In Job's Balances \ I \ The Conquest of the Self-Evident


11

     We have seen that Dostoevsky made increasingly strong efforts to fit his ecstatic visions into the limits of everyday experience, to transform "caprice" and that individual, internal impulse peculiar to himself of which he has told us so many new things, into the "necessary and the universal." It was too difficult to him to enter the second dimension of time whither the whole timi˘taton had vanished; he wanted to receive his reward here, in history, in the first dimension of time; to achieve a guarantee, a sanction for "caprice". His first eyes, his natural eyes, and his reason, born at the same time as these eyes, constantly assured him that time had only one dimension, and that nothing could exist in the world without the guarantee and sanction of the law. His second sight told him that "man loves suffering"; but reason sees a "contradiction" here. Suffering must "give us something" if we are to love it. And Dostoevsky, who had felt the shamelessness of "twice two is four", had not the courage this time to attack the law of contradiction. Suffering "buys" something, and this something possesses a certain value for all of us, for common consciousness; by suffering we buy the right to judge. And Dostoevsky even believes that this judgment was the last, the terrible last judgment of which Holy Scriptures speak, and that he had the right to judge. And this supreme right, the right to speak as a potentate, sometimes inspires him so strongly that many people have imagined, as he imagined himself, that to judge was his real function and destiny.

     Whom does he not judge? In The Possessed it is Granovsky, Turgenev, and the younger generation; in The Diary of a Writer Stasiulevitch and Granovsky; in the speech in honour of Pushkin, the whole of Russian society. In The Brothers Karamazov he sits in judgment once more. He judges boldly, pitilessly, finally. But strange though it may seem, the more he judged, and the more he realized that men feared and acknowledged his right to judge, the more his innermost soul questioned man's right to judgment of any kind. More than this; he comes to consider this supreme, sovereign right not so much as a right but as a privilegium odiosum, as a shameful, intolerable, and painful burden.

     This is, in fact, the sole theme of the numerous secondary incidents with which his novels abound. We have spoken of Hippolyte's confession, and of his last conversation with Prince Myshkin. We shall find an analogous episode in The Possessed.

     The real hero of The Possessed is not Verkhovensky, nor Stavrogin, but the great, the enigmatic and silent "Stylite" Kirilov. This stammering man, whose words seem to be torn from his mouth, who does nothing and desires to do nothing, is the real spirit of the book. The episode of Kirilov may perhaps be counted among the greatest masterpieces in all literature, owing to the force with which it expresses what we call the "inexpressible". Kirilov proclaims his own free will. The essence of all the doctrine of the Stylites and Ascetics has ever lain, since earliest times, in precisely this proclamation of free will; in calling halt amid a crowd of raging men - for in a cave only the dead do not rage - and in asking at last whether this world of ours to which reason has dictated its laws and which collective experience has built up, is really the only possible world, and whether reason and her laws are really all-powerful? Dostoevsky has only made one mistake; he should not have allowed Kirilov to commit suicide. Stylites and Ascetics have no need to commit suicide. They have other means of proclaiming their liberty. But it seems that this mistake was intentional, that Dostoevsky consciously made Kirilov behave in a way that he could not have done. If Dostoevsky had not invented that ending, he would have been obliged to add a note like that with which he prefaced The Notes from Underground.

     Nor must we overlook the short story, "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man", which did not appear as an episode in one of Dostoevsky's novels, but found a place in his Diary of a Writer. The story is almost unknown, like that Other, "A Gentle Spirit", with which it is directly connected and which also appears in The Diary of a Writer. One senses in these two stories the same inspiration, the same fire which dictated The Notes from Underground, Hippolyte's confession and the many other masterpieces which stud Dostoevsky's literary crown like so many jewels. "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man", is the continuation of "A Gentle Spirit", which had appeared six months earlier. Dostoevsky thought it necessary to justify the latter by a prefatory note, as he had done with The Notes from Underground. It does, in fact, need justification, but not for the reasons adduced by Dostoevsky. This is the subject of the story: The hero is a retired officer who, like all Dostoevsky's real heroes, has been cruelly and unjustly treated. He was not afflicted like Prince Myshkin, who was an epileptic, but in such a way that he had only one idea in his head, one object in life, which was to run a pawnbroker's business. Then he meets a young girl, the first human being whom he has ever loved with his whole heart; they marry. She is gentleness itself. He loves her so much that he is willing to initiate her into his idea. He prepares to reveal it to her, but he delays a single day, an hour; he has not done testing the young woman and himself. But on that very day, driven to despair, she throws herself out of the window, holding an icon in her hand, and kills herself. It is well conceived; a man of that sort would not flinch before any question. Listen to his words, as Dostoevsky repeats them:
"What do I care for your laws now? What is the good of your customs, your beliefs? Let your judge judge me, let me be brought before your tribunal - I shall maintain that I do not recognize their authority. The judge will cry, 'Silence, officer!' and I shall say, 'Who gave you a power such that I should obey it?' How has some obscure fate managed to destroy all that was dearest to me! I separate myself from you all. Everything is the same to me!... Fate! Nature! The trouble is that men are alone on earth! 'Is there any one alive on this plain?' as the hero in the legend calls out. I too ask the question, though I am no hero, but there is none to answer... All are dead, and there are none but the dead all round me. Only men, and around them - silence."
The story ends with that question. The "judge," has no power at his command sufficient to compel the retired officer, the pawnbroker, to obey him. "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" shows us the psychology of the man to whom everything is indifferent. One would think that there was nothing interesting in this, that a man to whom everything is indifferent has no psychology. But how does it come about that to "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" Dostoevsky appends the subtitle, "A Fantastic Story" ? The very essence of the fantastic is that it consists of unexpected metamorphoses, where before our very eyes "nothing" will be miraculously transformed into to timi˘taton. Thus Plotinus discerned God where others could see only the void. So with Dostoevsky. He demanded a guarantee for caprice, he sought to discover the second dimension of time, just because by so doing he would legitimatize the fantastic and put it in the place that had been occupied in common consciousness by natural events.

The story begins thus: "I am a ridiculous man. Now they call me a madman. That would be a promotion, if I did not go on looking to them as comical as before." You see that in 1877, fifteen years after the publication of The Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky is still telling us the uncompleted story of a man who has been rejected by common consciousness. In the eyes of every one else, this ridiculous, despicable man is an ugly duckling who had better never have been born, or once born should have hidden himself in the deepest depths, not only from others but also from himself; for he, too, is possessed by common consciousness, and it judges him and condemns his ugliness. The ridiculous man knows it himself; he is intolerable both to himself and to other people. And yet suddenly, one knows not how or whence, a strange indifference is born in him. Dostoevsky, as we know, is especially interested in anything that comes he knows not whence, and is therefore all attention. What is this indifference? What does it mean? -
"From year to year I became, indeed, increasingly aware of this frightful peculiarity" (that I appeared ridiculous), "but somehow or other, I became more calm about it. Why? I have not yet succeeded in explaining it to myself. Perhaps because I was gradually coming to recognize with terror a thing of infinitely greater moment than my own absurdity. I was, in fact, acquiring the conviction that everything was the same to me. I had long had a presentiment of it, but last year it suddenly came to a climax. I realized suddenly that it would be the same to me whether the world went on existing or not. I heard, I felt in the depths of my being that now, while I live, there is nothing. At first it still seemed to me that a great many things had been accomplished before my time, but later I guessed that there had been nothing then either, that everything had been an illusion. And little by little I became convinced that there never would be anything."
Let us stop and ask ourselves what is the meaning of this strange "suddenly" which leads us to statements even more fantastic: "everything is the same; nothing happens; nothing has ever happened; nothing will ever happen. These are statements which Dostoevsky persists in making, which he derives from some source of which we are unconscious. Have we not the right, are we not actually obliged to say to Dostoevsky, as Aristotle replied to Heraclitus when he denied the principle of contradiction, "One can say these things, but one must not think them"? If the ridiculous man is not stopped, not only the law of contradiction, the most immutable of all principles, will fall to pieces, but every principle in existence, the whole of "omnitude". And this through the caprice of a single man - and what a man! A being for whom, on his own showing, madness would be a promotion. One must admit this openly, but one must also admit that if the ridiculous man is silenced, then Dostoevsky himself is silenced too. And not only Dostoevsky, but Plato with his cave, Plotinus with his One, Euripides who does not know what life is and what death. Does this tempt you? Would you like to be left alone with Aristotle the metrios eis hyperbolŕn (moderate to excess)? One cannot argue on this point. One can only ask the question and pass on.

     Behold, then, this ridiculous man to whom all things are the same, around whom there is nothing, who is convinced that nothing ever has been or ever will be; this man makes a great resolution, he determines to commit suicide. You may, if you like, laugh at Dostoevsky, especially as there is an argument to hand that was invented twenty-five centuries ago; if nothing exists, if nothing ever has existed, the ridiculous man does not exist either, nor his decision, nor all the "suddenly", nor this story, etc. You can of course say all this, and Dostoevsky knows that you could laugh at him and refuse even to regard him as a madman, thinking the title too good for him. But he goes on with the story, piling up his absurdities and contradictions; it would almost be worth repeating them all, if only space would permit.

     Those who wish to get close to Dostoevsky will have to make a whole series of special exercitia spiritualia; to live for hours, days, years, in the midst of mutually contradictory self-evidences. There is no other way. Only thus can one perceive that time has not one, but two or even more dimensions, that laws have not existed for all time, but are "given" and only in order that the offense might abound, that it is faith and not works which can save souls, that the death of Socrates can shake the formidable "twice two is four," that God demands always and only the impossible, that the ugly duckling can change into the beautiful white swan, that everything has a beginning here but nothing ends, that caprice has a right to guarantees, that the fantastic is more real than the natural, that life is death and death is life, and other truths of the same sort which look out at us with strange and terrible eyes from every page of Dostoevsky's writing.

     If you want to know how far the thought of the ridiculous man will adventure in quest of his "new" truth, to conquer it and lose it in the moment that he seizes it, then re-read this short and almost forgotten but truly remarkable story. The most extraordinary thing is that this truth is not in any way new; it is the oldest of truths, almost as old as the world, for it was revealed to man almost on the day of creation. It was revealed, written in the Book of Books and forgotten immediately after. You will have guessed that I have in mind the story of the Fall.

The ridiculous man, to whom everything was indifferent, having made up his mind to die, went to sleep and in his dream saw what the Bible tells us. He dreamt that he was among men who had not yet tasted the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, who did not yet know shame, who possessed no knowledge, and had neither the power nor the wish to judge.
"The children of the sun, the children of their own sun! Oh, how beautiful they were! I had never seen anything so beautiful on our earth... It seemed to me incomprehensible that knowing so many things, they should not possess our knowledge. But I soon realized that their consciousness was nurtured and completed otherwise than ours. They did not aspire to cognition of life, as we do, for their life was complete. But their knowledge surpassed our science in depth and in height because our science tries to explain what life is, tries to know itself, in order to teach others to live, while they knew without science. I understood this, though I could not understand their knowledge. They showed me their trees... and I could not understand the intense love with which they regarded them... and you know, I think I am not deceiving myself when I tell you that they spoke to them. Yes, they had grasped their language, and I am convinced that the trees understood."
No modern theory of knowledge puts the problem of the essence and the significance of scientific knowledge so clearly and so deeply. It was only in antiquity that Plato and Plotinus, those visionaries, understood and, in so far as it is given to men to do so, solved the problem which Dostoevsky has put: to renounce scientific knowledge in order to see the truth as it is. Truth and scientific knowledge cannot be reconciled. Truth will not endure the bonds of scientific knowledge; it is suffocated in the arms of those formidable proofs which furnish our science with certainties. Science, the ridiculous man goes on, "reveals laws" and puts "the law of happiness above happiness", science wants to "teach us to live". But truth is above laws and laws are for truth what the prison walls and the fetters were in Dostoevsky's existence. Dostoevsky himself was struck, blinded by his strange vision; he did not know whether he ought to accept it; was it a dream or a reality? was it an hallucination or was it a revelation?
"But why should I not suppose that it was thus?" he asks. "It was perhaps a thousand times more beautiful than I have described it. It may have been a dream, and yet it is impossible that it should not have happened. I will tell you a secret; perhaps all this was not really a dream, for something happened, something so hideously real that it could not have happened in a dream. I admit that my dream might have been born of my heart, but my heart alone could not have been the cause of the awful thing that happened. How could I have invented it or dreamed it? Could my miserable heart or my capricious brain have risen to the height of this revelation? Judge for yourselves. Till now I have hidden the truth, but today I will confess it: I corrupted them all..."
By what means did this earthly man corrupt the inhabitants of paradise? He endowed them with our knowledge or, in the language of the Scriptures, he incited them to taste of the fruit of the forbidden tree. And when they had acquired our knowledge, they saw themselves assailed by all the plagues of earth, and death drew near to them. "They knew shame, and raised shame to the rank of a virtue," continues Dostoevsky, commenting and developing the short Bible legend. This knowledge was not enough; the same root put forth ethics; the world was changed, ringed round with law; men, from free creatures, became automata. Few are they who, for short and rare moments, painfully aspire to true existence and are suddenly aware that the force which possesses them, which directs them and which they have worshipped, is eternal sleep, death, annihilation. This is simply Plato's "anamnesis", Plotinus's "awakening". This is what is given to us in mercy, but cannot be won by our own strength, by our virtues or our good works.

The reader can see that Dostoevsky did not invent this truth himself; he could not have invented it. He speaks of the "revelation" of truth, because truth was revealed to him. It is that truth which, although known to every one, although recorded in the one book which has been read more often than any other, yet remains eternally hidden. But the most extraordinary part, more extraordinary than anything that Dostoevsky has yet told us, is the end of "The Dream Of a Ridiculous Man". The hero of the story gives up his plan of suicide when the truth is revealed to him:
"for now I want to live, to live! I raised my arms and invoked eternal truth; no, I did not invoke it, I wept. Delight, overwhelming delight, flooded my whole being. Yes, to live and to teach! I resolved in that moment to spread this teaching, to give my life to it. I want to teach; I want to teach; but what? The truth, for I have seen it with my own eyes, in all its glory."
To teach the truth - I am going to teach the truth! In other words, I will make a gift of it to common consciousness, which, before accepting it, will without doubt insist that it should first submit to the laws. You understand what that means? For the second time that "frightful" thing of which he has told us happened to Dostoevsky, not in sleep, but waking. He had betrayed the eternal truth revealed to him, and sold it to its mortal enemy. He told us that in a dream he had corrupted the spotless inhabitants of paradise. Now he hurried towards men, to repeat, in full possession of his faculties, the same crime at which he had so shuddered in his dream.


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