I used to read a lot of novels. But Jamaica has caused me to lose my taste for fiction. Who needs made up stories when everyday life here is so full of passion and drama? Yet whenever I try to make sense of this country Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes From The Underground” comes to mind.


“… one may say anything about the history of the world… The only thing one cannot say is that it is rational… What can one expect from man since he is a creature endowed with such strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing… give him such economic prosperity that he would have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with ensuring the continuation of world history and even then man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He… would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element.”


Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy are of course the two greatest novelists. And in “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” George Steiner argues that we all incline to one or the other. “A reader… may find in their novels the most inclusive and searching portrayal of life. But press him closely and he will choose between them. If he tells you which he prefers and why, you will, I think have penetrated into his own nature. The choice… commits the imagination to one or other of the two radically opposed interpretations of man’s fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God…


Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox… Tolstoy, thirsting for truth, destroying himself and those around him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery… Tolsoy who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment.”


Perhaps this also applies to nations, for the Jamaican soul is definitely Dostoevskyan. To be sure the sun kissed Caribbean is a long way from snow swept Russia, and we are not much given to metaphysical anguish. “For the secret of man’s being is not only to live… but to live for something definite” wrote Dostoevsky, “Without a firm notion of what it is that he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth.” And while it may or may not be a good thing that we have perhaps the most churches per square mile on earth, our profound religiosity has certainly left most Jamaicans cheerfully free of existential despair.


Yet this passage from “Notes From The Underground” must surely ring true to anyone who has lived here.


“… the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop. It may be at the cost of his skin! But he has proved it… why are you so firmly, so triumphantly convinced that only the normal and the positive… is to the advantage of man?… After all, perhaps man likes something besides prosperity? Perhaps he likes suffering just as much?… Man is sometimes fearfully, passionately in love with suffering and that is a fact… I do not really insist on suffering or on prosperity either. I insist on my caprice, and its being guaranteed to me when necessary.”


Jamaica is frankly inexplicable from a logical Tolstoyan perspective. How could a nation with such rich natural assets and resourceful people be mired in crime and poverty if it pursued only its rational self-interest? For no inescapable historical forces have prevented us from focusing our energies on material happiness. Our racial problems are more or less non-existent. We are not plagued by any ethnic, linguistic, or religious divides and have never been ravaged by war. Furthermore we are blessed with paradisiacal climate and scenery, and abundant mineral resources. In short we have been, as much as any country on earth, masters of our fate.


We have not always chosen badly. For all the ballot rigging and garrison violence every single election held here has reflected the true will of the people, and the mandate of an elected government has never been challenged. In spite of an extremely high murder rate our governmental system has been remarkably untouched by violence. No major elected official has ever been assassinated, and violence is rarely ever directed at judges or journalists. All this implies that Jamaicans have had enough collective good sense to preserve the fundamental essentials of the stable democracy we fortunately inherited from the British.


Tolstoyans would say this same system has never delivered a good standard of living or reasonable degree of personal safety. And yet for all our poverty and violence Jamaica’s life expectancy is almost of first world standards. Again suggesting that the people’s most basic needs have been satisfied.


Indeed on both a personal and national level Jamaicans seem to have perfected the art of worrying just enough about the future and doing just as much as is necessary to prevent disaster. While unwilling to undergo the mental stress needed to become a Singapore, neither have we been so totally oblivious to reality as to sink to the level of a Haiti.


We also have an ummatched penchant for embracing chaos while somehow avoiding true disaster. The man that gambles away everything at the racetrack usually manages to salvage his situation. The girl who gets pregnant for an old dog who doesn’t even acknowledge the baby always finds someone to help her raise the child. And though Jamaica must have the most road blocks per capita in the world, we have never had a serious insurrection.


Some commentators talk as if this is a wretched country filled with miserable people. But if someone is in a truly unhappy situation they make every effort to change it. And Jamaicans on the whole certainly don’t show any great desire to alter their way of life. Young men curse their inability to get jobs but reject educational opportunities. Women curse their abusive men but spurn gentlemanly suitors. And voters lambast the JLP and PNP but rebuff all alternatives.


Many of Dostoyevsky’s characters behave in an amazingly Jamaican like fashion, none more so than the emotional and impulsive Dimitri Karamazov. And the rationally inexplicable choices people in this country continually make bring to mind his famous cry - “I want to suffer, and by suffering I shall purify myself.” changkob@hotmail.com

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