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On Spontaneity and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

This first week of my first Christmas break home from college, I reread Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a classic Russian love story and the text behind that iconic 1965 film of the same name, directed by David Lean and released on New Year’s Eve that year. There is one beginning passage of Pasternak’s that stood out to me this second time around; I’ll explore it below. My copy was translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

“Yura liked being with his uncle. He reminded him of his mother. Like hers, his mind moved with freedom and welcomed the unfamiliar. He had the same aristocratic sense of equality with all living things and the same gift of taking everything at a glance and of expressing his thoughts as they first came to him and before they had lost their meaning and vitality.” Борис Пастернак, Doctor Zhivago

Yura, the son of Yury Zhivago (the very Doctor Zhivago of the title), has just lost his mother, Marya Nikolayevna; having attended her funeral, he journeys south with his Uncle Kolya (Marya’s brother) and reflects on her death here. Kolya and Marya seem to be fine, free-spirited people: very self-assured, fully trusting of their instincts, and probably charismatic to boot. What must it be like to live life with no doubts whatsoever? To solely act upon the very first thought that enters one’s mind for fear of its meaning slipping away? Extending this further, this is the definition of living without regrets and, more fundamentally, without fear. Do such characters only exist within the pages of these romantic novels? Doctor ZhivagoInto the Wild (looking at you, Chris McCandless, and your dogged nomadic spirit — that which eventually led to your death, but lives on between Krakauer’s pages)… the list goes on. I want to believe I’ll cross paths with people who abide by this same style of carrying themselves as Marya and Kolya — people who know what they want, people who dream, people who are so wildly different from me that I couldn’t even fathom it, but who will change me all the same… As for applying this philosophy myself? Embracing the unfamiliar and living freely and without regrets—that sounds like a very enticing concept, but I don’t think I’m at the point in my life where I can (or want to) fully live it. Instead, I will choose to practice just a slice of Pasternak’s words, the last line: to understand and express my thoughts “before they [lose] their meaning and vitality.” Let’s see where being more spontaneous rather than measured with how I feel takes me in 2022.

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