“You are a puffed-up ordinariness; an unquestioning and Olympianly calm ordinariness; you are the routine of routines!”

The Idiot
Part Four, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams

It has now been five days since Ippolit moved into the Ptitsyn’s home. Why are Ganya and Rogozhin showing an interest in Ippolit? The slight improvement in Ippolit’s health. Nina Alexandrovna is frightened, Kolya is preoccupied and pensive — the general has not had a drink for three days, and has broken from and quarreled with Lebedev and Myshkin. The general yells at Ptitsyn for allowing Ippolit to stay in his house, “if you have indeed decided to sacrifice a venerable old man, your father, that is, your wife’s father at least, honored by his sovereign, to a milksop and an atheist, I shall never set foot in your house again from this very hour. Choose sir, choose immediately: either me, or this…screw! Yes, screw! I said it by accident, but he is a screw! Because he bores into my soul like a screw, and without any respect…like a screw!” Ivolgin’s exhaustion, Ganya’s fury, Nina’s tears. Ivolgin under siege: “Everybody’s against me, from strangers to my own son!” A family disgraced and dishonored. Ivolgin and Captain Eropegov (later Kapiton, later Eroshka) “He undoubtedly never existed!” snapped Ganya. The general’s excitement…”at another time he would have borne something much more offensive than the news about the total non-existence of Kapiton Eropegov, would have shouted a little, started a scandal, lost his temper, but all the same in the end he would have withdrawn to his room upstairs and gone to bed. But now, owing to the extraordinary strangeness of the human heart, it so happened that precisely such an offense as the doubt of Eropegov made the cup run over. The old man turned purple, raised his arms, and shouted: ‘Enough! My curse…away from this house! Nikolai, bring my bag. I’m going…away!'” Ganya turns on Ippolit, blaming him for Ivolgin’s state of mind. Ippolit reminds Ganya that the two of them are both guests of Mr. Ptitsyn, and informs him that his mother and sister have taken an apartment in Pavlovsk, and he will be moving in with them that day. Ippolit turns on Ganya, reminding him that he befriended him to use him as a weapon against Myshkin, that he neither loves nor respects Myshkin “but he is decidedly a kind man, though…a ridiculous one.” Ippolit tells Varvara of his desire to make a fool of Ganya, “Know that I did out of hatred, I confess it frankly. In dying…I have felt that I would go to paradise incomparably more peacefully if I managed to make a fool out of at least one of that numberless sort of people who have hounded me all my life, whom I have hated all my life, and of whom your much-esteemed brother serves as such a vivid representation. I hate you, Gavrila Ardaliionovich, solely because — this may seem astonishing to you — solely because you are the type and embodiment, the personification and apex of the most impudent, the most self-satisfied, the most vulgar and vile ordinariness! You are a puffed-up ordinariness, an unquestioning and Olympianly calm ordinariness; you are the routine of routines!…a long and diverse path lies ahead of you, I do not say a cheerful one, and I’m glad of that. First of all, I predict to you that you will not attain a certain person…” Ippolit leaves. Ganya shows his sister a note from Aglaya, asking that he and his sister meet her the next day at 7:00 in the morning at the green bench (the morning of the evening that Aglaya’s engagement to Myshkin is to be announced) — it is the first time in six months that Aglaya has wanted to see Ganya. “Listen to me, Ganya: whatever there is to it, however it turns out, know that this is important! It’s all too important!” Ivolgin leaves, cursing the house as he goes down the street, followed by Kolya with his bags. “‘And inevitably in a theatrical tone!’ Ganya muttered, noisily shutting the window.”

A question: Given that in this section Ippolit attacks Ganya for being “ordinary” using the same terms that the narrator did at the beginning of Part Four — does that signify that in some ways, Ippolit is the narrator’s mouthpiece? And is that narrator actually Dostoevsky? And if so…does that indicate that Dostoevsky himself doesn’t completely accept Myshkin’s version of the world and Christianity?

And for the weekend, more from George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: (using Steiner’s spellings of the Russian)

“The opening sentence of The Idiot sets the pace: ‘Toward the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o’clock one morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed.’ By one of those coincidences essential to the Dostoevskyan scheme of things, Prince Muishkin and Rogojin are sitting opposite each other in the same third-class carriage. It is a defining proximity, for they are aspects of what was originally a single complex figure. This use of ‘doubles’ is more sophisticated than in Dostoevsky’s early Hoffmannesque story Goliadkin, but these men are doubles nevertheless. The separation of Muishkin from Rogojin can be followed through successive stages of uncertainty in the drafts for the novel. Initially, Muishkin is an ambiguous, Byronic figure — a sketched for the Stavrogin of [Demons]. In him, (as in the very heart of Dostoevskyan metaphysics) good and evil are indissolubly entangled, and associated with his name we find such phrases as ‘murder,’ ‘rape,’ suicide,’ incest.’ In what is, in effect, a seventh outline for The Idiot, Dostoevsky asks: ‘Who is he? A fearful scoundrel or a mysterious ideal?’ Then the great insight flashes across the page of the notebook: ‘He is a prince.’ And a few lines below, ‘Prince, innocent (with the children)?!’ This would appear decisive. Yet the case of Stavrogin and of Alyosha Karamazov shows that in the language of Dostoevsky this princely title carries rather ambiguous overtones.

Muishkin is a composite figure: we come to discern in him the parts of Christ, of Don Quixote, of Pickwick, and of the saintly fools from the Orthodox tradition. But his relations to Rogojin are unequivocal. Rogojin is Muishkin’s original sin. To the extent that the Prince is human, and thus heir to the Fall, the two men must remain inseparable companions. They enter the novel together and leave it [next few lines cut so as not to give away anything]…Without darkness, how should we apprehend the nature of light?

Also in the railway compartment is a shabbily dressed man of about forty, who looked like a clerk, and possessed a red nose and a very blotchy face.’ Lebedev is one of that host of grotesque yet sharply individualized minor characters with which Dostoevsky surrounds his protagonists. Spawned by the city, they gather at the merest scent of violence of scandal and are both audience and chorus. Lebedev is descended from the pathetic clerk in Gogol’s Cloak and from Mr. Micawber — a personage who profoundly impressed Dostoevsky. Like Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment, Lebyadkin in [Demons], and Captain Snegiryov in The Brothers Karamazov (their very names speak volumes of abasement). Lebedev scurries about, courting reward or degradation at the hands of the rich and the powerful. He and his tribe live like parasites nesting in lions’ manes.

Lebedev’s sole real property is a vast fund of gossip, which he pours out, during the opening moments of The Idiot, in a clattering, jerking rhythm suggesting that of the train. He tells us all we need to know about the Epanchins to whom Muishkin is tenuously related. He elicits from the Prince a hint that the house of the Muishkins is ancient and of high nobility (a muffled allusion, I take it, to Christ’s royal lineage). Lebedev is acquainted with the fact that Rogojin has inherited a fortune. He is bursting with gossip about the beautiful Nastasia Philipovna. He even knows of her association with Totski and of the latter’s friendship with General Epanchin. Exasperated by the little man’s indiscretions, Rogojin reveals his own furious ardour for Nastasia. The speed of the dialogue and its unadorned vehemence carry us through what is, in essence, a rather crude mode of exposition. We are literally jolted into accepting the primary convention of the dramatic — the ‘publication’ through dialogue of the most private knowledge and emotions.

By the time the train arrives in St. Petersburg, Lebedev attaches himself to Rogojin’s followers — a troupe of buffoons, derelicts, and bullies living off the daemonic vitality and largesse of their master. That Lebedev should have nothing better to do and that Muishkin should be homeless and nearly without baggage are traits characteristic of the Dostoevskyan manner. Lionel Trilling remarks that ‘every situation in Dostoevsky, no matter how spiritual, starts with a point of social pride and a certain number of rubles.’ This is misleading so far as it suggests that determining core of economics and stable social relations which we find, notably, in the novels of Balzac. Raskolnikov desperately needs a certain number of rubles, as does Dimitri Karamazov; and it is perfectly true that Rogojin’s fortune plays a vital role in The Idiot. But the money involved is never earned in any clearly definable manner; it does not entail the attenuating routine of a profession or the disciplines of usury upon which Balzac’s financiers expend their powers. Dostoevsky’s characters — even the neediest among them — always have leisure for chaos or an unpremeditated total involvement. They are available day and night; no one need go and ferret them out of a factory or an established business. Above all, there use of money is strangely symbolic and oblique — like that of kings. They burn it or wear it over their hearts.

Homer and Tolstoy circumscribe their personages with a ‘totality of objects,’ with daily pursuits and the enveloping norms of habitual experience. Dostoevsky reduces them to a bare absolute; for in drama the naked confront the naked. ‘From the dramatic point of view,’ writes Lukacs, ‘any character, and psychological trait of character, which are not strictly requisite to the living dynamics of collision, must be judged superfluous.’ This principle governs Dostoevsky’s craft. Muishkin and Rogojin part at the station and set off in different directions. But the ‘dynamics of collision’ will compel them to move in narrowing orbits until they clash and reunite in a final catastrophe.

Muishkin arrives at General Epanchin’s door at ‘about eleven o’clock.’ The recurrent time-references are worth watching; through them the novelist exercises a measure of control over the hallucinatory pace of his narrative. In the waiting-room the Prince — who now begins to reveal the innocence of his wisdom — pours out his soul to an astounded footman. If there is a mood in which comedy moves us to unutterable sadness and yet remains comedy, Dostoevsky in this scene shows himself a master of it. Muishkin has an angel’s immediacy of perception. Before him the furniture of life — reticence, gradualness of acquaintance, the delaying and the obscuring tactics of disclosure — is brushed aside. Whatever the Prince touches turns not to gold but to transparency.

He is conducted to General Epanchin by the latter’s secretary, Gavrila Ardalionovich, or ‘Gania.’ By yet another one of those coincidences inherent in the dramatic method, this day happens to be Natasia’s twenty-fifth birthday and she has promised to announce whether she will accept Gania in marriage. For reasons of her own, the General favours the match. Nastasia has given Gania a large photograph of herself and he has brought it to his patron. The picture — an identical device prepares Catherina Nicolaevna’s entrance in Raw Youth — is one of those physical ‘properties,’ (Muishkin’s cross, Rogojin’s knife) which connect the bewilderingly diverse strands of narrative and give them coherence.

Muishkin gazes at the portrait and finds it ‘wonderfully beautiful.’ He seems to perceive in it more than those who actually know the lady. Interrogated by his host, he recounts what he has heard from Rogojin in the railway compartment earlier that morning. Again, the scaffolding of Dostoevsky’s exposition strikes one as rather obvious and laboured; but the tension of the dialogue and the constant play of dramatic intelligence over material with which our responses are by now fairly heavily involved prevents this impression from gathering force.

Gania’s feelings towards the proposed marriage are ambiguous. He knows that the scheme has been devised by Totski and the General for sinister and even repellent motives. But he hungers after the wealth which will be heaped on Nastasia by her protectors. Shortly after half past twelve Epanchin leaves the room. He has promised to assist Muishkin twoards earning a living and has urged him to take lodgings with Gania’s family. The secretary and the ‘idiot’ are left with the portrait:

‘It’s a proud face too, terribly proud! And I — I can’t say whether she is good and kind or not. Oh, if she be but good! That would make all well!’

‘And would you marry a woman like that now,?’ continued Gania, never taking his excited eyes off the Prince’s face.

‘I cannot marry at all,’ said the latter. ‘I am an invalid.’

‘Would Rogojin marry her, do you think?’

‘Why not? Certainly he would, I should think. He will marry her tomorrow! — marry her tomorrow and murder her in a week!’


Hardly had the Prince uttered the last word when Gania gave such a fearful shudder that the Prince almost cried out.

The whole of The Idiot is latent in that exchange. Muishkin has glimpsed Nastasia’s morbid, self-lacerating pride and is seeking to unriddle the enigma of her beauty. ‘All’ would indeed be well if she were ‘good’ (a word which we must take here in its theological totality); for it is Nastasia’s moral qualities that finally determine the lives of the other characters. Gania has sensed the enormous and unconventional force of the Prince’s sympathies for her; obscurely he makes out that innocent moves with untramelled directness towards radical solutions. The thought of a marriage between Mu7ishkin and Nastasia hovers on the edge of his mind. the Prince has spoken truly in asserting that he cannot marry; but, being only a material truth — a contingency from the world of fact — it need not bind him. What makes Gania shudder is not fear for Nastasia’s life. It is his confrontation with final clearsightedness, with effortless prophecy…”

Thoughts? Personally, I find his argument of Rogozhin as Myshkin’s ‘double’ quite persuasive.

Weekend’s Reading:

Part Four, Chapters Three-Five

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

(And a programming note — I’m estimating we will be done with The Idiot sometime early in the week of April 11th, and starting Demons (you’re going to LOVE this one, guaranteed) on April 18th.)

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