REVELATIONS OF DEATH
agōn megistos kai eschatos taīs psuchaīs prokeitai.
A supreme and final battle awaits the soul.
- PLOTINUS, Enneads I, vi, 7.
THE CONQUEST OF THE SELF-EVIDENT
tis d'oīden, ei to dzźn men esti katthaneīn, to katthaneīv de dzźn;
Who knows if life is not death, and death life?
"Who knows," says Euripides, "if life is not death, and death life?" Plato in one of his dialogues puts these words into the mouth of Socrates, the wisest of men, the very man who created the theory of general ideas and first considered the clarity and distinctness of our judgments to be an index of their truth. According to Plato, Socrates almost always when death is discussed says the same, or much the same as Euripides - no one knows whether life is not death and death life. Since the earliest days the wisest of men have lived in this state of mystified ignorance; only common men know quite distinctly what life is, and what death.
How has it happened, how could it happen, that the wisest are in doubt where the ordinary man can see no difficulty whatsoever, and why are the most painful and terrible difficulties always reserved for the wisest? For what can be more terrible than not to know whether one is alive or dead? "Justice" should insist that this knowledge or this ignorance should be the prerogative of every human being. What am I saying: Justice! Logic itself demands it, for it would be absurd that it should be granted to some to distinguish between life and death, while others were bereft of this power; for those who possessed it would then be completely different from those to whom it is refused, and we should hardly have the right to comprehend them both under the category of human beings. He only is a man who knows certainly what life is and what death. He who does not know, he who even occasionally, were it but for a single instant, ceases to perceive the dividing line which separates life from death, ceases to be a man and becomes... what? Where is the Oedipus who can resolve this question and penetrate to the depths of this supreme mystery?
It is but right to add, however, that all men are by nature capable of distinguishing life from death, and make the distinction very easily, without any mistake. Ignorance only comes, to those for whom it is predestined, later; if I mistake not, it always comes abruptly, they know not how or why. And furthermore: this ignorance is always intermittent, it disappears and gives place to normal consciousness as suddenly as it has appeared. Euripides and Socrates and all those who are destined to bear the sacred burden of this supreme ignorance, generally know quite well what life is and what death, just like other men. But it happens to them sometimes to experience the feeling that their ordinary knowledge has deserted them, the knowledge which links them to the other beings so unlike themselves, and which kept them in touch with the whole world. That which all know, which all admit, which they themselves knew only a moment before, that which universal consent confirmed and justified, suddenly can no longer be called "their" knowledge. They have their own knowledge, alone, unjustified, and unjustifiable. Can we indeed hope ever to see Euripides' question generally admitted? Is it not obvious to us all that life is life and death is death, and that to confuse them with one another can only be madness or a mischievous wish to upset all self-evidence, and to bring disorder into the human mind?
How, then, did Euripides dare to pronounce these challenging words, and how did Plato dare repeat them? And why has history preserved them for us - history which destroys mercilessly everything which is useless or insignificant? One might perhaps say that it is mere chance; it can happen that a fishbone, a common sea-shell, will remain intact for thousands of years. Although these words have been preserved, they play no part in the spiritual development of humanity. History has fossilized them; they bear witness to the past, but are dead to the future; their fate is settled for evermore without appeal. This conclusion is self-evident. Are we in fact going to destroy the general laws of human thought, the fundamental principles of our own thought, for the sake of a few words from philosophers and poets?
Perhaps another "objection" will be raised. Perhaps it will be remembered that in a very wise old book it was said: "It were better for that man never to have been born who seeks to know what has been and what will be, that which is under the earth and above the heavens." But I should then reply that according to this same book, the Angel of Death who descends towards man to separate his soul from his body is all covered with eyes. Why is this? Why does he want all those eyes, when he can see the whole of heaven, and there is nothing on earth worth his seeing? I think that he did not want those eyes for himself. It happens sometimes that the Angel of Death, when he comes for a soul, sees that he has come too soon, that the man's term of life is not yet expired; so he does not take the soul away, does not even show himself to it, but leaves the man one of the innumerable pairs of eyes with which his body is covered. And then the man sees strange and new things, more than other men see and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and he also sees, not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see: that things do not exist "necessarily", but "freely", that they are and at the same time are not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear when they appear. The testimony of the old, natural eyes, "everybody's" eyes, directly contradicts the testimony of the eyes left by the angel. But since all our other organs of sense, and even our reason, agree with our ordinary sight, and since the whole of human "experience", individual and collective, supports it, the new vision seems to be outside the law, ridiculous, fantastic, the product of a disordered imagination. It seems only a step short of madness; not poetic madness, that inspiration with which even the handbooks of philosophy and aesthetics deal, and which under the names of Eros, Mania, and Ecstasy, has so often been described and justified where and when necessary, but the madness for which men are pent in cells. And then begins a struggle between two kinds of vision, a struggle of which the issue is as mysterious and uncertain as its origin.
Dostoevsky was undoubtedly one of those who possessed this double vision. But when did the Angel of Death visit him? The most natural thing would be to suppose that it happened at the foot of the scaffold when sentence of death was read out to him and his companions. However, it is probable that "natural" explanations are out of place here. We have got into the realm of the unnatural, of the eternally and essentially fantastic, and if we want to see anything, we must abandon all those methods and procedures which previously gave a certainty, a guarantee to our truths and our knowledge. It is possible that a yet more important sacrifice may be demanded of us. We may perhaps have to admit that certainty is not a predicate of truth, or, to express it better, that certainty has absolutely nothing in common with truth.
We shall come back to this later; but these words of Euripides can convince us that certainty and truth each exist independently. Suppose Euripides is right, and that indeed no one can be sure whether life is not death and death life; can this truth ever become certain? If all men daily repeated Euripides' words when they got up and when they went to bed, they would remain as strange and as problematical as on the day when the poet first heard them in the depths of his soul. Euripides made them his own because something in them fascinated him. He pronounced them knowing that no one would believe them, even though every one heard them. But he could not transform them into a certainty; he did not try, and I even think that he did not wish it. The whole charm, the whole attraction of these truths lies perhaps in the very fact that they deliver us from certainty; that they make us hope that what is called evident can be conquered.
So it was not while he was waiting for the execution of his sentence that Dostoevsky was visited by the Angel of Death. Neither was it while he was living in the Siberian camp, among men who intervened in the destinies of others and themselves became the sealed of destiny; The House of the Dead, one of his finest works, shows this.
The author of The House of the Dead is still full of hope. He suffers, he suffers horribly. He repeats more than once - and there is no exaggeration in it - that hell was little worse than these barracks, in which were penned several hundreds of strong, healthy men, for the most part above the average in ability, still young but perverted and filled with enmity and hatred. But he always remembers that outside the walls of this prison there is another existence. The strip of blue sky that he sees above the high walls is a promise of liberty to him. A day will come when all this will pass away, the prison, the branded faces, the vile oaths, the blows, the warders, the filth, the eternal clinking of the chains - all this will pass and a new, a noble existence will begin. "I am not here for ever", he tells himself again and again, "soon I shall be there - there where there is liberty, all that I dream of, all that the suffering soul desires. Here is a heavy sleep, a nightmare. There it will be waking, beautiful and happy. Open the doors of the prison, send away the warders, strike off the chains, it will be enough. I shall find the rest for myself, in this free and beautiful universe which I did not know how to appreciate before, although I saw it." What heartfelt and inspired pages Dostoevsky wrote on this subject!
"With what hopes my heart was then filled! I thought, I resolved, I vowed to myself that never again should there be evil in my life, nor any backsliding such as there had been before. I drew up a program for my future and resolved to follow it exactly. I believed blindly that I could accomplish it all, and that I should do so. I eagerly awaited, I longed for my liberty. I wanted to try my strength again in fresh struggles. Sometimes a feverish impatience would seize me..." With eager desire he awaited the day that should bring him freedom, which should be the dawn of his new life. He was convinced that he only had to get out of prison, and that then he would prove to all, to others as well as himself, that our life on earth is a great gift from heaven. If one can avoid the old mistakes and pitfalls, one can already find, here on earth, all that man can desire, and quit this life, as the patriarchs did "in the fullness of their days". The House of the Dead fills a place apart among Dostoevsky's works; it is not in the least like anything he wrote either after it or before. It is so complete, so well proportioned, so full of quiet and majestic calm, and at the same time filled with such internal tension, and so strong, sincere an interest in everything that is taking place before the author's eyes. Unless we are much deceived, this book is an authentic record of the existence led by Dostoevsky during his four years' captivity. Nothing seems to be invention; he has not even changed the names of the prisoners. Dostoevsky was certain that what he saw at that time, no matter how horrible it might be, was reality, the only possible reality. Among the convicts there were brave men and cowards, truthful men and liars, cruel men and nonentities; there were some who were handsome and some who were ugly. There were warders and sentries, commandants, porters, doctors, and orderlies. Every kind of person, but all "genuine", "true", "definite" - and their existence is equally real and "definite." It was, indeed, a miserable, pitiable, uninteresting and wretched life. But it was not "the whole of life", just as the little strip of blue sky which could be seen above the prison walls was not "the whole" sky. Real life, rich and full of meaning, existed where men could see not only a little strip of sky overhead, but the whole great dome; where there were no more walls, but great stretches of space, boundless liberty, in Russia, in Moscow, in Petersburg, among men who were clever, good, active, and themselves free.