White nights in Saint Petersburg
The Zen master D. T. Suzuki defines satori as “the acquiring of a new point of view in our dealings with life and the world.” With satori, he writes, “our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception.” Jack Kerouac opens his 1966 book Satori in Paris with a description of his own revelatory experience: “Somewhere during my ten days in Paris . . . I received an illumination of some kind that seems to’ve changed me again, towards what I suppose’ll be my pattern for another seven years or more: in effect, a satori: the Japanese word for ‘sudden illumination,’ ‘sudden awakening’ or simply ‘kick in the eye.’” A genuine “kick in the eye,” according to Suzuki, is the remaking of life itself, and the effects are revolutionary, precise, and pure. Below is a list of works in which a character strives for (and in many cases, experiences) the rousing, transformative jolt that is satori. As readers, we may be similarly altered along the way.
Marco Polo describes the cities (are they real or metaphoric?) he’s visited to an often incredulous Kublai Khan. Through his stories, Polo poses invaluable questions about travel, places, and power: Are cities, like dreams, amalgams of fear and desire? Are imaginary places the most real of all? At the end, Khan laments the futility of journeys and of cities, no matter their wonder, splendor, or intricacy, “if the last landing place can only be the infernal city.” “The inferno of the living is not something that will be,” Polo responds, “it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day.” One can either become part of the inferno or “seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” The book ends there. But which path will Khan choose? The question itself is a satori.
Camus returns to the titular Algerian village twenty years after first exploring its ruins and discovers that memory is a vital force: “Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky . . . realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me. . . . I discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in oneself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice. . . . In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open,” Rukeyser wrote in her poem “Kathe Kollwitz.” In “Waiting for Icarus,” the female narrator’s consciousness is fissured by the realization that Icarus, the man for whom she has been waiting, will neither keep his promises nor return. “I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer. / I would have liked to try those wings myself.” The poem is her rousing call to invention and flight.
Roethke’s villanelle poses a seeming paradox and its rhetorical response: “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” The poem’s incantatory revolutions vigorously disrupt the impulse to divide reason from feeling, waking from sleep, and thought from action. Roethke uses the poetic form to reach and reiterate the satori of the second refrain: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
“To become a child of nature or a man of will.” Soseki’s troubled narrator must decide between the two, and his choice crescendos into a fiery, apocalyptic awakening.
“Whether you will want to read the book depends upon the extent to which you value the experience of discovering the stale and familiar terms of everyday life bathed in a rich and strange meaning, devoid of pettiness and sentimentality,” wrote Richard Wright in his review of this novel in the New Republic. McCullers’s richness and strangeness of meaning builds to Biff’s “swift radiance of illumination . . . a glimpse of human struggle and of valor.” But the real satori might just be his realization that complete illumination is fleeting; he actually lives in suspension “between radiance and darkness.”
In the novel’s epilogue, Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev (nicknamed Bezdomny, or “Homeless”) “knows everything and understands everything. . . . But he also knows there are some things he is powerless to cope with. He is powerless against this spring full moon.” During the spring full moon, Ivan is visited in a dream by the Master and Margarita.
“So that was how it ended?” asks Ivan, referring to the story of Pontius Pilate. “That was how it ended, my disciple,” says the Master. “Yes, of course, that is how it was,” says Margarita. “Everything ended, and everything ends . . .” Bulgakov scholar Laura Weeks has described Ivan’s—and the novel’s—satori best: “What Bulgakov is suggesting in this ending that continues what has already ended, is that Homeless, the faithful disciple, must undergo his own spiritual death each Easter season in order to be released, if only for one oneiric moment, into that state beyond history where the Master and Margarita now reside.” The “vicious circle of history” is opened through “Homeless’ experience of periodic death-in-life,” writes Weeks, and he thus “perceives that endings can be happy after all.”
In this poem, Eurydice embraces the underworld and denounces Orpheus for the gaze that condemned her to a second death. Yet regret and loss reveal strength of self. “Such loss is no loss,” she writes. “I have the fervor of myself for a presence / and my own spirit for light.”
Alekhin tells the story of his unfulfilled love for a colleague’s wife, Anna Alexeyevna, bemoaning the world’s illogic: “I kept trying to understand why she had met him first and not me, and why such a terrible mistake in our lives need have happened.” Alekhin and Anna reason away their love, tormented by the fear that any happiness together might be fleeting and that a relationship would only complicate the other’s life. But when Alekhin sees Anna off before she moves away, they both realize “how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. . . . [W]hen you love you must either . . . start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness . . . or you must not reason at all.” There is a melancholy double satori here. The truth about love for Alekhin and Anna has revealed itself, but he is too weary or too dejected for action, and she has departed. They don’t act on the revelation, and they never meet again. Sometimes satori is not nearly enough: Insight, whenever it appears, requires action.
Dostoyevsky’s dreamer is a solitary fellow who is more comfortable with literature than with life. When he meets Nastenka, the allure of the imaginary begins to fade in favor of what is transitory but real, like Saint Petersburg’s white nights, which last only a few weeks. The narrator’s “kick in the eye”—and the reader’s—comes in his last exclamation: “My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man's life?”
Joscelyn Jurich is a writer living in New York and an adjunct professor at New York University.