My friend J. once told me that he liked Dostoevsky, but didn’t find him realistic. He cited the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov and Razumikhin are approaching the house of the investigator Porfiry Petrovich, and poor Rask. is agonizing over how to behave in front of Porfiry:
“I shall have to pull a long face with him too,” he thought, with a beating heart, and he turned white, “and do it naturally, too. But the most natural thing would be to do nothing at all. Carefully do nothing at all! No, carefully would not be natural again…. Oh, well, we shall see how it turns out…. We shall see… directly.”
He quickly decides to cover up his guilt by appearing extra gregarious, so he begins to make fun of Razumikhin for being interested in Dunya:
“You are like a summer rose. And if only you knew how it suits you; a Romeo over six foot high! And how you’ve washed to-day—you cleaned your nails, I declare. Eh? That’s something unheard of! Why, I do believe you’ve got pomatum on your hair! Bend down.” …
Raskolnikov laughed as though he could not restrain himself. So laughing, they entered Porfiry Petrovitch’s flat. This is what Raskolnikov wanted: from within they could be heard laughing as they came in, still guffawing in the passage. [emphasis added]
To me, this kind of thing is what makes Dostoevsky a genius: his characters always have several motivations for everything they do, and neither they nor we (nor, maybe, Dostoevsky!) are sure what all of those motivations are; and all this passes in a split second, during a momentary pause in the conversation. Raskolnikov’s internal monologue has been my own, any number of times, before walking into an alarming social situation.
But, if I was understanding J. correctly, this was exactly what didn’t resonate with his own experience. He felt that real people aren’t that fraught, that complicated.
But some people are. Dostoevsky evidently was, and I certainly am. That’s not a boast. Simplicity of mind and heart is something I both admire and envy, and I’d much prefer to be thinking only one thing at any given time, to know why I’m doing what I’m doing when I do it, to operate on only one level at a time.
In geek speak, I’d much prefer a processor that wasn’t multi-threaded.
I think that there’s even something of sanctity in being able to live with this kind of simplicity. St. Thérèse’s Mother Superior told her: “The closer you come to god, the more simple you become.”1 And then there is the Zen principle of Doing One Thing At a Time, which some (I’ve heard) practice with such rigor that they won’t even read while they’re pooping.2
Not that it’s praiseworthy, or blameworthy, to be born with any particular mental disposition: I don’t think I earned my own multithreadedness any more than J. earned his comparitive singlethreadedness.3 But everyone starts at a different path on the road to virtue. One man is born with more courage, another with more prudence, and all are charged with the task of supplementing their lacks.
And then simplicity of mind is not quite the same thing as simplicity of heart. I hear that Aquinas, however many volumes of philosophy he produced, however fine his distinctions and subtle his syllogisms, still, when he confessed his sins, confessed them with the simplicity of a child of six.
This is why we Catholics don’t have to accuse philosophers of thinking too much, or mendicants of thinking too little — or, for that matter, Pope Benedict of having been too fancy or Pope Francis of being too minimalist. Many gifts, but one spirit. Many parts, but one body.
Or again, if each of us is a different kind of machine, our job is to keep that machine running as well as it can. The surprising thing is how well we can understand each other after all, and learn from each other, and be friends with each other.
When I was young, I fantasized about having a twin, someone who would think like me, like what I liked, understand me through and through. That was because I was a narcissist.4 By this time, I’ve had enough of myself to last a lifetime.
I like myself fine, but I’d rather spend time with people who are not me. Thank God there are so many of them!