Dostoevsky on Originality

For months I have avoided picking up The Idiot again, despite being only about 150 pages from the end, because every time I did I was just not able to get through the wall of text that is the beginning of Part Four. When I read, sometimes I like not concentrating too much, and Dostoevsky is not one would call “light reading.”

Now that I’ve gotten through, I regret waiting so long to tackle just a few pages; I should have persevered, because Dostoevsky always rewards those with patience and persistence. His writing is true literature, true language, the essence of human nature. I was on my way home on the tram when I read the following quote. I’m not really sure I can add much commentary to it, other than to say that I think absolutely struck me, as a person, and especially as a musician.

Indeed, there is nothing more vexing, for instance, than to be rich, of respectable family, of decent appearance, of rather good education, not stupid, even kind, and at the same time to have no talent, no particularity, no oddity even, not a single idea of one’s own, to be decidedly “like everybody else.”

There is wealth, but not a Rothschild’s; an honorable family, but which has never distinguished itself in any way; a decent appearance, but very little expression; a proper education, but without knowing what to apply it to; there is intelligence, but with no ideas of one’s own; there is a heart, but with no magnanimity, etc., etc., in all respects.

There are a great many such people in the world and even far more than it seems; they are divided, as all people are, into two main categories: one limited, the other “much cleverer.” The first are happier. For the limited “usual” man, for instance, there is nothing easier than to imagine himself an unusual and original man and to revel in it without any hesitation. As soon as some of our young ladies cut their hair, put on blue spectacles, and called themselves nihilists, they became convinced at once that, having put on the spectacles, they immediately began to have their own “convictions.” As soon as a man takes some thought or other at its word or reads a little page of something without beginning or end, he believes at once that these are “his own thoughts” and were conceived in his own brain. The impudence of naivety, if one may put it so, goes so far in such cases as to be astonishing; all this is incredible, but one meets with it constantly. This impudence of naivety, this stupid man’s unquestioningness of himself and his talent, is excellently portrayed by Gogol in the astonishing type of Lieutenant Pirgov. Pirgov never even doubts that he is a genius, even higher than any genius; he is so far from doubting it that he never even asks himself about it; anyhow questions to not exist for him. The great writer was finally forced to give him a whipping, for the satisfaction of his reader’s offended moral sense, but, seeing that the great man merely shook himself aand, to fortify himself after his ordeal, ate a puff pastry, he spread his arms in amazement and thus left his readers. I have always regretted that Gogol bestowed such low rank on the great Pirgov, because Pirgov is so given to self-satisfaction that there would be nothing easier for him that to imagine himself, while his epaulettes grow thicker and more braided as the years pass and “according to his rank,” as being, for instance, a great commander; not even to imagine it, but simple to have no doubt of it: he has been made a general, why not a commander? And how many of them later cause a terrible fiasco on the battlefield? And how many Pirgovs have there been among our writers, scholars, propagandists? I say “have there been,” but, of course, there still are…
One character figuring in our story, Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin, belonged to the other category; he belonged to the category of people who are “much cleverer,” though he was all infected, from head to foot, with the desire to be original. But this category, as we have already noted above, is much more unhappy than the first. The thing is that a clever “usual” man, even if he imagines himself momentarily (or perhaps throughout his life) to be a man of genius and originality, nevertheless preserves in his heart a little worm of doubt, which drives him so far that the clever man sometimes ends up in complete despair; if he submits, then he is already completely poisoned by vanity turned in upon itself. However, we have in any case chosen an extreme instance: in the great majority of this clever category of people, things generally do not go so tragically; the liver gives out more or less towards the end of his days, and that’s all. But still, before reconciling and submitting, these people sometimes spend an extremely long time acting up, from their youth till the age of submission, and all out of a desire to be original. One even comes upon strange cases: some honest man, out of desire to be original, is even ready to commit a base deed; it can even happen that one of these unhappy persons is not only honest but even kind, the providence of his family, who by his labor supports and provides not only for his own but even for others- and what then? All his life he is unable to be at peace! For him, the thought that he has fulfilled his human obligations so well brings neither peace nor comfort; on the contrary, that is even what irritates him: “This,” he says, “is what I’ve blown my whole life for, this is what has bound me hand and foot, this is what has kept me from discovering gunpowder! If it hadn’t been for that, I’d certainly have discovered either gunpowder or America- I don’t know what for sure, but I’d certainly have discovered it!” What is most characteristic in these gentlemen is that all their lives they are indeed unable to find out for sure what precisely they need so much to discover and what precisely they have been preparing all their lives to discover: gunpowder or America? But of suffering, of longing for discovery, they truly have enough of a share in them for a Columbus or a Galileo.

 

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