Sunday, August 12, 2007

"The Idiot"

Just finished Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”, plot summary here. Why this rather Austenesque novel of social and personal relationships hasn’t been given the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ treatment of an English-language mini-series escapes me (there is, however, a Russian-language 10 part edition).

Dostoevsky breaks from describing the tragic trajectories of his main characters to outline his views on ‘original’ and mediocre people (Part IV, chapter 1). Here is an edited version of what he had to say.

"There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief -- in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as "commonplace people," and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself.

But for all this, the question remains -- what are the novelists to do with commonplace people, and how are they to be presented to the reader in such a form as to be in the least degree interesting? They cannot be left out altogether, for commonplace people meet one at every turn of life, and to leave them out would be to destroy the whole reality and probability of the story.

To fill a novel with typical characters only, or with merely strange and uncommon people, would render the book unreal and improbable, and would very likely destroy the interest. In my opinion, the duty of the novelist is to seek out points of interest and instruction even in the characters of commonplace people.

For instance, when the whole essence of an ordinary person's nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine --. I think such an individual really does become a type of his own--a type of commonplaceness which will not for the world, if it can help it, be contented, but strains and yearns to be something original and independent, without the slightest possibility of being so.

There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be "not stupid," kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one's own -- to be, in fact, "just like everyone else".

Of such people there are countless numbers in this world -- far more even than appear. They can be divided into two classes as all men can -- that is, those of limited intellect, and those who are much cleverer. The former of these classes is the happier.

To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving.

Many of our young women have thought fit to cut their hair short, put on blue spectacles, and call themselves Nihilists. By doing this they have been able to persuade themselves, without further trouble, that they have acquired new convictions of their own.

Some men have but felt some little qualm of kindness towards their fellow-men, and the fact has been quite enough to persuade them that they stand alone in the van of enlightenment and that no one has such humanitarian feelings as they. Others have but to read an idea of somebody else's, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The "impudence of ignorance," if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases; -- unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn.

The class of "much cleverer" persons, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the "clever commonplace" person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair. (As a rule, however, nothing tragic happens; -- his liver becomes a little damaged in the course of time, nothing more serious). Such men do not give up their aspirations after originality without a severe struggle, -- and there have been men who, though good fellows in themselves, and even benefactors to humanity, have sunk to the level of base criminals for the sake of originality.”

[Excerpted from here].

Which of us feels immune to such a savage characterisation?