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”.
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.