No Regrets

I have very fond memories of Dostoevsky’s White Nights. Despite the novella’s blatant ridicule of sentimentality and Romanticism, I felt drawn to the dreamer who went through life clinging to his imagination. I too imagine conversations with houses and create life stories for strangers I meet on the street. This dreamer was a kindred spirit.

The White Nights of St. Petersburg

That’s why I remember being disappointed that Dostoevsky portrayed this archetype in such a tragic light, lonely and alienated from the world. To Dostoevsky’s proto-realist mind, a dreamer was “a Petersburg nightmare, it is sin incarnate, it is a tragedy.” A person needs to invest themselves in society to have meaning in their life and to live separate from it would result in a sort of spiritual death.

As a frequent dreamer myself, I found myself concerned by this diagnosis. Was I estranged from reality? Is burying myself in the humanities my own form of escapism? But what of the worlds of Anne of Green Gables and The Little Princess? In this debate between Romanticism and Realism, I know where I stand and yet how do I defend the imagination against an argument that is equally true?

I recently reread White Nights and this passage jumped out at me:

“You ask yourself: where are your dreams now? And you shake your head and say how swiftly the years fly by! And you ask yourself again: what have you done with your best years, then? Where have you buried the best days of your life? Have you lived or not? Look, you tell yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. The years will pass and after them will come grim loneliness, and old age, quaking on its stick, and after them misery and despair. Your fantasy world will grow pale, your dreams will fade and die, falling away like the yellow leaves from the trees… Ah, Nastenka! Will it not be miserable to be left alone, utterly alone, and have nothing even to regret — nothing, not a single thing… because everything I have lost was nothing, stupid, a round zero, all dreaming and no more!”

When I was younger I decided that my life goal would be to die with no regrets. Of all the vague all-encompassing goals out there, I thought this one would take care of everything. It ensured that I would be a good person, chase after the things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and most of all, have the strength to accept the mistakes that I will inevitably make. But I think Dostoevsky’s take is extremely interesting, the idea that having something to regret means you actually have something you value in life. There are things worse than regret: apathy – to have nothing to care about in the real world.  

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with dreams and imagination. The trouble comes when it gets in the way of your ability to love life. Dreaming becomes hazardous when the brilliance of the fantasies makes the world seem dull in comparison and causes one to be apathetic towards real  experiences. Anne Shirley and Sara Crewe are such beautiful characters because they so dearly love the world and use their imaginations to find the nuggets of goodness within it whereas the dreamer of White Nights lives a desolate existence in which his best memories are only figments of his imagination.

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2 thoughts on “No Regrets

  1. I remember way back when you and I had a conversation about living life with no regrets, and I thought that your take on it was absolutely brilliant, so I too, adopted that as my life philosophy so to speak.

    But now, reading this, I realize that maybe having regrets is a good thing.
    I refuse to be a copy-catting little tail though… so alas. hahaha 🙂

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