Saturday, August 8, 2009

REUNITED WITH AN OLD FRIEND : FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

A REFLECTION

I was waiting for a friend in an office two days ago. Unlike most waiting rooms, this one actually had a bookcase with some good books, not just a table stacked with magazines about celebrity sightings. I looked over the titles. I saw familiar names: Kafka, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Bronte, Tolstoy, Woolf.

When I was younger, I loved literature. I dove into books, even did not fully understand them. I really thought literature would make me a better person; I thought it was good to read books. I even took pride in it. I went to school at Columbia in New York. They force you to read “classic literature” there. It’s called the “Core Curriculum.” Many of my classmates resented the compulsion to read so much. I actually enjoyed it; I disregarded the compulsion. I read for myself. I didn’t care what my teachers said; most of them were just graduate students anyway who had to teach the course to get their own degrees. I just conversed with the authors. I even read more over the summer because I liked the themes and ideas I encountered. I wanted to develop them in my head. I didn’t turn off my brain when the school year ended.

All these old impressions came back to me as I looked at that bookcase. A comforting feeling came over me, especially when I saw the name Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was my favorite author from my first year at Columbia. I dedicated the rest of my college days to reading just about everything he wrote. I read all his classic novels: Crime & Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Demons, The Idiot. I also read most of his short stories, like Notes from Underground, The Double and The Gambler. Taken together, these books profoundly influenced me. I even used Dostoevsky’s ideas to measure every other philosopher and writer I encountered. Not surprisingly, I liked philosophers and writers who echoed Dostoevsky, like Nietzsche, Kafka and Foucault. By contrast, I reviled philosophers and writers whose ideas stood in contrast to Dostoevsky, like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Dante and St. Augustine.

Dostoevsky was my heroic standard. But then I graduated from college and he faded from my mind. Forced to contend with commerce, I had no time to read Dostoevsky, or anyone else for that matter. My concerns simplified: Work, make money, go home, try to make more money next year. There was no need to think or to be creative. You just needed to put in time. I went to law school in an effort to boost my earning potential and finally get over the commercial hump. Of course, that didn’t happen; twentysomethings dream big but do not have life experience to know that nothing ever pans out as anticipated. True, I might know more now than I did when I was 22. I’m just knee-deep in debt for it.

During law school, I read more than I have ever read in my life. But I did not read any Dostoevsky. In fact, I read books that Dostoevsky would have detested. I read books and judicial opinions that posited “truth” and “objective standards,” two things Dostoevsky routinely criticized in his works. At the time, I did not reflect on the dissonance between the doctrines I was learning and the ideas I absorbed earlier in my life. Not until recently did I uncover that dissonance. It took heartbreak, suffering, reversal, humiliation, rediscovery and self-evaluation to recognize the foolishness in seeking “truth,” “objective standards” and “commercial success.” In short, it took life experience to bring my intellectual focus full circle. Law school doesn’t teach that. And in college, you are too young to amass it. Yet after law school, I contended with personal trauma after personal trauma. The ideas I absorbed in college started to make a lot more sense than they did before I had experience. By the same token, life experience made me deeply question the law and its orderly, well-polished claims to truth. Contrary to every statute, case and order, there really were no objective standards in life. Life was mysterious and unpredictable, not codified and discernable. No legal test could measure it or even judge it. Right and wrong were not juridical concepts; they were nebulous power judgments.

I slowly recognized that my “radical” college ideas were not so far-fetched. Satire became my stock in trade. Satire helped me reconcile my old learning with the absurdity I saw all around me. Satire helped me dethrone the law simply by referring to life. In short, satire helped me “get back to Dostoevsky.”

All these things swarmed my mind as I looked at that bookcase. I picked up a book: “Dostoevsky’s Short Works.” For the first time in almost ten years, I was opening a Dostoevsky book. I perused the contents: Notes from Underground and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I had always wanted to read The Dream of a Ridiculous Man when I was in college. I never got around to it. I was 21 then. Now, at 31, here was my chance. I began reading. Within seconds, I was transported to another world, a familiar one.

I was ready to read Dostoevsky again. At first, I was somewhat embarrassed when I noticed how much he had influenced my own writing over the years. I recognized at once that I had unwittingly become a Dostoevsky imitator. His sentence structures and ruthlessly satirical attacks on “powerful people” obviously made a deep impression on me. His style won me over when I was young and I internalized it over many years. It has become so engrained that I can’t avoid sounding like Dostoevsky, at least in some ways. I can think of many things I have written in this blog that directly appropriate Dostoevsky’s style. For that reason, as I read The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, I eerily felt as if I was reading something I had written. After that passed, I simply felt content. I was just reading my mentor’s words. I felt as if I had been reunited with a dear friend. It was a wonderful feeling after such a long absence. On the other hand, it made me feel good to know that I had been carrying Dostoevsky’s banner on my blog all along, even if I hadn’t known it.

What is it exactly about Dostoevsky that influenced me so much? There are several key ways. For one, he is darkly satirical. He exaggerates details to mock “powerful people”—especially those with ranks and “high standing” in society. At the same time, he calls his heroes “ridiculous” when in fact they are quite noble. In The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, for instance, Dostoevsky calls the protagonist “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “a madman,” "laughable" and “reclusive.” He is poor, lives in a one-room, partitioned apartment and has hundred-year-old furniture. Everyone laughs at him. But later on, we learn that this “ridiculous man” simply wants to treat others as he would like to be treated. For that, society calls him a blathering fool. That is dark satire—this is a man who has noble sentiments. He is not really ridiculous at all; he is only “ridiculous” in the judgment of a broken society. Society is ridiculous, not the good man it calls ridiculous. Dostoevsky knows irony. His sarcastic misanthropy definitely left a solid mark on me.

Second, Dostoevsky deeply understood that “truth” is an elusive—and judgmental—concept. He was one of the first authors to dig deeply into his characters’ conscious thought patterns. His narration, too, recurrently suggests that “things are not what they seem.” He stresses subjective impression and individual reaction to sense, not objective truth. He uses phrases such as “as if,” “even,” “somehow,” “in a way” and “some kind of” when describing people, events, feelings and recollections. This creates an overall impression that there is no “truth,” but rather only fleeting impressions in the minds of those who “were there” to sense something. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man abounds with these “uncertain recollections.” In fact, the reader consciously feels that everything is dark, muddled and indeterminate. When the protagonist recounts his dream, for instance, we have no idea what “actually happened.” In short, Dostoevsky understood that “truth” is in “the eye of the beholder.” Nietzsche picked up on this, too, when he argued that “there are no facts or truths, only interpretations.” In Dostoevsky’s works, every detail is an interpretation. Dostoevsky leaves it to the reader to put the pieces together—and that, too, is an “interpretation.”

Finally, Dostoevsky always tempered his sarcasm and satire with hope. This, too, influenced my writing. In The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, for example, the protagonist—who once gave up on life because “nothing mattered to him anymore”—ultimately declares: “I will not and cannot believe that evil is the natural condition of people.” He goes on to say: “’Knowledge is higher than feelings…[t]he consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness’—that is what must be fought!” The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Pevear/Volokhonsky trans., Bantam 2008) at pp. 338, 342. In short, Dostoevsky takes a stand against “juridical, rule-based” approaches to existence. “Feelings” are better than “knowledge,” and “happiness” is better than “the rules of happiness” because “feelings” and “happiness” intuitively flow from within the individual. By contrast, “knowledge” and “rules” must be “learned according to an extrinsic system.” They are “objective standards.” Yet the protagonist is “ridiculous” for making these discoveries. He is “ridiculous” for daring to oppose “the rules of happiness” and deciding simply to be happy. This is the ultimate satire: It is “ridiculous” to be happy and to savor individual intuitions.

These last ideas struck a familiar chord with me. They seem to mirror my entire opposition to juridical thinking and the objective standards that the law attempts to foist on human beings. How true that we live our lives attempting to mold our behavior to “the rules of happiness” rather than allowing ourselves to simply feel happiness in our own way. Rather than “feeling,” we seek always to “know” some extrinsic rule. In so doing, we forget our own emotions and subject ourselves to an “objective standard.” Someone else laid down the “rules of happiness;” we struggle to learn them. When we fail to reach them, we feel bad. In conforming to those rules, we steadily lose our capacity to form our own impressions about happiness. That is tragic.

Yet Dostoevsky’s message is not entirely pessimistic. After all, the “ridiculous man” does not mind being called “ridiculous.” He resolves to fight the “rules of happiness.” In essence, Dostoevsky holds out hope for those strong enough to fight against objective thinking. He offers support to all the “ridiculous people” who think and feel for themselves in a world that discourages individual approaches to happiness and meaning.

That is a beautiful message. After all, I am a “ridiculous man,” too. I actually consider it a compliment, not an insult. Ridiculous people survive though the ages, not those who merely follow the “rules of happiness.” In fact, ridiculous people might even find their own happiness somewhere along life’s way. The important thing is not to mind being labeled ridiculous. Ridiculous people are special, even if they are not “successful.” Dostoevsky knew that, and that’s one big reason he influenced me so much.

2 comments:

Nothing Profound said...

How powerfully and intimately all this speaks to me. The individual approach to life. Trusting one's own impulses, one's own sense of life. "They will tell you you are on the wrong road, if it is your own." In the end, the part is greater than the whole.

angelshair said...

I really love your blog!
Dostoievsky and especially " Crime and punishment" has changed my views on the world, the human, the good and the evil.