Some Final Thoughts on The Idiot
by Dennis Abrams
One of our readers, “Minnikin,” posted this comment from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, regarding Myshkin:
‘Although he has first been represented to us as a kind of Christ-figure, selfless, forgiving and compassionate, we realise with alarm as the book goes on that Myshkin’s lack of self-awareness is increasingly destructive for those around. He turns out to be almost a parody of Christ. The book ends with murder and insanity and no resolution in sight.’
Which leads me to ask this: Let’s assume that Colin Wilson was right said about Crime and Punishment that we’re not really supposed to take the concept of Raskolnikov’s “redemption” seriously, that Dostoevsky didn’t truly believe in it. Can we then accept at least as a possibility that we’re not meant to take Myshkin’s “Christ-like” qualities at face value as well? Perhaps then Myshkin’s failures (Nastasya’s death, Rogozhin’s madness, Aglaya’s rush to bad marriage, Ivolgin’s death, etc.) can be seen not as tragic, but as dark comedy, as the “good man” tries to help but only makes succeeds in making matters worse. Thoughts?
On the other hand, from Joseph Frank:
“The moral profundities of the Prince’s conflict are…distorted and reduced to the level of spiteful tittle-tattle and current cliches over, for example, female emancipation. The melancholy irony of the Prince’s situation is now complete. Like Abraham in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, who alone hears the secret commandment of God to sacrifice his son, the Prince has now become a knight of faith whose obedience to the divine makes his conduct appear to others, more often than not, a sign of madness. Quite appropriately, Lebedev comes to this conclusion and tries to have the Prince committed to a mental institution before the wedding ceremony. Radomsky too shares the same conviction that the Prince ‘was not in his right mind’; but his thoughts come closer to Dostoevsky’s thematic mark: ‘And how can one love two at once? With two different kinds of love? That’s interesting…poor idiot.’
The closing pages show us the Prince helplessly trapped between the conflicting claims of his human nature and his divine task, deprived of all comprehension and almost all sympathy, and overwhelmed by events over which he has no control. His grasp of the real world becomes weaker and weaker, and at the end his personality simply dissolves, abandoning all claims for itself and becoming a function of the needs of others. In the eerie and unforgettable death-watch scene over Nastasya’s corpse, after she has deliberately chosen to submit herself to Rogozhin’s knife, the Prince loses himself completely in the anguish of the half-mad murderer and sinks definitively into the mental darkness that he had long feared would be the price of his visionary illuminations. So ends the odyssey of Dostoevsky’s ‘perfectly beautiful man,’ who had tried to live in the world by the divine light of the apocalyptic transfiguration of mankind into a universal harmony of love.
With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised, Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for those of the Nihilists — the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct. With exemplary honesty, he portrays the moral extremism of his own eschatological ideal, incarnated in the Prince, as being equally incompatible with the normal demands of ordinary social life, and continuing just as much of a disruptive scandal as the appearance of Christ himself among the complacently respectable Pharisees.
The last words, though are given to Aglaya’s mother, Lizaveta Prokofeyevna, the character who has always been the closest in spirit to the Prince but has managed to keep her feet successfully on the ground. Her typically explosive and matronly denunciation of Europe — ‘they can’t make decent bread; in winter they are frozen like mice in a cellar,’ concludes the book with a down-to-earth affirmation of the same faith in Russia that Myshkin had expressed in the messianic eloquence of his ecstatic rhapsodies. ‘We’ve had enough of being carried away by our enthusiasms,’ she complains. ‘It’s high time we grew sensible.’ Whatever the tragedy that Prince Myshkin and those affected by him may have suffered in this world, however, he brings with him the unearthly illumination of a higher one that all feel and respond to; and it is this response to ‘the light shining in the darkness’ that for Dostoevsky provided the only ray of hope for the future.”
Or, on the other hand, this from Wilson makes sense to me,
“…even Myshkin in The Idiot is an Outsider, although in a different sense than anyone we have dealt with so far. He is an imaginative picture of the Chinese ‘man of Tao'”
‘He is modest, like one who is a guest,
He is yielding, like ice that is going to melt,
He is simple, like wood that is unplaned,
He is vacant, like valleys that are hollow,
He is dim, like water that is turbid…’
“This is Myshkin, described by Lao Tze 500 years before Christianity. His secret is simple: he is still a child. Men do evil because they attach importance to the wrong things, because they are ‘grown-up.’ Myshkin has perfect instinctive simplicity. But the criticism we can aim at him has already been developed in this study: you cannot solve the problem of evil by remaining a child. Chaos must be faced; there must be a descent into the dark world. In The Idiot, there are, as for Emil Sinclair, two worlds — the light world of the General’s family (especially Aglaya), ,and the world of nervous tension, guilt, chaos (Nastasia and Rogojin). Myshkin cracks up under the strain between the two; like Vaslav Nijinsky, he goes insane. Clearly, the lesson here is the same as in Demian: childlike innocence is no solution of the Outsider’s problems.”
And finally, a friend of mine in Russia shared this link with me: