Friday, April 12, 2013

I am a ridiculous man - another "fantastic" Dostoevsky story

The 1876 Dostoevsky story “A Gentle Creature” has a subtitle, “A Fantastic Story,” although most people would likely identify it as realistic.  Dostoevsky gave the same subtitle to a story he wrote the next year, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  Most of the story is devoted to the dream, but Dostoevsky identified the method of “A Gentle Creature” as “fantastic,” The presence of the imaginary stenographer, not the content.  Something similar is true for “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  The most unlikely part of the story is its telling.

This time, the narrator is something closer to a madman, or so he says:

I am a ridiculous man.  They call me a madman now.  That would be a distinct rise in my social position were it not that they still regard me as being as ridiculous as ever.  (tr. David Magarshack)

As the story begins, the narrator faces a familiar philosophical problem, a solipsistic variation on Berkley and Schopenhauer:

I suddenly felt that it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all.  I began to be acutely conscious that nothing existed in my own lifetime. (italics Dostoevsky’s)

The ridiculous man hints at some kind of guilt or failure that he would like to erase by erasing all of existence, which will happen if he kills himself.  A pistol at hand, the narrator falls asleep and has the dream that fills the rest of the story.

The dreamer’s manner of suicide, and even the results, have some surprising correspondences with Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novella The Eye.  I will just file that away for future use.  The pistol recurs from "A Gentle Creature," as seen in this fantastic (in the sense of "awful good") dramatized scene from "A Gentle Creature" featured by XIX vek (full disclosure: post contains kind words about Wuthering Expectations, and the link is therefore self-serving - but the clip is impressive!).

I am not convinced that the core of the dream itself is so interesting.  The dead man flies through space – actually, the space journey is at least a curiosity – to an Earth where Man never Fell, never having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge:

They were at peace with themselves.  They did not strive to gain knowledge of life as we strive to understand it because their lives were full.

And so on like that.  As a Utopian fantasy, it is all too vague to be of much value.  The dreamer himself, bringing knowledge into this world, is finally the cause of the Fall, and soon people are wearing clothes, speaking different languages, writing laws, and founding religions.  The ridiculous man awakens with a new sense of meaning and purpose.  He becomes a preacher, admittedly one who “do[es] get muddled and confused and that if I am getting muddled and confused now, what will be later on?”  The answer to that question is The Brothers Karamazov, which Dostoevsky will write in a year or two.


  1. I've always preferred Dostoevsky's novels to his short fiction, but it's good to see someone writing about them.

  2. I am not the best reader of Dostoevksy, so I might be better off with the shorter work. I guess I did all right with Karamazov a couple years ago.

    Actually, that book was a lot of fun to write about. I should try to get to another long one soon. Maybe one I haven't read, like The Idiot.

  3. You might like The Idiot. It's absolutely manic; nobody sits still for more than two minutes at a time. People are forever piling into coaches and racing off to dachas and then back to the city and there are many many parties with people from all classes. I'd bet you could do some good work with it.

    Death and rebirth is a constant theme with old Fyodor. You can read Notes From Underground as Christian allegory about hell, if you're so inclined.

  4. I do not really like Dostoevsky's fiction, but I like reading Dostoevsky's fiction, if you know what I mean. If you do, let me know, since I don't.

    Notes of the Underground last passed under these eyes 25 years ago. Soon for that one, too, I hope.

  5. I do not really like Dostoevsky's fiction, but I like reading Dostoevsky's fiction, if you know what I mean.

    Or having read Dostoevsky's fiction, perhaps.

  6. Maybe so. "Thank goodness, I made it to the end! How satisfying!"