Kirillov and Lolcats

There is a character in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils) named Kirillov who refuses to use proper grammar. Oh, he’s not ignorant of correct usage, though he claims that he has forgotten how to speak properly. He is simply intentionally agrammatic, using the wrong tenses, the wrong cases.

Oddly, what I first thought about when I encountered this chararacter was, lolcats! You know, the bizarre internet phenomenon where a picture of a cat is given an amusing, often grammatically incorrect or misspelled caption, and that makes it hilarious? They can be found on the website icanhascheezburger.com, which name pretty well captures what I’m talking about.

What the two have in common is that they involve people who know correct grammar intentionally misusing words in order to provoke a reaction. Yes, lolcats are meant to be humorous – but they achieve their humor through self-conscious absurdity. They point to themselves and say, “I’m misusing the language, and I know it!” If you show that you are aware of the absurdity of language, it puts you above it.

How is language absurd? Firstly, it’s arbitrary. We collectively agree on what words mean, how they go together, how sentences are formed, but we could just as easily speak a different language. The fact that Kirillov and lolcats are comprehensible even though they break the rules proves that arbitrariness – they’ve made you understand them even though they refused to follow the rules. You know exactly what “I can has cheezburger?” means, even though “I can has” shouldn’t mean anything and “cheezburger” won’t be found in any dictionary.

But, apart from language itself, the very idea of communication is absurd in certain lights. What does Kirillov care what you have to say? Nothing. And conversely, he realizes that you do not (or at least ought not to) care about what he has to say. He will invite you to have tea with him, but the phrase intentionally sounds forced, because he wants you to know that he does not really care whether or not you have tea, that he knows you don’t really care, that he’s going to ask anyway to be polite, but that he does not care. As he says near the end of the novel: “Makes no difference.” Not, “It makes no difference,” but, “Makes no difference.”

I find myself reacting thusly every so often. If I have to text someone about their location, I won’t say “where are you?” but rather “where is you?” or “where be you?” I’ll do the same for myself; “i’z in my apt” rather than “I’m in my apartment.” Or I’ll try to respond in German rather than English – I constantly find myself using “wo?” instead of “where?” and “wie ist die uhr?” instead of “what time is it?”

In a way, it’s an attempt to break through the banality of life, to transcend earthly existence. Kirillov refuses to use correct grammar, and his entire philosophy is centered around the idea that he should commit suicide in order to become God: “I want to put an end to my life, because that’s my idea, because I don’t want to be afraid of death.”

But that statement itself perfectly demonstrates Kirillov’s error. He does not want to be afraid of death, but he is – he’s afraid of the power that death has over him. His solution is not to fight that power, but to give in to it entirely. Kirillov is afraid of being “merely” human. His suicide is, in the end, still an act of cowardice.

The same applies to his bizarre speech patterns. He’s refusing to engage his fellow human beings as human beings – he insists on being agrammatic so that he doesn’t have to do so. In fact, this seems true of most such breakings of grammar, including my own. The phrase “where is you?”, after all, conjugates “to be” not for the second person, but for the third person – changes the “you” from a person to interact with into an object to be dealt with.

And the lolcat caption does the same thing. Instead of saying, “can I have a cheezburger?” the cat says “I can has cheezburger?” Whomever the cat is addressing is thus treated as a robot, with an input of “ask for cheeseburger” and an output of “get a cheeseburger,” without being given the respect of a grammatically correct question.

This is funny, of course, because this is exactly how pets treat people; they use them. I’ve seen “lolcats” of dogs, horses, walruses, etc – but rarely people, and I don’t think it would work for people. For people, I think, it would just be disturbing, as the character of Kirillov is himself disturbing.

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One Response to Kirillov and Lolcats

  1. copingkoala says:

    I really enjoyed your post- you are really right ;)

    It’s an interesting phenomen and all that people want to achieve with it is attention and interest, but only as long as it’s regarding animals and not themselfs.

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