Part One, Chapter Five
by Dennis Abrams
The jealousy that the general’s wife had of her origins, Imagine her feelings when she was told…that this Prince Myshkin, the last of their line…was no more than a pathetic idiot and nearly destitute, and that he took beggar’s alms.” According to the general, Myshkin “is a perfect child.” Does he have fits? Mrs. Epanchin decides that it will be necessary to tie a napkin around his while he’s eating, “Send for Fyodor, or let Mavra …so as to stand behind his chair and tend to him while he eats. Is he at least quiet during his fits? Does he gesticulate?” A discussion of the hegumen Pafnuty. Sitting for lunch. “Maybe the napkin isn’t necessary…do they tie a napkin around your neck when you eat, Prince?” “He speaks well…I didn’t even expect it. So it was all nonsense and lies, as usual.” Myshkin recounts his story and genealogy, and it is learned there is almost no connection between him and Mrs. Epanchin. To the gathering room: Alexandra plays piano, or reads, Adelaida paints (and can never finish anything), “and Aglaya sits and does nothing.” The family’s interest in Myshkin. “This prince may be a great rogue and not an idiot at all, [Alexandra] whispered to Aglaya. Myshkin recounts his first impressions of Switzerland, “The foreign was killing me. I was completely awakened from that darkness, in Basel, as we drove into Switzerland, and what roused me was the braying of an ass in the town market. the ass struck me terribly and for some reason I took an extraordinary liking to it, and at the same time it was as if everything cleared up in my head.” The girls’ laughter. “But all the same I stand up for the ass; an ass is a kind and useful fellow.” The self-proclaimed kindness of Mrs. Epanchin. Adelaida needs a subject for a picture. Myshkin’s happiness in Switzerland, mixed with restlessness. Life in prison. The story of the man sentenced to death who, while waiting, decides, “What if I were not to die! What if life were given back to me — what infinity! And it would all be mine! then I’d turn each minute into a whole age, I’d lose nothing, I’d reckon up every minute separately, I’d let nothing be wasted.” At the last moment his sentence is changed, “which means he was granted that ‘infinite life.’ “…he didn’t life that way at all, and lost many, many minutes.” Myshkin’s some-time belief that he can live more intelligently than others. “‘Since you say you were happy, it means you lived more, not less, why do you pretend and apologize?’ Aglaya began sternly and carpingly. ‘And please don’t worry about lecturing us, there’s nothing there to make you triumphant. With your quietism one could fill a hundred years of live with happiness. Show you an execution or show you a little finger, you’ll draw an equally praiseworthy idea from both and be left feeling pleased besides. It’s a way to live.'” The execution at Lyons. Myshkin tells Adelaida, “…in fact it occurred to me, when you asked me for a subject for a picture, to give you this subject: to portray the face of a condemned man a minute before the stroke of the guillotine, when he’s still standing on the scaffold, before he lies down on the plank.” The thoughts of a man about to be guillotined. “Portray the scaffold so that only the last step is seen closely and clearly; the criminal has stepped onto it: his head, his face white as paper, the priest offering him the cross, he greedily puts it to his blue lips and stares, and — knows everything. The cross and the head — there’s the picture…” “‘When you finish a story, you immediately feel ashamed of having told it,’ Aglaya suddenly observed. ‘Why is that?'” Myshkin says he’s never been in love, but” I…was happy in a different way.”
A few observations:
1. Once again, I keep forgetting the humor in Dostoevsky — I laughed out loud several times during the scene with General Epanchin and his wife as he prepared her for meeting Myshkin. “In our house? From Switzerland?” “Switzerland is no hindrance.” Hahaha.
2. The story of the man sentence to death whose sentence was changed at the very last moment — Dostoevsky’s own story. The end of the story was so sad, with the admittance that no lesson was learned from the experience. “I asked him about it — he didn’t live that way at all and lost many, many, minutes.”
3. Prince Myshkin and death — obviously an obsession — why?
4. Myshkin’s extraordinary empathy — at the execution at Lyon he “looked at his [the condemned man’s] face and understood everything.” The whole story of the man’s actions and thoughts during his last hours on earth is told by Myshkin, a story that even though it’s coming from a man of Myshkin’s…innocence? seems completely true. Who is Myshkin?
And this from Joseph Frank, from his biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time:
“The first part of The Idiot, we know, was written under the inspiration of Dostoevsky’s decision to center a major work around the character of a ‘perfectly beautiful man,’ and the singular spiritual fascination of Prince Myshkin derives largely from the image of him projected in these early pages. The moral halo that surrounds the Prince is conveyed in the very first scene, where his behavior is marked by a total absence of vanity or egoism; he does not seem to possess the self-regarding feelings on which some attitudes are nourished. Even more, he displays a unique capacity to take the point of view of his interlocutor. This explains the Prince’s failure to take umbrage at his reception by others, and his capacity to transcend himself in this way invariably disarms the first response of amused and superior contempt among those he encounters.
Max Scheller, in his admirable book, The Nature and Form of Sympathy, distinguishes what he calls ‘vicarious fellow feeling,’ which involves experiencing an understanding and sympathy for the feelings of others without being overcome by them emotively, from a total coalescence leading to the loss of identity and personality. The underlying movement of The Idiot may be provisionally defined as the Prince’s passage from the first kind of fellow feeling to the second, but in Part I, there are no indications of such a loss of identity. Rather, all the emphasis is placed on the Prince’s instinctive and undifferentiated capacity for completely lucid vicarious fellow feeling even under great stress. As an example, we may take the scene where the Prince intervenes in the bitter altercation between Ganya Ivolgin and his sister, and himself receives the blow intended for the young woman. His response is to hide his face in his hands, turn to the wall, and say to Ganya in a breaking boice, ‘Oh, how ashamed you will be of what you’ve done.’
This quality of the Prince’s character is not motivated psychologically in any way, but, in a suggestively symbolic fashion, it is linked with certain leitmotifs. On the one hand, the Prince is much possessed by the prospect of death — twice in these early pages he speaks of an execution he has recently witnessed, and he also recounts vividly the feelings and thoughts of a man first condemned to death by a firing squad and then unexpectedly reprieved. A third description stresses the immense value assumed by each moment of existence as the end approaches. Despite the observations of the death motif in these early pages, the Prince also admits to having been ‘happy’ in the years just preceding his arrival in St. Petersburg, and the relations between these two months provides the deepest substratum of his values. The Prince’s ‘happiness,’ we learn, began with his recovery from a state of epileptic stupor. A sudden shock of awareness woke him to the existence of the world in the form of something as humble and workaday as a donkey. The donkey, of course, has obvious Gospel overtones, which blend with the Prince’s innocence and naivete, and this patiently laborious animal also emphasizes, in accord with Christian kenoticism, the absence of hierarchy in the Prince’s ecstatic apprehension of the wonder of life. The same contrast is introduced by the Prince’s remark that, in the early stages of his recovery, he had been consumed by restlessness and had thought to find ‘the key to the mystery of life,’ in his transcendent yearning to reach ‘that line where sky and earth meet,’ but then, he adds, ‘I fancied that one might find a wealth of life even in prison.'”
Myshkin imaginatively re experiences the universal and ineluctable tragedy of death with the full range of his conscious sensibilities, but this does not prevent him, at the same time, from marveling in ecstasy before the joy and wonder of existence. Indeed the dialectic of this unity is the point of the story about the man reprieved from execution — the story that embodies the most decisive event in Dostoevsky’s own life. Most dreadful of all in those last moments, Myshkin says, was the regret of the poor victim over a wasted life and his frantic desire to be given another chance. ‘What if I were not to die?…I would turn every minute into an age:…I would not waste one!’ But on being asked what happened to this man after his reprieve, Myshkin ruefully admits that his frenzied resolution was not carried out in practice:
‘So, it seems it’s impossible to live ‘counting each moment,’ says Alexandra Epanchina. ‘For some reason, it’s impossible.’
‘Yes, for some reason it’s impossible,’ repeated Myshkin. ‘So it seemed to me also…and yet somehow I can’t believe it.’
Here is the point at which Myshkin’s love of live fuses with his death-haunted imagination into the singular unity of his character. For Myshkin feels the miracle of life so strongly precisely becuase he lives ‘counting each moment’ as if it were the last. Both his joyous discovery of life and his profound intuition of death combine to make him feel each moment as one of absolute and immeasurable ethical choice and responsibility. The Prince, in other words, lives in the eschatological tension that was (and is) the soul of the primitive Christian ethic, whose doctrine of totally selfless agape was conceived in the same perspective of the imminent end of time.
So how’s everybody doing in their reading of The Idiot? How’s the pace? What are your thoughts and reactions this early into the text?
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part One, Chapters Six and Seven
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.