Absurdism, Books

On The Idiot


Dostoevsky wrote this letter to his niece Sophia Ivanova on 13th January 1868 while he was writing The Idiot:

The main idea of the novel is to present a beautiful man…There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitless beautiful person is an infinite miracle itself. The whole Gospel according to St. John is about that…I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in…literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful because he is ridiculous. Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of comedy lies in this excitation of compassion.”


Prince Myshkin. The Idiot presents Prince Myshkin as a moral ideal. He is selfless, gentle, good, endearing, translucent, patient, kind, open, attentive and vulnerable. He opens himself up to others and whatever he touches becomes transparent. With his humble, breaking down of barriers he is able to listen to the language of someone hiding themselves. He instantly understands his interlocutor, grasps their processes of concealment, and gauges who is being cruel to whom, who is tormented and why. He has no small talk no barbed talk no deceitful flattery. Without any defences he is porous to the world. The St. Petersburg crowd does not know what to make of Prince Myshkin. The other characters in the novel are driven by ego, power, wealth, social advantage and sexual conquest. They experience moments of insight when they are with him, and are mesmerised by him. But at first they suspect him of hiding behind a mask, or that his absence of vanity is a kind of vanity. Myshkin wanders with his lucid, vicarious fellow feeling though a St. Petersburg of the outlandish. He has no self-regard that nourishes vanity or egoism and has constructed no socialised defences. His inability to resist being humiliated or chastised or attacked makes him vulnerable. Others have roubles or rank or belligerence to insulate them from the perilousness of the world. Myshkin’s trusting nature and naiveté and empathy with every person makes for a terrifying openness. He has no family, no land, no possessions, he simply arrives one day on a train with a small bundle. Prince Myshkin is the beggar prince without baggage. He is the Idiot.


Nastasya. Much of the novel turns on Nastasya Filippovna as an object of polymorphous desire. All the men in her life are present at a scandal-catastrophe party to celebrate her name-sake day where she is to announce whether or not she will marry. Ganya Ivolgin is willing to sell his soul to marry her and gain her dowry. Totsky, who installed Nastasya after she was orphaned as his concubine for his repeated sexual satisfaction, has no conscience about her ruin at his hands. General Epanchin, although he is married, has his own sexual designs upon her. Rogozhin is ready to squander a fortune to exclusively possess her such is his voracious desire, and he bids for her favours by tossing 100,000 roubles he has borrowed that day from the money lenders onto the fire wrapped in a copy of the Stock Exchange News. Nastasya seems to be a commodity to be traded within this mercenary class. She is beautiful and damned and everyone is fascinated by her. With her violent emotional response to everything and a bitter self-hatred and desire to humiliate Totsky, and anyone else in the vicinity, Nastasya recklessly turns to Prince Myshkin to decide the question of her marriage and her future. Myshkin who has only met her that day immediately senses she has a wounded humanity, is tormented, has suffered and is driven by anger. In his innocent open way he proposes to her out of pity, a desire to save her and a love for her as a suffering human being. Nastasya comprehends that she and Myshkin could never be happy with each other: “No we had better part as good friends for, you see, I’m a dreamer myself, and no good would come of it! Haven’t I dreamed of you myself? You were quite right, I dreamed of you long ago, when I still lived in the country with him. Five years I lived there all alone. I used to think and dream, think and dream, and always I was imagining someone like you, kind and honest and good and as silly as you, so silly that he would suddenly come and say,It’s not your fault Nastasya Filippovna, and I adore you!’ yes, I used to spend hours dreaming like that and it nearly drove me crazy.” Myshkin’s proposal at this tumultuous party detonates a bomb. Nastasya firmly asserting her independence turns Myshkin down, rejects Ganya, then the General, abuses Totsky and rushes off into the arms of Rogozhin to her eventual ruin.


Aglaya. Aglaya Epanchin is cosseted, spoiled, intelligent, sharp, neurotic, haughty, capricious and eligible. Myshkin says when he meets her “You are very beautiful, Aglaya Ivanovna, so beautiful that one is afraid to look at you…Beauty is a riddle.” Aglaya falls in love with Myshkin and the ideals he stands for. Her lofty imagination is inflamed on Myshkin’s self-sacrificing magnanimity and his purity of appeal is irresistible to her. When the young nihilists abuse him Aglaya is combative on his behalf. She calls him a serious Don Quixote, and Myshkin declares his love for her. The Epanchin family have their own tumultuous-catastrophe party when presenting Myshkin to their friends. (This novel is a series of set piece hot-house social gatherings.) Aglaya prepares him beforehand with irony: “Do at least break the Chinese vase in the drawing-room. It’s a very expensive one. Do break it – it’s a present, and Mummy will go off her head and burst into tears in front of everyone – she values it so highly. Wave your arms about, as you always do, knock it down and smash it. Sit near it on purpose.” Myshkin, as the party gathers, talks himself into a delirious state of emotional rapture and tirade: the Catholic faith is unchristian – worse than atheism – it’s a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire as the Pope seized an earthly throne- we must resist slavishly swallowing the bait of the Jesuits – Russians have become atheists and believe in atheism as a new faith – socialism is the child of Catholicism…etc… The assembled company is embarrassed and then alarmed as Myshkin after this disastrous harangue collapses into a chair next to the Chinese vase, “the crash, the gasp of horror, the precious fragments gathered on the carpet, the dismay, the astonishment”. The crisis for Aglaya is that Myshkin is in love simultaneously with her and Nastasya and is unable to choose between them. His chivalric love for Nastasya is a threat to Aglaya’s undisputed claim of possession to the man she loves. His fatal inability to choose between the two women shows he is not sufficient for either. It is an impasse for which he has no solution. Aglaya’s longings are sabotaged by her knowledge of Myshkin’s earlier proposal to Nastasya. In the end Aglaya marries a Polish Count émigré adventurer, who turns out to be a conman-fake.


Jesus Christ. Myshkin is not an agent for Christ in the novel. He is not a doctrine or set of beliefs, he argues for nothing, he is not an evangelist, but he is a Christ-like figure. Christ cannot be a character in a fictional narrative. The essence of a novel is narrative indeterminacy, everything must still be in play. Christ is goodness incarnate and no fictional character can be a once and for all eternity figure. Christ has no moral agency as he can do nothing but good. He is eternal and so incapable of change. He does not make moral choices as he is only capable of good ones; he cannot choose to be good. As he encounters no dilemma he is beyond choice and so incapable of fictional action. The Gospels get round this narrative problem by depicting Christ as a teacher and speaker in parables. Christ’s love is universal and not particular which is fine in a supernatural being but not in a mortal. Myshkin’s appearance is modelled on the traditional Orthodox iconography of Jesus Christ. He breaks boundaries, speaks the truth, is outside the norms, has a revelatory role and precipitates moral struggle in others. He too speaks in parables (he recites four parables in response to the question “Do you believe in God?”). But the closer Myshkin becomes to being a Christ-like figure the more problematic as a human he becomes. He is not self-venturing, makes no active decisions, exhibits no human desire, no process of growth. The more flawless he is, the less he is human. Myshkin’s understanding and insight and humility is a startling gift, but his exasperating incapacity to make adult choices is fatal. La Bruyère wrote: “Little children have neither past nor future, for they live in the present” Myshkin too exists is a juvenile temporal world living entirely in the moment. He recoils from no previously suffered pain, needs to deploy no stratagems for a future. He is the great paradox at the heart of the novel: the more perfect he is the closer it brings him to being diabolical.


Judgement. Myshkin wants to be all things to all people at all times. When he is with Aglaya he loves her and and wants to marry her. When he is with Nastasya he loves her and wants to marry her. But he is no libertine juggling his deception of women. It is worse than that: he genuinely openly loves them both and cannot choose. He is unable to choose because he is incapable of judgement. His faultless insight stems not from having grasped the nature of things. Myshkin is a human subject devoid of the defensive mechanisms produced by a history of hurting and being hurt, and so cannot make choices. He cannot be, in his beautiful inhumanity, an active fictional protagonist as he has no critical self-awareness. He is someone who has never learnt how to learn and this has a disastrous effect of his relationship with others. His relationships with Nastasya and Aglaya never moves within the narrative as there can be no development in him. Both women try to make him do something, and he is incapable. Myshkin visits Aglaya after he has visited Nastasya as if nothing of import has occurred. He is incapable of comprehending why his attitude to Nastasya could affect his relations with Aglaya in any way. Aglaya eventually comes to realise that Myshkin’s perfect even-handedness of attitude to everything is disastrous: “If one shows you an execution or if one holds out one’s finger to you, you will draw equally edifying reflections from both and be quite satisfied.” This novel is the trials and tribulations occasioned by a man who cannot take sides.


Eroticism. Myshkin is incapable of carnal desire and erotic love. His terrible evenhandedness and selfless love and lack of real desire for others means he lacks the necessary flesh of life. His is a disembodied conception of love as he does not need anyone, has no mutuality of obligation, seeks no interdependence and it is fatal ultimately to any union. He cannot attend to either Nastasya or Aglaya. He has no sexuality because he cannot oppose, he cannot take sides, he cannot confront, he cannot exist with the limiting choices in life, he cannot enter into life completely. His idea of the erotic with Aglaya is holding hands and drinking tea. His private quest to save Nastasya is one of doe-eyed innocence. His surrender of the self undermines each of his human encounters and is of no use in erotic relationships with others as he cannot become immersed in another person. Myshkin’s offer of deep compassion to Nastasya is insufficient, his conception of a perfect platonic love with Aglaya is inadequate. The asexual seraphic at the heart of this novel is unable to engage with earthly limitations. His chaste love is an abrogation of love on earth. He knows nothing of the pitfalls of the protean everyday, the obstacles and limits of human reality. His form of virtue is not compatible with confrontation or preference or the erotic, what use is he to a woman? The deficiencies, wickedness, competing egoisms and sexual energy of the other characters are the driving forces in this fiction, but it is Myshkin’s goodness that causes their ruin. When he tries to act, surrounded by his moral halo, all goes wrong. Myshkin’s personality imports a false earnestness to life: by the end of the novel their deficiencies are favourable to his perfection. This novel reminds us that the problematic promptings of the sexual ego are an inherent necessity to be welcomed in the human condition. The troubling idea at the heart of this paradox is that innocence and humility is a dangerous moral stance in a quotidian world.


Comedy. The set up for The Idiot resembles a stage comedy. Marriage is in the air, there are expectant young lovers, interfering parents, a sensational disparity of rank and wealth, multiple competing suitors, lecherous older men and there are comic minor character at the ready. Lurking in the background is General Ivolgin the drunken buffoon Falstaff figure, Lebedev the cynic, Mrs Epanchin the ironist, Keller the pugilist, Ferdyshenko the feigned fool at Nastasya’s party. A beautiful woman is about to make her marriage choice, with unpredictable consequences and all is set for some hilarious misadventures. In this novel the foolish failings of the grotesques could have been examined with joy, wit and irony. But pitched into this scenario is the man who has no comedy. The problem with perfection is that it is incompatible with comedy because laughter is only to be found in imperfection. Myshkin is so good he cannot have any use for laughter. Myshkin cannot be comic because he lacks critical attention to others. His inability to attend to the humans around him means that he cannot engage, and comedy is an act of critical engagement. It is impossible for Myshkin to be comic in any way and he is the main protagonist of the novel. The only element of Myshkin that reveals any comicality is his incongruity, his inappropriateness. And he seems to be conscious of it: “There are ideas, lofty ideas, of which I must not begin to speak, because I would certainly make everyone laugh.” At a ladies lunch he rails against capital punishment, at a drinks party he delivers a delirious tirade against the Roman Catholic church, at a birthday party he proposes marriage to a woman he has just met. His personality is always inappropriate, but this ludicrousness is in no way intrinsic to him. Once Myshkin arrives the failings of the others are not there to be laughed at but exposed as unhealthy longings, unbalanced views, selfish jealousies or violent wickedness. So instead we get the most tragic of Dostoevsky’s endings: Natasha lies murdered, Rogozhin condemned, Myshkin insane, Aglaya humiliated, Ippolit self-killed, General Ivolgin ruined. But Dostoevsky’s is an artistic world where everything lives on its opposite and he was engaged in an act of critical engagement in the writing of The Idiot. “Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of comedy lies in this excitation of compassion.” In this most elusive of novels Dostoevsky’s comedy imports a seriousness of purpose, whereas Myshkin displays merely a false earnestness.


Don Quixote. “I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in…literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful because he is ridiculous.” Myshkin is likened to Don Quixote throughout the novel. He is called the sorrowful knight, and the humble knight and his proposal to Nastasya is described as quixotic. Aglaya hides a message from Myshkin in her copy of Don Quixote. She recites a poem called The Poor Knight by Pushkin (a ballad about a knight who falls in love with the Virgin Mary). The Idiot is in some ways the inverse of Don Quixote: both are an examination of idealism in human nature. Quixote is idealised virtue in action, Myshkin is idealised virtue in passivity. Quixote is befuddled by his delusions, Myshkin is undone by his lack of them. Both are prisoners of their own thinking. Quixote’s devotion to Dulcinea, and Myshkin’s to Nastasya, is noble, fine, good, endearing, beautiful and useless, as neither understands erotic love. Quixote’s innocence causes damage, Myshkin’s goodness precipitates disaster. Both are ridiculous: Quixote in his imperfection, Myshkin in his perfection. Both make life worse for others, Quixote by doing everything and Myshkin by doing nothing. Both are devoted to doing good in the world, and do forever bad. Both are fictional characters from the wrong genre. Cervantes took Quixote from a romance and inserted him into a realist novel. Whereas Myshkin would not be out of place in the Lives of the Saints, the other characters in The Idiot think that they are in a novel about proposals, seduction, jealousy, sexual energy, money and marriage. Myshkin is the sacred among the profane, the unfallen among the fallen. In the Lives of the Saints he would not be an idiot, in a work of fiction he is.


Hans Holbein the Younger. When he was twenty eight Dostoevsky was saved moments before death from execution by firing squad. At seven o’clock in the morning on 22nd December 1849 he was due to be shot for a literary crime. The officer in the prison yard read the charge and the death sentence aloud, and for twenty minutes Dostoevsky waited for the sentence to be carried out until it was suddenly announced that the Tsar had commuted the death sentence to a term of imprisonment in Siberia. In The Idiot Dostoevsky depicts his experiences of coming so close to his own death. Myshkin is witness to a beheading and he describes an execution by guillotine of a French murderer in Lyon. Myshkin contemplates the mental thoughts and feelings of the condemned man just prior to death: “what if I were not to die? count every minute as it passed. I would not waste one.” Myshkin’s view is that the profound intuition of death should make everyone aware in every moment of the miracle of life. In this novel there is a description of a painting of an executed man. A reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521-1522) hangs in Rogozhin’s house. It is a portrait is of an executed man whose consciousness has been cut off, Christ’s body after the crucifixion. It depicts a tortured and decaying human being, emaciated in the early stages of putrefaction without trace of supernatural transcendence. Myshkin describes the picture: “His body on the cross was…fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen and blood-stained bruises, the eye open and squinting, the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint.” The painting represents a dead man, damaged and destroyed who is all flesh shown sideways to the viewer. Orthodox iconography would not permit such a representation, in the Russian tradition icon’s are painted confronting the viewer directly. Also this is God as dead flesh, a representation not only drained of divine content but presented in profile is both anti-icon and the presence of a negative. In this novel Myshkin is also a present negative, but he is drained of human content.


Rogozhin. The dark and libidinous Parfyon Rogozhin is jealously unable to allow Nastasya to belong to anyone else. He stalks her, controls her, locks her away, beats her and finally in the last pages of the novel murders her. Rogozhin is the polar opposite of Myshkin. Rogozhin’s love for Nastasya is all selfishness, Myshkin’s entirely selfless. Myshkin has her best interests at heart, Rogozhin his own. But Dostoevsky loves his doubling and in other ways Myshkin and Rogozhin are the same. Neither Myskin’s selfless love nor Rogozhin’s egotistical love is in accord to the one loved and they are both trapped in their different ways by desire for Nastasya. In chapter four of part two Rogozhin and Myshkin exchange the crosses around each other’s neck. In the Orthodox tradition they become brothers, what does this swap contend? Are innocence and guilt exchanged? To carry another’s cross is to bear their burden, are they are to carry each other’s responsibility? Myshkin and Rogozhin enter the novel together on a train and reach its climax together spending a night of vigil beside the murdered corpse of Nastasya from which they both emerge insane. They are in some way inextricable. In Crime and Punishment the murderous Raskolnikov exchanges crosses with the selfless Sonya, his second victim. Is Myshkin complicit in some way with the murder of Nastasya? Myshkin is a compassionate force for destruction, his pity towards Nastasya at the start of the novel seemed like love but by the end his inaction seems like cruelty. In this novel the lamb lies down with the wolf.


Faust. Goethe in his Faust presents a paradoxical understanding of the problem of evil. His Mephistopheles says “I am part of that power which eternally desires evil and eternally works good”. The forces of good and evil are usually understood as opposed to one other, but here they are in a different relationship. Myshkin in The Idiot is part of that power which eternally desires good and eternally works evil.


Yurodivi and kenosis. The Orthodox Church regarded Holy Fools (yurodivi) as those who could discard the vanities and values of the world and by feigning foolishness bring themselves through sanctity closer to Christ. Sometimes called Fools for Christ, Holy Fools strove with imaginary insanity to reveal the insanity of the world. The Russian word for ‘blessed’ means both blessed and foolish. Holy Fools gave earthly goods away, became outcasts, and left home for regions unknown. The Holy Fool is someone who suffers for Christ and they have a powerful hold on the Orthodox imagination. In Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966) Rublev saves a Holy Fool from death after Tartars burn and sack a town. She is the only person the Tartars cannot bring themselves to murder. Rublev protects her from the cruelties of the profane world and she insulates him against sin. (Earlier in the film there is a feigned Fool who sings nonsense songs and delivers witty and obscene lines that mock some wandering monks who have him sent to prison and half his tongue cut out.) Kenosis is Christ’s action of emptying and humbling himself on becoming man. The Russian Orthodox religious tradition stresses kenosis and the suffering and humiliated Christ and his meek acceptance of fate is at the heart of Russian spirituality. The kenotic tradition, and the Fools for Christ, are from the outside perceived as weakness. But in a foolish world that is spiritually barren one can only be brought to Christ by abandoning the vanities of the world and recognising ones own ridiculousness. Prince Myskin may be kenotic but he is no Holy Fool. Myshkin is not feigning or accommodating human imperfection, he is a splinter of the divine. He is an absurd, alienating spectacle who brings no one to sanctity. Had he been more Fool than Idiot, things may have been brought to right.


The good life. What is the good life and how might it be lived? In this novel Dostoevsky ponders the operation of purity in the world of human relationships. He personified the idea of goodness and revealed that a universal harmony of love could be disastrous. Myshkin suffers from an unimpeachable moral goodness, and provides a nightmare of virtue. The inference is that the world is not absurd because virtue has not yet arrived, but that virtue is never going to be up to the task. Dostoevsky unflinchingly submitted his own Christian convictions to the test and found them disintegrating in his hands. The Idiot is perfect, and in a human world that seems to be dangerously problematic. The figure of the Fool however, who feigns folly, emanates from a world-order shaped by human inadequacy, and acknowledges that human fallibility is worthy of cultivation. In the end Myshkin’s personality dissolves while watching over Nastasya’s corpse. The tragedy here is that this Idiot is no Fool at all.


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