Dostoevsky & Existentialism

Back to existential reality… I figured I’d write my next post concerning the nature of existentialism on one of my favorite authors: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). I’m sure his name is not unfamiliar to most of you; he wrote some of the most acclaimed pieces in modern literary history, including Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from the Underground, and the truly remarkable masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Although I could make a whole post on the artistic quality of these books (especially since Crime and Punishment is currently on my desk), I’d rather focus a bit on the existential quality of Dostoevsky’s writing instead.

One of the grounding principles in existential thought is that reason cannot be the only basis for human identity. In other words, what we do as human beings defines what and who we are; it is not determined simply by some formal, rational idea from on high. Certainly, there are pluses and minuses to this approach (and no approach considered as completely autonomous is ever acceptable). All the same, Dostoevsky’s writing, particularly Notes from the Underground, is considered a sort of foundation for all further thought on this strain. His praises were sung even by the most influential philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Nietzsche and Freud.

The common element for all Dostoevskian writing seems to be a struggle in the main character between that rationalistic, pre-determined fate, and the chance to be a free, self-directing individual, even if that means committing a crime or becoming terribly self-effacing in the process. The tension that the author holds between the freedom to choose one’s future and the possibility of choosing poorly is absolutely brilliant; his characters always behave according to the norms of existential thought outlined in the last post, but typically go one step too far in making their sovereign decisions. As a result, auxiliary characters are employed to help the main character realize what has happened, and ultimately to offer some light of redemption in a typically most obscure or unexpected way. The entire story, in the end, becomes an intricate picture of existential principles, tempered back and forth with worldly experiences and other schools of philosophic thought. To put it concisely, it is nothing short of genius.

If you haven’t read any of his work, I would highly recommend Dostoevsky as a good introduction to modern philosophy. His stories are pretty easy to read, but still mine the depths of speculative thought and show its impact on real-life situations. Although many contemporary minds would not see the beauty in this author’s work right away—especially living in our Harry Potter / Da Vinci Code society—I am thoroughly convinced that anyone who takes the time to read his work will be completely fascinated. If you are looking for a particular book to read, there is no better place to start than Crime and Punishment.

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    # by Anonymous - January 6, 2008 at 3:26 PM

    Amen! Crime and Punishment is the original psychological detective thriller! I appreciate your comments on this fine author...makes me want to cuddle up with a blanket and staring reading. Thanks!

    Mary