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Every Minute Could Have Been an Eternity of Happiness

Post #1500 • January 20, 2012, 10:58 AM • 8 Comments

[Image: Photograph of Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (]

Photograph of Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (source)

From The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene:

Finally, in 1857, still serving the army period of his sentence, [Dostoyevsky] was allowed to start publishing his work. Where before he would torture himself over a page, spend half a day idling it away in thought, now he wrote and wrote. Friends would see him walking the streets of St. Petersburg mumbling bits of dialogue to himself, lost in his characters and plots. His new motto was "Try to get as much done as possible in the shortest time."

Some pitied Dostoyevsky his time in prison. That made him angry; he was grateful for the experience and felt no bitterness. But for that December day in 1849 [when he was placed before a firing squad only to be pardoned at the last moment], he felt, he would have wasted his life. Right up until his death, in 1881, he continued writing at a frantic pace, churning out novel after novel—Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, The Brothers Karamazov—as if each one were his last.

Czar Nicholas had decided to sentence the Petrashevsky radicals to hard labor soon after their arrest. But he wanted to teach them a harsher lesson as well, so he dreamed up the cruel theater of the death sentence, with its careful details—the priest, the hoods, the coffins, the last-second pardon. This, he thought, would really humble and humiliate them. In fact some of the prisoners were driven insane by the events of that day. But the effect on Dostoyevsky was different: he had been afflicted for years with a sense of wandering, of feeling lost, of not knowing what to do with his time. An extremely sensitive man, that day he literally felt his own death deep in his bones. And he experienced his "pardon" as a rebirth.

The effect was permanent. For the rest of his life, Dostoyevsky would consciously bring himself back to that day, remembering his pledge never to waste another moment. Or, if he felt he had grown too comfortable and complacent, he would go to a casino and gamble away all his money. Poverty and debt were for him a kind of symbolic death, throwing him back on the possible nothingness of his life. In either case he would have to write, and not the way other novelists wrote—as if it were a pleasant little artistic career, with all its attendant delights of salons, lectures, and other frills. Dostoyevsky wrote as if his life were at stake, with an intense feeling of urgency and seriousness.



Walter Darby Bannard

January 20, 2012, 10:52 PM

Well, this goes back to the old "tough love" routine espoused by Jane Hirshfield a few posts back.

Dostoyevsky certainly was a serious writer, and perhaps, as the consensus would have it, a great one (I haven't read any for years), and I suppose this worked for him, and I suppose it works for others. But to me it just smells like juvenile romantic hogwash, like all that Hemingingwayitis and Existentialist bunk that was all the vogue back when I was in college. Who needs it? I love making art. I'm with Matisse and his armchair.



January 21, 2012, 11:32 PM

I hear you. I'm in favor of the armchair as well. But the armchair was the result, not the method. The method involved a mental elevation above family strife, financial worries, illness, even the invasion of the goddamned Germans. Matisse had a similarly transcendental perspective that must have taken some effort to maintain.

By way of clarification for any who might need it, Matisse wrote in Notes of a Painter (PDF) in 1908, "What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity—and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject—matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."


Walter Darby Bannard

January 22, 2012, 12:46 PM

I understand that. The difference is that Dostoyevsky deliberately chose miserable circumstances to stimulate his art whereas Matisse deliberately distanced himself from unpleasantness to facilitate his. The idea that personal misery is a prerequisite for art-making strikes me as juvenile.

I suppose, as they say, "whatever works," and it may work better for writers because they are working with real-life subject matter, but when I walk into my studio at the end of a hard day I want to take a breath of fresh air, leave it all at the door, and say a cheerful hello to my paints.


Eric Gelber

January 22, 2012, 4:39 PM

Dostoyevsky was in Siberia in a Gulag in the early 1800s. The people who were in Communist Siberia and not a Czar's Siberia laughed when they thought about what Dostoyevsky's Siberia was like.

Yes, the much-ballyhooed last-minute stay of execution. In House of the Dead, Dostoyevsky wrote so well that the bond he created between the protagonist, or prisoner and a dog, is amazing. In the Communist Gulag there were naked bodies rock hard in the snow greeting you everyday. The prisoner in Dostoyevsky's novel led a paradisaical life compared to the prisoners who speak and are spoken for in Applebaum's Gulag books, masterworks of the history genre. I read the Little Black Book of Communism several years ago. The anatomy of the bureaucratic mass killing, the page-by-page description of the murder of human after human by a death beam controlled by a group of maniacs, made it clear that day-to-day life can continue along while the worst large-scale slaughter busies itself in the background.


Piri Halasz

January 22, 2012, 7:15 PM

The armchair as Matisse envisioned it was for the viewer, not the artist. What I like about the quote is that Matisse saw his art as a respite for the "mental worker" as well as the businessman. Most of the people who cite this quote are dumbos who behave as though Matisse's level of sophistication was that of the tired businessman, but what the quote really shows is that he was talking about art as a respite for intellectuals as well as businessmen.


Walter Darby Bannard

January 22, 2012, 11:24 PM

Piri, what the essay "really shows," what it is saturated with throughout, is the temperament of a gentle lover of pure sensation, of color and form, of "charm, lightness, freshness."

Matisse was a true "Formalist." He didn't need angst and ugliness and turmoil and suffering. All he needed was a little blue paint.


A Reader

January 23, 2012, 12:13 PM

Greenberg on Matisse:

Two of Matisse's strongest paintings have for the respective subjects: a window, table, two chairs and a bowl of flowers ("The Window" of 1916, in the Detroit Institute of Arts); a marble-topped table in the open with a few small objects on it ("The Rose Marble Table" of 1917, in the Museum of Modern Art). These pictures were painted during the darkest days of the First World War. Matisse lived through and amid two world wars. During the second one, most of his subjects were of a kind, and visualized in a way, that wouldn't have been out of place in a fashion magazine (which isn't quite to say that the sheer pictorial quality—as uneven as it was—of these paintings sank to that level). What are we to make of this apparent distance of Matisse's from the terrible events of his time and his place? What are we to make of his "coolness" in general? What I make of it is something that I want to celebrate Matisse's character and person for, Matisse as apart from his art. It's as though he set himself early on against the cant, the false feeling and falsely expressed feeling that afflict the discussion of art in our culture. He challenged and defied that cant, in what he said aloud as well as in what he did in his art. I can't admire enough the kind of courage that permitted him to write for publication, back in 1908, that he dreamt of an art that would be like an easy-chair for the tired "brain-worker"—that is, the businessman and intellectual and even the bureaucrat, not the "toiler". And it was an art that would refresh the brain-worker rather than uplift him. That Matisse's art actually does ever so much more than that—including "uplifting"—isn't to the point here. What is, is that he himself was willing to claim only so much and no more, for it. And maybe those who might want to bestow their own rhetoric on his art were being warned off. His art would speak for itself— just as all art does when it comes down to it, good and bad art alike.


Piri Halasz

January 23, 2012, 10:16 PM

Darby, I was saying what the quote from the essay really said. You were talking about the essay as a whole. No need to disagree here, just apples and oranges.



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