February 07, 2006

If Dostoevsky Had Google

This is the way it all happened, ladies and gentlemen, and if it didn't, may the Tsar himself seize all my estates! I was reading a long, intricate post by Camassia (a practice I recommend) about the relationship between power and freedom in the secular and Christian viewpoints: the secularist, she says, believes that power brings freedom and the powerless are unfree, while the religious believe that temporal power can be a form of spiritual slavery. In the Comments section, I found something tangential to Camassia’s subject that made me want to comment: someone had cited one of my favorite quotations and attributed it, I thought, to the wrong person.

“The line between good and evil is drawn not between nations or parties, but through every human heart.” – Dostoevsky.

That’s the way I had read it years ago and have remembered it ever since – it’s from The Diary of a Writer, a book notable for its foaming rages of Jew-hating as well as for a few jewels in the mud. In any event, Camassia’s commenter attributed those words of wisdom to Solzhenitsyn.

It got me on my literary high horse, if you must know, and I immediately did a Google search for “line between good and evil through every human heart,” trying to prove it came from Dostoevsky. I came up with thousands of hits, but they all (that is, the twenty or so sources I clicked) attributed the statement to Solzhenitsyn. It had evidently become one of those famous nostrums, those joyously bouncing verbal balloons, that one finds repeated in sermons and at conferences and in articles and inspirational writings, sometimes with no attribution at all, as if it had been floating in the air for any passerby to snatch. Solzhenitsyn really had said it, in The Gulag Archipelago, but that didn’t mean that Dostoevsky hadn’t said it before him, if you see what I'm talking about. (Solzhenitsyn didn’t credit it to any predecessor, but, well, you know how people are.)

Indignant, I began googling all the Dostoevsky quotation sites I found, plus general quotation books, but my special quote wasn’t on any of them. I ask you, if we’re beyond even the infinitesimal, the miniscule wisdom of getting a quotation source right, what hope can there be for persuading garret-dwelling students not to murder their landladies? Despite the lack of evidence, I believed -- indeed, believed because of the lack of evidence. The omission was mere ignorance, of course, blameless ignorance, yes, but what is every sin at bottom but a refusal to see the truth?

My heart quickened, and thoughts – God keep you from such thoughts, dear reader! -- raced through my head like a fever, and with each click of the Return button, each new line typed onto the search bar, I could feel my blood pressure squeezing tighter, my temperature rising -- I wanted to rush out into the street and grab some poor unaware pedestrian and recite him my quotation and, shaking him by the collar in my fervor, demand, “Who do you think would have said that, Solzhenitsyn, or Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky, of course, can there be any doubt, my esteemed friend? Solzhenitsyn couldn’t have thought of it -- he was the enemy of a specific party, an entire national government, which he associated with evil -- but he knew Dostoevsky was right, and couldn’t resist, in the same no one can resist swiping a nice ripe cherry from the top of the fruit bin in the market, God preserve us. He was Dostoevsky’s younger brother, and he must have said to himself, ‘Fyodor won’t mind…’”

Yes, dear friends, that’s what passed through my whirling noggin in those hectic moments, as if a different personality were taking me over, a demonic twin, a mirror likeness glimpsed at a street corner; and it occurred to me – I can’t deny it – to think, “Heavens above, I'm turning into Dusty himself! This must be what it felt like to be Dostoevsky – at least as translated by Constance Garnett! How could he possibly have entertained a sensible thought with his mind in a state like this?” If our beloved author were alive today, he’d be jabbing the Return button like a man possessed, commenting scandalously wherever he landed, linking, posting, haranguing, cajoling, perspiring, mumbling, wiping his brow, seeking out the websites of all the mad tormented prophets of the Web – I tell you, he wouldn't be able to stop! And do you think he’d let a misattributed quotation go unchallenged? No, my friends, he would plunge deep into the Web and find the websites of the most despised and insulted, the sites of saintly whores and angelic orphans and quaking gamblers, and he’d finally sink so deep he’d unearth the Website of the Holy Spirit, the Shekhina itself, and raise it up to us and crow, “Ha, gentlemen! But I feel a fit coming on!”

Understand me, I could scarcely keep pace with my frantic thoughts, and at each new site without a Dostoevsky attribution, my pulse quickened in frustration at this mistreatment of the just. And then the truth came to me, the way truth always comes to those who search, like a kopeck coin that sits unnoticed on the pavement of Nevsky Prospect just waiting to announce itself to the one who is always looking down meekly, always gazing at his feet in wry humiliation: If the quote made me feel Dostoevskian, then Dostoevsky must indeed have said it!

Ten rubles on the red!

Chapter Two
I had been just about to sit and meditate when I got sidetracked by that Camassian post, and now my breath was heaving so that I couldn’t possibly sit quietly and rest. I had to lie down for almost half an hour just getting my pulse and respiration back to normal. Then I sat on a cushion and was able to meditate for a while – but even then I couldn’t launch directly into clear-minded watching of my breath. I had to keep my frothed-up brain occupied with words in order to settle it further, so I repeated inwardly to myself, over and over, a prayer I like that’s slightly adapted from St. Francis:

Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace.
Where there is hate, let us sow love,
Where there is anger, let us sow forgiveness,
Where there is doubt, let us sow faith,
Where there is despair, let us sow hope,
Where there is sadness, let us sow joy.

The funny things is, you know, I usually remember to use that prayer only when I’m feeling rotten; when I’m feeling good, it slips out of my mind, along with every other spiritual need.

But this time I remembered it even though I felt good, and I matched the words to the rhythm of my breath in a way I’d never thought of before, a discovery, because a discovery, readers of mine, doesn’t have to bring forth a new continent or unleash a new force of nature, it can unleash nothing more powerful than a few words addressed to an unknown hearer.

And after ten minutes or so of that, my dear people, I was able to drop the words, to go beneath them and with silent brain follow my breath and fall into a deep – alas, not the deepest, for there were still debts to pay and manuscripts to crank out at top speed for eagerly clamoring, beseeching editors – but all in all, I must admit, a fairly deep and respectable trance.

You see, Solzhenitsyn could never have made me feel like that.