“Excessive consciousness is a disease.” Happy Birthday, Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Destroy my desires, eradicate my ideals, show me something better, and I will follow you. You may say I’m not worth bothering with; in that case, I can say exactly the same to you. We are talking seriously. And if you do not deign to give me your attention, I will not bow before you. I have my underground.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, 1864

I wrote a thing on Notes From Underground here. Notes from Underground is so ahead of its time as to be damn near SPOOKY. That’s a 20th century book published in 1864.

He’s one of my favorite authors and I return to his stuff again and again. In fact, I just re-read Crime and Punishment last year. It’s my 4th or 5th time. I don’t really count the first time, which was in high school, although SOMEthing got under my skin back then. The book gets deeper and deeper each time I return to it. Also FUNNIER. It often makes me laugh out loud. Razmuhin! I love that character so much.

His humor is one of the things that startles me about Dostoevsky consistently. He’s funniest when his characters are at their most deadly serious. There is nothing funny about the situation in The Double at ALL and yet … it IS hiLARious. The lead character in White Nights is in DEADLY EARNEST but he’s so so funny! You want to tell him to please just put a cool cloth on his head and RELAX. Laughing “at” Dostoevsky’s characters is dangerous though – for me, anyway – because it’s like laughing at myself, laughing at vulnerability, laughing at people who are sensitive, who take things too hard. I finished Crime and Punishment this last time on the flight back from Utah, and I was in tears. I’ve read the damn thing like 5 times. And I’m still in tears. I take it personally. I think it’s impossible not to. He was just that kind of writer.


E.M. Forster’s lecture on the “prophetic novelist”, under which category he put Dostoevsky:

“Prophecy — in our sense — is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity — Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them: but what particular view of the universe is recommended — with that we are not directly concerned. It is the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist’s phrase, and in this lecture, which promises to be so vague and grandiose, we may come nearer than elsewhere to the minutiae of style.”

E.M. Forster:

In Dostoevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them; though yet they remain individuals they expand to embrace it and summon it to embrace them … Every sentence he writes implies this extension, and the implication is the dominant aspect of his work. He is a great novelist in the ordinary sense — that is to say his characters have relation to ordinary life and also live in their own surroundings, there are incidents which keep us excited, and so on; he has also the greatness of a prophet, to which our ordinary standards are inapplicable.

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical — the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours. We have not ceased to be people, we have given nothing up, but “the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea”.

Clifford Odets, journal entry, March 29, 1940

The man of genius walks, talks, sleeps, eats, loves, and works with a load of dynamite in him. If he carries this load carefully — balance — its power for good work and use is enormous — it can landscape a whole mountainside. Abuse — out of balance — is suicide and a bitter grave.

It is in this sense that the artist, if he makes a proper amalgam, is beyond good and evil, for everything in him is for creation and life.

For example, let us say that Dostoevsky had impulses of rape in his heart. See how a great artist held this part of himself within his recognition and acceptance of what he was. Its creative uses were enormous. It gave him work, tone, feeling, anguish, a wealth of feeling. Finally, it was just such “weaknesses” which gave Dostoevsky’s novels their religious ecstatic fervor.

In other words … inner contradictions are not solved by throwing out half of the personality, but by keeping both sides tearing and pulling, often torturing the self, until an AMALGAM ON A HIGH LEVEL OF LIFE AND EXPERIENCE IS ACHIEVED! For the artist there is not “bad”. He must throw out nothing, exclude nothing, but always hold in balance. When he has made this balance he has made and found his form.

H.L. Mencken:

The more the facts are studied, the more they bear it out. In those fields of art, at all events, which concern themselves with ideas as well as with sensations it is almost impossible to find any trace of an artist who was not actively hostile to his environment, and thus an indifferent patriot. From Dante to Tolstoy and from Shakespeare to Mark Twain the story is ever the same. Names suggest themselves instantly: Goethe, Heine, Shelley, Byron, Thackeray, Balzac, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Dostoevsky, Carlyle, Moliere, Pope – all bitter critics of their time and nation, most of them piously hated by the contemporary 100 per centers, some of them actually fugitives from rage and reprisal.

by Charles Bukowski

against the wall, the firing squad ready.
then he got a reprieve.
suppose they had shot Dostoevsky?
before he wrote all that?
I suppose it wouldn’t have
not directly.
there are billions of people who have
never read him and never
but as a young man I know that he
got me through the factories,
past the whores,
lifted me high through the night
and put me down
in a better
even while in the bar
drinking with the other
I was glad they gave Dostoevsky a
it gave me one,
allowed me to look directly at those
rancid faces
in my world,
death pointing its finger,
I held fast,
an immaculate drunk
sharing the stinking dark with

James Baldwin:

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing that way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoevsky, from Balzac. I’m sure that my life in France would have been very different had I not met Balzac. Even though I hadn’t experienced it yet, I understood something about the concierge, all the French institutions and personalities. The way that country and its society works. How to find my way around in it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it.

William Styron:

Writers ever since writing began have had problems, and the main problem narrows down to just one word – life. Certainly this might be an age of so-called faithlessness and despair we live in, but the new writers haven’t cornered any market on faithlessness and despair, any more than Dostoevsky or Marlowe or Sophocles did. Every age has its terrible aches and pains, its peculiar new horrors, and every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what that same friend of mine calls “the fleas of life” – you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another. They are the constants of life, at the core of life, along with nice little delights that come along every now and then. Dostoevsky had them and Marlowe had them and we all have them, and they’re a hell of a lot more invariable than nuclear fission or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. So is Love invariable, and Unrequited Love, and Death and Insult and Hilarity. Mark Twain was as baffled and appalled by Darwin’s theories as anyone else, and those theories seemed as monstrous to the Victorians as atomic energy, but he still wrote about riverboats and old Hannibal, Missouri.

Alexander Woollcott to Mrs. Otis Skinner, Aug. 2 1935:

[I have been] weeping steadily because once again I had come to the great healing chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. It always chokes me up and fills me with a love of mankind which sometimes lasts till noon of the following day.

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint:

I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!

John Gardner:

The theory of the superman is kind of interesting, abstractly. The question is, Is it right? Will it work? Can human beings live with it? So Dostoevsky sets up the experiment imaginatively. Obviously he doesn’t want to go out and actually kill somebody to see if it works, so he imagines a perfectly convincing St. Petersburg and a perfectly convincing person who would do this. (What student in all of St. Petersburg would commit a murder? What relatives would he have? What friends? What would his pattern be? What would he eat?) Dostoevsky follows the experiment out and finds out what does happen.

I think all great art does this, and you don’t have to do it realistically. Obviously Raskolnikov could have bee a giant saurian as long as his character is consistent and convincing, tuned to what we know about actual feeling.

Gabriel Fallon, Sean O’Casey: The Man I Knew:

Then Yeats ventured an opinion. He said that the play, particularly in the final scene, reminded him of a Dostoevsky novel. Lady Gregory turned to him and said, “You know, Willie, you never read a novel by Dostoevsky.” And she promised to amend this deficiency by sending him a copy of The Idiot.

Ralph Ellison:

Never mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism. Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial – all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain?

Michael Schmidt:

Fyodor Dostoevsky is nearer to Poe in his fiction than any American successors.

James Baldwin:

I was always struck by the minor characters in Dostoevsky and Dickens. The minor characters have a certain freedom that the major ones don’t. They can make comments, they can move, yet they haven’t got the same weight or intensity.

From “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”:
By Hugh MacDiarmid
(Gin Glesca folk are tired o’ Hengler,
And still need breid and circuses, there’s Spengler,
Or gin ye s’ud need mair than ane to teach ye,
Then learn frae Dostoevski and frae Nietzsche.

Rebecca West, letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917, written during air raids:

Talking of these nasty foreigners I cannot agree with you about Tolstoy. I wish I could. Twice have I read War and Peace and found nothing but stuffed Tolstoys, and such lots and lots of them. And plainly Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy that there was nothing in this expensive and troublesome business of adultery and oh Gawd, oh Gawd, Kitty! And about Resurrection I cannot speak, but only yawn. And those short stories seem to me as fatuous as the fables of La Fontaine. But Dostoevsky –! The serenity of The Brothers Karamazov, the mental power of The Possessed, the art of The Raw Youth! Isn’t it awful to think that nothing can ever decide this dispute?

John Gardner:

Look, it’s impossible for us to read Dostoevsky as a writer of thrillers anymore because of this whole weight of explanation and analysis we’ve loaded on the books. And yet The Brothers Karamazov is obviously, among other things, a thriller novel. It also contains, to my mind, some pretentious philosophizing.

William Styron:

My God, think of how morbid and depressing Dostoevsky would have been if he could have gotten hold of some of the juicy work of Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, say Sadism and Masochism. What people like John Webster and, say, Hieronymus Bosch, felt intuitively about some of the keen horrors that lurk in the human mind, we now have neatly cataloged and clinically described by Krafft-Ebing and the Menningers and Karen Horny, and they’re available to any fifteen year old with a pass-card to the New York Public Library.

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4 Responses to “Excessive consciousness is a disease.” Happy Birthday, Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. mutecypher says:

    That Bukowski poem is really good. It also goes well with the indy film from Memphis.

  2. I’ve started BROTHERS KARAMAZOV at least four times and stalled out around the halfway mark each time, but I *know* it’s not the book’s fault. I may be due to make another attempt…and who knows, recent events may mean that demands on my time may be conducive to actually getting through it.

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