Dostoyevsky on Poverty, Ambition, Success, Creative Integrity, and the Ultimate Ideal of Art
“The artist … must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness.”
By Maria Popova
“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” young Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her best friend from the pit of poverty, long before she became one of humanity’s most celebrated artists. That, perhaps, is part of the definition of an artist — someone equally endowed with the emotional porousness necessary for perceiving life’s deepest dimensions, and with the mental toughness necessary for doing so despite the inconvenience, deprivation, and resistance this might entail.
Hardly any artist has articulated this essential duality of creative work with more moving sincerity than Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881).
In 1837, the year his mother died of tuberculosis, teenage Fyodor was sent to a military engineering institute in St. Petersburg. His artistic temperament and physical clumsiness made him poorly suited for the military, but he particularly resented being forced to abandon his study of the humanities, which he felt nourished his soul, for a dry technical career. Life at the military boot camp was hard enough — he slept in a canvas tent even under heavy rain and his bed was a bundle of straw covered in a ragged sheet — but what oppressed him most of all was having no books to read.
Eventually, he swallowed his pride and asked his financially strained father for help. In a letter from May of 1838, found in the altogether terrific Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library) — which also gave us the great Russian author on the heart vs. the mind and how we come to know truth — 16-year-old Dostoyevsky beseeches his father:
How can I pass the time without books? … If you will stand by your son in his bitter need, send him this money by the first of June. I dare not insist upon my petition: I am not asking too much, but my gratitude will be boundless.
What other course in life is there for a person who sees literature as a form of nourishment more vital than food and shelter? This was the dawn of Dostoyevsky’s literary ambition. By that fall, he was already thinking about the question of artistic success, its false relationship with fame, and its proper measure. He writes to his brother:
The poet’s inspiration is increased by success. Byron was an egoist; his longing for fame was petty. But the mere thought that through one’s inspiration there will one day lift itself from the dust to heaven’s heights some noble, beautiful human soul; the thought that those lines over which one has wept are consecrated as by a heavenly rite through one’s inspiration, and that over them the coming generations will weep in echo… that thought, I am convinced, has come to many a poet in the very moment of his highest creative rapture. But the shouting of the mob is empty and vain.
Echoing his contemporary Kierkegaard’s views on popular opinion, young Dostoyevsky adds:
There occur to me those lines of Pushkin, where he describes the mob and the poet:
“So let the foolish crowd, thy work despising, scream,
And spit upon the shrine where burns thy fire supreme,
Let them in childish arrogance thy tripod set a-tremble…”
Wonderful, isn’t it?
Over the years that followed, Dostoyevsky continued to struggle materially and found himself deeply in debt — a predicament he wouldn’t transcend until decades later, thanks to his his brilliant and business-savvy wife Anna.
In a letter form 1844, 23-year-old Dostoyevsky reports unsentimentally that his “position is desperate,” but assures his brother:
As regards my future life, you really need not be anxious. I shall always find means to support myself. I mean to work tremendously hard.
And work he did — that year, he finished his first novel, appropriately titled Poor Folk. “I am extraordinarily pleased with my novel,” Dostoyevsky wrote to his brother, “beside myself with joy.” But while trying to get the manuscript in the hands of the right literary tastemakers, Dostoyevsky grew even more impoverished. In a letter from the spring of 1845, he consoles his brother as much as he consoles himself:
What do I want with fame, when I’m writing for daily bread? I took a desperate resolve — to wait a little longer, and in the meantime incur fresh debts.
And now to those means of subsistence! You know well, dear brother, that I have been thrown on my own resources in that respect. But I have vowed to myself that, however hard it may go with me, I’ll pull myself together, and in no circumstances will I work to order. Work done to order would oppress and blight me. I want each of my efforts to be incontrovertibly good. Just look at Pushkin and Gogol. Both wrote very little, yet both have deserved national memorials. Gogol now gets a thousand roubles a printed page, while Pushkin had, as you know well, as much as a ducat a line of verse. Both — but particularly Gogol — bought their fame at the price of years of dire poverty.
I should rather like to write something that would introduce me to the public… If I fail in this, I’ll hang myself.
By October of 1845, strained by poverty and the uncertainty of his manuscript’s fate, he has plummeted into despair:
Until now I have had neither time nor spirits to write you anything about my own affairs. Everything was disgusting and hateful, and the whole world seemed a desert. In the first place, I had no money all the time, and was living on credit, which is most unpleasant, my dear and only friend. In the second, I was in that wretched mood wherein one loses all courage, yet does not fall into dull indifference — rather, which is much worse, thinks a great deal too much about one’s self, and rages uncontrollably.
But the stars soon aligned. Poor Folk made its way to Russia’s most influential literary critic, who proclaimed it the country’s first social novel. It was published in January of 1846 and became an instant commercial success. So began Dostoyevsky’s conflicted relationship with fame — he both longed for it as the ultimate gratification of the ego’s ambition and scorned it as a function of the abominable taste of the masses. He relays the charade of fame in a letter to his brother:
Well, brother, I believe that my fame is just now in its fullest flower. Everywhere I meet with the most amazing consideration and enormous interest. I have made the acquaintance of a lot of very important people… Everybody looks upon me as a wonder of the world. If I but open my mouth, the air resounds with what Dostoevsky said, what Dostoevsky means to do.
But his fame — a phenomenon Einstein once derided as fickle buffoonery — brought its invariable companion: the small-spirited bullying that petty jealousy engenders. Dostoyevsky laments to his brother:
“Poor Folk” appeared on the 15th. If you only knew, brother, how bitterly the book has been abused! The criticism in the [newspaper] Illustration was one unbroken tirade… They scold, scold, scold, yet they read it.
Once again, Dostoyevsky comforts himself with the similar fate his great hero endured:
It was the same with Gogol. They abused, abused, but read him. Now they’ve made up that quarrel, and praise him. I’ve thrown a hard bone to the dogs, but let them worry at it — fools! They but add to my fame.
By the following year, Dostoyevsky is famous beyond his wildest imaginings. But among fame’s most challenging facets is its tendency to force one to confront the contrast between the private person and the public persona, only amplifying the shame of one’s perceived personal flaws against the backdrop of public adulation. And so Dostoyevsky — even Dostoyevsky — succumbs to impostor syndrome. After his second novel, The Double, was published and received some negative reviews, he writes to his brother:
My fame has reached its highest point. In the course of two months I have, by my own reckoning, been mentioned five-and-thirty times in different papers. In certain articles I’ve been praised beyond measure, in others with more reserve, and in others, again, frightfully abused. What could I ask for more?
I hear such hymns of praise that I should be ashamed to repeat them. As to myself, I was for some time utterly discouraged. I have one terrible vice: I am unpardonably ambitious and egotistic. The thought that I had disappointed all the hopes set on me, and spoilt what might have been a really significant piece of work, depressed me very heavily. The thought of [The Double] made me sick. I wrote a lot of it too quickly, and in moments of fatigue. The first half is better than the second. Alongside many brilliant passages are others so disgustingly bad that I can’t read them myself. All this put me in a kind of hell for a time; I was actually ill with vexation.
By November of that year, Dostoyevsky had grown disenchanted with the publishing business. In a letter to his brother, he extols the supremacy of creative integrity over commercial success:
From the whole business I have deduced a sage rule. First, the budding author of talent injures himself by having friendly relations with the publishers and proprietors of journals, the consequence of which is that those gentry take liberties and behave shabbily. Moreover, the artist must be independent; and finally, he must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness; my own heart thrills now as never before with all the new imaginings that come to life in my soul.
This renewed faith in the true priorities of art — the devotion to ideals grander and more abiding than fame — reinvigorated Dostoyevsky’s creative spirit and he went on to write some of the greatest, most enduring literature of all time. More than twenty years later, he reflects on the ultimate ideal of art in a letter to his niece:
My whole literary activity has embodied for me but one definite ideal value, but one aim, but one hope… I do not strive for fame and money, but only and solely for the synthesis of my imaginative and literary ideals, which means that before I die I desire to speak out, in some work that shall as far as possible express the whole of what I think.
A century and a half later, Dostoyevsky’s literary imagination continues to speak to our deepest humanity.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly satisfying Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with Felix Mendelssohn on creative integrity and the measure of artistic satisfaction, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, the story of the day he discovered the meaning of life in a dream, and the secret to his happy marriage.
Published April 26, 2016