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The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt on the Normalization of Human Wickedness and Our Only Effective Antidote to It

“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” the great French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote in 1933 as she contemplated how to make use of our suffering amid a world that seemed to be falling apart. But modern life is no fairy tale and one of its most disorienting perplexities is that evil isn’t always as easily recognizable as a Grimm stepmother. Maya Angelou captured this in her 1982 conversation with Bill Moyers about courage and facing evil, in which she observed: “Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good.” Joseph Brodsky echoed the sentiment five years later in his spectacular speech on our greatest antidote to evil: “What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.”

A core cause of this perplexity lies in the fact that while acts of evil can mushroom into monumental tragedies, the individual human perpetrators of those acts are often marked not with the grandiosity of the demonic but with absolute mundanity.

This was the revolutionary and, like every revolutionary idea, at the time controversial point that Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) made in 1962, when The New Yorker commissioned her, a Jew of who had narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany herself, to travel to Jerusalem and report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann — one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. In 1963, her writings about the trial were published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (public library) — a sobering reflection on “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Hannah Arendt

A decade after Arendt established herself as a formidable thinker with her incisive inquiry into how totalitarian tyrants take hold of a people, she writes:

The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

It is through this lens of bureaucracy (which she calls “the rule of Nobody”) as a weapon of totalitarianism that Arendt arrives at her notion of “the banality of evil” — a banality reflected in Eichmann himself, who embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” In a passage that applies to Donald Trump with astonishing accuracy — except the part about lying, of course; that aspect Arendt addressed with equal prescience elsewhere — she describes Eichmann:

What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

The Nazis, Arendt argues, furnished this deliberate disconnect from reality with what she calls “holes of oblivion.” (Today, we call them “alternative facts.”) In a searing testament to the power of speaking up, she considers what the story of the Holocaust — a story irrepressibly told by its survivors — has taught us:

The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.


The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

Arendt took great care to differentiate between the banal and the commonplace, but some reviewers — as those pre-bent on a reflexive rebuttal are always apt to do — accused her of suggesting that the atrocity of the Holocaust had been commonplace, which of course was the very opposite of her point. Among those who misunderstood her notion of the “banality” of evil to mean a trivialization of the outcome of evil rather than an insight into the commonplace motives of its perpetrators was the scholar Gerhard Scholem, with whom Arendt had corresponded warmly for decades. At the end of a six-page letter to Scholem from early December of 1964, she crystallizes her point and dispels all grounds for confusion with the elegant precision of her rhetoric:

You are quite right, I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil.” … It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

Eichmann in Jerusalem remains, unfortunately, an increasingly relevant masterwork as we face a world seized by banal tyrants capable of perpetrating enormous evil with their small hands. But perhaps John Steinbeck put it best in his superb letter written months before Arendt arrived in New York as a refugee from Nazi Germany: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Complement it with Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and Mary McCarthy — Arendt’s longtime friend and correspondent — on how we decide whether evil is forgivable, then revisit Arendt on lying in politics, the meaning of “refugee,” how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, and the crucial difference between truth and meaning.


Dostoyevsky on Integrity, Success, and the Ultimate Goal of Creative Work

“The artist … must consecrate all his toil to the holy spirit of art — such toil is holy, chaste, and demands single-heartedness.”

Dostoyevsky on Integrity, Success, and the Ultimate Goal of Creative Work

“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).

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

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.

He adds:

I should rather like to write something that would introduce me to the public… If I fail in this, I’ll hang myself.

Art by Shaun Tan for a rare edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

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.


Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.”

Dostoyevsky on the Heart vs. the Mind and How We Come to Know Truth

“Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature,” Martha Nussbaum — one of the most insightful and influential philosophers of our time — asserted in her terrific treatise on the intelligence of the emotions. “They are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.” It’s an idea proposed — and resisted — for centuries, if not millennia. “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know,” Blaise Pascal wrote in contemplating intuition and the intellect in the 17th century.

But perhaps the most beautiful meditation on this abiding tug-of-war between reason and emotion comes not from a hoary philosopher but from a teenage boy — one who would grow up to become the greatest psychological writer of all time.

Decades before he found the meaning of life in a dream and was fortunate to find himself in one of history’s most beautiful loves, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) tussled with the interplay of the heart and the mind in how we come to know truth. In an 1838 letter to his brother Mikhail, penned shortly before his seventeenth birthday and included in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends (public library), Dostoyevsky accuses his brother of being apt to “philosophize like a poet” and writes:

To know more, one must feel less, and vice versa… Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason. Were we spirits, we could dwell in that region of ideas over which our souls hover, seeking the solution. But we are earth-born beings, and can only guess at the Idea — not grasp it by all sides at once. The guide for our intelligences through the temporary illusion into the innermost centre of the soul is called Reason. Now, Reason is a material capacity, while the soul or spirit lives on the thoughts which are whispered by the heart. Thought is born in the soul. Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire. When human reason … penetrates into the domain of knowledge, it works independently of the feeling, and consequently of the heart.

He comes full-circle to the divergent ways in which poetry and philosophy bring us into contact with truth, both necessary but one, in his view, superior:

Philosophy cannot be regarded as a mere equation where nature is the unknown quantity! Remark that the poet, in the moment of inspiration, comprehends God, and consequently does the philosopher’s work. Consequently poetic inspiration is nothing less than philosophical inspiration. Consequently philosophy is nothing but poetry, a higher degree of poetry!

Complement this particular fragment of Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends with British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher, writing a century and a half later, on how to see with the eye of the heart, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his beloved wife on the secret to a happy marriage.


Anna Dostoyevskaya on the Secret to a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from One of History’s Truest and Most Beautiful Loves

How to nurture a love that “would stand as a firm wall,” that “won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

Anna Dostoyevskaya on the Secret to a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from One of History’s Truest and Most Beautiful Loves

In the summer of 1865, just after he began writing Crime and Punishment, the greatest novelist of all time hit rock bottom. Recently widowed and bedeviled by epilepsy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) had cornered himself into an impossible situation. After his elder brother died, Dostoyevsky, already deeply in debt on account of his gambling addiction, had taken upon himself the debts of his brother’s magazine. Creditors soon came knocking on his door, threatening to send him to debtors’ prison. (A decade earlier, he had narrowly escaped the death penalty for reading banned books and was instead exiled, sentenced to four years at a Siberian labor camp — so the prospect of being imprisoned was unbearably terrifying to him.) In a fit of despair, he agreed to sell the rights to an edition of his collected works to his publisher, a man named Fyodor Stellovsky, for the sum of his debt — 3,000 rubles, or around $80,000 in today’s money. As part of the deal, he would also have to produce a new novel of at least 175 pages by November 13 of the following year. If he failed to meet the deadline, he would lose all rights to his work, which would be transferred to Stellovsky for perpetuity.

Only after signing the contract did Dostoyevsky find out that it was his publisher, a cunning exploiter who often took advantage of artists down on their luck, who had purchased the promissory notes of his brother’s debt for next to nothing, using two intermediaries to bully Dostoyevsky into paying the full amount. Enraged but without recourse, he set out to fulfill his contract. But he was so consumed with finishing Crime and Punishment that he spent most of 1866 working on it instead of writing The Gambler, the novel he had promised Stellovsky. When October rolled around, Dostoyevsky languished at the prospect of writing an entire novel in four weeks.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

His friends, concerned for his well-being, proposed a sort of crowdsourcing scheme — Dostoyevsky would come up with a plot, they would each write a portion of the story, and he would then only have to smooth over the final product. But, a resolute idealist even at his lowest low, Dostoyevsky thought it dishonorable to put his name on someone else’s work and refused.

There was only one thing to do — write the novel, and write it fast.

On October 15, he called up a friend who taught stenography, seeking to hire his best pupil. Without hesitation, the professor recommended a young woman named Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. (Stenography, in that era, was a radical innovation and its mastery was so technically demanding that of the 150 students who had enrolled in Anna’s program, 125 had dropped out within a month.)

Twenty-year-old Anna, who had taken up stenography shortly after graduating from high school hoping to become financially independent by her own labor, was thrilled by the offer — Dostoyevsky was her recently deceased father’s favorite author, and she had grown up reading his tales. The thought of not only meeting him but helping him with his work filled her with joy.

The following day, she presented herself at Dostoyevsky’s house at eleven-thirty, “no earlier and no later,” as Dostoyevsky had instructed — a favorite expression of his, bespeaking his stringency. Distracted and irritable, he asked her a series of questions about her training. Although she answered each of them seriously and almost dryly, so as to appear maximally businesslike, he somehow softened over the course of the conversation. By the early afternoon, they had begun their collaboration on the novel — he, dictating; she, writing in stenographic shorthand, then transcribing at home at night.

For the next twenty-five days, Anna came to Dostoyevsky’s house at noon and stayed until four. Their dictating sessions were punctuated by short breaks for tea and conversation. With each day, he grew kinder and warmer toward her, and eventually came to address her by his favorite term of endearment, “golubchik” — Russian for “little dove.” He cherished her seriousness, her extraordinary powers of sympathy, how her luminous spirit dissipated even his darkest moods and lifted him out of his obsessive thoughts. She was touched by his kindness, his respect for her, how he took a genuine interest in her opinions and treated her like a collaborator rather than hired help. But neither of them was aware that this deep mutual affection and appreciation was the seed of a legendary love.

In her altogether spectacular memoir of marriage, Dostoevsky Reminiscences (public library), Anna recounts a prescient exchange that took place during one of their tea breaks:

Each day, chatting with me like a friend, he would lay bare some unhappy scene from his past. I could not help being deeply touched at his accounts of the difficulties from which he had never extricated himself, and indeed could not.


Fyodor Mikhailovich always spoke about his financial straits with great good nature. His stories, however, were so mournful that on one occasion I couldn’t restrain myself from asking, “Why is it, Fyodor Mikhailovich, that you remember only the unhappy times? Tell me instead about how you were happy.”

“Happy? But I haven’t had any happiness yet. At least, not the kind of happiness I always dreamed of. I am still waiting for it.”

Little did either of them know that he was in the presence of that happiness at that very moment. In fact, Anna, in her characteristic impulse for dispelling the darkness with light, advised him to marry again and seek happiness in family. She recounts the conversation:

“So you think I can marry again?” he asked. “That someone might consent to become my wife? What kind of wife shall I choose then — an intelligent one or a kind one?”

“An intelligent one, of course.”

“Well, no… if I have the choice, I’ll pick a kind one, so that she’ll take pity on me and love me.”

While we were on the theme of marriage, he asked me why I didn’t marry myself. I answered that I had two suitors, both splendid people and that I respected them both very much but did not love them — and that I wanted to marry for love.

“For love, without fail,” he seconded me heartily. “Respect alone isn’t enough for a happy marriage!”


Their last dictation took place on November 10. With Anna’s instrumental help, Dostoyevsky had accomplished the miraculous — he had finished an entire novel in twenty-six days. He shook her hand, paid her the 50 rubles they had agreed on — about $1,500 in today’s money — and thanked her warmly.

The following day, Dostoyevsky’s forty-fifth birthday, he decided to mark the dual occasion by giving a celebratory dinner at a restaurant. He invited Anna. She had never dined at a restaurant and was so nervous that she almost didn’t go — but she did, and Dostoyevsky spent the evening showering her with kindnesses.

But when the elation of the accomplishment wore off, he suddenly realized that his collaboration with Anna had become the light of his life and was devastated by the prospect of never seeing her again. Anna, too, found herself sullen and joyless, her typical buoyancy weighed down by an acute absence. She recounts:

I had grown so accustomed to that merry rush to work, the joyful meetings and the lively conversations with Dostoyevsky, that they had become a necessity to me. All my old activities had lost their interest and seemed empty and futile.

Unable to imagine his life without her, Dostoyevsky asked Anna if she would help him finish Crime and Punishment. On November 20, exactly ten days after the end of their first project, he invited her to his house and greeted her in an unusually excited state. They walked to his study, where he proceeded to propose marriage in the most wonderful and touching way.

Dostoyevsky told Anna that he would like her opinion on a new novel he was writing. But as soon as he began telling her the plot, it became apparent that his protagonist was a very thinly veiled version of himself, or rather of him as he saw himself — a troubled artist of the same age as he, having survived a harsh childhood and many losses, plagued by an incurable disease, a man “gloomy, suspicious; possessed of a tender heart … but incapable of expressing his feelings; an artist and a talented one, perhaps, but a failure who had not once in his life succeeded in embodying his ideas in the forms he dreamed of, and who never ceased to torment himself over that fact.” But the protagonist’s greatest torment was that he had fallen desperately in love with a young woman — a character named Anya, removed from reality by a single letter — of whom he felt unworthy; a gentle, gracious, wise, and vivacious girl whom he feared he had nothing to offer.

Only then did it dawn on Anna that Dostoyevsky had fallen in love with her and that he was so terrified of her rejection that he had to feel out her receptivity from behind the guise of fiction.

Is it plausible, Dostoyevsky asked her, that the alleged novel’s heroine would fall in love with its flawed hero? She recounts the words of literature’s greatest psychological writer:

“What could this elderly, sick, debt-ridden man give a young, alive, exuberant girl? Wouldn’t her love for him involve a terrible sacrifice on her part? And afterwards, wouldn’t she bitterly regret uniting her life with his? And in general, would it be possible for a young girl so different in age and personality to fall in love with my artist? Wouldn’t that be psychologically false? That is what I wanted to ask your opinion about, Anna Grigoryevna.”

“But why would it be impossible? For if, as you say, your Anya isn’t merely an empty flirt and has a kind, responsive heart, why couldn’t she fall in love with your artist? What if he is poor and sick? Where’s the sacrifice on her part, anyway? If she really loves him, she’ll be happy, too, and she’ll never have to regret anything!”

I spoke with some heat. Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at me in excitement. “And you seriously believe she could love him genuinely, and for the rest of her life?”

He fell silent, as if hesitating. “Put yourself in her place for a moment,” he said in a trembling voice. “Imagine that this artist — is me; that I have confessed my love to you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, what would you answer?”

His face revealed such deep embarrassment, such inner torment, that I understood at long last that this was not a conversation about literature; that if I gave him an evasive answer I would deal a deathblow to his self-esteem and pride. I looked at his troubled face, which had become so dear to me, and said, “I would answer that I love you and will love you all my life.”

I won’t try to convey the words full of tenderness and love that he said to me then; they are sacred to me. I was stunned, almost crushed by the immensity of my happiness and for a long time I couldn’t believe it.

Fyodor and Anna were married on February 15, 1867, and remained besotted with one another until Dostoyevsky’s death fourteen years later. Although they suffered financial hardship and tremendous tragedy, including the death of two of their children, they buoyed each other with love. Anna took it upon herself to lift the family out of debt by making her husband Russia’s first self-published author. She studied the book market meticulously, researched vendors, masterminded distribution plans, and turned Dostoyevsky into a national brand. Today, many consider her Russia’s first true businesswoman. But beneath her business acumen was the same tender, enormous heart that had made loving room within itself for a brilliant man with all of his demons.

Anna Dostoyevskaya by Laura Callaghan from The Who, the What, and the When

In the afterword to her memoir, Anna reflects on the secret to their deep and true marriage — one of the greatest loves in the history of creative culture:

Throughout my life it has always seemed a kind of mystery to me that my good husband not only loved and respected me as many husbands love and respect their wives, but almost worshipped me, as though I were some special being created just for him. And this was true not only at the beginning of our marriage but through all the remaining years of it, up to his very death. Whereas in reality I was not distinguished for my good looks, nor did I possess talent nor any special intellectual cultivation, and I had no more than a secondary education. And yet, despite all that, I earned the profound respect, almost the adoration of a man so creative and brilliant.

This enigma was cleared up for me somewhat when I read V.V. Rozanov’s note to a letter of Strakhov dated January 5, 1890, in his book Literary Exiles. Let me quote:

“No one, not even a ‘friend,’ can make us better. But it is a great happiness in life to meet a person of quite different construction, different bent, completely dissimilar views who, while always remaining himself and in no wise echoing us nor currying favor with us (as sometimes happens) and not trying to insinuate his soul (and an insincere soul at that!) into our psyche, into our muddle, into our tangle, would stand as a firm wall, as a check to our follies and our irrationalities, which every human being has. Friendship lies in contradiction and not in agreement! Verily, God granted me Strakhov as a teacher and my friendship with him, my feelings for him were ever a kind of firm wall on which I felt I could always lean, or rather rest. And it won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

In truth, my husband and I were persons of “quite different construction, different bent, completely dissimilar views.” But we always remained ourselves, in no way echoing nor currying favor with one another, neither of us trying to meddle with the other’s soul, neither I with his psyche nor he with mine. And in this way my good husband and I, both of us, felt ourselves free in spirit.

Fyodor Mikhailovich, who reflected so much in so much solitude on the deepest problems of the human heart, doubtless prized my non-interference in his spiritual and intellectual life. And therefore he would sometimes say to me, “You are the only woman who ever understood me!” (That was what he valued above all.) He looked on me as a rock on which he felt he could lean, or rather rest. “And it won’t let you fall, and it gives warmth.”

It is this, I believe, which explains the astonishing trust my husband had in me and in all my acts, although nothing I ever did transcended the limits of the ordinary. It was these mutual attitudes which enabled both of us to live in the fourteen years of our married life in the greatest happiness possible for human beings on earth.

Complement the wholly enchanting Dostoevsky Reminiscences with Frida Kahlo’s touching remembrance of Diego Rivera, Jane Austen’s advice on love and marriage, and philosopher Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, then revisit Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and the day he discovered the meaning of life in a dream.


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