“All my life I did not want it to be only words. This is why I lived, because I kept not wanting it. And now, too, every day I want it not to be words.”
– Dostoevsky, Demons
Dostoevsky, who is in many ways my favorite writer of all-time, was very religious, and yet one of the things that makes his literature so timeless, in my opinion, is the curiously life-centered strain that runs deep throughout his entire moral outlook: believing as he did that things don’t all happen for a greater or divine reason but are largely the product of individual choice, and that the wages of immorality are, among other things, anxiety, unhappiness, vice, depression, anger, and addiction while alive on earth.
He believed — and conveyed with complete cogency — that when you feel, for instance, frequently unhappy or anxious, or that when your life is vice-ridden and you need vice to lift you, this was a signal to examine yourself closely and carefully, and to not just ignore it or write it off as something that happens for some mystical or cosmic reason, and that everything will be okay: everything won’t necessarily be okay, depending upon one’s further actions: it can get worse and result in all manner of horrible outcomes, including suicide.
Morality, in other words, is in his view a kind of gauge and also a guidepost for not hurting yourself psychologically, or of course physically: morality is the way by which humans, the rational-conceptual animal, flourish and live a happy and fulfilled life and avoid sinking into despair and depression and the chronic apprehension and frustration that comes from pursuing whims and glutting oneself on range-of-the-moment things. These are sometimes called “prudential ethics” or “virtue ethics,” to which I subscribe, and I like this very much about Dostoevsky.
And yet he’s not a moralizer: he’s always compassionate — breathtakingly so, having lived a difficult and vice-ridden life himself.
But in addition to that, when he’s at his best, his ability to integrate plot and theme — to dramatize theme — is unparalleled in all the world’s literature, and his character Nikolai Stavrogin is my all-time favorite character, and in certain respects a model for my latest creation.