The Devilment and Duels of Life

Fyodor Dostoevsky was condemned to death—public execution by firing squad.

The year was 1849 and the young Dostoevsky, fresh from the success of his first novel, Poor Folk, had joined a liberal humanitarian group devoted to studying utopian models of socialism. During one of their meetings, the police appeared and arrested the whole company. They were imprisoned in solitary confinement, sentenced for criticisms against the Russian government, and hauled to the city square to be shot. The death sentence was read aloud in their ringing ears. The ceremonial sword was broken over their hooded heads. The cross was pressed to their trembling lips. The shrouds were pulled across their heaving chests. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Fyodor Dostoevsky, twenty-eight years old, waited in the second batch of three to die. The rifles were lowered. The sergeant raised his saber.

When, all of a sudden, a courier from Tsar Nicholas I rode wildly into the square with word that, by the magnanimity of the tsar, the prisoners were spared their lives and instead sentenced to four years hard labor at the prison of Omsk in Siberia. The drums rolled. The rifles were raised. The whole execution had been nothing more than a terrifying farce—a strategy for the improvement of insubordinates. A number of the prisoners collapsed. Two were driven permanently insane. Fyodor Dostoevsky was left with shattered nerves, epileptic seizures, and a nascent conviction that any effort to conquer human suffering was doomed to failure—leaving Christian submission as the only course for mankind.

It is with gravity that literature by a man with such experiences should be read. The life of Fyodor Dostoevsky was as dark, dramatic, and desperate as his novels. He had a piercing grasp of human psychology, keenly aware of a cruel, vicious streak that had to come to grips with the reality of suffering. Even Nietzsche, himself a man of philosophical severity, held Dostoevsky in contempt for what he called “morbid moral tortures.” The Eternal Husband, written in 1870, is a powerful dose of such morbid moral torture. Though one of his more obscure works, it is hailed as one of his more perfect works for its razor-sharp story and in medias res structure. Besides the plot, it is thematically thick with the thinking of this extraordinary man, implying that the doom of his eternal husband is the doom of all unto eternity.

Pulsing through The Eternal Husband like a pounding heartbeat is an almost unbearable discomfort caused by implicit fear and hatred. Though it is truly almost unbearable, it is worth bearing, even barely, for the sheer vicarious experience of it all. What could be more awkward (and more disturbing) than finding an old friend after an absence of nine years silently trying the latch without knocking at three o’clock in the morning —a friend whose wife had been your lover? This is the cataclysm of Velchaninov as he recognizes Pavel Pavlovitch darkening his door in the dead of night. Their meeting is as awkward as can be imagined under the circumstances, and assumes a darker hue when Pavel Pavlovitch informs Velchaninov of his wife’s sudden death.

What unfolds is a psychotic game of cat-and-mouse as Velchaninov feverishly wonders what Pavel Pavlovitch knows about his late wife’s affair as he spars with his strangely sycophantic foe constantly making the most alarming allusions to the terrible truth. Pavel Pavlovitch is the “eternal husband,” which Velchaninov defines as the embarrassingly ludicrous and helpless cuckold doomed to be merely a husband and nothing more—nothing more than an appendage and ornament to his wife. This particular eternal husband’s melancholy and malicious anguish over his wife’s unspoken infidelity continually produces scenes of intense eeriness and social horror. The tension is immeasurably heightened when Velchaninov learns that Pavel Pavlovitch has a daughter (which is, in all likelihood, Velchaninov’s own child) whom the man is cruelly abusing as though to draw out Velchaninov’s guilt—or his sympathy. The Eternal Husband is a brutal slow-boiler of escalating confrontation that concludes in the only way that it can: with a bloody straightedge razor.

The Eternal Husband is highly representative of Dostoevsky’s mode, featuring characters who act without full comprehension of their own actions, and allowing the audience to witness their decisions, share their confusions, and catch glimpses of underlying motivations. Regarding the struggle between Velchaninov and Pavel Pavlovitch, the ultimate question of who knows what and how much is the driving force towards a resolution that is as horrific as it is hilarious—and ultimately hysterical. In a similar way, the slowly unfolding motives of Pavel Pavlovitch give more and more meaning to his elusive title, “eternal husband.” The eternal husband is a buffoon and a beholder; he is both prey and provoker; avenger and admirer—one may even surmise lover, perceiving suggestions of some superficial homosexual attraction towards his rival whom he insists upon kissing, spending time with, and winning the approval of despite Velchaninov’s palpable repugnance.

Though the mystery of the eternal husband is profound and troubling, the mystery of Velchaninov, the eternal lover, is even murkier. He is a man who, in typical Dostoevskian fashion, cannot escape the determinism of his conduct, which often leaves him in fits of contradiction and humiliation. It is an internal struggle occasioned by the external struggle with Pavel Pavlovitch, hammering home the essence of Dostoevsky’s writing: metaphysical conflict whose significance is just beyond the comprehension of his protagonists, though they fight tooth and nail towards its realization.

Like so many of Dostoevsky’s novels, The Eternal Husband presents a world of ambiguity and absurdity overrun with people groping with guile and guilt for a purpose they do not fully understand, often trading defiance for despair as the inescapable truth becomes increasingly clear: there is, on earth, no alleviation of the human condition. In this, Dostoevsky is a prophet. Not a prophet of politics or psychology, but rather a prophet of humanity, portraying and predicting the eternal struggle of man and the eternal salvation suffering presages. His position that redemption lays in love and tribulation is prophetic only because it was prophesied long before Dostoevsky put pen to paper. Just as the disease and deformity is the same as it ever was, so too is the cure; and Dostoevsky’s is a voice that proclaims the Via Dolorosa leading to eternal happiness.

The Eternal Husband is a participation in the prophecy of Fyodor Dostoevsky, awakening people to their inevitable lot as human creatures—to survive under the sentence of death, to be the eternal husband of cruel, fickle Fate. Here, as in most of his works, Dostoevsky’s prophetic power lies not in his ability to resolve the metaphysical torments of humanity, but rather in his ability to represent the torments that lie in the attempt to resolve them. All are wed to suffering, and all must learn to bear it, even slave under it, if they are to find deliverance from the devilment and duels of life.

Editor’s note: The above image is entitled “Portrait of Dostoevsky” painted by Vasily Perov in 1872.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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