Emil Filla — Reader of Dostoevsky (1907)


The first time I saw Reader of Dostoevsky I laughed.  It looked exaggerated, like a meme of someone who had just spent the last thirty minutes scrolling through Twitter. Mind you, it’s possible that my reaction was due to my mixed feelings for Dostoevsky himself.  Anyone who has struggled through the Russian’s long winded paragraphs will relate to the exhaustion felt by the protagonist in Emil Filla’s painting.

The years have passed and I feel quite differently about this Dostoevsky reader now. For one thing, I am impressed with the sensation of suffocation and walls closing in, of space constricted to include the bare minimum — a bare minimum that still feels like “too much”. 

Emil Filla – Reader of Dostoevsky (1907). Oil on canvas. National Gallery Prague

I don’t know what does it — the cropping, the limited color palette consisting mostly of blues and reds, the flaming blaze irradiated by the latter — but it works. It works splendidly.

Add to that the crucified pose of our blue-tinged reader with the molding of his tunic revealing his ribs and the corresponding visual rhyme of the crucifix on the wall, and we have ourselves something quite intriguing to look at. This is a man in pain, as consumed by his own anguish as Dostoevsky’s characters.

I didn’t quite know it at the time when I first saw this, but the torment of Filla’s reader isn’t the living in a world as unwelcoming as the Russian novelist would suggest, where traditional values like religion (see the crucifix) have been forgotten and acute consciousness through introspection and self-reflection causes great suffering. I now realize that underpinning despair — in life, in Dostoevsky’s novels, as well as in this painting — is the lack of companionship.

Filla could have portrayed this man in a large room where his loneliness would have engulfed him, but he did not. How could anyone even fit in that tight space overflowing with angst? The reader is akin to the unnamed character in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, battling his neuroses on his own, fully aware of his limitations — ugly, bitter, sickly — but showcasing his despair as a token of intelligence, as a natural reaction to seeing the world as it truly is. 

I think this is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novels too. Amongst all the displays of personal, philosophical and political conviction, the loneliness of the characters pervades the pages. Yet loneliness as a protagonist never gets its rightful dues — at best, it is used as a proxy for existential freedom.

 We’d like to think of it in reverse, that one’s circumstances, one’s intellectual and spiritual quests or one’s passionate political affiliation all lead to isolation, as if loneliness is an unlucky by-product with which one learns to live in order to satisfy hungry ideals and principles, or simply to get to live another day.

But in the absence of companionship — of having one’s ideas bounce on and off the edges of someone else, the presence of someone to pull you out of your own head and the inner prison you have built for yourself — then any light, random thought can fester into a death sentence, into a hell of one’s making.

I do not think we’ve come to terms yet with how increasingly isolated we’ve been living, with how easily we let the ideas concocted in our loneliness eat away at our peace, how that one weekly yoga session and meditation app don’t quite cut it. We blame the worries — big or small, personal or global — on our isolation, when it’s the isolation creating or exacerbating these problems in the first place.

Nietzsche had famously stated that “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. That may be true for self-driven idealists, but if you asked me — after years of political turmoil and the brutal isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic — I’ve come to realize that he who has a tight-knit social network will bear anything.

I’m not laughing anymore. This Dostoevsky reader needs a hug.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s good to hear from you, Gabriela. Thanks for your interesting and insightful analysis of Emil Filla’s painting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      Thanks for reading, Rosaliene! Much appreciated.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I especially liked this part.
    I now realize that underpinning despair — in life, in Dostoevsky’s novels, as well as in this painting — is the lack of companionship.

    Very well observed.
    And loneliness is the pandemic which never left us, from Dostoevsky till tomorrow’s Tuesday. :/

    Thanks for writing and sharing this Gabriela.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Gabriela says:

      I’m glad you liked it, Rahul. I hope next time you read a Dostoevsky novel this painting will come to mind.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I will only have to look at a mirror 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Clanmother says:

    This is a brilliant post, Gabriela. And serendipitous for me as I begin the #Karamazovreadalong tomorrow. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      Haha, I wish you the best of luck! I tried to read The Karamazov Brothers twice, but I never made it past the 200 page mark.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Clanmother says:

        I’ll keep you posted. I am starting one day at a time. I confess I am intimidated so I’ve had to rely on my dear friend Liz Humphreys from the blog Leaping Life!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gabriela says:

          I have this theory that English translations of Dostoevsky are easier to read than the original or other languages, but I never put it to the test. English natives seem to really like Dostoevsky. Do you guys have an online book club or is this a one-time thing?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Clanmother says:

            Hi Gabriela – check out Liz’s latest post which will give you the links. https://leapinglife.com/2021/07/21/the-karamazovreadalong-nearly-time-to-get-reading/.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. cammanley1 says:

    One of Elder Zosima’s brother’s great quotes is that the period of human loneliness will end when we realise that ‘true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort’ – I agree, coronavirus has definitely taught us that

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gabriela says:

      That’s a wonderful quote, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for sharing!


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