Forewarning: Long, self-absorbed post ahead.
I have a childish love of putting things in absolutist terms. For years I have tormented my mother by trying to get her to answer my “desert island questionnaire,” asking questions like, “What’s your one favorite painting?” or “What’s the best dessert you’ve eaten ever?” I like to ask other people these questions because I’m always trying to figure out my own answers, and not long ago I came up with one: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is my #1/absolute/forever favorite book. In making this novel the subject of my final blog post I indulge another of my childhood habits of “saving best for last.”
Recently, someone, who I call “Angel” after a Francesca Lia Block book, came to visit me and return my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, which had in fact been lent to me by someone else another lifetime ago. The return of the book was really a symbol for or way of confirming the end of me and Angel’s relationship, and when he handed it back to me I looked down and, thinking of a particular particular scene, melancholily said, “This book made me understand what love is.” Angel told me he was sorry he hadn’t read it, but that he had just started The Brothers Karamazov. I shrugged and told him I preferred The Idiot and that “If Kafka on the Shore had made me understand love, The Idiot had made me understand death.”
Now it occurs to me that this was wrong, or at least paradoxical because what The Idiot actually made me understand was that death eludes understanding. In one of the most poignant lines in literature, Dostoevsky articulates as much. Prince Myshkin, the eponymous idiot, is recounting the story of a prisoner sentenced to death, and says, “He kept wanting to imagine…how it could be like this now: he existed and was alive, but in three minutes’ time he would be something, someone or something–but who? And where?” Never have I encountered something that has so fully and cuttingly encapsulated the mystery of death, that terrifying question of what happens when a person becomes just a body, where does what was me or what was the person I loved go? What do they become once they die? Of course, I have no answer. Neither did Dostoevsky. He died without ever having learned what it meant to die, and so will I. So it goes.
Thus ends my blog about death. And that makes me think about dying. Because I feel terrified to think how quickly the time since I started this blog has passed, which makes me think about how quickly this semester has passed, which makes me think about how quickly college has passed, which makes me think about how quickly youth passes, which makes me think about how quickly life passes–“Sorry, I’m just scared of the future.” In choosing the topic of my blog I set out to use literature to come to some understanding of death. What I have written herein suggests that I have failed at this project. And in some sense I have; I am no more clear on what it means to die than I was when I started–But perhaps what I’ve come to understand is that this uncertainty is okay, that maybe I will never come to terms with death, but I could come to terms with not being able to understand it. And maybe there’s peace in that. This is to say that maybe I didn’t fail at my project, but created the wrong one: Rather than look to literature to aid me in remembering that I will die, I should have used it to help me reject the import I have placed on memento mori. I turn again to The Idiot, where after hearing the Prince’s story, one character remarks, “There’s your proof, that means it’s impossible to live ‘counting each minute.’ For some reason, its impossible.”
(Image: Freud, Lucian. The Painter’s Mother Dead. 1989. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland. Quotations from Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Trans. David McDuff. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.)