“At that painting! A man could even lose his faith from that painting!”

The Idiot
Part Two, Chapter Four
by Dennis Abrams

“They went through the same rooms the prince had already passed through; Rogozhin walked a little ahead, the prince followed.” The reception room with several paintings, “Over the door to the next room hung a painting rather strange in form, around six feed wide and no more than ten inches high. It portrayed the Savior just taken down from the cross.” Rogozhin’s father had gotten a great deal on the paintings, the one above the door had been purchased for two roubles. “‘…it’s a copy from Hans Holbein,’ said the prince…’and, though I’m no great expert it seems to be an excellent copy. I saw the painting abroad and cannot forget it.'” Rogozhin: “but I’ve long wanted to ask you something, Lev Nikolaich: do you believe in God?” Rogozhin likes looking at the Holbein painting, “‘At that painting?’ the prince suddenly cried out, under the impression of an unexpected thought. ‘At that painting! A man could even lose his faith from that painting.'” “‘Lose it he does,’ Rogozhin suddenly agreed unexpectedly.” Is belief easier in Russia? Myshkin’s four encounters: The atheist on the train, “He doesn’t believe in God. Only one thing struck me: it was as if that was not all what he was talking about all the while, and it struck me precisely because before, too, however many unbelievers I’ve met, however many books I’ve read on the subject, it has always seemed to me that they were talking or writing books that were not at all about that, though it looked as if it was about that.” The two peasant friends, “…one of them had spied the silver watch the other wore on a yellow bead string, which he had evidently never noticed before. The man was not a thief, he was even honest, and not all that poor as peasant life goes. But he liked the watch so much and was so tempted by it that he finally couldn’t stand it: he pulled out a knife and, while his friend was looking the other way, went up to him cautiously from behind, took aim, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself, and, after praying bitterly to himself: ‘Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!’ — killed his friend with one blow, like a sheep, and took his watch.” Rogozhin’s laughter. The tale of the drunken soldier, selling a tin cross as silver, “…I could see by his face how please he was to have duped the foolish gentleman, and he went at once to drink up his cross, there’s no doubt of that. Just then, brother, I was under the strongest impression of all that had flooded over me in Russia; before I understood nothing of it, as if I’d grown up a dumb brute, and I had somehow fantastic memories of it during those five years I spent abroad. So I went along and thought: no, I’ll wait before condemning this Christ-seller. God knows what’s locked in these drunken and weak hearts.” The peasant woman nursing her baby: “‘It’s just that a mother rejoices,’ she says, ‘when she notices her baby’s first smile, the same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart.’ The woman said that to me…a 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 a father over his own child — the main thought of Christ!” Rogozhin asks if he could swap his silver cross for the soldier’s tin one. “You want to exchange crosses? Very well, Parfyon, if so, I’m glad, we’ll be brothers!” Rogozhin takes Myshkin to meet his mother, “‘Bless him, mama, as you would your own son…” On saying goodbye to Myshkin, Rogozhin can’t embrace him. “Never fear! Maybe I did take your cross, but I won’t kill you for your watch!…Take her, then, if it’s fate! She’s yours! I give her up to you!…Remember Rogozhin!:

This was fascinating — the painting, Myshkin’s discussion of beliefs, the scene of Rogozhin’s mother’s blessing, then finally — Rogozhin giving Nastasya up for Myshkin. I did find this next passage more than a little confusing:

“Listen, Parfyon, you asked me earlier, here is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisms; there’s something else here that’s not that, and it will eternally be not that; there’s something in that atheisms will externally glance off, and they will eternally be talking not about that. But the main thing is that one can observe it sooner and more clearly in a Russian heart, and that is my conclusion!”


This. from Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, takes a good look at the section we just finished, and how it helps to set up what is to come:

“From the beginning of Part II, the Prince is cast in a tragic (or at least self-sacrificial) role; and the inner logic of his character now requires that the absolute of Christian love should conflict irreconcilably with the inescapable demands of normal human life. This altered projection of the Prince also leads to the introduction of a new thematic motif, which first appears in the strange dialogue between Myshkin and Rogozhin about religious faith. Somewhat improbably, a copy of Holbein’s Dead Christ turns up in Rogozhin’s living room, and, with no transition whatever, the erstwhile drunken rowdy of Part I is shown as tormented not only by Nastasya but also by a crisis of religious doubt. We learn that ‘a painting of our Savior who had just been taken from the Cross’ has begun to undermine Rogozhin’s religious faith, and Myshkin attempts to allay Rogozhin’s disquietude in a lengthy and crucial speech.

This speech consists of four anecdotes, grouped in pairs, that illustrate that the human need for faith and for the moral values of conscience based on faith transcend both the plane of rational reflection and that of empirical evidence. On the one hand, there is the learned atheist whose arguments Myshkin cannot refute; on the other, there is the murderer who utters a prayer for forgiveness before slitting his victim’s throat. The point of these stories is to exhibit religious faith and moral conscience existing as an ineradicable attribute in the Russian people independent of reason, or even of any sort of conventional social morality. ‘The essence of religious feeling,’ Myshkin explains, ‘does not come under any sort of reasoning or atheism, and has nothing to do with any crimes of misdemeanors…But the chief thing is that you will notice it more clearly and quickly in the Russian heart than anywhere else.’

This thematic motif is of key importance for understanding the remainder of the book. For in depicting religious faith and the stirrings of conscience as the irrational and instinctive needs of ‘the Russian heart,’ whose existence shines forth in the midst of everything that seems to deny or negate its presence, Dostoevsky i s surely indicating the proper interpretation of Myshkin’s ultimate failure and tragic collapse. The values of Christian love and religious faith that Myshkin embodies are too deep a necessity of the Russian spirit to be negated by his practical failure, any more than they are negated by reason, murder, or sacrilege. If Holbein’s picture and Myshkin’s tirade are introduced so awkwardly and abruptly at this point, it is probably because Dostoevsky wished immediately to establish the framework within which the catastrophic destiny awaiting the prince would be rightly understood.”

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by bringing up Myshkin’s “catastrophic destiny.” Did anyone really anticipate an ending of light and laughter?

The Weekend’s Reading:

Part Two, Chapters Five and Six

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “At that painting! A man could even lose his faith from that painting!”

  1. Eddie Chism says:

    Yeah, Dennis, I had a big WTF reaction to that passage as well. I wasn’t sure if it is something that was hard to translate? Weird.

  2. artmama says:

    I got a tiny glimmer from this passage – that the Russian heart has a mainline to the truth that will never be known to souls made of lesser stuff.

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