Saturday, April 11, 2009

Swindlers and Fools

Before I even begin a discussion of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's "What is to Be Done?", I want to talk about his world of Swindlers and Fools, for in order to appreciate the characters in his book, it is important that we first accept the parameters of the ethos from which they emerged.

The basic idea of Swindlers and Fools is this:

Suppose that life offers absolutely no possibility whatsoever except arduous and unrewarded toil, oppression, and suffering. Life is a finite pie from which you will be lucky to get a few crumbs, and the only souls who receive a slice are those that do so at the expense and suffering of those around them.

In such a world, one has only two choices: either (A) become a swindler - someone willing to take whatever they can get from others for their own personal gain, regardless of how it effects those around them; or (B) remain a fool - someone who resigns themselves to their dismal lot in life and accepts its innumerable cruelties.

In Chernyshevsky's own words:
Your entire previous life led to the conclusion that people are divided into two categories: fools and swindlers. “Anyone who isn’t a fool is surely a swindler,” you thought, “and not to be a swindler means that you’re a fool.” This view, Marya Aleksevna, was very accurate; until quite recently, Marya Aleksevna, it was completely accurate.
At the time his novel was written (1863), Russia was very much this kind of world: a world of extreme social stratification, class inequity, poverty, inhumane working conditions, devoid of human rights, absolutely no opportunity, etc.

Unfortunately a description that could and can be effortlessly applied to many parts of the world both then and now (including Russia). In fact, I was struck last night by a scene in Slumdog Millionaire, which presented the "Swindler or Fool" moral dilemma very well. Now, this film has received both criticism and praise, but no matter what you think of all that the moral dilemma holds true:

Early in the film, the gangster Maman has enticed Mumbai street children into his "orphanage" in order to train them to beg for money. To increase the children's earning potential, Maman uses chemicals to blind those who can sing well (to make them more sympathetic). One night, Maman and his cronies blind a boy in front of Salim and present him with his moral choice:

Choice #1. "Go get your brother Jamal and bring him to us. We will blind him too, but it will benefit you. You will become one of us. By helping us, you will get things the others don't. More importantly, you will learn that swindling others is the only way to avoid being taken advantage of yourself. Now in order to do this, there is only one caveat: you must become ruthless and heartless, like we are. So let's start with your brother Jamal."

- or -

Choice #2. "Remain a fool and remain someone who will forever be taken advantage of by people like us. You will get nothing, just like the others. In fact, who knows what will happen to you? Perhaps we will blind you instead."

The entire premise of this world is that these are the only two choices. If you accept the premise (as millions have and do) then you must choose one or the other. And the sad part is, of the two, anyone remotely clever or wise or ambitious will (if they can) opt for choice #1 - the swindler!

Don't dismay; this should be heartening, in some respects, because in terms of human nature, it means that in a different world operating under an alternate premise (one, suppose, that offered a few more choices), there might be fewer swindlers (and therefore fewer fools as well). It means that swindlers have the potential to be more humane and compassionate, if given more plausible alternatives. Good (or rather, improved) soil yields a healthier crop.

In many parts of the world, the soil has indisputably improved. There are still massive problems, of course, but the fact that we all know there aren't only two choices is relative progress. As is the possibility that life is not a finite pie. Our rejection of this premise is a given, so much so that it is difficult for us to imagine a world of Swindlers and Fools. It is a luxury we have - no, it is a right - a right that many, many people in this world still do not.

The most wonderful thing about this right is that it requires nothing but a change of thinking to claim it.

Back to Slumdog Millionaire. In the "feel good film of the decade", at least, there is hope.

Salim opts for:

Choice #3: Grab brother and run like hell.

Hope embedded in this action lies in its potential to prove Swindlers and Fools to be a false dichotomy. Yet Salim never truly escapes it; he remains conflicted by this moral dilemma throughout the story, and ultimately opts to become a Swindler, to his and moreover others' detriment.

Chernyshevsky presents a character in his novel that is a "third" kind of person, neither a Swindler nor a Fool. His name is Rakhmetov and I'll talk about him in my next post. What's great about him is he just so happens to be a Russian nihilist, not unlike Bazarov in Fathers and Sons - but with a wonderful twist - and thus we'll see how all this begins to tie together.

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