Reading Dostoyevsky For Thanksgiving

Laurie Sheck in

A Few Facts

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф_М_Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project-1280x7201. He wore 5-pound shackles on his ankles every day for four years.

2. This was in the prison camp in Omsk where he was serving out a sentence of hard labor after being convicted of sedition for being part of a revolutionary cell dedicated to the liberation of the serfs and freedom of the press.

3. For the seven months following his arrest, he’d been kept in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva, his cell window smeared with an oily paste to prevent any daylight from seeping through.

4. One morning he was suddenly taken to Semyonov Square, where he was given a white death-shirt to put on and allowed to kiss the cross. He was sixth in line for execution, with only minutes left to live, when the announcement came that the Czar had decided to spare the prisoners’ lives. Apparently this had been planned all along.

5. On the way to the prison camp, they stopped for the night in Tobolsk where a town bell had been sent into exile, convicted of ringing for seditious purposes. Its sentence was eternal silence.

6. In Tobolsk, he met a man who was chained to the wall. He had been chained there for eight years. The chain was 7 feet long and extended from his sleeping pallet to the opposite wall. The man spent every day walking from the pallet to the wall and back. He said he didn’t mind. He showed where the chain attached to his underclothes, and the most comfortable way to lie down on the sleeping pallet. When he spoke, his voice was mild with a slight lisp. He said he had once been a government official.

7. It was in Omsk that the epileptic seizures began. They came mostly once or twice a month. Sometimes, though rarely, twice a day. They could lie dormant for as long as four months. After each seizure something in him grieved. Words blackened or grew muffled for days, sometimes a week, their distant contours alien and heavy. He tried but couldn’t lift them.

8. He wasn’t allowed a single book for almost four years. Except the Bible.

9. “Awkward, immobile, silent … his pale, thin, earthen-colored face covered in dark red spots,”a young prison guard described him years later.

10. “I look at their pale faces, at their poor beds, at all of this impassable nakedness and poverty — I peer in — and it is as if I want to make sure that it is not the continuation of a disfigured dream, but actual truth. But it is truth: I hear someone’s groan, someone throws out his hands heavily and clangs his chains,” he would remember in The House of the Dead.

…Dostoyevsky experienced more than one hundred major seizures, walked in chains and prison garb, wasn’t permitted to hold a pen or pencil for nearly four years or read any book but one. He watched two children die and wrote several times of a man’s inner life in the minutes and seconds before execution. He had Myshkin think about a donkey’s goodness and importance, and led him to the room where he would stroke and soothe Rogozhin. His books offer the words to feel into pursued to their radical end, embodied. To feel into — which doesn’t mean to understand, or analyze, or interpret, or heal. Doesn’t mean to solve, define, make steady, claim knowledge of, but has something to do with drawing close, with how there’s a radiance more mysterious, more unspeakable than horror; more private in its wounds, more lasting.

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