The Maelstrom in Dostoevsky

His position at that moment was like the position of a man standing over a frightful precipice, when the earth breaks away under him, is rocking, shifting, sways for a last time, and falls, drawing him into the abyss, and meanwhile the unfortunate man has neither the strength nor the firmness of spirit to jump back, to take his eyes from the yawning chasm; the abyss draws him, and he finally leaps into it himself, himself hastening the moment of his own perdition.1  (The Double, 1846, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

I live under the influence of feelings just past, under the influence of fresh memories, under the influence of all this recent whirl, which drew me into that turbulence then, and threw me out of it again somewhere. It still seems to me at times that I’m spinning in the same whirl, and that the storm is about to rush upon me, snatch me up with its wing in passing, and I will again break out of all order and sense of measure, and spin, spin, spin… (The Gambler, 1867, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

In that whirl in which I then spun, though I was alone, without guide or counselor, I swear, I was already aware of my fall, and therefore had no excuse. And yet all those two months I was almost happy — why almost? I was only too happy! And even to the point that the consciousness of disgrace, flashing at moments (frequent moments!), which made my soul shudder — that very awareness — will anyone believe me? — intoxicated me still more: “And so what, if I fall, I fall; but I won’t fall, I’ll get out! I have my star!” I was walking on a slender bridge made of splinters, without railings, over an abyss, and it was fun for me to walk like that; I even peeked into the abyss. (The Adolescent, 1875, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)


  1. Compare Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym (1838): “The more earnestly I struggled not to think, the more intensely vivid became my conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall — to picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I felt my knees strike violently together, while my fingers were gradually yet certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in my ears, and I said, “This is my knell of death!” And now I was consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not, I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and, with a wild, indefinable emotion half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind — in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. I let go at once my grasp upon the peg, and, turning half round from the precipice, remained tottering for an instant against its naked face. But now there came a spinning of the brain; a shrill-sounding and phantom voice screamed within my ears; a dusky, fiendish, and filmy figure stood immediately beneath me; and, sighing, I sunk down with a bursting heart, and plunged within its arms.”