Saturday, December 2, 2017

Utopias of Love



- Why did you send me the story? The Dream of a Ridiculous Man?* I read it, though I'd read it long ago, in school I think.
- And?
- It's wonderful, at first reading and now. Under your influence I found myself sketching out the philosophic argument Dostoevsky makes. The title character, though poor, has home and job. He calls himself a ridiculous man because he knows how unlikely he is to be loved as he feels he loves, even in his isolation, strangers and places that have become familiar to him on his walks. In the seasonal emptying of Saint Petersburg, when the familiar strangers have gone with most of the rest of the population, his ridiculousness is brought home to him. The routines of politeness and duties of work rule out the individual attention love requires. He resolves to kill himself, and when the day comes when he feels himself ready a young girl grabs hold of him in the street, crying out, 'Mama! Mama!' - Her mother needs help! He shakes her off, not seeing why if all life is meaningless this demand for help should be any exception to the meaninglessness. That night he has a dream of a world where everyone loves and is loved. As some argue that the fact of our having the idea of god proves his reality, so this dream is so detailed that when he wakes it seems to carry with it its own proof of the possibility of its utopian society. The continuation of the dream convinces him even more of the real possibility of such a society. For what happens is his arrival with his own faults corrupts the perfect society. The once innocent people tell him they are happy with their corruption. Whereas before they had been happy in their simple lives, they began to speculate on the best life. Holders of different views begin to murder each other as obstacles to progress. This was acceptable, for to them, knowledge of life was a superior substitute for the experience of life. The ridiculous man disagrees. The experience of life is more important than knowledge of it. The perfect society has no need to await perfect knowledge of life to arrive, it's possible to begin love of all for all at any moment, no need to wait for history to resolve all conflicts; love is the past restored.
- All you need is love. Your philosophic commentary?
- You need more than love. Knowledge of life is not what is required, but rather knowledge of death, of what kills our love. That is what needs to be the possession of all in order for all to love all.
- The ridiculous man in his new specialization, a talker of utopia, remains ridiculous.
- He would be if he remained only a talker, relying on hope. Instead he begins to correct his mistakes: he seeks out the child that asked help and helps her. He knows with all his talk of love he is still thought to be ridiculous, but he no longer considers himself so. It's a great story.
- Yes.
- So why have me read it?
- Los Angeles to me is like St. Petersberg to the ridiculous man. Like him I  have no meaningful contact with anyone, and like him this city I live in is a place I have strong feelings for. Mostly a couple neighborhoods, three or four cafes, the university research library. My relations to people are strictly business, trivial business at that. And like in Dostoevsky's story my last few days had found me feeling down, valuing at nothing everything in my life; and like in the story at this low point in my life a girl appears needing my help, and I refuse.
- And you now want to tell me your story.
- Yes. You've heard a lot from me about the cafe I go to in West Hollywood. Sitting on the terrace, about an hour after closing time, they pass in succession, one by one, the drug addicts, the street sleepers, these who hear voices, those who talk to themselves. Across the street at the bus stop is as usual the old fellow bedded down for the night, shouting in his sleep, waking up suddenly, swearing, then quickly falling back asleep. The past week, every morning at two, closing time for the bars up the street, this little African man comes and sits down next to me. With painfully fake cheerfulness he asks me, 'How's it going today?' to which, not wanting to encourage him, I never respond. From the beginning he's struck me as false. Usually he goes away. Last night he stayed, reading a book in Arabic, guiding his eyes with a forefinger, and laughing softly, 'Hee Hee Hee', 'Hee Hee Hee'. A ride service car stops across the street, dropping off a young, nicely dressed girl about twenty years old. She stands uncertainly at the curb on her high heel platform shoes, apparently attracted by the lights of the cafe, crosses the street to stand unsteadily again at the curb. The little African man looks up and notices her. He shouts out his, 'How you're doing tonight?' When she doesn't answer he goes up to her, asks her how she is, can he help her, where is she going? To all of which she doesn't say a word. Do you want to sit down? he asks. No answer. He takes her arm and guides her to the bench at the cafe window. I listen as he delivers a speech to her: Everybody has problems some time. He's going to help her, that's normal. Does she have a key? Where does she live? Does she have a key? Going by the bags he carries, and the bits of twigs and leaves on his jacket, the little African beds down in one of the nearby doorways. If a pretty girl has a place somewhere he could join her that be a big improvement.
- Are you still pursuing the comparison? If you are a modern day ridiculous man the little African has become a sort of narrator of the dream of utopia.
- Yes. I'd just reread the story myself, and the perversity of the situation was borne down on me. I watched and listened to the little African. I'm immobilized, fascinated. The girl is on drugs. She doesn't know where she is or know that is something good for her to know, alone in West Hollywood at two in the morning. Several times, at a break in the little African's cajoling, she repeats, 'How are you?' To which question the African giggles, 'Hee Hee Hee'.  Finally he takes her arm again saying he'll walk her home and they start together across the street. I know I ought to stop this. But as I said, I'm immobilized. Like the ridiculous man in the story, the world has become meaningless to me. Why should I act as if there was something meaningful, necessary to be done, like helping a girl? How would that be consistent and rational? I look on in great tension. I've had experience in the past here with people showing up on drugs asking me to tell them where they are: two experiences precisely, both young men, and both, upon seeing a ride service car approach suddenly ran off, got in and drove away, having remembered a destination to tell the driver. This corner, a popular pick up and drop off spot for rides services, I'm thinking has a mystic attraction for those on drugs who can't remember where they are. If I'm right, the girl will return. I watch as their figures get smaller and smaller, and then: Yes! She has shrugged off the grip of the little African and is coming back. The little African trails behind, bags on his shoulders. At the cafe he says he'll return in a minute and takes off. I sit down by the girl, ask if she'll let me take her to Cedar Sinai Hospital, five minutes away. Or, I ask her, maybe she'd like to stay here until the cafe opens, if she has nowhere else to go. She makes no response. Ridiculous man that I am, I'm aware that when not on drugs she would ignore me just the same as she is doing now. I watch her closely, my whole body tensed in attention. I want to help her but I won't let myself. The African returns, laughs 'Hee Hee Hee', again shoulders his bags, takes her arm and starts her out on another walk. A service car drives up, the girl rushes over; with some difficulty she opens the passenger door and gets in, followed by the little African. The service car drives off, stops at the beginning of the next block, ejecting the little African with his bags in his hands.
- That's the whole story?
- Yes. Maybe, since you've described Dostoevsky's story so well, you could tell me how I failed to live up to the level of his ridiculous man?
- You mean why you froze? Because the girl was part of that little Los Angeles world of yours that had turned unlovable, and she didn't ask for your help.
- Why should my help wait on being asked?
- Because acting merely by rule to create a utopia of love is nevertheless to be acting without love.
- And all it would take to recover love was to be asked for help?
- It's your feelings were talking about. You tell me.
- That's all it would take.
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* The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, Fyodor Dostoyevsky