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Published on November 28, 2010 in Life. 2 Comments
It’s not the goal, but the way there that matters, and the harder the way, the more worthwhile the journey. #8212; Sir Wilfred Thesiger
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Cynic #8217;s Intergalactic Journey of Metamorphosis
Published on November 25, 2010 in Life. 0 Comments
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Cynic #8217;s Intergalactic Journey of Metamorphosis
Eastwood Zhao
“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1877, is an insightful story in which the cynical narrator takes flight in a dreamland and travels on a fantastic journey, through which he ultimately discovers the source of human misery and vows to embrace life with a rekindled spirit. The idea of the omnipotent heart is a prominent theme and is introduced early in the story as the protagonist begins his adventure of self-discovery. Because the heart is a powerful symbol of one #8217;s numerous qualities, including conscience, character, soul, emotions, and spiritual love, the narrator #8217;s shooting of his own heart symbolises its silencing, which enables the resurrection of the character from a state of cynicism to one of hope. Only with a silenced heart is the Ridiculous Man then empowered to expel the predisposed perspective through which he sees the world, to witness the peaceful state of being with which he falls in love, and to be disgusted by his own infectious #8220;germ of corruption, iniquity and deceit #8221; (217). Ultimately, the Ridiculous Man rises from the ashes to passionately love life and the world in which he lives. The path of self-discovery on which the Ridiculous Man travels through his dream demonstrates a fundamental character transformation, in whom apathy is converted into passion, suffering into love, and cynicism into passionate conviction.
The overall manner in which the narrator behaves and reasons is characteristic of a modern cynic.  He is a self-proclaimed #8220;Ridiculous Man #8221; whom lengthy years of education and life experiences have moulded into an apathetic and suicidal individual (201). He is convinced that #8220;nothing matter[s] #8221; and that there #8220;has been nothing #8221; since his initial presence on the Earth (202). As seen in the Ridiculous Man, as opposed to achieving meaningful social change, the modern cynic expresses “apathy and resignation” (Kanter, Mirvis, and Stivers) while feeling an implicit sense of “alienation and hopelessness” (Goldfarb and Stivers). Combined with his sense of apathetic absence, the narrator has a strong desire to terminate his own life with a #8220;splendid revolver, #8221; which he purchases despite his #8220;poor #8221; economic condition (203). Earlier research defines Cynicism as an attitude distinguished by a #8220;dislike for and distrust of others #8221; (Cook and Medley). Contemporary work equates cynicism with  “disillusionment resulting from the failure of #8230; contemporary society to meet the high expectations presented by modern-day life” (Kanter and Mirvis).
Upon seeing a “tiny star” twinkling in the abyss of the night sky, the narrator decides on the precise moment at which to kill himself, but is interrupted by a helpless, crying little girl who seeks assistance (204). Understanding her request, the Ridiculous Man does not offer help but, instead, stamps his feet and shouts at her (204).  Unlike the ancient Greek school of philosophical Cynicism, whose followers “scoffed at the relentless pursuit of power, wealth, and materialism by their fellow beings,” cynics in modern times do not see the benefit in adhering strictly to ethics and morality (Andersson). Soon, the narrator is disturbed by the manner in which he had treated the little girl and is unable to follow through with his plan of suicide as he is troubled by an internal turmoil. He claims that “the world would really be nothing for anyone” after he is gone, highlighting the extent of his egotistical mentality (206). Concurrently, however, he is angered by the apparent incongruence of feeling “pity” and “poignant” for the little girl while being apathetic. The concept of cynicism has been described as “a personality trait, an emotion, a belief, or an attitude” (Andersson). Perhaps it is in the heart, not the mind, where cynicism lies.
The dichotomy between the heart and the mind is of symbolic significance and used numerous times by Dostoevsky to create meaning. The first instance to which one is exposed the idea of the heart-mind separation is demonstrated through the Ridiculous Man #8217;s belief that dreams are #8220;directed by desire, not reason, by the heart and not the mind #8221; (207). The elucidation of the narrator enforces the concept which establishes the heart as the the centre of origin of dreams. From both historical and literary perspectives, the heart can be described as an organ which possesses specific functions and control a multitude of human characteristics. According to Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland in The Mysteries Within, the heart is considered by the ancient Egyptians to be the organ of utmost importance in the human body, not only during life by also after death. Furthermore, numerous civilisations of the past attributed the conscience and character of an individual to the heart:
It seems always to have been understood – originally as fact, even if now only as  metaphor – that moral, spiritual, emotional, and even sexual behavior and thoughts are attributable to the heart. (Nuland)
As dreams emerge from the heart, which is the site of qualities such as conscience, character, and emotions, and because one may argue that it is within the heart in which cynicism lies, then according to logic, the particular dream which the Ridiculous Man experiences should be a constant, monotonous reflection his present, cynical state of being. Considering, however, that in his dream, the Ridiculous Man shoots himself in the heart, not the head, a deeper level of analysis is required in order to determine the effect of the silencing of his heart:
Suddenly I dreamed that I picked up my revolver and, still keeping my chair, pressed it to my heart – my heart and not my head #8230; With the revolver pressed to  my heart I waited a moment or two #8230; I quickly pulled the trigger (208).
The narrator possesses a wounded and silenced heart. Being “wounded” and “bleeding” (215), his heart emits a “physical pain” as the narrator realises the presence of  the lodged “shot, the bullet” (209). Subsequently, the Ridiculous Man falls silent as “[d]eep silence reign[s] for almost a full minute,” which liberalises his soul with the awareness that “all would be different now” (209). Since ancient times, the heart has been acknowledged to be the origin of one #8217;s soul:
Who shall ascend in the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully (The Holy Bible, New International Version, Psalm. 24-3).
The above passage from The Holy Bible suggests that those with pure hearts carry untarnished souls, which facilitates their passage into heaven. Furthermore, dating back nearly three thousand years, Homer describes the death of Sarpedon after Patroclus plunges “a spear into his solid heart”:
From the wide wound gushes out a stream of blood,
And the soul issued in the purple flood (Nuland).
Aristotle, too, believes in the soul #8217;s dependence on the heart:
But it was not enough for Aristotle that the heart should be merely the ruler of the body #8211;         he went further. In his system #8230; the soul could not possibly be an entity completely             independent of the body – it must arise from the heart, which he also considered to be             the origin of the emotions #8230; (Nuland).
The references above establish the relationship between the heart and the soul. Because of the silencing of his heart, not only are the pre-existing qualities of the narrator silenced, but also his soul. At once, the narrator is freed from the influence of his strangling conscience, character, and emotions, unbound from his suffocating cynicism, and liberated from his tarnished soul. Indeed, during his flight through “dark and unfamiliar space,” the narrator #8217;s “silent companion” represents his silenced heart, enabling his view of the world in an unobstructed fashion (210). During his escape to a world “infinitely far away,” as if a Phoenix emerging from the ashes, the narrator #8217;s heart is “resurrected” as his soul rings with “sweet and stirring ecstasy” and as he senses life once again (210).
The Ridiculous Man #8217;s transformational journey of intergalactic proportions has a literary parallel. A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens in 1843, in which Ebenezer Scrooge, the cynical and embittered main character, experiences a number of dream-like visits from the Ghosts of Christmas and ultimately metamorphosise into a loving, benevolent character. Written 34 years prior to the story which we currently examine, the predominant theme of character transformation through the symbolic use of dreams is prominent in both stories. Perhaps one might wonder whether the former has had an influence on the latter, as suggested by Miller in Dostoevsky #8217;s Unfinished Journey. The internal transformation of the Ridiculous Man, however, differs, to an extent, from that of Scrooge as the former witnesses a pure, loving, and innocent Earth which comes to be infected and diseased by his own #8220;germ of corruption, iniquity and deceit #8221; (217).
Three important moments of contrast highlight the metamorphosis of the Ridiculous Man. At the start of voyage, the silent companion promises that the Ridiculous Man “shall see everything” (211). Indeed, as he flies closer to the new Earth, he wonders if the new planet “hold[s] suffering,” since on the old Earth he can “only love truly by suffering and only through suffering” (211). He claims that without suffering, he is able to “love in no other way and know no other love” (211). Upon witnessing, however, the corruption which he brings to the new Earth, the shadows of suffering on the people #8217;s faces, and their claim that “suffering [is] beauty, for in suffering alone [lies] thought,” the narrator holds his “arms out to them in despair, accusing, cursing, and despising” himself (218) for he has come to view his previous, cynical self with disdain.
After initially encountering people of the new Earth and observing the loving ways in which they live, the Ridiculous Man asks himself in bewilderment how they “never insulted #8230; never roused #8230; to feelings of jealousy or envy” (213). Following the people #8217;s contamination by him, as if he were a “malignant trichina, an atom of the plague afflicting whole kingdoms,” the narrator watches in horror as jealousy, cruelty, and violence is conceived (216). This contrast further highlights the internal conflicts between the narrator #8217;s present and former selves, an individual who was previously bewildered by the absence of insults and jealousy.
Following the people #8217;s corruption, the Ridiculous Man is told that he, himself, once used to believe, that “[k]nowledge is superior to feeling, consciousness of life is superior to life” (217). The Ridiculous Man, formerly a cynical individual, once also subscribed to such a point of view. This is evident through his initial characterisation, through which he possesses great knowledge but fails to feel the world, is intellectually aware fails to live his life. Towards the conclusion of the story, the narrator witnesses the destruction and suffering which he brings to the world and vows to “preach tirelessly” (220) about the “living image” of his dream which has “taken hold of [his] soul for ever” (219) by urging us all to “love others as one loves oneself” and fight against the notion that “[c]onsciousness of life is superior to life, knowledge of the laws of happiness is superior to happiness” (220), demonstrating his complete transformation from a cynic to one who is full of hope and love for humankind.
The narrator emerges up from his dream as an individual with a renewed heart. He has risen from the ashes of cynicism to embrace life with out-stretched arms. His great love for humankind emerges from his healed heart, which is of symbolic significance for spiritual love:
But in a symbolic sense, the heart continued to maintain a kind of hegemony #8211; especially in affairs of the heart. By this, I mean to imply not only romantic love but love for humankind as well. Perhaps of most significance, I refer to spiritual love. In the Christian tradition, the heart is both the province and provenance of divine love, and like all matters of faith, such a belief is independent of the need for biologic substantiation. The concept is metaphysical and not subject to the rules of scientific evidence. It is the heart of Christ #8211; to some the Sacred Heart #8211; and not his brain that is the centrality of divine love.
Indeed, the narrator has had a transformational change of heart: in a world with much “corruption, iniquity and deceit” (217), he has courageously given up apathy for hope,  cynicism for idealism, and egotism for selfless, philanthropic love. Perhaps we ought to learn from and continuously improve ourselves like the Ridiculous Man.
Works Cited
Andersson, Lynne M. “Employee cynicism: An examination using a contract violation framework.”     Human Relations 49.11(1996):1395-1418.
Cook, W. W., amp; Medley, D. M. “Proposed hostility and pharisaic-virtue scales for the MMPI.” Journal     of Applied Psychology, 1954, 38, 414-418.
Goldfarb, J. The cynical society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Kanter, D. L., amp; Mirvis, P. H. The cynical Americans. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
Nuland, Sherwin. The Mysteries Within. Simon amp; Schuster, 2001. Print.
Stivers, R. The culture of cynicism: American morality in decline. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell     Publishers, 1994.
Snow #038; Cholera
Published on November 20, 2010 in Life and UBC. 6 Comments
Tonight, Vancouver received its first shipment of snow, which arrived in a predictable yet surprising manner. The temperature during the previous days had been somewhat frosty, which was accompanied by the forecasting of snow. Yet, it did not arrive. Until tonight. We emerged out of the ice-rink on campus into a winter wonderland. Double-helices spontaneously formed on deserted sidewalks and roads as umbrellas heaved under thousands of white, frozen crystals. Below is a photo from my bedroom:
In 1854, a cholera outbreak in London led to John Snow #8217;s investigation of the disease from a public-health perspective. His study was conducted using the scientific method and became a classic, textbook example of an early epidemiological method. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), cholera is a #8220;water-borne, acute bacterial infection of the stomach and intestines that’s spread by contaminated water or food. #8221; Snow had determined that cholera in London was spread by contaminated water, and subsequently eliminated the spread of disease by eradicating its source.
On November 20, 2010, more than #8220;1,100 people have died and at least 20,000 have fallen sick #8221; since the beginning of a cholera epidemic in Haiti. With its strained infrastructure and social institutions demolished by the massive earthquake of January 2010,  which claimed up to 230,000 lives, Haiti struggles with an epidemic of cholera which burns, as if a wild fire, through cities, towns, and communities. The people are dying. They are afraid and angry. They need more competent and efficacious help.
As much as the United Nations and numerous non-governmental organisations attempt to bring the situation under control, MSF reports that #8220;the cholera response has to date been inadequate in meeting the needs of the population. #8221;
Perhaps the world in which we live is much more complicated than that of 1854. Although we have unimaginably more advanced technology and greater resources today than we did 156 years prior, our inability to solve this crisis, or to act, is both mind-boggling and heart-wrenching.
Please donate to the Médecins Sans Frontières Emergency Relief Fund and consider contributing a Cholera Kit through the MSF Warehouse.
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Insights or Abilities: Kindness and Curiousity
Published on October 25, 2010 in Life. 0 Comments
More thoughts from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor #8217;s book, My Stroke of Insight:
This experience of losing my left brain has opened my mind to look more positively at people who have experienced various forms of brain trauma. I often wonder, in the absence of language or the ability to communicate with others in a normal way, what insights or abilities has the person gained? I don #8217;t feel sorry for people who are different from me or perceived as not normal anymore. I realize that pity is not an appropriate response. Instead of feeling repelled by someone who is different, I am drawn towards them with kindness and curiosity. I am fascinated by their uniqueness and compelled to establish a meaningful connection, even if it is merely direct eye contact, a kind smile, or appropriate touch.
Second Act
Published on October 23, 2010 in Life. 1 Comment
Someone once told me:
This is the second act. Second acts are always full of anguish and tribulation. But it will all work out in the end.
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