The Age Old Anvil of Sorrow


When things get bad for me, I tend to turn to literature in the paradoxical quest to both temporarily forget my personal troubles and to delve deeply into someone else’s. Obviously, great literature universalizes the human condition and reminds us that violence, disease, and sorrow have always been with us and will always be with us.

“Blood will have blood,”[1] like Macbeth says, as if commenting on this morning’s headlines.

His Russian cousin, Ivan Ilyich comes to realize that disease preys on the undeserving just as often as on the righteous (even on the exerciser, the non-smoker).

Meanwhile, despairing Manley Hopkins’ anguished “cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief/Woe wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing.”

No, to cop out with a cliché – I am not sorrow’s first rodeo. Antigone, Isolde, Hamlet, Emma Bovary, and Alyosha Karamazov have all been there (in despair), done that (grieved) – as have their creators.


* * *

The Brothers Karamazov, which I finished yesterday, was June’s project, and Joseph Franks’ 5-volume biography of Dostoyevsky is July’s. The Brothers K offers all the vicarious sorrow anyone could ever desire – childhood abandonment, sexual exploitation, sexual betrayal, filial betrayal, insanity, alcoholism, adolescent angst, dark nights of the soul, and, of course, buckets of blood.



So far, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s life hasn’t been much happier. I’m only on page 70 (of 932), and already Fyodor’s mother has died of a lingering mysterious illness, he’s been sent off to a military academy he detests, and now his father has died, most likely murdered by his serfs, and Fyodor has a number of younger siblings who are now orphaned.

Dostoyevsky was a man of his convictions and held to them even when they were unpopular. Throughout his life, from coming to the aid of bullied cadets at the military academy, to reaching out and aiding the peasantry, he practiced what he preached. Or as David Foster Wallace puts it in his essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky”:

For me, the really striking, inspiring thing about Dostoyevsky isn’t just he was a genius; he was also brave. He never stopped worrying about his literary reputation, but he also never stopped promulgating unfashionable stuff in which he believed. And he did this not by ignoring (now, a.k.a.” transcending” or “subverting”) the unfriendly cultural circumstances in which he was writing, but by confronting them, engaging them, specifically and by name.

This, DFW maintains, certainly isn’t the case nowadays:

But Frank’s Dostoyevsky would point out (or more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and shout) that if this is so [i.e., our intelligentsia abjures ideological passion], it’s at least partly because we have abandoned the field. That we’ve abandoned it to fundamentalists whose pitiless rigidity and eagerness to judge show that they’re clueless about the “Christian values” they would impose on others. To rightist militias and conspiracy theorists whose paranoia about the government supposes the government to be just way more organized and efficient than it really is. And, in academia and the arts, to the increasingly absurd and dogmatic Political Correctness movement, whose obsession with the mere forms of utterance and discourse show too well how effete and aestheticized our best liberal instincts have become, how removed from what’s really important – motive, feeling, belief.

In other words, our current condition is one of fragmentation. Both major national political parties are splintering, and the gulf between them ideologically is like light years. Congressional districts twist and turn across maps like wakes from drunken boats. Although you might think that our digital interconnectivity might bring us closer together, it seems to me it isolates us, as we sit at the bar ignoring our friend as we stare down at the screen cultivating some personal obsession. In other words, we suffer from what Dostoyevsky might call radical individuality: I perceive the universe from my perspective; therefore, I must be the center of the universe. Other lives don’t matter as much – white, black, Muslim, Christian, Jew, infidel.


This attitude of isolation, of course, is a recipe for unhappiness; just ask the diva who demands eleven red roses in a blue vase every time she books a suite facing east in a luxury hotel where some tiny little infraction is going to throw her into a tizzy.

She suffers from disconnection, different but in some ways not unlike the radicalized homegrown terrorist or the arsenal-amassing militiaman or the divorced, underemployed middle-ager attaching the hose to his exhaust pipe.

[cue Barbra Streisand’s “People”]

Here is Alyosha Karamazov after the funeral of little Ilusha addressing Ilyusha’s friends at the end of the novel:

And whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones, do you remember, by the bridge? and afterwards we all grew so fond of him. He was a fine boy, a kindhearted, brave boy, he felt for his father’s honour and resented the cruel insult to him and stood up for him. And so in the first place, we will remember him, boys, all our lives. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honour or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are. My little doves let me call you so, for you are very like them, those pretty blue birds, at this minute as I look at your good dear faces.

[. . .]

I say this in case we become bad,” Alyosha went on, “but there’s no reason why we should become bad, is there, boys? Let us be, first and above all, kind, then honest and then let us never forget each other! I say that again. I give you my word for my part that I’ll never forget one of you. Every face looking at me now I shall remember even for thirty years. Just now Kolya said to Kartashov that we did not care to know whether he exists or not. But I cannot forget that Kartashov exists and that he is not blushing now as he did when he discovered the founders of Troy, but is looking at me with his jolly, kind, dear little eyes. Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys; from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”




[1] Especially when purchasing an assault rifle is easier than buying a tube of cortisone cream.

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