DOSTOEVSKY AND THE RIDICULOUS
Roger L. Cox, University of Delaware
Dostoevsky criticism has tended to focus upon the tragic implications of his fiction. Ivanov's term "novel-tragedy," later adopted by Mochulsky and others, applies very well to the best of Dostoevsky's work, most of which is better described as somber, rather than as hilarious or even funny. But this view, though valid in its main emphasis, has the effect of concealing one very important aspect of Dostoevsky's writing - namely, his preoccupation with the ridiculous in human experience. And he exploits this element not merely as "comic relief," but as an important vehicle for projecting his vision of the human condition. Because he is interested in the entire range of human behavior and in the psychological states which underlie it, Dostoevsky does not tend - as some writers do - to make use of the ridiculous purely and simply for its own sake. Nearly always in his fiction the ridiculous appears in combination with other elements; and its effect is therefore often muted. Nevertheless, he is enormously skillful as a comic writer.
When he felt so inclined, Dostoevsky was perfectly capable of producing a sustained and fairly large-scale comic narrative. "The Village of Stepan-chikovo" (which Constance Garnett translated into English under the title "The Friend of the Family2) comes to mind as the most obvious example. Written when Dostoevsky was in his later thirties and published in 1859, this novel sets forth in about two hundred pages two characters which the author described to his brother as "vast" and "typical" - characters that according to Dostoevsky were "completely Russian and until now poorly portrayed in Russian literature."3 The more interesting of them (and indeed the central character of the story) is one Foma Fomich Opiskin, who appears to be directly descended from the "sponge" or "parasite" of Greek and Roman New Comedy. He also lays claim to being a literary man of some importance; but he prefers most of the time to leave that sort of thing to men of lesser talent. Moreover, he never allows anyone to forget that he is immeasurably superior to his fellow human beings in a moral and religious way though it is by no means clear what this moral and religious superiority consists of. The second of these "vast and typical" characters is Colonel Fedor Il'ich Rostanev, the narrator's uncle, who is very generous and considerate of others, if somewhat unperceptive. As Opiskin's patron, Colonel Rostanev supports him in comfortable style; and in return, Opiskin gives the entire family the benefit of his lofty mind and moral rectitude.
The story contains several scenes that are amusing and one or two that
may be accurately described as hilarious. In the best scene of all, the conflict beween Opiskin and Rostanev comes to a climax - Rostanev's patience is finally exhausted when Opiskin accuses him, a respectable widower with two children, of attempting to debauch the children's governess, an attractive young woman with whom Rostanev is in fact in love. As a thunderstorm gathers and breaks outside, the colonel seizes Opiskin and hurls him through a pair of glass doors and down the front steps. Taking this as a hint that he is no longer welcome in the house, Opiskin apparently flees, but returns not long afterward soaked with rain and covered with mud. He then manages to recapture the family's affection by pronouncing a blessing upon the colonel's union with the governess. In short he succeeds in creating the impression that he alone is responsible for the happy ending and thus reestablishes himself more firmly than ever within the Rostanev household.
In "Dostoevsky: His Life and Work," Mochulsky makes three main interpretative points in connection with "The Village of Stepanchikovo"; and he cites earlier authorities for two of the three. First, following Alekseev, he asserts that in this story "Dostoevsky reproduces exactly the subject schema of Molière's Tartuffe'." Secondly, he affirms Tynjanov's claim, in "Dostoevsky and Gogol", that Foma Fomich is a parody, a caricature of Gogol himself. And thirdly, he argues that Rostanev is less a "character" than "the rough sketch of a 'character’ "; he is, says Mochulsky, "the author's first attempt to portray a 'positively beautiful individual,' " the attempt which culminated, presumably, in the creation of Prince Myshkin, in "The Idiot".4
These interpretative suggestions are helpful to a certain extent, but they distort both the meaning of the story and its comic appeal. There are of course similarities between the plots of Molière's "Tartuffe" and Dostoevsky's "Village of Stepanchikovo"; but the endings are radically different. In "Tartuffe," the protagonist is arrested by the king's messenger, exposed as a criminal, and carried off to jail. In Dostoevsky's story, Foma Fomich lives for seven more years in the bosom of the Rostanev family, and "the reverence for him of the couple he had 'made happy', far from diminishing, actually increased every day with his caprices."5 Thus, whatever the similarities between Moliere's play and Dostoevsky's story, the endings are entirely different; and the ending is quite possibly the most important single element of any comic plot. Moreover, if Opiskin is simply a transported Tartuffe, it is difficult to explain why Dostoevsky should have regarded this character as "completely Russian."
Mochulsky's second point - that the character of Opiskin is primarily a caricature of Gogol - also requires modification. There are, to be sure, direct and specific references to Gogol and his works within the story. Some phrases from "Correspondence with Friends," for instance, are put into Foma Fomich's mouth. But again, at the end of the story, Opiskin's literary remains include nothing but insignificant fragments - no work that might even remotely suggest fictional works on a par with "The Overcoat" or "Dead Souls." One does not caricature an important poli-
tician (whatever his faults) by representing him as someone who never actually held a position of public responsibility; neither, I think, does one caricature an important writer by means of a character who never actually wrote anything that the public could or did take seriously. Or at least if one does so, he runs a very high risk that his own readers will miss the point completely. It is entirely possible for a novelist to take sly digs at friends or acquaintances by incorporating the least attractive elements of their personalities into the characters he creates. But the comic purpose of a caricature or parody is completely lost if the audience does not recognize the parody and understand it by reference to the original on which it is based. Anyone who watches television shows that consist mainly of comic sketches designed as parodies knows that quite often the sketch will seem hilariously funny if one is familiar with what is being parodied. If, however, the person or material being parodied is unfamiliar, the sketch will seem merely pointless and inane. The characterization of Foma Fomich Opiskin will not, I think, seem either pointless or inane even to a reader that has never heard of Molière's "Tartuffe" or that may never have read a line of Gogol.
Mochulsky's third point - that Colonel Rostanev is a first attempt to represent a "positively beautiful individual" - is disappointing because it purports to explain not how the work succeeds as comedy, but how it fails as characterization. In fact, one would hardly think, on the basis of Mochulsky's comments, that "The Village of Stepanchikovo" was even modestly successful as comedy - its plot (or at least its "subject schema") is stolen from Molière; and of its two main characters, one is a cruel caricature of Gogol', to whom Dostoevsky owed much, while the other is simply a failure. The effect of these remarks is especially disconcerting when one realizes that they come not from a detractor, but from an admirer, of Dostoevsky. Moreover, if the comedy succeeds no better than this in its relatively pure form, what confusion will it cause when it is combined, as it usually is in Dostoevsky, with other elements?
The two laughter theories most frequently cited in connection with literary comedy are the incongruity theory, articulated by Schopenhauer, and the superiority theory, associated with Thomas Hobbes. According to Schopenhauer, we laugh when we suddenly perceive "the incongruity of sensuous and abstract knowledge."6 That is, we laugh when we see people (including sometimes even ourselves) respond inappropriately to events and to other people because the particular mind set of an individual causes him to misinterpret the environment which his eyes and ears convey (as "sensuous knowledge") to his understanding (or already accumulated "abstract knowledge"). The person then acts on the basis of a mistaken conception, and his behavior seems to us ridiculous and often laughable. According to Hobbes, on the other hand, we laugh primarily because we feel a surge of "sudden glory" when we encounter examples of other people's failures or our own unexpected successes. Since most people encounter other people's failures far more frequently than their own unexpected successes, laughter (at least in this view) is for the most part a spontaneous expression of derision and is essentially degrading to
the person whose behavior provokes the laughter.
Mochulsky's comments on "The Village of Stepanchikovo" clearly suggest that he takes a very Hobbesian view of Opiskin's role in the story. By making the narrator Rostanev's nephew, Dostoevsky causes the reader to side with Rostanev against Opiskin even before the reader has had time to form any opinion of his own about the two characters. He then proceeds, by means of the partisan narrator, to heap scorn upon Foma Fomich; and uncharitable as this sort of thing may be under any circumstances, it is particularly so in this case because Opiskin, says our commentator, is a thinly disguised representation of Gogol, from whom Dostoevsky had learned a great deal and for whom he ought certainly to have had more respect. I would argue, in response to his view, that the characterization of Opiskin has its roots in wo of the stock characters of New Comedy -the parasite and the hypocrite. Even as hypocrite Opiskin is different from Molière's Tartuffe, who actively tries to seduce his patron's wife. What makes Opiskin ridiculous is the incongruity, the utter disparity, between his personality as revealed in confrontations with the other characters and his conception of himself as a genuinely "noble" human being, deserving and even demanding to be addressed as "your Excellency." In short, his lack of self-knowledge, his failure to recognize the difference between what he is and what he thinks he is, renders him ridiculous and therefore laughable.
The words "ridicule" and "ridiculous" are of course central to most theoretical conceptions of the comic mode in literature. Northrop Frye observes, for instance, that "comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge."7 In drama, and for that matter in most fiction, this ridiculing of an imagined character's lack of self-knowledge often provokes laughter from the audience because, lacking any real basis for identification with such a character, we tend to view him with condescension and to feel a kind of "sudden glory" (to use Hobbes's phrase) as we contemplate his unconscious self-revelation. One thinks, for example, of Ljagavyj (alias Gorstkin) in "The Brothers Karamazov", who has "a nasty, thin, red beard." According to Fedor Pavlovich, this Ljagavyj is easy to deal with in business affairs because "if his beard shakes when he talks and he gets cross, it's all right... But if he strokes his beard with his left hand and grins - he is trying to cheat you.”8 Later, when Dmitrij Fedorovich confronts the man, not only is he dead drunk but he "strokes his beard importantly,"9 and Drnitrij's attempt to do business with him is a complete fiasco.
More often, however, Dostoevsky complicates matters by leading the reader to identify himself in some way with the character whose behavior might otherwise seem completely ridiculous. This identification comes about partly through Dostoevsky's ability to make the reader empathize with the character in question and partly by technical devices, such as the representation by a first-person narrator of his own ridiculous behavior. The narrator of "Notes from the Underground" witnesses a fight with billiard cues as he passes a pool hall, sees a man thrown out of the
window, and tells the reader, "I could not help feeling envious of the fellow who had been thrown out of the window."l0 He enters the pool hall in the hope of provoking another fight and being thrown out of the window himself. Instead, one of the players, whose shot he is intentionally blocking, just picks him up as though he had not even noticed him and moves him out of the way. "I could have forgiven him," says the narrator, "if he had given me a beating, but I could not forgive him for having moved me from one place to another as if I were a piece of furniture. I would have given anything at that moment for a real, a more decent, and a more, so to speak, literary quarrel!"11 Here the reader's laughter is at least slightly inhibited because it is "to me" that the ridiculous incident occurs; and humiliation of this sort is for most people no laughing matter - at least not when they are the ones being humiliated. In so far as literary comedy has an authentic didactic purpose, that purpose is achieved by making the reader aware of the tension between his inclination to laugh at the ridiculous behavior of others and his equally strong tendency to behave in a way which others may very well find laughable. In this sense, the function of comedy is not simply to "ridicule a lack of self-knowledge" in others, but to nudge the reader into a somewhat greater knowledge of himself.
According to the philosopher Kant, laughter is "an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.12 In the case just described, the narrator had entered the pool hall expecting to provoke a fight. "But," says he, "nothing happened," and the comic effect is muted by the reader's unconscious and hesitating identification with the narrator. The same sort of thing is represented, though on a much larger scale, in "The Possessed" ("Besy"). Despite the narrator's flippant and sarcastic tone, apparent even in the first pages of the novel, the reader identifies strongly with Kirillov and Stavrogin. When the fantastic projects to which they devote so much time and thought finally collapse into the nothingness of death (by murder and suicide), the stakes are too high and the reader's identification with them too strong for anyone to laugh at these events; and the result is a kind of "black comedy" or "gallows humor" that appals rather than amuses.
This analysis of Dostoevsky and the ridiculous began with the suggestion that the comic element in his fiction is not merely peripheral, that it functions not simply as "comic relief." There are plenty of characters in Dostoevsky who are represented as deliberately "playing the fool"; and of course there are some who appear to do so less deliberately - Marmeladov in "Crime and Punishment", Lebedev in "The Idiot", and Fedor Pavlovich in "The Brothers Karamazov" come to mind as obvious examples. But there is another kind of "fool" in Dostoevsky, another kind of "ridiculous man," who far from being the object of the author's ridicule actually emerges as an authentic hero. According to Mochulsky, Colonel Rostanev in "The Village of Stepanchikov" is a first draft of that hero, a "first attempt to portray a 'positively beautiful individual' ". The colonel is of course ridiculous in so far as he allows himself to be gulled by the parasitic and hypocritical Foma Fomich; but in the long run he is far less
concerned about seeming gullible than about establishing the general happiness of his household. A more reasonable man would not tolerate the oppressive behavior of an Opiskin; and Rostanev seems foolish to the reader to the same extent that his conduct is guided by something other than reason.
Near the beginning of his little book entitled "Laughter," Henri Bergson observes that "the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart." Its appeal," says Bergson, "is to the intelligence, pure and simple."13 Though it would be an overstatement to say that the terms "irrational" and "ridiculous" mean the same thing, their meanings do overlap in a highly significant way. In English, for instance, the word fool means both "one deficient in judgment or sense" and "professional jester or clown." Also, we use the phrase "theater of the absurd" to refer to certain modern plays in which the writers achieve their comic effects by exploiting the irrationality of human experience. But irrationality takes various forms. It may be used to designate the condition of a madman, who has lost his reason and who is unable to replace it with anything at all. It may, on the other hand, refer to a person who has discovered the limitations of reason and who has, therefore, replaced it with something else. This "something else" may of course take the form of an obsession which has no relation to reality. (Obsessional characters abound in Dostoevsky; and obsessional characters are by their very nature comic.) But it may also take, as it sometimes does in Dostoevsky, the form of a vision - a vision in which reality is transformed and illuminated in a way that goes beyond the scope of mere reason. To the reader whose heart is thoroughly anesthetized, to borrow Bergson's phrase, this vision will seem ridiculous or even mad; and it is to this reader that Dostoevsky, as comic writer, makes his most direct and meaningful appeal.
Consider, for instance, the opening sentences of "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" which Dostoevsky wrote nearly twenty years after "The Village of Stepanchikovo": "I am a ridiculous man. They call me a madman now. That would be a distinct rise in my social position were it not that they still regard me as being as ridiculous as ever.'14 The undercurrent of humor is present from the very beginning of this story, which is surely as earnest and as heart-felt as any that Dostoevsky wrote. Or consider the situation of Zosima's dying brother in the "Russian Monk" section of "The Brothers Karamazov": " 'Don't cry, mother,' he would answer, "life is a paradise and we are all in paradise, but we don't see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.' " Such pronouncements as this one, coupled with the claim that "we are all responsible for all" prompt the attending physician to tell the sick boy's mother, "Your son cannot last long.... The disease is affecting his brain."15 Such characters as Colonel Rostanev, the narrator of "The Dream," Zosima's brother, and of course Prince Myshkin - all of them ridiculous fellows and perhaps even "idiots" - occupy a position of primary importance in Dostoevsky's fiction. They are, in a sense, his most authentic heroes.
Dostoevsky's ability, reflected in "Notes from the Underground" and "The
Possessed", to represent the ridiculous in terms that make one shudder in his capacity, manifested in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers Karamazov," to risk linking his most precious vision of the world with human illness and even madness - these are among the elements which make the writing of Dostoevsky so appealing to twentieth-century readers. In his fiction we find one of the earliest examples of a genuinely modern novelist who captivates by presenting a comprehensive vision of human experience that is both impishly humorous and profoundly serious.