Dostoevsky and Adam Kroksky

“Ah fuck, not this again”

This creative writing piece was submitted for a Yale class called “ European Intellectual History since Nietzsche”. I hope you enjoy.

Prompt

Which of the authors would you most like to spend an evening with? What would you ask him/her? Describe the evening and the conversation that took place. Evoke the author’s voice, distinguish it from your own. What is at stake for you in the conversation? Make the reader feel present.

Semyonov Place, 23 December 1849. Fyodor Dostevsky stands convicted of anti-monarchical revolutionary sentiments. He is to be executed by firing squad in the morning. He is allowed one last conversation with a local St Petersburg lawyer, Adam Krok.

Adam: Fydor, as you must certainly know, the end has come for you. There shall be no due process, no coming before a judge, no jury to see you eye to eye. You are to be executed tomorrow, by mere boy-soldiers. I feel sorry for you my friend, and you have my deepest condolences — is there anything you would like to say?

Fyodor: (Dostoevsky bursts into hysterical laughter)

Adam: My friend, surely there is nothing funny in this matter. Death is a solemn, even sacred moment. How can you laugh? It is most unreasonable of you.

Fyodor: Reason! Reason! O what a thing to say, and to me of all people. Should I act in accordance with the laws of gravity, and throw myself to the floor. Or perhaps you want me to combust spontaneously, and prove the theories of Lord Kelvin.

I will tell you this: To think that I was born in tears, but will leave this earth in laughter is a comforting, even joyous thought. At least I will die me, unquestionably me. Tell me, Mr Krok, did you eat breakfast this morning? I bet you had a few swell eggs, and maybe a rasher of bacon as a treat! And the day before that, the same, and the day before yesterday the same!

Adam: This is mere nonsense!

Fyodor: You wake up, day after day, don your trim trench coat, pass the jailhouse and offer “I’m so sorry’s” “I feel bad for you’s” perhaps look longingly gaze across the Neva, return home, pass out. I bet a man like you, I could take my ruler, stretch out my logarithm tables and calculate, derive and integrate, down to the exact unit, your life. But no, there’s more to Adam than that. Yes, much more.

Adam: You know nothing about me. I have come purely out of the goodwill of my heart, and the duty of my profession.

Fyodor: And was it the law of causality, of strict necessity as that gloriously deluded German writes about in his academic fantasy and sickness, that you chose to come here before me? That you chose to practise the law, to defend the innocent, and prosecute the guilty?

Adam: I choose my profession because it is my duty to protect and guide the persecuted. As a young man I saw my people, the Jews, wretchedly attacked and mobbed. Law and order, commonsense, rationality will steer the uneducated, the ignorant into the light of tolerance and prosperity

Fydor: O, what a revolutionary idealist is in my midst! Yes, yes now I see it before me. Man is a funny thing, and one like you most amuses me. You learn that two plus two equals four, everytime and without fail, and now you calculate with magnifying-glass precision that man will be good, that he will learn perfection and we shall all live merry and blissful, hand-in-hand, dancing to the tune of Jesus’s sweet, innocent voice. But my friend, my goodhearted most honest friend, what if I told you the secret to the human condition? What if I revealed to you, from atop my Mount Sinai in this shithole of a prison in dirty, dirty St Petersburg, that no one, not a single human being, strives for reason.

And here’s the cosmic punchline, delivered from those uproarious, mocking Olympian gods themselves, every man risks his life, his whole being, his stake in eternity, for nothing more than his…whim and fancy. And it is rightfully so! You are not a lawyer because you want justice. You are a lawyer because you need to strive, strive blindly for something, anything, yes, anything, on this meandering, endless journey we call life so that you may mark your indelible “me” onto the mountain of existence.

Why would you do anything except something that expressed, that screamed desperately Adam! Two plus two may equal four Adam, but why should that interest you, if only passingly. Your soul, your being demands satisfaction before you. Your soul places its palm open, requiring its loan of life be repaid. And you don’t mean to let this creditor go unpaid.

Adam: You are smart with words and ideas Fyodor, but you comprehend a sliver of the human experience. You know nothing of truth, of beauty, of the eternal, unchanging glory of principles and axioms.

Fydor: Ah a Platonist! You become more interesting the more we speak.

Adam: To you life is nothing but a contradiction. To you we are Odysseus as he navigates the treacherous waters of Scylla and Charibdis, and yet unlike in Homer’s great song, Odysseus drowns or is swallowed whole every time. We are trapped inexorably between the strict determinism of mathematical necessity and the void of idiotic human striving, of irrational, abysmal desires. And in your worst nightmare, these two syntheses to the point where humans are nothing more than organ stops.

Fyodor: Ah so you have read some of my writing I see. I am impressed, please continue.

Adam: Yet there is another way of viewing the world, that comforts me and encourages me in the pursuit of beauty, truth, and even justice which you so harshly dismissed. And to which it behooves you in the last moments of your life to listen and heed. Your conception of free will, its contradiction in the face of determinism, is a false paradigm. It assumes the soul, the source of our choices is entirely constrained by the materialistic world around us. But if you had the same rationality as I do, and even the same faith, because all reason requires some faith (something the professors of esteemed colleges would never admit to), you would see the light and truth of this beautiful world.

The origin of our choices is, I posit, both immanent and transcendental, the former of which you can agree, the latter of which I must convince you. But how can we know the origin, which I will call the soul, in accordance with that great Greek philosopher Aristotle, is transcendental and what are the implications of this?

Let this be my proof. A choice is a choice if there are two mutually exclusive options presented to the subject, A and B. Only a transcendental intellect, or a soul, could comprehend two mutually exclusive ideas simultaneously. It requires being beyond time and space to comprehend mutual exclusivity. This is why the animals around us can be considered only as brutes because they cannot consider two different things at the same time.

Now if this is true that the transcendental exists, moral truths like justice are eternal and sublime, and are worthy in-and-of-themselves. And it is for this reason I dedicate myself to truth, beauty and justice.

Fyodor: Professor Krok, you sure know how to spin a conversation into an axiomatic system.

Adam: As do you, into a declamation of self-loathing, elongated musings on suffering and meaninglessness.

Fyodor: Got me! And that is precisely my point! When I hear your system, your eternal truths of beauty, justice, truth, I can’t help but admire yet I will still blatantly ask why should I care?

Even if God himself came down to earth, as the Christians believe, and taught me all the eternal truths of the universe, I would still choose to be me; to be the wretched, suffering and as you said self-loathing Dostoevsky. As eternal as those eternal objective truths are so am I, with all my contradictions, my irrational and rational yearnings, eternal. No one will ever be like me, nor should they be. And all I want to be is me, pure, old, bound-to-be executed Dostoevsky.

And further I would state that you Adam are doing no less than me. You seek eternal truths because those are your whims. Some men are bound to be Plato and Napoleon; others to be worthless dirtbags like myself. I will exalt and cherish that I was born Dostoevsky and that you were born Adam.

Adam: Your points are all well and true. No man can convince another to follow his ways, nor can he rely on the premises of pure reason. Although one can rely on pure reason, there is no objective reason to do so, and there are plenty of subjective reasons not to. I would, however, add that your picture, your worldview of humanity is, if not singular, it is a narrow sliver of the human experience. This world has entertained much tragedy, but also much happiness and meaning. The joys of true, endearing love between mother, father and child, between true lover and lover, of success planned and actually achieved — these things are beautiful and truly experienced by millions. You, my friend, should open your eyes to the wider world, to see the ecstatic beauty of crowds and throngs, to see eternities in sand and water, to marvel at the vastness of the cosmos. To appreciate the order and harmony we humans have achieved in Europe, since the religious wars of the 17th century, and the terrible monarchical regimes of early medieval ages. It is even getting better for those who follow the Mosaic law in Russia and the rest of Europe — although I fear it is a hard-earned freedom and one not guaranteed at all.

And I think your strongest claim against free-will, that even our irrational desires might have a rational basis, and hence we are doomed to being organ stops, is misleading and besides the point. To be Dostoevsky or Adam can be deterministic, but surely our personalities should be internally consistent, or else we would be amorphous, chaotic things much like the hopeless, floating debris of space, below in rank of dignity to even beasts. As you said, I am me eternally. That can only be if our souls make consistent choices over time. And what can make someone them other than those internally-consistent choices.

So while we are not the Deity, who has created us, we are us, unique and fully expressive of a unique soul. I am me is etched on us eternally. And nothing extrinsic can change that.

I will end my discussion with, like my Platonist predecessors, with a myth that might elucidate how we can actually have absolute free will. There was once a Grecian king who wanted to gift his son with the best of all presents. Now this son more than anything else, loved chariot-racing. So his father approached him and asked, “My dearest son, what type of chariot would you have?”

This son had many interests and loves: “Father, I want a chariot which will encompass everything I love — since my favourite color is blue, it must be blue. Since I want to win races, the horses must be fast. Since I want to look glorious on my chariot, I want laurels to accompany the horse.” The father king replied: “This and anything else you want, is yours.” But remember, this chariot can only do what a chariot does. It will not fly, nor will it creep into the earth. To ask this is to ask the impossible, and the undesirable. Your chariot is limited to doing things that chariots do.

Fyodor: This is much to think on. I am glad that you were the last man I spoke to before tomorrow’s terrible day.

Adam: I have a strange feeling that tomorrow will not go as you plan. Be brave Fyodor, and promise me that whatever happens, you will not close off your mind from the possibility that life may be beautiful and worthy of awe and admiration.

Fyodor: I promise!

Postscript: Author’s Notes

Dostoevsky was brought before the firing squad. He was, however, pardoned moments before being executed. Later in life, Dostoevsky wrote a novel called The Idiot. In it, he writes a character who is to be killed at the scaffold. The character thinks desperately to himself what he would do if he were given another chance to live:

“I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for…”

Dostoevsky is an interesting figure for me because much of his thinking which most certainly does not form any comprehensive corpus of knowledge really preempts postmodernity, existentialism, absurdism and many other philosophies which came to dominate the Western mind for over a century. He was truly a revolutionary figure for his time, writing in the middle of the 19th century.

My own opinion is that Russian literature of the greatest kind, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and especially the latter, is that their writings are philosophy embodied and lived, rather than hypothesized. While the Greeks and Germans conceived of grand schema of thought which encompassed the universe, the Russians suffered and lived through the worst of the human condition and were still capable of translating their metaphysical experience into words and novels. Perhaps the only other philosopher as committed to their “craft of living life”, if I can phrase the praxis of philosophy as such, would be Nietzsche and his madness.

For me it is not enough that a philosopher should think; he should experience. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky lived lives worthy of deep reflection, pushing themselves to contemplate and experience the extremes of the human condition such as despair, death and condemnation. And it was precisley this reason that allowed Dostoevsky to side-skirt either the dogmatism of Enlightenment or Romanticism but to see the advantages and flaws of both, and to build something greater than either. Dostoevsky deservedly claims a large stake in history for the beauty and truthfulness of his writings.

Writer, poet, philosopher