Thursday, April 23, 2009

Quote of the Day (Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the Task of Life)

"Life is in ourselves and not in the external. To be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter--this is what life is, herein lies its task."-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother after his arrest and sentencing for his membership in a radical political group, December 22, 1849

Sleeping in his St. Petersburg apartment on the morning of Holy Saturday, April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was awakened by a sound already familiar to many, but one which would become even more dreaded over the next century and a half in his country: a knock on the door by the police. He, along with his brother and approximately 30 others, was arrested for participation in a group that discussed socialism at its Friday meetings.

For all their secret meetings, the group—adherents of Petrachevski, a Russian political agitator against Czar Nicholas I—was pretty toothless. The young author’s socialist leanings were mild and, unlike the rest of the group, his atheism was non-existent. But that still put him in the path of Russia’s absolute ruler.

For eight months, Dostoevsky was in solitary confident while Nicholas pondered the fate of members of the group. Finally, the Czar hit on a solution, in the form of the cruelest of hoaxes: the would-be revolutionaries would be spared, but not before he would have some sadistic fun at their experience.

On December 22, Dostoevsky and his fellow political prisoners were put through all of the preliminary steps leading up to execution before being told that their sentences had been commuted. Instead, Dostoevsky would serve four years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by four more years of mandatory military service.

By the time he returned, the writer would be utterly transformed—still unable to conquer all the temptations that came his way (notably, an unruly gambling streak that threatened to ruin him), he had lost his youth and seen his health endangered (he experience his first epileptic seizure while incarcerated). He was allowed only one book—the New Testament—and came out of the experience a devout Christian.

Most of all, he had gained the tragic sense of history that would inform the great psychologically driven art of his maturity: Notes From Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.

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