Comedy or tragedy?
by Dennis Abrams
The more I think about the book (and I do keep thinking about it), the more I think of it as a comedy. A dark comedy at least. Which raises, I think two questions: Did Dostoevsky mean it to be a comedy? And if not, does it matter? If a book gets away from its creator…does that lessen the achievement?
From John Givens’ “A Narrow Escape into Faith? Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy”:
“The Idiot is often signaled out as one of Dostoevsky’s most tragic novels. It is his ‘bleakest work,’ according to one critic, ‘a claustrophobic tale of unmitigated tragedy for all its protagonists.’ In his respect it rivals Demons (1871-1872). which, with five murders, two suicides, and two untimely deaths, stands as the ‘darkest of Dostoevsky’s novels.’ What makes The Idiot so grim is not the number of murders or suicides it contains, for there is only one: the murder-suicide of Nastasia Filippovna at the end of the novel. The source of the novel’s pall of gloom is, as Sarah Young argues, that ‘The Idiot ends with fewer hints of spiritual regeneration or the possibility of new life than Dostoevsky’s other novels,’ with ‘no truly redemptive figure to offset its many ambiviliances’ — this despite the fact that its hero, the sickly Prince Myshkin is identified three times by Dostoevsky as a Christ figure in his notebooks for the novel.’ At the same time, Demons and The Idiot contain some of the most humorous scenes and outsized characters Dostoevsky would ever compose. Joseph Frank speaks of scenes in demons of ‘irresistibly funny broad comedy,’ while Gary Rosenshield claims that ‘there are more comic episodes in The Idiot than in any of the other major novels.’
Tragedy and comedy, of course, are not exclusive categories. In fact, the two are related in Dostoevsky’s universe. Petr Bitsilli speaks of Dostoevsky as the author of the ‘novel-tragicomedy,’ and Dostoevsky scholarship has long recognized that ‘the comic element underpins his entire artistic world.’ After all, in his endeavor to depict a ‘positively beautiful man,’ Dostoevsky not only endowed Myshkin with obvious Christ-like qualities, but also identified him as the embodiment of Christian love. This complicates the matter somewhat, for, as Rosenshield argues, ‘if the prince were comic, he could hardly serve as the embodiment of the Christian ideal.’
Yet, as we shall see, the comic and Christian worldviews are hardly incompatible…Having famously described himself in an 1854 letter as ‘a child of doubt and disbelief,’ Dostoevsky in the same letter nevertheless describes Jesus Christ as his ‘symbol of faith.’ But even this symbol of faith is paradoxical. Dostoevsky writes ‘This symbol is very simple and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that — if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.’ Obviously, expressing allegiance to a Christ who might be outside the truth hardly constitutes an Orthodox profession of faith, yet this image captures perfectly the paradox of Dostoevsky’s Christian outlook, both in life and in art. As Kenneth Lantz reminds us, ‘Dostoevsky’s very concept of religious faith was a process of struggle, not a finished and resolved belief.’
‘What a terrible torment to believe has cost me and is still costing me,’ Dostoevsky writes in his 1854 letter, ‘and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it.’ This battle is unmistakably reflected in his novels, which often present as many reasons not to believe as to believe.
This is certainly true of The Idiot, where doubt and disbelief dominate as in no other novel, an outcome noted by critics, who have routinely argued that Myshkin is an unsuccessful Christ who fails to save anyone. He is, in Rowan William’s pithy appraisal, “a ‘good’ person who cannot avoid doing harm.’ In this reading, the novel offers a tragic Christology, one of failure and unbelief. But, as Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us, in Dostoevsky’s universe everything ‘lives on the very border of its opposite…Faith lives on the very border of atheism…and atheism lives on the border of faith.’ If the tragedy of The Idiot is all about death and the absence of redemption, it is possible that the novel’s comic vision points in the opposite direction. Rather than tragic failure, Dostoevsky’s idiot prince may instead hint at a comic Christology of faith and ultimate triumph.”
(Personally, I find William’s appraisal more comic than tragic, but perhaps that’s just me…)
…”The question is, does Dostoevsky use humor, satire, and irony in The Idiot…as devices through which he can simultaneously conceal and reveal the truth according to his convictions? If so, what are those convictions and how does comic discourse reveal them? If tragedy obscures Dostoevsky’s ‘Prince Christ,’ does comedy reveal him?
‘You’re a good fellow, but you’re ridiculous.’ Princess Belokonskaia to Prince Myshkin, pt. 4, chap. 7
If it is true, as one critic argues, that ‘any interpretation of The Idiot has to be first and foremost an interpretation of Prince Myshkin,’ then our reading of the novel will change rather dramatically if we call Prince Myshkin a comic hero. The Russian adjective ‘smeshnoi’ — translated variously as comic, ridiculous, absurd, or silly — is consistently used throughout the novel to describe the prince, by Myshkin himself as well as by others. When the prince acknowledges that in proposing to Nastasia Filippovna he expressed himself ‘very comically’ and was ‘comical’ himself, he may be trying to explain his awkward behavior, but he is also revealing a deeper truth about his character. In a later and more revealing confession about his comicality, Myshkin links his perceived ridiculousness to his idiocy. He states: ‘There are ideas, lofty ideas, of which I must not begin to speak, because I would certainly make everyone laugh…I have no graceful gestures, I have not sense of proportion; my words are inappropriate to my ideas, which devalues those ideas. […] I know (in fact I’m certain) that after twenty years of illness, something is bound to remain so that people can’t help laughing at me. Aglaia promptly reinforces this image when she vows not to marry ‘such a ridiculous/comical man.’ She soon after informs him in a latter that she ‘blushes with shame for his absurd/comical character.’ Other important characters — Ippolit Terent’ev and Princess Belokonskaia — use the same epithet (smeshnoi) to describe Myshkin in Part Four of the novel as does Myshkin himself, thus activating the word in our consciousness as an important interpretive reference late in the novel.”
Discussions of Myshkin’s comicality are most often linked to his affinities with the iurodivyi [holy fool], a role suggested for him by Rogozhin in the novel’s opening chapter. But holy foolishness does not fully address the function of comedy in The Idiot or exhaust the interpretive possibilities of Myshkin’s ‘ridiculousness,’ though it may explain why so little attention has been paid to Myshkin’s comic identity. This dearth of analysis may be due as well to the fact that Myshkin is not the only or even the most obvious comic character in the novel. Other humorous characters — and the book is full of them — tend to displace Myshkin as a comical figure, just as other tragic characters (Nastasia Filippovna, Ippolit, even Rogozhin) supplant him as the central tragic figure. The most conspicuous comic figures in the novel are Lukyan Timofeevich Lebedev and General Ivolgin, the novel’s central buffoons who form a comic duo as unforgettable as they are indispensable to the comedic formula. They are as much linked by their comic recitals, dubious assertions, and humorous gestures as they are by their inferior position in society, a circumstance which seals the strange bond between them. Lebedev and General Ivolgin are joined by other minor clowns, such as the hanger-on Ferdyshchenko, who serves as court jester at Nastasia Filippovna’s name-day party, and the pugilist and one-time feuilletonist Keller, who growls and twirls his mustaches comically at moments of skandal. Lizaveta Prokof’evna Epanchina is the novel’s most enduring comic figure. Her attempts to manage her headstrong girls are as amusing as they are ineffective, and no matter how many times she loses her temper, she is quick to acknowledge her faults and quirks and to restore peace. Most importantly, she has the last word in the novel, thus affirming its hidden comic vision, a subject I will return to…
All of these characters extend the novel’s humorous tenor across the entire comic spectrum, from the broad and burlesque of General Ivolgin’s incredibly tall tales and Lebedev’s comic scheming and mining, to the ‘black comedy, anticipating Beckett,’ of the reading of Ippolit Terent’ev’s ‘Necessary Explanation,’ to the farcial and absurd in the scene with Burdovskii’s crew and the reading of Keller’s newspaper article, and the gently humorous in the scenes with Mme. Epanchina and her girls. Of all the characters, Lebedev’s comicality is the most theatrical. As early as the opening chapter, he cringes, mugs, offers to walk on his hands and dance for Rogozhin and is nearly beaten by him, only to attach himself permanently to his company by exclaiming, ‘If you thrash me, it means you’re not rejecting me.’
Myshkin certainly cannot compete with the likes of Lebedev in terms of comic performance. His comicality is of a different order and stems from his conspicuous incongruities, what Bakhtin calls the ‘constant inappropriateness of his personality,’ announced by his name Lev (lion) Myshkin (from myshkam, ‘little mouse’) and confirmed by his split identity as prince and idiot. Yet is this inappropriateness of personality — what makes Myshkin ‘ludicrous’ or ‘comic’ — that also draws people to him and softens them. In part I, Myshkin charms everyone he meets, even as he stands out as an absurd figure. He arrives in Russia underdressed for the weather in European clothes, takes no offense at Rogozhin’s and Lebedev’s insinuations while on the train to Petersburg, and speaks on equal terms with General Epanchin’s servant about, of all things, capital punishment, a topic he inappropriately returns to at lunch with Madame Epanchina and her daughters, where he even suggests an execution scene as the subject of daughter Adelaida’s next painting. Like the clown who keeps wandering into danger, Myshkin inexplicably finds himself at the center of two family dramas involving Nastasia Filippovna, even — in the best tradition of the clown — taking a blow Gania Ivolgin meant for his sister in a family row. Finally, our idiot prince willingly lets himself be duped out of twenty-five rubles ‘on a carnivalistic tour of Petersburg with the drunken general,’ then crashes Nastasia Filippovna’s name-day party and proposes marriage to her, and all of this within his first twenty-four hours in St. Petersburg. Throughout, Myshkin is laughed at and referred to as an idiot some dozen times. The last comic incongruity of part I is realized when, after some seven attempts to draw attention to a letter his swiss doctor received announcing he had inherited millions from a distant aunt, Myshkin is able finally to produce the document and have its contents verified, moving from impoverished distant relation to most eligible bachelor in a single instant. Indeed, thus transformed from comic prop to magic wand, the letter sets the stage for a decidedly different kind of novel: the comic novel of the marriage plot.”
More to come…