Saturday, February 03, 2007

Writers and the first hand experience

"As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions," said the prince. "I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison --I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating - but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience." About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live."

He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to believing, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions--one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good-bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them." The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, 'What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!' He said that this thought weighed so upon him and became such a terrible burden upon his brain that he could not bear it, and wished they would shoot him quickly and have done with it."

The prince paused and all waited, expecting him to go on again and finish the story.
"Is that all?" asked Aglaya.
"All? Yes," said the prince, emerging from a momentary reverie.
"And why did you tell us this?"
"Oh, I happened to recall it, that's all! It fitted into the conversation--"
"You probably wish to deduce, prince," said Alexandra, "that moments of time cannot be reckoned by money value, and that sometimes five minutes are worth priceless treasures. All this is very praiseworthy; but may I ask about this friend of yours, who told you the terrible experience of his life? He was reprieved, you say; in other words, they did restore to him that 'eternity of days.' What did he do with these riches of time? Did he keep careful account of his minutes?"
"Oh no, he didn't! I asked him myself. He said that he had not lived a bit as he had intended, and had wasted many, and many a minute."
"Very well, then there's an experiment, and the thing is proved; one cannot live and count each moment; say what you like, but one cannot."
"That is true," said the prince, "I have thought so myself. And yet, why shouldn't one do it?"

-- Taken from 'The Idiot' by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is considered as one of the greatest writers of 19th century, himself was such a man, having experienced the mock execution arranged by Nicholas I to punish 'Petrashevsky Circle'.

I guess this could very well be considered as the turning point of Dostoevsky’s literary career. After this harrowing experience, he wrote master-pieces like ‘Crime and punishment’, ‘The idiot’ and ‘The brothers Karamazov’; no doubt thoroughly moved by it.

It is a matter of debate whether to write extra-ordinarily, your life should be eventful or whether it is the genius of his mind that can recreate any emotion without experiencing it (somewhat similar to the debate whether the circumstances shape a person or his intrinsic/innate qualities) ; but I am pretty sure the second category is the rarest of the rare. It is, in fact, very difficult to catch the emotions experienced by you effectively in the first place and very few can achieve that.

In that sense, we see why the English literature is so rich as compared to almost any other language, barring perhaps French and Russian. English speaking people went to all the corners of the world, and expressed it through their writings. Indian writers, on the contrary, are woefully short of such ‘happening’ lives. Do we have a Hemingway or Sartre who fought actually in the war, a Dostoevsky whose writings have such a conceivable shadow of death, or even someone less illustrious like Jared Diamond who roamed around the world researching the evolutionary biology?

Of course, I don’t think there is anything to feel ashamed about it. As a society starting to wake up late from its slumber and daunting problems like poverty and foreign rule, we are at disadvantage in this regard. However, things are changing for sure. As Indians – or for that matter, people from the third world countries are getting used to the globalization, living a more complex life – it is getting reflected in their works. Recent example would be Kiran Desai’s ‘Inheritance of loss’ or Orhan Pamuk – whose works portraying the identity crisis felt by the Turkish people in the struggle between western and age old principles, getting recognition at the highest level.

A look at the Nobel Prize winners for literature shows almost total domination of English and few other European languages. But, considering the recent trends, we can safely say that the new century, belongs to the third world that was unable to find its voice hitherto.


Ajit said...

In that sense, we see why the English literature is so rich as compared to almost any other language, barring perhaps French and Russian. and Of course, there is nothing to feel ashamed of are very important observations.

Another one is that of how real is someone's writing... Whether an author hides his/her own experiences or to takes inspiration to write about it can lead to different "qualities" of art. Yet, personally, I feel, a 'good' piece of art can not be 'better' or 'worse'!

Of late Indian literature, as other languages, has been making some news (for good reasons). The book I am reading currently, "Stallion of the Sun," by "U R Anantha Murthy" is as gripping and as interesting as any "foreign" language books if not more...

Nice post. Inspires me to re-pick up "The Idiot" which is lying at the bottom of the book-stack presently!

Sudhu said...

Its really nice to read such a gripping quote.. and I second Ajit's remarks.. I think i should re-kindle my reading habit yet again. However, it was very enjoyable to read a long post from you after a long time. Your free flow of thoughts and words are just mesmerising. As a non-reader of your Marathi blog, i kind of missed reading your works. Do write more often.

Raj said...

While saying good-bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer...

Chilling. Dostoevsky is sometimes considered as belonging to the existentialist camp. In Crime and Punishment, the theme is Nihilism. Trying to find the basis of the moral values which we take for granted.

Onto the Indian scene, I agree that the scene does look interesting. It's been almost a century since Tagore received the Nobel and I do hope the situation will improve.

Very nice and thought provoking post!

Pradeep said...

Thanks Nandan for providing me a pointer to this post. Certainly as some other posters have said, you have a way with words and an effortless flow of thoughts. This post tempted me to dig out my copies of Crime and Punishment and of Brothers Karamazov. But honestly they drain one so much, I dare not bring them out.. for now, that is. The pathos Dostoevsky brings to fore is too much to bear.


Akira said...


Thanks fr introducing us (me) to Dostoevsky.

Kelyane deshatana manuja yet ase shahanpan (if I am saying it right)...but as you point out things are getting better as more and more Indians are getting a global experience...