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Love and Hell

Russian Dostoevsky and French Jean-Paul Sartre are both great writers. The latter is more of a philosopher than a novelist, I’d say. Both have left indelible marks in the world of literature. But both have diametrically opposite attitudes towards human society. Sartre apparently hated people (except beautiful women). Hell is other people, he said. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, upheld love as the greatest virtue. Hell, for Dostoevsky, is the suffering caused by a person’s inability to love. 

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre thought of love as conflict. People in love try to control each other, he said. Lovers get trapped in vicious circles of sadomasochistic power games which are meant primarily for keeping the other from leaving you. Love is vulnerable precisely because the other person is free to leave you. Love cannot be forcibly extracted from anyone. But many people do just that: extract it. That’s why love becomes power games.

Dostoevsky would look upon Sartre with commiseration. But he was dead a quarter of a century before Sartre was born. Sartre was a man of the brain while Dostoevsky was a man of the heart. Sartre cerebrated, Dostoevsky celebrated life. I have found myself caught between the two. No wonder, I describe my blog as Cerebrate and Celebrate. [See the header.]

I want the personal freedom that Sartre offers to each one of us. I don’t like human societies much. I stay away. I stay aloof. Except in the classrooms where I teach. I have experienced hells while I tried to be a close part of human societies. I have nodded my head ferociously a million times in agreement with Sartre’s statement about hell being other people. 


Yet, Dostoevsky appeals more to me. What is life without love? If you choose to love, you choose to suffer too. Dostoevsky knew that. One of his unforgettable characters, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, put his brain above his heart and thought he would be a superior human being because of that. But he failed miserably in being even a human being, let alone a superior one. He was counselled by another character (who was driven to prostitution by poverty) to accept his crime, his guilt, his sin, and acknowledge his responsibility for all of mankind’s morality. You are responsible not only for your personal morality but that of the entire species. Your redemption lies in your ability to love others.

Of late, I often experience a strange urge to kneel down with my forehead on the earth and say ‘I am sorry.’ Sorry for not taking the responsibility for the evils of my species. I feel drawn to Dostoevsky now just as I felt drawn to Sartre earlier. I long to redeem myself.

PS. Written for Indispire Edition 440: Sartre said hell was other people. Dostoyevsky thought hell was the suffering caused by one's inability to love. Who are you more inclined towards? #Hell


  1. I often think of Sartre's quote 'Hell is other people' because I feel it's quite true. But I don't agree with the rest of it...that love is all about power games. I don't think power has a role to play in love. As for Dostoevsky's idea that love is a virtue, I'm not sure about that. But yes, I would agree that love brings misery all right.

    1. I often look back at my own experience while judging this sort of theories. There is a certain degree of manipulation in relationships, I'd say. It's not for power perhaps but out of one's insecurity feelings...

      Love is a virtue for me. A tough one too.

  2. Both are not mutually exclusive.

  3. Hari OM
    ...which demonstrates that we have all aspects to us and we may have to go through each phase to appreciate the other. The important lesson, ultimately, is to accept and grow, to expand ourselves as human beings. Love only brings misery if we assign a sense of ownership to it - which is then not love at all, but possession. That is Sartre's stance. Dostoesvsky, though, takes a rather more egalitarian and, perhaps, universal view of things. YAM xx

    1. Dostoevsky was a greater human being, I think, of the two. And a superior novelist too. So perhaps he stands taller.

  4. A well chosen theme. Social influence do have a strong hold in everyone of our lives mostly unknowingly. But, that doesn't stop us to live our lives in cages all cut out from other beings. We need to learn how to balance between the two.
    No doubt, I always favor love because much of our evils within us can be nullified if we hold the staff of love. Love in fact gives us freedom to do anything and take responsibility of what we do. On the other hand there is something called manipulation used in name of love..this is toxic. We should be able to identify this and leave. A worthy thoughtful post.

    1. Love is an experiment until one gets to know its depths. Power games happen because most people take a long while to learn its essential lessons. Some never learn too.

  5. I think Sartre's view is born out of a weird laziness: You don't want to deal with the realities of people and so you choose to opt out. But its like a cat chasing its tail; Unless you lean in and try, it will never work out. On the other hand, loving anything in this world is the path to a better you. The "suffering" is like little mounds of obstacles: challenges to our ego, conditioning and desires. They are speedbreakers on the road. When we realise the depth of love, we realise, love is in fact freedom.

    1. That's almost a mystical view. Yes, Sartre probably wouldn't wish undertake the trouble of enduring mediocre mortals merely because he didn't know how to love them.


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