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Oct 10, 2012

The Idiot: Dostoevsky

Beauty will save the world. Once upon a time, there was a rich boyar who had three lovely daughters. The youngest was as radiant as the sun and as lovely as the moon. Many suitors vied for her favours, but she rejected them all. One day, a Prince from a foreign land came to seek her hand. To test his worth and the strength of his love, she put him through all manner of tests…

Nastasya Filipovna was orphaned at a tender age, and given into the care of her neighbour, an unscrupulous rogue, who set her up in a secluded dacha, far from the eyes of the world, where he groomed her for himself. When at last she came of age, she became his mistress. He brought her to St Petersburg, where her beauty astonished all who saw it. At last, tiring of her, and wishing to settle down and marry, her master sought to rid himself of her by marrying her off to the highest bidder…

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia after many years abroad in a sanatorium, where he has been treated for epilepsy and idiocy. Naïve, and socially inept, but with a freshness and humility that sees through social conventions, he tries to integrate himself into Petersburg society. He falls in love with two different women and struggles to choose between the two of them...

The Idiot weaves all these plot strands together in what may be the most diffuse, the most problematic, the most elusive of Dostoevsky’s novels. The writer himself regarded the novel as a failure, not perhaps of intention, but of execution. His notebooks reveal his struggle to choose from many ideas, and his stuttering attempts to develop them. There are several false starts and different conceptions before he hit on the final version of the story. His letters are full of his anxieties about the difficulties in the writing of it, the cancelled and destroyed drafts, the postponed and delayed deadlines and the way they effected his finances. He was tormented by worries about money, overjoyed by the birth and then devastated by the sudden death of his first child; he was suffering frequent, debilitating fits; he was battling his terrible addiction to roulette and at the same time recklessly attempting to use it as a means of financing his family; and he was in Europe and homesick for Russia.

Part of the difficulty was in the aim he had set himself. In a letter to his friend Maikov he described his aim to portray a wholly beautiful individual; then the next day, in a letter to his niece he described his aim thus: the basic idea is the representation of a truly perfect and noble man. For Dostoevsky, beauty was equated with moral nobility and perfection, or goodness. Myshkin returns to Russia, not as a miracle worker, or a social reformer or a doer of charity and good works, not as a saviour, but as a kind of savant. His chief goodness appears to lie in the way he establishes a completely genuine and authentic relationship with those he meets, a relationship that has nothing to do with conventions, polite behaviour or social mores: He was almost the only one who spoke that evening, telling many stories, he answered questions clearly gladly and in detail. However, nothing resembling polite conversation showed in his words.

The thoughts were all quite serious, even quite abstruse…He has a strange effect on all who meet him, bringing forth their most genuine responses and allowing them to see their true natures. ‘You can’t be the way you pretended to be just now. It’s not possible’, the Prince suddenly cried out in deeply felt reproach… ‘He guessed right, in fact, I’m not like that,’ whispered… Nastasya Filipovna…Everyone he encounters is disconcerted by his naivety and apparent authenticity: If you are indeed the way you seem to be, it might very well be pleasant to become acquainted with you General Epanchin exclaims at their first meeting... He establishes himself on equal footing with everyone, from the servants to the most exalted personages of Petersburg society, and puts forward his views and describes his experiences with disarming candour and with complete disregard for the social proprieties: I’m going on twenty-seven, but I know I’m like a child. I don’t have the right to express my thoughts…I have no sense of measure….. His goodness works on the sphere of human relationships and on the psychological level.

The literary models for the Prince were Don Quixote and Pickwick, both, according to Dostoevsky, beautiful characters, whose beauty is derided by others who remain blind to it. However, whereas both Don Quixote and Pickwick make the reader laugh, the Prince does not. He makes others laugh, and he laughs heartily with them, and we are told that he can be witty and amusing as well as earnest and profound, but he does not make the reader laugh. Which is not to say that there is no comedy in the novel. The book abounds with a plethora of excellently drawn comic situations and characters: Mrs Epanchin, General Ivolgin and Lebedev, for example, are masterpieces of comic invention and genuinely hilarious. While the Prince himself is not funny, his presence among the other characters of the book, however, does allow the reader to see the beauty of those characters, when those around them cannot.

The book is structured around a series of static social scenes set in drawing rooms. There is very little incident, and much talking. These social scenes are masterpieces of dramatic psychology, as all the characters interact with conflicting motivations, hiding behind social masks and only intermittently revealing hints of their real intentions. The Prince is a calm centre around which the other characters dance. The greatest of these scenes is the birthday party of Nastasya Filipovna, where the guests play a version of spin-the-bottle, confessing an action that they are most ashamed of. Present is Nastasya Filipovna’s seducer; and the tension as he begins to tell his story is masterfully projected onto the reader. The novel unfolds among the summer dachas and outdoor concerts of the resort suburb of Pavolvsk, but its emphasis on interior dramatic social scenes means that descriptions of urban life are minimal; the recreation of the city and the crowd as a participant in the narrative which was such a salient feature of Crime and Punishment is absent. In this sense the novel harks back to an earlier work of Dostoevsky’s The Village of Stepanchikovo, which uses the same essentially static structuring devices, and has a similar type of character as the Prince as one of its twin centres.

This effects the way incident is dealt with. Plenty happens, but it all happens off stage, and is then reported by other characters as gossip or rumour. Incident is presented as conversation. The text is studded with newspaper reports of crimes, but these are also just more examples of hearsay. Even the Prince’s (and Dostoevsky’s) most famous dictum: Beauty will save the world is problematised by being reported at second or even third hand. The dictum nowhere appears directly in the novel, but is reported. Ippolit says: “Is it true, Prince, that you once declared that 'beauty would save the world'? Great Heaven! The Prince says that beauty saves the world!” But Ippolit himself is unsure whether the Prince has in fact said it: he heard that the Prince said it from someone else, and the Prince neither confirms nor contradicts him. Another character is also reported as having said something similar: I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrait she said that such beauty could overthrow the world, Nastasya Filipovna writes to Aglaya. This casts doubt on the role of beauty: will beauty save the world, or overthrow it? Is the difference important? These are all questions that the narrative does little to answer.

The Idiot represents a new departure for Dostoevsky, a break with his previous method and concerns. Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, the two major works which preceded The Idiot both grow out of the writer’s ongoing polemic with the nihilists, and when they are placed next to the journalism of this time, many of the same themes and methods can be discerned. The Idiot, however, is different from his previous work in a number of important ways.

First, is the lack of a clear philosophical target against which Dostoevsky can argue. Dostoevsky’s art relies on a dialectic for its effect: his most powerful work always takes its power from the presence of two (or more) conflicting ideas, both presented with such utter cogency and commitment, that often the writer’s true point of view is difficult to discern. Dostoevsky’s gift is for negative argumentation: he puts forward his most effective arguments by trying to negate or refute a different argument. Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment achieve their effect of underlying unity by a clear refutation of a central idea: Western utilitarian rationalism. All the elements of these two books work to refute this idea. This kind of unified and focussed negative argumentation plays a much smaller role in The Idiot. Dostoevsky employs a more positive style of argumentation, presenting his ideas more positively. True, there are attacks against the Russian liberals, a refutation of the notion of ‘the right of force’, attacks on atheism and socialism, and a marvellously rancid and bitter rant against the Roman Catholic Church, but these are dispersed among different characters.

The closest the novel comes to a focussed dialectic is in the long document that Ippolit reads out at the prince’s birthday party. In this scene, it is as if the underground man has somehow escaped from his own book and gatecrashed this one. Entitled ‘My Necessary Explanation’, in it the consumptive Ippolit, who has only been given two weeks left to live, expresses all the anguish, rage and sense of futility of the conscious human being faced with the ineluctability of death. In Notes from Underground this fatum was represented by the symbol of the wall. In The Idiot, this becomes the wall of his neighbour’s house, the only view that Ippolit can see through his window: Yes, that wall of Meyer’s can tell a lot! I have written a lot on it! There is not a spot on that cursed wall that I have not learned by heart. That cursed wall! In the face of imminent death, all endeavour becomes pointless: I saw clearly that I was forbidden to study Greek grammar- “I won’t get as far as the syntax before I die” I thought at the first page, and threw the book under the table. In the face of death, everything is negated: If it had been in my power not to be born, I probably would not have accepted existence on such derisive conditions. And yet, in spite of that the human being longs for life: I did not deceive myself and understood the matter clearly. But the more clearly I understood it, the more convulsively I clung to life and wanted to live whatever the cost. Ippolit asserts that the point of life is in life itself, in discovering it constantly and eternally, and not in the discovery itself.

In ‘My Necessary Explanation’ Dostoevsky gives some of the strongest arguments for atheism in his work. Ippolit describes the painting he has seen in Rogozhin’s house, a reproduction of Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ. He says this of it: Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! … In the face of the terrible ineluctability of natural forces, represented in the picture by the cadaver of Christ, any idea of God or salvation or resurrection becomes highly doubtful. Ippolit conceives of God as a huge tarantula devouring the world. Religion demands that we worship this tarantula, and this Ippolit rejects: Let consciousness be lit up by the will of a higher power, let it look at the world and say: ‘I am!’ and let the higher power suddenly decree its annihilation, because for some reason… that is needed: let it be so, I admit all that, but then again comes the eternal question: why is my humility needed here? Isn’t it possible to simply eat me without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me? Human dignity will not allow itself simply to be subsumed with such meekness: I am unable to submit to a dark power that assumes the shape of a tarantula. As always, Dostoevsky presents his own religious doubts with huge cogency and power, and for this modern, secular reader, his atheistic arguments have more force than his religious ones.

The novel is permeated by the sense of Dostoevsky’s distance from contemporary debates due to his self-enforced exile from Russia. In another letter to his niece, he wrote: I have been so alienated from Russian life that I find it difficult, lacking fresh Russian impressions as I do, to write anything at all… In a meeting with his rival and enemy Turgenev at the time, he sarcastically remarked to him that he should get a telescope, the better to see what was happening in Russia, a suggestion that perhaps reflected his own nagging sense of alienation from the wellsprings of his art. The Idiot was written in Europe, and in many ways this is the most European of his novels, notwithstanding the presence of elements from Russian fairy tales. At times it reads like Jane Austen, Flaubert, George Sand or Balzac, especially in its examination of human relationships, social manners and mores, family relations, sexuality, and the importance of money.

Another important difference of the book from its predecessors is the absence of a controlling consciousness through which the events of the novel are perceived. Crime and Punishment and The Gambler both foreground an individual consciousness, through which the reader perceives the story, in the former case, the criminal student Raskolnikov’s, in the second, the tutor Alexei Ivanovich’s. These foregrounded consciousnesses give those two works an intensity of emotion and a concentration of vision, resulting in a single-minded narrative drive that carries the reader and the story recklessly forward. This is lacking in The Idiot, whose impersonal narrator is not a character in the story, but outside it and unknown to the reader or the characters. This lack of a consistently foregrounded controlling vision results in a slower book, differently and less hurriedly paced.

Perhaps the most significant departure in the book, however, is the conflation of the Prince with Dostoevsky himself, a conflation of author and protagonist that hitherto in his career Dostoevsky had been utterly scrupulous to avoid. Like Dostoevsky, the Prince suffers from epilepsy, and the two fits the Prince suffers in the course of the novel are described with great detail borne of personal experience. Almost upon his very first entrance into St Petersburg society, the Prince describes his conversation with a condemned man, and relates (more secondhand reporting, note) how the man experienced his last minutes in front of the scaffold before his unexpected reprieve and pardon. This description echoes almost word for word the description of Dostoevsky’s own similar experience and thoughts in the letter he wrote to his brother the morning after his own mock execution. This is the very first public discussion of his experience; nowhere in his writing, even in Notes from the House of the Dead, the book about his imprisonment, does it appear until now. The views regarding Christianity that the Prince voices in the novel are known to be the same views Dostoevsky himself held at this time, and the same arguments and views crop up in his letters. While Christianity as a solution to the character’s dilemma is only foreshadowed in Crime and Punishment, in The Idiot it is vigorously asserted by the prince as the only solution to Russia’s problems. Only Russians’ know the true meaning of Christianity: the woman said that to me,… it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our own father, and that God rejoices over man as father over his own child- the main thought of Christ. Only Russian Orthodoxy is the correct version of Christianity, and Russia must vigorously bring her version to the West: Our Christ, whom we have preserved, and they have never known, must shine forth as a response to the West! Not by being slavishly caught on the Jesuit’s hook, but by bringing them our Russian civilisation, we must now confront them…

This conflation of protagonist and author gives rise to the unpleasantly tempting suggestion that the Prince/Dostoevsky is symbolic of the Christ figure. In the same letter to his niece quoted above, Dostoevsky writes of the beautiful individual: There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ, and there are subtle suggestions throughout the book that Myshkin is symbolic of Christ: No one here is worth your little finger, or your intelligence or your heart! You’re more honest that all of them, nobler than all of them, better than all of the, kinder than all of them, more intelligent than all of them! There are people here who aren’t worthy of bending down to pick up your handkerchief you’ve just dropped… exclaims Aglaya Epanchin to the Prince. (Bulgakov describes the devil’s visit to Moscow; in much the same way Dostoevsky describes Christ’s visit to St Petersburg.) Dostoevsky knows that one day, like the prince, he will return from abroad to Russia, asserting positively the supremacy of Russian Orthodoxy and confounding his detractors. At the same time, on a symbolic level, Dostoevsky is recreating his own return from Omsk with his new awareness of the religion and ways of the peasants, and the reassertion of his position after his exile. It’s this suggestion that perhaps forms the basis for Dostoevsky’s subsequent mythical status as a prophet of Russia and Orthodoxy.

In any ingenious or new human thoughts, or even simply in any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people - though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever, you will die with it…

Compassion is the chief, perhaps the only law of being for all mankind.

Beauty is a riddle.

I’m dissatisfied with the book, for I haven’t said a tenth part of what I wanted to say. Nevertheless, I don’t repudiate it, and to this day, I love the plan that miscarried.

Letter to his niece
February 1869

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