“The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky

[All excerpts from The Idiot in the following post are taken from the translation by Alan Myers, published in Oxford World Classics series by Oxford University Press. Please note also that it is impossible to discuss this novel, even in terms relatively superficial, without revealing some elements of the plot.]

When one doesn’t quite know where to start, it is perhaps best to start by conceding the fact: if nothing else, such a concession may win the reader’s sympathy, and perhaps even some measure of forbearance in the face of subsequent incoherence and inarticulacy.

Dostoyevsky’s novels have made, and continue to make, a huge impact on me, and yet, when I try to explain why, especially to sceptics, I find myself unable to express myself adequately. One should not, I say, try to apply to Dostoyevsky those criteria whereby we judge the novels of Austen or of Tolstoy or of James to be great: Dostoyevsky was a law unto himself. But how can one explain this law that was so unique to this writer? There seems at times to be no correlate for anything within the novel to anything outside it. But neither is it the case that these novels occupy a world entirely of fantasy: quite the contrary – they throb with the messiness and the ambiguities and the ungraspability of life itself. They depict a reality, although the reality they depict is heightened, and the nature of the heightening remains elusive. The characters seem almost constantly to be in varying states of hysteria and of delirium, and are extreme, grotesque – acting, it often seems, as no character in real life ever acts: or perhaps they do, but not so consistently, and not with such unremitting and uninhibited intensity. The fictional world they inhabit seems closed in and claustrophobic, and yet, at the same time, open to the loftiest thoughts and ideas and intuitions on the most elevated of themes. Ideas are expressed concerning the most fundamental aspects of our human lives, and yet each idea seems undermined even as it is expressed: nothing seems able to hold its shape long enough to achieve any kind of solidity, and no argument along rational lines seems ever to develop. The narrative seems crammed with symbols and patterns, but as soon as one tries to identify and to follow through the symbols, or to use the patterns to understand what happens, they almost immediately break down. This is not realism as it is commonly understood, and neither is it a forerunner of the modern “magic realism”: there is nothing in these novels that is physically impossible, or even, perhaps, granted the extreme and febrile nature of all the characters, psychologically implausible; but the logic whereby the characters act, and whereby the action flows, seems to belong to some strange dream world, some vague, elusive borderline between sanity and insanity, where the rules of rationality that most of us normally use to understand the world seem not to apply.

Dreams play a major part in these novels, and, especially, in The Idiot. At one point in the novel, Myshkin, reading Nastasya Filippovna’s letters to Aglaya, sees these letters as dreamlike, and, indeed, relates them to his own dreams:

The letters had much in common with dreams. Sometimes you have fearful dreams, impossible, bizarre; when you wake up, you remember them clearly and marvel at an odd fact: first of all, you recall that your reason never deserted you all through the dream; you even recall that you behaved extremely shrewdly and logically throughout all that long, long time when you were surrounded by murderers, who tried to deceive you, concealing their intentions, treating you in a friendly fashion, while they had their weapons ready and were only waiting for a signal; you recall how cleverly you hoodwinked them eventually, and hid from them; then you guessed they were perfectly well aware of your trick and were just pretending not to know your hiding-place; but again you outwitted them and cheated them, all this you remember clearly. But why was it that your reason was able to reconcile itself to the obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was crammed? One of your killers turned into a woman before your very eyes, then from a woman into a sly and hideous little dwarf – and you accepted it at once as an established fact, with barely a hesitation, and this at the very moment when your reason, on the other hand, was at a pitch of intensity and demonstrating extraordinary power, shrewdness, perception, logic? (III, 10)

This is very much how I find myself feeling about the novels. There must have been some logic that carried me through it all, I think to myself when I look back on them: my mind was definitely working very hard – indeed, at fever pitch – while I was reading. But how then could my mind reconcile itself to the absurdities and the weirdness with which the novel is so crammed? It could be that my mind is such that it can suspend disbelief at Dostoyevskian absurdities: having spoken to Dostoyevsky-sceptics, not all minds, I know, can; but the other possibility is that, at some mysterious level, within some obscure and rarely-visited compartment of the human mind, these are not absurdities at all; and that it is this compartment of the mind that Dostoyevsky addresses, and in which the action of his novels unfold. But how that elusive compartment of the mind can be described when we are no longer inhabiting the dream remains problematic.

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky tried – to his own mind, unsuccessfully – to depict the perfectly good man in an imperfect world – indeed, a mad world. In a letter written to his niece near the time he started work on the novel, he confesses to the difficulties inherent in this idea: the only truly positive, good figure is, after all, Christ. Dostoyevsky then cites two figures in literature whom he thinks “perfectly good” – Don Quixote, and, rather surprisingly perhaps, Mr Pickwick, and goes on to say that they are successful creations because they are comic: they are ludicrous, and are mocked for being so, but, since they are unaware of their own worth, they arouse sympathy. But Dostoyevsky did not want to go down this path: there is no shortage of comedy in The Idiot, but Prince Myshkin, the Idiot of the title, is most certainly not a comic figure. Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky had somehow to account for his otherwise unaccountable goodness, and also to elicit the reader’s sympathy on his behalf: so he made him ill: Myshkin, like his creator, is epileptic. Early in his life, he was literally an “idiot”, his illness having retarded his mental development. During the course of the novel, we see him as a different kind of “idiot” – a man innocent of human wiles and deceptions, and almost embarrassingly open and frank to all, assuming always the best in everyone he sees. Such guilelessness in itself is enough to mark him out as an “idiot”, but even those who describe him as such find themselves forced to concede that despite his “idiocy”, or maybe even because of it, he has startling insights into the very souls of people around him.

But how can such a person exist in human society? For, from the very start, this innocent, this ingenue, is thrown headlong into a world teeming with the most turbulent and unruly of passions and desires – all of which call for a judgement that he is neither equipped nor willing to pass. And here, right from the start, we begin to see cracks in perfect goodness: not that Myshkin isn’t perfectly good, but rather, that such goodness cannot even survive, let along emerge triumphant.

Such a summary is grossly inadequate, as, indeed, any summary of so complex a novel must be. Myshkin’s essential goodness is recognised by all: they may feel uncomfortable about it; they may even resent it, as Ippolit frequently does, or as the buffoonish General Ivolgin does towards the end of the novel, when he sees Myshkin’s refusal to judge him as a slight. But Myshkin’s refusal to judge – following, presumably, Christ’s injunction “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – is not to be confused with a failure to understand: for he understands, and describes often with a disconcerting openness, the passions and the intricate paradoxes governing the minds of those around him. But he steadfastly refuses to judge, or to condemn, even when judgement and condemnation seem explicitly to be asked for – even when the characters themselves ask for judgement. For, despite his all-encompassing love, and despite even his insight and his understanding, there seems a curious distance between him and the other characters – a distance that seems incapable of being bridged. For Myshkin’s love seems unaware of the object of his love. Nastasya Filippovna herself expresses this powerfully in one of her feverish letters:

Artists always depict Christ according to the gospel stories; I would paint him differently: I would show him alone … I would leave him alone with just one child. The child would be playing near him, perhaps telling him something in his childish prattle. Christ would not be listening to him, but presently fall to thinking; his hand would rest unconsciously on the child’s little fair head. He looks towards the distant horizon; a thought as great as the whole world dwells in his look; his face is sad.

An abstract love for the whole of humanity precludes love for a specific person, the essence of which lies precisely in its preferring this one person to the rest of humanity. And this, Myshkin seems incapable of: like Jesus in the imagined painting, the hand is tenderly on the head of the person he loves, but the mind is elsewhere: it is looking to the distant horizon, saddened by thought that is as great as the world itself.

Myshkin, from almost the start, finds himself at the focal point of two interlocking love triangles, and in both, while the sincerity and openness of his feelings cannot be doubted, he seems curiously lacking in passion. In one, he is in competition with Rogozhin for Nastasya Filippovna; and in the other, he has to choose between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya. Inevitably, parallels and contrast develop – between Myshkin and Rogozhin one the one hand, and between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya on the other.

In the very first scene of the novel, Myshkin and Rogozhin are seated opposite each other on a train. Towards the end they walk on opposite sides of the road to Rogozhin’s house, where Nastasya Filippovna lies murdered. Rogozhin seems in all respects to be Myshkin’s opposite, his “dark brother”, his ghostly double, who exchanges crosses with him in a deeply symbolic gesture, and who, soon afterwards, attempts to murder him. Yet, it is dangerous, in this of all novels, to be so schematic about matters: if Rogozhin is indeed possessed with all those dark passions that are absent in Myshkin, he seems curiously unable to act upon them. At the end of the first of the four parts of the novel, Nastasya Filippovna goes off with Rogozhin, with Myshkin following them, and what exactly happens afterwards Dostoyevsky, intriguingly, does not narrate to us; instead, he allows us to pick up fragments and rumours. But it is strongly indicated that “nothing” happens between Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin: if Rogozhin is indeed throbbing with passion, it is passion on which he appears unable to act. It is not for nothing that the vast, old, rambling house of his, so full of menace and foreboding and so explicitly symbolic of Rogozhin’s own character, has a wing housing a sect of religious fanatics, of castrates.

There is, indeed, a sense of fanaticism about Rogozhin himself, although the nature of this fanaticism seems, as so much else in this novel, elusive: it does not appear to be religious fanaticism – Rogozhin is at no point depicted as religious – but his brooding and demonic presence bespeaks, as does the house he inhabits, some profound fanatic darkness of the heart.

Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya, though kept apart in this novel until a climactic scene towards the end, also emerge as complementary opposites – recondita armonia di bellezze diverse. Aglaya seems a cold, haughty beauty, reared in the comfort and safety of the Yepanchin household and possibly something of a spoilt youngest daughter. Nastasya Filippovna, on the other hand, is the “fallen woman”, orphaned as a child and “seduced” – as the euphemism has it – by the man who was ostensibly her protector. In our own time, we do not regard the “fallen woman” as particularly sinful, especially when, as in this case, the woman in question had so little power over her own fate; but things were different then: a “fallen woman” was one who could, like Violetta in La Traviata (or her original, Marguerite, in La Dame Aux Camelias), be famed in the demi-monde, but who was not acceptable in “polite society”. It should not surprise us that, living in such an environment, the fallen woman Nastasya Filippovna harbours a tremendous sense of guilt; but at the same time, she harbours a rage for those who have caused her to be fallen, and who have instilled in her this unmerited sense of guilt; and the guiltier she feels, the greater her rage. She wishes to abase herself, and yet hates herself for wishing so; and she hates even more those inhabitants of “polite society” who expect her to do so. In Myshkin, she sees, for the first time, “a man” – a real man who does not even think of judging her; and yet, this judgement is precisely what she desires: even this lack of judgement drives her into insanity.

Both women are attracted to Myshkin – Aglaya for his openness and his utter lack of worldly guile, and Nastasya Filippovna for his compassion, and his refusal to judge. But ultimately, the kind of love that is demanded of him he cannot give: as with Christ in the painting imagined by Nastasya, his love is divorced from its object. His very refusal to judge is indicative of his ultimate detachment.

Judgement and condemnation, and the oppressive nature both of their presence and of their absence, seem to me to be very much at the centre of this novel. Myshkin introduces early the theme of the “condemned man”, as he speaks with his usual uninhibited frankness of a friend of his who had been condemned to death, but who had ultimately been reprieved. What goes on in the mind of such a man who is expecting at any given moment to die? Dostoyevsky knew this, of course, from his own experience: such a man has a heightened sense of time, a sense that does not however return when the unexpected reprieve restores him to the common light of the everyday.

Myshkin himself is also, of course, a condemned man, although in a somewhat different sense: his illness can, and eventually does, recur with such force as to return him to his previous state of literal idiocy. And Dostoyevsky, in one of the most vivid and immediate passages of writing I think I have ever encountered, describes, again from personal experience, the heightened sense of awareness that is experienced immediately before an epileptic fit; and, as with the heightened sense of time experienced by the condemned man, this too is subsequently lost. In this heightened sense of awareness, one senses, if only momentarily, the most perfect harmony and beauty. But then comes the fit, and the vision fades, and all that remains of it is but a vague and ungraspable memory. But this conjunction of beauty and of harmony in that mystic moment before the fit leads us into another major theme of the novel: the redemptive power of beauty – the power of beauty to bring harmony.

This particular theme is, however, deeply problematic. Myshkin is himself quoted as saying that “beauty will save the world”, although, as with Ivan Karamazov’s dictum “If God didn’t exist, then everything is permitted”, we never hear him say this directly: it is a sentiment that is merely associated with him, and it is left to us, the readers, to determine what, if anything, this can mean. The nearest Myshkin comes to expressing this idea is in his unexpectedly impassioned address to the aristocratic guests at the Yepanchins’ – shortly before he has his second fit in the novel, and where a sense of disorientation and of the mystical harmony that precedes the fit is presumably already upon him:

“… and is it really possible to be unhappy? … Do you know, I cannot understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy when seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! Oh, it’s just that I can’t find the words … and so many beautiful things at every step that even the most desparate man finds something beautiful! Look at a child, look at God’s dawn, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that look at you and love you … “ (IV, 7)

Yet, as ever in Dostoyevsky, even when an idea is expounded, even if the idea is precious, it is immediately undermined: Myshkin, in the course of this extraordinary scene, clumsily breaks that all too obvious symbol of fragile beauty, a Chinese vase. Earlier in the novel, he had told Aglaya’s sister, Alexandra, simply to paint what she sees, and to find beauty in it; and yet, throughout the novel, beauty is at odds with what is seen, and rarely if ever accompanies harmony. Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are both very beautiful in their different ways, but in neither is there anything remotely resembling harmony, or anything capable of achieving salvation: both are deeply troubled souls. And as for the artist finding beauty in what he sees, the work of art that is central to this novel, and which is described in detail, is one that finds the most heart-breaking ugliness in the very figure who, to Christians, is the epitome of moral beauty: Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ.

“Dead Christ in his tomb” by Hans Holbein, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

Here is a painting utterly without hope. Myshkin describes it as a painting that may cause humanity to lose its faith. Even the most beautiful of men, a man who is both divine and human, has succumbed here to the ugliness that is death; the body is stark and bare and utterly devoid of any hint of divinity; rigor mortis has set in, and the greenish tint of the dead flesh seems to indicate corruption; and the features on the face are contorted by the agony in which the man had died. Here is the ultimate failure, not only of goodness, but of the divine: beauty is not present even as a consolation. If we are to look for harmony in beauty, all we find here is a hideous emptiness – a negation in the dead Christ of everything that the living Christ had stood for.

And of course, this is also an image of Myshkin himself – the positively good man: whatever beauty there may be in his goodness, nature will not spare him, any more than it had spared Christ himself; nor will nature even allow him a beauty that, we are told, could save the world. At every turn, Dostoyevsky seems intent on undermining the very ideas that to him were precious.

And yet, the idea of beauty saving the world remains precious, even if only as an idea. In Dostoyevsky’s fictional world, ideas are not discarded simply because they are undermined, or refuted: ideas here are also states of being, of emotions, and they persist even through failure. The idea of the positively good man is one that is doomed to failure, and, indeed, the sense of devastation one feels in the final pages of this novel is unlike anything else I think I have come across. But the idea that has failed so spectacularly nonetheless remains, co-existing even with the forces that have defeated it. And the forces that defeat it, the forces that draw our lives away from beauty and from harmony, are more than merely acknowledged: they are depicted with the utmost force and vigour, and nowhere more so than in Ippolit’s “confession” – his “necessary explanation”, as he calls it, but which seems neither necessary, nor explanatory of anything. If Myshkin’s very presence communicates a sense of essential human nobility and moral beauty, Ippolit’s “necessary explanation” depicts something very different, and is worth examining in some detail.

It is in this section of the novel that we encounter a discussion of Holbein’s painting, and of its terrible implications. Significantly, a reproduction of this painting hangs in Rogozhin’s house, that great heart of darkness where we are sure the final act of this immense tragedy will be played out.

Ippolit too, like Myshkin, is a condemned man, a teenager dying of consumption, but Dostoyevsky seems to do everything within his power to alienate any sympathy the reader may have for him. The first time we see him, he is supporting the absurd claims of Burdovsky’s “rights”; and once these claims are shown to be baseless, he reacts angrily to Myshkin’s magnanimity: the very fact that Myshkin can be so generous and so noble to the very people who had so ignobly tried to get the better of him, is, to Ippolit, so indicative of Myshkin’s moral superiority as to be insulting. The paradox is irresistible, and occurs throughout the novel is various guises: thus, the buffoonish General Ivolgin feels slighted not because Myshkin judges and condemns him, but because he doesn’t; and, more significantly, perhaps, Nastsya Filippovna feels belittled by the very feature in Myshkin that has attracted her so to him – his refusal to judge. If judgement and condemnation are terrible things, lack of judgement or lack of condemnation can be terrible also, as they belittle the very concept of one’s moral agency. Ippolit senses this immediately: Myshkin’s forbearance is so great an indication of his moral superiority over those whom he refuses to judge, that he can only see such forbearance as a mortal insult.

Later in the novel, he reads his “necessary explanation”, and here, we seem to find ourselves in the world of Notes From Underground: in that earlier work, the narrator had started by telling us that he was a “sick man”: Ippolit too, as we know, is a very sick man. Like the nameless Underground narrator, Ippolit has no illusions about himself, or of the world he inhabits. As with Melville’s Bartleby, Ippolit’s world is defined by a huge, blank brick wall – Meyer’s wall, which is the view from his bedroom window: it defines a world that is blank, inexpressive, ugly – a world that, far from providing intimations of redemption or of transcendence, tells us in no uncertain terms that such things do not and cannot exist. If beauty is indeed to save the world, what salvation can there be in a world beset with such ugliness?

Ippolit goes on to lay bare his own soul, and, as with the Underground Man, he makes no attempt to hide its utter ugliness. He tells us of his neighbour Surikov, a desperately poor man:

I know of one poor man who died of starvation later on, as I was informed, and I was infuriated: had it been possible to bring that poor man back to life, I believe I should have murdered him. (III,6)

Ippolit hates and despises this man because of his meekness, because he has passively accepted his poverty and his misery. He then goes on to narrate a grotesque scene in which he and Surikov stand over the corpse of Surikov’s baby, who had frozen to death; and Ippolit, with what can only be viewed as a calculated cruelty, tells the bereaved father that the death of his child was entirely his fault.

… the wretch’s lips began to quiver and, grabbing my shoulder with one hand, he showed me the door with the other and said softly, almost whispered I mean: “Get out, sir! (III,6)

Ippolit is struck by the utter lack of anger on Surikov’s part, and, even for this reason, can feel for him nothing but contempt. Later, Ippolit dreams that Surikov has come into a lot of money, but is frightened by his wealth, and doesn’t know what to do with it. Ippolit suggests that he melt down all the gold and make out of it a coffin for his dead child, and that he exhume his child for the purpose of re-burying him in this golden coffin. And this suggestion Surikov, in Ippolit’s dream, accepts gratefully.

The world Ippolit presents in his “necessary explanation” is a world desperately in need of redemption: it is a world of cruelty and suffering, and of soul-sapping ugliness. But the very feature that we are told could save the world is very conspicuously absent: there is, and can be, no redemption. Meyer’s wall, for all its ugliness, at least tells us this truth. The essence of such a world appears, in another dream Ippolit has, in the form of a hideous scorpion-like creature:

It was something like a scorpion, but not a scorpion, it was more loathsome and much more horrible, in that there are no such animals in nature and it had appeared specially to me…(III,5)

In this dream, Norma, a family dog that had died some years earlier, appears, and it too is frightened and revolted by this scorpion-like creature. Norma nonetheless attacks it, but:

All of a sudden, Norma gave a piteous whine: the foul creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature had managed to sting her tongue after all. She opened her mouth in pain, whining and howling, and I saw the mangled creature was still wriggling across the width of her jaws, emitting large quantities of white fluid from its half-crushed body on to her tongue, like when a cockroach is squashed … That’s when I woke up, and the prince came in.(III,7)

As with the parables of Kafka, a passage such as this both demands and resists interpretation. To see the scorpion-like creature merely as a symbol of evil seems far too obvious: perhaps it is a symbol also of disease – not merely Ippolit’s, but also of Myshkin’s: Myshkin’s entrance at this very point is surely not accidental, and the horrible “white fluid” on the tongue of Norma is certainly more suggestive of epilepsy than of consumption. But it perhaps does not matter what it is a symbol of: what matters is the sense of grotesque revulsion the dream evokes. And this creature that evokes such revulsion does not exist in nature: it has appeared specially to Ippolit. To Ippolit, and to Ippolit alone, is given the vision of the essential unredeemable horror of the world, and of life. This sense of horror reappears in another dream he tells us of, this time featuring a tarantula; and it seemed to him – although he could not swear to it – that on his waking from the dream, Rogozhin, Myshkin’s ghostly double, had come into his room, and had sat in the chair under the icon lamp, silently staring at him.

In these dreams and visions – the scorpion-like creature, the tarantula, Rogozhin’s silent stare – there is no room for Myshkin’s vision of beauty redeeming the world. Ippolit rejects such a vision quite explicitly:

And what are they after with their ridiculous “Pavlovsk trees”? Trying to sweeten the last hours of my life? Can’t they realise that the more I forget myself, the more I surrender to this last illusion of life and love, with which they try to screen off Meyer’s wall and everything that is frankly and openly written on it, the unhappier they make me? What do I want with your nature, your Pavlovsk park, your dawns and sunsets, your blue skies and your smug faces, when all this feast that has no end has begun by excluding me alone? What is there for me in all this beauty, when I am forced to be aware every minute, every second, that even this tiny fly buzzing in the sunbeam near me, even that is a participant in all this festival and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I am the soul outcast, and only my cowardice has prevented me from wanting to face it before now! (III,7)

As an answer to Myshkin’s optimistic piety, it seems unanswerable. Ippolit, facing imminent death, wishes only for the truth, and the truth is what is so “frankly and openly” written on Meyer’s brick wall.

Curiously, Myshkin himself responds to Ippolit’s pessimism. Later in this same chapter, Myshkin thinks back on this part of Ippolit’s “necessary explanation”, and “a long-forgotten memory” stirs within him, and takes on “clarity of form”: he remembers the time in Switzerland, when, unable to speak, cut off from the lives of others – from life itself – by his illness, he had observed the beauty of the world around him, this great God-given feast in which even the buzzing fly partakes, but from which he, and he alone, is excluded. And he remembers now clearly the pain of utter hopelessness that had then seized him. It is hard not to be reminded here of Kafka’s famous line, quoted by Max Brod, that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us”.

By the end of the novel, Myshkin is, once again, becomes, quite literally, an “idiot”; meanwhile Ippolit, seemingly to everyone’s chagrin, is still alive, although still under the sentence of death. One had yearned for a redeeming beauty, but had been denied it; the other had never believed in it in the first place. And both are condemned. It is no surprise that Dostoyevsky had felt that the Great Idea that had inspired the novel had failed: it probably never really had much of a chance to begin with.

But the failure, if failure it is, is of the idea, not of the novel. It has from the first a doom-laden sense of tragic foreboding, a sense of a profound darkness poisoning a world that tantalisingly promises redemption, but which does not deliver on the promise. It is a world in which only an “idiot” can be a good man, but, being but a idiot, cannot survive. The closing chapters of this novel, where the two ghostly brothers, Myshkin and Rogozhin, keep watch over the murdered Nastasya Filippovna, have haunted my own dreams ever since I first read this novel nearly forty or so years ago: they retain still the power to haunt my imagination. Indeed, in this, my latest reading, I realised that as I was approaching this ending, I was, at least in some measure, frightened of what I knew I would encounter. Only in the chapters leading to the denouement of Anna Karenina have I encountered in a novel such overwhelming tragic power.

***

I started this post by saying I did not know where to start. Now that I am near the end, I realise that I don’t know where to finish either. This vast, complex work seems to be beyond analysis: it constantly demands to be interpreted, but seems greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. One should, given the content, finish the novel in a mood of the deepest despondency, but for some reason, one doesn’t: I suppose this is because the idea that is projected with such power and immediacy of transcendence, of redemption, does not disappear merely because it has been defeated. The fictional world presented in this novel is unlike any other, and, very possibly, it operates only in some obscure and rarely visited compartment of the human mind: but each re-reading hits me with the force of a whirlwind.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on June 14, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I can’t help wondering how long you worked on this post, Himadri. (I’m not asking you to tell me, by the way). I am used to writing about literature at length, having published academic articles and having written a gargantuan PhD thesis (140,000 words), but, truly, the thought of writing about The Idiot is so daunting. I read your post with fascination, not least because I am two thirds of the way through the novel myself at the moment. And also because this was the first “great” novel I ever read – I was a teenager at the time. I still don’t know what it was that made me pull this particular book from the library shelf – I had absolutely no idea who Dostoevsky was or what The Idiot was about. Still, I took it home and began to read and I can still recall the physical sensation as I sat in my room and vast vistas of strangeness began to open up; and yet, there was a sense of recognition too. The hysteria, morbidity, violence, obsessions with death, beauty, pity and redemption all seemed more real and true to me then than day-to-day mundane existence. Perhaps that is not so remarkable in an adolescent, and I have been reluctant to go back to the novel as an adult because the book is so totemic for me and I have always worried it would be a disappointment.

    I needn’t have feared. No doubt there are “better” novels in world literature, but, for me, The Idiot has a unique power. That said, I am struggling to organise my thoughts about the book even as I read it and have found myself focusing on individual scenes when I attempt to think about it. I have had little success in drawing those scenes together to start to form a sense of the book as a whole. The uniquely feverish tone of the book pervades my limited understanding of it, but I find it hard to form an argument to have with myself about meaning – and if someone were to ask me the simple question: “What is The Idiot really about?” I think I would be at a loss to answer. Your post touches on many of the issues I have been thinking about, and also raises the matter of a literary work that both demands and resists interpretation – something that is said over and over again in literary studies, but is rarely as true as it is here. When I finish reading The Idiot I’ll come back to what you have written and hopefully start to form some slightly more coherent ideas. But for now, this post in particular is much appreciated.

    Reply

    • Sorry if I have asked you this before, but what was the subject of your Ph.D. thesis? 140,000 words does seem an awful lot of words, even for a doctoral thesis!

      I did, I admit, find this post dificult to write, and I guess it shows. It’s not the length – it’s the content: twice I used the word “ungraspable”, and twice Microsoft Word put a red squiggle under it, informing me that the word did not exist, but only a pedant gets worried about using words that don’t exist: when you’re talking about Dostoyevsky, “ungraspable” seems a very appropriate word, whether it exists or not.

      I dpon’t know about there being “better” novels: less flawed novels, certainly – there are any number of flaws one can pick out in this novel that woud have a James or a Wharton shaking their heads in disapproval. But really … the question that comes to mind is “so what?”

      I look forward to your comments on “The Idiot”. I look forward to anything that would help me better grasp the “ungraspable”!

      Reply

  2. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on June 14, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Thank you for such a wonderful post. I read this for the first time last year and was knocked out by Dostoevsky as usual. He *is* a hard author to write about and I htink if you don’t *get* him, no amount of attempting you to keep trying will work. I shall re-read “The Idiot” one day with your excellent analysis in mind.

    Reply

    • Thank you for that – although my post is hardly an analysis: it is really no more than an attempt to put down some of my impressions, in the hope that this would clarify certain things in my mind. To an extent it has, but the work still remains a huge enigma. Perhaps it is meant to be like this!

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  3. This is *my* Dostoevsky. I have had challenges facing some of the others though I must expand my efforts. But reading this wonderful piece just makes me want to go back to The Idiot all over again.

    Reply

    • Thanks for that. there are some books that challenge, but where, for some reason, I don’t feel too enthusiastic about meeting the challenge; but there are others, such as this, that so haunt my mind that I feel I need to get to know it better – to get some understanding, at least, of why it affects me so powerfully. I too know I’ll be returning to this again.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  4. I completely disagree about the Holbein. You are only touching half of the irony. The painting does not “negate” everything the living Christ stood for. It emphasizes one singular and central tenet, that Christ was a man like other men. There is no Christian sense in which Christ’s mortification is a “failure.”

    The Churchmen who commissioned and displayed the Holbein painting did not think it posed any danger of causing men to lose their faith in Christianity. Maybe other things – faith in their own vanity, for example – but not Christianity. Nothing but emptiness!

    A man could lose his faith, but in what? Myshkin does not specify.

    Didn’t we have this same discussion when I was writing about this book?

    Reply

    • Yes, you did write a fascinating post on the significance of Holbein’s painting in the context of the novel, but I failed at the time to engage specifically with the issue. I think you are certainly right in saying that ‘there is no Christian sense in which Christ’s mortification is a “failure”’, and that being so, my contention that the picture negates everything Christ stood for is one I should have thought about more deeply. There is certainly a tradition in Christian art in depicting mortification of flesh in its most extreme, grotesque form (Grünewald’s Issenhein Altarpiece is perhaps the most famous example), and none of these paintings were either intended or interpreted as negations of Christianity. But this being so, we must now ask ourselves why Myshkin should say such a thing in relation to the painting. Why does he see this painting as a negation? Why does it have this effect on him? I doubt he is referring to faith in human vanity, as he is himself so conspicuously free of that quality. So what is he referring to?

      I am, frankly, very diffident in proposing an answer, but one thing that strikes me is that neither Myshkin nor Dostoyevsky puts forward the argument that many Christians, I imagine, would give as an answer to this: there is no mention of that central tenet of Christianity – the resurrection. There is no indication that even from this, Christ was resurrected. In the context of the novel, it seems that there can be no resurrection from this: the concept isn’t even hinted at.

      In a novel saturated with Christian tenets, this omission of the most central tenet of all is puzzling. It is interesting to consider also where the reproduction of Holbein’s painting is seen: in Rogozhin’s house, one of the many symbols in the novel that seem both to demand and to resist interpretation. that house seems to me to denote some horrific darkness: it is associated from the start with fanaticism, and an indefinable but nonetheless powerful sense of terror. From the very first time we are taken into this house, we have no doubt that the final act of the tragedy will be played out here. It seems imbued with a spirit of negation. And the reproduction of the Holbein painting seen in this setting bespeaks both to Myshkin and to Ippolit a sense of negation. And I would suggest – albeit tentatively, since I am in deep waters here and unsure of my footing – that the negation is of the very concept of resurrection itself. In a novel in which the dictum “beauty will save the world” seems to run as a sort of leitmotif, this horrendous picture of the sheer ugliness of what all humans, even Christ, must come to negates the very possibility of being saved. It suggests the terrible possibility that there can be no redemption, no resurrection.

      This is not, I accept, what Holbein himself intended; neither is it how the Catholic Church (which Dostoyevsky openly hated) or traditional believer would have interpreted the painting. This is not by any means a traditional Christian interpretation. But The Idiot is not a traditional Christian novel. As I say, I put this forward only very diffidently, but in the context of this novel, Holbein’s painting represents a negation of the proposal that “beauty will save the world”: it puts forward the possibility that ultimately, there is no beauty, but only the most grotesque ugliness; and that, as a consequence, there can be no resurrection, no redemption.

      Reply

  5. This was an excellent book review; I really enjoyed reading it. I have never read THE IDIOT, but I have read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

    Here is a little more on Dostoyevsky:

    https://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/tolstoy-and-dostoyevsky-philip-yancey/

    Reply

    • Thank you for that, Tim, and thank you for putting up a link to this post on your site. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers karamazov are both magnificent novels, of course, and The Idiot and Demons (aka The Devils, or The Possessed) are also generally considered to be among his finest. He is a very difficult writer for various reasons,a nd I know that not everyone responds to him – but I do, and I can’t quite figure out why I do!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  6. […] Fyodor Dostoyevsky—The Mantle of the Prophet The Prophet A Single Story of Soviet Russia The Three Hermits The Brothers Karamazov Men Have Forgotten God Anna and Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment: A Film by Piotr Dumala Vintage Footage of Leo Tolstoy The Daily Blini—Exploring Russian Culture A Prophet’s Eyes Russian Universe Yasnaya Polyana // Ясная поляна The rebirth of Christianity in post-Soviet Russia You Should Read Some Dostoyevsky . . .Here Are Some Tips! Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Strikingly Illustrated by Expressionist Painter Alice Neel (1938) The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (animated film) “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky […]

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