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Dostoyevsky's “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (2014) (brainpickings.org)
165 points by jedwhite 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

> I saw and know that men could be beautiful and happy, without losing the capacity to live upon the earth.

This struck me as the revelation that changed the protagonist's perspective. And Dostoyevsky presents this using the irrational, symbolic language of dreams: a vision of human dignity. He concludes by quoting Christ's commandment... showing that this isn't new knowledge. It's been known for a very long time, but one must experience suffering and a spiritual death before the full significance of the commandment can be understood.

Kierkegaard's book on Christian love provides an in-depth (and sometimes tedious) discussion of the necessity of love of ones neighbor. Recommend checking it out if you're curious to read why one could come to view such love as necessary for life.

This was an incredible read! This is my first introduction to Dostoyesvky and I’m engrossed.

So from these excerpts, his profound writing reminds me of another great writer I admire the most; Poe. Poe’s writing has had a profound effect on me and so has this story by Dostoyesvky.

I see the similarity in the sense that both of these writers seem to distill such great truths about life and translate them into poetical and lyrical writing.

The conventional plot is barebones in their stories but their focus lies on the inner turmoil, revolving intensely around a lonesome nihilistic character musing about the existence, human desires and the consequent suffering that results thereafter.

I’m a fan now and will definitely be reading more of Dostoyesvky.

I really really really believe everyone should read Dostoyevsky. I think a very fundamental part of human experience is understanding yourself with respect to your true self and with respect to the society. You know when they compare psychadelic substances people sometimes say LSD is extraspective and shrooms is introspective. Dostoyevsky is very much about finding a peace between introspection and extraspection. It is about the fundamental trade-off between "maximal personal freedom" vs "a moral society where nothing 'bad' happens". Being both hardcore religious and conservative and anarchist Dostoyevsky hosts two inconsistent (?) ideas that "one should always do the moral thing" and "morality is a social construct and 200 years from now nothing we deem im/moral today will be relevant and thus one should only do what they think is the right regardless of 'morality'". I think this is a very familiar discussion every person has with themselves.

It’s wordy and all over the place, but I loved the Brothers Karamazov in my early twenties.

I think a lot of the parts in that book that seemed to be all over the place would have later come together into something more cohesive by the end of the second book.

It was supposed to be the first part of two books but he died before he wrote the second. Which is why I think there was much more to the plot and there may have been some more twists beside what was already revealed in the first.

if you enjoyed this you might also find “A confession”[1] by L. Tolstoy interesting. I did.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Confession

I strongly recommend Crime and Punishment.

I suggest House of the Dead. His life transformed immensely during the course of that book, to put it simply.

Can you point out what great truths Dostoevsky distills?

I would say that it's less about some kind of absolute truths about existence, which are often things that we have long heard about (be kind to your neighbor, etc) but rather more about the characters and the experiences that they go through in order to arrive at these truths. He strikes me as a person who actually lived through the things that he writes about and he bases his characters and their experiences on them.

Some writers may have some truth that they want to convey in their book and so they create characters that are simply vehicles for these ideas and not much more (ie Ayn Rand). Dostoyevsky's characters are not simply posterboys for some moral agenda but are more like personality archetypes that you would actually come across, that's what makes his writing so relatable and believable, and the interactions between these characters so lifelike.

Some of it does get lost in translation, there's something about Russian dialogue that it translates very awkwardly to English.

PS: Another example where his insight was pretty accurate was his book The Possessed. It was published over 40 years before the communist revolution in Russia but it definitely offered some very on-point commentary about the nature of the people who lead these kinds of movements. It was prescient in many ways, really. It's a lesser known book but I highly recommend it, in many ways I think it's relevant to what's (still) happening in politics today.

For anyone who loves Dostoyevsky, I’d recommend Alexander Solzhenitsyn too. His writings have a stronger political bent, but his style is firmly in the Russian tradition, with a mastery of the polyphonic voice—the ability to bring life to many perspectives—and explores every aspect of life and humanity. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—a portrait of a gulag prisoner—is the quickest introduction.

It’s harder to take this work seriously after the way it’s been politicized by Jordan Peterson.

How does what Peterson have to say effect your opinion on the significance of the contents of The Gulag Archipelago?

I bought a copy of it, so I could make up my own mind. Peterson brought it to my attention and it was timely as I read Man's Search For Meaning this year. That book is very widely read.

I had never even heard of The Gulag Archipelago. Peterson points out that it's severely under-read in the West compared to how significant it is. He's saying you should at least read it and judge for yourself and not let only the ideology itself be the basis on which you judge the ideology.

That seems reasonably sensible to me.

He uses it as a boogeyman, which makes me less inclined to read it. But it could be great. Just a slight variation in my inclination, I'm not making any sweeping statement.

He does mention it an awful lot. Then again if he's right about what he's saying that the ways of thinking that produced those kinds of outcomes are alive and well and trying to advance their agenda either consciously or unconsciously, then that seems significant to me.

I guess to that end it's one data point among many.

As I've grown ever more curious about history and have started to dive into more and more parts of it I find that really reading through things deeply yourself is a much richer experience than a crude surface level analysis or taking someone's word for it. I had never heard of it prior to him bringing it up and it's like holy moly here looks like the exact kind of thing I find quite engrossing to read.

I think HN book recommendation thread from recently mentioned An Era of Darkness which I haven't bought yet because I implement a moratorium on buying books until I get through another 50, but I did add it to my list. That one is an account of British Rule in India.

Id rather do my best to learn the lessons of history. I think it's a lost art these days.

Russian literature in a nutshell:



Russian classical literature

New man | Odd man | Small man


Just the classical? Just the literature?

I thought that cycle was the nutshell of Russia. Then again I only know Russia through her authors. Holy S*^% they’re brilliant!

Also noteworthy is the beautiful animated short film of the same title by Aleksandr Petrov, painstakingly made in paint-on-glass animation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dream_of_a_Ridiculous_Man_...


Tangential: The picture used there "The 1845 depiction of a galaxy that inspired Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night" is attributed to the book which was published in 2014, but the picture it actually public domain:


The picture was made by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse:


As the point in the sky what we today call the "Whirlpool galaxy" was discovered in 1773 by Charles Messier and "in 1845, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, employing a 72-inch (1.8 m) reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland, found the Whirlpool possessed a spiral structure."

Only during the last 100 years we have obtained proofs that a lot of these objects that what were before called "nebulas" are the galaxies with many billions of the stars in each of them, and that the Whirlpool galaxy is a galaxy.

It seems that just the author of the mentioned book from 2014 claims that that 1845 picture inspired Van Gogh. While it's true that the picture was published in the books at the times when Van Gogh could have seen it, it seems it's still not proven, and I'm surely not convinced: in the painting of Van Gogh we can't actually see any spiral star, all shine circularly, and the spiral shapes are something else (air movements?):


so, beware of internets bearing gifts.

On another side, the awareness of the planets being planets and of comparable size to Earth existed of course much longer, so Dostoyevsky's hero could write in 1877 something that the readers would even then easily understand (as quoted in the article):

"If I had previously lived on the moon or in Mars, and I had there been dishonored and disgraced so utterly that one can only imagine it sometimes in a dream or a nightmare, and if I afterwards found myself on earth and still preserved a consciousness of what I had done on the other planet, and if I knew besides that I would never by any chance return, then, if I were to look at the moon from the earth — would it be all the same to me or not?"

Dostoyevsky changed my life.


I can’t speak for the OP, nor can I express how D. changed my life.

Perhaps D. is the exact opposite of a self-help book at the airport. It’s hard to read and emotionally devastating. You go into the depths of human depravity. Sin is real. Modernity is fraught with contradictions, with danger. Modernity offers mechanical band aids for what are sicknesses of our souls. For Doestoyevsky the greatest man is Christ but he is what we would consider an Idiot.

In the end you are offered catharsis. accept it and you are changed.

I like they way he challenges himself and his beliefs. If he presents a character with a contrary position, he doesn’t cheat. He makes them powerful, compelling, articulate characters and presents their arguments in the best light. He’s incredibly tough on himself and his protagonists or sympathetic characters.

For me, his writing helped me understand human nature better such that I see people less as slowly clawing their way up a mountain towards being a better person and instead to view people more like a Jekyll and Hyde struggling between two extremes of good and evil.

I'm off to celebrate Christmas with family but I don't think you can be honest with yourself about who you are unless you appreciate the depths of human depravity, with that understanding you can build a truer foundation for your personal convictions about life.

that was one of the best reads that I ever had! thanks for posting this.

one of the best readings that occurred to me on HN, I rarely comment on anything here.

That was a very good read. Thank you very much. I purchased the Kindle version of "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" after reading this.

I have never read Dostoyevsky before. Any recommendations on where else to start?

Crime and Punishment is a wonderful deep dive into the mind of a really messed up person. If you like the film Taxi Driver, it is sort of similar, but with a lot more direct philosophical underpinnings. Raskolnikov has a whole philosophical framework on why he's allowed to murder the pawn shop owner* and he spends time explaining and discussing it.

The motif of the nihilistic, disaffected young man is something Fyodor gets a lot of mileage out of, but he's the master of that genre. Notes From Underground is similar, but a lot shorter. It's one of the few Dostoevsky novels I haven't read, so I can't say much more than that. Its opening is his most famous line: "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased."

To go against the grain of most recommendations, I'll say that "Notes from a Dead House" (the name differs depending on translation) is a good place to start too. It's essentially his prison memoirs, slightly fictionalized to avoid censors. There are a lot of little details that stood out and affected me deeply. e.g: He recalls a small dog that was often abused by the other prisoners, and was so timid that it would "sink to the ground on all fours and start trembling all over" when he petted it. The book has so many small, human details that really show the personal history that influenced his later books. He has an eye for those details that most people would gloss over.

The thing to keep in mind is that, across Dostoyevsky's novels, there are a lot of scenes where people stand around discussing philosophy. It's great and engaging if you're into it, but it will kill your enjoyment if it's not your thing. The Brothers Karamazov and Demons are books to avoid for your first attempt; they include a lot of that. Fyodor is really preachy in general, but this increases over time in his career, so his earlier books are more plot-focused. And he's all about symbolism, like the hypothetical author in the famous "curtains are blue" meme.

Finally, don't worry too much about translation. Pevear and Volokhonsky are always the most recommended, but that is more due to current trends in translation than their objective superiority. That's not to say they're bad, but any modern translation is going to be fine. Constance Garnett is the only one who's not so great, but I had a fine experience with her translation of C&P as my first Dostoyesvky novel, so it's hardly unreadable.

*not a spoiler, this happens in the opening

Let’s not forget the context, too - Dostojewski was very worried about the individualistic and nihilistic trends he noticed in the Western world and which were slowly seeping through to Russia as well. He was worried they’ll lead to a collapse of civilization, and was looking for an answer on how to prevent that from happening. His books are an exploration of this subject.

To add a conflicting voice, my own opinion is that Constance Garnett's translation of The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoyevsky's best work for English readers.

I loved Brothers Karanazov. Brilliant.

In fact the Russian authors are amazing. It’s a shame I discovered them when I was in grad school and not earlier.

I first discovered Dostoevsky in undergrad engineering school. Needed gen eds and ended up taking a class that sounded interesting that talked about the philosophies of the superman (ubermensch) and it started with Crime and Punishment.

It was the best class I took in undergrad, it was so interesting to read and discuss. I think I needed to be in that class, though, to really get what I got out of it - so perhaps it is ok to come across them later in life. They almost require experience.

Russian composers as well. The quality of art that culture produced from the mid 19th to the early 20th century.

I recommend you start with the "Idiot" ... Crime and Punishment is his masterpiece but I believe it's not the best first book to read by him. After there are Brothers Karamazov a less known book but very beautiful. The rest you can find with simple Google search, Dostoyevsky is I believe unparalleled in the world's literature.

In my experience Dostoevsky novels can be a bit of a slog at the beginning because nothing much happens and it’s lots of character analysis. Then about halfway through some significant event happens and the rest is absolutely fascinating because you’ve spent so much time getting into the characters’ heads.

I've only read Crime and Punishment, but this was exactly my observation of it. I really wasn't impressed with it, and then suddenly, almost exactly half way in, it kicked off and I was engrossed.

The Gambler is probably the easiest to understand Dostoevsky novel I've read. It's a character analysis of himself written quickly to pay off his own gambling debts.

I'd recommend this first, then Notes from the Underground, for a gentle introduction.

the big 3 are "Notes from the underground", "Crime and Punishment", "The brothers Karamazov" (from this podcast https://historyofliterature.com/169-dostoevsky/)

I'd only recommend to take out Notes from the underground and replace it with Idiot, which Dostoevsky himself liked the most of all his works. Devils and Gambler are just below these three. Also, Humiliated and insulted allegedly made Nietzsche cry. But that one I haven't read (yet).

If you're having nihilistic thoughts, Notes from the Underground is a must. Idiot is good if you have a Jesus complex. :)

I think Zossima's arc from Brothers Karamazov feeds Messiah complex better than Idiot :)


And also: Chekhov, Nabokov. Of course: Tolstoy for those super-sized tomes that give you a free workout.

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