Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and the Literary Search for Variable Truths

Writers sit in the quiet of self-imposed solitude, eye and mind inextricably fixed upon one point: the examination of humanity in all its glorious imperfections. Under the figurative microscope, gaze sharpened by literary intent, we examine the minutest element of human life, scrutinizing its most fleeting movement, its innermost fluctuations; we seek anomalies, wry moments of truth that like a black hole singularity appear densely impenetrable. They sit small and dark, closed in upon themselves, but like their celestial cousins they exert a powerful gravitational pull. These are the barely discernible hiccups in the human narrative that, when examined with studied attention, reveal something more, an insight that illuminates some broader aspect of human behavior. The secrets, the whys, the wherefores: the elements that transform this inconspicuous moment of truth into a fireworks-cascade of literary imagining take some work. The writer must pry them loose.

Why do we write? What do we hope to achieve by the endless production of fabricated realities? Another in a long line of paper-milled, ink-stained volumes, another crowded stack of paperbacks categorized and organized by last name, by demographic, by genre? Writers are restless seekers of truth and like all primates have a socialized proclivity for mutual grooming: quid pro quo, a back-and-forth, read and be read; we want to share, to communicate, we want the validation of our own kind, of the human kind. For many writers it is this resultant dialectic that is important; like scientists seeking objective truth we want to understand that we are approaching some greater comprehension of things. We want other writers to re-enact the thought experiment and feel that something has been accomplished; that somehow the collective understanding of humanity has been enriched, in however miniscule a way, by our own humble offering. Individuals write to promote social change, to punish injustice, to celebrate heroism, to lament political oppression, but is not the ultimate common theme a yearning to understand one another? And how else to do that other than in our own individual search for the truths that unite us?

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, proposed that the objective approach to matters of personal truth cannot illuminate that which is most essential to a person's life. Objective truths (mathematics and science) form a conceptual framework with which to systematically comprehend the laws that govern the universe; they are indubitably relevant and necessary, and possess a particular beauty (cascading fractal sets defined by mathematical constructs for example). But these theories and formula are rigid in application and constrained by prescribed laws of thermodynamics. They do not accelerate the heart or quicken the breath in the back of the throat, they do not pretend to delve into the individual's emotional relationship to existence, the angst and the passion, nor the confrontation with the dark abyss that lies beyond. They are the world in outline; it is the individual visceral interaction with life that provides the rich array of intervening colors. It is this encounter with the world that comprises each writer's subjective truths; borne of curiosity, their perceptions of the world are dynamic, a living intuitive response to life that is always in the process of becoming. They possess the vibrant unpredictability of individual perspective unrestrained by mathematical construct or theoretical expectations. These subjective truths are filtered through a writer's lens of prejudice and perspective, but they are universal insofar as they derive from the human condition and to which each of us react with a start of recognition.

Dostoyevsky's literary works explore human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual context of 19th-century Russia. He probed and extrapolated upon issues such as the existence of God, nihilism, the requirements of fraternity, the morality of murder, suicide and poverty. They are familiar themes; while the times have changed, while the setting is different, we, like the brothers Karamazov, like Dostoyevsky himself, struggle to understand what it means to be human. In her essay The Russian Point of View, Virginia Woolfe stated: "The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture." To be an unworthy echo of Ms. Woolfe's eloquent testimonial: "composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul." These are Dostoyevsky's subjective truths that resonate so deeply with contemporary as well as later audiences.

Many postulate one objective truth to all things whether it be a philosophical truth, religious truth, or political truth. However these truths are group-specific and do not necessarily cross county, state or national lines. The truths that unite individuals across the globe are of the variable kind, they are emotional truths spoken from one heart to another, they are an amalgamation of gathered truths, they are a literary truth, spoken without subterfuge or agenda. Each book represents an individual communicator transmitting their own particular blend of veracity. Giambattista Vico argued that verum ipsum factum (truth itself is constructed). Perhaps one might surmise the literary truth to be a constructed one insofar as it is born of much mental labor and is, however inadequately, translated from thought to word. Objective evidence facilitated by science enables further understanding of our physical environment, the subjective analysis of the human condition as evident in literature enables further understanding of the depths of ourselves - a search essential to nourish the delicate yearning that is the human soul.

Through countless dusty tomes we have acquired vague ideas of things that have sharpened and coalesced in the subsequent years of life-immersion, discussion, pondering and musing. Writers attempt to convey their own subjective truths, lessons learned, wisdom accumulated, their own particular insight into the kernel of things. And the utter delight is that, unlike objective truth (Schrodinger's cat nonwithstanding) the individual perspectives are often not only unconventional and quirky, but are limitless in their potential for the exploration of self. These truths, these literary truths, are perpetually in flux; the human outlook alters with time and experience and the truth of youth is oft supplanted by that of maturity. Individuality outruns all classifications, unconstrained and undefined, vibrantly alive with innumerable shades of possible expression.


  1. "One understands only in proportion to becoming himself that which he understands." ~ Soren Kierkegaard

    1. Lovely contribution Shari - thanks so much for visiting!

  2. Brilliant post, PJ! Thoroughly enjoyed it, thanks!