Saturday, March 3, 2012


The universal longing for heaven is not about immortality so much as the wish for a world in which everyone is always kind. ~ Susan Cain, Quiet

We had some rain again, the world gilled and ciliated with wet sheen – and the bliss of being indoors. But I decided to go to the Y after all.  I was getting ready to go my Pilates class when an article snagged my eye: CREATE YOUR OWN EPIPHANY. The author, Joseph Nowinski, author of Six Questions that Can Change Your Life: Dramatically, Completely, Forever (available on Amazon starting at $0.01), claimed this could by done by answering just two questions:

1. Why are you here?

2. What do you want?

I didn’t want to rush the answer. I imagined a delightful Pilates class, contemplating these two super-questions while lying on my mat, doing my best to obey the impossible command: “Try to touch the ceiling with your feet.” This is the exercise that makes you discover that your “buns of steel” (another celestial ideal) weigh at least 200 lbs. What better time to ask yourself “Why am I here?” I was hoping my epiphany would come on the last, exhausted, barely visible upward thrust.

But my disobedient brain could not repressed. In less time than it takes to say “midlife crisis,” it replied 1) to write and 2) to write.

I was, apparently, already in the post-epiphany stage, having somehow missed the dazzling moment on the road to Damascus.

I duly noted that I didn’t crown my in-the-twinkling-of-an-eye reply with brooding over how my writing was going into nowhere, thus speed-dating my suicidal depression that I could enter at will in the past. I made the mistake of thinking that first my life would have to have a meaning, and then my writing would have a meaning. Then I did have at least a minor epiphany that you start writing even though it doesn’t make sense. It’s not just that there are wrong answers; asking the wrong questions is even worse. You find by going where you need to go.

Why write? Would you ask a bird, Why fly?

“No longer mine to count the wrecks,” as Deborah Digges says in her amazing “My life’s calling: setting fires.” It would bore me to explain this, so I won’t. One of the great gifts of America: “you have the right to remain silent.” Silence, the language of angels and of the guilty.

Tolstoy’s Existential Anguish

Lev Tolstoy, 1908

Imagine my surprise when, back from Pilates, I happened to come across this quotation from Tolstoy’s Confessions:

So I lived; but five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, and though I did not know what to do or how to live; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity began to recur oftener and oftener, and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to?

The questions seemed such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that they are not childish and stupid but the most important and profound of life’s questions; and secondly that, occupying myself with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know why I was doing it. As long as I did not know why, I could do nothing and could not live . . .

I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.

These words were written by Lev Tolstoy in 1879, after he’d achieved great fame with War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was 51. That a writer universally regarded as a great one could fall into such midlife crisis, rather than simply posit that the meaning of his life lay in writing, is fascinating. What I really mean is that I want to scream: isn’t writing and being read by millions of people enough? Is being able to write masterpieces meaningless? Who is Tolstoy, of all people, to ask, Is that all there is?

Or, to appropriate a bit of an old joke, I want to protest: Look who comes here to say he is nothing.

True, his marriage wasn’t what it used to be (still, let’s not forget that he fathered thirteen children), but that in itself is too commonplace to lead to despair, especially if a man is hugely successful at his vocation. No, Tolstoy was envious of the peasants who didn’t seem ever to torment themselves by wondering about the meaning of life. Far from assuming that they were simply too busy with their exhausting physical labor (or drinking) to do any significant cogitating, he concluded that their secret was religious faith, and set about his own quest. He arrived at Christian anarchism of sorts, but never attained the peace of mind that he longed for (continual fights with his wife didn’t help). 

Here is another anguished page from Tolstoy's Confessions:

There is an old Eastern fable about a traveler who is taken unawares on the steppes by a ferocious wild animal. In order to escape the beast the traveler hides in an empty well, but at the bottom of the well he sees a dragon with its jaws open, ready to devour him. The poor fellow does not dare to climb out because he is afraid of being eaten by the rapacious beast, neither does he dare drop to the bottom of the well for fear of being eaten by the dragon. So he seizes hold of a branch of a bush that is growing in the crevices of the well and clings on to it. His arms grow weak and he knows that he will soon have to resign himself to the death that awaits him on either side. Yet he still clings on, and while he is holding on to the branch he looks around and sees that two mice, one black and one white, are steadily working their way round the bush he is hanging from, gnawing away at it. Sooner or later they will eat through it and the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon. The traveler sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish. But while he is still hanging there he sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the bush, stretches out his tongue and licks them. In the same way I am clinging to the tree of life, knowing full well that the dragon of death inevitably awaits me, ready to tear me to pieces, and I cannot understand how I have fallen into this torment. And I try licking the honey that once consoled me, but it no longer gives me pleasure. The white mouse and the black mouse – day and night – are gnawing at the branch from which I am hanging. I can see the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tastes sweet. I can see only one thing; the inescapable dragon and the mice, and I cannot tear my eyes away from them. And this is no fable but the truth, the truth that is irrefutable and intelligible to everyone.
How sad: Death was the dragon awaiting at the bottom of an empty well . . . Each day and night were bringing him closer to the dragon. Apparently he didn't think of non-being as rest, or as returning to nature. Nor did he have the philosophy that it's how well you live your life that matters: concentrate on the present, on bringing joy and wisdom to others through your writing. (Rilke: To work is to live without dying.)

It’s strangely heartening to ponder that many of us, with accomplishments next to zero compared with the literary genius of Tolstoy, are much happier than Tolstoy was in his older years. He tried to arrive at an intellectually acceptable version of Christianity, but could not accept a personal deity active in human affairs. His final doctrine came to resemble non-theistic Buddhism. He died while trying to run away from his wife, an unhappy man.

But I know I’m cheating re: the meaning of life

Tolstoy wasn’t really asking about the meaning of HIS particular and unique life; he craved to know THE meaning of life. I’m tempted to define depression as the place you get by asking the wrong questions. This was half a century or so before the existentialists and other modern thinkers pretty much settled the matter: there is no single, universal meaning of life; we both discover and forge our own individual meaning. As for those who’d answer that the meaning of life is serving God, they still have to work out their own particular way of serving the divine.

In secular terms, if there is a universal meaning of human life, it’s about how we touch the lives of others. The specifics are different for a surgeon versus a teacher versus a musician versus a restaurant chef. Or, to get away from what sounds like career options, for a dedicated mother of three versus someone who is fighting against cruelty to animals. In those terms, the main meaning of life as we see it can be different in various stages of life, and there can be more than one meaning at a time (I like to think that everyone has, in addition to a specific vocation, the “vocation of affection”: the imperative to be kind. Sorry, Mary Oliver: we have to be good.).

Tolstoy became something of a guru late in life. But there are no Tolstoyans now; our current gurus include Joseph Campbell, whose most famous message was: Follow your bliss.

But what is our bliss? Here is an answer given by an aspiring guru, Preston Ni: “What is your bliss? It’s work you love so much that you’d be willing to do it for free if you didn’t have to pay the bills.”

One’s sense of vocation can be strong or weak – or stronger or weaker depending on the stage of life. Mine has strengthened as at last I noticed I’m getting older and time is running out. But some people definitely have an easier time knowing and practicing their calling than others. I remember the huge envy I experienced watching on TV an American surgeon in Haiti after the earthquake, doing surgery for free. It wasn’t that he had a happy smile on his face; he was totally concentrating on his task. I thought, “He is the happiest man in the world.”

Was Dostoyevski happy?

Even though Dostoyevski himself regarded Tolstoy as the greatest writer in the world, many modern readers would likely vote that this title belongs to Dostoyevski. He certainly proved to have more influence on modern literature. Tolstoy was the great closure of the Victorian novel, the realist tradition. Dostoyevski exploded the Victorian novel by introducing all kinds of impolite material: extreme mental states, the tension between men and women, the unsolvable problem of evil, epilepsy, axe murder, and more.

The two Russian literary giants never met. Tolstoy allegedly wept when he heard of Dostoyevski’s death; a copy of The Brothers Karamazov lay on the nightstand next to Tolstoy’s deathbed at the Astapovo train station (if you haven’t seen the movie The Last Station, you are missing a treat).

It turns out that Dostoyevski also went through a midlife depression precipitated by the death of his first wife, shortly followed by the death of the brother he loved. But the pressure of debts forced him to write, and write quickly. He wrote Crime and Punishment  and The Gambler. To increase his writing speed he hired a young stenographer whom he soon married. The marriage turned out to be a happy one, and Dostoyevski continued to be prolific. Even though he too was tossed between doubt and faith, he was simply too busy to brood about the meaning of life. Instead, he poured his contradictory thoughts into his passionate characters.

It’s been noted that the intellectuals in his novels, such as Ivan Karamazov, have more depth and are powerfully rendered than the near-saints, such as Alyosha Karamazov. The Man from the Underground is widely regarded as the forefather of Existentialism. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter in The Brothers Karamazov is regarded as a philosophical and psychological masterpiece. Freud’s and Nietzsche’s admiration for Dostoyevski was not based on the latter’s more saintly characters. But then Dostoyevski grappled above all with the problem of evil.

And he accepted the divided nature of his self. He knew he was a “child of the age,” an intellectual and a doubter, and would remain so until the end. But after his Siberian exile, he also began to experience mystic-like moments of complete peace and love; in those moments he felt a great attachment to the person of Christ. He didn’t try to force himself to embrace one part of his personality to the exclusion of the other; in his novels, he gave voice to both. 

And it would be unfair to say that the character of Ivan Karamazov is an artistic triumph while Alyosha comes across as a boy scout. The true advocate of faith is the sage and repentant sinner, Father Zosima. Zosima proclaims that this life is an opportunity to be loving. As for the damned, hell is within them (a state of mind): “For them hell is voluntary and they cannot have enough of it” (just as the depressed seek to enhance sadness).

Above all, there was no time to be depressed. Besides fiction, he also wrote for periodicals, and maintained a vast correspondence. The question of “why write” never arose for him. Certainly, he needed the money, but above all, writing was inseparable from who he was. Writing was like thinking; it was like walking and breathing. I like to imagine him right after he completes “The Grand Inquisitor.” I imagine him smiling and pressing the pages to his heart. Then he walks out on the balcony and leans on the railing, looking at the city of White Nights. He feels completely fulfilled. He is happy.


For me, the existential crisis was over when I realized how little time was left. Talk about deadline pressure! So I got busy, and soon I was too busy to be depressed. This skips the time about the moment of my great insight -- probably the most important moment of my adult life. But I’m tired telling the story once more. In a nutshell: when I realized how little time was left, I got busy. Death was the revolver to my head that wonderfully concentrated my mind.  

I want to end with a poem that is my homage to Dostoyevski, but as a preface to it I want to quote an important passage from Crime and Punishment. Just as critics identify Ivan Karamazov with Dostoyevski himself, so they tend to see the villain Svidrigailov as one of nihilistic intellectuals who speaks for the author. Anna Akhmatova called both Tolstoy and Dostoyevski “heresiarchs” – this passage will show you why.

“I don’t believe in a future life,” said Raskolnikov.

 Svidrigailov sat lost in thought.
  “And what if there are only spiders there, or something of that sort,” he said suddenly.
 “He’s a madman,” thought Raskolnikov.
 “We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”
 “Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Raskolnikov cried, with a feeling of anguish.
 “Juster? And how can we tell, perhaps that is just, and do you know it’s what I would certainly have made it,” answered Svidrigailov, with a vague smile.
 This horrible answer sent a cold chill through Raskolnikov.


Here is my little homage to Dostoyevski:

Please Forgive My

leaving the reading, so angry
at the desecration I was almost
foaming at the mouth, a holy fool,
or a character out of Dostoyevski.

I regret not having stayed. I regret
being a character in Dostoyevski:
a demon-wrestling, God-obsessed
atheist. Raskolnikov is my cousin.

We hold long conversations in his coffin-
narrow room, Rodya and I, and Ivan
Karamazov, whom I try to persuade
to have faith: not everything is permitted

just because god is dead, though unburied,
the odor of decomposition covered up
with lilies. And Svidrigailov, who asks,
But suppose eternity is a grimy country

bathhouse, dried-up spiders in the corners
who before committing suicide
says to a stranger, a Jew, Goodbye my friend,
I’m going to America – he’s my secret love.

But he, unable to see me across the Neva,
ignorant that he is loved,
chooses to go to America
That’s my luck with men, though sometimes

before they go, they tell me I am loved.
But I love only Fyodor Dostoyevski –
my creator, he of epilepsy and axe murder,
who knew the meaning of life: dried-up

spiders in the corners of eternity, going to
America – he’s my favorite commissar,
he who said through the mouth of Myshkin,
“the idiot”: Beauty will save the world.

~ Oriana © 2012


Monument to Dostoyevski in Omsk, where he was sent to his Siberian penal colony.


Love your poem, Oriana – there's one image that makes me smell those certain lilies whose fragrance crosses over into something that would attract flies. And your reflections on two of the writers who most moved me to write poetry, starting in my early teens when I read "Crime and Punishment" and lots of Tolstoy – I vividly remember those passages from the "confessions" and his characters in the novels who wrestled with such questions. Sheesh, if Tolstoy wasn't satisfied with his literary accomplishments, who can be, and at what point?


It’s occurred to me that he might have thought his best writing was behind him. As Milosz would put it, the “age of vitality” was over, and now it was time for the less vivid and artistic “age of the mind.” Of course this isn’t always true: some writers’ best work comes at an older age, and there is both mind and vitality to it.

Who doesn’t remember reading Crime and Punishment for the first time? That novel still explodes the well-behaved novel and the predictable characters we’re used to.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate Tolstoy, but if I were to have lunch with literary characters, Anna and Wronsky and Levin and Kitty – that whole crowd – they don’t interest me. I’d rather talk with Raskolnikov, or ponder eternity with Svidrigailov.

I think Dostoyevski had a more modern frame of mind in that he knew that certain questions are not answerable, that there won’t ever be any satisfying proof one way or the other – so instead of trying to find THE answer, he presented characters who wrestle with the questions and present those answers that somehow stem from their personalities. And it’s interesting to ponder how this or that particular character is an inhabitant of heaven or hell, taken as states of mind, or at some way station in between. 


I want sometime to revisit & discover how both authors speak to me now as someone who struggles to become a writer and has mysteriously arrived at a middle age she never knew as that chronically ill teen she would ever attain. when i was 15 i wrote a very long paper for a history class on tolstoy's spiritual development from childhood to his death. as a child he longed to find a green stick inscribed with the meaning of life – something that tangible and discrete. he never gave up that yearning and never realized the green stick is in everything and we are the ones who do much of the inscribing (i personally wouldn't say all of it). so he was perpetually restless and tortured. Man, he could be a real pain--poor sonya--but he was so human at every point, and i felt such compassion for his struggles. of course dostoyevski was restless and tortured too, but i think you are right, he did in some way that tolstoy didn't accept that not every question has "the answer."


It may be puzzling to the educated modern Westerner that someone as brilliant and complex as Tolstoy would really think that there is THE answer. But we have the advantage of modernity here: a lot of thinkers have gone before us, including Nietzsche and Sartre, and concluded that we create meaning moment to moment. So we tend not to thrash around after THE truth, THE answer. Even when it comes to believers, it turns out that each person’s religion has a personal imprint and emphasis. I really love what one of my commentators said a while back: “Religion is autobiographical.” So is the “meaning of life.”

Tolstoy also seems to have been tormented about being a landowner and exploiting his peasants. Dostoyevski at least didn’t have that on his hands. He was also blessed with a happy second marriage. A supportive spouse is a necessity for a writer, I think. Sonya was that up to a point – then she put her foot down when it came to idea of giving up the wealth. She had nine living children to worry about, as you know, rather than metaphysics. 

(Oriana: It's with great sadness that I report that Mary died recently. She was a beautiful person, very caring, active in spite of the ordeal of suffering from adrenal insufficiency.)

John Guzlowski:

"Why do we live and why do we die?"  

My mother said that if you can answer those questions she would answer all the others. They are easy.

Love it. Your mother had this very concise wisdom that comes across in your poems about her and your blog. (Was she a Scorpio by any chance, like Dostoyevski?)

And I could actually figure out #1 in some "general" fashion, but alas, can't answer #2 except in an unpleasant way, i.e. we'd get too stuck in old thinking. The saying is that old MDs have to die before there is progress in medicine, and that probably holds for many other fields. But you'd think that with aging arrested and intensive training to update knowledge and skills, we could get around the stuckness. I'm certain I'd be willing to learn new tricks!

Of course the point is that is answer has to be customized for each person in terms of what it is Kathleen versus Jimmy has that makes living worthwhile. I'd love to say that "elementary pleasure in existing" would be enough, but we have suicide statistics and "quiet desperation." And while wonderful philosophical answers have been formulated to justify the need for death, we know that the problem is biological and not philosophical, and we merely bow to inevitable. As Larkin said -- his last words -- "I go to the inevitable."

Death goes with the overall problem of “undeserved suffering,” since most people die of something nasty, even very nasty – certain cancers, for instance. And when we consider brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and small strokes that disable and kill slowly – very few people in any way “deserve” this kind of suffering, and certainly not their care-givers either. So Dostoyevski, who went straight for the throat of metaphysics, so to speak, is still absolutely relevant, more so than Tolstoy, it seems to me.

Modern literature was influenced by Dostoyevski more so than by Tolstoy – although I’m not saying that it’s because we can dismiss Anna Karenina by pointing out that these days she would have gained the custody of her son and the house and a nice divorce settlement. Afterwards she'd marry Wronsky -- what's the big deal? Not to us, but back then, what a different world! And how atrocious it was to be a woman! We have a great novel to show us that historical aspect, with psychological insights besides. Tolstoy remains pretty amazing, and humanity is lucky to have these two literary giants. 


Personally I tend not to think about the ultimate. I keep those thoughts in the back of my head. So far back that they can circle around each other while I get other stuff done.


I think that's the best way: let's concentrate on living: working, loving, and being kind to one another. The afterlife, if any? Que sera, sera. The point is not to waste THIS life by sitting around and brooding. I've done my brooding and can announce to all: no answers come this way. "We find by going where we need to go." 


Ah, the great Russians! What a literature both men left us. I have that book that contains the Tolstoy quote on his mid life crisis, it's a very moving chronicle. I really must see 'The Last Train Station' – based on a novel by the poet Jay Parini (who also wrote an excellent novel on Melville).

Poor Tolstoy, his last decades were full of doubt and turmoil, marital unhappiness and finally a sad end. I contrast him with Tolkien who while did not explore the deep things Tolstoy did...but in a way he did; he just used mythical people to flesh his out. And Tolkien died happy and content, secure as a beloved writer and free from all the anguish Tolstoy put on himself about living up to a certain code and making his own shoes and such. No, I'd much rather be like Tolkien's hobbits, fond of food and drink and snug houses!

Father Zosima is one of my favorite characters of all literature, what a story he recounts when he described himself as a young army officer involved in a duel that led to his conversion. I need to read more of his work( and Tolstoy), amazingly deep writers. 

What is it with Russians and long, epic novels? Does their prolonged harsh winters force them to stay inside? Regardless of the reason we are all the better for it, the reading is not light but it's well worth the effort.


No kidding, Parini wrote a novel on Melville too!! Wow, you’ve done it again, brought in Melville to a seemingly unrelated post. All roads lead to Melville – Moby Dick is perhaps closer to Dostoyevski than any other great American novel I can think of . . .

Yes, there is something to be said for being housebound when it comes to producing writing. That, of course, does not explain why various countries have their golden age in literature (and often in culture in general) in one epoch rather than another – that it comes and goes in clusters.  A lot of factors go into that, some not so pretty – for instance, Polish poets of the second half of the twentieth century had plenty of history to draw on, plenty of tragedy. And Communist censorship forced them to write in a more metaphorical way. With Russia, the usual answer is the sudden influx of Western influences, and we do see that Tolstoy and Dostoyevski often posit Holy Russia against the West. And having just the right peers, sometimes through sheer luck, is also important. But all we can have is a partial perspective at best (yes, I know, that’s such a modern answer. The Middle Ages believed in the absolute; our world is much larger and we know about relative, approximate truth).

Who doesn’t love Father Zosima . . .  the gospel of kindness is perhaps the closest we can indeed come to universal truth. And even there, we can’t go to terrorists and say, Look, let’s love one another. Hitler and Stalin did ruin potential greater trust by their very existence. But Trotsky is actually more “educational”: a prisoner of an idea. His example is a warning of not falling for an absolute, and the need to keep questioning any philosophical system.

You’ll love The Last Station. I must warn you that the Countess steals the movie, in the best of ways. 


  1. Thank you, dear Anonymous.

    I wonder why I am so attracted to Dostoyevski despite the obvious reasons to dislike him: the Russian nationalism pushed to crazy limits (Russia as "the Christ of nations"), his hatred of Poland (again due to his rabid nationalism), his antisemitism (at least in The Diary of a Writer), his morbid intensities, his explicitly stated willingness to let go of the truth as long as he could hold on to the person of Christ as to a security blanket. Yet all this is as nothing against the genius of The Grand Inquisitor and The Man from the Underground. All is forgiven.