I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, it is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then— let it get even worse!
I have been going on like that for a long time— twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least. (A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not scratch it out!)
When petitioners used to come to the table at which I sat for information, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost always succeeded. For the most part they were all timid people— of course, they were petitioners. But of the uppity ones there was one officer in particular I could not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud with him for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the better of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth, though.
But do you know, gentlemen, what was the chief point about my spite? Why, the whole point, the real sting of it lay in the fact that continually, even in moments of the acutest spleen, I was inwardly conscious with shame that I was not only not a spiteful man, but not even an embittered man, and that I was simply scaring sparrows at random and amusing myself by it. I might foam at the mouth, but bring me a doll to play with, give me a cup of tea with sugar in it, and I would be appeased. I might even be genuinely touched, though probably I should grind my teeth at myself afterwards and lie awake at night with shame for months after. That was my way.
I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners and with the officer, and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment of many, very many elements in myself absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me until I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and— sickened me, at last, how they sickened me! Now, are you not fancying, gentlemen, that I am expressing remorse for something, that I am asking your forgiveness for something? I am sure you are thinking that… However, I assure you I do not care if you are…
It was not only that I could not become spiteful, I did not know how to become anything; neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, and it is only the fool who becomes anything. Yes, a man in the nineteenth century must and morally ought to be pre-eminently a characterless creature; a man of character, an active man is pre-eminently a limited creature. That is my conviction of forty years.
I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who lives beyond forty? Answer that. Sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tell all old men that to their faces, all these venerable old men, all these silver-haired and reverend seniors! I tell the whole world that to its face! I have a right to say so, for I shall go on living to sixty myself. To seventy! To eighty! Wait, let me catch my breath…