Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Joy of Talking Nonsense

I thought I was completely over my dogearing phase, but when I read p. 242 of the David McDuff translation of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment two nights ago I just couldn't resist. I started reading the book a few weeks ago, prompted largely by the many worshipful references it got in James Wood's excellent How Fiction Works. That, and the fact that I'd never read any Dostoyevsky and felt I was overdue.

Anyway, the book had been kinda slow going the first couple hundred pages, with the notable exception of the visceral description of the titular "crime" (which I will not spoil for those of you who haven't read the book yet). It has really been picking up of late, and it suddenly exploded incandescently (for me) during this monologue by Razumikhin. To set the stage a bit, Razumikhin (a friend of the protag Raskolnikov) had been drinking "a terrible quantity of vodka" until he was called into service to escort the recently arrived mother and sister of Raskolnikov to their lodgings. In his foggy state, he becomes instantly smitten with the beautiful women and starts passionately running off at the mouth...

'What do you suppose?' Razumikhin shouted, raising his voice even louder. 'Do you suppose I'm going on like this because they talk nonsense? Rubbish! I like it when they talk nonsense! Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms. It's by talking nonsense that one gets to the truth! I talk nonsense, therefore I'm human. Not one single truth has ever been arrived at without people first having talked a dozen reams of nonsense, even ten dozen reams of it, and that's an honourable thing in its own way; well, but we can't even talk nonsense with our own brains! Talk nonsense to me, by all means, but do it with your own brain, and I shall love you for it. To talk nonsense in one's own way is almost better than to talk a truth that's someone else's; in the first instance you behave like a human being, while in the second you are merely being a parrot! The truth won't go away, but life can be knocked on the head and done in. I can think of some examples. Well, and what's our position now? We're all of us, every one of us without exception, when it comes to the fields of learning, development, thought, invention, ideals, ambition, liberalism, reason, experience, and every, every, every other field you can think of, in the very lowest preparatory form of the gymnasium! We've got accustomed to making do with other people's intelligence – we're soaked in it! It's true, isn't it? Isn't what I'm saying true?' cried Razumikhin, trembling all over and squeezing the hands of both ladies. 'Isn't it?'

Methinks it is.

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