Dostoyevsky’s Salvific Dream.

I decided to reread Dostoyevsky’s 1877 story Сон смешного человека, translated by Constance Garnett as “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” and was struck by the truth of what Rosamund Bartlett said in the interview I posted here: “it presents Dostoevsky’s major themes in microcosm, anticipates their amplification in The Brothers Karamazov, and is a perfect distillation of his art.” It’s about a guy who thinks nothing matters and is planning to commit suicide until a dream in which he is whisked through space to a planet that is exactly like the earth — except that its inhabitants turn out to be sinless (compare James Blish’s A Case of Conscience). You can read more about the plot at Wikipedia; the essence is that the dream turns him away from suicide and leads him to help a suffering little girl whose appeals he had previously rejected. It’s brilliantly written (and a wonderful change after slogging through a chunk of Ovadii Savich’s 1928 novel «Воображаемый собеседник» [The imaginary interlocutor], which sounded interesting but turned out to be tedious reading), but what leads me to post about it is its treatment of the two Russian words for ‘truth,’ discussed in this 2011 post. In the first paragraph, the narrator says people consider him ridiculous and laugh at him; he would laugh with them, but they make him sad: “Грустно потому, что они не знают истины, а я знаю истину. Ох как тяжело одному знать истину!” [Sad because they do not know the truth and I do know it. Oh, how hard it is to be the only one who knows the truth!] (I’m using Garnett’s renditions.) Here istina is used for ‘truth.’ Later, when he starts describing his dream, he uses the same word: “Но неужели не все равно, сон или нет, если сон этот возвестил мне Истину? Ведь если раз узнал истину и увидел ее, то ведь знаешь, что она истина и другой нет и не может быть, спите вы или живете.” [But does it matter whether it was a dream or reality, if the dream made known to me the truth? If once one has recognized the truth and seen it, you know that it is the truth and that there is no other and there cannot be, whether you are asleep or awake.] In ch. V, we have it again:

Они стали говорить на разных языках. Они познали скорбь и полюбили скорбь, они жаждали мучения и говорили, что Истина достигается лишь мучением. Тогда у них явилась наука. […] «Но у нас есть наука, и через нее мы отыщем вновь истину, но примем ее уже сознательно.»

They began to talk in different languages. They became acquainted with sorrow and loved sorrow; they thirsted for suffering, and said that truth could only be attained through suffering. Then science appeared. […] “But we have science, and by the means of it we shall find the truth and we shall arrive at it consciously.”

And in the final section, where he’s talking about prophesying to people about the truth he has found, he uses the same word: “Истину, ибо я видел ее, видел своими глазами, видел всю ее славу!” [Of the truth, for I have seen it, have seen it with my own eyes, have seen it in all its glory.]

But at the end of ch. IV, he suddenly switches to pravda:

Пусть сон мой породило сердце мое, но разве одно сердце мое в силах было породить ту ужасную правду, которая потом случилась со мной? Как бы мог я ее один выдумать или пригрезить сердцем? Неужели же мелкое сердце мое и капризный, ничтожный ум мой могли возвыситься до такого откровения правды! О, судите сами: я до сих пор скрывал, но теперь доскажу и эту правду.

My heart may have originated the dream, but would my heart alone have been capable of originating the awful event [pravdu] which happened to me afterwards? How could I alone have invented it or imagined it in my dream? Could my petty heart and fickle, trivial mind have risen to such a revelation of truth? Oh, judge for yourselves: hitherto I have concealed it, but now I will tell the truth.

And in that final section, he joins the two: “Правда истинная [Pravda istinnaya]: я сбиваюсь, и, может быть, дальше пойдет еще хуже.” [It is true indeed: I am vague and confused, and perhaps as time goes on I shall be more so.] I frankly don’t know what to make of all this, and in general the more attention I give to the distinction between the two words, the less I understand it, but I put it out there for your consideration.


  1. Robert Louis Jackson: pravda “a lower earthly truth of the flesh,” istina “a higher Truth of beauty and spirit.” (Art of Dostoevsky).

    Related to, I gather, Dostoevsky’s Two Kinds of Beauty.

  2. Now that altitude has been dragged in, might as well posit a lower Falseness and a higher Falseness.

    It seems to me that a little white lie could plausibly be assigned to any of the four categories.

    Another puzzler: the truth about falsies.

  3. MMcM: Thanks for those links. From the first:

    For Robert, the authors and their texts were something of absolute value, something you don’t debase by tying it to some sort of exposé of the hidden birthmarks of feudalism, capitalism, sexism, colonialism, or elitism. In Jackson’s treatment, authors’ words and their interaction with other words, have create an amazing symphony, which one can listen to again and again.

    Hear, hear!

  4. January First-of-May says

    Now that altitude has been dragged in, might as well posit a lower Falseness and a higher Falseness.

    No problem – the opposite of правда is неправда (literally “untruth”), and the opposite of истина is ложь (a cognate of “lie”, AFAIK).

    …Incidentally, TIL that “salvific” apparently means “leading to salvation”. Not the form I’d have guessed (salvatory? salvative?) but I don’t know remotely enough Latin to tell if it’s at least plausible.

    [Incorrect statement about word usage in logic removed; I was mixing up actual logic, which tends to use the second set in Russian, with children’s puzzles about knights and knaves – where you’d be saying that the knight speaks truth and the knave speaks falseness lies, and just like in English, the Russian word for “to lie” is related to the word for “a lie”.
    I imagine it could work differently in a language that has a word for “to speak truth” as well as for “to speak falseness”, and/or in a language that doesn’t have a special short form for either.]

  5. Time for me to push Anna Wierzbicka’s article on pravda the predicate, pravda the noun, and related concepts. The article quotes Dostoyevsky on lies, where he says that all Russians are constantly lying; the reason is not that Russians are specially mendacious, but that ‘white lie’ is not a component of the Russian cultural script, because lies are lies. Another good bit is the function of courts: the purpose of a court is to learn istina ‘the truth that is known’, which is achieved by swearing witnesses to speak pravda ‘the truth that is told’.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Jan. 5/1: Consider by way of parallel etymologies:

    1. “horrific” (‘Borrowed from Latin horrificus, from horreō (“to be afraid”) + -ficō (“to make”).’); and

    2. “beatific” (‘From beatify, from Latin beatificare (“make blessed”), from beatus (“blessed”) + ficare (“make”), variant of facere.’).

    Thus “salvific” (‘From Late Latin salvificus, from Latin salvus (“saved, safe”) + facio (“make”).’).

  7. @January First-of-May: I wonder if there are languages (or cultures) where the concept of making factually false statements is more important than the concept of lying. By lying I mean the way that is typically interpreted in English, making a statement that one believes to be false with the intention of being deceptive. A prototypical lie should actually be factually false, but most speakers agree that’s not really determinative.* My impression from native speakers of some other languages is that they generally see things the same way, but I wonder if there has been a more systemic cross-linguistic study.

    * Of course, there are lots of edge cases as well. The joke surrounding George’s famous line from Seinfeld, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it,” is that George (or Obi-Wan) wants to excuse himself from the immorality of saying something he knows to be untrue by lying to and convincing himself first.

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Brett: “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.”

  9. Brett: Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit. He explores the concept of bullshitting which I believe is what you are getting at.

    EDIT: It’s different, though, because in Frankfurt’s definition the bullshitter does not care about the truth of the statement; they do not need to convince themself of the truth of the matter.

  10. In Yu’s translation of Journey to the West, he uses the word salvific quite a few times. It had been the only other place I have seen the word. It’s not the only obscure word he uses, not for the sake of obscurity but of precision. His translation is beautifully readable, but rigorous. I assume there was some particular theological reason for using that word.

  11. The edit window closed on me: In Bulgarian правда is a very abstract noun relating to justice in the law sense. Something is not правда; it is the abstract sense of justice.

  12. God’s salvific will is his desire that each soul be saved.

  13. David Marjanović says

    ficare (“make”), variant of facere.’

    Funnily enough its factitive; the -ā- shows up in Hittite as -aḫḫ-, as in newaḫḫi “I renovate”.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder if there are languages (or cultures) where the concept of making factually false statements is more important than the concept of lying

    It’s not quite the same, but 噓 uso in Japanese has not quite the semantics of “lie”: you can say it in response to mean, basically, “No way!”, without any implication that the person is actually deceiving you. “I don’t think that statement is in accordance with the facts!”

    I think I have previously told the story of how, when I was first learning Kusaal, the schoolteacher who had acquired the task of teaching foreign doctors Useful Medical Dialogue proposed as the reply to whatever the patient told you was the matter, Ziri! “A lie!”

    ZIri really does just mean “lie”, though. I think this was just reflective of a somewhat unfortunate traditional approach to patient-doctor interaction.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course, it’s not as if “factually false statement” is itself a clear and unambiguous concept. Much depends on context, and there are always potential risks for misunderstanding or worse when speaker and hearer (or reader and writer) are not working with the same contextual assumptions. One example is the ubiquitous use of metaphor and hyperbole in human discourse – people routinely say things that they know would be factually false if they were taken “literally,” but they don’t expect them to be taken literally, so they lack deceptive intent — even though there’s often some non-zero risk of a clueless listener/reader who will take the statement literally. A separate issue for “truth” is what level of precision is or isn’t implicit in the statement (or may be understood to be implicit by the listener/hearer). Saying that you lived “for two years” at a given address you in truth and fact only lived at for 21 months and three weeks will in most contexts (in the varieties of English with which I am familiar …) not be taken to be “factually false,” because of a background assumption about how much of a plus-or-minus variance is implicitly included in statements like that. Our general social convention is that if this is a response to a question and the questioner wants an answer that’s accurate to the nearest month/week/day it is the questioner’s burden to explicitly so specify. But other language communities in other times and places may not have the same conventions and default expectations. And genre matters: in sworn legal testimony it is thought good practice for witnesses to be explicit whenever they are estimating or approximating or rounding off, and a similar automatic-hedging reflex is found in many formal legal documents where e.g. someone alleges that the defendant did such-and-such “on or about” a specified date even if the accuser is highly confident of the exact date.

  16. That was Obi-Wan’s excuse, but I don’t think anybody bought it.

  17. David Marjanović says

    It’s not quite the same, but 噓 uso in Japanese has not quite the semantics of “lie”: you can say it in response to mean, basically, “No way!”, without any implication that the person is actually deceiving you. “I don’t think that statement is in accordance with the facts!”

    Could it have developed from “lie”, though? Compare “You’re kidding!” or “Surely you jest!” or “You’re putting me on!

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    One idiosyncrasy of mine, or at least one possible difference between me and Brett, is that I do not think of Obi-Wan Kenobi as an interesting or significant figure for purposes of either semantics/pragmatics or moral philosophy. In fact, I have no idea what Brett is talking about w/r/t Obi-Wan, which either means that a) I have forgotten something in the last 40 years (quite possible); or b) Brett is alluding to some dialogue or plotline in one of the many non-canonical post-1981 cash-in “Star Wars” products, none of which I have ever seen (also quite possible).

  19. I suspect the reference is to his “false surrender.”

  20. Isn’t the common point with Ben Kenobi that he said Darth Vader killed Luke’s father and then, after Luke’s hand was cut off, finessed the issue of whether he meant literal vs metaphorical killing?

    I could be totally missing an intended reference but that’s what I took Brett to be referring to.

  21. Ah, that could well be.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    that’s a lie … you’re putting me on

    There’s a rather excitable Spanish mathematician (Villatoro) on señalyruido dot com who often cries es una mentira! about some interpretation of statistics / black holes etc that he wants to brand as misleading or wrong-headed. This annoys me no end, but of course I have no choice but to accept that mentir is like lügen, in that they are not always appropriately translated as “tell a lie”.

    In Spanish and (not quite so egregiously) in German, this lack of a clear, simple verbal distinction between “claim something you think is true” and “claim something you know is false” involves a kind of vicarious megalomania, an over-the-top politeness.

    It’s as if people regarded *other people* (but not themselves) as omniscient. Thus, when someone says that something is the case when it isn’t, they must be doing it in an attempt to deceive – since they know better.


  23. I have less than no interest in Star Wars media apart from the original film trilogy. I was alluding, as Owen correctly inferred, to Kenobi’s statement to Luke that Vader “betrayed and murdered your father.” In Return of the Jedi, he tries to justify this statement with

    You father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I have told you was true… from a certain point of view.

    Ben genuinely seems to believe this,* but that belief is also clearly a way of simplifying things for himself. Luke, at his darkest moment, tells Vader, “Then my father is truly dead,” which clearly disturbs Vader. (David Prowse is not a spectacular actor, but he is impressive in that silent, masked moment, when he can only convey emotions with his posture.)

    * Of course, Kenobi has not seen Vader in about two decades prior to their final duel, so he is probably not the best informed about Vader’s situation at that point. And after that, he’s dead and thus incapable of learning new meaningful information.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    What Kenobi was doing, then, was (assuming this is not an ex post facto justification) speaking metaphorically when there was no good reason in context to expect his hearer to interpret his statement metaphorically and plenty of reason to expect the hearer to interpret it literally. That’s not the same thing, as a matter of semantics/pragmatics or of morality, as speaking metaphorically in a context where it’s reasonable (although not 100% assured) to presume your listener will understand you as speaking metaphorically and not literally. Maybe Kenobi had a Jesuit education? Cf.

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