Dostoevsky’s art presides in his ability to embody in words a sense, a palpable feeling, of the distances between worlds. Whether it is the distant, desolate horizon that stretches for dismal miles deep in the heart of Siberia, or the distance of cold hearts in the suffocating quagmire of poverty and depravation in the capitals of European civilization, what remains stamped in my mind is an overwhelming- even oppressing- sensation of the isolation of human existence, divided and subdivided into a multitude of categories that thrive specifically on the differences between each other. There is, in the subjects of all his social observations, an almost voluntary submission to these rigid differences as part not only of identity- either on the national, class or even personal level- but of life itself.
It is the distance between class and identity of the Russian nobility that is of particular interest to me. It seems that the elite of all cultures subordinate to an ideal “civilization” suffer from the same maladies of deception. Out of humiliation at belonging to a culture considered inferior to the paradigm, this elite class strives to separate itself from all that binds it to that shame; emulating the paradigm with smug self-satisfaction- failing to recognize the glaring faults that bleed through even that superior culture.
As a member of a society that has been colonized, and as a product of the psychological, social and political effects of that colonization, I can attest to Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Russian elite- though the political and historical trajectories of the Subcontinent and Russia are highly different from each other, it is true that the cultural colonization of any society starts from the uppermost tiers. The arrogance of the upper classes also remains the same; the assumption that the masses understand nothing, that their values are barbaric and outdated, that they need to be led by those that know better, those that realize that only principles and ideologies conceived of in the minds of those not tainted with the tar of a backward culture are worth upholding; these and only these must be applied to lives that they know nothing of, and surely have no desire to know anything of, and society will forever be imprisoned by the rigid class divide because of this.
How self-assured we are, on the other hand, in our mission to civilize, how haughtily we solve problems, and what problems they are!” (pg 21, Winter Notes)
It begins with dressing like the European, looking like him, and ends with total dependence on that superior civilization, so that even the mother tongue is considered too vile, too simplistic- tainted by the commoner’s tongue- to be considered a vehicle of progress for the more refined amongst us. For the Russian elite, French was that surrogate language, and for the Pakistani elite, it is English; so much so that one begins to articulate thought in the superior language, and it dominates over all but the basest (and therefore perhaps the most instinctive and vital)of mental faculties. I am perhaps an all too painful example of this. Although I would not consider myself as part of the Pakistani elite, in a country where poverty and suffering are rampant, my family can hardly be called unfortunate. I was taught English at the same early age that I was taught Urdu; so that I grew up speaking both languages- only to have the foreign language dominate to the extent that I am more comfortable writing and arguing in English than in Urdu. This is, I feel compelled to mention with the utmost regret, considered a sign of superiority by many in my country.
And so it is that the nobleman really does not belong anywhere, and he is imprisoned by this. He refuses to be a part of his indigenous culture, with all its vices and incompatibility with the modern world. He has the advantage of education and the intellect and contact with this modern world, and yet he cannot truly be a part of the culture that he so desperately parrots because he never truly was a part of that culture. He cannot know the lives of his fellow countrymen, even if on the rare occasion he strives to understand them. The distances between the classes grow infinitely vast, and the separation is firmly espoused not only by the nobility, but upheld, as seen in The House of the Dead, by the peasantry itself. Even here within a remote prison fortress, amongst men that could be considered as possessing great ability and strength (morality strictly not factored in) merely because they take risks and undertake ventures that many men would flinch from, social norms are practiced with a rigor that is almost ridiculous in its irony. Here are men that have transgressed all the laws of nature and society that most of humanity holds sacred, committing gruesome crimes, and yet the need for the rigid social structure, and indeed the distance and isolation that this breeds, prevails. There is an awareness amongst the prisoners of a code of conduct, of knowing one’s place, and of maintaining one’s dignity by acting within a designated sphere.
The ultimate self-deception lies in this then; that the fundamental difference between a prison with walls and a prison without walls lies in the limitations of freedoms; that the miles of wasteland that stretch out beyond vision represent a greater distance between the prisoner and freedom than that between a free man amidst the claustrophobic buzz of a rich capital city. The degree of suffering that the human soul must endure in a prison with walls is definitely more severe, but the truth is far more chaotic to face; that all the ideals that we adopt and espouse as the intellectual elite have not led to a utopia. Things are in fact not “as they should be,” because walls or no walls, humanity is chained to physical boundaries, to events outside its control, and more so to its insatiable appetite for power, cruelty and neglect, giving birth to a hedonistic, vacant world where only “Baal” reigns supreme.
“Our lack of habitual contact with it made freedom seem to us in some way freer than freedom itself, the freedom that is to be found in the real world, that is.” (pg 355, The House of the Dead)