Who is laughing at mankind?

According to my suspiciously easy teaching contract, I’m supposed to teach at my school only 16 days a month. The theory behind this is that the same teaching contract applies to all teachers in my program placed in Tokyo Prefecture. Up until a few years ago, most of those teachers were not placed in the greater metropolitan Tokyo area, but were rather in the outskirts of Tokyo, where native English teachers were seen as more needed. And by outskirts I don’t even mean the super 田舎 (inaka – countryside) Tokyo suburbs, but actually the vastly more outskirted Tokyo islands (like my glorious favorite, Ogasawara). As the story goes, this 16 day work schedule was supposed to compensate for being placed a 26-hour ferry ride from civilization, even though your placement contract said “Tokyo.” But the result of this is that now those exceptionally lucky applicants that find themselves placed in the middle of elusive, destination Tokyo (real city Tokyo) are even further flattered with good fortune by the addition of a 4-day work week. So once a week, I don’t have any classes scheduled, although I often come to school this day anyway and do other prep work and whatnot; or, recently, sit in on the handsome young teacher’s Physics classes (truly 80%-85% for my love of Physics).

Tokyo bar along the Sumida River–ping pong table in back

But this morning (my 授業がない日, day of no lessons), after breakfast, I was sitting and reading at my desk when a colleague walked into the English office with a grammar question. I was reading the Brothers Karamazov for the third time, and I was smiling widely as she entered, which caused her to smile too and ask what was delighting me so much. I couldn’t explain quickly or easily, nor did I think she was truly asking after a full literary answer at that moment, so I simply said the book was funny and asked her what’s up. Since I started bringing this giant, conspicuous book with me to school each day, I’ve found myself discussing it in Japanese with my co-workers several times, each time almost trying to defend to them why I revere it so seriously, why it has such a pull over me…not that they were especially skeptical or on the attack, but for those familiar with it at all, I often hear it articulated as dense, dark, and (rightly enough) very long.

In a way, this is quite accurate. Dostoyevsky will always be one of my most beloved authors, but the affection I have for his style and masterpieces is pretty distinct from how I feel about, say, Tolstoy, whom I also love. Tolstoy wraps his readers in a tight and trusting embrace. His style is immensely intimate, carefully revealing every fleeting thought, fear, or bias as it flashes through his characters’ minds, cutting through their self-pity, their arrogance, their desperate love, and pursuing these flashes ruthlessly through all their twists and distortions, so that in a single page you may have travelled through five successive and contradicting emotions with the character. Tolstoy’s characters are supremely real, incorrigibly flawed, and immediately lovable–and this is why I love Tolstoy.

But with Dostoyevsky, the feeling is quite different… If reading Tolstoy is like being wrapped in an embrace, Dostoyevsky is more like staring up at a piercing light that almost blinds you with its brilliance and sends a shudder of reverence through your whole body. I love Dostoyevsky, but his brilliance is inimitable, and frankly intimidating. But it’s important not to end your understanding of Dostoyevsky with that, with an image of density and inaccessibility. One thing that Dostoyevsky isn’t credited enough with, is how incredibly funny his writing is. When my colleague walked in this morning, I was in the middle of perhaps one of my favorite parts of the whole novel. Definitely, one of the most hilarious scenes in the book. The father Fyodor, “the old buffoon,” is drunk on cognac and trying to draw his son Ivan, the cold and brilliant realist, and his other son Alyosha (or “Alyoshka” as Fyodor calls him when he’s feeling especially sentimental), the sweet and loving novice (a new monk), into a haphazard debate on the existence of God. I’ll relate the best parts here, beginning with Fyodor’s appeal to Ivan:

“Tell me, Ivan: is there a God or not? But seriously, I want to be serious now.”

“No, there is no God.”

“Alyoshka, is there a God?”

“There is.”

“And is there immortality, Ivan? At least some kind, at least a little, a teeny-tiny one?”

“There is no immortality either.”

“Not of any kind?”

“Not of any kind.”

“Complete zero? Or is there something? Maybe there’s some kind of something? At least not nothing!”

“Complete zero.”

“Alyoshka, is there immortality?”

“There is.”

“Both God and immortality?”

“Both God and immortality. Immortality is in God.”

“Hmm… More likely Ivan is right. Lord, just think how much faith, how much energy of all kinds man has spent on this dream, and for so many thousands of years! Who could be laughing at man like that? Ivan? Who is laughing at mankind?”

“Must be the devil,” Ivan smirked.

“And is there a devil?”

“No, there is no devil, either.”

I love how Dostoyevsky takes such a serious conflict, existence of God and lack of faith, one which the intellectual Ivan is secretly struggling with painfully (who, by the way, stands by none of what he says here and is simply messing with his father for his own amusement), and transforms it here into a ridiculous farce. I also love how the father’s nicknames for Alyosha transform as he gets drunker and drunker from Alyosha to Alyoshka to Alexei to Alexeichik to finally Lyoshechka, which I won’t even try to pronounce. Dostoyevsky himself is burdened with painful doubts, and pours that into his texts, which does make for rather dense and dark content. But he also has a wonderful sense of humor, and this pulses through his works too, humanizes his characters’ struggles, and makes his writing not only accessible, but purely enjoyable.

Monastery in Takayama, Japan

If the Brothers (definitely his masterpiece) seems a little too daunting, I recommend “Notes from Underground” as a better start, as it’s maybe three times as funny and a fifth of the density, with just as many bizarre and powerful images that stick with me to this day.


One thought on “Who is laughing at mankind?

  1. I love how you can make an author widely regarded as ” dark and dense” so ethereal and intriguing! Lovely literary images, I’m going to read Notes From the Underground as my next book!


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