I have begun work on a very interesting, long-term translation project with a historian of literature, who is writing a book about Dostoevsky. For this project, I am translating hundreds of pages of obscure notes and reminiscences about Dostoevsky, some of his own writing, and comparing existing translations. Not only have I re-immersed myself in Dostoevsky’s world but in the world of mid- to late-19th c. Russia.
It was a turbulent time, a time of change and brewing social unrest, much suffering, struggle, and fear, and early formation of the communist and socialist movements that would lead Russia eventually to the Revolutions of 1917. Dostoevsky himself became a member of an underground socialist circle, and for his participation in it he was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia followed by military service. He returned to his life traumatized, afflicted with epilepsy, filled with compassion for the lowest and rejected who suffered unthinkably in social oblivion, and he found there, in the depth of hell, his enduring faith in Christ. As an older man he once said to some students seeking his counsel something like this: “Nothing is worse than faithlessness. To everyone who desires to be convinced of this I propose they spend time in a hard labor prison. If they do not end their own lives, they will come back from there true believers.”
Faith is such a broad concept… Not one of us understands or formulates it quite in the same way. But faith, I think—and I’ve said this many times before—at its core is a realization of meaning. It’s the assured sense of our connection with the grand and purposeful reality and of our place in it. This is why faith gives us hope in the midst of suffering, never lets us despair. Faith propels us into action.
Dostoevsky came back from Siberia with a mission: to speak for the forgotten and outcast, the prisoners, the prostitutes, the destitute, the muck-filled bottom of the Russian people. He was the one gifted and educated aristocrat who had lived through their gehenna, and he would be their poet and herald. Always unwell and always haunted, even at the height of his celebrity and in a happy marriage he remained something of a loner, and he wrote that the one pillar of support for him was God. Others found their faith in other ways.
I am reading a lot now about the intelligentsia of the 1860s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. These were people who published progressive periodicals, organized the first political rallies for the rights of peasants and workers, developed social theory, and “went into the people”—traveled from village to village agitating, talking, explaining to the peasants about freedom and oppression, property and community, disobedience, political structures, and self-governance. They were arrested, hunted, and beaten, chased out of Russia again and again, and again and again they saw their efforts shattered against ignorance and brute force, and they felt their ideals slowly cracking under the burden of doubt. Most of them would never live to see anything good come out of their work; some of them would not live to see any change at all. I wonder how they persevered—and yet I don’t. They had faith. They knew what they were fighting for, and they knew right from wrong in their hearts, no matter what their contemporaries or history say about it. And they had their friends and comrades by their side. They could envision, one shiny future day, the inevitable utopia of their ideals.
We get up every morning and brush our teeth and go about pushing the gargantuan, immovable rock that is the world toward our shiny, inevitable utopia. We are tiny and weak, and the world is huge, and some of us are pushing it in opposite directions. Most days, it all adds up just to doing the little things we must do: for our loved ones and for work and to stay alive. On occasion it’s worse than that: we push to exhaustion, as though we really knew what was needed, begging, trying, praying that it budge, only to feel it roll back on top of us and squash us so we can’t breathe. It happens. We go to bed then to get up the next morning, if we are still able to get up, and brush our teeth.
There are intuitive moments when I feel my contribution to reality, our absolute oneness and dissolution, but more often than not, it takes me a conscious effort to remember how missions unfold in a temporal universe: We look for our way, we tumble into hell, we find meaning, we slug through life holding on to the meaning, not ever knowing where we’ll arrive. It’s a very old and very good pattern. Remember? He wandered around Galilee, preaching his truth, trying for years at the top of his lungs, and very few listened. Frustrated and defeated he failed. Betrayed and abandoned he carried his own cross to a place of execution, and he died in disgrace. And only then the ones he lived for realized that he had left them faith. And we are still clawing our way, one by one, inch by inch, minute by minute, to the shiny utopia he envisioned.