Part Three, Chapter Nine
by Dennis Abrams
Myshkin is brought by Lizaveta Prokofyevna back to the family dacha. Lizaveta’s alarm, the sisters’ amusement at Aglaya’s absence at that morning — the bench, the book, her quarrel with Prince Shch., “because he did not find anything special in the location of this bench.” Myshkin asks Lizaveta if she wanted to know how he had come to meet Aglaya at the bench, and tells her that he went because of her note, informing “me that she had to see me and speak to me about an important matter. We met and spent a whole hour discussing things of concern to Aglaya Ivanovna alone, and that is all.” Aglaya: “Splendid, Prince!…I think you with all my heart for considering me unable to stoop to lying…” Myshkin returns home. Vera’s concern. Myshkin’s exhaustion. Kolya talks with Myshkin, telling him that he’d been at Ippolit’s bedside, that they’re all taking turns doing so, that Ivolgin had stopped by, extremely drunk, and warned him “I have reason to think that not anything can be said in front of Mr. Ferdyshchenko, and…one must restrain oneself,” that Ferdyshchenko had left to spend the rest of the night at the house of a drunk, Vilkin. Kolya leaves and Lebedev enters to speak with Myshkin: That night, Lebedev, while drunk, had lost 400 roubles he had in his frock coat — the money had to have been stolen, and the only possible suspects are Keller, Ferdyshchenko, and General Ivolgin. Keller was searched and nothing was found. Lebedev says that Ferdyshchenko seems to be the prime suspect, but seems to hint that he really believes that it was General Ivolgin, who was drunk, needed the money, and warned Kolya about Ferdyshchenko. Myshkin, seemingly afraid that Ivolgin is guilty, tells Lebedev he’ll help him find out who took it, but that things must be kept quiet.
And yet another layer of plot…
I posted this in the comments last night, but in case you hadn’t read it, I thought that this was an interesting look at what I thought was a rather curious aspect of Ippolit’s confession — his dream of the scorpion-like monster. It’s taken from the essay “The Idiot and the Subtext of Modern Materialism,” by Roger Anderson:
“The second principle of science, discussed widely in Europe of the 1860’s, which I see as having symbolic importance in The Idiot, lies in the realm of physics. In 1852 Lord Kelvin proved that every transformation of matter into energy, as from energy back into matter, entails a minute, bur irretrievable, loss of order in the universe. This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and is called entropy, heat death, or decay. Each term implies the slow, but fated, deterioration of all organized form. The impact of entropy on Western society was deeply disturbing for it described what lay in store at the far edge of the materialist paradigm. Rudolf Arnheim, in his provocative book Entropy and Art, conveys a sense of how the sophisticated nineteenth century was forced to confront its own inevitable degradation:
When it [the Second Law] began to enter the public consciousness a century or so ago, it suggested an apocalyptic vision of the course of events on earth. … The sober formulations of Clausius, Kelvin, and Boltzmann were suited to become a cosmic memento mori, pointing to the underlying cause of the gradual decay of all things physical and mental.(17)
Turner considers evolution and entropy as complementary in their messages that humankind occupies but a peripheral place within a world of impersonal randomness.(18) Both theories replaced spiritual faith in a purposeful cosmos with a world filled with pointless struggle, in which all life appears and disappears without purpose, until it mutates into the unrecognizable. This is the vision that Nietzsche was soon to introduce in his Also sprach Zarathustra as the dark notion of “eternal return,” of unending geological cycles where life is condemned to be a grotesque farce of creation and disintegration without point.(19) The cosmic sweep of entropy, charting the inexorable movement of all order toward decay and disorder, is a basic issue in The Idiot. It organizes the fundamental symbols Dostoevsky distributes between Ippolit and the Holbein Christ, and speaks directly to the question of Myshkin’s epilepsy.
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.
It conveys well the irony of science’s ability to describe, and prove, humanity’s eventual disappearance into an oblivion which pre-scientific thought had long considered subordinate to spiritual faith. Ippolit’s “final conviction” expresses well a dismay, widely shared in social thought of the time, at the pessimistic conclusions modernity was finding to its own accelerating progress.”
Part Three, Chapter Ten, Part Four, Chapter One