Part Four, Chapter Six
by Dennis Abrams
Varvara Ardalionovna was correct: there is an evening gathering planned at the Epanchins at which Myshkin will be introduced into “society,” including Princess Belokonsky, wealthy society friends, and benefactors of the family. The evening has been brought about by Lizaveta, who “did not wish to have any more doubts” about Aglaya’s relationship with Myshkin. If Myshkin can meet with Belokonsky’s approval, “the parents reckoned that ‘society’ would receive Aglaya’s fiance straight from the hands of the all-powerful ‘old woman…” The Epanchin’s concern for Myshkin, and their conclusion that “he, in his simplicity, would never be able to guess that they were so worried for him.” Aglaya speaks to Myshkin alone, and while he tries to assure her that he’ll be OK at the dinner, she attacks his choice of words, telling him to “At least break the Chinese vase in the drawing room! It’s expensive, please break it; it was a gift, mama will lose her mind and cry in front of everybody…it’s so precious to her. Make some gesture, the way you always do, hit it and break it..,” suggests that he’s likely to start discussing a topic…”‘Listen once and for all…if you start talking about something like capital punishment or the economic situation in Russia, or that ‘beauty will save the world’…I’ll certainly be glad and laugh very much, but…I’m warning you ahead of time: don’t let me set eyes on you afterwards! Do you hear? I’m speaking seriously! This time I’m speaking seriously!’ She actually uttered her threat seriously, so that something extraordinary could even be heard in her words and glimpsed in her eyes, something that the prince had never noticed before and that certainly bore no resemblance to a joke.” Myshkin offers to “report myself sick,” angering Aglaya even further. But then, Aglaya’s mood shifts, “And you won’t reproach me for these rude words…sometime…afterwards?” The prince’s fever, his desire to visit Rogozhin or Ippolit. An early morning visit from an almost completely drunk Lebedev. He confesses that he has been sending anonymous letters to Lizaveta keeping her up-to-date on Nastasya Filippovna’s doings. He goes on to report that that very morning, he had intercepted a letter from Aglaya to Ganya that was supposed to have been delivered by his daughter, Vera and tried to give it to Lizaveta — “She gave me back my letter, even flung it at me, unopened…and threw me out on my ear…though only morally, not physically…though almost physically even, just short of it!” Myshkin arranges for Kolya to deliver the letter, ignoring Lebedev’s suggestion that he open it and read it himself. For Myshkin, “One chief and extraordinary fact stood out amidst it all: that Aglaya was in great anxiety, in great indecision, in great torment for some reason (‘from jealousy,’ the prince whispered to himself.) It was also clear, of course, that unkind people were confusing her, and it was all the more strange that she trusted them so much. Of course, some special plans were ripening in that inexperienced bvut hot and proud little head, ruinous plans, perhaps…and like nothing else. The prince was extremely alarmed and in his confusion did not know what to decide.” Ivolgin’s illness, his sick bed. The evening at the Epanchins: “For the first time in his life he saw a small corner of what is known by the terrible name of ‘society’…This first impression of his was even delightful.” Myshkin’s misunderstanding of the Epanchin’s place in that society, and of the feeling of the other guests that they’re doing the Epanchin’s a favor by being there. “He spoke little and then only to answer questions, and finally became quite silent, sat and listened, but was clearly drowning in delight. Little by little something like inspiration prepared itself in him…He began speaking by chance, also in answer to a question, and apparently without any special intention…”
Why do I have a feeling that whatever Myshkin is going to say is not going to be particularly helpful to his cause?
1. You’ve got to respect Lebedev being “almost completely drunk,” at just past nine in the morning. What game is he playing other than that of “who can I kiss up to the most?”
2. I was struck reading this conversation between Myshkin and Aglaya discussing the evening at the Epanchin’s, “‘Yes, I’ve been invited,’ he replied. She was obviously embarrassed to go on. ‘Is it possible to speak with you about anything serious? At least once in your life?’ she suddenly became extremely angry, not knowing why herself and not able to restrain herself.” Does she understand him at all?
And finally, this from Roger Anderson’s essay, “The Idiot and the Subtext of Modern Materialism”:
Myshkin poses Dostoevsky’s challenge to the materialist vision that proceeds from both the capitalist measure of value and new scientific conclusions about man’s place in nature. The Prince is unique in his exemption from knowledge of a reality that oppresses others. His ethereal features of lightness and delicacy give the impression of a dematerialized presence, without physical volume, and beyond ordinary human passions. With his fair hair and innocent, humble eyes he seems stylized, more appropriate to an old icon than to modern St. Petersburg. Myshkin’s dissociation from objective reality is established early by his light foreign clothing, so inappropriate to a Russian winter, his designation as the last of an ancient family, his lack of concern with money, and his long years of unconsciousness while in Switzerland. In all these respects he is a figure of edenic exception to physical and social competition. He has access to a spiritual unity that many characters seek for themselves. They are drawn to his innocence as they struggle in a world ordered by selfish mistrust and alienation. From footman to general, society sees in him a beautiful alternative to the reality they know and wish to escape. Nastas’ia Filippovna and Aglaia see in him their personal rescuer from a vulgar society. Mrs. Epanchin sees him as a child whose naivetй evokes her own. She is drawn to him as she tries to ease him into a worldly behavior she herself denounces. Even Gania’s lingering conscience is pricked by Myshkin; the young capitalist sees his own venality most clearly when with the Prince.
Myshkin’s exemption from the world others know is grounded in his epilepsy. It positions him at the very edge of the time and space others live in. There, ordinary laws of reality give way without notice to visions of a general union of the self with a transcendent wholeness that Lebedev proffers as superior to modernity’s “progress.” Myshkin is an especially clear example of what D. K. Traversi suggests as Dostoevsky’s aspiration to exceed historical time and physical limits in favor of direct revelation of some cosmic order. (20)
But epilepsy is one of Dostoevsky’s famous two-edged swords. Myshkin does have direct access to a spiritual unity that many characters seek for themselves. But on the other hand, he cannot sustain those who are drawn to his special vision. He inspires Nastas’ia and Aglaia to seek a new life as his wife, but he cannot physically be a husband. What is more, he humiliates both by telling each that he loves and is ready to marry her. There is no bridge for these women to his exemption from the “laws” of society and nature. They must live with the full knowledge of their loss while Myshkin is forever a stranger to the experience of such loss. At the same time, Ippolit asks Myshkin to help him die with dignity. The only answer he receives is “pass us by in peace,” and it is his latent spite, not his wish for alternative, that is then released.
Part Four, Chapter Seven