“White Nights on the Neva” is Classic Circuits experiment to link blogs on a “tour” of Russian literature. The participating sites agree to write about one work, publishing their posts on a pre-set schedule. Since ReadThis appreciates any group that encourages a love of reading, and this particular program seemed innovative, we agreed to give it a go, choosing “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” by Dostoevsky.
To write about “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” is to set one’s self up for personal embarrassment because it’s a work that defies easy explication. Its odd angles and passion are so beguiling, however, one has to seize any opportunity to corral more people into reading the master’s last short story.
The narrative unfolds like this: A man, glutted on intellectual pursuits throughout his life, walks home from a dinner through a gloomy, rain-drenched street. He spots a star unveiled by the clouds and, as he states, “that star reminded me that I wanted to kill myself.” For a long time he had gorged himself on the meaninglessness of existence, the phantom quality of past events, and this star somehow underscores his urgent need to die.
As the man keeps on his way, a shivering little girl approaches him. He gathers from her frantic appeals that this girl’s mother is “dying somewhere,” but he does not offer the terrified urchin assistance. Instead, he shoos her. And yet it is his flash of pain on her behalf – unacted upon — that later, when he sits before a loaded gun, inspires him to live on. His pity for the girl, disguised as anger, confirms to him that he is alive and that something does indeed matter.
Eventually, he falls sleep and dreams his suicide and burial. He is born up from the cold ground, through the heavens, to a remarkable twin Earth (the star he had seen that night) filled with loving innocents in an abundant Eden. He understands their joy to his depths.
But his appreciation of their ecstasy does not protect them. He corrupts them, destroying the perfect Earth Eden with rationality, divisions between men, concepts of justice, badly implemented, and eventually wars, jealousy, and on.
In the context of Dostoevsky’s big novels, this short story’s oblique approach seems jarringly modern. What seems particularly strange is the knowledge that Dostoevsky, then 57 (something akin to 342 dog years, those of a turn of the century Russian being equally taxing) – a man broken by his gambling addiction, having faced a firing squad, a stint in Siberia, epileptic seizures, emphysema, a brutal father who was ultimately murdered by his serfs, etcetera – could pen a rapturous ode to a world of peace and love that does not seem ironic or cynical. He seems to believe in his vision, in a manner that makes one think he probably did experience such a dream and that he took it to be prophecy.
And then he corrupts that world. And his corruption is so complete, one could equate his character with the Devil, and yet it is a Devil that does not destroy maliciously. The narrator offers no account for how he infused his poison, although he cites learning how to lie as the first step. We get the sense that the corruption came through the intellect and imagination – the fuel and barter of Dostoevsky’s own life.
Dostoevsky had grown up a Christian, nourished particularly on saint stories, so it is not surprising that the Christian message should guide his narrator’s restoration of meaning in existence. But his desperation in communicating that truth rattles the page. It reads almost like propaganda or evangelism. He eschews the suffering aspect of Christianity embraced by his fellow Russians, and focuses instead on pure love. Here, toward the end of his life, he admits the weakness of his craft’s tools in furthering that vision. “But I don’t know how to organize a paradise on earth, because I cannot convey it in words,” the narrator says. “And after my dream, I lost the words that could convey it. At least the most important, indispensable ones…
“And on the other hand, it would’ve been so simple… In one day – in a single hour – everything could’ve been arranged. The key phrase is, ‘Love others as you love yourself.’ And that’s all there is to it. Nothing else is required. That would settle everything. Yes, of course it’s nothing but an old truth that has been repeated and reread millions of times – and still hasn’t taken root.
“ ‘Awareness of life is of a higher order than knowledge of the laws of happiness.’ That’s an adage that we must fight.
“And I shall fight it.
“And if everyone wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.”
Perhaps there is no way to analyze the story satisfactorily enough through the intellect. The suicidal narrator intends to shoot himself through the head but instead hits his heart. Dostoevsky’s own life experience of the time offers few clues: Those days were marked by no more remarkable events than his continual health problems and his life with his beloved wife Anna and their children. His stature has risen. He was about to embark on the serialization of The Brothers Karamazov.
In the end, the story explodes from the heart. Dostoevsky wrote to a friend soon after he had stood before a firing squad, readied for an execution that never came: “If anyone remembers me as nasty, or if I quarreled with anybody, if I produced an unpleasant impression on anyone – ask them to forget, if you happen to meet them, There is no gall or rancor in my soul – I should so much like at this moment to love and to embrace someone among those I knew.”
For all the talk of Dostoevsky’s harshness in his demeanor, one understands that none of his great works could be generated without a deep love of humanity. And that may be the hidden attraction of “The Dream” story: that it feels like the extract of the artist, love distilled.
Lily Austin is a fiction writer and journalist living in Hoboken.