Art & Culture / Umění a kultura - Page 2

Dostoyevsky 125 years on: secret yearnings of the human soul


125 years ago on 9 February 1881 died arguably the most well-known Russian novelist in Europe, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (Фёдор Михайлович Достоевский). What should a today’s reader remember about him as a writer, thinker and a man?

In his vast work consisting of 11 novels, three novellas, 17 short stories and many other publications, Dostoyevsky depicted a staggering amount of social plots and characters. What they share is not just the urban and rural backdrop of the tsarist Russia, but Dostoyevsky’s ceaseless pursuit to understand the human soul. And no wonder, already during Belle Époque intellectual circles in European cafés considered that the Russians with their “great soul” are particularly apt at perceiving the fragile and complex fabric of our anima. The vastness of Siberia, chill of continental winters, and constant threat of a foreign invasion from several directions explains the emergence of tsarist autocracy. But perhaps it also led the Russians to start being strongly attuned to suffering and passing moments of happiness. In this Dostoyevsky’s writing is exemplary: with the same blow, his work can put the human soul at the top of a pedestal of virtue and ethics, only to strike it down the very next moment to the abyss of despair, insanity, or petty day-to-day maliciousness.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s last novel, is such a work. Sons to a debauched father, who spent his life as a womanizer and careless buffoon, capture in their personalities different aspects of Russian character. Dmitri seems like the national archetype, a sensualist with a short temper but a warm heart, contrasting him to the haughty intellectual Ivan, who is actually concerned for humanity to such an extent that it leads him to reject God as the ultimate cause of grief and misery. Dostoyevsky’s Christian ideal is clearly Representation in the third brother, caring Alyosha. Alyosha does not deny there is suffering, but he tries to sublimate it through help, compassion, and perceiving the good even in the shades of darkness.

In The Brothers Karamazov, human yearnings reach their full play. The seductive beauty of Grushenka, a woman whose abuse by a Polish officer had led her to torment men, sparks off a vicious struggle between a son and father for her attention. Proud and beautiful Katerina, on the other hand, is trying to save her fiancé Dmitri from himself. Even if that means creating a barrier between her and Ivan, all the while the two of them share an actual, yet hidden love. Next to these colourful characters, Alyosha’s good nature might seem to go to such extents that his personality is almost disappearing in the background. This draws a parallel between him and Count Myshkin, the hero of another Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot. Both are Dostoyevsky’s answer to what he saw as problems of his time: that a lot of suffering comes from the fact that one gives in too greatly to human passions and relies on rationality alone to solve complex social ills. The political manifestation of this was, for Dostoyevsky, nihilism and socialism, as portrayed on the revolutionaries of The Possessed.  The effort to uproot and reorganise all social structures is only one consequence of deeper forces at play in the human psyché.

Our Russian author tried to demonstrate that we eternally, perpetually yearn for bliss, satisfaction, and perfection, while the struggle to reach them here and now fuels rifts, conflicts, and creates even more destruction. My happiness might be your doom, as Dmitri realises as his madness deepens from the thought that Grushenka may “fall into his father’s clutches”. The ancient Greeks understood this very well too, but, unlike Dostoyevsky, they saw the conflict as without a resolution and not needing any higher justification than itself. Life could be regarded as beautiful still, because its greatness and its misery portray one whole, in a kind of a piece of art that is tragedy. In one of the highly memorable quotes from The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri observes that “[t]he awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Dostoyevsky therefore agrees with the premise that human passions clash; even in beauty darkness and the light are intertwined. Yet for him this conflict can be reconciled in God, specifically in (Orthodox) Christianity. While human beings cannot entirely forgive injustices, Christ did and can. The best one can do, Dostoyevsky believes, is therefore approximating our behaviour to the Christian ideal, which is the background of the characters of Myshkin and Alyosha. Their strength of character is not supposed to be “diminished”, but to offer a glimpse of a different form of acting: understanding and letting people reach their potential for goodness, rather than making a constant effort to impose one’s will and subject others to the individual’s schemes and plans.

In Ivan, who represents Western modernity, we are offered strong rebukes to Orthodox Christianity. Ivan rejects Christianity, because even if God existed, he says, he could not love humanity at all: meaningless pain and sorrow that he creates are without an excuse, particularly for children who could not yet even commit any sin. Chapter 4 of the book contains this horrifying paragraph, narrated by Ivan to Alyosha:

“There was a little girl of five who was hated by her mother and father. . . . This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy [outhouse], and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!

Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark in the cold and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?”

Where was God then? asks Ivan. To press this point further, he also tells to Alyosha a Biblical apocrypha about the figure of a grand inquisitor—which since then became known as a story on its own. (The reader can see it below in the riveting performance of John Gielgud in the 1975 short film from the Open University.)

In this story, which is happening during the times of Spanish inquisition, Christ once again walks the earth, performing miracles. But the grand inquisitor puts him behind the bars, claiming that Jesus interrupted their work. He is not needed; he is actually the reason behind human misery, the inquisitor tells him. Instead of offering to humans bread, guidance in the form of earthly rule, and certainty of afterlife, he only gave them freedom. And that freedom, the inquisitor says, is good for nothing, because it cannot satiate passions and needs. With freedom, human beings will only go after each other’s necks. Perhaps Christ therefore did not love humanity at all, when he put on them such otherworldly demands, Ivan and the grand inquisitor say together. To that Jesus replies only by a kiss.

I will leave the reader to make his or hers own conclusions. What is clear is that the author of The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or short stories such as The Meek One or The Gambler was always dominated by the quest to understand what is happening in human minds, hearts and souls. Perhaps this might give us a few thoughts to ponder about even in the digital 21st century?

-Stanislav Máselník

(updated on 19 February 2016)

Grave of the Fireflies

On 9th December at age 85 died Akiyuki Nosaka (野坂 昭如), an author of story Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓), which earned him a prestigious literary award Naoki. Born in 1930 in the former imperial capital of Kamakura, not far from Tokyo, Akiyuki Nosaka lived through the death of his mother and then of his adoptive parents, who perished during the 1945 American air raids. He and his younger sister were firebombed out of their homes, and she then died by starving to death. Writing Grave of the Fireflies, Nosaka said, was his way of making peace with his past and overcome guilt over some less worthy aspects of his wartime behaviour.

Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList
Akiyuki Nosaka, © MyDramaList

Probably unknown to many a European, this captivating tale has much to say, precisely during such merry time as Christmas holidays. The story of two orphans struggling through the penury of wartime Japan is based on Nosaka’s own childhood experience. Yet, it transcends its historical moment and shows that virtues and solidarity hold the greatest significance in harsh times. That is when they are put under test and that is when they have to play themselves out not just in words but also in deeds. Why not to remind ourselves of the importance of noble acts precisely during Christmas?

Most accessible introduction is in the book’s adaptation into a highly appraised anime of the same name from Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. Animation may at first seem like an odd choice for a ‘serious storyline’, but that is explained by the author himself. Nosaka thought that Grave of the Fireflies places such high expectations on two young protagonists, that an acted film would not fully capture the story (Shoten 1994, p. 8). The quality of the animation itself is spectacular, demonstrating smoothness and detail perfected in later Ghibli films as Secret World of Arrietty. In the first-ever such experiment in anime, most of the film’s illustrations are drawn with brown outlines and not in the customary black. While more difficult technically (brown does not provide such a good contrast as black), it fulfilled its purpose in giving Grave of the Fireflies very soft visual feel. On the one hand, that contrasts with the wartime havoc everywhere on the scene, on the other, it highlights the vulnerability of each of the characters. Fireflies are the story’s symbol for a reason: just as they brightly sparkle only for a while before vanishing, a similar fate might await the main child protagonists.

The fourteen-year old Seita and his four-year old sister Setsuko live in Kobe with their mother, while their father, a navy admiral, fights for Japan on the high seas. Yet, the whole city is soon burned to ashes as B-29 “Superfortress” bombers make a raid on their town. Separated from their mother, Seita discovers her afterwards in a school that serves as a makeshift infirmary, her whole body covered by bandages and with horrid, fatal burns. She dies soon after, but Seita decides not to tell his sister, not to cause her any pain. With so many dead, for the assistants in the infirmary, the mother is just ‘another rotting corpse’, which they make clear when they put her on one pile with other bodies destined for mass burial.

Isao Takahata, © Zimbio
Isao Takahata, © Zimbio

The siblings make their way to a distant aunt. But food is scarce, so Seita reluctantly parts with his mother’s last kimonos, to exchange them for rice. That only causes distress in the four-year old Setsuko, who holds to the clothes as they are the last tangible reminder of her mother’s warm and reassuring presence. Soon the aunt who was initially welcoming (particularly after they shared rice with her family), starts reminding them they are a burden on the household budget. They find themselves without rice and called lazy bums for not working to aid the war effort. A proud son to a navy admiral, Seita decides that a life will be better on their own and the siblings part to a cave not far from their aunt’s village. They are able to grow some plants and exchange some of their possessions for food, but that does not last long as the strain on local farmers pushes them to keep the provisions for themselves. Seita resorts to stealing, but even then Setsuko becomes increasingly more malnourished.

Without revealing the full story, the scenes above reveal a deep connection between the two siblings. That attachment is strengthened, not weakened in the wartime, and they both are forced to grow up very soon, which mirrors Akiyuki Nosaka’s own experience. The only person Seita can exchange words with is his sister, while Setsuko eventually becomes affected by the change in the environment as well as in her brother and assumes more motherly role at times. The story shows that Seita’s and Setsuko’s life is also full of bright moments – whether when playing on piano or when we see how Setsuko joyfully awaits her brothers return from ‘a food hunt’.

On the other hand, the ‘outside world’ becomes increasingly more hostile as people close up but to themselves. The pressing need for survival, thinning food rations and looming death pushes everyone to egoism and cynic neglect to the suffering of others, even to children. We see that many times in the film, whether in the opening scene when a dead child lying at the train station is ‘just another corpse,’ or an examination where the doctor shows complete ignorance as to the ability to survive of his young patient.

Nevertheless, the above does not make Grave of the Fireflies an anti-war film. In a way, the Japan’s war – which none of the characters in the film ever questions – possesses the capacity to bring both the best and the worst in people. Commenting the story, Nosaka spoke about his hate for the films ‘where the main character is placed into cruel situations for no other reason than to provide a cathartic focus for the audience’s sympathy’ (Shoten 1994, p. 10). For Seita and Setsuko, it is a very harsh journey, yet one which makes them extremely close. Most of other characters demonstrate almost complete lack of solidarity, although they might behave differently when it comes to their closest ones.

While the film happens in a wartime setting, its purpose is not to criticise war as such (which is distant, seen only in the form of falling bombs), but to show how people behave within it, together with the capacity for better and worse. War itself might be an inevitable human condition, but our individual behaviour within in – or during any strenuous times in general – depends on ourselves. Nosaka and Takahata are idealists in the sense of having high expectations for human comportment, even when they put their child characters in front of total misery, a force majeure. Symbolism of fireflies is apt. Life might not last long, the settings might be harsh, but it is the way each person takes up own behaviour, that makes up for its brightness. Akiyuki Nosaka’s Grave of the Fireflies and its anime adaptation by Isao Takahata give us exactly that reminder.

-Stanislav Máselník



Shoten, Tokuma (1994) Two Grave Voices in Animation. In : Animerica, vol. 2, n° 11, p. 6–11. Online :





On days like today it is hard to love one- and thyself, to still believe that people

are born to live and dream freely. I wonder what Rousseau would say of the chains

that we forged for ourselves in full, but willing ignorance.

We got too used to the fact that wars are not fought in our lands,

that guns do not sound in our towns and people do not die in our homes

in vain. They do.

Not just today, and not just here. We must see it clearly, and need to realize that

a hidden war is still a war even more when we close our eyes to stay

politically correct.


There have been countless wars, pointless wars,

even wars fiercely justified. All of them unfair wars.

Tell me though, who ever fights fair?

No man is ever prepared for war and

you see, to say there is a war does not solve anything.

For years now we have been ignoring the rest of the world,

happy to stay in our growing bubble of lies and political machinations.

So many slaps in the face we brushed off and justified.


For years now, we have been hearing empty phrases:

Something needs to be done. But no one wants to begin

by saying: This is the problem. Terrorism started somewhere.                            It was our fault.

On days like today living in this place makes me sick down

to the very unknown pits of my stomach.

So this is the famous celebrated humanity? Remember, what it was again

we said that makes us human? What was it, which is proper to a man?


The logos, the laughter, the mourning, the shame, the clothes,

the vengeance, the art, the war, the power, the fear of death, the love,

the hatred.


The highly developed intelligence,

which we seem to have shed along the way, stupid enough

to let our politicians pretend the problems are far away (but really so big they clouded our minds)

It is the news and even more it is our very inner self who got shell-shocked,

who thought it was safe in its clever human form.

All this makes me want to crawl down on all four and lick salt of

kindly offered stones until my tongue bleeds out,                                   as bitter might be the only feeling

we still have left as

humans. The deer laugh at as now.


The first one: the history. No, we never learn. That is man’s trace;

The witchcraft will not save us from

our death. The self-pity will not save us from our guilt.

Wars, they will not be challenged by words.

(The world leaders condemn the killings.

the politicians condemn the killings,

the intellectuals condemn the killings,

the media condemn the killings.)

If only condemnation could be enough.


We need to condemn our inability

to unify

to communicate

to act.

We need to say our fears and keep our heads up,

start to speak out loud, as citizens, as Europeans, as people.


Two: logos. The language that we speak

(all those words). So many languages you stand in awe of,

facing beautiful, beautiful vowels rolling off strangers’ tongues

that you will never be able to pronounce or understand.

So many words but we do not talk to each other. We do not dare to

talk of things that matter to us because that might hurt, the realisation that

The world is not perfect. That not everyone is made equal.

That buying things does not pave the way to happiness. That problems

Will not go away just because we do not name them.

That there are different religions, and different races, and different cultures.

That we all live here, now, and we want to live here then and we want to

travel and show our children what the world is like. We need to work this out,

differently, and not tomorrow.


Third: the capacity to feel shame.

We are very good at being ashamed of the wrong things: of our feelings

betraying us in public, of our weaknesses: the petty secret milk and sugar cravings

in the middle of the night, of nudity: hiding our scrotums instead of

being grateful that our bodies still do not give up on us.

Who is not ashamed of the things we have not done?

I say:

Shame on us             for all the hatred we sow and we now reap

                                    for choosing weak leaders for our countries.

                                   for our indifference and comfortableness.

                                   for our proud blindness

                                                                                                  of the untouchable animal.








Alice Maselnikova

The Dark Barn 2015 art exhibition


We’re very happy to announce The European Strategist is now sponsoring and supporting The Dark Barn 2015 art exhibition.

This is a part of our on-going effort to promote Europe’s culture and art, both contemporary and old. The real value of art isn’t commercial – works of art show us different worlds and the truth they contain. They elevate our eyes to pierce through the ordinary and see the extraordinary. This aspect will be never accessible to those who see in art nothing but valuable merchandise to be bought and sold and boasted about in their social circles. Our view of art is therefore essentially “unmodern” and going against the calculating, commodity fetishist spirit of capitalism.

Now to the exhibition itself. Set in the rural context of Kladná Žilín in the Zlín region, Eastern Moravia, the exhibition is starting in July 2015. Presenting the works of over 15 international artists, the show is based around the concept of “anti-exposition”, and has been accepting submissions from both established artists, recent graduates and art enthusiasts.

Here’s an excerpt from the exhibition’s description:

“We do not like that too many artists today are exhibited solely based on their fame/name and in order to bring profit to the exhibiting gallery. Artworks are displayed only for the sake of being seen and without the quality of the work being questioned. It is all a Big Humbug and Show Off and a Bore and a Problem.

Dark Barn targets the opposite concept. The works will be displayed without the intention to be seen by anyone. It is a non-profit exhibition. No one will probably see it and it will not be widely advertised online.  (Yes, we get the point, it might as well not exist but let us not get too existential here.)”

The European Strategist also provided help with restoration of the exhibition premises.

You can find more information on the project’s web page.

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