Humble idiots

Not too long ago, I went to see Lars and the Real Girl at my local art cinema. It’s both a fun and a sad film but what sums it up best is that it’s so human.

The film revolves around the unlikely situation where a introvert but sympathetic young man buys a life size doll off the Internet, pretends that she is a real person and courts her (he asks his brother if she can stay at their house, since it wouldn’t be fitting for them to be living together unmarried). This plot premise may sound ridiculous, but the magic of the film is making this situation – and the people involved in it – believable.

Lars is an example of one of my favourite literary archetypes: The humble idiot. The humble idiot typically leads a quiet unassuming life, and is generally dismissed as harmless by people around him. But brewing within him is hope and dreams of something more and else than the life he is leading now, and the story only really takes off when he moves to put these dreams into action – usually in a way that only he considers to be possible, or even sane.

The classic example of the humble idiot is Cervantes’ Don Quixote who has spent years reading chivalric romances, and eventually decides to become a knight himself, fighting giants where others only see windmills.

Another example is Dostoyevsky’s the Idiot, the first part of which contains perhaps the best prose I’ve ever read. The idiot prince Myshkin remains so pure, humble and good throughout the book despite of all the cynical and conniving people around him. His idiocy is proven in amble measure when he continues to defend the honour of Nastasya, who continues to let him down whenever she can.

Yet another example is the main character in the Never-ending Story, Bastian Balthazar Bux, an introvert, unhappy boy who skips school to read this fascinating new book and dream himself away into a fantastic dream world, where he can make a difference.

The most recent book that I’ve read starring the humble idiot is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Rich in magical realism and wonderful American and Hispanic street slang, it is the story of Oscar, a Dominican kid in New Jersey. Unlike all other young Dominican men, Oscar has no way with women at all. He has no greater goal in life than to feel the soft touch of girl, but he is too shy, too honest and way, way too geeky to achieve it.

Oscar is like a grand wizard of geekness: He writes science fiction novels, watches Japanese manga, and plays table top role playing games. He sinks deeper and deeper into this life of escapism but remains deeply unhappy. But there is magic in Oscar’s life, in the form of an ancient Dominican curse, the fukú, which leads his life in unexpected directions which I won’t reveal here.

What all of the idiots share are some of the most fundamental human qualities: Trust, empathy, humility, imagination, and hope. They share that geek wonder, which leads them to escape into fantasy, only to return to fight the apparently irrepressible evils of the world in their own wonderfully naïve ways. Their true adventure lies in realigning themselves to the real world from a life of fantasy – without losing neither their sanity nor their hope.

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