by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
October 30, 2002
THE IDIOT AS OTHERS SEE HIM
SEATTLE, Wash. -- The gym to which I repair every afternoon for an hour of huffing, puffing, and perspiring is not large. The men's locker room measures some 10 x 30 feet, with 70 lockers, three benches, and two lavatories, plus showers and a small sauna, the latter large enough for about five people.
On a busy day, life in these quarters, like that on a submarine, depends upon mutual forbearance, courtesy, and good humor.
There is one fellow who stands out. When he arrives, he drops his gear on one of the three benches in the middle of the floor, shucks off his shoes and clothes, dons his workout suit and...walks away. Men step over or around his stuff to get to the lockers where they have stowed their own.
He is on my mind today because of an incident in the sauna. Three of us were sitting there when X came in, and, without a word to anyone, dumped five ladles of water onto the coals. The resultant searing steam soon drove the three of us out of the sauna. Unless you are alone, the normal thing is to ask others whether they mind such an alteration in the atmosphere.
"He is an idiot," I offered, with the Christian charity for which I am widely admired.
"Not possible," said Y, "he is..." and he named a job description somewhere between brain surgeon and rocket scientist.
"I mean that he is an idiot in the root sense of the word...," I said, and then launched into the display of useless erudition for which I am widely avoided.
I meant that he was a private person, cocooned within himself and unaware of the impression that he makes upon others. The word "idiot" stems from a Greek word meaning "private." (One reason why I am always amused by the PR cliche about the rock star or politician who is "really a very private person.")
Idiocy is not always repellent. Children of three or four are adorable little idiots who are in the process of becoming socialized, that is, of learning that they are not alone in the world and that their actions affect others.
Those unacquainted with Dostoevsky's great novel "The Idiot" are often surprised to learn that the title character is the hero of the book.
Dostoevsky endowed Prince Myshkin (a name vaguely suggestive of a mouse) with his own epilepsy and with the mental frailty which the disease was thought to entail.
But Myshkin is based less upon his own creator than upon the historical personage who served more than once as a model for Dostoevsky - Jesus Christ.
Tolstoy famously quipped that if the saccharine Jesus of the Sunday schools were to turn up in a Russian village, all the girls would laugh at him.
It is that Jesus - the exemplar of such kindness, selflessness, generosity, and unquestioning love as to seem idiotic - whom Dostoevsky had in mind.
What is more, there was a strong Russian tradition that saw mental derangement itself as somehow holy. The village with its own "holy fool" (yurodivy) felt an obligation not to treat, but to care for, feed, clothe, and respect the one who had been touched by God.
I do not recall that Myshkin is ever depicted in a Russian banya dumping water on the hot rocks and thereby emptying the place, but I wouldn't put it past him.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.