We, Being Pure: Part One

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the unquestionable giants of world literature: essential to the development of the nineteenth century anti-romantic novel; one of his century’s two great prophets and critics (Nietzsche being the other) of the then-growing nihilism that was devouring European intellectual life, and has since — as he (like Nietzsche) predicted — settled like volcanic ash over the entire civilized world; and above all else, the great psychologist of modern art (Shakespeare excepted). The attempt by twentieth century existentialists to adopt Dostoevsky as one of their intellectual progenitors, apart from being a typical act of self-aggrandizement-by-association from our very small geniuses, is a testament to his profundity as a prospector in the late modern obsession with mining the darker reaches of the soul. 

And yet, for all his remarkable insight into human weakness, and his stark honesty in judging the heart of modern man, Dostoevsky himself was subject to one bizarre blind spot. For he, more than any other writer, has entrenched in the global mind one of the silliest stereotypes and male fantasies of late modern art: the hooker with a heart of gold. Though a writer of brutal relentlessness in seeking the most unflatteringly revealing motives behind so many of mankind’s grand theories and practical rationalizations, he could never bring himself to cast his harsh vision upon one of his recurring human types, the poor girl who is “forced” by circumstances into prostitution — not into an isolated moment’s desperate compromise, but into a full-time career in selling her body for pleasure — and yet somehow remains inviolably pure and good in her soul. The level of detachment of soul and body indicated by such a mythology is all the more shocking in a writer least prone to idealistic fantasy or mind-body dualism. For all the loveliness and heartbreaking charm of the young women he depicts as unwavering saints (sources of a protagonist’s real or potential salvation, literally) who are “trapped” by fate in the oldest profession, it is impossible for a psychologically inquisitive reader — or this reader, at any rate — not to be irked by the simplemindedness with which Dostoevsky avoids the obvious problem with his portrayal of such characters, by merely refusing to delve one millimeter below the imaginary pristine surface of a woman who pretends, perhaps many times each day, to enjoy giving drunken, disrespectful strangers physical pleasure in exchange for cash. 

Can such a person, if truly reduced to that way of life — to the routinization of that activity — through inescapable hardship and a sense of life-or-death duty, retain some essential decency of spirit at her core? Yes, I assume that is possible. But that she can be a pure soul, undefiled in her piety, her aspirations, and her ability to love, under such conditions, stretches plausibility far beyond my capacity for the suspension of disbelief. That the great psychologist Dostoevsky was prone to that weakness — and not merely prone to it, but desirous of depicting it in writing, repeatedly, as though to persuade the world of its possibility — probably reveals more about his own pain and self-doubt than it teaches us about the wonders of the soul.

Does this make Dostoevsky a poor writer, or a flimsy psychologist? Certainly not. It was a weakness, a blind spot, inevitable in even the most incisive and probing mind. The weakness — defended and masked as brilliantly as any man can defend and mask his weakness — shows him to be human. It does not diminish the greatness of his art. It merely helps us to learn what greatness means — and what it does not and cannot mean.

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