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Astrological Profiles

Dostoevsky: Born on the 11th Day of the 11th Month [by David Lehman]

Brothers K

Born on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1821, a Scorpio with Sagittarius ascendant and the moon in Gemini, Fyodor Dostoevsky was, according to Father Zossima, a prophet greater than all his sons, including the immortal Karamazovs: the saintly Alyosha; the brilliant Ivan; and Dmitri, the sensualist, who is the customer that commercials have in mind when they advertise the happiness of bottles of beer on a beach.

Dusty taught Nietzsche a thing or two about suicidal nihilism and the mirage of total permission granted by an absent deity. In Crime and Punishment, he perfected the inverted detective story, in which the culprit commits the crime before our eyes and it’s only a matter of time before the detective nabs him and send him to Siberia.  The transcendent spirit of Christianity, known only to those compulsive sinners who have descended to rock bottom, pervades Dostoevsky’s novels. He has the craziness of the true believer. Murder is forgivable; a loveless marriage, isn’t.

Nowhere is the gap between the writer and the man wider than it is with the author of The Brothers Karamazov.  The books are sublime, but the man’s behavior was beneath contempt. Thomas Mann, who admired Dostoevsky’s work, wrote, “In foreign countries, in Baden-Baden and in Wiesbaden, where he had to flee from his creditors, he tried to ameliorate his impoverishment by gambling, only in most instances to complete his ruin. Then he would write begging letters in which he speaks the language of misery of the most depraved characters of his novels.” Somerset Maugham, another admirer, wrote, “Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant.”

Strakhov said: In Switzerland, in my presence, he treated his servant so badly that the man revolted and said to him: “But I too am a man!"

Dostoevsky suffered from epileptic fits (see The Idiotbut did well in his examinations though he loathed mathematics. On April 23, 1849, the twenty-seven-year-old Dostoevsky was arrested for belonging to a group of crazy liberal loudmouth intellectuals. He was sent to Siberia, was sentenced to be executed, and faced a firing squad in the freezing rain. But it turned out to be a mock execution and Dostoevsky went back to his cell the shape and size of a coffin convinced that it is better and wiser to be a saintly fool in Siberia than to pimp in St. Petersburg. Released in 1854, he wrote Crime and Punishment in a hurry because he needed the money to cover his gambling debts. He was a compulsive gambler. He borrowed and lost thousands and thousands of Roubles. Confronted by Sartre on the matter of his anti-Semitism, he reminded the Frenchman that he was not alone in this particular vice, naming Ezra Pound and Edgar Degas as similarly stupid on the subject of Jews.

IdiotThere are three key psychological facts to consider about Dusty:

(1) He could have died but didn't.

(2) Like the survivor of a game of Russian roulette, he became a gambling addict. He lost and lost and lost. He had no shame. He begged for money and promptly squandered it at the tables.

(3) The silver lining is that, to pay off his debts, he wrote his majestic novels.

Or, in the form of a tanka, two haiku conjoined by a two-line stanza, seven syllables per line:

In Siberia,
sixth in line to be shot, he
lived to tell the tale.

Life was a gamble and he
couldn’t stop gambling; he lost,

lost more, borrowed, lost           
most, wrote books to pay debts; lost,
debts, books, debts, books; debts.

Brothers k2There are, according to the Passover Haggadah, four sons: wise, wicked, simple, and clueless.  Dostoevsky amends that. The sons fall into four categories: the beautiful idiot, the intellectual who kills himself, the guy you’d like to have beers with, and the bastard who believes that the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.

Natasha Issacher likes to say you can understand the history of nineteenth century Russia by reading two books, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  George Steiner observed that Tolstoy was epic, Dostoevsky, dramatic. Tolstoy believed in history, the people, and the crimson sunrise.  Dostoevsky believed in the soul of a peasant. Tolstoy arrived at humility by logic; Dostoevsky, out of desperation.

In War and Peace, the growth of Pierre’s consciousness begins when he overcomes his youthful enthusiasm for Napoleon.  But the Corsican military genius who crowned himself emperor remained the model for young men who believed that success proceeded not from lineage but from will. If neither the army nor the clergy allowed him to rise, he would nevertheless climb ladders to reach his lady’s boudoir; he might be poor but theoretically he could be a genius, whose every act is justified because it was he who committed it.  Behind the formation of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, as behind Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, stands the Little Corporal who equaled the French Revolution itself in importance. Napoleon made the whole century happen either in his name or against it.

Crime & PunishmentDostoevsky's birth pattern -- a full house, with only one empty chamber -- is replicated exactly on the second day of August 1914. On this slender bit of stellar evidence, Lucy Garnet spun out Backstory, the six-part series based on the fantasy that World War I was a bloody allegory of the Gotterdammerung that hangs over every page of The Brothers Karamazov.  

The celestial mechanics of Saturn, Neptune, and Pluto intimate that Dostoevsky’s birth would coincide with the end of a war, and indeed, the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, which would have been the novelist's ninety-seventh birthday.  From the last page of Garnet’s Backstory:

The men crowded around the ashtray. The bloodshed had ceased. The flu that succeeded it was deadly. The ambassador fumed. If only the ministers of war and culture had heeded the warnings of The Grand Inquisitor. Peace would have come four years sooner if, in the prison of his days, the free man had learned to praise. The mood was grim. The German minister smoked a Turkish cigarette in a jade holder. "Nothing ever happens in Brussels," he shrugged.


The more you learn about Dusty, the less savory he is: a reactionary; an anti-Semite. He betrayed you, me, anyone. To Turgenev, who had lent him money, he said, “I despise myself profoundly,” but couldn’t resist adding, “‘But I despise you still more.” What an asshole. Nevertheless the pathos was real; he understood that a widow might make her children dance on the street for an extra kopek. The sphere of the novelist’s soul exceeded that of his consciousness. In Papa Karamazov he devised the universally despised victim, the ideal corpse. Which of the three brothers did it, or was there a fourth?

E. M. Forster wrote that George Eliot was a preacher while Dostoevsky was a prophet. As proof, he focused on a singular moment in The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri Karamazov, accused of killing the old man, has strange dreams that leave him oddly refreshed and grateful to his prison captors who made him comfortable when he slept. It is (though Forster doesn’t put it this way) at this precise moment that Dostoevsky takes over your mind and fills it with the most paranoid impulses soothed by the benevolent kiss of a woman with the heart of a whore.

Therefore, on the day of Dusty’s death, in graveyards in the Ukraine and Byelorussia, in Latvia and Estonia, I urge school children in tatters to join me and shout, "Hooray for Karamazov!"

-- David Lehman


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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