Part Two, Chapters Five and Six
by Dennis Abrams
Myshkin on his own. Dinner at the Scales Hotel, hoping to find Kolya. Wandering aimlessly through St. Petersburg. Wanting to be alone, “What, then, am I to blame for it all?” The Tsarskoe Selo railway, “solitude quickly became unbearable for him,” purchasing a ticket for Pavlosk, about to board the train when, “he suddenly flung the just-purchased ticket to the floor and left the station again, confused and pensive.” Searching for…something. Remembering standing on the sidewalk outside a shop window and looking at the display of goods — had he imagined it or was he confusing it with something else? “For indeed, he felt himself in an especially morbid mood that day, almost as he had felt formerly at the onset of the fits of his former illness.” The sixty kopeck item — did it exist? “But here was the shop, he had found it at last! He had been five hundred paces away from it when he decided to back.” Hysterical laughter from Myshkin. “He fell to thinking, among other things, about his epileptic condition, that there was a stage in it just before the fit itself (if the fit occurred while he was awake), when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life’s forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse. The sense of life, of self-awareness, increased nearly tenfold in these moments, which flash by like lightning. His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light…” Was that one second of enlightenment worth the pain of the seizure itself: “Yes, for this moment one could give one’s whole life!” “‘At the moment,’ as he had once said to Rogozhin in Moscow, when they got together there, ‘at the moment I was somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase that time shall be no more.” Epileptic Muhammad and the pitcher. A bench in the Summer Garden. His intensifying epileptic state — the growing thunderstorm. Was Lebedev’s nephew a murderer? The eyes at the station. Going to see Nastasya Filippovna. His special idea. Pity vs. love. Tormenting. “Compassion is the chief and perhaps the only law of being for all mankind.” Is the Russian soul murky? Nastasya is not at home — Mrs. Filissov. His demon. The eyes in the crowd, at the train station. His need to see those eyes. The demon that whispered to him — Rogozhin. Myshkin is convinced that he is dishonorable, “With what eyes am I to look at this man now all my life! Oh, what a day! Oh, God, what a nightmare!” In the gateway of his hotel — the eyes. Myshkin chases after him, catches him hiding in a niche on the first landing — it’s Rogozhin. “His right hand rose, and something gleamed in it; the prince did not even think of stopping him…Then suddenly it was as if something opened up before him: an extraordinary inner light opened his soul…” Myshkin’s fit scares off Rogozhin before he has a chance to stab him — Myshkin falls, convulsing down the stairs, striking his head. Kolya returns to the hotel, tends to him, and brings him to Lebedev’s to recover.
Lebedev’s dacha. Lebedev’s over-protectiveness. Rogozhin comes daily to ask about Myshkin’s health. Nastasya wants to arrange a “secret meeting,” but is afraid of Aglaya Ivanovna. The Epanchins, the Ptitsyns, Ganya, and General Ivogin all come to visit Myshkin. Lizaveta Prokofyevna’s disappointment with the missing Myshkin, until she discovers that he has been ill. Her disappointment that he is “completely healthy-looking, smartly dressed, and laughing…instead of a dying man on his deathbed as she had expected to find him.” Lebedev and the apocalypse. Did General Ivolgin hold Aglaya when she was a baby? Mrs. Epanchin drives Ivolgin away. Ganya has changed for the better. The “poor Knight.” Aglaya and Don Quixote. Aglaya’s jokes. There’s nothing better than a “poor knight.” General Epanchin and an unknown young man join the party.
That was some riveting reading — the description of Myshkin’s state of mind as the epileptic seizure approached, was, I thought absolutely amazing. Combine that with Rogozhin’s attempted attack…pretty amazing.
I was struck in this section by a passage (I can’t find it now) where the narrator comments that he can’t explain the why’s of somebody behaved the way that they did…interesting, and I’m hard pressed to think of another occasion in literature where that happens.
This seems like the perfect time to share this section from Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859
“The famous scene in The Idiot is the only first-hand description of the ‘aura’ that we have from Dostoevsky’s pen, and although he is nominally writing about his character Prince Myshkin, the portrayal is clearly autobiographical. At such moments, Dostoevsky tells us, ‘his mind and heart were filled with extraordinary light, all his uneasiness, all his doubts, all his anxieties were relieved at once; they were all merged with a lofty calm, full of serene harmonious joy and hope, full of knowledge and the ultimate causes of things.’ Such instants imparted ‘a feeling, unknown and undivined until then, of completeness, of proportion, of reconciliation, and of ecstatic devotional merging in the highest synthesis of life.’ Later in the same passage, we are told that Myshkin ‘had actually said to himself at that second, that, for the infinite happiness he had felt in it, that second might be worth the whole of life…at that moment I had seen [Myshkin is talking] somehow to understand the extraordinary saying that there shall be no more time. Probably…this is the very second which was not long enough for the water to be spilt out of Mahomet’s pitcher, though the epileptic prophet had time to gaze at all the habitations of Allah.’
These words convey the ecstatic heightening of consciousness that swept over Dostoevsky at the beginning of his seizures when they occurred in a state of wakefulness (the majority mercifully took place while he was sleeping lightly in the early morning hours). When fully aware of them, he was lifted out of himself into a condition similar to that to certain mystics, although he does not attribute any specific doctrinal content to his sensations. Rather, they were one variety of what R.C. Zaehner has called a ‘natural’ mystical experience, in which the personal ego is obliterated and fuses into a harmony with the cosmos. This moment of fusion was further marked in Dostoevsky by the transcendence of time, more exactly by the disappearance of any sense of time and a feeling of overwhelming happiness at this apprehension of an existence in eternity. Some mystics, on reaching this same ecstatic state, have used it to affirm the irreality of death and the immortality of the soul; but there is no attempt by Dostoevsky to make any such affirmation. What predominates for him is the indescribable bliss of union and reconciliation with ‘the highest synthesis of life,’ and a contact with a realm of being beyond time and change — a realm whose reality for Dostoevsky had now been irrefutably confirmed by this tangible evidence of his senses.
The further information provided by Strakhov does not substantially add to this picture. He tells of a conversation, which he dates approximately in 1863, that took place on the eve of Easter (this holy day celebrating the resurrection of Christ plays an extraordinarily symbolic role in Dostoevsky’s life). The two men were engaged in animated conversation on some unnamed subject, and Dostoevsky was walking up and down the room in Strakhov’s apartment in a state of intense excitement. ‘What he [Dostoevsky] said was filled with loftiness and joy,’ when suddenly he broke off, as if in search of words, and then, uttering a strange and high-pitched wail, lost consciousness and collapsed. ‘Feodor Mikhailovich,’ Strakhov writes, ‘spoke to me several times of the moments of exhalation that preceded a crisis: ‘For several brief moments I feel a happiness unthinkable in a normal state and impossible to imagine by anyone who has not lived through it. I am then in perfect harmony with myself and the entire universe: the sensation is so powerful and so delightful that for a few seconds of such happiness one would give ten years of one’s life, perhaps even one’s entire life.’
A new element, though, is provided by Kovalevskaya, who supposedly transmitted a story told by Dostoevsky himself in her hearing. Again we are on the eve of Easter, though the place is now Siberia in the years after Dostoevsky’s release from the prison camp. An old friend of Dostoevsky’s [about whom we hear nothing else from any other source] comes for a visit, and the two begin to argue about God. The friend is an atheist, Dostoevsky a believer, and they talk the night through as Russians were prone to do about all such ‘cursed questions’ of human life. Just at the moment when Dostoevsky was proclaiming, in a pitch of feverish exhalation, his belief in the existence of God, ‘the bells of the new neighboring church began to sound the matins for Easter. The atmosphere began to vibrate and dance. ‘And I had the sentiment,’ Dostoevsky continued, ‘that the heaven had come down to earth and swallowed me up. I really apprehended God and and felt him in every fibre of my being. I then cried, ‘Yes, God exists.’ I remember nothing after that.’ The story concludes with Dostoevsky asserting that, like Mohammed, he had seen Paradise, and that he could not exchange such a moment for all the joys of the world.
If we accept this story as reliable, even though a number of features make it seem rather dubious, it would indicate that Dostoevsky himself saw some connection between his religious faith and his mystical experiences. It is significant, though, that the experience only serves to confirm his belief in God rather than to inspire it. Nor is there any climactic vision of God as in more traditional types of mysticism, but rather a fusion with ‘the highest synthesis of life,’ the same unity of heaven and earth that we are already familiar with. It is true that he now designates the moment of ecstasy, marked by the disappearance of time, with the traditional name of ‘Paradise’; but the reference to Mohammed surely indicates that it had no specific connection to Dostoevsky’s own Christianity. His mysticism was thus not theistic in character, but rather what Zaehner calls ‘pan-en-theistic,’ that is the intuition of all- being-as-one typical of most nature-mysticism. From this point of view, Dostoevsky’s reveries under the star-filled sky, and the consolation they afforded him, may be seen as attempts to recapture some of the emotional afflatus provided by his ‘epileptic aura.’
Dostoevsky’s mysticism, however, possessed one attribute that made it tragic rather than a more traditionally sublime character — meaning by ‘sublime’ the triumphant assertion by the human spirit of its capacity to rise above the limitations of time and mortality. His epileptic seizures, being involuntary, contained no such affirmation and were always accompanied by a plunge into mental degeneracy or of death itself as a result of the physical convulsions caused by the fit.”
Part Two, Chapter Seven — a short reading but an important one.