“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34
When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.
As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.
Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.
But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.
This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.
The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.
You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285
It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.