The May Harper’s contains an unsettling essay by Mark Slouka called “Arrow and Wound” [perhaps available here]. After an allusion to a visitor’s seeing the aged Tolstoy “scoop a double handful of violets from the wet earth, breathe in their aroma with a kind of ecstasy, then let them fall carelessly at his feet,” Slouka describes in richly imagined detail (based, of course, on Dostoevsky’s own account) the experience a young Dostoevsky underwent when with of his fellow subversives he underwent a mock execution that shook him to the core and changed him into the wrathful conservative we are familiar with. He then describes a parallel experience that befell the Czech poet Seifert, who was seized by the Germans after the Prague revolt that began exactly 58 years ago and taken out to be shot. Seifert claimed in his book Všecky krásy světa [All the Beauties of the Earth] that while waiting to be shot he had no remarkable thoughts; he found a little bread and cheese in a pocket and shared it with a friend, he looked at a public toilet in the distance and remembered an obscene picture of a woman someone had drawn in it that had fascinated him as a boy, he wondered what people who weren’t being executed were having for lunch. After it was over, he forgot all about it, and didn’t think of it again for years.
“Whose version do we believe?” Slouka asks. “I suspect that the romantics among us (as well as the more conventionally and narrowly devout) side with Dostoevsky. And perhaps the rest of us do as well. How could a person not be touched, altered, by such an experience?… What of Seifert, then? Do we write off his amnesia as denial, debunk him with a pinch of Freud?… I think not. To do so, it seems to me, would be to assume that consciousness can be teased apart from its retelling, which it cannot…. It is also to forget a more intriguing and complicated truth: that we in some measure shape the events that befall us just as surely as we are shaped by them.”
He now goes in a direction that I will not reveal, since it would spoil a beautifully prepared surprise for those who read the full essay (which I hope you will; the issue is still on the stands). At the conclusion, he returns to his main theme:
Every retelling is inevitably a distortion, but that does not mean it is without value. We can’t help but tell the truth. Although we will never know what Dostoevsky experienced that December morning in Semenovsky Square, we can, from his retelling, with its particular fingerprint of stresses and omissions, learn a great deal about him. Although we will never know what Jaroslav Seifert really thought or felt standing against that wall (although he himself may no longer know—indeed, may never have known), we can see, with perfect clarity, what he wants us to believe he thought or felt. Nothing reveals us as clearly as our attempt to shape the past. Retrospection is, by definition, reflexive.
What our inadvertent self-portrait reveals, if we study it closely enough, is that our consciousness, rather than being shaped by a particular event, predated it. That we were, in a sense, anticipating it. That, to recall Kafka’s haunting insight, “the arrows fit exactly into the wounds” for which they were intended. Dostoevsky experienced what he did in Semenovsky Square because he was Dostoevsky. Because he already carried inside him, like a patient wound, the “cursed questions” he would seek to answer the rest of his life. Seifert, the poet of the quotidian and the small, thought about the things he did because he was Jaroslav Seifert, the man who, thirty-five years later, would write a book called All the Beauties of the Earth. Because, like Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, he gathered the things of this life, and let them fall at his feet. The experience, in other words, was already prepared for him by the time he got there. As it is, to some extent, for all of us.
I suppose both sides in the Truth in Blogging debate can find ammunition here. The adherents of “alibis and consistent lies” can point to “We can’t help but tell the truth” and say “You see, that’s what I’m trying to tell you: it doesn’t matter how ‘accurate’ my words are, they tell the truth about me and how I see the world.” I, on the other hand, am struck by the extreme nature of the experience described by such different people with such different attitudes towards it, and I am intensely interested in how the experience of knowing you’re about to die is described by someone who was there, who felt it, and the fact that different people felt different things simply adds to the interest. I don’t believe you can accurately imagine such an experience, any more than you can imagine combat or giving birth without having been there. True, most things that bloggers write about are far less extreme in nature, but it still makes a difference to me whether you are writing from knowledge or from imagination. I have no desire to constrain what people write about, and I can thoroughly enjoy a completely invented description (I’ve written them myself); all I ask is that you give me some hint so I can know what I’m reading and respond accordingly. There is a difference between fiction and history, despite the easy and fashionable contempt of some who consider themselves above such petty concerns.