THE BLOG
11/05/2014 07:34 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

A Purveyor of Truth: The Writer's Life

This will be a three part series, examining creativity, which in this writer's mind, has been extremely malnourished in today's world. The first two pieces examines the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian novelist.

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born to a family of strict religious devotion. Dostoevsky imbibed much of this zealotry; yet he also fiercely questioned it. From his earlier piece, Notes from the Underground to the seminal -- and last work -- The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky battled his notion of the mundane world--one in which he gambled, philandered and drank nearly to his end--with his conceptions of a higher religious life. This was often propelled by great, and tragic loss. Without these struggles, Dostoevsky may have never been compelled to write, or to question his piety.

According to Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky, A Writer in His Time:

One of [Dostoevsky's] earliest childhood memories was that of saying his prayers before the icons in the presence of admiring guests. 'I put all my trust in Thee, O Lord!' the child intoned. 'Mother of God, keep me and preserve me under Thy wing!' (14)

Met with pride and satisfaction by family and friends, this early anecdote exemplifies the piousness of the writer's early years. This, despite the fact that many children of gentry (of which Dostoevsky's family strived to be part of) barely engaged religion, must less religious texts. His family -- a multinational Slavic amalgam, with various religious affiliations -- did not fail to impart on the young writer the importance of God.

However, Fyodor's life was about to become more difficult. Upon leaving for Engineering School (and with it, perhaps his direct affiliation with the Russian Orthodox Church), Dostoevsky's father was murdered by his serfs because of his malice towards them. Dostoevsky was left parentless at the tender age of eighteen.

Dostoevsky meandered through life after this tragic event. No longer strictly a man of God, he gambled and philandered, later admitting this was the life of a soldier. He did not excuse his behavior.

Just as God became less important, literature, and writing, moved into eminence. These two elements of his life had never appeared as contradictory previously. Yet now, Dostoevsky abandoned much of his piety to immerse himself in his new higher calling: the art of literature. He remained in the Army; but his love of writing was clearly driving him elsewhere.

He did, however, keep close ties with Mikhail, his brother. Their mutual pursuit of military honor, and literature, created a close bond, one that Dostoevsky perhaps never reproduced. What is known about the rest of the family is unclear. But his brother Mikhail kept by his side, as they both pursued their respective writing careers.

Fyodor was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army in 1842. Yet only two years later he left military service and began to write The Poor Folk. This would mark the beginning of his transition to well-known and well-respected author. Success would come quickly.

Published in 1845, The Poor Folk was met with great commercial and critical success. The piece, like all of the works Dostoevsky was to write, was influenced by his own life; Dostoevsky had grown up on the fringes of the gentry, only to gamble himself into debt. Yet Dostoevsky simultaneously marvels in his newfound career, and derides his status (in both successes and failures), throughout the novel. He writes in the novel that: "Poor people are subject to fancies -- this is a provision of nature."

However, an existential battle was to take place; it would be far more sudden and fraught than he ever imagined. In 1849, confronted with arrest, and possible execution, he continued to initiate debates with God in mind. He was a man in his twenties who had already experienced greater personal struggles than most saw in their entire lives. Yet he somehow remained devoted to the principles by which he was raised. Dostoevsky, in many ways, was able to reconcile his familial struggles with the religiosity with which he was raised.

When we was exonerated, and allowed to marry, he immediately did so, though without much enthusiasm from his wife, Maria Dmitriyevna Isaeva. Perhaps he was trying to re-create the structure he possessed as a child, as he had within the family -- the structure that followed into his military service, and suddenly dissipated with his pursuit of writing. Fyodor was undoubtedly grateful for his freedom, and yearning for something greater.

As S. S. Koteliansky and J. Middleton Murry write:

In 1864 Mikhail Mihailovich died, after a short illness of three days only. His family (a wife and four little children), accustomed to live comfortably, was left without any means. And then Fiodor Mihailovich, who had been left a widower with no children, considered it his duty to pay his brother's debts, and as it were to clear his brother's memory from reproach, and also to support his family.

Mikhail and Fyodor had grown together -- from pious young brothers, into compatriots, and finally into dear friends. His death, perhaps even more so than their father's or mother's, prompted a period of crisis for the now middle-aged author. Just as he had begun the path towards his perceived salvation, now Dostoevsky felt completely alienated by the religious word.

With Mikhail's passing, Dostoevsky had little choice but to succumb to these tragedies, or instead convert them into a creative force. The lack of a support system from Maria -- even when she was alive -- was most likely not helpful for the young author.

Dostoevsky was the second of eight children, next to his brother Mikhail. Though the family was not destitute, Dostoevsky would have to, in some way, serve as the figurehead of his family, while maintaining the memory of its members who were gone. Of particular significance to young Fyodor would be keeping his older brother's memory relevant, even -- or particularly -- through his literature.

The import of his brother Mikhail in Fyodor's life will be explicated further later. In fact, his name, and his life grew to become paramount facets in his writing. However, in this moment, Dostoevsky appeared too distraught by this loss to directly address it. Instead, Dostoevsky manifested his feelings -- as he always would -- through his creativity.

Writing from this period of the author exemplifies the cynical world that he inhabited. In Notes From the Underground, his acclaimed 1864 piece, Dostoevsky states:

I repeat, I repeat with emphasis: all 'direct' persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequences of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing. (Part 1, Chapter 5, Paragraph 1)

The child and adolescent who was once wholly devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church had transformed into a disillusioned man. The more one analyzes Notes From the Underground, and its context, the clearer it becomes that Dostoevsky had not merely renounced his burgeoning spirituality from the years prior; he perhaps had renounced God entirely.

This, in itself, speaks to the core tenets of Existentialism. Like Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard before him, Dostoevsky was no longer content to live his life beholden to any God--besides the ideal of his own free will, his ultimate independence, and the struggle both entail. From Kierkegaard, one would still perhaps infer the existence of God; and in Dostoevsky's life, this could have remained important. However -- from Nietzsche, a contemporary -- this classical notion of God would have to be discarded.