From the opening passage of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”:
I’m a ridiculous man. Now they call me a madman. That would be a promotion if I weren’t as ridiculous as before in their eyes. But it no longer makes me angry. I find them all nice now, even when they laugh at me–indeed, if they do they’re somehow particularly dear to me. Id even laugh with them—not really at myself but out of sheer love for them—if looking at them didn’t make me so sad. Sad, because they don’t know the truth, while I do. Ah, it’s hard to be the only one who know the truth! But they don’t understand it. No, they won’t.
And yet, looking ridiculous used to upset me very much. In fact, I didn’t just look ridiculous—I was ridiculous. I’ve always been ridiculous, and I think I’ve known it from the day of my birth. Perhaps I became fully aware of it at the age of seven. I studied at school, then at the university, and the more I studied, the more I realized that I was ridiculous. For me, in the final analysis, higher learning amounted to explaining and proving my ridiculousness. And in life it was the same as in my studies: every year I became more conscious that I looked ridiculous in every respect.
I’m really not sure how you top an opening passage like this, even in translation. Dostoyevsky is out of his mind in the best of all possible ways. I’m going to spend some time this semester reading Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and D.H. Lawrence as part of a course I will be auditing, and it couldn’t come at a better time for me. The frame of the class is built upon E.M Forester’s discussion of the “the prophetic voice” in his work Aspects of the Novel:
With prophecy in the narrow sense of foretelling the future we have no concern, and we have not much concern with it as an appeal for righteousness. What will interest us today — what we must respond to, for interest now becomes an inappropriate word — is an accent in the novelist’s voice, an accent for which the flutes and saxophones of fantasy may have prepared us. His theme is the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? we shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children’s party. Readers of DH Lawrence will understand what I mean.
Prophecy — in our sense — is a tone of voice. It may imply any of the faiths that have haunted humanity — Christianity, Buddhism, dualism, Satanism, or the mere raising of human love and hatred to such a power that their normal receptacles no longer contain them: but what particular view of the universe is recommended — with that we are not directly concerned. It is the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist’s phrase, and in this lecture, which promises to be so vague and grandiose, we may come nearer than elsewhere to the minutiae of style.
I’m fascinated by this idea of prophecy as song, as opposed to preaching which might be understood as a kind of compulsory approach to communicating, and with compulsion, to quote D.H. Lawrence, “the recoil kills the advance.” Such a literary conceptualization of prophecy is far more interesting to me than prediction, because it’s a tone and a voice not premised on an arbitrary science of being right, but an art form of communing. And it is best soulfully sung with tortured faith, rather than preached with a fear and trembling that imposes the “dread insomnia of compulsion” (to quote Lawrence again) that fuels the Zombie nation we inhabit.
Dostoyevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” as with much of his work, is premised upon a tortured faith in the face of uncertainty, dread, and despair. And while the latter often overshadows the search for faith in his work, it is that meager clinging to faith that makes the existential horror of his novel so compelling. Take for example one of the most disturbing and macabre scenes I have ever read, in which the ridiculous man dreams he has shot himself in the heart and remains somehow conscious after his death:
Then they buried me. They left, and I was all alone. I didn’t stir. Previously, when I imagined how they’d bury me in my grave, I had always associated sensations of cold and damp with it. Now, indeed, I had an acute sensation of cold, especially in the tips of my toes. Bit that was all I felt.
I lay there, strangely enough, waiting for nothing, accepting as a matter of fact that a dead man has nothing for which to wait. But it was damp, I don’t know how much time went by—an hour, a few days, or many days, but suddenly a drop of moisture that had seeped through the lid of my coffin fell on my left eye. The, a minute later, a second drop fell, then, after another minute, a third and so on and so on…
A scene which quickly moves to one of the most unexpected scenes I’ve ever read in a Dostoyevsky story or novel, a creature (presumably an angel) takes the ridiculous man from the grave and flies him through space (is this a 19th century Russian scifi or what?) to an alternate earth where the inhabitants have not fallen, they live in harmony and peace. Yet, the ridiculous man soon introduces deceit to this world, and the fall is precipitated and the history of humanity since the fall on this parallel world is quickly recounted, which is unbelievably efficient and powerful in it’s own regard. All of which leads the ridiculous man to the conclusion from his dream that there can, indeed, be a paradise on earth, and that he must proselytize this reveltion far and wide:
I don’t know how to organize a paradise on earth, because I cannot convey it in words. After my dream I lost that words that could convey it. At least, the most important, indispensable ones. But never mind, I’ll go out and speak tirelessly, for I’ve seen it with my own eyes, although I’m unable to tell what it is I’ve seen.
But here’s something those who laugh at me cannot see. They say, “So he had a dream, a hallucination.” Well, is that really such a wise objection? Why are they so proud of it? A dream. What’s a dream? And what’s our life if it isn’t a dream? And I may say, moreover, “All right, suppose it never happens, let’s say paradise will never come about! I know myself it won’t—yet I’ll still go on preaching.”
Much like Samuel Beckett’s Estragon notes, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” The heart of our absurd drama is not so much a sermon as a psalm, not so much a lecture as a song. And that is what the story is, it isn’t a lecture or a moral imperative, but a song sung by a madman who wants to believe in something, just about anything.
That is the very heart of the existential idea. Our existence is madness, we float on a breeze, and only by finding beauty in the random chaos, through song, or function, or even form, can we maintain even the facade of insanity. Otherwise everything falls apart
Camus’ essay on the Myth of Sisyphus is a kind of poem, a kind of song, I think, and an absurdly happy one: http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/msysip.htm
Hey! I just got through reading ” The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” for my class on Wednesday! It’s an amazing story…
One of my favorite openings in all literature.
There is no greater novelist. I try to read him every year.