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Dostoevsky: well-being versus suffering

19 Nov


You can always rely on a Russian writer to throw cold water over the idea that the pursuit of happiness is a good thing. As far as Chekhov is concerned, happiness is a smug, selfish and ultimately debilitating project (see this blog, July 28 2013). Turgenev sees it as a psychological impossibility, while Vasily Grossman identifies a situation where the very idea of happiness seems utterly immoral (August 18 2014). 

 Feodor Dostoevsky is if anything even more negative. In Notes from the Underground (Part 1, chaps. 9-10) the anonymous narrator asks the reader, 

“…why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive – in other words, only what is conducive to welfare – is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.

As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.”

Dostoevsky was very cynical about the claims to clarity and universal rationalism represented by the new Crystal Palace in London (first erected in 1851), and he makes the narrator in Underground share his negative view. 

“In the ‘Palace of Crystal’ (smashing things) is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a ‘palace of crystal’ if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness…

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed – a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.”

 It seems that for Dostoevsky, as for Chekhov, being fully human means accepting the necessity of suffering – accepting that destruction is as vital as creation, that rejection of the norm is more crucial than embracing it. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus would have agreed, for “man must suffer to be wise.”

And after all, we know that the Crystal Palace could in fact be destroyed all too easily.