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Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Why have existentialist philosophers claimed Dostoyevsky as one of their own?

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) is considered an inspiration to the modern philosophical tradition of existentialism because of the depth of his appreciation for the difficulty of the human condition and the universal problems he and his fictional characters agonized over. Friedrich Nietsche (1844-1900) said that Dostoyevsky was "the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn." He praised Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864) for having "cried truth from the blood."

Indeed, in Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky introduces a self-deprecating narrator, who became an iconic anti-hero for subsequent existentialist writers. The narrator's first words are, "I am a sick man," and his ensuing reflections, ratings, and ruminations make it clear that the sickness at issue is primarily a malaise of the soul. Not the least of this sickness is a disgust with reason.

Although Dostoyevsky is well known for valorizing simplicity in religious faith, he did not arrive at that viewpoint easily, either in works of fiction such as Crime and Punishment (1866), or in his own life. In his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov (1881), Ivan is an atheist, while his brother, Alyosha, is studying to become a monk. In the famous "Grand Inquisitor" dialogue within this novel, Ivan presses Alyosha on his faith, going to the heart of the matter in asking how a good God can permit the suffering of innocent children. Ivan recounts the story of a peasant's child whom the lord

allows his dogs to tear apart, because the child threw a stone at one of them. The character of Alyosha is said to be modeled on Dostoyevsky's close friend, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900), who longed to reunite the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

What aspects of Dostoevsky's life influenced his deep interest in human difficulty?

Dostoyevsky's father was a violent and abusive alcoholic. He was also the doctor of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. Dostoyevsky himself suffered from epilepsy from the age of nine. As a child, he used to disobey his parents and explore Mariinsky Hospital, absorbed by the misery of the patients and the stories about their lives that they told him. His first book, Poor Folk (1846), brought out the individual humanity of the poor, who were otherwise be ignored and dismissed by the educated reading public of the time.

Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky expressed his belief in the extreme difficulty of the human condition through such novels as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment (iStock).

Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky expressed his belief in the extreme difficulty of the human condition through such novels as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment (iStock).

In 1849 Dostoyevsky was arrested for his participation in the liberal group of intellectuals called the Petrashevsky Circle. He was sentenced to death, although Czar Nicholas II did not really intend for the execution to be carried out. Nevertheless, the experience of standing for hours in the freezing cold in anticipation of a firing squad was believed to have scared Dostoyevsky for life. He was then exiled to Siberia for four years of hard labor. He wrote of this period: "In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall ____We were packed like herrings in a barrel.... Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel."

When Dostoyevsky's brother and wife died in the same year, he fell into a deep depression and became a gambler. During that period he wrote Crime and Punishment (1866), in a frenzied haste, because he was out of money. His life evened out after 1867, when he married his 20-year-old stenographer to whom he had dictated The Gambler (1867). While this book is about an elderly woman who gambles self-destructively, some think that Dostoyevsky was describing his own compulsion.

Dostoyevsky lived at the Russian resort Staraya for years before his death from emphysema and an epileptic seizure that brought on a lung hemorrhage. Forty thousand people went to his funeral.

 
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