“You saw her face at that moment: tell me, did she suffer less than ‘that’ one, than ‘your’ other one, her rival? How could you see it and allow it? How?”

The Idiot
Part Four, Chapter Nine
by Dennis Abrams

Two weeks later — it is now the beginning of July. The narrator again comments that things are complicated, “And yet we feel that we must limit ourselves to the simple statement of facts, as far as possible without special explanations, and for a very good reason: because we ourselves, in many cases, have difficulty explaining what happened.” During the two weeks since the Aglaya/Nastasia/Myshkin/Rogozhin confrontation, rumors have spread throughout the area: a certain prince had caused a scandal “in an honorable and well-known house,” rejecting the daughter of that house, “already his fiancee, [and] had been enticed away by a well-known tart.” This prince had supposedly broken with all his former connections, planned to marry the tart right there in Pavlosk, “openly, publicly, with head held high.” Had he done it because he had “gone crazy over modern nihilism, which was discovered by Mr. Turgenev?” Had he merely been putting on an act when he met the Epanchins and pretending to fall in love with Aglaya only in order to “proclaim his way of thinking aloud and in front of everyone, to denounce the venerable dignitaries, to reject his fiancee publicly and offensively, and, while resisting the servants who were taking him out, to smash a beautiful Chinese vase.” Had Myshkin actually loved the general’s daughter, but rejected her “solely out of nihilism and for the sake of the imminent scandal, so as not to deny himself the pleasure of marrying a fallen woman before the whole world and thereby proving that in his conviction there were neither fallen nor virtuous women, but only free women?” Was a fallen woman higher than an unfallen woman in his eyes? The wedding date has been set — is Myshkin truly interested? Days and nights spent with Nastasya. No longer received by the Epanchins. After her confrontation with Nastasya, Aglaya fled to Varvara Ardalionovna’s house, to ashamed to go home. Ganya had seized a moment when Aglaya was alone at Varvara’s to speak to her about her love — Aglaya, despite her anguish burst into laughter and asked him “would he, in proof his love, burn his finger right in a candle?” (Myshkin heard this story from Ippolit and “burst into such laughter that he even surprised Ippolit; then he suddenly trembled and dissolved in tears…” Everybody is indignant with Myshkin. Prince Shch., not only looks away but refuses to return his bow. Myshkin gets a visit from Evgeny Pavlovich, “He came in already knowing all the rumors spread among the public and having perhaps even contributed to them himself.” Evgeny reports that Aglaya has been sick and feverish, and the family has left Pavlovsk and gone to Kolmino. Evgeny blames Myshkin for what has happened: “But you ought to have understand how serious and strong the girl’s…attitude towards you was. She didn’t want to share with the other one and you…and you could abandon and break such a treasure!” Evgeny gives free rein to his indignation, telling Myshkin that his first day in Petersburg, was so traumatic, that on hearing about Nastasya, combined with his nerves, his fatigue, his falling sickness, “a day of the most unexpected reality, a day of the three Epanchin beauties…add fatigue, dizziness; add Nastasya Filippovna’s drawing room…what do you think you could have expected of yourself at that moment?…It’s clear that, drunk with rapture, you fell upon the opportunity of proclaiming the magnanimous thought that you…did not find dishonorable a woman who had been disgraced through no fault of her own…But that’s not the point, my dear Prince, the point is whether there was truth here, whether your feeling was genuine, was it natural, or was it only a cerebral rapture?” Was Myshkin showing too much compassion for Nastasya’s suffering? “How far can compassion go, then?…where was your heart then, your ‘Christian heart!’ You saw her face at that moment: tell me, did she suffer less than that one, than your other one, her rival? How could you see it and allow it? How?” Myshkin denies that he “allowed” it. Evgeny tells him he should have run after Aglaya despite Nastasya’s fainting. “Yes…yes, I should have…but she would have died! She would have killed herself, you don’t know her…and…all the same, I’d have told everything to Aglaya Ivanovna afterwards…” Myshkin doesn’t understand why he’s not allowed to see Aglaya, certain that she’ll understand why he did what he did, “She’ll understand that it’s all not that, but something completely, completely different!” Myshkin doesn’t understand why his relationship with Aglaya should change when he marries Nastasya. “I’m simply getting married; she wants it; and so what if I’m getting married, I…Well, it makes no difference!” Myshkin’s fear of Nastasya’s face and his certainty that she’s mad. But even so, “…I love her with all my soul! She’s…a child; now she’s a child, a complete child! Oh, you don’t know anything!” “So you want to love them both?” “Oh, yes, yes!” Myshkin is convinced that only if Aglaya knew everything…”Why can we never know everything about another person when it’s necessary, when the person is to blame!…” Evgeny warns Myshkin that Aglaya will not understand, that “she loved as a woman, as a human being, not as…an abstract spirit. You know, my poor Prince, most likely you never loved either of them!” Evgeny’s thoughts on parting from Myshkin: “…in his opinion, it came out that the prince was slightly out of his mind. And what was the meaning of this face that he was afraid of and that he loved so much! And at the same time he might actually die without Aglaya, so that Aglaya might never know he loved so much!…And what was this about loving two women? With two different loves of some sort? That’s interesting…the poor idiot! And what will become of him now?”

And what WILL become of him now? Is he faced with the dilemma of trying to reconcile two kinds of love: romantic and compassionate? If one of Myshkin’s strongest traits has been his ability to read people’s feelings, is his inability to understand Aglaya’s anguish a bad sign?

From the essay “Myshkin Through a Murky Glass, Guessingly” by Liza Knapp:

“Dostoevsky’s ‘fantastic’ Myshkin, as he fondly called him later, through his epilepsy knew something of what is like for there to be time no more, and also something of what it means to live like an angel of God. He rebels against isolating himself with one wife and having nothing left over for others. The ‘earthly balance,’ or compromise, Dostoevsky described to himself in his diary (and which Dostoevsky himself attempted in his life) eludes Myshkin who, rather, attempts to have it both ways: he returns to Russia in search of family and sets himself up as a potential groom; yet, at the same time, he still wants to love others humbly, without isolating himself and without having ‘nothing left for everyone else.’

For some of his critics, within the novel and without, Myshkin’s whole problem, it would seem, is his inability to choose either Aglaya or Natasaya Filippovna. [Evgeny] speaking for the social order, criticizes Myshkin for acting as bridegroom almost simultaneously to two women. ‘You want to love them both, is that it?’ says [Evgeny]. To which Myshkin replies, “o, yes, yes!’ Once again, just as when he conversed with the servant, Myshkin’s behavior can be interpreted in more than one way; either he’s an ineffectual lover, unwilling or unable to make up his mind; or he’s a modal bigamist, a selfish Don Juan, or worse. Or, looking guessingly through murky glass, perhaps one can see a reflection of Christ and of all the contradictions he represented. And indeed in Myshkin’s leaving Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna in the lurch, there is even some similarity to Jesus’ treatment of Mary Magdalene, whom he allowed to wash and kiss his feet, to leave everything and follow him, only to abandon her a bit caddishly at the last moment, according to some apocryphal or blasphemous interpretations.”

I found myself struck by the narrator’s admission at the beginning of the chapter of his difficulty in explaining what has happened. If the narrator can’t, who can? Knapp has something to say about this:

“In Dostoevsky’s view, new artistic forms has to be created to represent disorder and decay. In order to arrive at these, however, the writer had to ‘guess and…make mistakes.’ In The Idiot, a novel with a Christlike hero, Dostoevsky works out these new forms, new forms that happen to bear some resemblance to the chronicle of Christ’s life: the New Testament.

Much of the end of The Idiot is devoted to the narrator’s throwing up his hands at the task of chronicling the last days of the action. Rather than go in search of the historical events or attempt to create a coherent narrative, the narrator chooses to give us several different reports, based on different accounts, and with various inconsistencies and contradictions. Is this not a bit like the narratives of Jesus’s life?

Many readers, including Tolstoy and Strakhov, have been frustrated and have wanted one harmonious version of what happened in and about Pavlovsk during the White Nights of 1868 and of what happened in and around Jerusalem in 33. But, for Dostoevsky, if you choose Christ or an imitation of Christ, you must be willing to forgo having one ‘true’ version. And you will spend your time ‘looking through a murky glass, guessingly,’ until there is time no more, when you will ‘see face to face.'”

From Joseph Frank, discussing the end of the confrontation scene between Aglaya and Nastasya:

“The Prince thus finds himself helplessly caught in the rivalry of clashing egoisms, and his responds, on the spur of the moment, to the need that is most immediate and most acute. Each woman has a differing but equally powerful claim on his devotion; and his incapacity to make a choice dramatizes the profoundest level of Dostoevsky’s thematic idea. For the Prince is the herald of a Christian love that is nothing if not universal; yet he is also a man, not a supernatural being — a man who has fallen in love with a woman as a creature of flesh and blood. The necessary dichotomy of these two divergent loves inevitably involves him in a tragic imbroglio from which there is no escape, an impasse in which the universal obligation of compassion fatally crosses the human love that is the Prince’s morally blamless form of ‘egoism.’

Three years earlier, sitting at the bier of his first wife, Dostoevsky had stated that Christ had given mankind only one clue to the future nature of the ‘final idea goal’ of humanity — a clue contained in the Gospel of Saint Matthew: ‘They neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in Heaven.’ Even that ‘most sacred possession of man on earth’ the family, is a manifestation of the ego, which prevents the fusion of individuals into an All of universal love. The ‘final ideal goal’ of humanity is thus the total fusion of the individual ego with all in a mystic community literally (and not metaphorically) freed from the constraints and limitations of the flesh; it is the transcendent ‘synthesis’ that Myshkin had glimpsed in the ravishment of the pre-epileptic ‘aura.’ Hence even the most chaste and innocent of earthly love constitutes an abrogation of the universal law of love, whose realization, prefigured by Christ, is man’s ultimate, supernatural goal. The closing pages of The Idiot strikingly present this insoluble conflict between the human and the divine that Dostoevsky felt so acutely and that could achieve its highest pitch of expressiveness and poignancy only as embodies in such a ‘perfectly beautiful man’ as Prince Myshkin.

Up until these concluding chapters, the omniscient narrator has usually been able to describe and explain what the Prince is thinking and feeling. Now, however, the narrator confesses that he is unable to understand Myshkin’s behavior and must confine himself to a ‘bare statement of facts.’ The facts referred to these are these: on the one hand, Myshkin has become the fiance of Nastasya, and teh plans for their wedding are going forward. But, on the other, the Prince still tries to visit Aglaya as if nothing had changed, and he cannot comprehend why the impending marriage should affect his relation to her. ‘It makes no difference that I’m going to marry her,’ he tells Radomsky. ‘That’s nothing, nothing.’ The strain of the Prince’s impossible position has finally caused him to lose all touch with reality. No longer able to distinguish between his vision of universal love and limiting choices of life, he is presented as having passed altogether beyond the bounds of accepted social codes. To express this transgression, Dostoevsky adopts the guise of the baffled narrator, whose bewilderment accentuates the impossibility of measuring the Prince’s comportment by any conventional method.”

The Weekend’s Reading:

Part Four, Chapters 10-12 — through to the end.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.

And…as a preview of what’s to come…

Join Project D in Reading Dostoevsky’s Demons starting Monday, April 18
April 6, 2011 • Read more by Edward Nawotka • No Comments
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Starting on Monday, April 18, at Project D, Publishing Perspectives’ examination of the four major novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, we will begin reading The Possessed, or as it’s called in our preferred translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Demons. Described by Joseph Frank as “probably the greatest novel ever inspired by a revolutionary conspiracy,” it is most likely the work of Dostoevsky that speaks most directly to our concerns in the 21st century.

But it much more than that. Again, in the words of Joseph Frank, “ . . . Demons is not only a novel that deals with some of the profoundest issues of the modern world, and indeed of human life –- it is also a riveting page-turner, a great read, a thriller par excellence that is impossible to put down. Great literature AND a page-turner. You know you’re not going to want to miss this one. We hope you’ll join us for the group read of Demons beginning April 18th.

Join Project D here.

Buy your copy of Demons.

SOMEHOW IT HAS HAPPENED — no one knows quite how, or why — that the incidence of violence and robbery has doubled. Arsonists’ fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor’s mansion is becoming involved in adventures of an increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many years before, in order to pay his master’s gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes—not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. “Strange characters” appear—a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into lawyers, divinity students speak out rudely, poets dress themselves in peasant costumes. The son of the province’s most wealthy landowner has contracted a marriage in jest, it would seem, after a night of drinking — with a woman of the very lowest social order, who is both lame and demented. A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure-seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, “I’m so bored with everything that I can’t afford to be too fussy about entertainment — anything will do as long as it’s amusing.” It seems that a number of people in the area have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order; a Trickster-Demon springs out of nowhere and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Euripides’ The Bacchae, wants only to sow disruption, madness, and death. “We shall proclaim destruction,” Peter Verkhovensky tells his idol Stavrogin, “because — because . . . the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.” Joyce Carol Oates, “Tragic Rites in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.”

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