Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Dostoyevskian Wisdom In Malaysia's Midnight Hour
Malaysians from all walks of life will benefit tremendously from reading the Russian writer Dostoyevski's writings and understanding his worldview. For me, he alone of all writers, apart from the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, has so clearly seen the truth of the human heart and the daily battle that rages in the soul of man.
The battle that matters most to Dostoyevski is the spiritual battle of wrong ideas that has infected modern man and led to the destruction of his faith in God. Through pride, we become convinced that we, alone, hold the keys to our destiny and are able to plan a bright future for our fellow citizens and children.
And in the present global economic and financial crisis where governments are taking control over banks and trying to steer financial markets from chaos, I believe we are seeing the beginnings of the building of a new tower of Babel from the ashes of the financial crisis. I may be wrong about the timing but it is only an issue between the next two or five years that the world's government and financial system will change drastically.
Still I have hope and that hope rests on our decisions, the daily focus of our thoughts and prayers. Even a mere citizen of Malaysia, small as we are, can make a difference to the world we live in by thinking profound and measured thoughts based on clear insights into human nature.
On rereading "Notes from the Underground", I found that the following passages speak much more truth to me than today's predictable social-political commentaries in the blogs, MSM and international news magazines:
1. On politicians and leading economic advisers who have continued to mistake the symptoms for the cause (one clear example is to define inflation as rising prices instead of rising money supply in excess of sustainable economic growth), Dostoyevski, through the notes of the Underground Man, says:
"All "direct" persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. How explain that? I will tell you: in consequence of their limitation they take immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and in that way persuade themselves more quickly and easily than other people do that they have found an infallible foundation for their activity, and their minds are at ease and you know that is the chief thing."
2. On the intellectual limitations of Malaysia's civil-rights activists (anti-ISA vigil's notwithstanding) and the well-intentioned idealism of Malaysia's bloggers:
"Oh, gentlemen, do you know, perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything. Granted I am a babbler, a harmless vexatious babbler, like all of us. But what is to be done if the direct and sole vocation of every intelligent man is babble, that is, the intentional pouring of water through a sieve?"
My interpretation of this is that an intelligent man seldom begins his intellectual analysis on the right footing or completes the logical flow of his ideas. Much like many intellectuals today who see the world through rose-tinted or grey-tinted glasses, depending on their temperaments.
3. On our entertainment and food-centric civilisation and the coming new world order of humanism:
"The only gain of civilisation for mankind is the greater capacity for a variety of sensations--and absolutely nothing more."
4. On the limitations of reason and human nature:
"Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives."
Finally, this is the passage that encapsulates the universal problem of freedom of choice and man's inclination for evil actions for the sake of exercising his moral freedom:
"Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself--as though that were so necessary--that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar."
Here is the tragedy and dilemma of man: faced with the logic (as precise and engineered as a piano key) of civilised morality that dictates he should only do the right thing, he makes the choice to do the wrong thing just to exercise his sense of power; the God-given freedom of choice he is entitled to as a free moral being.