“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Death came for the Russian novelist, journalist, and short-story writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) 135 years ago today in St. Petersburg. He had expected it at least for a while—not just in the years 1864 and 1865, when his brother and first wife died, but even as far back as December 1849, when his imprisonment for involvement in revolutionary activities resulted in a terrifyingly realistic mock execution. (I recounted this incident in this post.)
Even if the “New Atheism” preached by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett passes from vogue to overwhelming approval, I doubt if Dostoevsky’s brand of Christian fiction will lose its power over readers. His faith derived not from logical Thomistic axioms but from a mind in torment. Losses, personal and financial (resulting from a longtime gambling addiction), assured that.
Henry James griped that the Russian’s works were “baggy monsters” of literary construction, but both men brought to the 19th century novel unprecedented levels of psychological realism. Moreover, both featured manias and altered states of consciousness.
It might be said that, by Dostoevsky’s definition, the American and the Russian alike dealt with hell. James’ novella “The Beast in the Jungle” examines a man who, through his belief that he is marked for a special fate, closes himself off from the love that could save him. Dostoevsky’s work—especially his two most famous novels, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov—focus on the isolating impact of despair and the hard-won redemption achieved through Christian love.