On Man

June 18, 2008

To this point, I have read one of Dostoevsky’s novels and started reading another. Both have been thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

No, the theme of today’s discussion, as you may have noted from the title of this post, is man. In each of his books I’ve read, Dostoevsky has had the narrator define man. The definitions are different from one another, but both are quite interesting.

The narrator of Notes from Underground provides these thoughts:

Gentlemen, let us assume that man is not stupid. (Really, you know, it is quite impossible to say that he is, if only because after all, if he is stupid who can be clever?) But if he isn’t stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful, all the same. He is phenomenally ungrateful. I even think that the best definition of man is: a creature that has two legs and no sense of gratitude.

And here is what Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, narrator of The House of the Dead, has to say:

When it got dark we used all to be taken to the barracks, and to be locked up for the night. I always felt depressed at coming into our barrack-room from outside. It was a long, low-pitched, stuffy room, dimly lighted by tallow candles, full of a heavy stifling smell. I don’t understand now how I lived through ten years in it. I had three planks on the wooden platform; that was all I had to myself. On this wooden platform thirty men slept side by side in our room alone. In the winter we were locked up early; it was fully four hours before everyone was asleep. And before that—noise, uproar, laughter, swearing, the clank of chains, smoke and grime, shaven heads, branded faces, ragged clothes, everything defiled and degraded. What cannot man live through! Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.

Both definitions are true to a certain extent, and they’re certainly not exclusive of one another. Both apply to me, for example, so I can’t really disagree with either. I’m wondering whether this is a theme repeated in Dostoevsky’s writing. Does every one of his narrators reduce man to a pithy phrase like this? How would Fyodor himself have defined man?

Song of the Moment: «Med en gong eg nÃ¥r bÃ¥nn» — Kaizers Orchestra

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