Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) was a Russian novelist, writer, and philosopher. He often explored questions of psychology, philosophy, and religion. He wrote many acclaimed novels.
He published a short story in the 1870s in a collection called A Writer’s Diary with the title “The Dream of a Queer Fellow,” also published as The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. As Maria Popova points out, “the story sheds light on Dostoyevsky’s personal spiritual and philosophical bents with extraordinary clarity — perhaps more so than any of his other published works.” As with so much so-called “fiction,” it is perhaps a true reflection of his own deepest intuitions, spiritual experiences, and understandings.
The following comes from Popova’s summary of the beginning of this story:
The story begins with the narrator wandering the streets of St. Petersburg on “a gloomy night, the gloomiest night you can conceive,” dwelling on how others have ridiculed him all his life and slipping into nihilism with the “terrible anguish” of believing that nothing matters. He peers into the glum sky, gazes at a lone little star, and contemplates suicide…
It’s clear that the protagonist in this story is in an existential despair, not knowing the meaning of life, or at least his particular life. Popova continues:
Suddenly, as he is staring at the star, a little girl of about eight, wearing ragged clothes and clearly in distress, grabs him by the arm and inarticulately begs his help. But the protagonist, disenchanted with life, shoos her away…
This encounter with the little girl marks a profound shift in his attitude. He feels profound pity for her. Why? What for? If he were to take his life, what difference should this little girl be to him? In that moment he realizes that he is still alive, and capable of suffering, of feeling, of sensing pity. He’s reminded of his living humanity. And these questions about his humanity and sense of life are what keep him alive. “…that little girl saved me…” As Popova notes, what gives meaning to life may be “life itself.”
The narrator then falls into a dream state, or what we might call a “vision,” and feels that he has died. Dostoevsky writes:
I felt no pain, but it seemed to me that with the report, everything in me was convulsed, and everything suddenly extinguished. It was terribly black all about me. I became as though blind and numb, and I lay on my back on something hard. I could see nothing, neither could I make any sound. People were walking and making a noise about me: the captain’s bass voice, the landlady’s screams… Suddenly there was a break. I am being carried in a closed coffin. I feel the coffin swinging and I think about that, and suddenly for the first time the idea strikes me that I am dead, quite dead. I know it and do not doubt it…
As he lays in the coffin, he suddenly becomes unnerved with “deep indignation kindled in [his] heart.” He cries out prayerfully into the silent darkness:
“Whosoever thou art, if thou art, and if there exists a purpose more intelligent than the things which are now taking place, let it be present here also…“
He then feels suddenly lifted up out of his grave and into space by a dark being. “It was deep night; never, never had such darkness been!” He recalls that he is not afraid, “and my heart melted with rapture at the thought that I was not afraid.”
Then he sees the star which he saw before, and the vision changes radically:
Suddenly a familiar yet most overwhelming emotion shook me through. I saw our sun. I knew that it could not be our sun, which had begotten our earth, and that we were an infinite distance away, but somehow all through me I recognized that it was exactly the same sun as ours, its copy and double. A sweet and moving delight echoed rapturously through my soul. The dear power of light, of that same light which had given me birth, touched my heart and revived it, and I felt life, the old life, for the first time since my death.
He was “resurrected” from death to the sensations of life once more, and he finds himself in a heavenly realm. As Popova notes:
…“everything seemed to be bright with holiday, with a great and sacred triumph, finally achieved” — a world populated by “children of the sun,” happy people whose eyes “shone with a bright radiance” and whose faces “gleamed with wisdom, and with a certain consciousness, consummated in tranquility.”
He feels that he’s been given consummate knowledge: “Oh, instantly, at the first glimpse of their faces I understood everything, everything!”
Although he knows it was a dream-vision, yet the reality of the love he felt was absolutely real and continued with him after waking up. He feels that he has had a direct encounter with Life.
Oh, now — life, life! I lifted my hands and called upon the eternal truth, not called, but wept. Rapture, ineffable rapture exalted all my being. Yes, to live…
I cannot go far astray. I saw the truth. I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth. I will not, I cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of men… I saw the truth, I did not invent it with my mind. I saw, saw, and her living image filled my soul for ever. I saw her in such consummate perfection that I cannot possibly believe that she was not among men. How can I then go astray?
And it is so simple… The one thing is — love thy neighbor as thyself — that is the one thing. That is all, nothing else is needed. You will instantly find how to live.
Again, this is not necessarily an account of Dostoevsky’s own personal experience, but it seems that it may include intimations of experiences that he, indeed, did have, or at least his deeper intuitions about the nature of life and being, and what leads us to live a life of meaning. The similarity of this experience to many mystical experiences around the world and throughout history seems to suggest that he did have personal experience with this archetypal experience.
Some similarities to Joseph Smith’s First Vision seem to include:
- He is in an existential despair, not knowing what to do in life
- He is thinking about the deepest questions of existence, and life’s meaning
- He feels that he is in a very dark, black space, the blackest of night
- There’s the sensation that his life may be over, that he’s been extinguished
- He hears noises around him, perhaps feeling trapped
- He cries out in prayer to rescue him from this darkness, this bleak estate
- He senses a dark being present
- He suddenly sees a light at a great distance away
- The light is like the sun
- He is filled with unspeakable joy and rapture, rejoicing
- He feels a connection to the light, that his life was enwrapped in it, and it filled his heart
- He feels like he encountered the light of life
- He sees people, angels, radiant personages
- These beings are full of wisdom and tranquility or peace.
- He feels that he’s been given ultimate knowledge, eternal truth
- Although he recognizes that it was a dream-vision, yet he feels it was absolutely real, he did not invent it, and will not deny it
- He feels certain he saw Truth itself, perhaps Life itself
- It is ineffable, indescribable
- He seems to see and know the personification of Life and Truth
- He knows the Beloved, and is filled with Love
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