A good trick, with his name, is to say
‘toy’ in the middle: Dos-toy-ev-ski.
He was born in 1821
and grew up on the outskirts of Moscow.
His family were comfortably off –
his father was a successful doctor,
though he happened to work at a charitable hospital
that provided medical services for the very poor.
The family had a house in the hospital complex,
so the young Dostoevsky was from the very beginning
powerfully exposed to experiences
from which other children of his background
were usually carefully sheltered.
Like almost everyone in Tsarist Russia
his parents were devout Orthodox Christians
and Dostoevsky’s own religious faith
got deeper and stronger throughout his life.
At the age of 12
he was sent away to school first in Moscow
and later in the capital, St Petersburg.
He got a good education,
though as a child of the tiny professional middle-class
he felt out of place among his more aristocratic classmates.
While he was away at school his father died
possibly murdered by his own serfs.
After graduating Dostoevsky worked as an engineer for a while.
He started gambling and losing money,
something that was to plague him all his life.
In his late twenties,
he became friends with a group of radical writers and intellectuals.
He wasn’t deeply involved
but when the government decided to crack down on dissent,
Dostoevsky was rounded up too
and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad.
However, at the last moment –
just when the soldiers were ready to fire
a message of a reprieve arrived.
Dostoyevsky was sent instead to Siberia
for four years of forced labour in horrific conditions.
It was only after his return from Siberia
that Dostoevsky established himself as a writer.
Starting in middle age,
he produced a series of major books.
They are dark, violent and tragic –
这些作品都很黑暗 暴力 悲惨
and usually very long and complicated.
He wrote them to preach five important lessons to the world.
Incidentally, the discussion of Dostoevsky’s ideas
does involve revealing the plots of some of his novels.
It’s not something that would have worried him
because his books are written to be read more than once.
But if it bothers you,
this is the place to break off.
Dostoyevsky’s first big book –
“Notes from the Underground” –
is an extended rant against life and the world
delivered by a retired civil servant.
This civil servant is deeply unreasonable,
inconsistent and furious with everyone,
都很不讲道理 前后不一 脾气很差
He’s always getting into rows,
he goes to a reunion of some former colleagues,
and tells them all how much he has always hated them.
He wants to puncture everyone’s illusions
and make them as unhappy as he is.
He seems like a grotesque character to build a book around.
But he’s doing something important.
He’s insisting with a peculiar kind of intensity –
on a very strange fact about the human condition.
We want happiness
but we have a special talent
for making ourselves miserable.
In the novel, Dostoevsky is taking aim at
philosophies of progress and improvement –
which were highly popular in his age,
as they continue to be in ours.
He is attacking our habit of telling ourselves
that if only this or that thing were different,
we could leave suffering behind.
If we got that great job,
changed the government,
could afford that great house,
invented a machine to fly us faster around the world,
could get together with, or divorced from a particular person,
then all would go well.
This, Dostyevsky argues, is a delusion.
Suffering will always pursue us.
Schemes for improving the world
always contain a flaw.
They won’t eliminate suffering,
they will only change the things that cause us pain.
Life can only ever be a process
of changing the focus of pain,
never of removing pain itself.
There will always be something to agonise us.
Stop people starving, says Dostoyevsky
with calculated wickedness –
and you’ll soon find
there’s a new range of agonies:
people will start to suffer from boredom, greed or
intense melancholy that they haven’t been invited to the right party.
In this spirit,
“Notes from the Underground” launches an attack on
all ideologies of technical or social progress
which aspire to the elimination of suffering.
They won’t succeed
because as soon as they solve one problem,
they’ll direct our nature to become unhappy in new ways.
Dostoyevsky is fascinated by the secret way,
in which we actually don’t want
what we theoretically seem to seek.
He discusses the pleasure a lot of people get
from feelings of superiority,
and for whom, consequently,
an egalitarian society would be a nightmare.
Or the disavowed but real thrill we get
from hearing about violent crimes on the news,
in which case we’d actually feel thwarted
in a truly peaceful world.
“Notes from the Underground”
is a dark, awkwardly insightful counterpoint
to well-intentioned modern liberalism.
It doesn’t really show that social improvement is meaningless.
But it does remind us that we’ll always carry
our very complex and difficult selves with us
and that progress will never be as clear and clean
as we might like to imagine.
In “Crime and Punishment”,
we meet an impoverished intellectual,
Though he’s currently a nobody,
he’s fascinated by power and ruthlessness.
He thinks of himself as a version of Napoleon.
“Leaders of men, such as Napoleon,
were all without exception criminals,” we hear,
“they broke the ancient laws of their people
to make new ones that suited them better,
and they never feared bloodshed.”
Raskolnikov is also desperate for money
and so, aristocratic superiority in mind,
he decides to murder an old woman
who is a small time pawnbroker and money lender
and to steal her cash.
He’s tormented by the mad injustice of the fact
that this horrible, mean old character
has drawers full of roubles
while he – who is clever, energetic and profound – is starving.
而年富力强 博闻强识的他 却在挨饿
He doesn’t spend much time thinking about options
like taking a job as a waiter.
So Raskolnikov breaks into her apartment
and bludgeons her to death;
and surprised in the act by the woman’s pregnant half-sister,
kills her too.
But it turns out he’s nothing like
the cold-blooded, rational hero
of his own imagination.
He is tormented by guilt and horror at what he has done.
Eventually, he turns himself over to the police
in order to face the proper punishment for his crime.
We’re probably never going to do what Raskolnikov did.
But we often share a troubling tendency with him.
We think we know ourselves better than we actually do.
Raskolnikov thinks he’s ruthless;
actually, he’s rather tender-hearted.
He thinks he won’t feel guilt;
but he’s overwhelmed by remorse.
Part of our life’s journey
is to engage in the tricky task of
from what we think we’re like,
in order to discover our true nature.
Raskolnikov is especially fascinating
because of the direction this self-discovery takes.
His striking realisation
is that he’s actually a much nicer person
than he takes himself to be.
Whereas so many novelists delight in showing the sickly reality
beneath a glamorous or enticing facade,
Dostoevsky has embarked on a more curious but rewarding mission.
He wants to reveal
that beneath the so-called monster,
there can very often be a far more interesting
tender-hearted character lurking:
a nice but deluded,
intelligent but frightened and panicked person.
Sticking for the moment with “Crime and Punishment”,
it’s very significant the way Dostoevsky
gets us to like his murderous hero.
Raskolnikov is clearly an attractive person.
At the very start of the book, we’re told:
Dostoevsky throughout lessens
the imaginative distance between ‘us’
who live mainly law-abiding
and more or less manageable lives,
and ‘them’ – the ones who do terrible things
and wreak havoc with their lives and those of others.
That person, he is saying,
is more like you
than you might initially want to think,
and therefore more accessible to sympathy.
The idea that you can be a good person,
do something very bad
and still deserve some compassion
sounds maybe slight and obvious,
until one has need of this kind of forgiveness
in one’s own life.
This is where Dostoevsky wants to
enter our inner conversation with ourselves,
and tell us all about his character Raskolnikov,
a serious, thoughtful, good-looking man
严肃 体贴 英俊
who did worse than we have
and still can be compassionately understood,
as we can and must all be.
This is Dostoevsky’s Christianity at work:
no one is outside the circle of God’s love and understanding.
Dostoyevsky’s next great book, “The Idiot”,
takes off from his near-death experience before the firing squad.
In the novel, he recounts what that was like.
Three minutes before his expected death
he is able to see life clearly for the first time.
He notices the gilded spire of a nearby church,
and how it glitters in the sun.
He’d never before realised how entrancing
a glint of sunlight could be.
He is filled with an immense, deep love of the world.
You might see a beggar
and think how you would love to change places with them
so as to be able to continue to breathe the air and feel the wind,
merely to exist,
seems, at that moment of final revelation,
And then the revised order comes
and it’s not over at all.
What would it be like to go through one’s whole life
in such a state of gratitude and generosity?
You wouldn’t share any of the normal attitudes.
You’d love everyone equally,
you’d be enchanted by the simplest things,
you’d never feel angry or frightened.
You would seem to other people
to be a kind of idiot.
Hence the title of Dostoyevsky’s book.
It’s an extreme version of a very interesting step.
We’re continually surrounded by
things which could delight us,
if only we saw them in the right way,
if only we could learn to appreciate them.
Dostoevsky was desperate to
communicate the value of existence
before death would overtake him – and us.
In Dostoyevsky’s final great work –
which came out when he was nearly 60,
one of the central characters tells a long
It’s called The Grand Inquisitor,
and imagines that the greatest event
looked forward to by Christian theology,
the second coming of Christ,
has in fact already happened.
Jesus did come back,
several hundred years ago.
He turned up in Spain,
during the highest period of power in the Catholic Church:
the organisation established,
in theory at least, entirely in devotion to him.
Christ is back to fulfill his teachings
of forgiveness and universal love.
But something rather odd happens.
The most powerful religious leader,
the Grand Inquisitor,
has Jesus arrested and imprisoned.
In the middle of the night,
the Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell
and explains that he cannot allow him
to do his work on Earth,
because he is a threat to the stability of society.
Christ, he says, is just too ambitious –
too pure, too perfect.
Humanity can’t live up to the impossible goals
he sets before us.
The fact is, people haven’t been able to live
according to his teachings
and Jesus should admit he failed
and that his ideas of redemption
were essentially misguided.
The Grand Inquisitor is not really a monster.
In fact, Dostoevsky portrays him as
quite an admirable figure in the story.
He is a guide to a crucial idea,
that human beings cannot live in purity,
cannot ever be just truly good,
cannot live up to Christ’s message,
and this is something we should reconcile ourselves to
with grace rather than fury or self-hatred.
We have to accept a great deal of unreasonableness,
folly, greed, selfishness and shortsightedness
愚蠢 贪婪 自私 短浅的人和事
as ineradicable parts of the human condition
and plan accordingly.
And it’s not just a pessimistic thesis
about politics or religion
that we’re being introduced to.
The primary relevance of this thesis
is as a commentary on our own lives:
we won’t sort them out,
we won’t stop being a bit mad and wayward.
And we shouldn’t torment ourselves with the dream that we could,
if only we tried hard enough,
become the perfect beings
that idealistic philosophies like Christianity
like to sketch all too readily.
Dostoevsky died in 1881.
He had a very hard life,
but he succeeded in conveying an idea
which perhaps he understood more clearly than anyone:
in a world that’s very keen on upbeat stories,
we will always run up against our limitations
as deeply flawed and profoundly muddled creatures.
bleak but compassionate,
tragic but kind,
is needed more than ever
in our naive and sentimental age
that so fervently clings to the idea
which this great Russian novelist loathed
that science can save us all
and that we may yet be made perfect through technology.
Dostoyevsky guides us to
a more humane darker truth:
that – as the great sages have always known –
life is and ever will be suffering,
and yet that there is great redemption available
in articulating this message
in brilliant and moving,
complex and subtle works of art.