Sunday, October 6, 2013

Me, Fady, The Idiot, and Stuff..

Suddenly, as I read that climatic moment in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, I understood it all; how men and women can think so alike and yet so differently. Well, not men and women really, just me and Fady.

In our conversation about Russian literature that kept moving all over the spectrum of all the literature in the world, he told me how he admired Dostoyevsky’s characters; their depth, their structure, I am paraphrasing here so I hope no one takes this personally. I had got a similar comment on Dostoyevsky as I was struggling to read Crime & Punishment from Ahmed Essam back in our first or second year of college. I was never able to get through it, and I think it would take me a few years before I venture into Russian lit again. But here he was, Fady I mean, telling me about the Brothers Karamazov, and how they were so ingeniously portrayed, as I was struggling through the last few chapters of The Idiot; a story with a massive retention dip! When you read The Idiot, you start off by loving the characters, and hating how they are so thoroughly explained in the beginning, feeling cheated at how that takes the fun out of discovering them well ahead within the story. Then in the middle, you see all those situations that have almost no weight. Their sole purpose is to further display the personalities of the characters which have already been transcribed in the very beginning. I am a storyline person myself, I never remember endings, I just remember how the story goes. So for me, it was a massive disappointment. It took me close to 6 months to finish, was an excellent cure to insomnia, and has been indeed a great motivator to get up and do something more interesting!

But here I was, talking to Fady, very excited about finally getting over and done with this novel, telling him how the characters seemed different to me than their descriptions in book reviews and plot outlines. I have to admit I’ve never really read the whole plot outline, who does THAT! But I have read some of the reviews. In them, the character portrayal was all about symbolism; the angelic girl versus the not so angelic girl, and the prince who suffers from the love of both, and so much more blah. First of all, the characters are NOTHING like that; it’s not Jane Austen people! Not even Shakespeare, whose characters can be completely described in 2 adjectives. To me, towards the end but not quite there, the characters were all very normal with some curiosities but nothing to call interesting. How they spun together in the web of the storyline was, in my opinion na├»ve. Fady rejected these ideas in his usual, but not unpleasant, cynicism, because to him, the story was driven by something deeper inside each character, and in the end I knew why.

I will try hard not spoil it for people who are planning to read it, but here goes. The ending shocked me, even though I had a general idea about it, and it was like someone finally turned on the light in that crammed closet to find that the answer was sitting right in front of you all along but you were never really able to put your finger on it. Despite all what you may have thought of the characters in the middle of the story, all the ideas that kept changing over and over, the ones where you wonder why the writer was so misleading in the beginning, turned out exactly as he had described at the start, but with the actions of the story taking their toll. In a way, it was their attempts to change and adapt, and their inevitable failure at being anything other than who they really are. The only character I felt was not portrayed correctly in the beginning was Evgenie Pavlovitch, or maybe it was the only character who was able to adapt. Better still, maybe he started off pretending to be someone else, and showed his true colors in the end, who knows. Read it and let me know.

The light at the end of the tunnel was in the end related to love, and in turn, how men and women thought differently, how Fady focused on the characters while I focused on the storyline. The prince, or the idiot, in my opinion, was abstract emotion; a creature driven solely by his heart. Often described as simple, and in his description of his life and education, he was. He has loved Nastasia Philipovna with that sense specifically; a woman with a reputation so to speak, but only just that and nothing else, for she has shown nothing from her attire at the beginning except modesty. That was how society conceived her, and how she came to conceive herself. Abstractly, wouldn’t a human, in all the sense of the word, love her for her suffering? For her modesty? For her beauty, which the prince had seen, on the inside? Wouldn’t that abstract person also love Aglaya Ivanovna for her youth, her untainted heart, even though I say this conservatively, and for her love of life? Apparently he would, or so Dostoyevsky thought. But in reality, people are not abstract emotion, people are not abstract greed, and are not abstract goodness or badness or any other thing. People are complex, capable of things they can never imagine; good or evil. Even the women; the suffering woman who has to live with her feelings of unworthiness because that is what society has chosen to tag her with, and the child growing into womanhood with pride and beauty and a general feeling of worthiness because society has chosen to bestow that upon her. She did not go through what Nastasia Philipovna has gone through, she, like society, allows herself to judge, and in her own mind’s eye and society’s, remain pure and white hearted.

Dostoyevsky indeed focuses in the characters. His novels portray depth in the human soul. Fady agrees with that, is interested in that, and in a similar manner, this is how he thinks. I on the other hand see the characters from the context they are put in, I believe in emotions and empathy, I cannot be so analytical as to think the human character is an algorithm that we can use to decipher behavior. The prince, in his abstract emotional sense, in a symbolic way did not survive life because he tried to look at the emotions of each person conceptually, and tried to analyze all their actions based on that and that alone, like women do most of the time. As a woman myself, believe it or not, I cannot identify people with a specific set of characteristics and play match; each situation with the equivalent character trait, because in my very humble opinion on my very long blog, I believe that the context in which you are put matters, hence my love for the storyline and my dislike of Dostoyevsky.

I bet I’ll have to follow up on this post when Fady reads it, stay tuned.

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  1. "Abstractly, wouldn’t a human, in all the sense of the word, love her for her suffering?"
    Dostoevsky summarized in one sentence

    1. Hardly, one book, a few characters, and I've summarized Dostoevsky? you're being very unfair.. but I am flattered :)