by Ann Powers, NPR
The last short story Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote is about being seriously ridiculous. In "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," an intellectual prone to existentialist despair is saved from suicide when, in a vision, he discovers a parallel planet where humanity has never sinned. "It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling," he tells the reader. This contact with Eden reinvigorates him, but then, during a playful moment, he teaches the planet's innocents how to deceive each other -- and this leads to a catastrophic, Biblical fall. By the time the man awakens, his Eden has become just like Earth, full of violence, crime and war. It's the world he once thought was meaningless. And still, the man finds himself redeemed. He stands on a corner, preaching the essential goodness of humanity, despite his knowledge of the equally omnipresent potential for corruption. He's a rube for being optimistic, and he knows it. But he declares at the story's end, "I shall go on and on!"
The serious ridiculousness expressed in that conclusion differs from the unthinking kind that entangles people every day. Ordinary ridiculousness comes from not being aware -- from either simply not thinking about bad or excessive choices, or from embracing blind faith in the self, a God or a system. A seriously ridiculous person is clear-eyed. She knows that idealism is a fool's game to begin with, and that every conviction carries the risk of closed-mindedness. But she takes on belief as a practice, a way of being around others that seeks common ground. The ridiculous man or woman has found a way to connect things within life's inevitably broken landscape. It's an act of reaching out that can never be fully fulfilled, but which changes things in the moment, which is all we really have.