Fyodor Dostoevsky


My Respected Sirs:

I write you this letter on the run, as it were, and although I shall remain curious as to its effect, I nonetheless regret that I have only a few lines of my time to give you, though they be spent on a matter on concern to us both. Please let me assure you that though my words advertise a hastily construed mind, the heart of what I have to say in both sound in meaning and in intention, and only the outer trappings of which are loose and flapping back and forth in the wind. What is of concern to me is not so much your magazine, its writers or its readers, but the nature of its forged letters, the very framework to which I have offered myself, with as much foreboding as a criminal when at last he turns himself in to the authorities. I refer to the representations of the thought of the Messrs. Dickens (with whom I really have no quarrel), Butler, Belinsky, and Poe-surely an ingenious lot, but not necessarily a network of ideas impervious to fault-I would not cloak them about me in a storm without total trust.

What I hear echoing throughout these letters, with all the racket of coins that have been dropped in a tile hall, is the concept of a literature involved in a kind of hydrological cycle with society: “outpouring from it”; “trickling back to it”; “rising from the ocean and drenching it”; — I could go on. Basically the notion is that literature is a commentator on society; its mouthpiece; its illuminating dream. All this is fine, and may be very inspiring to a certain crowd, but it seems to me that taken therein is an impersonal and a too stolidly intellectual stance — both the individual reader and the individual work is forgotten. In short, what is personal about art is lost in the hubbub of society and social concerns, like a peasant entering the capital city for his first visit, and getting swindled by the first passerby.

I know that what I say is not popular with the “socially ameliorating” element of critics. I had to put up with their polemics in my day; I feel no less ready for such a running gun battle today. Perhaps though I can allay the criticism of many by saying that it is not that I wish to ignore society altogether, but that I believe it to be constructed, and later encountered, individual by individual. If I were to first concoct a society, and then search for an individual, then I am afraid I would have the luck of the philosopher who searched the streets in vain for an honest man, or worse, I would feel the utter despair of Esau, who, his hunger once over, realized that he had just sold away his birthright for a quick meal. It may be more expedient to think of people in clumps, but that does not make it either sympathetic or valid. I do not wish to gaze at society or literature as a beekeeper looks at his industrious swarm. I want to be in touch with each entity, to know it as intimately as family or a dear cherished friend. Or, if need be, I need to know what to heap abuse or regrets upon. I do not in that case want to be like a man trying to enrage the ocean, to challenge it to a duel, to make it aware of his existence, by spitting into its beaching waves.

In all these exhortations to be true to the people, to guide society, etc., where indeed is the individual person, the person walking around on the streets with a head full of difficult ideas, or alcohol, with a crick in his neck, with an odd smell clinging to the inside of his tobacco-smeared cloak. I want to encounter him, before I even begin to deal with the society. I seek what is inside the covering, not the camouflage.

I read in Butler’s letter how he bemoans the insensitive transition of epochs, and his admonition of the present not to forget the past. But he deals with large clumps of generalities rather than particulars — is he afraid of cutting his hands on their unpolished surfaces? And what if people have by nature (to speak in generalities, which I fall victim to also) a short attention span, even toward what is supposed to be important and dear to them, and have a never-to-be-satisfied urge for change an d philosophical flip-flops. Not that I wish to explain away any actions or responsibilities; I just want to lay them at the doorstep of those who dropped them, like any well-meaning citizen. Just so, there are still worth and good people in this age, because and in spite of this age, just as there were one hundred years ago, or ten years ago. Progress and enlightenment are things that occur in an individual, not in history.

I also read where Poe worries about the prophet who is not listened to in his own land, the man who feels honor only when it must sift to him through the ground tightening about his grave. This is perhaps true, at least in Poe’s case, but if he is to say that this will happen in all times and places, then he has committed a needless generalization. I wish he could have been more esteemed in his own time, and spare us all of these self-preenings of hurt pride that have come afterward, both in his salvaged correspondence and in the work of his apologists who have concentrated more on the sensationalism surrounding his personality and less on the work itself. It may be that the public and time are capricious, but that is beside the point when it comes down to a man’s work. It is the work you do and the things you feel that matter more than how these works and feelings are regarded. Art should not be cultivated like a marketable crop, with a clever eye cast on grain futures. It should sprout form the warmth and need of the soul, from the sun and the rain; if it turns out to be succulent, it will be eaten, as a rarity to be remembered, not mashed and obliterated into a watery porridge.

So I ask that all these exhortations for people to do this or do that be muted in upcoming forged letters. Why not let people alone, my fellow forged correspondents, and let them go their own course, and let us see where they end up. Let the noxious be thrown away and the tasty kept — but, by God, they must not be planted in neat little rows and then be expected to yield a bumper crop like so many acres of wheat, waving their arms at the passing of Apollo on his royal chariot as the thresher mows them down from their blind side.

Formulas have no place! We have a group of laborers pushing a wagon through a patch of muddy road. One starts up a song, and the others join in. Is this art in the purest sense? What if a man, sitting by the road, out for a walk and resting his feet because he is not accustomed to such prolonged strolls but has wandered absent-mindedly too far from home for his afternoon journey to be surmounted in one swath, a man who happens to spend a good deal of his time writing about the lives of those around him in the town he has lived in for the adult period of his life, what if this man jots down on a note pad what he is witnessing of these peasants’ singing and toilings in the mud, and then goes home to carefully weave his observations into a story he has been working on for a month, and on which he spends the entire evening. Is this art? What about a man who incorporates their folkish tune into an officially recorded painstakingly-charted-on-a-staff musical piece, in the same manner that a cartographer might have graphed onto a parchment the outline of an exotic shore in the sixteenth century. Is this art? What about the passing poet (notice the artistically rich milieu which these rough laborers seem to be unwittingly living in and providing fodder for, like so many muses of prosaim!) who constructs a laborious analogy between the singing of the men while they are engaged in difficult work and his own self-therapy of writing poetry about a difficult love-affair which he is gamely seeing through to a surely self destructive end. Does this constitute art?

The point I wish to make is that all of these are art in the same way that none of them is art, in the same way that to concoct the whole preceding picture out of one’s head, as I just have done, may or may not be art. Whatever emerges either will fly or it will tumble to the ground, no matter how well in keeping with current aerodynamic theory the preliminary sketches have been, no matter how well-intentioned or well-informed the aspirant to art may be. There are no formulas! It may be that the worker’s song is really an aimless jingle from a commercial, palatable only to people with insensitive tastes. It may be that the song is indeed one of folkish purity, which betokens them back to their childhood, a flow of innocent sound that signifies their deep sympathy for life, their love and gratitude for existing. The writer may be recording something unfit for the local newspaper — or readying material that may bring him a national prize. The musicologist might be seeking folk art in order to preserve it, or to distort it into a commercialized product. The poet might one day drive his wife to suicide and then write guilt-poems about their relationship which would bring him recognition and profit, or he too might be turned-under and forgotten like the stalks of last-year’s crop — except for a few scattered poems of rare quality, though seen and appreciated by only a few who might not even appreciate them as much as a wider audience might have.

Or, art can be a matter of copper triangles swirling in the waters of a boiling soup pot; that is to say, purely nonsense. But still if it speaks with a personalized voice, not to society as if over loudspeakers with chopped-up mangled tones and sensibilities while communicating scraps of didactic and boring information, but distinctly and persistently as someone tugging your sleeve to deliver a message as you converse innocently about the weather — if at this time the image or meaning of a passage comes to you as tangibly as a person you once knew quite intimately, with the force of the remembrance of a city you once flew towards, waiting overnight in a train station to arrive there after undergoing an irreconciable breaking-off with a person whom up to that time had been closer to you and had known you better than any other person-then you will have sensed the dread of joy or art. If copper triangles swirling in a boiling soup kettle can affect you as well as a painful memory, then those copper triangles, or perhaps their swirl, is indeed art.

But if one still insists on meaning, or edification (which Belinsky, for all his words about “speaking to the heart,” still seems bent on shoving down the throats of all passerby), or artistic “rendering” (as if life were lard that was needed to grease the pan of art instead of being inextricably joined with it), and thought you may countless times swear that you are not talking of that accursed ogre Didacticism, you still will not present the jury with anything more convincing than circumstantial evidence that you are indeed speaking as an equal and fellow-sufferer and joy-partaker to those with whom you seek to communicate. Not until you get down on your knees and sob the sad story as it really happened, or as you would like to have appear that it happened, will you ever become in the least convincing, and will the jurymen prick up their ears and nod to their fellows and say “yes, yes, that’s true; yes, yes — that very well may be — I understand what is meant now-how can we doubt this word…”

And so each must spin his own web, forged letter writers, and the strands must seep from each’s own belly. It is the individual who is speaking, and who gets spoken to — who must become entangled in the web of artistry so that there can occur a transformation (though not of death, hopefully, though possibly). I wish to speak, when I so speak to this magazine and its associates, for the creak in the wheel, for the sounds that are emitted spontaneously from the site of the moving wagon, for the woodcutter who chops away at an oak while the others seem to be perennially grinding their axes. I speak for men who cry and beat their breasts like babies at times, and notice the crying and beating of others as patiently and as understandingly as a beneficent God. And, I speak not as a doctor gazing down on his patient before self-assuredly administering the prescribed treatment, but as a fellow-sufferer, from one bed to the next.

Just so, I would indeed like to see my fellow forged letter writers not admonish the readers so much as if the latter were naughty children caught with their fingers in the cake-batter, by telling them that cake is not good for them, or that it is silly or demeaning to eat cake, or the like; but to box them on the ears if they are angered at their knavery, or join them in the pilfering if they think to do so would be natural and enjoyable — and human. Instead of admonishing present-day writers to be more “vibrant,” when after all it is only the present that can still hold promise of doing something more in art, let us see a little more spark of creativity from my comrades, and I do not mean of the fire and brimstone variety.

I hope that what I have said has made some degree of sense — I have talked on too long, anyway, and now I sense a lack of time to even attempt the most necessary of revisions and clarifications. I either must wad it up and forget it, or send it as it stands; and if you come to read it, all I can say is writing it was like having only one bullet and an army to battle; that is, one shot, and a lot to express and communicate.

I hope all goes well with your magazine publishing venture, and may you consider me,

Your Dostoevsky


Return to Forged Letters