mother remembers this; and she compares your dead face with that laughter. With that joy which she beheld and which she remembers in your pretty little baby face-how can she refrain from “howling” how can she be reproached for doing so? Just now they showed me a little girl, Dunia; she was born with a crooked leg, that is, altogether without a leg; instead of it, there hung something resembling a string. She is only eighteen months old; she is healthy and remarkably good-looking. Everybody babies her; she nods her little head to everyone, she smiles at everyone, and she greets everybody with a smack of her lips. As yet, she knows nothing about her leg; she does not know that she is a deformed being and a cripple. But is this one, too, designed to contract hatred toward life? “We will make her an artificial leg; we will give her crutches; we will teach her to walk, and she even will not notice it,” said the doctor fondling her. And let’s pray God that she shouldn’t notice it. Nay, to grow tired, to contract hatred toward life, which means hate for everybody…. Nay, this pitiful, ugly, abortive generation of human beings, shriveling under stones that have fallen upon them, will pass out of existence; a new great idea will begin to shine like that bright sun and will strengthen the vacillating mind, and all people will say: “Life is good, but we have been bad.”
Recently I happened to discuss with one of our writers (a great artist) the comicalness in life and the difficulty of defining a phenomenon by its proper word. Before that I had made the remark that I, who have known Woe from Wit for almost forty years, only this year have properly understood one of the most vivid characters in the comedy, namely, Molchalin—after this same writer with whom I conversed had explained to me Molchalin when, unexpectedly, he portrayed this character in one of his satirical sketches. (Some day I am going to dwell on Molchalin. It is a great theme.)
“Do you know”—suddenly said my interlocutor, who apparently had long ago been impressed with his idea—“do you know that no matter what you might write or depict, no matter what you might record in a belletristic work, you would never be equal to reality? No matter what you might delineate, it would always be weaker than actual life. You might think that in some work you have reached the maximum of comicalness in this or that phenomenon of life, that you have caught its most ugly aspect—not at all! Reality forthwith will reveal to you such a phase along similar lines that you have never suspected, and one that exceeds everything your own observation and imagination was able to create!. . .”
This I had known ever since 1846, when I started writing—perhaps even before that. Time and again I used to be impressed with this fact, and the apparent impotence of art made me wonder about its usefulness. Indeed, trace a certain fact in actual life—one which at first glance is even not very vivid—and if only you are able and are endowed with vision, you will perceive in it a depth such as you will not find in Shakespeare. But the whole question is: compared with whose vision, and who is able? Indeed, not only to create and write artistic works, but also to discern a fact, something of an artist is required. To some observers all phenomena of life develop with a most touching simplicity and are so intelligible that they are not worth thinking about or being looked at. However, these same phenomena might embarrass another observer to such an extent (this happens quite often) that, in the long run, he feels unable to synthesize and simplify them, to draw them out into a straight line and thus to appease his mind. He then resorts to a different kind of simplification and very simply plants a bullet in his brain so as to extinguish at once his jaded mind, together with all its queries. Such are the two extremes between which the sum total of human intelligence is enclosed. But it stands to reason that never can we exhaust a phenomenon, never can we trace its end or its beginning. We are familiar merely with the everyday, apparent and current, and this only insofar as it appears to us, whereas the ends and the beginnings still constitute to man a realm of the fantastic.
By the way, last summer one of my esteemed correspondents wrote me about a strange and unsolved suicide, and all the time I have been meaning to speak about it. In that suicide everything is a riddle—both from the outside and from within. Of course, conforming to human nature, I sought somehow to unravel the enigma so as to stop at something and “to appease myself.” The suicide was a young girl of twenty-three or twenty-four, the daughter of a well-known Russian emigrant; she was born abroad, of Russian parents, but almost not a Russian at all by upbringing. I believe there was a vague mention of her in the newspapers at the time, but the details are most curious: “She soaked a piece of cotton in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. …And thus she died. Before she died, she wrote the following note:
“‘Je m’en vais entreprendre un long voyage. Si cela ne réussit pas qu’on se rassemble pour fêter ma résurrection avec du Cliquot. Si cela réussit, je prie qu’on ne me laisse enterrer que tout à fait morte, puisqu’il est très desagréable de se réveiller dans un cercueil sous terre. Ce n’est pas chic!’”
“I am undertaking a long journey. If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. It is not chic!”
In this nasty, vulgar “chic,” to my way of thinking, there sounds a protest, perhaps indignation, anger—but against what? Simply vulgar persons destroy themselves by suicide only owing to a material, visible, external cause, whereas by the tone of the note one may judge that no such cause could have existed in her case. Against what, then, could the indignation be?—Against the simplicity of the visible, against the meaninglessness of life? Was she one of those well-known judges and deniers of life who are indignant against the “absurdity” of man’s appearance on earth, the nonsensical casualness of this appearance, the tyranny of the inert cause with which one cannot reconcile himself? Here we seem to be dealing with a soul which revolted against the “rectilinearness” of the phenomena, which could not stand this rectilinearness conveyed to her since childhood in her father’s house. The ugliest thing is that, of course, she died devoid of any distinct doubt. It is most probable that her soul was devoid of distinct doubt or so-called queries. Likewise, it is quite probable that she implicitly believed, without further verification, everything which had been imparted to her since childhood. This means that she simply died of “cold darkness and tedium” with, so to speak, animal and un-accountable suffering; she began to suffocate as if there were not enough air. The soul unaccountably proved unable to bear rectilinearness and unaccountably demanded something more complex. . . .
About a month ago there appeared in all Petersburg newspapers a few short lines, in small type, about a Petersburg suicide: a poor young girl, a seamstress, jumped out of a window on the fourth floor “because she was utterly unable to find work for her livelihood.” It was added that she jumped and fell to the ground, holding a holy image in her hands. This holy image in the hands is a strange, as yet unheard-of, trait in a suicide! This was a timid and humble suicide. Here, apparently, there was no grumbling or reproach: simply it became impossible to live, “God does not wish it”—and she died, having said her prayers.
There are certain things—much as they may seem simple—over which one does not cease to ponder for a long time; they come back in one’s dreams, and one even thinks that he is to be blamed for them. This meek soul which destroyed itself involuntarily keeps vexing ones mind. It was precisely this death that reminded me of the suicide of the emigrant’s daughter, which was communicated to me last summer. But how different are these two creatures; they seem to have come from two different planets! How different these two deaths! and which of these two souls had suffered more on earth—if such an idle question is becoming and permissible?
Apropos, here is the deliberation of a suicide out of tedium—of course, a materialist.
“. . . Indeed, what right did this nature have to bring me into this world pursuant to some of her eternal laws? I am created with consciousness and I did conceive nature: what right had she, therefore, to beget me without my will, without my will as a conscious creature?—Conscious implies suffering, but I do not wish to suffer, since why should I consent to suffering? Nature, through the medium of my consciousness, proclaims to me some sort of harmony of the whole. Human consciousness has produced religions out of this message. Nature tells me—even though I know well that I neither can nor ever shall participate in this ‘harmony of the whole,’ and besides, that I shall never even comprehend what it means—that nevertheless I must submit to this message, abase myself, accept suffering because of the harmony of the whole, and consent to live. However, if I were to make a conscious choice, of course I should rather wish to be happy only that moment when I exist, whereas I have no interest whatever in the whole and its harmony after I perish, and it does not concern me in the least whether this whole with its harmony remains in the world after me or whether it perishes simultaneously with me. And why should I bother about its preservation after I no longer exist?—that’s the question. It would have been better to be created like all animals—i.e., living but not conceiving myself rationally. But my consciousness is not harmony, but, on the contrary, precisely disharmony, because with it I am unhappy. Look: who is happy in this world and what kind of people consent to live?—Precisely those who are akin to animals and come nearest to their species by reason of their limited development and consciousness. These readily consent to live but on the specific condition that they live as animals, i.e., eat, drink, sleep, build their nest and bring up children. To eat, drink and sleep, in the human tongue, means to grow rich to and plunder, while to build one’s nest pre-eminently signifies-to plunder. Perhaps I may be told that one may arrange one’s life and build one’s nest on a rational basis, on scientifically sound social principles, and not by means of plunder, as heretofore.—All right, but I ask: What for? What is the purpose of arranging one’s existence and of exerting so much effort to organize life in society soundly, rationally and righteously in a moral sense? Certainly no one will ever be able to give me an answer to this question. All that could be said in answer would be: ‘To derive delight.’ Yes, were I a flower or a cow, I should derive delight. But, incessantly putting questions to myself, as now, I cannot be happy even in face of the most lofty and immediate happiness of love of neighbor and of mankind, since I know that tomorrow all this will perish: I and all the happiness, and all the love, and all mankind will be converted into naught, into former chaos. And on such a condition, under no consideration, can I accept any happiness—and not because of my refusal to accept it, not because I am stubbornly adhering to some principle, but for the simple reason that I will not and cannot be happy on the condition of being threatened with tomorrow’s zero. This is a feeling—a direct and immediate feeling—and I cannot conquer it. All right: if I were to die but mankind, instead me, were to persist forever, then, perhaps I might be consoled. However, our planet is not eternal, while mankind’s duration is just as brief a moment as mine. And no matter how rationally, happily, righteously and holily mankind might organize its life on earth—tomorrow all this will be made equal to that same zero. And even though all this be necessary, pursuant to some almighty, eternal and fixed law of nature, yet, believe me, in this idea there is some kind of most profound disrespect for mankind which, to me, is profoundly insulting and all the more unbearable as here there is no one who is guilty.
“And, finally, even were one to presume the possibility of that tale about man’s ultimate attainment of a rational and scientific organization of life on earth—were one to believe this tale and the future happiness of man, the thought itself that, because of some inert laws, nature found it necessary to torture them thousands and thousands of years before granting them that happiness—this thought itself is unbearably repulsive. And if you add to this that this very nature which, finally, had admitted man to happiness will, for some reason, tomorrow find it necessary to convert all this into zero despite all the suffering with which mankind has paid for this happiness and—what is most important—without even bothering to conceal this from my consciousness, as it did conceal it from the cow-willy-nilly, there arises a most amusing, but also unbearably sad, thought: “What if man has been placed on earth for some impudent experiment—just for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not this creature is going to survive on earth?” The principal sadness of this thought is in the fact that here, again, there is no guilty one; no one conducted the experiment; there is no one to damn, since everything simply came to pass as a result of the inert laws of nature, which I do not understand at all, and with which my consciousness is altogether unable to reconcile itself. Ergo:
“Inasmuch as to my questions on happiness I am receiving from nature, through my own consciousness, only the answer that I can be happy not otherwise than the within harmony of the whole, which I do not comprehend, and which, it is obvious to me, I shall never be able to understand—
“Inasmuch as nature not only does not admit my right to demand an account from her, but even gives me no answer whatsoever—and not because she does not want to answer, but because she is unable to give me an answer—
“Inasmuch as I have convinced myself that nature, in order to answer my queries, designates (unconsciously) my own self and answers them with my own consciousness (since it is I who say all this to myself)—
“Finally, since, under these circumstances, I am assuming both the roles of a plaintiff and of a defendant, that of an accused and of a judge; and inasmuch as I consider this comedy, on the part of nature, altogether stupid, and to be enduring this comedy on my own part—even humiliating—
“Now, therefore, in my unmistakable role of a plaintiff and of a defendant, of a judge and of an accused, I sentence this nature, which has so unceremoniously and impudently brought me into existence for suffering, to annihilation, together with myself.
…And because I am unable to destroy nature, I am destroying only myself, weary of enduring a tyranny in which there is no guilty one.
My article—The Verdict—refers to the basic and loftiest idea of human existence—the necessity and inevitability of a belief in the immortality of the human soul. The underlying idea of this confession of a man perishing as a result of “a logical suicide” is the necessity of the immediate inference that without faith in one’s soul and its immortality, man’s existence is unnatural, unthinkable, impossible. Now, it seemed to me that I have dearly expressed the formula of a logical suicide, that I have discovered it. In him there is no faith in immortality; this he explains in the very beginning. Little by little, the thought of his aimlessness and his hatred of the muteness of the surrounding inertia lead him to the inevitable conviction of the utter absurdity of man’s existence on earth. It becomes clear as daylight to him that only those men can consent to live who resemble the lower animals and who come nearest to the latter by reason of the limited development of their minds and their purely carnal wants. They agree to live specifically as animals, i.e., in order “to eat, drink, sleep, build their nests and raise children.” Indeed, eating, sleeping, polluting and sitting on soft cushions will long attract men to earth, but not the higher types. Meanwhile, it is the higher types that are and always have been, sovereign on earth, and invariably it so happened that, when the time was ripe, millions of people followed them.
I even assert and venture to say that love of mankind in general, as an idea, is one of the most incomprehensible ideas for the human mind. Precisely as an idea. Sentiment alone can vindicate it. However, sentiment is possible precisely only in the presence of the accompanying conviction of the immortality of man’s soul. (Another arbitrary assertion.)
It is clear, then, that suicide—when the idea of immortality has been lost—becomes an utter and inevitable necessity for any man who, by his mental development, has even slightly lifted himself above the level of cattle. On the contrary, immortality—promising eternal life—ties man all the more strongly to earth. Here there is a seeming contradiction: if there is so much life—that is, if in addition to earthly existence there is an immortal one—why should one be treasuring so highly his earthly life? And yet, the contrary is true, since only with faith in his immortality does man comprehend the full meaning of his rational destination on earth. However, without the faith in his immortality, man’s ties with earth are severed, they grow thinner and more putrescent while the loss of the sublime meaning of life (felt at least in the form of unconscious anguish) inevitably leads to suicide.
Hence, the reverse moral of my October article: “If faith in immortality is so essential to man’s existence, it is, therefore, a normal condition of the human race and, this being so, the immortality itself of the human soul exists undeniably.” In a word, the idea of immortality is life itself—“live life,” its ultimate formula, the mainspring of truth and just consciousness for humankind. Such was the object of my article, and I supposed that, willy-nilly, everyone who had read it would so comprehend it.
A Few Words About Youth
Well, by the way. Perhaps it may be pointed out to me that in our age suicide is being committed by men who have never dwelt upon any abstract problems; nevertheless, they kill themselves mysteriously, without any apparent reason. In truth, we do perceive a great number of suicides (their abundance is also a mystery sui generis), strange and mysterious, committed not by reason of poverty or some affront, without any apparent reasons and not at all because of material need, unrequited love, jealousy, ill-health, hypochondria or insanity—but God only knows why. In our day, such cases constitute a great temptation, and since it is impossible to deny that they have assumed the proportions of an epidemic, they arise in the minds of many people as a most disturbing question. Of course, I am not venturing to explain all these suicides,—this I cannot do—but I am firmly convinced that the majority of the suicides, in toto, directly or indirectly, were committed as a result of one and the same spiritual illness—the absence in the souls of these men of the sublime idea of existence. In this sense our indifference, as a contemporary Russian illness, is gnawing all souls. Verily, in Russia there are people who pray God and go to church but who do not believe in the immortality of their souls—i.e.,not that they do not believe in it, but they simply never think of it. Even so, at times they are by no means people of the cast-iron, the bestial, pattern. However, as stated above, the whole sublime purpose and meaning of life, the desire and the urge to live, emanate only from this faith. I repeat, there are many people desirous to live without any ideas, without any sublime meaning of life—simply to pursue an animal existence as some lower species. And yet there are many individuals—what is most curious apparently extremely coarse and vicious ones—whose nature, however, perhaps without their knowledge, has long been craving for sublime aims and the lofty meaning of life. These will not be appeased by love of eating, by the love of fish-pies, beautiful trotters, debauch, ranks, bureaucratic power, the adoration of their subordinates and the hall porters at the doors of their mansions. Men of this caliber will precisely shoot themselves apparently for no reason, and yet it will be necessarily because of anguish, unconscious perhaps, for the sublime significance of life which they have found nowhere. On top of that, some of them will shoot themselves after having preliminarily perpetrated some scandalous villainy, abomination or monstrosity. Of course, looking at many of these cases it is difficult to believe that they committed suicide because of the longing for the sublime aims of life:“Why, they never thought about any aims; they never spoke about any such things and they merely committed villainies!”—such is the common opinion. But let us admit that they were not concerned about these things and that they did perpetrate villainies: do you positively know how, by what devious ways, in the life of society this sublime anguish is being conveyed to one’s soul and contaminates it?—Ideas soar through the air but necessarily in accordance with some laws; ideas live and spread in accordance with laws which are too difficult for us to record; ideas are contagious. And do you know that in the general mood of life a certain idea or concern or anguish, accessible only to a highly educated and developed intellect may suddenly be imparted to an almost illiterate, coarse creature who was never concerned about anything, and may contaminate his soul with its influence? Again, I may be told that in our age even children are committing suicide, or such raw youths as have had no life experience. Even so, I am secretly convinced that it is our youth that suffers and agonizes because of the absence of sublime aims of life. In our families practically no mention is made about the sublime aims of life, while not only do they not give the slightest thought to the idea of immortality but much too frequently a satirical attitude is adopted toward it—and this in the presence of children from their early childhood, and perhaps with an express didactic purpose.
On Suicide and Haughtiness
But it is time to finish up with Mr. N. P. To him happened the thing which happens to many people of his “type”: what is clear to them and what they can most readily comprehend they conceive to be stupid. They are much more inclined to despise lucidity than to praise it. It is different if a flourish or a fog accompanies something: “This we don’t understand—therefore, it is deep.”
He says that the “deliberation” of my suicide is merely “the delirium of a half-crazy man” and that that is “well known.” I am very much inclined to believe that the “deliberation” became “known” to him only after he had read my article. As to the “delirium of a half-crazy man” (is this known to Mr. N. P. and the whole collection of the N. P.’s?), it—i.e., the inference of the necessity of suicide—is too much to many people in Europe, as it were, the last word of science. I have expressed this “last word of science” in brief terms, clearly and popularly with the sole purpose of refuting it—not by reasoning or logic, since it cannot be refuted by logic (I challenge not only Mr. N. P. but anyone to refute logically this “delirium of the insane”), but by faith, by the deduction of the necessity of faith in the immortality of man’s soul; by the inference of the conviction that this faith is the only source of “live life” on earth—of life, health, sane ideas and sound deductions and inferences. . . . And, in conclusion—something altogether comic. In the same October issue I reported the suicide of an emigrant’s daughter: she soaked a piece of cotton wool in chloroform, tied it around her face and lay down on the bed. And thus she died. Before death she wrote a note: “I am undertaking a long journey, If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Cliquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred only after I am altogether dead, since it is very disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. This is not chic!”
Mr. N. P, haughtily grew angry with this “vain little” suicide, and came to the conclusion that her act “deserves no attention whatsoever.” He also grew angry with me for my “exceedingly naive” question as to which one of the two suicides had suffered more on earth. At this juncture there ensued something comical. Unexpectedly he added: “ I daresay that a man who desires to greet his return to life with a champagne glass in his hand—[of course, in his hand]—did not suffer much in this life if, with such triumph, once more he enters it without changing in the least its conditions, and even without thinking about them. . . .”
What a funny thought and what a ludicrous consideration! Here he was mostly tempted by champagne: “He who drinks champagne cannot suffer.” But were she so fond of champagne, she would have continued to live so as to drink it, whereas she wrote about champagne before her death—i.e., real death—knowing well that she would die without fail. She could not have believed much in the chance of her recovery to life; nor did this chance present anything attractive to her, because recovery, of course, would have meant to her recovery to a new suicide. Thus, here champagne was of no consequence, i.e., not at all for the purpose of consuming it—and is it possible that this has to be explained? And she wrote about champagne from the desire, when dying, to perpetrate some cynicism as abominable and filthy as possible. And she selected champagne precisely because she could not conceive a filthier, more abominable picture than this drinking bout at the time of her “resurrection from the dead.” She had to write this in order to insult, with this filth, everything she was forsaking on earth, to damn earth and her whole earthly life, to spit on it and to declare that spittle to her relatives whom she was leaving behind.
Whence such a spite in a seventeen-year-old girl? (N. B. She was seventeen, and not twenty, as I erroneously put it in my article. Subsequently I was corrected by those who know this incident better.) And against whom was that spite directed? No one had offended her; she was in need of nothing, and she died apparently also for no reason whatever. But precisely this note; precisely the fact that at such a moment she was eager to perpetrate such a filthy and spiteful cynicism—and this is obvious—this precisely leads one to think that her life was immeasurably more chaste than this filthy twist; and that spite, the boundless exasperation of that twist, on the contrary, bears witness to the suffering and painful mood of her spirit, to her despair in the last moment of her life. If she had died of some apathetic weariness, without knowing why, she would not have perpetrated this cynicism. One has to take a more humane attitude toward such a spiritual condition. Here, suffering was obvious and certainly she died of spiritual anguish having greatly suffered.
What could have tormented her so much at the age of seventeen?—But herein is the dreadful question of our age. I have set forth the hypothesis that she died of anguish (too premature an anguish) and of aimlessness of life, only because of the upbringing, perverted by theory, at her parents’ home—an upbringing involving an erroneous conception of the sublime significance and aims of life, a deliberate extermination in her soul of all faith in its immortality. Let this be only my supposition. Yet certainly she did not die merely for the purpose of leaving after her that abject note—to cause surprise, as Mr. N. P. seems to think. “No man shall hate his flesh.” Self-extermination is a serious thing despite any chic or display, while epidemic self-extermination, assuming ever-increasing proportions among the educated classes, is all too momentous a phenomenon which deserves relentless observation and study.
Some eighteen months ago a highly talented and competent member of our judiciary showed me a batch of letters and notes of suicides in their own handwriting, collected by him—notes which had been written by them immediately before, i.e., five minutes before, death. I remember two lines written by a fifteen-year-old girl. Likewise, I recall pencil scrawls written in a carriage in which the suicide shot himself before he had reached his destination. I believe that even if Mr. N. P. could have perused this intensely interesting batch, perhaps even in his soul there would have come a change, and consternation would have penetrated his tranquil heart. But this I do not know. In any event one should be dealing with these facts more humanely and not so haughtily. Perhaps we ourselves are guilty of these facts, and in the future no cast iron is going to save us from the calamitous consequences of our placidity and haughtiness—that is when time comes for these consequences.
The Boy Celebrating His Saint’s Day
I have recalled this essay in detail intentionally. I received a letter from K—v in which the death of a child—also a twelve-year-old boy—is depicted. And … possibly there is something similar here. However, I shall quote parts of the letter without changing a single word in the quotations. The topic is curious.
“On November 8, after dinner, the news spread in town that a suicide had taken place: a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, a high school pupil, had hanged himself. Here are the circumstances of the case. A school-master teaching a subject, the lesson of which, that morning, the deceased boy failed to learn, punished the boy by retaining him at school till five o’clock in the evening. The pupil walked around for a while; then he untied a rope from a pulley which he happened to notice; he tied the rope to a nail on which usually the so-called golden or red plate hangs which for some reason, had been removed that day, and hanged himself. The watchman who had been washing the floor in the adjacent rooms, upon discovering the unfortunate boy, hastened to the inspector. The inspector came running; the suicide was extricated from the noose, but they failed to revive him. . . . What was the cause of the suicide? The boy was not inclined toward violence and bestiality; generally speaking, he studied well, and only of late he had received several unsatisfactory marks from his school-master, and for this he was punished. . . . It is rumored that both the boy’s father, a very severe man, and the boy himself, that day celebrated their saint’s day. Perhaps the youngster, with childish delight, was meditating how he would be greeted at home—by his mother, father, little brothers and sisters. . . . And now he has to sit all alone, hungry, in an empty building and ponder over the father’s dreadful wrath which he will have to face, over the humiliation, shame and, perhaps, punishment which he will have to endure. He knew about the possibility of committing suicide (and who among children of our epoch do not know this?). One feels terribly sorry for the deceased boy, for the inspector, an excellent man and pedagogue, whom the pupils adore; one also feels afraid for the school within whose walls such phenomena take place. What did the classmates of the deceased and other children studying there, among whom in the preparatory classes there are perfect little darlings, feel when they learned about the incident? Isn’t this too harsh a training? Isn’t too much significance attached to marks—to twos and ones, to golden and red plates, on the nails of which pupils hang themselves? Isn’t there too much formalism and dry heartlessness in the matter of our education?”
Of course, one feels awfully sorry for the little boy celebrating his saint’s day, but I will not enlarge upon the probable causes of this sad incident, and particularly upon “marks, twos, and excessive severity,” etc. All these also existed before, and there were no suicides, so that the cause is not to be sought here. I took the episode from Count Tolstoy’s Youth because of the similarity of the two cases; yet there is also an enormous difference. No doubt Misha, who celebrated his saint’s day, killed himself not from anger and not merely from fear. Both these feelings—anger and pathological fear—are too simple, and these would more probably find an outcome in themselves. However, fear of punishment could have exercised some influence, especially in the presence of pathological suspiciousness. Nevertheless, even in this case the feeling could have been much more complex, and again it is very possible that there transpired something similar to what was depicted by Count Tolstoy, i.e., suppressed, not yet conscious, childish queries, a strong feeling of some oppressive injustice, an early suspicious and painful perception of personal nullity, a pathologically developed query: “Why does everybody so dislike me?” a passionate desire to compel people to pity one, i.e., a passionate thirst for love on the part of them all, and a multitude, a multitude of other complications and nuances.
The point is that these or other such nuances, unfailingly, were there, but there were also traits of some new reality, altogether different from that which prevailed in the pacified and firmly, long ago structuralized landowner’s family of the middle-upper stratum of which Count Tolstoy was our historian, and apparently at that very epoch when the former order of nobility established upon the earlier landowners’ foundations, was affected by some new, still unknown but radical change,—at least by some enormous regeneration into novel, still latent, almost utterly unknown forms. There is here in this incident of the boy celebrating his saint’s day one particular trait distinctly belonging to our epoch. Count Tolstoy’s boy could meditate with valetudinary tears of effete emotionalism in his soul that they would enter the closet and would find him dead, and that they would begin to love and pity him, and blame themselves. He could even have meditated about suicide, but only meditated: the rigorous order of the historically formed noble family would have had its effect, even upon a twelve-year-old child, and would have prevented the dream from being converted into reality, whereas here—the boy meditated and acted accordingly.
The Dream of A Strange Man: A Fantastic Story
You see: even though it made no difference to me, nevertheless I did feel pain. Should anyone have struck me, I should have felt a pain. The same—in the moral sense: should anything pitiful have occurred, I should have felt pity exactly as in the days when I had not yet felt that “it made no difference.” Just now I also felt pity: most certainly I would have helped a child. Why, then did I not help that little girl?—Because of a thought which occurred to me: as she was pulling and calling me, suddenly a question arose before me and I couldn’t solve it. It was an idle question but I grew angry. I grew angry because of the belief that, once I had decided that l would commit suicide that night, everything in the world, more than ever, should have made no difference to me. Why, then, all of a sudden, did I feel that not everything was a matter of indifference to me and that I was pitying the little girl?
I recall that I felt great pity for her—to the point of some strange pain which was quite incredible in my situation. Truly, I am unable to describe better that fleeting feeling but it also persisted at home, while I was already sitting by the table, and I was much irritated,—as I haven’t been for so long. Deliberations followed one another. It seemed clear that if I were a man, and not yet a zero, and while I was not yet reduced to a zero, I was living and, therefore, I could suffer, be angry and feel ashamed of my actions. All right. But if I should kill myself, say, in two hours, what would the little girl be to me, what would shame and everything in the world matter to me?—I am being reduced to a zero—an absolute zero. And it is possible that the realization of the fact that in an instant I shall be completely nonexistent, and that, therefore, nothing will exist, could have exercised no influence upon the feeling of pity for the little girl and the feeling of shame for the villainy which I have committed?—for I stamped at the unfortunate child and shouted at her in a brutal voice because I said to myself: “Not only do I feel no pity, but even should I commit an inhuman villainy,—now I can commit it because in two hours everything will be extinct.” Would you believe that this was the reason why I began to shout? At present I am almost sure of that.
It seemed clear that now life and the world were, so to speak, dependent on me. It may even have been said that the world has been created for me alone: I will shoot myself, and the world will not exist, at least for me. Not to speak of the fact that, perhaps, after me in reality nothing will exist for anyone, and that the moment my consciousness is extinguished the whole world, too, will vanish as a phantom, as an adjunct of my consciousness, and will become nonexistent, since, perhaps, this whole world and all these men are nothing but I myself.
I recall that while I was sitting and deliberating, I turned all these new questions, which crowded in my mind, one after another, in an altogether different direction and conceived something radically new. For example, suddenly, a strange thought occurred to me: What if formerly I had lived on the moon or on Mars, and if there I should have perpetrated the most shameful and dishonest act that could possibly be conceived; and, further, that if over there I should have been abused and dishonored in a manner that may be conceived and felt only in a dream,in a nightmare; and if subsequently, finding myself on the earth, I should continue to be conscious or the act I had committed on the other planet, and, besides, that I should know that never, under any circumstance, should I return thither,—then, looking from the earth at the moon, would it, or would it not, make a difference? Should I, or should I not, feel ashamed of my act?
These were idle and superfluous questions since the revolver lay already before me, and with all my being I knew that this would unfailingly occur, yet they excited me and made me mad. Now—it seemed—I should be unable to die without having first solved something.
In a word, that little girl saved me since, because of the questions, I had postponed the shot. Meanwhile, in the captain’s room things began to quiet down: they finished their card game and now they were settling down for the night, and in the meantime they kept grumbling and were idly continuing to abuse one another. At this juncture, suddenly, I fell asleep in the armchair by the table, which has never happened to me before. I fell asleep quite imperceptibly to myself. Dreams, as is known, are very strange phenomena: one thing appears with awful lucidity, with jewelled finish of detail; but other things are skipped, as it were, quite unnoticed—for instance, space and time.
It would seem that dreams are generated not by the intellect but by desires, not by the brain but by the heart. And yet, at times, what extremely complicated things did my mind perform in sleep! For instance, my brother died five years ago. Sometimes I see him in my dreams: he participates in my affairs; we take a great interest in them; even so, through the whole dream, I distinctly know and remember that he died and was buried. Why am I not surprised that, though dead, he is still right here, at my side and busies himself together with me? Why does my reason admit all this?
But enough. I am turning to my dream. Yes, I saw this dream, my dream, on the third of November! They are teasing me by insisting that this was only a dream. But is it not all the same whether or not this was a dream, if it has enunciated to me the Truth? For once you have learned the Truth, you have beheld it, you know that it is the Truth, that there is and can be no other Truth whether you be sleeping or waking. All right: let it be a dream; let it; but that life which you are so extolling, I sought to extinguish with suicide, and my dream, my dream—oh, it has enunciated to me a new, great, regenerated, vigorous life!