Even the current global pandemic that has rendered our nation into a semi-competent police state has a few silver linings. For one thing, I was finally able to find the time to finish The Idiot, a truly fascinating novel by the equally fascinating writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Personally, I was not a huge fan of the way it ended. The bleak fate of the novel’s eponymous ‘idiot’, Prince Myshkin, lacked – at least in my opinion – the transformative catharsis that breaks through the last few pages of Crime and Punishment. But, overall, I enjoyed my experience with the book.
I would like to turn your attention to one passage from the book which, I would argue, is perhaps one of the most brutally honest things that has been written by anyone. Prescient simply doesn’t do it justice. Upon reading it, I found myself physically shaken. The underlying truth to his words could not help but elicit a grin from me. However, if I were to be completely honest with you, this was one of those occasions I think we are all familiar with wherein if one doesn’t force a grin then they will probably start to weep.
I mean, “blue spectacles” and “short hair”? It’s almost as though Dostoevsky were talking about some annoying chap they met on Tumblr
The passage reads as follows: “For the limited ‘ordinary’ person there is, for example, nothing easier than to imagine himself to be an unusual and original person, and to take enjoyment in this without hesitation.” Dostoevsky, not content to drop this truth-bomb on the heads of his readers, then goes on to elaborate that “Some of our young ladies need only to have their hair cut short, put on blue spectacles and call themselves nihilists in order to be instantly persuaded that…they have at once begun to develop their own ‘convictions’.”
Not willing to let the other half of the population escape his merciless pen, Dostoevsky – or, to be more precise, the narrator that functions as Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece throughout this (admittedly self-indulgent) passage-declares: “Some men need only feel a drop of some universally good-natured feeling within their hearts in order to be instantly persuaded that…they are in the vanguard on public enlightenment.”
I’ll admit that there’s a fair bit to unpack here and so I’ll do my best to summarise what exactly it is that I find so brilliant about these extracts. Dostoevsky, in a mere handful of sentences, reminds us that most people in the world are pretty “ordinary.” Since this is a bitter pill for most people to swallow, he tells us it is quite common for bland and unoriginal people to try and mask their blandness in different ways. Either with some sort of superficial gesture like donning blue glasses for women or by men thinking a certain way that is so common it is practically universal.
You might argue that ol’ Dostoevsky is perhaps reinforcing one or two gender stereotypes here. Indeed, there are many men who probably consider themselves exceptionally original after wearing blue spectacles and plenty of women that perceive themselves at the bastion of “public enlightenment.” I suspect that one might be able to find one or two people like this on our very campus.
Despite this, I do think there is some truth to what he is saying. Maybe more than ever, in our age of superficiality, this passage rings true. I mean, “blue spectacles” and “short hair”? It’s almost as though Dostoevsky were talking about some annoying chap they met on Tumblr. Certainly, there are plenty of people, both online and in the flesh, who seem to view themselves as being at the forefront of some sort of ‘enlightened’ political or moral worldview and spend more time tweeting about some variety of injustice than is probably healthy. I won’t name any names.
Perhaps, in our rejection of the pressures of originality, we’ll discover that we have much more to offer ourselves and our communities than we ever thought possible
Most people aren’t special-and I’m including myself in this criticism. Hell, part of the reason I found this passage as disturbing as it was amusing was because I realised that it reminds me too much of myself. Many times I have written an article, or a play, or a poem and considered it to be a work of great art or brilliant social commentary, only to grind my teeth with frustration when nobody else really seems to think so.
Perhaps that is why I secretly find myself so often fishing for compliments whenever I show off a bit of writing to one of my long-suffering friends. Maybe it’s a brief respite from the truth that I, in all likelihood, am destined to live an unoriginal life. How many of you, reading this now, share the same insecurities? I suspect the percentage is rather high.
Yet, maybe the problem with our culture is that we have spent too long convincing ourselves of our own specialness, for lack of a better term. If we spent our lives trying to be compassionate, honest and hardworking, perhaps the pressure to be so original would diminish. Perhaps, in our rejection of the pressures of originality, we’ll discover that we have much more to offer ourselves and our communities than we ever thought possible.