Suffering and Redemption; Regeneration; Salvation
It’s quite clear that many elements in “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” are manifested in Brothers Karamazov. A particular vein of this manifestation that I observed was in the nature of the suffering of the ridiculous man and characters in BK. In both stories, Dostevsky connects one’s personal suffering with that of another, and argues that it is in extending beyond oneself and sharing in that other’s suffering that one truly loves. Suffering is then not only an important facet of life but a necessary one—not only in the sense that to be human and dwell on earth is to suffer but that it is through suffering that redemption and regeneration can be realized.
The ridiculous man is saved by the girl, but more particularly, by her suffering. Her suffering arouses feelings inside of him that he cannot ignore because of human awareness of another’s suffering. It distracts him from his own suffering, and piques in him compassion, the other half of the expression of love. Indeed, without first loving the girl as a human being, the ridiculous man could not, frankly, give a damn that she was suffering (feel compassion). I think that the crux lie in what exactly he was supposed to do then, being aware of her suffering. The story changes and ends with his consideration of this other person, this girl’s suffering. It changed the story mainly in that it was heading towards a certain conclusion (his suicide) and ended in its opposite (his redemption). He admits in Part II: “The little girl, in fact, had saved me, for by these questions I put off my own execution.” He is saved by her suffering—not his own, but hers. These “questions” are actually the product of his conscience contemplating his feelings of suffering and compassion. Enigmatically, he saves himself by saving her, or at least by desiring to save her. At the story’s end, he proclaims that he found the girl and will endure. If he had not found the girl, he would not have been fully redeemed because his feeling would not have culminated in a good deed, but he still would have learned this most valuable lesson—that saving oneself is in saving another. Another aspect of this mode of thought is found in the ridiculous man’s dream. Part of the reason why he feels so awful about the woes of the alien people is not only that he recognizes their suffering, but that he is responsible for it. He undoubtedly feels some of that same responsibility for the little girl’s suffering. It spurs in him the question of why did he not save her, and this causes him to forego self-inflicted execution and ultimately save her, thereby redeeming and regenerating himself.
It is interesting then, to take a look back at some of the characters in BK. Mitya says: “I want to suffer and be purified by suffering (509). It is interesting that he mentions purification here, as if suffering is a way to mitigate guilt, and his in particular. The narrator mentions similarly on page 508 that Dimitri is engulfed in ecstasy because he wants to bear the suffering of the “wee one.” I think that Ivan deals with his guilt and suffering in a similar manner by deciding to defend his brother’s innocence. It is a way to mitigate his own guilt in his father’s death—he thereby has to share in his brother’s suffering. I think that one of the essential differences between the two brothers is that Mitya whole-heartedly believes in the rightness of what he’s doing whereas Ivan thinks that to save his brother and share in guilt is virtuous, but does not believe in it. In other words, he thinks that it is virtuous but does not believe that there is such a thing. “Everything is permitted” and therefore nothing is actually good, right, and virtuous.
The paradox: that humans are inherently selfish but can only be saved by saving another. It is then a matter of sacrifice. By sacrificing, we gain. I think this may be another paradox because I do not know if we concretely gain. I also do not know if Dostoevsky shows how exactly these characters that shared in another’s suffering gain because of it. Perhaps that is not of importance at all. I am sure that I am missing something but I do not understand why one would choose to suffer if their livelihood did not improve in the least bit, but only worsen because of their chosen suffering. Maybe the idea is that by universal sharing of burden there is always someone there to bear some of yours?
A ridiculous man, another underground man?
For some reason the first few pages of "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" left a strong impression on me. The language of the RM is strikingly similar to the that of the UM. The RM's first words are "I am a ridiculous man. they call me a madman now," much like the UM's first words: "I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man" (717, 3). Both are extremely proud, but also hyper-sensitive to their surroundings. Another shared characteristic is their modern ego-centrism. Like the UM, the RM's world consists of only himself--"I suddenly felt that it made no difference to me whether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all" (718). Of course, the two stories differ radically in terms of plot, but I just thought that one could see a mirror image of the UM in the RM--perhaps more extreme and sensational, if that is possible.
Dream of a Ridiculous Man
I find the “ridiculous man’s” decision to shoot his heart is particularly interesting, as it suggests that his disaffected, ambivalent attitude towards the world is not, in fact, derived from nihilistic rationality of the mind. Instead, his existential reasoning seems to be in conflict with a deeply buried yet unconsciously present emotional connection with the world, which is nearly brought to the surface by his encounter with the pleading girl.
With that said, I find the dream itself is problematic, although this is very likely intentional on Dostoevsky’s part. The apparent religiosity of the dream, and the narrator’s discussion with some sort of (intentionally) ambiguous higher being, occurs within the context of a journey elsewhere which makes him fully realize his love of the earth. The very reason for his suicide is contradicted two pages later by his declaration of love for the earth, and his want of “suffering in order to love” (728). Much like the Devil’s conversation with Ivan, Dostoevsky appears to be offering contradictory characterizations of the protagonist through his own dream. The inhabitants of this alternate-earth were eager to remove his suffering, but instead “corrupted” them merely through the introduction of his modern, disaffected attitudes of the world. His heart and mind seem to be in some sort of undefined, yet profound conflict with each other.
How, then, does this dream--which ended in such catastrophe--could result in such an intense newfound desire for Truth, when he appears to have corrupted the very truth he desired to preach? His messianic message of loving thy neighbor is contradicted by his own character.
Problems of "A Ridiculous Man"
By the narrator's own admission in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," he tends to muddle his ideas and have trouble putting them into words. What troubles me about the story is that in the end, as the author vows to preach the Truth he has discovered, he swears that he has seen paradise possible on earth and in humanity. In fact, he says it could be achieved in an hour's time. But I took the exact opposite lesson from his dream: the people he meets in their pre-Fall paradise are almost unrecognizable as human. They live life in an unaccountably rich heaven of harmony with nature and eachother, with nothing to talk about except singing eachother's praise all day. Not only does it sound impossible, it sounds simly boring and saccharine and meaningless. I sympathized with the narrator's realization that he loved them more once they too had experienced and understood sorrow. Further, the paradise he encounters is in such a ludicrously fragile equilibrium that the introduction of just a single bad seed, the narrator, who doesn't even try to corrupt them, brings their entire world crashing down. If the narrator hopes to work toward a similar earthly paradise with people's help, the lesson seems to be that every last person had better be on board or the project will fail. So not only is the vision of paradise borderline nonsensical, it is hopelessly vulnerable to collapse.
Like we've said in class, it is too easy with historical hindsight to imagine this kind of thing, but I couldn't help seeing some eerie premonitions of the Russian civil war and Cold War in this story. The narrator predicts that different factions with the same goal in mind, of some practicable form of human social happiness on earth, will go to war with eachother, much as the Communist and Tsarist forces struggled, and later the Communists and capitalists in the 20th century. "The very wise," the Party in the Soviet Union, in fact "did their best to exterminate as rapidly as possible the "not so wise" who did not understand their idea, so as to prevent them from interfering with its triumph." Sadly, I think that in some ways the narrator's exhortation to "love your brother as yourself," and his disavowal of personal property, the "mine vs. thine" distinction, were part and parcel of the Soviet project, and led to disastrous unintended consequences when enforced by a regime of real people under the constraints of real-world pressures.
"The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" ties in nicely with our culmination of the Brothers Karamazov. Once again, feelings and humanity trump the enlightenment ideal of science and reason when it comes to Dostoevsky's ideas about how one should live life. I found the use of the word "ridiculous" slightly contradictory though; I hooked onto the tension between its use in Bros. K and Ridiculous Man. In Bros. K, Alyosha advises Kolya to not be afraid of looking/feeling ridiculous; often, the best course of action will conflict with the rational (like the pancake example). The characteristic of being "ridiculous" is linked with those who override the reason of the brain with the actions of the heart. Grieve, but then rejoice - irrational, ridiculous, but necessary. Instead, the Ridiculous Man's "ridiculous" nature is discussed at the onset of the story, before the Ridiculous Man experiences his dream epiphany, the likes of which the Elder Zosima and Alyosha would both commend. In this instance, being ridiculous seems to be synonymous with being an a nihlistic egoist who denies that his actions affect anyone else, since the world (and his life) don't mean anything. Ultimately, the Ridiculous Man transforms from one state of ridiculousness to another. His life morphs from one of isolated influence to one capable of negatively transforming an entire utopia. Again, I got caught up in the ending...it felt, like many of Dostoevsky's endings thus far, too abrupt. Could one dream really change a lifelong pattern of behavior? I couldn't help but compare the Ridiculous Man to Scrooge from a Christmas Carol. Even as a child, I always wondered if one night of visions could really transform a man.
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
While reading “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” I was reminded of our conversation about the ending of The Brothers Karamazov, which conveys the importance of enjoying what is given to us in life, not being afraid to live a normal life, and not being afraid to be ridiculous. The idea of being ridiculous is present right from the beginning. The narrator begins by acknowledging that he is ridiculous, although he is accepting of it, and implies that this ridiculousness as viewed by others is what allows him to know the truth. I’m not sure, but I think the narrator arrives at the conclusion that the truth is that the world could be “arranged” if everyone would love their neighbor as they love themselves, and it is watching the deterioration of paradise, which is quite similar to the development of the society Dostoyevsky lived in, that brings him to this conclusion. Thus, it would seem that this conclusion is what people view as ridiculous, and yet I think Dostoyevsky’s message might be that it is in fact his society that is ridiculous. Particularly, he mentions the advent of science on paradise as a means for discovering truth and the belief that “knowledge is higher than feeling,” both of which are western enlightenment ideals Dostoevsky did not believe were more important than feeling (735).
The importance of living life to the fullest is clearly conveyed first when the narrator writes, “…remember that I had intended to cut short by suicide the life that means so much to us, and that my dream…revealed to me a new, regenerated, strong life!” (724). The narrator then wakes up from his dream understanding how precious life is and desiring it. The narrator also writes, “I have beheld it [truth] and I know that people can be happy and beautiful without losing their ability to live on earth” (737). I was particularly reminded of the comment about eating pancakes at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, since Dostoevsky again seems to be saying here that we have to live and enjoy our lives on earth and not only focus on what will come later.
Hurrah for Karamazov
Not going to lie, the first time I finished the book I was bothered by the ending, and particularly how Koyla shouts, "Hurrah for Karamazov!" Because I'd just spent a great deal of time learning about the lives of the Karamazovs, all of whom have a certain baseness in them, it annoyed me that the book finished on such a hopeful, beautiful note, a celebration of the very same characters who were so confused and scoundel-like throughtout the novel. Okay, so I know Koyla was particularly referring to Alyosha, who doesn't really deserve criticism at all, but to me I read "Hurrah for Karamazov" as a celebration of the entire family. And this is not a family that deserves celebration.
However, the second time I read the ending, I loved it, because it's so ridiculous that it makes sense. Honestly, nothing goes right in this book. Dmitri is innocent, but he is sentenced to hard labor. Zossima dies and his body decays, and everyone judges him for it. Ivan, the most intellectul character in the book, completely loses his mind. Illusha dies after suffering for a long time. It's just not fair.
Well, neither is the ending. Some may say the ending is dumb and leaves us hanging, and I agree, but I also think an ending like this is necessary because it's unjust!!!!!
For me, the final pages of The Brothers Karamazov are Dostoevsky's final pitch in favor of the power of religious faith. Take the three brothers: Mitya is a symbol of unrestrained modern hedonism; Ivan the epitome of the Western intellectual; and Alyosha faith incarnate. They are given equal "speaking time" throughout the novel. Dostoevsky's narrator regards all three with a certain amount of affection and resepect for their individual paths in life.
But the final pages of the book find them preparing to go in different directions. Ivan's encounter with his conscience has left him a broken man. He doesn't even appear in the epilogue because his "brain fever" has left him bed-ridden. We find out that he's arranged an escape for his condemned brother. Mitya, however, is hardly jumping for joy at the thought of escaping Siberia. He speaks to Alyosha from his hospital bed about the hardships he and Grushenka will certainly experience abroad, cut off from their beloved Russia. Ahead of him lies a path of obscurity and hard work as a fugitive.
The youngest, Alyosha, is the literally the last of the brothers left standing. He has the honor of the final speech in a novel full of lengthy monologues. His message of brotherly love and the power of collective memory is the last Dostoevsky leaves with the reader. It makes sense that this is therefore the primary idea of the novel. Alyosha is the only brother to have "survived" the absurd events of the book with his original belief system intact. For Dostoevsky, the endurance of brotherly love and spiritual faith is proof of the modern world's redemption.
I agree with some of what's been said about the ending to the text. I am going to talk about a few significant parts to Michael Haneke's movies Cache` and Funny Games. Take this as a spoiler alert I guess, but if you read (the movies are gone into in the first 2 paragraphs) then you'll see how a spoiler wouldn't really fit in this context.
To talk about the end of Karamazov we can look at something like Michael Haneke's work in film. In the movie Cache` a french family is shown as they cope with receiving lengthy videotapes indicating the fact that their lives are under surveillance. In typical Haneke-ian fashion, the catalyst of horror (in this case the source of the videos) which you wait through the movie for remains obscure; yet that only indicates the point that I think Haneke is making: that it is irrelevant what the source of anxiety was for this particular family, the movie is a story about their lives under surveillance and the inevitable violence that this spectral presence incurs.
To offer a second example of destabilizing traditional methods of storytelling (though this, like the last, could also be a critique of 'story-receiving') is in his Funny Games where when one of the 2 torturers is murdered by a victim, his companion picks up a remote control, rewinds the scene as it just transpired in front of the audience, then 're-plays' it avoiding the act of retaliation. An extremely intelligent friend who goes to Amherst called this scene "in a way the ultimate 'fuck you' that a director has ever given a viewing audience".
This relates to Karamazov in many ways, though I am going to go through the 'Grand Inquisitor' composition and then Ivan and Smerdyakov. The 'insufficiency' that the Grand Inq criticizes Christ for definitely parallels the 'enraged realist audience' who balk at Haneke for abusing his privileged position as storyteller. The Grand Inq both loathes and justifies his belief and his vocation for Christ's leaving the story unfinished with all the excess freedom, and making it so that mankind must clean up after itself --just as the audience must cope with the fact that Haneke showed them the possibility of a violence whose source is irrelevant. It is the anxiety that is birthed by our/the Grand Inq/the audience's own sense of their own insufficiency at the hands of their superiors, that they then justify the perpetuation of their own insufficient, violent, fascist methodologies. This is the stalemate that the Grand Inquisitor resolves by turning back to the order of the church.
This masochistically self imposed guilt also is what drives Ivan insane. Now, Smerdyakov could be said to in a way 'commit suicide' before he even entirely goes through with hanging himself, just by simply having these conversations with Ivan. If you think about him taking seriously what he says, he basically insists on the fact that he has no ability to express himself beyond the point of acting as some kind of tool. He is a subject of Fyodor Pavlovich's drunken madness who then becomes a subject to European culture at his culinary school with his perfume and clothing, then returns as a sort of furniture object that is told to do various things by various people - apparently including murder. He defers the responsibility of this last feat of his onto Ivan, while he speaks only of his own genius in executing the objective (performing his epilepsy, plotting, scheming). What I think Dostoevsky is trying to say is that Smerdyakov is a person who has totally renounced all humanity through the course of his life. Having these conversations with Ivan brought that to the surface for everyone - readers, but especially Smerdyakov himself. After noticing this lifelong process of self-effacement culminating in murder, he killed himself.
Ivan, on the other hand, went insane. He is the audience staggering out of a Haneke cinema after having been revealed to the fact he is powerless over, and even to blame for the systems that kill his father and servant, accuse and imprison his brother. His role was simply that of a necessary threshold that motivated all these events. If there is no external direction in which to sublimate a sense of guilt following acts of violence then that guilt can fracture inwards, psychoanalysts say. But is Ivan's insanity inevitable? is Smerdyakov's accusation legitimate? contrary to psychoanalysts I would say (that Dostoevsky is trying to say) a most firm and indignant "not necessarily" through the actions of Prince Myshkin, Zossimov, and Alyosha. But I just wanted to talk about Haneke. watch his movies!
I believe we mentioned in passing, long before we read Brothers K, that the relatively recent introduction of trial by jury in Russia greatly influenced Dostoyevsky's telling of the story. Obviously, the presence of a long trial scene is indicative of this. Yet, Dostoyevsky spent most of the chapter highlighting the two different versions of Dmitri's crime, the one in which he is guilty, and the one in which he is not. Only at the very end, with the peasant's influence over the decision, does the jury play much of a role.
Though we are led to believe the jury may have caused the trial to have a different outcome than it would have before the reform, I was still puzzled as to why Dostoyevsky focused on the final speeches rather than, say, the jury deliberations. Though I am the furthest thing from knowledgeable on the subject, it seems to me that regardless of who is handing down a verdict, those speeches would be likely present in the trial process anyway.
The only explanation I could think of involved Dostoyevsky again bringing in a larger story-telling scope into the narrative. Perhaps by showing two completely contradictory, but equally plausible, tellings of the same story (I found myself thinking, "hey, that makes a lot of sense!" during both retellings), he subtly undermines his own narrator. I'm at a bit of a loss as to why he would do this, I'd to think he has more in mind than just toying with the reader, as he almost always does, but the reason eludes me.