(Review of ‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’ , a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – 5*/5*)
“Only perhaps in our children, in their earliest years, one might find, some remote faint reflection of this beauty.”
Do you remember losing that treasured innocence that we were born with? that old childish ‘innocence’ (there might be a better word to describe it, but my vocabulary is poor) – the nausea of which we live with for rest of our lives? We know, or at least we think we know, that it can’t be helped, and we would consider someone a weakling, a divine fool or ridiculous if he or she retained that innocence beyond a certain age. We even lough at our own foolishness of old days:
“They hardly remembered what they had lost, in fact refused to believe that they had ever been happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility of this happiness in the past, and called it a dream.”
Yet, we look at children, ever cheerful, and feel sorry for the loss they are bound to suffer one time or another in their lives – they, too, will eat that fruit from ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ – which will show itself to them in some hardship of life or some light jest or some injustice too brutal for their innocence; and get thrown out from that imaginary paradise which n their ignorance, they had so naturally surround themselves with till then; only to discover inferno of reality – where noble-hearted Abels will be killed and Cains, realizing the injustice inherit in the world will revenge themselves by contributing to the very injustice that had repelled them, and be marked in a way that will make them, or at least make them act as if they were, indifferent to (if not actively causing) sufferings of others.
“Oh, at first perhaps it began innocently, with a jest, coquetry, with amorous play, perhaps indeed with a germ, but that germ of falsity made its way into their hearts and pleased them.
Then sensuality was soon begotten, sensuality begot jealousy, jealousy — cruelty … Oh, I don’t know, I don’t remember; but soon, very soon the first blood was shed.”
Some of them will fight for their innocence with all their might, but that fight itself shall slowly kill the innocence they are fighting for. The only way, it would seem, to stay innocent is to die young.
Our ridiculous man (r-man) is one such person whose failure to fight for innocence has left him with this same indifference we mentioned – an indifference that came so dangerously close to Camus’ Stranger; and turned him into a Nihilist. Tormented minds have always reasoned themselves into finding everything meaninglessness.
“But since I grew to manhood, I have for some unknown reason become calmer, though I realized my awful characteristic more fully every year. I say ‘unknown’, for to this day I cannot tell why it was. Perhaps it was owing to the terrible misery that was growing in my soul through something which was of more consequence than anything else about me: that something was the conviction that had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered.”
Having given up on the world and since nothing whatsoever matters, he is planning to kill himself – when a little girl in misery invokes his sympathy. The discovery that he still had sympathy for her in him, frustrated him and made him treat her badly. Why should he, who already has that mark of indifference, feel sorry for her? His reason told him, nothing should matter – and yet, it did matter.
“You see, though nothing mattered to me, I could feel pain, for instance. If anyone had stuck me it would have hurt me. It was the same morally: if anything very pathetic happened, I should have felt pity just as I used to do in old days when there were things in life that did matter to me. I had felt pity that evening. I should have certainly helped a child. Why, then, had
I not helped the little girl? Because of an idea that occurred to me at the time: when she was calling and pulling at me, a question suddenly arose before me and I could not settle it. The question was an idle one, but I was vexed. I was vexed at the reflection that if I were going to make an end of myself that night, nothing in life ought to have mattered to me. Why was it that all at once I did not feel a strange pang, quite incongruous in my position.”
FD, as we know, has a dislike for rationalism. As a rationalist, r-man wanted to kill himself by shooting his brain –
since that is where, he must have thought, his ‘self’ lies – but after the incidence; in his dream, it is his heart he shoots. A person is not what he thinks but rather what he feels.
FD knows we can’t argue with our feelings. We can’t reason ourselves into or out of feeling a thing. Rashkilonav’s reasoning had always told him that he never did anything wrong; and yet that reasoning couldn’t save him from feeling guilt.
Feelings on the other hand will always devise reasons of their own, even if those reasons may sound ridiculous to others. This time it was done through a dream:
“Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it!
In a battle between heart and brain, heart wins – each time; at least for FD. FD would argue the innocence, regarding the loss of which we just talked about, is never completely loss; people just cover it with thick black veils of indifference – and forget all about it.
Yet, sooner or later – the compassion arising from suffering of a child, the lure of love, sight of something beautiful, colors of festival or warnings from Christmas ghosts (I know last is not FD but I’m sure he won’t mind) will rush it back to surface, no matter how thick that veil of indifference was.
Anyway, it was sudden discovery of this innocence, caused in form of compassion for the little girl, that brought with itself a subconscious wish –a wish that manifested itself in his dream. A dream that we all have dreamed – of a Utopia, of a paradise where you never have to grow up. How beautiful itself it was! How easily built! And how unstable!
“As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism, and understood those ideas. As they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up whole legal codes in order to observe it, and to ensure their being kept, set up a guillotine.”
“And yet how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that’s the chief thing, and that’s everything; nothing else is wanted — you will find out at once how to arrange it all.”