'The mind is a scoundrel,' Dostoevsky wrote in his notes for The Brothers Karamazov, 'but stupidity is straight and honest.' This wasn't what he himself thought, or rather, it was only one of the things he thought. In the novel the line is given to Ivan Karamazov, who explains to his younger brother Alyosha that he began their conversation about religion 'as stupidly as possible'. When Alyosha asks him why, Ivan first says he wanted to be characteristically Russian: 'Russian conversations on these subjects are all conducted as stupidly as possible.' Then he says: 'And second, the stupider, the more to the point. The stupider, the clearer. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while reason hedges and hides. Reason is a scoundrel, stupidity is direct and honest.' This is the wording of Richard Pevear's and Larissa Volokhonsky's 1990 translation - the translation of the notes is by Edward Wasiolek. In David McDuff's 1993 version we read: 'The greater the stupidity, the greater the clarity. Stupidity is brief and guileless, while wit equivocates and hides. Wit is a scoundrel, while stupidity is honest and sincere.' And again, in Constance Garnett's much older version: 'The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.'
LRB 5 September 2002 | PDF Download