On the importance of pressure for creative pursuits, and how the things that set us back could help us advance.
No pressure, no diamonds.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, the hero by the name of Edmond Dantès is imprisoned in the dark dungeon of an island fortress. As the story progresses, Dantès discovers that there is another prisoner in the cell next to his. It turns out that this prisoner, Abbé Faria, is a genius who can speak five languages, knows hundreds of books by heart, and has written a political treatise using writing materials he devised out of anything he could find in the dungeon. Confined with nothing to do, his mind worked harder than ever before. Dantès wonders what he could have achieved if he was free. The answer? Probably nothing:
“What are you thinking about?” asked the abbé smilingly, imputing the deep abstraction in which his visitor was plunged to the excess of his awe and wonder.
“I was reflecting, in the first place,” replied Dantès, “upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained;—if you thus surpass all mankind as a prisoner, what would you have accomplished as a free man?”
“Possibly nothing at all;—the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty and danger to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence. Pressure is required, you know, to ignite powder: captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged. You know that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced and from electricity comes the lightning from whose flash we have light amid our greatest darkness.”
Dumas’s story is imaginary, but the principle it outlines has been shown to be true. On the 23rd of April, 1849, at the age of 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky and his fellow conspirators from the Petrashevsky circle were arrested by the order of Tsar Nicholas I for the crime of reading banned literature and attempting to set up a revolutionary printing press. After a mock execution, they were sent to a hard labor camp in Siberia, where, as Dostoevksy writes: “All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall … We were packed like herrings in a barrel … There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs … Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel.” The prisoners had to suffer unendurably freezing winters, their hands and feet shackled for the duration of their sentence.
And yet… five years later, when Dostoevsky gained his freedom, he produced works that far surpassed his first novels, becoming classics of world literature. The suffering and the confinement of the Siberian camp has concentrated his mind like nothing else could. In fact, in The Brothers Karamazov, one of the principal characters, the hedonistic Dmitry Karamazov, makes a telling comment on the misfortune of his own sentencing:
“I understand now that someone like me requires a blow, a blow of fate, in order to capture him, as in a lasso, and bind him by external force. Never, never would I have risen by myself! But thunder struck. I accept the torment of my charge and my national disgrace, I want to suffer and I will cleanse myself through my suffering!”
For Dostoevsky, being sent to a hard labor camp was certainly not a great turn of events. Besides having to suffer unimaginable mental anguish, it left a terrible mark on his physical health. But it wasn’t fruitless. Every setback, every misfortune carries with it something positive—if only the opportunity to practice your virtues and build character. Dostoevsky took his experiences, and transformed them into the best works of his life. Almost 100 years later, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned by Stalin’s regime and sent to the Gulag, where he would remain for 11 years. Once again, wounded but unbroken, the writer took his experiences and forged from them magnificent works of literature.
In his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust makes a similar observation, albeit about circumstances that are nowhere near as extreme. Proust writes about a Mme de Villeparisis. Mme de Villeparisis is what’s known as a bluestocking—a female intellectual. She is not as popular as some other society ladies, which means that she doesn’t always get invited to the best parties. But while she might find this disappointing, Proust points out that being stuck at home has its advantages as it gives her the time to write, which she does with great skill. In fact, were she invited to more parties, she might never have written anything at all. From “The Guermantes Way”:
Furthermore, the salons of the Mme de Villeparisis of this world are alone destined to be handed down to posterity, because the Mme Lerois of this world cannot write, and, if they could, would not have the time. And if the literary dispositions of the Mme de Villeparisis are the cause of the disdain of the Lerois, in its turn the disdain of the Lerois does a singular service to the literary dispositions of the Mme de Villeparisis by affording those bluestocking ladies that leisure which the career of letters requires. God, whose will it is that there should be a few well-written books in the world, breathes with that purpose such disdain into the hearts of the Mme Lerois, for he knows that if these should invite the Mme Villeparisis to dinner, the latter would at once rise from their writing tables and order their carriages to be round at eight.
Just as Dumas writes about Abbé Faria, the overflow of a Villeparisis’s brain “would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies.” Without some kind of pressure to concentrate our mind and with the freedom to distract ourselves, it is difficult to produce anything great.
Writing about “the spirit of War,” Clausewitz says that “it is only in the soil of incessant activity and exertion that the germ will thrive.” This is true for any serious pursuit. We don’t always get what we want, at least not right away. Sometimes we suffer setbacks—even terrible setbacks. But such things are not necessarily impediments. On the contrary, they may be just the essential thing that will help us progress. Epictetus teaches that everything has two handles. We can resign ourselves to whatever fortune throws at us. Or we can find ways to not only endure those difficulties, but to use them for our benefit, for it is only through the continuous toil of overcoming those challenges that we produce our best work.