Dostoevsky, Death and Paradise

Why write? Not to create original truths, but to remind ourselves of old truths. We need to be reminded: we are forgetful. Original stories to remind us of what we’ve always known. The history of humanity, and the duration of a life, is the coming round and round again to what we already knew in the beginning: that the mind is the body, the moment is eternal, and each day is a paradise.

In The Karamazov Brothers, there’s a story of a young man who is dying. Having been an atheist until now, he begins to go to church – he says he does it to please his mother, who fears for his soul. He’s too ill to go to church for long, and now he must confess and take the sacrament at home. And one day it becomes clear that a change has come over him: “his spirit seemed transformed.” He no longer fears death. He has a serene look in his eyes, he smiles at everyone. He weeps to see the innocence of the birds in the garden. He blesses the sunrise each morning, and declares that we live each day in paradise. Blissful and serene, the whole house feels the joy of his transformation. The doctor says he won’t live much longer: the disease is affecting his brain.

Dostoevsky reminds me of what I, like the doctor, have forgotten. What I learn and forget and learn and forget again and again: that life, like a well-written story, is simple. That you only live the day you are living. That the sun is a blessing, a gift, and so every day the world gives you something for nothing. These are eternal, simple truths. Truths that must come to mind when faced with the beauty of a simple story, or, I imagine, with the sublime finality of death itself.

(The story of the young man is at the beginning of Book Six of The Karamazov Brothers, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve been reading the translation by Constance Garnett, published by Wordsworth Classics.)

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6 Responses to Dostoevsky, Death and Paradise

  1. “Why write? Not to create original truths, but to remind ourselves of old truths.” — you’re right. This is a real good essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rickkoster says:

    Lee, I really enjoyed this piece and it makes me think about how we might recreate ourselves, our subjectivity through language or rather etch out the edges of our void with words?

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Thanks for your response, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! This is a late reply, I’ve been thinking about your comment.

      I think you’re right, we do change and even create ourselves anew through language. But the reason I’m most interested in the specific task of *writing*, is that it seems to involve not just learning and selecting and using words but also a commitment to honesty and depth and exploration of the self . . . Writing seems like a quite special use of language. And we benefit from reading stories according to the pains that the author has gone to to reveal the truth about him- or herself, and therefore about the world, and the deep truths that we all share.

      So I agree with you, but I’d add that writing is the special means by which we can use language to recreate the self and explore the void.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. rickkoster says:

    Absolutely. And I always have this sense of dream or mythology in Dostoevsky’s writing? I am thinking about Freud’s interpretation of dreams where the form reveals more of the unconscious than the content. The writer distorts these ‘eternal simple truths’ in a painful attempt to explore the self. His or her truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      That’s interesting, the parallel between writing and dream interpretation. But I wonder if the important truths are ever really distorted in the best writing. Maybe bad writing obscures objective truth, but great writers like Dostoevsky are able to write fully in their own voice and still show us truth in simple and beautiful stories.


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