Monday, July 02, 2007

"We Always Float to the Top"


Found this in Dostoevsky's The Insulted and Injured, in Constance Garnett's translation. Dostoevsky always did an amazing job putting himself in the position of those characters he used to argue against the position he himself chose, often to the detriment of his own position. Here we have Prince Valkovsky, a man of means and position, telling us like it is. It certainly isn't far from the gist of what appeared on CNN today:

"'I tell you what, my poet, I want to reveal to you a mystery of nature of which it seems to me you are not in the least aware. I'm certain that you're calling me at the moment a sinner, perhaps even a scoundrel, a monster of vice and corruption. But I can tell you this. If it were only possible (which, however, from the laws of human nature never can be possible), if it were possible for every one of us to describe all his secret thoughts, without hesitating to disclose what he is afraid to tell and would not on any account tell other people, what he is afraid to tell his best friends, what indeed, he is even at times afraid to confess to himself, the would would be filled with such a stench that we should all be suffocated. That's why, I may observe in parenthesis, our social proprieties and conventions are so good. They have profound value, I won't say for morality, but simply for self-preservation, for comfort, which, of course, is even more, since morality is really that same comfort. [...]
'...you charge me with vice, corruption, immorality, but perhaps I'm only to blame for being more open than other people, that's all; for not concealing what other people hide even from themselves, as I said before.
'[...] All is for me, the whole world is created for me. Listen, my friend, I still believe that it's possible to live happily on earth. And that's the best faith, for without it one can't even live unhappily: there's nothing left but to poison oneself. They say this was what some fool did. He philosophised til he destroyed everything, everything, even the obligation of all normal and natural human duties, til at last he had nothing left. The sum total came to nil, and so he declared that the best thing in life was prussic acid. You say that's Hamlet. That's terrible despair, in fact, something so grand we could never dream of it. But you're a poet, and I'm a simple mortal, and so I say that one must look at the thing from the simplest, most practical point of view. I for instance, have freed myself from all shackles, and even obligations. I only recognise obligations when I see I have something to gain by them. You, of course, can't look at things like that, your legs are in fetters, and your taste is morbid. You talk of the ideal, of virtue. Well, my dear fellow, I am ready to admit anything you tell me to, but what am I to do if I know for a fact that at the root of all human virtues lies the completest egoism? And the more virtuous anything is, the more egoism there is in it. Love yourself, that's the one rule I recognise. Life is a commercial transaction; don't waste your money, but kindly pay for your entertainment, and you will be doing your whole duty to your neighbor. [...] I'm looking at your face; with what comtempt you are looking at me now!'
'you are right,' I answered.
'Well, supposing you are right, anyway, filth is better than Prussic acid, isn't it?'
'No. Prussic acid is better.'
'I asked you 'Isn't it' on purpose to enjoy your answer; I knew what you'd say. No, my young friend. If you're a genuine lover of humanity, wish all men the same taste as mine, even with a little filth, or sensible men will have nothing to do in the world and there'll be none but fools left. ...and there are legions like me, and we really are all right...we shall exist as long as the world exists. All the world may sink, but we shall float, we shall always float to the top.'"

4 comments:

Kristen said...

Give me the Prussic acid. (Even though I haven't a clue as to what it is.)

Kristen said...

Oh, cyanide. Of course. Well, perhaps not cyanide... For me anyway.

Casey said...

Wow!--Davo, is this book good? I own an old copy, but never even cracked it, probably because it gets so little press... is it just Dostoevsky's 6th best novel? Or?

davo said...

I think it's one of his more accessible novels, meaning that there are fewer characters and not as many threads which get woven together and which make his bigger novels more of a tough sell. Prince Valkovsky is a simpler character, too, in that he is more completely evil than Dosty's other villains. It certainly is worth a read. My notebooks have quite a few quotes from it...