Self-Examination and the Dread Existential
Hounded by debt and pursued by collectors, Fyodor Dostoevsky once entered into a rather odd contract with an insidiously opportunistic publisher. The contract called for Dostoevsky to either submit a new novel to the publisher by November 1, 1866 or the publisher would obtain the right to publish anything written by Dostoevsky within the next nine years without compensation. This agreement yielded one of the early Dostoevsky masterpieces, The Gambler, and Dostoevsky himself a wife, the very same woman, over twenty years his junior, who he hired as a shorthand typist to expedite the process of preparing his manuscript. So sometimes, I suppose, gambling and extreme debt can yield at least some benefit.
Not so for Rostov today.
I just don’t see the predicament he’s gotten himself into inspiring either a great novel or creating value for his stock in the Moscow marriage market.
We last left Rostov, you’ll recall, at the gambling table losing quite a bit to his old friend Dolokhov. Today, we learn, he’s lost even more. Some horrible compulsion leads him to remain at the gambling table until he has amassed a debt of forty-three thousand rubles. In addition to the debt poor Nikolai Rostov has also created for himself some pretty nasty existential questions: How has it come to this? What have I done to deserve it? I used to be so happy, how did this terrible state of things begin? He also asks why Dolokhov is doing this to him and why that man seems to be taking such a joy in his suffering? Wasn’t Dolokhov his friend? Well, as Dostoevsky writes in The Gambler, “most men love to see their best friend in abasement; for generally it is on such abasement that friendship is founded. All thinking persons know that ancient truth.”
The chapter ends with Rostov, the consummate feeling rather than thinking person, in a terrible state of anger, confusion, and even suicidal thoughts.
Given that pizza is not a confirmed menu item in the afterlife it’s probably best for Rostov to endure. Instead, he should go home and distance himself from the ravaging emotions currently rattling his mind. Only then, under the calm reassurance of reflection, can he accurately assess his situation and examine himself to find the answers to the questions he asks above. My best guess is that he’ll learn that his untamed emotional response to situations leads him to impulsive and self-damaging action. He may want to do something about that.
We ought not to be led quickly even by open and evident acts; for some things are false that have the appearance of truth. We should always allow some time; a day discloses the truth.
Seneca, On Anger II