On a trip to visit an old friend recently, I stopped by the local bookstore to get some kind of keepsake, something I like to do on longer personal trips to mark the time. I noticed a new translation of a book I hadn’t read yet by one of my favorite authors, 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and picked it up.
This particular book, Notes from a Dead House, is a fictionalized treatment of the author’s own experiences in a hard labor camp in Siberia. This was his commuted sentence after being granted a stay of execution from the Czar for being involved in a revolutionary group influenced by the writings of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
One of the fascinating elements in reading the book has been an awareness of the inner effect of reading it, both familiar and strange. And this has to do with the stage of life during which I’m reading it this time around.
Most of my studies and single years when I had enough leisure time to immerse myself in books, film, art, and criticism to any serious degree were before I regularly engaged in contemplative practices or had transformational experiences associated with the practice.
In those years, I was drawn to artists that might broadly fit under the category of existential: Dostoevsky, Bergman, McCarthy, even Shakespeare to a degree.
There seemed to be something empowering about their willingness to confront the starker realities of the human condition. Especially if you’re raised in a triumphalist evangelicalism, there’s something liberating about these artist’s engaging in granular detail with the finality of death, with suicide and freedom, imagining God as a devouring spider, articulating a nihilism we sometimes feel, even if we can’t ultimately affirm it.
There’s a sense of daring in allowing oneself to be guided into an unflinching look at human extremes.
Then there’s the after-effect of this kind of art. There’s a sweet kind of melancholy to it. And along with that melancholy, a sense of separateness, of being the rare bird naturally tuned in to that frequency, and therefore bittersweetly out of step with a shallow surrounding culture.
For the melancholic-romantic, there’s a desire to expand the circumference of one’s soul large enough to be able to incorporate the extremes of the human psychological experience.
But an unstated aspect of this kind of desire is, in an immature state, it’s essentially ego energy at work. It’s precisely a desire for that separateness.
Left to its own devices, the ego wants to feel separate, unique, superior. Only the way we go about it differs. For some, it’s our work accomplishments, some gift or ability, or goal achieved, or their productivity. For others, precisely their suffering and victimhood makes them feel unique. For others still, it’s the social identity they cling to, their theological certainty, or their righteousness that sets them apart.
Of course, none of these things are negative pursuits in and of themselves, but the way in which we relate to them, how we cling to them, how we shield ourselves with them, how we wield them, how we seek separateness and ego expansion through them that creates problems.
And most of the time, we’re not conscious of the way in which we’re subtly attempting to make ourselves superior, to make ourselves right, and to make others wrong or somehow lesser.
For some of us, it’s the capacity to sit squarely with the darker aspects of the human condition. One of the passages in Notes from a Dead House is about a convict sentenced to hard labor after luring a five year old to a shed with a toy and then stabbing him, and a hint at his being a repeat offender. This episode is casually dashed off among another set of facts about the character. This passage probably hits harder now that I have a four year old. But I would have felt a similar vicarious ache of the passage even in my twenties.
Much of the force of this kind of art comes from a device of subtly introducing this kind of detail against an otherwise normal or placid backdrop, of not placing too much emphasis on the hideous, situating it cheek by jowl with other facts of life. It’s a quick pang, a momentary stab to the sensitive reader. The after-effect is that, as the story moves on, the jarring piece of information lingers beneath the surface, almost subliminally, establishing a frame of mind that lasts well after the book is put down.
On the one hand, yes, such things have happened in human history. Yes, it can be worthwhile to find correctives to cultural shallowness. But this time around, the experience was precisely feeling another layer of sadness about this feeling of separation from others. Suddenly preoccupied with my own transient melancholy, I was no longer oriented towards others, no longer available, immersed in a separate emotional reality, of suddenly moving to a different rhythm.
This used to be part of the point, the desired after-effect of separateness. But part of the contemplative process is precisely about learning to see the self in the other, and the other in the self. And this does usually come, in fact, by engaging with our genuine pain. But it’s the pain that purifies, not the pain that infects. It’s the pain that unifies, not the pain that separates. It’s the pain that raises awareness of the pain in others. It’s the kind of pain that expands gentleness and graciousness, instead of hoarding it like a treasured heirloom.
I’ll finish the book. There are too many aspects of the work to enjoy. But I’ll also be more mindful of the ways in which I start to get drawn into patterns of isolation that shift my sensibility precisely where it doesn’t need to be, on an isolated sense of self.