Updated: Sep 4, 2021
September 1, 2019
I am currently reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It's a big book. A very big book! I'm now almost halfway through - 347 pages in - and I'm suddenly reminded of crossing the desert...
What a fool I've been Wanting to get across the desert Rather than cross the desert
You see, I have long wished to add the reading of this novel to my list of completed books. I have desired to do this for many years, for more than two decades, in fact. I tried once in my thirties, and failed... The Dostoevsky book was just too much for me then. I was not yet up to the task of taking on this significant novel. Like when I was younger, and exploring in the desert, I was not then ready to go very far, or very alone, into the deep wastes. I wasn't prepared then to explore territories so unfamiliar and seemingly strange. I wasn't ready - or better yet, properly motivated - to cross either the great novel or the great desert - in a manner deserving of their significance and magnitude. And when I did try at that younger age, I was seeking only to get across...to add the fact of successful crossing to my list of places crossed and books complete. To check these achievements off my to-do lists. That is the difference between then and now, between my younger years as an adventurer and reader, and the older explorer I've become. The difference is the motive - for my reasons now to cross both the desert and this book are much better than before - my improved desire is to actually cross great wilderness spaces and great literary expanse, rather than to simply report that I'd done so. I am crossing now for the experience, rather than the achievement. I go to go - rather than to simply say I'd gone.
To want to simply cross off anything worthwhile is always an ignoble aim. I see that now... For I am now - in fact - after an end and not a journey. There's simply not enough time left for any lesser aim.
The end and not the journey
That's an old and tired-out phrase to be sure...but it's true. So true! This is because the book which I am currently reading - The Brothers Karamazov - is indeed hard...very hard. It's hard to read. It's also hard to carry, being enormous, and therefore very difficult to fit in the hand or hold while reading - which is intimidating. Plus, the translated Russian language is thick and dense. And the names... Oh, the names! They are positively impossible, unfamiliar, and seemingly inconsistent. Why, for example is the man - the elderly patron called Kuzma Kuzmitch - sometimes referred to as "Samsonov"? Or the woman, Agrafena Alexandrovna, called instead "Grushenka" (and what is the seemingly hidden meaning of this presumed nickname? Does "Grushenka" have some nuance in the context of 19th century Russian culture? I think it does... Though I do not yet understand what that nuance is). Another name - most difficult of all - is Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, the hero of the story, who is variously identified throughout the book as: Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka? What's up with these names! Such names are impossible for me to pronounce in the reading dialogue of my mind, as they make me stumble in my stream-of-thought. And they are harder still to remember! I practically need a name concordance for this novel just to keep track! But that is rather the point of reading such a book, is it not? For isn't the very difficulty of this challenge one of the best reasons to approach the landscape of so great a tale? To pass through a strange and unfamiliar place...to make such landscape and circumstance less alien and unfamiliar by virtue of a long stretch of exposure through deep, challenging reading? Isn't this very challenge the point of exploring such a great book in the first place? And isn't this also the very same reason I always go to the deep end of the desert? To wander there without maps. To explore only alone? The motives and rewards for both such adventures - literary and exploratory - are certainly the same.
And now, I see clearly the similarity between reading a novel like The Brothers Karamazov and crossing an empty desert by oneself. For, when I'm alone in the deep desert - trudging with difficulty across areas of nondescript sand and rock, towards some distant and nameless black volcanic peak - I often forget then my place by virtue of my focus on the mountain - the goal - which is my decided destination and the thing I've come to claim. I sometimes also neglect the journey, and the moments along the way, in anticipation of successful conclusion to my aim. I see and hold dear the end of my walk - with the promise of a someday-remembered conquest of a particular desert end - rather than the experience of the gaining of that end. And in the process, I so often miss the moments of passing desert distinctness and interest, the things and circumstance of the desert which I could not otherwise know but for the experience of that hard journey. The complex geology for instance, and the sight of ancient rocks layered and twisted and deformed, like the seemingly jumbled names of characters in a classic Russian novel. I stumble at such spots and twist a foot, and then forget the land or the sentence in my head. I sweat and feel mild delirium and confusion in the heat of my effort, and then neglect what is before me now, or what Alyosha just said to Grushenka. I complain and fuss and possibly turn back or even close and put down the book. And I ask myself then why I do this? Why did I come to such a place? Why do I read such a book? And - a deeper mystery in the moment - why do I always return?
When I have had almost too much of both the desert and the book, I wonder then aloud at how much further there is to go, how much desert yet to cross, how much book yet to read? I squint and gaze ahead to my distant desert volcanic peak, my goal - and then peek ahead to the end of The Brothers Karamazov, in order to spy out how many pages of this challenge remain to be endured (such a shameful - yet accurate - word to confess) before this unending work is done. But then something happens. And I remember why I came...why I do these things. It's when I encounter something special and distinct along the way - and I always do. When I find a rare - yet common - place within the desert - or the book - which captures my vision and mind. And I stop to reflect with gratitude for the place or circumstance or idea which I have found. I become grateful then for the effort of crossing the desert and the book. But not for the fact of crossing...but instead for the fact of going across. This discovery and gratitude are the same with both the desert and the novel. It is the crossing I've come for. Not the fact of getting across.
And I always find such places... Always.
One such place in the desert where I haunt - the Deep-Water Wilderness - is somewhere I call The Sandman's Bed, which I have described in my book Going Alone within the chapter titled The Anxiety Hike. There is such a place in The Brothers Karamazov too, within the short chapter titled "Cana of Galilee." But you must read the entire book to that point to understand - just as you must walk the full length of the desert sands to the point of The Sandman's Bed - if you are to truly perceive the sense of what Dostoevsky is trying to say, and convey, in Cana of Galilee, and to know what can truly be found within The Sandman's Bed. You must cross the difficult desert just as you must read the difficult book. You must travel through the hard places - which become less hard for the simple fact of the difficulty of their successful passage. You simply cannot have the destination without the journey. And when I realized this...when I saw how reading The Brothers Karamazov is like moving with confusion and some pain alone through my beloved desert...then I saw the whole book...like the entirety of the desert...for what such adventures truly are - a crossing, rather than something to get across.
My name is Kurt Bell.
You can learn more about The Good Life in my book Going Alone.
Be safe... But not too safe.