Who then is laughing at mankind?

9 May 2012 § Leave a comment

Dostoevsky isn’t really a writer for the dictionary of quotations. Granted, there are a few famous lines – “Everything is permitted”, “beauty will save the world” – but to quote them like that is to take them right out of context, and render them meaningless. The other day though, I was thinking about this, and wondering if I could come up with a “favourite quote” from Dostoevsky’s novels. The closest I could manage comes from the conversation “over the brandy” between Fyodor, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. Fyodor alternately asks his sons whether God and the immortal life exist. Alyosha says yes, Ivan, no. One last time, Fyodor asks Ivan:

“…I say, Ivan, tell me for the last time and categorically: is the a God or not? I’m asking you for the last time”.

“And for the last time there isn’t”.

“Who then is laughing at mankind Ivan”

Ivan answers that it must be the Devil, before quickly going on to assert that of course the Devil doesn’t exist either. But it’s that bleak, poignant question, from the disgusting old drunkard, “who then is laughing at mankind?” that brings me up short every time I read it. He doesn’t ask who is judging us, or protecting us, or loving us – no, all that Fyodor Karamazov thinks we are fit for is being laughed at, or mocked. It’s probably the most truthful thing the old man ever said.

Here we are, industrious little ants, who seem to think that we have an important place in the universe, and the idea that if there’s any point to our existence it’s just to amuse a cruel deity nicely puts a stop to any anthropocentric ideas about the universe being created purely so that we can exist in it. We all need to be laughed at from time to time, to shake us out of our pomposities, to deflate our sense of self-importance. If it applies to us as individuals, why not the whole species? We’ve created such wonderful things – Durham Cathedral, the B-Minor Mass, The Brothers Karamazov –  but we need a reminder that in the grand scheme of time and space, we’re really nothing.

Yes, the question of who is laughing at us is terrible, but it has a frightening beauty to it, that echoes the frightening beauty of that vast empty universe in which we float. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagines the “total perspective vortex” which drives its victims to insanity by showing them just how small and insignificant they are in relation to the rest of the universe. Perhaps just being laughed at is the best way to deal with the problem – if there is anyone there to laugh at us.

Fyodor Karamazov seems to have reached his old age untroubled by the metaphysical questions that torment his sons, particularly poor Ivan. Ivan gets himself tied up in horrible knots thinking seriously about the problem of God and his creation, when a little humorous detachment might have helped him to disentangle himself from his deadly confusion. Dostoevsky must surely understand this, for why else would he conjure up for Ivan his greatest comic creation – the Devil that springs from serious Ivan’s own imagination to taunt and tease him. If there’s no God to laugh at us, we have to create our own petty demons to do the job for us.

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