It seems an oddish place for Grace to shine

its light, a cell of self-enclosed despair

encased in wood all dark with stain and stench

five flights up and six feet under —

Pazzo amore! Crazy love!

~After “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man”

“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a fantastic story. As Christians, we recognize the most fantastic story of all in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the lens through which we see — in our limited capacity — Grace in action, God calling each person into his divine life. We spot these God-incidences because the Bible — and life — is flooded with them; Grace interrupts man’s plans and calls him to something greater outside himself. Think of God speaking directly to Moses through the burning bush or knocking Saul off his horse on the road to Damascus. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well drawing water, or Mary journeying — in haste — to help her elderly cousin Elizabeth. Think of the last time your plans changed — unexpectedly. In each instance, look for the invitation calling for a response to enter into what the great German theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar terms the Theo-drama, that realm of play where infinite freedom bids our finite freedom to participate in God’s drama–salvation history played out on the Cosmic stage.1 This invitation is especially poignant when one is caught up in his or her own self-centered ego-drama.2

Dostoevsky understands men play a myriad of dramatic roles, perhaps not in Balthasar’s terms, but as revealed in human experience. In his genius, Dostoevsky sub-creates characters and places them in situations that explore the embodiment of man’s ideas. According to Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, “Dostoevsky — to speak paradoxically — thought not in thoughts, but in points of view, consciousnesses, and voices.”3 He goes on to say that “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” is “practically a complete encyclopedia of Dostoevsky’s most important themes”: There is a “wise fool” ridiculed as a madman alone in his knowledge of truth.4 There are themes of indifference to the world, of “final hours of life” before suicide, of nights spent in a “Voltairean armchair” absorbed in solving ultimate questions. There is a crisis dream exploring a utopian world, rebirth, and renewal — and let us not forget the appearance of a young girl in distress!5 Bakhtin continues, “At the same time, all these themes, as well as the means of elaborating them in art, are very characteristic of the carnivalized genre of the menippea.” He defines menippea, with roots going back to ancient Greece, as a “genre of ultimate questions. In it, ultimate philosophical positions are put to the test. The menippea strives to provide, as it were, the ultimate and decisive words and acts of a person, of which contains the whole man, the whole of his life in its entirety.”6 Dostoevsky uses menippea as a “mode for searching after the truth.”7

In “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” the protagonist’s searching is explored in the form of an existential nihilist:

[T]he world was dependent on me. One might even say that the world was now as if made for me alone: I’d shoot myself and there would be no more world, at least for me. Not to mention that maybe there would indeed be nothing for anyone after me, and that as soon as my consciousness was extinguished, the whole world would be extinguished at once, like a phantom, like a mere accessory of my consciousness, it would be done away with for maybe all this world and all these people were — just myself alone.8

This “ridiculous man” is caught up in his ego-drama, and in this adaptation, he is heading towards its logical conclusion: suicide and death. But following God’s modus operandi as revealed in the Bible and experienced in one’s life — and utilizing the framework of the menippea — Dostoevsky throws in an interruption; a terrified girl seizes him by the elbow and begs him to help her mother. He shrugs her off, makes excuses, and she drops his arm and runs after another. It happens quickly. The ridiculous man does not recognize that he has been visited by grace, only later will he exclaim, “In short, this girl saved me.”9 But not now. Now he stumbles home to his rented room, to his fellow tenants playing blackjack and shouting obscenities through the partition, to the cowering mother and her sick children crossing themselves in the next room, to the revolver on the table.

“Is it so?” [he asks, referring to his intended suicide].

“It is,” [pride affirms].10

Pride, wily with half-truths, is like the serpent in the Garden of Eden telling Eve, “God knows well that when you eat of [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.”11 Pride says you will be like gods determining what is good and evil for yourselves. Pride serves as death’s gravitational force, and it has the ridiculous man in its hold. Yet, that girl’s grasp on his elbow is like a sliver of wood slid between a door and its lock; grace is not shut out. The ridiculous man cannot forget her. He feels pity where once only a numb nothingness, a meaningless void, existed (paradoxically) between him and others. He contemplates in his (Voltairean) armchair this new development — the loaded revolver and a flickering candle on the table in front of him — and dreams a fantastic dream.

The dream has all the elements of a Menippean crisis dream as referenced above, but fans of C.S. Lewis may more readily recognize it for its kinship to Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra: stars, messengers, space travel, and a world of innocent beings tempted towards corruption. There is beauty, mystery — suspense. But most significantly, I think, is the experience of unconditional love. Perhaps for the first time in the ridiculous man’s life, he is looked upon with “dear eyes pervaded by love.”12 Christians cannot help but recognize in it traces of the transformative gaze of Christ who — for Dostoevsky — “represents the resolution of ideological quests.”13

Note how it is not the Christian faith itself, but the image of Christ that is the resolution. Bahktin clarifies, “It is extremely characteristic of Dostoevsky that a question is put to the ideal image (how would Christ have acted?), that is, there is an internal dialogic orientation with regard to it, not a fusion with, but a following of it.”14 In this, I am reminded of a form of contemplative prayer springing from the tradition of Eastern Christians praying before an icon, such as one Dostoevsky would have been familiar with in Russia. Or Mother Teresa, seeing Christ in the poorest of the poor whom she served. Ronda Chervin, a convert from Judaism and a professor of theology and philosophy, writes in a meditation on “The Meaning of Love and the God of Love”:

Christian lovers of God have always found in [the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity in Holy Scripture] the mystery of love itself — that love is generative; that love is a unity which draws together without fusing; that glory is not in solitary splendor but in the perfectly received fullness of self-giving. . . Thus, everything in human experience which speaks of genuine love is unifying and therefore may be seen as a foretaste and analogy of that final unification which is seen in the unity of the Trinity: God is love.”15

It is Love that is transformative, generative. The ridiculous man — through his dream — discovers that to truly love, he must will the good of the other, even to the point of laying down his life. He wakes from his dream humbled, no longer a fool in the proverbial sense of the word, but a fool for God in the Pauline sense of the word. Seeing the loaded gun on the table, the ridiculous man “instantly push[es] it away.”16 In doing so, he rejects death and seizes life: “Oh life, life now!”17 He cannot withhold the joy in his heart — the Truth he has found. He wants to proclaim it to the whole world! He preaches, “Love others as yourself, that’s the main thing, and it’s everything, there’s no need for anything else at all. . .”18 Of course, everyone just thinks he is mad. His joy is embarrassing (so says the world). But there is a wise saying that a truly humble person cannot be embarrassed, and Dostoevsky’s character has shed his obsessed concern for self in the ego-drama and has taken his part in the Theo-drama. The words from the opening of “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” take on a fuller realization at its end: “I’m no longer angry, now they are all dear to me, and even when they laugh at me — then too, they are even somehow especially dear to me.”19 The concluding line of the story reveals the ridiculous man’s firm resolution: “And I found that little girl . . . And I’ll go! I’ll go!”20 He unites his finite freedom with the infinite freedom of God and takes his role in the theo-drama; he responds to the action and call of grace.

Notes:

1 Robert Barron, “Infinite and Finite Freedom,” Lesson 7 in Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, course transcript (Word on Fire Institute), Accessed June 26, 2023.

2 Ibid.

3 Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. trans. Caryl Emerson, Theory and History of Literature, vol. 8, (1984; repr., University of Minnesota, 1993), 93.

4 Ibid., 150.

5 Ibid., 150-153.

6 Ibid., 115. Menippea is sometimes referred to as Menippean satire.

7 Ibid., 114.

8 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” in The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), 294.

9 Ibid. 284.

10 Dostoevsky, “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” 282.

11 Genesis 3:5

12 Dostoevsky, “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” 294.

13 Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 97.

14 Bakhtin, Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 98.

15 Ronda Chervin, “The Meaning of Love and the God of Love,” in Magnificat, vol. 25, no. 4, June 2023, 116.

16 Dostoevsky, “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” 298.

17 Ibid., 298.

18 Ibid., 299.

19 Ibid., 278.

20 Ibid., 300