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Classic Comedy

Here's a hilarious bit I figure should be shared, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Demons (A.K.A. The Possessed, back before they figured out the translation properly). It's a great piece of comedy, where the narrator tries to keep a straight face while describing the poetic aspirations of the poor bumbling professor, Mr. Verkhovensky. (illustration is only vaguely related)

I received the play about a year ago from Mr. Verkhovenksy, who had only recently copied it out in his own hand. It bears his own autograph and is bound in magnificent red morocco. I must admit that it is not without poetic merit and even some talent; it is strange, but in those days (that is, in the thirties) people often wrote that kind of poetic drama. I am rather at a loss to tell you what it is all about because, to be frank, I can’t make head or tail of it. It is some sort of allegory in lyrical and dramatic form, recalling the second act of Faust. It opens with a chorus of women, followed by a chorus of men, then a chorus of some spirits, and lastly, a chorus of souls which have never lived but which are very anxious to live. All these choruses sing about something very indefinite, mostly about somebody’s curse, but with a suggestion of the loftiest humour. Then the scene suddenly changes and a sort of “Festival of Life” begins in which even insects join in the singing, a tortoise appears with certain sacramental Latin words, and, if I remember rightly, even some mineral – that is, quite an inanimate object – also bursts into song about something or other. In fact they all sing incessantly, and when they speak they seem to abuse each other vaguely, but again with a suggestion of some higher meaning. At last the scene changes again into a blasted heath, and cultured young man wanders among the rocks, picking and sucking certain herbs; asked by a fairy why he sucks those herbs, he replies that, feeling a superabundance of life in himself, he seeks forgetfulness and finds it in the juice of those herbs, but that his dearest wish is to lose his reason as soon as possible (a wish that seems to be quite superfluous). Then a young man of indescribable beauty suddenly comes riding in on a black horse, followed by a vast concourse of all the nations. The young man symbolizes Death, and all the nations yearn for it. And, finally, in the last scene of all, the Tower of Babel appears and some athletes at last finish building it with a song of new hope, and when they reach the top, the lord (of Olympus, I suppose) runs off in a comic fashion, and mankind, realizing the position and seizing his place, at once begin a new life with a new insight into things. It was that sort of poetic play that was considered dangerous in those days. Last year I proposed to Mr. Verkhovensky to publish it, since it would be regarded as utterly innocuous nowadays, but he declined my suggestion with unconcealed displeasure. My view of its utter innocuousness did not please him, and I even ascribe to it a certain coldness in our relations which lasted two whole months. And what do you think? All of a sudden, and almost at the same time as I had proposed publishing it here, the play was published there – that is to say, abroad in one of the revolutionary miscellanies – and entirely without Mr. Verkhovensky’s knowledge. At first he was alarmed, rushed off to see the governor, and wrote a most loyal letter in his self-defense to Petersburg, which he read to me twice but never posted, not knowing to whom to address it. In short, he was very agitated for a whole month, but I am convinced that deep down in his heart he was greatly flattered. He almost went to bed with the copy of the journal which someone had obtained for him, and in the day-time he kept it hidden under the mattress; he would not even permit his maidservant to make his bed, and though he daily expected the arrival of a telegram, he viewed the world at large with a scornful eye. It was just then that he made friends with me again, which is merely another proof of the extreme kindliness of his gentle and unresentful heart.

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