Dostoevsky's Ghost

by David Cogswell

Never will I forget the experience of being in Dostoevsky's last apartment in St. Petersburg. And in my memory it will always feel like I met him, met his spirit and was acknowledged by it. I can't make any case for the credibility of such a tale. It's not even credible to my own logical mind. The experience remains outside of my rational processes. But regardless of what I believe about the possibility of such a thing, my memory of the experience is that I met Fyodor Dostoevsky, encountered him in the last apartment in which he lived and where he died. Considering that the plane on which I have encountered Dostoevsky is that magical, timeless space where one goes while reading books, then the idea that there is some need to establish the credibility of this experience, as though in some scientific experiment, is irrelevant.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Russia was because of my deep love of the work of Dostoevsky and the feeling of affinity that I have with him from reading his books. There are a great many things about Russia that I loved and wanted to encounter, but the one thing that glowed the most inside me and animated me as I made the long trip across the Atlantic was the image of St. Petersburg, and some of the places Dostoevsky himself had lived, the streets he walked and brought to life in his books.

Dostoevsky had been one of my very favorite authors for a long time. I had the kind of deep affinity for him that you can sometimes have with an author or artist such that you feel like you are fused with him on some level. Sometimes when you read there is such a sense of identification, you almost lose the sense of separation from the book.

When I picked up Crime and Punishment the first time, I immediately fell deeply into it as though I were perfectly at home in it. (Yes, I do know how strange that sounds.) In the years following I read much of Dostoevsky and my love for his work grew and deepened. It was through him that I gained my deepest access to the Russian spirit. When I was in St. Petersburg a local guide took me on a tour of significant places in Dostoevsky's life. There was much of interest in the trip, but what I'm getting to was my meeting with Dostoevsky. Obviously that's a chuckle, and that is fine, continue chuckling and there is no need to ever not chuckle about it. No need to take it seriously. I don't. I mean I don't have to. It was too much of a fun thing to take seriously. I'm sure Fyodor enjoyed it.

Anyway, it's the people who take everything so seriously that can't see ghosts. They can't see anything they can't fit into their rationalist, materialist world views. Maybe part of the reason they maintain that serious frame of mind is because they are afraid of ghosts and they don't want to see them. But why should they have to assume that seeing a ghost is scary? It doesn't have to be, unless the ghost happens to be a scary one. Or if your relationship to that ghost, or to the universe in general is scary.

Anyway, encountering Dostoevsky's spirit was not a scary prospect. I had communed with him through the magic of his books. It does kind of give you a shiver when you think about encountering a ghost, but maybe it's only the idea of ghosts that is scary, the implications of the idea that you could see a ghost. I'm not one of those people for whom seeing a ghost would wreck my whole world view and send me into a tizzy.

As this experience recedes into the past, it becomes less important to distinguish between the spirit I have contacted through his books and the kind of spirit who might appear in a bodily image in the apartment in which he lived the last years of his life.

I went to his last apartment, where he had been living when he died. It is beautifully preserved now as a little museum. His sleeping and writing quarters are roped off and set up as they were when he lived there with his wife and two children. There's an actual photo on the wall of the room when he lived there and the photo was used to restore the room as closely as possible to what it was like when he was there.

The public part of the apartment is set up so you can walk through and see a sort of narrative of his life in photographs, displays, artifacts, documents, paintings, and so on. A beautiful oil portrait was there, which I recognized as the one on the cover of my Bantam paperback of the Constance Garnett translation of Crime and Punishment. It was quite a magical thing with a luster and a sort of hyperspace depth that you can often see in the actual presence of a fine painting but that is never captured in reproductions.

As I stared at it, I thought of how that painting was the result of a fine portrait painter meticulously rendering an image one stroke at a time as he looked back and forth from Dostoevsky's living face to the canvas, crafting a composite of thousands of mental snapshots as he looked at the face, into the eyes, and back to the canvas to put each pixel into place. It seemed as though something of the real was staring back in that reflection.

There were a number of panels with photographs of him at different stages of his life and panels of biographical text and I spent some time at each one, staring deeply into them, drifting into an abstracted state as I contemplated his life at closer range than ever before. The story started from when he was a young, illustrious writer in St. Petersburg, before his attendance at a meeting of a revolutionary group caused him to be charged with conspiracy and sentenced to death. He was hauled before a firing squad, then reprieved moments before he would have been shot, and exiled to Siberia to work in a prison camp. It destroyed his promise for success as a talented young writer, and would have been the end of any writing aspirations for a lesser man.

Over a doorway to the private part of the apartment where he worked and his children played, there was a large black and white reproduction of a painting by Hans Holbein, a very naturalistic image of Jesus as he might have been just after he was removed from the cross. When Dostoevsky first saw the painting at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland, his wife said he stared at it for 20 minutes transfixed. Later he wrote movingly about it in The Idiot.

Strange to say, as one looks at the dead body of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself the peculiar and interesting question: if such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples, by His future chief apostles, by the women who followed Him and stood by the cross, by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, then how could they possibly have believed, as they looked at the corpse, that that martyr would rise again? Here one cannot help being struck with the idea that if death is so horrible and if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who overcame nature during His lifetime and whom nature obeyed, who said "talitha cumi?" and the damsel arose, who cried, "Lazarus come forth?" and the dead man came forth? Looking at that picture you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up - impassively and unfeelingly - a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being? The picture seems to give the expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated. -- (Translation copyright David Magarshack, Penguin Books)

I had been moved nearly to tears by that piece every time I read it, but I had never seen what the picture looked like. It turned out to be something entirely unlike the picture in my mind. It was much larger, almost photographic, almost life size. It certainly did have a greater impact on me than any painting of the crucifiction I had ever seen.

On through to the end of the apartment were two final rooms. One was Dostoevsky's study, where he did his writing. He was very productive there during the last, most peaceful years of his life. There was a tiny note from his daughter on display that had been pushed under the door for him asking when Daddy could come play with her. The study and the adjacent room were partly roped off to protect the arrangement of furniture, but there was an area between where you could walk around to look.

I stood at the edge of the rope looking at the furniture and personal items, in a dreamy state, savoring my last moments as I neared the final portion of the display. I was full of the portraits I had absorbed and was immersed in thoughts of Dostoevsky as I surveyed the areas where he lived, worked, walked, slept, played with his children and conducted his daily affairs. I was absorbing all this in a deep, private meditation

Besides me there were a few people who worked in the apartment standing around and there were a couple of school groups with one or two teachers per group and a bunch of wide-eyed kids shuffling in line through the apartment. As I walked slowly through the circular path through the apartment, I would periodically encounter the other groups as they moved along the same path, catching up then falling behind again. It was always the same group behind me catching up and always the same group that I was catching up to from behind. But as I stood looking over the rope in the room next to the study, I realized there was a man standing beside me to my left, a person I had not seen before. I became gradually aware of his presence without thinking much of it. As I stood there it gradually occurred to me that he looked rather like Dostoevsky. He looked very much, in fact, like the pictures of Dostoevsky as a young man that I had just been staring at.

Many different thoughts went through my head as I stood there, trying to resist staring, or taking a good close look at this man's face. I thought, Well, if he's a fan of Dostoevsky and he lives here in St. Petersburg, maybe he looks kind of like him the way kids who admire the Beatles or Johnny Rotten look like them. Then I thought, maybe he's a descendant of Dostoevsky, actually, or spititually. I felt a certain kinship with him just because he, like me, was spending his afternoon in Dostoevsky's apartment presumably paying tribute to the great writer.

He had brown hair, a thin beard and strong cheek bones and he seemed to be sort of smiling to himself. I became more and more intrigued by all of these thoughts and wanted to get a good look to see if he really did look as much like Dostoevsky as he seemed to. But I didn't want to be rude, to turn and glare. So I tried to be discreet and look for a chance to get a good look.

Though I realized how absurd the notion was that Dostoevsky would actually be standing next to me, I couldn't get it out of my mind, and this guy next to me seemed to be having a private chuckle, as if he were laughing at my dilemma. And when I tried to look at him, he seemed to turn away just enough to keep me from entirely dismissing the idea.

Of course I rejected the idea as soon as it occurred to me. I am a rational person, after all. On the other hand, from the little bit I've read about relativity and quantum physics, I can no longer definitely, totally dismiss the possibility that someone might exist in a spiritual form after he had died, or might still exist in a part of the time-space continuum outside of that in which they existed as a physical, living being. Strict materialism has been dethroned by quantum physics and is about to be abandoned in biology as well. So I couldn't dismiss it on the authority of science alone.

As I Whoever that guy was, I certainly felt I had met Dostoevsky's spirit already in the timeless place I entered through the window of his books. And whether I saw anyone who looked like him there or not, if a page of written words could convey that spirit, why then wouldn't his spirit also somehow exist in that apartment?

I had been reading Crime and Punishment on the trip, too, for about the third time. Its powerful mood seemed to reach out and envelope me. It became a lens through which I experienced things. I had been immersing myself in that Dostoevskyan mood, that space, reviewing the scenes in the book, the haymarket, Nevsky Prospect, the Neva River. It was my chosen reading for the trip. The book being read in the slow moments of a trip is always a big part of the experience. The guide who was taking me on the Dostoevsky tour had pointed out different parts of the city that figured into the book. The book I was reading, the strange state of mind I had gradually grown into on this strange lonely pilgrimage to Russia in the dead of winter, and the artifacts of Dostoevsky's life were all converging in that room in that apartment. Many separate layers of my being were superimposed, focused on that spot.

I became quite consumed by the thought of this man who had suddenly turned up next to me and seemed to resemble Dostoevsky. But there was absolutely nothing to do about it. The next group of kids was coming up behind me and it was time to put these quirky thoughts out of my mind and move on. There were a few more things in the next room to see before leaving and then there was the rest of St. Petersburg, the rest of my trip, and the rest of my life to get on with. So I had seen his last apartment, cool. Now it was over. On an impulse I walked on into the next room leaving the man standing there with that knowing smile that I more sensed than saw. In the next room there were a few more things to look at before reaching the exit.

I began to look at the remaining exhibits, and tried to put the ridiculous thoughts about the man, or the ghost or whatever he was out of my mind. But the idea kept bugging me and I decided to go back to the last room and take one last look so I could clearly dismiss the silly idea once and for all that this had been Dostoevsky's ghost next to me. As the place seemed to be already receding into my past as I prepared to leave it, I realized that I would always be left with this little uncertainty if I didn't go back and get that one good look. Even if it was rude to look him right in the face, I could turn and leave, then leave Russia and never see him again. At least I would know once and for all. So I turned back to the previous room and walked resolutely back through the curtain into the room.

He wasn't there. In the few moments since I passed out of the end room, he had also left. But he hadn't gone out the way I had gone, the way traffic was supposed to flow. He would have had to have gone back against the flow toward the front. Or something. I walked farther back, walked around a little, then back again the same direction as the rest of the people. I walked all the way through the little apartment museum. But he was nowhere. I don't know where he went. I don't know why I had only seen him in that one part of the museum and I'd been bumping into everyone else there over and over. Maybe he just liked to come to that one part of the museum for a little time, then leave. Maybe he was a regular.

In any case he was gone. Everyone else was there, but not him. My imaginary Dostoevsky was gone. The man who looked like he could have been Dostoevsky was gone. And of course my momentary thought that it could have been him was just a moment of fancy and was also gone, no longer relevant. I would leave the apartment, leave Russia, put the whole thing behind me, probably never return. It would be just another day of my life. And yet it stands out in my memory in a way not many days do. That apartment is still vivid to me. I can take myself back to it and feel it vividly around me as though I were there. I don't see the clarity of detail that I would have seen when I was physically there. But the feeling of the space is still strong, like a pungent odor.

And I can't help it. When I think back at that moment, and I think of the man next to me, the nice gentle, pleasant feeling he radiated, I see a silently smiling Fyodor. And I guess nothing will ever change that.

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