DOSTOYEVSKY’S EMPATHY! (THE PARIS REVIEW)

BY LAURIE SHECK VIA THE PARIS REVIEW

 A WOODCUT BY FRITZ EICHENBERG FOR THE IDIOT, CA. 1940S.

A Few Facts   He wore five-pound shackles on his ankles every day for four years. This was in the prison camp in Omsk where he was serving out a sentence of hard labor after being convicted of sedition for being part of a revolutionary cell dedicated to the liberation of the serfs and freedom of the press.

For the seven months following his arrest, he’d been kept in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva, his cell window smeared with an oily paste to prevent any daylight from seeping through.

One morning he was suddenly taken to Semyonov Square, where he was given a white death-shirt to put on and allowed to kiss the cross. He was sixth in line for execution, with only minutes left to live, when the announcement came that the Czar had decided to spare the prisoners’ lives. Apparently this had been planned all along.
On the way to the prison camp, they stopped for the night in Tobolsk where a town bell had been sent into exile, convicted of ringing for seditious purposes. Its sentence was eternal silence.
In Tobolsk, he met a man who was chained to the wall. He had been chained there for eight years. The chain was seven feet long and extended from his sleeping pallet to the opposite wall. The man spent every day walking from the pallet to the wall and back. He said he didn’t mind. He showed where the chain attached to his underclothes, and the most comfortable way to lie down on the sleeping pallet. When he spoke, his voice was mild with a slight lisp. He said he had once been a government official.
It was in Omsk that the epileptic seizures began. They came mostly once or twice a month. Sometimes, though rarely, twice a day. They could lie dormant for as long as four months. After each seizure something in him grieved. Words blackened or grew muffled for days, sometimes a week, their distant contours alien and heavy. He tried but couldn’t lift them.
He wasn’t allowed a single book for almost four years. Except the Bible.

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READ MORE AT: Dostoyevsky’s Empathy

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