Part Four, Chapter Seven
by Dennis Abrams
Evening at the Epanchins continues. Myshkin learns that one of the guests is related to Pavlishchev, had met him when he was a young boy, “I recognized you at once, even your face. You’ve really changed little externally, though I saw you as a child of about ten or eleven. Something in your features reminded me…” The two elderly cousins. The magnanimity of Pavlishchev. The Epanchin’s horror that Myshkin is becoming talkative, “They were strange, the daughters and their mama: they themselves thought it would be better for the prince to spend the evening in silence; but as soon as they saw him in a corner, completely alone and perfectly content with his lot, they at once became worried.” Myshkin is horrified to learn that at the end of his life, Pavlishchev embraced Catholicism and became a Jesuit.” Myshkin’s harangue against Roman Catholicism: “Catholicism is the same as an unchristian faith…Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism itself…Atheism only preaches a Christ it has slandered and blasphemed, a counter Christ…Roman Catholicism is not even a faith, but decidedly the continuation of the Western Roman empire…Atheism came out of them, out of Roman Catholicism itself!…socialism is also a product of Catholicism and the Catholic essence! It, too, like its brother atheism, came from despair, opposing Catholicism in a moral sense, in order to replace the lost moral force of religion with itself, in order to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind and save it not through Christ but also through violence!…Our Christ, whom we have preserved and they have never known, must shine forth as a response to the West!…Precisely from our boredom…The Russian people, as soon as they reach the shore, as soon as they believe it’s shore, are so glad of it that they immediately go the ultimate pillars…if one of us embraces Catholicism, then he’s bound to become a Jesuit, and of the most underground sort at that, if he becomes an atheist, he is bound to start demanding the eradications of belief in God by force…Why is that, why is there such frenzy all at once?…Because he has found his fatherland, which he had missed here, and he rejoices, he has found the shore, the land, and he rushes to kiss it!…Show him the future renewal of all mankind and its resurrection, perhaps by Russian thought alone, by the Russian God and Christ, and you’ll see what a mighty and righteous, wise and meek giant will rise up before the astonished world, astonished and frightened, because they expect nothing from us but the sword, the sword and violence, because, judging by themselves, they cannot imagine us without barbarism…” The astonished reactions of his listeners to his tirade. During his speech, as had been prophesied, Myshkin carelessly waves his arm and knocks over the Chinese vase, breaking it. Much to his surprise, though, no one is angry, instead he is comforted, “‘Well, it’s no disaster! A man, too, comes to an end, and this was just a clay pot!’ Lizaveta Prokofyevna said loudly. ‘You’re not so frightened, are you, Lev Nikolaich?”…”And you forgive me for everything? For everything besides the vase?” Myshkin begins again, praising the Epanchin’s guests: “I’ve always heard so much more bad than good about you, about the pettiness and exclusiveness of your interests, about your backwardness, your shallow education, your ridiculous habits…I had to see for myself and become personally convinced: it is actually so that this whole upper stratum of the Russian people is good for nothing, has outlived its time, has exhausted its ancient life, and is only capable of dying out, but in a petty envious struggle with people…of the future, hindering them, not noticing that it is dying itself? Nor is there any embarrassment in the fact that we’re ridiculous, isn’t that true? For it’s actually so, we are ridiculous, light-minded, with bad habits, we’re bored, we don’t know hot to look, how to understand, we’re all like that, all, you, and I…Now, you’re not offended when I tell you to your face that you’re ridiculous?…For I am myself a prince of ancient stock, and I am sitting with princes. It is to save us all that I speak, to keep our estate from vanishing for nothing, in the darkness, having realized nothing, squabbling over everything and losing everything. Why vanish and yield our place to others, when we can remain the vanguard and the elders? Let us be the vanguard, then we shall be the elders. Let us become servants, in order to be elders.” Myshkin’s collapses in a fit, “Aglaya quickly rushed to him, had time to receive him in her arms,” and with that the party is over. Belokonsky on Myshkin: “Well, he’s both good and bad; and if you want to know my opinion, he’s more bad. You can see for yourself what sort of man — a sick mam!” Lizaveta decides that Myshkin is not fiancee material, but when Aglaya says that “I’ve never given him any sort of promise, and never in my life considered him my fiance. He’s as much a stranger to me as anyone else,” turns on her, “That I did not expect from you. As a fiancee he’s impossible, I know, and thank God it all worked out this way; but I did not expect such words from you! I thought there would be something else from you. I’d throw out all those people from yesterday and keep him, that’s what kind of man he is!…Here she suddenly stopped, frightened herself at what she had said.” Aglaya has plans.
A riveting scene. Myshkin seemed to be getting at the heart of something…Joseph Frank explains:
“Before the party scene at which he will be presented officially as Aglaya’s betrothed, she tries to have a ‘serious’ talk with him to make sure that he will not commit any faux pas. Nonetheless, under the influence of the pre-epileptic ‘aura,’ the Prince launches into a Slavophil attack on Roman Catholicism as ‘unchristian’ because ‘Roman Catholicism believes that the Church cannot exist on earth without universal political power.’ He is thus denouncing in Roman Catholicism the very confusion of the temporal and the spiritual that, on the personal level, Aglaya wishes him to incarnate. It is no hazard that this speech appears precisely at the point where his personality is shown as most hopelessly incompatible with her requirements.
Myshkin’s disastrous harangue also incorporates other motifs of great importance to Dostoevsky. The Russian need for religious faith is asserted yet again as Myshkin describes the Russian proclivity to be converted to false faiths — such as Roman Catholicism or atheism. ‘Russian atheists and Russian Jesuits are the outcome not only of vanity,’ he declares, ‘but also of…spiritual thirst, a craving for something higher…for a faith in which they have ceased to believe because they have never known it!…And Russians do not merely because atheists, they invariably believe in atheism, as though it were a new religion without noticing that they are putting their faith in a negation.’ Myshkin here utters some of Dostoevsky’s profoundest convictions, which the author knew would be looked on by the majority of the compatriots with the same rather frightened and pitying incredulity as that displayed by the Epanchins’ guests.”
I wonder if I was the only one reading this who thought about the Russian Revolution, and replaced the word “atheism” with “Marxism.”
On the other hand, I was reading an essay “A Narrow Escape into Faith: Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy” by John Given in which he argues that Myshkin is essentially a comic figure, and in writing about his anti-Catholic rant says that “Just as Dostoevsky often puts his most cherished beliefs in the mouths of characters whose worldview discredits these beliefs, here he puts into Myshkin’s mouth views very close to his own knowing that Myshkin will render them utterly ridiculous. The effect is intended. This is Myshkin’s last comic performance, as his smashing of an expensive Chinese vase at the apex of his zeal, just as Aglaya predicted, confirms. When Mme Belokonsky chides him for being ‘ridiculous’ afterward, it is a late reaffirmation of the novel’s comic vision at a crucial point in the plot?
And of course, the fact that Myshkin was pre-seizure while in his rant, and in his pre-epileptic “aura” — does that mean we’re supposed to believe that he was “inspired?”
Part Four, Chapter Eight