I’m not sure if I really wanted the whisky. I’d begun to feel a bit like you feel when you’re about to pass out and perhaps I just wanted to be holding the glass between my hands as a point of contact with the real world that, in the course of the last few minutes, seemed to be drifting away.
“Now look,” I said, “I’m really having difficulty getting my head round this, so let’s go back a step.” (This was one of my favourite teaching moves.) “I get what you say about art and reality – but what we started talking about was faith—God, immortality, the eternal questions! So let’s say I do learn to look at the world with the eyes of an artist, how is that going to help me find faith in God? Doesn’t it sometimes have the opposite effect, like T. S. Eliot said about Webster seeing the skull beneath the skin? Don’t rather a lot of artists spend a bit too much time on the dark side? In fact, some people would say that about you – that you’re always writing about sickness, violence, and despair – ‘a cruel talent’, someone said.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich looked momentarily vexed and he appeared to mutter something under his breath that I couldn’t hear. I continued.
“I mean, if we’re talking about A Gentle Spirit, it’s a very different scenario from your father and son story. In that case, your artist’s eye helped you to see the dignity that the world couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see, But in this case, you take a grieving husband whose wife has just committed suicide and turn him into a twisted self-hating sadist. You tear him apart and leave him in despair—alone in the universe, beneath a dead sun, unable to believe in love. Maybe he deserves it, but your ‘artist’s eye’ has led us away from faith, not towards it—so how are you going to get him from despair to faith? How can he learn to love again—or perhaps learn to love properly for the first time?”
As I read this over some months after the event, I have to say that I’m rather embarrassed at how I spoke to Fyodor Mikhailovich, especially that first evening, when we’d known each other for less than an hour. Although what I actually said probably wasn’t quite as coherent or as confrontational as I’ve recorded it here, I realize that it sounds more like I was dissecting an essay by a not very competent student rather than talking to one of the world’s greatest writers (the greatest, according to Virginia Woolf). As if there could be any easy answers when talking about one of his most difficult and brilliant stories and about some of the deepest challenges facing any human being. In my defence, I can only say that I was in a state of extraordinary agitation. I’m sure you can understand why. This was a chance that I could never have dreamed of and that would probably never come again. I had to get the answers I wanted now, before it was too late. At the same time, as I said before, the devastating finale of Dostoevsky’s astonishing monologue took me to a place in my own experience from which I’d spent many years trying to escape. This wasn’t just an exercise in literary criticism, it was trying to find out if there was any point in my being alive at all. And the situation itself was beyond unbelievable. Can you wonder that I was a little bit “hyper”?
Fortunately for me, both now and in our subsequent conversations, Fyodor Mikhailovich showed himself to be a man (and I suppose that even in his supernatural state he was, still, a man) of exceptional patience.
“You’ve finished?” he asked politely.
“Yes … of course … I’m sorry if I’m being too simplistic – but these questions really are incredibly important to me. I mean I do understand that novels are novels and that you more than any other novelist hid your own opinions behind those of your characters. At the same time, I’m sure you were wanting to tell us something … to open a door … to show us a new way of looking at the world … to help make faith possible. But if it all ends in a paradox and the truth isn’t the truth, doesn’t it all become just a game? But I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it for a moment.”
Again he paused and I had the feeling he was rather pleased with what I’d said.
“Yes, yes, yes, you’re right. It’s certainly not just a game. But the question is a difficult one. From a certain point of view, what he sees is the truth. And it’s not just because he’s a bad character. Even the science in which everyone now believes tells us that, in the end, the universe is entirely indifferent to whether we human beings exist or not. One day our sun will die and then we will be no more—but the stars will continue in their circuits. Of course, that’s not all there is to it in his case, but if you believe that that’s how things are, then the failures of your own life are going to seem even more terrible than, maybe, they really are.”
During this last speech he had held his hands clasped together, now he released them and let them rest on the arms of his chair. Shutting his eyes and slowly nodding his head very slightly, he continued in an almost meditative way, as if talking to himself.
“Yes, he’s seen the truth, the truth of a world without love. And it’s not just the inexorable laws of nature, it’s what he feels in his own life, a life without love. But even those who live without love need another human being, another voice, another presence in their lives. That’s what she was or what she could have been for him—except he didn’t take the chance. He didn’t let her be herself and now she’s gone, gone out through the window, and he’s alone. Again. More so than ever. This is the truth, his truth, what his life has come to. But there’s another truth, if he wanted to learn it. And it’s not very far away. He doesn’t have to learn any new facts: he just has to look at what he already knows in a different way. It’s just a small, a very small step, no bigger than an onion, in fact, but it would take him in the opposite direction from his whole development up to this point.”
“It doesn’t matter—I thought you might get the allusion. Perhaps we’ll come back to it.”
His head sank forward and he seemed lost in thought. Realizing that I probably shouldn’t have interrupted him, I urged him to carry on. “Sorry—but, please, what is this step?”
Looking up, he smiled and looked suddenly mischievous. “Have you ever read Hegel?” he asked, clearly trying to sound matter-of-fact but not entirely succeeding.
“Hegel!” I expostulated. “Well, of course, I know about him and I’ve read a lot of writers and critics who quote him, though I haven’t read much of the man himself. I tried The Phenomenology of Spirit when I was a student, but I didn’t get very far. What’s Hegel got to do with it?”
“I read Hegel in Siberia,” he remarked, seemingly ignoring my last question. “It made me very sad.”
“Sad? Really? I’ve never heard of Hegel making people sad!”
“I don’t suppose he does have that effect on many” (he emphasized “many”), “but my circumstances were quite particular. I’d been in prison for four years, four years of hard labour, my fingers cracking with frost in the winter and my entire skin itching with midge bites in the summer; I’d seen the most terrible things – men being whipped to death; and what men I’d lived with: men who’d committed the most bestial acts imaginable – beyond imaginable – men who’d murdered their own families locked up alongside idealists and dreamers whose only crime was to imagine a better world. And what did Hegel have to say about those four year of terrible intense reality? Nothing. Nothing at all. Or, more precisely, he said that Siberia is not and cannot be a part of world-history. So there you are – all that experience, all those suffering, all those poor wretches, not only exiled from Russia but exiled from history itself.”
He stopped, sighed, and looked mournfully down at the rug, shaking his head very gently.
“A man who knew so much and thought so much– and yet he could say that! Could he really have thought about what he was saying? I don’t know. I haven’t yet had a chance to talk with him here, though I’m told he’s not so very far away from where I myself am—but, of course, I’m not in charge of how these things are organized. Anyway, that’s all beside the point. The reason why I brought Hegel into the conversation is because he was right about one thing: the way to truth is not a simple and direct way, as ordinary logicians and Euclidean geometers like to think. It’s a jagged and oscillating line, making its way from one extreme to the next and contradicting itself at every turn.”
“Right – the famous dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis!”
“Exactly. Or, as I prefer to think of it: pro et contra.”
“That’s the title you gave one of the books in The Brothers Karamazov, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. Well-remembered.” (He really did seem quite pleased with this. Perhaps I was on the way to redeeming my ignorance about the onion.) “But what follows from this?”
“I don’t know – tell me.”
“It follows that the moment immediately before the final revelation of truth is precisely the most extreme opposite of truth, the necessary negation or antithesis that prepares the way for the final affirmation or synthesis.”
“So the husband …”
“Yes, the husband … the truth is exactly the opposite of what he says: we are not alone, the sun does shine on all and give life to all, and Christ’s commandment is the one true law of the human heart, as it always was.”
“So why did you say he’d seen the truth?”
“Because he has embraced the negation and has therefore seen one side of the truth but he has not yet seen the whole truth, the positive truth, the synthesis. He is nearer the truth than when he began because he has learned where the life he used to live has led him and what the world really is like if you do not have love. Now he has to turn around and see what it’s like when you do love! But – Nota Bene – he had to learn all of this through experience, he had to be shaken out of his ignorance and indifference and it took everything he had experienced to get him to this point – just one step away from the whole truth, the step he hasn’t yet taken; just one step – but if he doesn’t take it, then he is as far away from the truth as it’s possible for a man to be. Still, perhaps he will take it – in the very next second! Or perhaps he never will!”
“From what I know of Hegel, wouldn’t he say that he would have to take it because the thesis followed by the antithesis leads necessarily to the synthesis? Positive. Negative. Positive. Happy ending.”
Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled slyly. “As I said, Hegel knew a lot, perhaps too much. Who can ever know what happens next? Will our despairer take the next step? Who knows?”
“Who knows? Fyodor Mikhailovich, surely you know – as you said at the beginning you made it all up!”
“Me? How could I know? Who knows the mystery of another person’s heart?”
“But surely – you did make it all up, you invented him and you can make him think and do whatever you like.”
Probably it was the whisky or the late hour talking, but I was in danger of forgetting myself—again. Here I was, telling Dostoevsky what he could or couldn’t write! Perhaps there was a limit to nis patience, since the silence that followed was, I felt, just a little bit chilly. Then again, maybe it was just the temperature dropping after the heating had gone off and the last log in the wood-burner had burnt itself out.
“It’s not that straightforward,” Fyodor Mikhailovich resumed, looking at me, with almost visible forbearance. “If only it were. We writers look at reality with an artist’s eyes, but we don’t invent it, we don’t ‘make it up’ (to use your expression).”
Actually, I thought it was his expression, but I refrained from commenting. He was obviously being very serious and maybe even a wee bit offended and, in any case, there were more important questions that needed answering.