“The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of happiness is higher than happiness”—that is what we have to fight against! And I shall, I shall fight against it! If only we all wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.”
From The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I stumbled upon an audiobook version of this short essay by Dostoevsky purely by chance. Seeing the title alone and being a fan of his other works, I couldn’t resist. I’ve always thought that when you’re ready for answers to your own personal questions, you’ll find them in literature, always by chance. True gems!
Anyway, to the story: essentially the Ridiculous Man has always known he was a “madman” and was laughed at by his peers. Growing older and making his way through his studies, he realizes the more knowledge he gains, the more he is consciously aware of his predicament:
“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. At first I couldn’t help feeling that at any rate in the past many things had existed; but later on I came to the conclusion that there had not been anything even in the past, but that for some reason it had merely seemed to have been. Little by little I became convinced that there would be nothing in the future, either. It was then that I suddenly ceased to be angry with people and almost stopped noticing them.”
This sort of existential crisis leads the Ridiculous Man to committing suicide, or at least, attempting it:
“All of a sudden I became aware of a little star in one of those patches and I began looking at it intently. That was because the little star gave me an idea: I made up my mind to kill myself that night. I had made up my mind to kill myself already two months before and, poor as I am, I bought myself an excellent revolver and loaded it the same day. But two months had elapsed and it was still lying in the drawer. I was so utterly indifferent to everything that I was anxious to wait for the moment when I would not be so indifferent and then kill myself. Why—I don’t know.”
“Suddenly I dreamed that I picked up the gun and, sitting in my armchair, pointed it straight at my heart—at my heart, and not at my head. For I had firmly resolved to shoot myself through the head, through the right temple, to be precise.”
In his usual way, Dostoevsky’s character struggles between his head (rationalism) and his heart (spiritualism); in seeing there’s no point to his existence, he becomes cruel through indifference. When a little girl seeks his help while her mother is in distress, he finds the child completely bothersome.
He had expected a non-existence after shooting himself and in his dream, he is met by a human-like companion who brings him to another earth. On that earth, however, were blessed-sort of happy humans who knew no suffering or despair (reminding of the Ridiculous Man of the beauty found in children) and these people wanted to remove all traces of suffering from him.
Meeting these peaceful people, the Ridiculous Man blames his heart for creating this “afterlife” earth, and later, blames himself again for corrupting them:
“Oh, I don’t know, I can’t remember, but soon, very soon the first blood was shed; they were shocked and horrified, and they began to separate and to shun one another. They formed alliances, but it was one against another. Recriminations began, reproaches. They came to know shame, and they made shame into a virtue. The conception of honor was born, and every alliance raised its own standard. They began torturing animals, and the animals ran away from them into the forests and became their enemies. a struggle began for separation, for isolation, for personality, for mine and thine. They began talking in different languages. They came to know sorrow, and they loved sorrow. They thirsted for suffering, and they said that Truth could only be attained through suffering. It was then that science made its appearance among them. When they became wicked, they began talking of brotherhood and humanity and understood the meaning of those ideas. When they became guilty of crimes, they invented justice, and drew up whole codes of law, and to ensure the carrying out of their laws they erected a guillotine.”
This is Dostoevsky writing about religious beliefs and the corruption of mankind throughout the years: a Garden of Eden sort of innocence is slowly distorted into our way of “crime and punishment”; inventing “justice”. The Ridiculous Man slowly becomes sorrowful for the people, as they attempt to understand the “Truth” by becoming wise through science. And would certainly refuse to ever go back to their child-like innocence of pre-contact with him.
He woke up full of sorrow from his dream, yet renewed with the Truth:
“And really how simple it all is: in one day, in one hour, everything could be arranged at once! The main thing is to love your neighbor as yourself—that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. Once you do that, you will discover at once how everything can be arranged. And yet it is an old truth, a truth that has been told over and over again, but in spite of that it finds no place among men!”
Even though this was written many years ago, the same feeling holds itself true to our day and age. It held true to Albert Camus and his views on suicide, “killing the self is a confession of sorts” and “dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, ever instinctively, the ridiculous character of the habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering”.
For both writers, their light in the darkness… is an abstract form of love; there is great misfortune in not loving and man fulfills his nature by finding solidarity with others, as Dostoevsky writes, by loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
And I conclude with another quote from Camus that this unity is “a way of awaking a sleeping world and of making it vivid to the mind”, which is what exactly happened to the Ridiculous Man who found a truth which gave him the hope to continue living.