The Adolescent/A Raw Youth

I haven’t finished this second-to-last Dosteovsky novel yet, so I just have a couple of random things to share from it: a look backward to Shakespeare, a look forward to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and some random thoughts on laughter.

1) A pattern of allusions to Othello – I have to think this out further, but the text is explicitly referenced 2-3 times, and I know Dostoevsky was a big Shakespeare fan (though Tolstoy, apparently, was decidedly not): “Versilov once said that Othello killed Desdemona and then himself not because he was jealous but because his ideal was taken from him…”  (trans. Pevear and Volokonsky, p. 256).  I’ll explain who Versilov is, and why this seems like an important line for the text as a whole, in a later post.  But I also thought it was an interesting distinction – between being “jealous” and having ones “ideal” taken from them.

2) A look forward to The Great Gatsby – Consider this paragraph, from the start of Part Three of The Adolescent

What a man, though!  I’m speaking of Versilov.  He, he alone, was the cause of it all–and yet he was the only one I wasn’t angry with then.  It wasn’t only his manner with me that won me over.  I think we felt mutually then that we owed each other many explanations… and that, precisely for that reason, it would be best never to explain.  It is extremely agreeable, on such occasions in life, to run into an intelligent person! (p. 439)

and then this, from the opening paragraphs of Gatsby:

Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. (full text available here)

Probably just a coincidence brought on by similar content (i.e., two novels narrated by relatively passive protagonists, in the thrall of two enigmatic men).  But it caught my attention.

3) Dostoevsky on Laughter (or at least his narrator).  I don’t have much to add to this, except that it struck me as extraordinarily perceptive psychologically (this is from an online version of Constant Garrett’s translation – with emphasis added):

I consider that in the majority of cases people are revolting to look at when they are laughing. As a rule something vulgar, something as it were degrading, comes to the surface when a man laughs, though he is almost unconscious of the impression he is making in his mirth, as little in fact as anyone knows what he looks like when he is asleep. One person’s face will look intelligent asleep, while another man, intelligent in waking life, will look stupid and ridiculous when he is sleeping. I don’t know what this is due to: I only mean to say that people laughing, like people asleep, have no idea what they look like. The vast majority of people don’t know how to laugh at all. It is not a matter of knowing how, though: it’s a gift and it cannot be cultivated. One can only cultivate it, perhaps, by training oneself to be different, by developing and improving and by struggling against the evil instincts of one’s character: then a man’s laugh might very likely change for the better. A man will sometimes give himself away completely by his laugh, and you suddenly know him through and through. Even an unmistakably intelligent laugh will sometimes be repulsive. What is most essential in laughter is sincerity, and where is one to find sincerity? A good laugh must be free from malice, and people are constantly laughing maliciously. A sincere laugh free from malice is gaiety, and where does one find gaiety nowadays? People don’t know how to be gay (Versilov made this observation about gaiety and I remember it). A man’s gaiety is what most betrays the whole man from head to foot. Sometimes one will be for a long time unable to read a character, but if the man begins to laugh his whole character will suddenly lie open before you. It is only the loftiest and happiest natures whose gaiety is infectious, that is, good-hearted and irresistible. I am not talking of intellectual development, but of character, of the whole man. And so if you want to see into a man and to understand his soul, don’t concentrate your attention on the way he talks or is silent, on his tears, or the emotion he displays over exalted ideas; you will see through him better when he laughs. If a man has a good laugh, it means that he is a good man. Take note of every shade; a man’s laugh must never, for instance, strike you as stupid, however gay and good-humoured be may be. If you notice the slightest trace of stupidity in his laughter, you may be sure that that man is of limited intelligence, though he is continually dropping ideas wherever he goes. Even if his laugh is not stupid, but the man himself strikes you as being ever so little ridiculous when he laughs, you may be sure that the man is deficient in personal dignity, to some extent anyway. Or if the laughter though infectious, strikes you for some reason as vulgar, you may be sure that that man’s nature is vulgar, and all the generous and lofty qualities you have observed in him before are either intentionally assumed or unconsciously borrowed and that the man is certain to deteriorate, to go in for the profitable, and to cast off his noble ideas without regret as the errors and enthusiasm of youth.

I am intentionally introducing here this long tirade on the subject of laughter and am sacrificing the continuity of my story for the sake of it, for I consider it one of the most valuable deductions I have drawn from life, and I particularly recommend it to the attention of girls who are ready to accept the man of their choice, but are still hesitating and watching him mistrustfully, unable to make their final decision: and don’t let them jeer at a wretched raw youth for obtruding his moral reflections on marriage, a subject which he knows nothing about. But I only understand that laughter is the surest test of the heart. Look at a baby — some children know how to laugh to perfection; a crying baby is disgusting to me, but a laughing, merry one is a sunbeam from paradise, it is a revelation from the future, when man will become at last as pure and simple-hearted as a child.


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  1. Pingback: The Dostoevsky Project Wrap-Up #1: Everything I Wrote – Original Positions

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