“Isn’t it possible to eat me, without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me?”

The Idiot
Part Three, Chapters Five-Seven
by Dennis Abrams

Ippolit wakes up. His dream of Rogozhin. “Is it true, Prince, that you once said ‘beauty’ would save the world?” Does Ippolit love Myshkin or not? Ippolit suddenly “pulled from his upper side pocket a big, official-sized envelope, sealed with a big red seal.” The surprise of the crowd. “I wrote it myself yesterday…” Should he read it now or later? He wins the coin toss, and “as if crushed by the decision of fate; he could not have turned more pale if a death sentence had been read to him.” “‘A Necessary Explanation! Epigraph: Apres moi le deluge” Rogozhin’s bitter response. Had Rogozhin been in Ippolit’s room one night the previous week? The reading begins. Why was Myshkin “foisting” views of trees on Ippolit? “…greenery and clean air, in his opinion, are bound to produce some physical change in me, and my agitation and my dreams will change and perhaps become lighter…Since he never lies, these words must mean something.” His five month hatred of Myshkin, which has recently become less strong. The “Explanation” will be written with no time to rewrite and correct, “I will reread it tomorrow when I read it to the prince and the two or three witnesses I intend to find there.” The explanation will only contain the truth. Saying good-bye to Meyer’s wall, “But I do not feel anything, and yet tomorrow I am leaving both my room and the wall forever!” Only two weeks left to live. Ippolit’s dream: A large room, “a sort of monster. It resembled a scorpion but it was not a scorpion, it was more vile and much more terrible, and precisely, it seemed, in that there are no such creatures in nature and that it had come to me on purpose, and that very fact presumably contained some sort of mystery.” His mother and an acquaintance are unable to capture the monster, the family’s Norma, a giant Newfoundland, bites the scorpion in two but is bitten herself. Ippolit is interrupted — Ippolit says that anyone who doesn’t want to listen can leave, Myshkin urges him to put the explanation aside and the two can talk together “before we sleep and tomorrow.” The reading continues. Ippolit’s idea that life was not worth living only came to him a month earlier, but hen he first learned he had consumption, “..the more clearly I understood it, the more convulsively I wanted to live; I clung to life and wanted to live whatever the cost…Why did I actually begin to live, knowing that it was no longer possible for me to begin; why did I try, knowing that there was no longer anything to try?” Ippolit decides to live through the lives of others, by learning about the lives of others. “I could not understand, for instance, how it was that these people, having so much life, were not able to become rich…I knew one fellow of whom I was told later that he starved to death, and, I remember, that made me furious…If he’s alive, everything is in his power!” “…a man condemned to death, to whom it naturally seemed that all people except himself value their life too little…Oh, you can be sure that Columbus was happy hot when he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it…” The upstairs neighbor, Surikov, whose baby froze to death because of poverty — Ippolit tells him that he has only himself to blame. Ippolit finds a lost billfold returns it to its owner, finds the man, his wife, and baby in desperate need — the man is a doctor who has lost his position. Ippolit turns to his college “friend” Bakhmutov for help — the two go Bakhmutov’s uncle who agrees to help the doctor, which leads Ippolit to believe that “Individual goodness will always abide, because it is a personal need, a living need for the direct influence of one person on another.” The old general and the exiles in Siberia. How do you know the meaning that the goodness of one person will have on the person being helped? How many moves are there, and how much is unknown to us? The need to do a good work. The sowing of his “ultimate conviction.” Ippolit visits Rogozhin, sees the painting of Christ just taken down from the cross, the same one that had such an impact on Myshkin. “…in Rogozhin’s picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering… But, strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believe in him and worshiped him had seen a corpse like that…how could they believe, looking at such a corpse that this sufferer would resurrect?” “Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is — in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being…” Was Rogozhin watching Ippolit while he was sleeping? Ippolit decides that his last act of free will is suicide — he will kill himself with a small pocket pistol at dawn at Pavlovsk. When he is gone, one copy of his “statement” should remain with Myshkin, another to Aglaya. “Isn’t it possible simply to eat me, without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me? Can it be that someone there will indeed be offended that I don’t want to wait for two weeks?” “…nature has so greatly limited my activity by her three-sentence that suicide may be the only thing I still have time to begin and end of my own will. so, maybe I want to use my last opportunity of doing something? A protest is no small matter…”

The reading is now over: The sunrise, “It has risen.” A mixed reaction from the crowd. General indifference. Gloating that he won’t do it. Vera, Kolya, Keller and Burdovsky grab Ippolit’s hand. General Ivolgin calls it “a boyish prank.” The others tease Ippolit. Lebedev demands that Ippolit give up his pistol. While the others are distracted, Ippolit takes the pistol from his coat pocket, presses it to his temple and shoots, but he had forgotten to put the firing cap in. Was it intentional? Should Ippolit be sent away? After the other guests leave, Myshkin walks to the green bench where he had missed his “date” with Aglaya. He is stirred by a memory of Switzerland and falls asleep and dreams of Nastasya Filippovna until he is woken by Aglaya.

Incredible. For me, an amazing experience. The difference of impact that Holbein’s painting had on Myshkin and Ippolit, the evolution in Ippolit’s thought, the reaction of his “friends” to his announcement…

One important note: In Dostoevsky’s own notes as he was writing this third part of the novel, he reminded himself to write concisely and powerfully about Ippolit and to focus the whole plot on him. He noted, “Ippolit is the main axis of the whole novel. he even has a hold on the Prince, though in essence he realises that he can never possess him.” As Malcolm Jones notes, “This is an extr4aordinary move with respect to a character who in other respects seems minor and peripheral, and who is essentially an afterthought in the author’s scheme of things.”

There’s a lot of critical commentary on this section. Here’s some of the best:

From Joseph Frank:

“Ippolit’s semihysterical ‘Necessary Explanation’ is composed to contain all the main features of Myshkin’s Weltanschauung — the reverence for the infinite beauty and value of life — but combined with an opposite human attitude. His preoccupation with death does not lessen but strengthens his self-concern, and turns it into a pathetic megalomania, as can be seen from the touchingly incongruous epigraph, ‘apres moi le deluge!’ that he appends to his ‘Necessary Explanation.’ Instinctively, Ippolit’s feelings are on the side of the victims of social injustice; and when he is carried on the current of such benevolent feelings, he admits ‘that I forgot my death sentence, or rather did not come to think of it and even did work.’ Only such concern with others can sase the tragedy of Ippolit’s last days, but he finally abandons all such endeavors to brood over his own condition. Death,. the universal portion, he comes to regard as a personal insult and ‘humiliation’ aimed at him by ‘nature,’ or rather by the creator of a world that requires the individual’s consent to the indignity and injustice of being destroyed.

The thematic contrast between Ippolit and the Prince is brought out most forcefully in their differing reactions to the key religious symbol of the book, Holbein’s Dead Christ. Holbein’s picture, as we have seen, had led Myshkin to affirm the irrational ‘essence of religious feeling’ as an ineradicable component of the human spirit; but for the Young Nihilist, it is only a confi8rmation of his own sense of the cruel meaninglessness of life. To Ippolit, the picture conveys a sense of nature ‘in the form of a huge machine of the most modern construction,’ which ‘has aimlessly clutched, crushed, and swallowed up a great priceless Being, a Being worth all of nature and its laws worth the whole earth, which was created perhaps solely for the advent of that Being.’ Ippolit simply cannot grasp how the first disciples of Christ, who witnessed in reality what he sees only at the remove of art, could still have continued to believe in the triumph over death that Christ proclaimed, but this is precisely the mystery of faith to which Ippolit is closed, and whose absence poisons his last days with bitterness and despair.

Ippolit, like the other characters, instinctively regards the Prince as the standard for his own conscience. The Prince’s ‘humility,’ however, is the ideological antithesis of Ippolit’s ‘revolt,’ and it is Myshkin who must bear the brunt of the Young Nihilist’s vituperative shifts of feeling. ‘Can’t I simply be devoured without being expected to praise what devours me?’ Ippolit asks caustically, in rejecting the Prince’s ‘Christian meekness.’ This question comes from such a depth of suffering in Ippolit that no offense on his part can lessen his right to an absolute claim on the indulgence of the other characters. The Prince understands that, for Ippolit, the untroubled possession of life by others is a supreme injustice, which should burden them with guilt and a sense of moral obligation.”

Given that, why do I find myself agreeing more with Ippolit than Myshkin?

From Diane Oenning Thompson’s essay “Dostoevskii and science.”:

“In The Idiot Ippolit, the dying young man, describes his reaction to Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ Who is depicted totally alone, in a cramped tomb, His wounds rendered in uncompromisingly naturalistic detail, and without any marks of His divinity:

here is only Nature […] Christ did not suffer figuratively, but really and His body was fully and completely subject to the law of Nature […] would His disciples […] looking at such a corpse, believe that this martyr would arise? […] if death is so terrible and the laws of Nature so powerful, then how can they be overcome […] when even He, Who conquered nature in His lifetime, did not conquer them now? He Whom Nature obeyed, Who said ‘Talitha kumi’ and the girl arose? […] Looking at this picture, Nature appears […] in the shape of some huge machine of the most recent construction which senselessly seized, smashed and swallowed into itself a great and precious Being, such a Being worth all of Nature and all its laws {…] The idea of a dark, insolent and senselessly eternal force, to which everything is subjected, is expressed by this picture and conveyed to you.

The latest ‘machine’ may stand as a metaphor for the technological age, ,for blind mechanical necessity, for the crushing triumph of a brute man-made thing over the only Person free from causality and the laws of Nature. Holbein’s Christ is only a corpse, a person reduced to a thing. As Jostein Bortnes has pointed out, the dead Christ ‘is the central symbol of The Idiot‘, but one that ‘has been emptied of its divine content’; therefore His sacrifice, and consequently the whole Christian tradition, ‘has lost its meaning’. No consolations are offered. The failure of Myshkin to save anyone is a reflection of the absence of the divine Christ in the world of The Idiot. Dostoevskii was never again to put his ideal to such unsparing scrutiny. Only a troubled awareness of the scientific basis of the laws of Nature, in which miracles have no place, could have generated such a conception.”

And this excerpt from the essay “Reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot On A Metaphysical-Religious Level”:

“On the metaphysical-religious level Prince Myshkin and Ippolit Terentyev are the main antagonists. Although Ippolit has no objective reason to hate Myshkin, he senses in him an ideological adversary: “I hate you all, every one of you ! — it’s you, Jesuitical, treacly soul, idiot, philanthropic millionaire; I hate you more than every one and everything in the world! I understood and hated you long ago, when first I heard of you: I hated you with all the hatred of my soul” (335/249). There is extrinsic evidence that Dostoevsky himself saw things in this way. “Ippolit is the main axis of the whole novel,” we read in his notebook (277). Kolya speaks of Ippolit’s “gigantic idea” without defining it. But the fact that Ippolit’s idea is apparently developed further and commented on by Kirillov in The Possessed allows us to identify the “gigantic idea” as the rejection of an absurd life. It is up to Myshkin to refute this idea.

In effect, Ippolit reverses what is known as the argument for the existence of God “from design”: the actual condition of the world is in his experience such that it makes faith in God impossible. The conflict between Myshkin’s faith and Ippolit’s revolt parallels the antinomy [vocab: a contradiction between two statements that seem equally reasonable] of Christ absolute spiritual significance and the particular facts of history, Christ’s promise of immortality and physical death continuing as ever before.

The repeated introduction of the theme of execution and Ippolit’s condition as a man doomed to death before he has started to live leads up to the scene in front of Holbein’s “Deposition of Christ,” a picture that could cause a man to lose his faith, as Myshkin observes. Ippolit, referring to the same picture, utters the ultimate challenge to faith:

The question instinctively arises: if death is so awful and the laws of nature so mighty, how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who vanquished nature in His lifetime, who exclaimed. “Maiden, arise!” and the maiden arose — ”Lazarus, come forth!” and the dead man came forth? Looking at such a, picture, one conceives of nature in the shape of an immense, merciless, dumb beast, or more correctly, much more correctly, speaking, though it sounds strange, in the form of a. huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has aimlessly clutched, crushed and swallowed up a great priceless Being, a Being worth all nature and its laws, worth the whole earth, which was created perhaps solely for the sake of the advent of that Being. (451/339)

The helplessness of mortal man facing inexorable nature causes Ippolit to draw some practical and hypothetical conclusions. He realizes that he could commit the most heinous crime with guaranteed impunity because his case would assuredly not come to trial: he would die before under the solicitous care of the authorities, who would be anxious to keep him alive for his trial. This conceit presages Ivan Karamazov’s maxim: “If there is no immortality, everything is lawful.” On the practical side, too, Ippolit realizes that every conceivable activity or plan he might consider is made senseless by his impending death.

Furthermore, Ippolit reaches the same conclusion as Kirillov does, with a more elaborate argumentation: choosing the time of his own death by committing suicide is the only way in which he can assert his independence from the dumb power of nature. Like his successor in The Possessed, Ippolit is loath to admit that his suicide will be an act of despair more than an act of revolt. Vladimir Solovyov, in his third “Discourse on Dostoevsky” (1883), made the point that any man who becomes aware of universal evil, as Ippolit does, but is unable to see also universal good — that is, God — is inevitably driven to suicide. Ippolit in fact perceives nature not only as indifferent but also as malevolent, cruel, and mocking. At the same time, he is unaware of any beneficent saving principle.

Like Ivan Karamazov, Ippolit does not explicitly deny the existence of God but resolutely rejects His world: “So be it! I shall die looking straight at the source of power and life; I do not want this life! If I’d had the power not to be born, I would certainly not have accepted existence upon conditions that are such a mockery” (457/344). Yet at the same time Ippolit — again like his successors Kirillov and Ivan Karamazov — loves life and asks why he must be so alienated from it: “What is there for me in this beauty when, every minute, every second I am obliged, forced, to recognize that even the tiny fly, buzzing in the sunlight beside me, has its share in the banquet and the chorus, knows its place, loves it and is happy; and I alone am an outcast” (45 5/ 343). Myshkin, a few pages later, echoes Ippolit’s sentiment (466/352).26 The theme of man’s discord with God’s world is made explicitly anti-Christian as Ippolit sarcastically rejects the Prince’s “Christian arguments, at the happy thought that it is in fact better to die” (455/342).

Ippolit himself suggests an escape from this situation: perhaps man or, rather, man’s conscious mind does not understand the world correctly and human alienation from the cosmos is due to a misunderstanding of some divine truth. It is up to Prince Myshkin to resolve this misunderstanding, although Ippolit has unwittingly found the resolution himself when he quits staring at Meyer’s wall (the wall is a symbol of the cul-desac into which reason takes man even in Notes from Underground) and becomes involved in the fate of another human being, the unfortunate young doctor who gets another chance at life through his efforts.

Myshkin, who is specifically identified as a self-proclaimed Christian believer (423/3 17), presents the alternative to Ippolit’s self-conscious solipsism: personal experience of a reality that transcends individuality. Vladimir So1ovyos who was the first to translate Dostoevsky’s fiction into the language of academic philosophy, said, “Nature, separated from the Divine Spirit, appears to be a dead and senseless mechanism without cause or goal — and on the other hand, God, separated from man and nature, outside His positive revelation, is for us either an empty abstraction or an all consuming indifference.” Dostoevsky set himself the task to realize this “positive revelation” in a fictional character. Prince Myshkin’s role as a symbol of man’s salvation is enhanced by many significant details that make him a Christ figure.”

And finally, this from Gary Saul Morson’s essay on Reading Dostoevskii:

“Time is radically open in The Idiot. There is no structure, there are only impulse, possibilities, experimentation — and process.

At some point in his writing, Dostoevskii evidently realised that time and process were in fact his central themes. The book, he discovered, was about the implications of how it was written. In Part 3, Ippolit, until then a minor character, delivers a forty-page confession that has just about no relevance to the plot. In any structuralist’s abridgement, in any version of The Idiot Rewritten by Henry James (as Robert Graves ‘improved David Copperfield), this whole passage would have to be left out. And yet is justly regarded as the novel’s high point. It contains the lines that best express its self-referential theme of an open process:

‘Oh, you may be sure that Columbus was happy not when he had discovered [otkryl] America but while he was discovering [otkryval] it. Take my word for it, the highest moment of his happiness was just three days before the discovery of the New World, when the mutinous crew were on the point of returning to Europe in despair. It wasn’t the New World that mattered, even it had fallen to pieces. {…] It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.’

And we best appreciate The Idiot not when we have read it, but while we are reading ig. Otkyrl, otkryval — perfective, imperfective: The Idiot cultivates the aesthetics of the imperfective aspect.”

So, what did you all think? Did Ippolit’s “Necessary Explanation” change your feelings about the book or how you interpreted the book? Tell all…

Monday’s Reading:

Part Three, Chapter Eight


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5 Responses to “Isn’t it possible to eat me, without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me?”

  1. PatRosier says:

    It really helps my reading of this section to have seen an (online) image of the Holbein painting. What I take as an essential idea from these chapters is that life is arbitrary and when we have it we should appreciate it for itself. One of life’s tragedies is to only appreciate having life when one knows it is about to end. Do others see it this simply? Nature as “brutal” is easy enough to appreciate after recent events in Christchurch and, especially, Japan. (Though “nature” did not produce nuclear energy without a large contribution from “man”.)

    Also fascinating is the idea that without a belief in an afterlife (ie, I guess, God), a crime such as murder, especially when one is close to death, has no consequences. As an atheist, I can’t wear this; it may have little consequence for the perpetrator but does for others, and our humanity demands a regards for others, even when we are about to die. (If we have no regards for others we cannot expect them to have regard for us and our well-being, which would make for a very sorry world.)

    So, a novel with issues that are very contemporary, even if we don’t “laugh ardently” as often as D’s characters.

    • One question is: Whose side is Dostoevsky on — Myshkin or Ippolit? Even he in theory is on Myshkin’s side, the way that he presents Ippolit’s argument

      As an atheist myself, I have to agree that one can have a moral sense, even enough of one to not commit murder when one is close to death, despite a lack of belief in an afterlife. Is belief that you’re going to get caught eventually enough to keep one on the straight and narrow?

      And finally, I’m not one to see nature as necessarily “brutal” — I prefer indifferent.

  2. Eddie Chism says:

    This passage was fascinating, but as yet another atheist on this forum, I feel like the critique that Dostoevsky is making of the atheist versus the Christian worldview is a straw-man argument at best. And don’t forget the somewhat baffling scene in an earlier chapter where Myshkin relates his conversation with an atheist and says that atheists are not really atheists, “they are talking about something else” (or whatever, I’m paraphrasing from memory). But it is interesting, as you point out, Dennis, that his presentation of Ippolit’s view seems more convincing than the counterargument (at least at this point).

  3. Eddie Chism says:

    Oh, yeah, any thoughts on the “scorpion” dream?!

    • I found the dream suggestive but baffling. This, from the essay “The Idiot and the Subtext of Modern Materialism,” by Roger Anderson, seems to me one interesting way of approaching it:

      In his long reading to the assembled guests at Pavlovsk, Ippolit describes the scorpion of his dream and shares his impression at seeing the Holbein Christ. Ippolit’s terminal consumption forces the ultimate question on him of Life’s value and purpose. For a while he struggles to “scatter the seeds” of good deeds as a way of overcoming his own death in time, of ensuring that something of himself will remain after his death. But, the sheer weight of that impending death overwhelms his attempts. He prefers the company of Meyer’s wall as a truer gauge of reality than the illusion of life’s seasonal renewal in nature. Hidden behind the promises of each cycle of regeneration, he recognizes life’s unalterable motion toward inexorable destruction. The scorpion he sees is monstrous, but not only for its danger to him personally. It is “dreadful just because… there are no such creatures in nature.” (441) That is, the scorpion stands for an abstract, unstoppable force behind nature, a principle whose workings control each life while it cannot be affected in return.

      In this same scene Ippolit describes “the deaf and blind destiny” that decrees his being “crushed like a fly.” (444) To accept this inevitable fate is to face life’s pointlessness squarely, to give up all involvement in what he declares the chimerical promises of nature and human society. The dissolution of hope for meaning beyond the process of his own physical decay expands again to cosmological proportions in the description of his “last conviction,” (460) which he associates with the Holbein Christ. The famous painting, of course, presents Christ as physically broken and dead, without a hint of spiritual renewal. Ippolit juxtaposes Christ here to-the term “laws of nature” whose physical process devours all organized meaning in the cosmos: “… if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them?” (447)

      The reference here to some universal process of physical degradation, to which there is no exception, repeats just that metaphysical distress that the law of entropy carried with it. Ippolit’s description of that general process is distinctive for its mechanical imagery:

      Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up — impassively and unfeelingly — a great and priceless being … The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated… (464)

      This is a vision of man’s terminal objectification in nature.

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