Room with a View|Sep 20, 2011 4:08 AM| by:

Free Minds Think Alike

Boris Pasternak’s classic novel Doctor Zhivago is set in a turbulent period in Russia, beginning before the First World War and ending after the Second World War, tracking one of the important, uncertain periods for the country. The novel traces the growing up of the protagonists all along the period, projecting their individualities and how their rooted personalities help to shape their decisions and lives, as interconnected individuals.

Generally, to create fictional characters with characteristic thoughts, mannerisms and personalities, it is possible that the writer would have drawn on people he has known, including himself, so it is possible to find the author’s psychological stamp in his fictional characters. One cannot be sure how much of Zhivago is Pasternak. But when a writer decides to sculpt a character with unique views contrary to the time, it must be possible that the writer shares those opinions and thought process.

Nevertheless, I will share some of these path breaking views of Pasternak that he presents through Yurii Andreievich or Doctor Zhivago. Doing so, I would like to draw a comparison of these views with one of the important philosopher of recent times, J. Krishnamurti.

Through the character of Yurii Andreievich or Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak weaves a beautiful treatise on inner freedom, the kind of freedom that insulates a person from worldly cares, at the same time presenting to him a different vision of the world around him. Yuri Andreievich’s inner freedom makes him an uncommon soul, also being the prime factor behind all his ideas and thoughts be it on the revolution, life or death, his love for nature, his insights on everyday life, and also his extraordinary love for Lara. His most recognized diagnostic skill as a doctor also becomes evident in his view on the world around him. This also seems to stem from his inner being which has a “gift of seeing everything at a glance”.

Pasternak introduces Yurii Andreievich in a very straight forward way, bringing forth his uniqueness.

“He had the same aristocratic sense of equality with all living creatures and the same gift of taking in everything at a glance and of expressing his thoughts as they first come to him and before they had lost their meaning and vitality.” (p.7)

“He believed in behaving simply and honestly according the circumstances in which life placed him.” (p.116)

This seems to be a very ideal description of a man with a unique sense of freedom.

“Freedom comes only when you see and act, never through revolt. The seeing is the acting and such action is as instantaneous as when you see danger. Then there is no cerebration, no discussion or hesitation.” (J. Krishnamurthi, Freedom from the Known (p.90))

“To understand there must be a mind that is simple, not an innocent mind, but which that perceives directly, and not translates it according to its conditioning.”( J. Krishnamurthi, Social Responsibility, p.43)

 Yuri makes a simple diagnosis for the society’s problems:

“There is something in common between the disturbances in the moral and in the physical world, on the ground and in the air.” (p.192)

“So the first thing is to realize that the world’s problem is individual problem and my problem, the world’s process is not separate from the individual process”. ( J. Krishnamurthi, Social Responsibility, p.30)

When Yuri comes to know of the formation of a Soviet of People’s Commissars and establishment of dictatorship of proletariat in Russia, he hails it with such expressions as:
“a real stroke of genius”, “a new paragraph, a new page”, “a marvel of history” , that exploded right in the middle of daily life. (p.195)

But he is forced to take a different opinion of the revolution after witnessing all the confusions and uncertainties which the country was facing for quite a long time.

Yuri argues with the commander of the partisan group on the absurdity of the revolution:

“Reshaping life! People who can say that have never understood a thing about life—they have never felt its breath, its heart beat—however much they have seen or done. They look on it as a lump of raw material that needs to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch. But life is never a material, a substance to be molded. If you want to know, life is the principle of self renewal, it is constantly renewing and remaking and changing and transfiguring itself, it is infinitely beyond your or my obtuse theory about it”. (p.338)

He tells Lara:

‘There are limits to everything. In all this time, something definite should have been achieved. But it turns out that those who have inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil, they aren’t happy with anything that’s on less than world scale. For them transitional periods, worlds in the making are an end in themselves. They aren’t trained in anything else, they don’t know anything except that. It’s because these men haven’t real capacities, they are incompetent. Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself, the phenomenon of life, the gift of life is so breathtakingly serious.” (p.297)

It takes a much centered mind to view life and the circumstances it presents. How beautifully he brings out the fact that we forget to live in the present and always make plans for abstract future.

“You have an idea of what is right or wrong, or an individual concept about yourself and society, and according to that idea you are going to act.

There is an idea, the interval and action. And in that interval is the whole field of time. That interval is essentially thought. When you think you will be happy tomorrow, then you have an image of yourself achieving a certain result in time. Thought, though an observation, through desire, and the continuity of that desire sustained by further thought, says, ‘Tomorrow I shall be happy. Tomorrow I shall have success. Tomorrow the world will be a beautiful place.’ ” (J. Krishnamurthi, Freedom from the Known, p.98)

“Life is very real- life is not an abstraction- and when you meet it with images there are problems.”(J. Krishnamurthi)

“The people you worship go in for proverbs, but they’ve forgotten one proverb- ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’- and they’ve got into the habit of liberating and showering benefits on just those people who haven’t asked for them.” (p.339)

“It is so strange that these people who once liberated mankind from the yoke of idolatry, and so many of whom now devote themselves to its liberation from injustice, should be incapable of liberating themselves from their loyalty to an obsolete, antediluvian identity that has lost all meaning…”(p.300)

“As long as you are fighting over ideas, systems, there cannot be a true, radical revolution; there cannot be a fundamental social transformation. Ideas do not transform people. What brings about transformation is freedom from ideas. Revolution based on ideas is no longer revolution, but merely a continuation of the past in a modified state. Obviously that is not a revolution.” ( J. Krishnamurthi, Social Responsibility, p.69)

After spending several years in the east, during the bitter period of turmoil in his country, and also severe personal traumas, he returns to Moscow and meets his friends. He makes the following observations on their inability to think with freedom and to guide conversations at will.

“Both Gordon and Dudorov moved among cultured academicians; they spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers and good music. They did not possess the gift of eloquence.”

“To Zhivago, their unconscious motives, their artificial emotionalism, and their strained reasoning were transparent. But he could hardly say to them: Dear friends, how desperately common place you are – you and your circle, the names and the authorities you quote, their glamour and art you so much admire!” (p.481)

Dudorov’s pious platitudes were in the spirit of the times. But it was precisely their conformism, their transparent sanctimoniousness that exasperated Yurii Andreievich. Men who are not free, he thought, always idealize their bondage.” (p.482)

“Education, instead of awakening you to creative responsibility, is turning you to be specialists along different lines. You are educated you cease to be individuals with deep significance. The more you are educated, the more you are conditioned; the more you read, the more you repeat, and so the less you are capable of revolutionary thinking.”

Organised society takes away individual responsibility; it makes him conform. And society, the State becomes more important than the individual.” ( J. Krishnamurthi, Social Responsibility, p.45)

“Having lost touch with nature we naturally tend to develop intellectual capacities. We quote endlessly from other people’s ideas and think and talk a great deal about art.”

“If you are directly in contact with nature; if you watch the movement of a bird on the wing, see the beauty of every movement of the sky, watch the shadows on the hills or the beauty on the face of another, do you think you want to go to any museum to look at a picture?” ” (J. Krishnamurthi, Freedom from the Known, p.121)

Yuri Zhivago is an artist, a poet and a philosopher. He is able to attend to nature’s beauty with affection, simplicity and compassion. He is able to appreciate the significance of nature – woods, birds, and rivers, even in the dreariest of the physical and emotional circumstances, awakening in him a sort of primordial strength.

“Ever since his childhood Yurii Andreievich had been fond of woods seen at evening against the setting sun. At such moments he felt as if he too were being pierced by shafts of light. It was as though the gift of living spirit was streaming into his breast, piercing and coming out at his shoulders like a pair of wings.” (p.343)

When he is on the way back to Moscow, leaving the east for good:

“The woods and the fields offered a complete contrast in those days. Deserted by man, the fields looked orphaned as if his absence had put them under a curse. The forest however, well rid of him, flourished proudly in freedom as though released from captivity. (p.467)

“The fields appeared to him as something seen in the fever of a dangerous illness, and the woods, by contrast in the lucidity of health regained. God, so it seemed to him dwelled in the woods, while the fields echoed the sardonic laughter of the devils.” (p.468)

To me, the field and forest seem to represent the mind-cultivated and free mind respectively. Fields represent the minds made to conform through cultivation and cramming of ideals not owned by them. These deserted fields represent the plight of the people who had caught up with the ideology of revolt and new order, but who are still at a loss of establishing it.

On the contrary the woods represent the free mind, free thought, which has no fear of authority, no dependence and is original, not cultivated.

The freedom of thought that Yuri so divinely possesses, gives him rare insights on dreams and emotions such as anger, jealousy and most importantly love, as though he can see all that is happening inside him, completely. His mind comes upon that extraordinary love in Lara without seeking it. That makes it so unique and totally free and there is no bondage, no feeling of possession or influence. It rather becomes a love that inspires. He connects Lara to existence itself.

“You could not communicate with life and existence, but she was their representative, their expression, in her the inarticulate principle of existence became sensitive and capable of speech.”(p.391)

To him, “Everything about her was perfect, flawless.” (p.391)

 He is enchanted by the same gracefulness in everything she does; it seems to follow a same momentum, easily, naturally.

They thrive in the joy of being near each other and also part of each other with a complete understanding as befits soul mates.

“We’ll say good bye to everything we hold dear, to the way we look at things, to the way we’ve dreamed of living and to what our conscience has taught us, and to our hopes and to each other.” (p.429)

On Zhivago’s death, Lara remembers the “spontaneous mutual understanding, warm, instinctive, immediate” that they always shared. She says:

“The riddle of life, the riddle of death, the enchantment of genius, the enchantment of unadorned beauty – yes, yes, these things are ours. But small worries of practical life – things like reshaping of the planet – these things, no thank you, they are not for us.” (p.502)

“Love is something that is new, fresh, alive. It has no yesterday and no tomorrow. It is beyond the turmoil of thought. It is only the innocent mind which knows what love is, and the innocent mind can live in the world which is not innocent.

It means that you are not seeking, not wanting, not pursuing; then there is no centre at all. Then there is love.” (J. Krishnamurthi, Freedom from the Known, p.117, 118)

This quality of love flowers when Freedom is the natural, innocent state of the being.

There is one more important quality of a person with inner freedom – aloneness. Aloneness that is completely different from loneliness or isolation.

“This solitude is an inward state of mind which is not dependent on any stimulus or any knowledge and is not result of any experience or conclusion.” (J. Krishnamurthi, Freedom from the Known, p.91)

This involves understanding the necessity of living with yourself as you are. All through the novel, one can see Yuri Andreievich is alone in the midst of company of any sort – his family, work, war, revolution. His freedom is a state of mind that implies not just a certain aspect of one’s life but freedom right through; without a cause.

It is the sheer genius of Boris Pasternak to sculpt this unique personality with all the qualities requisite of harboring this priceless freedom. By drawing up connections with J. Krishnamuthi’s ideas on freedom, I have only attempted to point out how I was drawn to believe that the prime argument by Pasternak in the novel centers on the importance of the inner freedom of the individual. By presenting this unique protagonist, it seemed he is stressing the importance of inner freedom of the people as a necessary precursor for a real revolution.  And what could be a more suitable setting to place this personality in – a period of turmoil, physical, moral, psychological trauma of displacement and a test of fire for the sense of freedom.

Interestingly I was also reminded of the famous words of Rabindranath Tagore, where he prays for a similar kind of freedom when his countrymen are fighting to be free of suppression and foreign rule.

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where the knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up in to fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out of the depths of truth
Where timeless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
In the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee
Into ever widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake”

Smitha Vasudevan

  • http://Website Madhava Rao

    This is an inspiring study. Fear of losing the known is in fact the so called fear of death.