More thoughts on The Idiot
by Dennis Abrams
1. One essay I quoted early on in our reading tried to make the case that The Idiot is terrific in the reading, not so much when you think about it afterward. At this stage, one week after having finished it, I have to disagree. For me, it’s becoming more interesting the more I think about it — as I circle around scenes in my mind, scenes that may have been confusing or seemingly non-essential in the initial reading shift and change the more I contemplate it. Meanings and connections become more complex. Am I the only one having that experience?
2. And the more I think about it, the funnier, or the more comic, it seems. And while I’m not convinced that Myshkin is not supposed to be appear as a comic failure, Givens’ essay seems to me to make a strong case that his failure is in actuality a Christ-like triumph.
Further excerpts from John Givens’ essay, “A Narrow Escape into Faith? Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy”:
“The classic formula for the so-called New Comedy is as familiar as any Shakespeare play or Jane Austen novel. A couple in love seeks to marry but is opposed by other characters with greater power, wealth, or social position until, late in the story, a plot device reverses the unjust situation and a new comic society forms around the freshly united couple in the establishment of a more sensible order of things. Blocking characters occupy much of the plot interest and, in the ironic or realistic comic tradition, can even triumph, crushing the hero in frustration or despair. Misalliances are common as, through magic or mischief, couples are wrongly aligned, only to right themselves by comedy’s end, or, as in the darker comedies of Chekhov, to remain permanently estranged.
In Dostoevsky’s novel, the latter outcome obtains. Blocking characters triumph, discord and disunity reign, and none of the romantic couples unite by novel’s end, as Myshkin’s inheritance fails to serve as the plot device ensuring a happy ending. Quite the contrary ensues, as no romantic partnering survives. When the novel opens, Gania Ivolgin is betrothed to Nastasia Filippovna, but has designs on Aglaia instead. Aglaia rejects Gania’s advances and appears to be ready to marry Myshkin. It turns out, however, that she loves Myshkin only as the embodiment of an ideal, and when that fails, she ends up marrying a shady Pole instead whose nobility of soul proves too great for her impressionable character to resist. For his part, Myshkin falls in love with Aglaia and sincerely wants to marry her, but instead honors his earlier marriage proposal to Nastasia Filippovna after a dramatic confrontation between her and Aglaia. Nastasia Filippovna in turns abandons Myshkin at the alter for Rogozhin, but rather than marrying her as he has wanted throughout the novel, Rogozhin murders her in bed, while the bridal dress she donned for Myshkin lies discarded on the floor. Instead of a wedding and a happy ending, then, we have, as Richard Pearce points out, ‘a travesty on the marriage ritual that ends traditional comedy.’
Pearce argues that this travesty is the ‘ultimate subversion, for it turns comedy against itself.’ As such, it is an affirmation of the novel as tragedy. But is the comic impulse in the novel actually so neatly defeated by its tragic conclusion? Or do the novel’s comic elements — and indeed, its passing similarity to the New Comedy itself — argue for a more complex and contradictory outcome? These are critical questions, especially as we seek to piece together the various comic tropes in the novel in support of an underlying comic Christology. One thing is certain: the link between a ridiculous central protagonist and Christian themes was on the writer’s mind as he composed the work, as this passage from a letter Dostoevsky wrote to his niece, Sof’ia Ivanova, suggests.
‘The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful person…I’ll just mention that of the beautiful people in Christian literature Don Quixote stands as the most complete. But he is only beautiful because he’s ridiculous (smeshon) at the same time. Dicken’s Pickwick…is also ridiculous, and effective in fact because of that. Compassion appears for the beautiful that is mocked and does not know its own value, and therefore, sympathy appears in the reader too. That arousal of compassion is in fact the secret of humor.’
,,,Yet, as we have seen, Myshkin is referred to as a comical or ridiculous man throughout the novel, even as characters (ironically or otherwise) hail him as one ‘sent from God.’ His time in Russia is marked by his involvement in one comic spectacle after another. Moreover, he is constantly surrounded by characters like Lebedev and General Ivolgin whose frequent comedic performances in his presence inscribe him into mini-comic narratives throughout the novel. More importantly, Dostoevsky also significantly alludes to his hero’s similarity to Cervantes’s comic knight Don Quixote on two separate occasions in part 2: first when Aglaia places a note from Myshkin into a volume of Don Quixote for safe keeping (laughing afterward at the appropriateness of her choice of books), and later when Pushkin’s poem ‘The Poor Knight’ is discussed and Quixote’s name is linked to the poem and, through the poem, to Myshkin himself. In thus associating his hero with Quixote, Dostoevsky not only affirms Myshkin’s comic identity but also hints at a possible link between his comicality and a Christian worldview like that of Don Quixote, whose hallmark is ‘faith, compassion, suffering, a tendency toward humiliation, foolishness, and being childlike.’
…”Myshkin may follow Christ, but he does so, like Quixote, first and foremost as a ‘ridiculous man.'”
“If, as Dostoevsky notes in his letter to his niece, the most beautiful heroes in Christian literature are comic, it is because the comic and Christian worldview are so compatible. There is ‘a special affinity between later christian themes of crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and paradise and kindred themes of comic art — themselves derived from earlier Easter rites. Indeed, Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection are but ‘the Christian delineation of the full comic arc in the ancient Greek rituals. The Christian imagination and the comic worldview meet on the frontier between the sacred and the profane, where the distance between what is holy and what is worldly is lessend insomuch as comedy brings the holy down to earth while Christ’s incarnation reveals the earth as a holy place. Or, to put it another way, ‘the clown and fool profane holy things so that the holiness of profane things might be revealed.’…
“For Ippolit…Myshkin’s materialism is incomprehensible: what is there in the material world that is not subject to corruption and decay? How will beauty save the world? Yet the novel is built on such paradoxes, and with good reason. As Scott reminds us, ‘the great difference between the tragic man and the comic man’ has to do with ‘their different ways of dealing with the burden of human finitidue. Nothing wounds the tragic man (in this case Ippolit) more than to be reminded that ‘life is a conditioned thing’ over which ‘pure intellect or pure will’ cannot ultimately triumph. Our comic man Myshkin, however, has no sense of being under any cruel condemnation, nor does he have any sense of desperate entrapment within a prison.’ When Ippolit asks Myshkin what would be the most virtuous way for him to die, Myshkin does not answer with platitudes about the other world. On the contrary, like any materialist, he answers in the context of this one: ‘Pass us by and forgive us our happiness.’ Yet, like any Christian, he is also affirming the goodness of the created world in this statement: the beauty and joy of life always outweigh the pain of death. Myshkin thus confirms comedy’s ‘very’ realized eschatology. ‘Paradise’ is to be experienced now in the turbulence of life. Indeed, Prince Shch. accuses Myshkin of just that: trying to establish paradise on earth.”
Given that, and given then a choice between Ippolit and Myshkin, I have to say I’m more of a “comic hero” than a “tragic” one — at least based on my view of life on earth. Thoughts?
“This paradisic impulse is at the heart of our comic hero and his actions throughout the narrative, but it is constantly misunderstood, such as when Myshkin satisfied dubious and even nonexistent claims on his distant relative’s estate from all sorts of riff-raff just because he feels sorry for them, or when Myshkin assures Radomskii at novel’s end that all would be well if only they would let him love both Aglaia Epanchina and Nastasia Filippovna. ‘Do come to your senses!’ Radomskii replied, confirming what we already know: such thinking as Myshkin’s is not of this, but the other world — that of comedy. Indeed, one of the central functions of comedy is its intimation of a better world just outside our grasp but tantalizingly close by, which the forces of the ‘real,’ fallen world constantly oppose. Myshkin’s function as a comic character helps establish this contrast of worlds. The comedic performances of the novel’s over clowns (Lebedev and Ivolgin) enact the real world’s absurdity: Myshkin’s ‘ridiculousness,’ on the other hand, is a living sign of the better world order of the novel’s Christian comic vision.”
“If the face of the dead Christ in Holbein’s painting is central to the novel and its thematic concerns, then two other faces must also be mentioned: that of Nastasia Filippovna, which haunts Myshkin throughout the novel, and that of Myshkin himself, unseeing and bereft of reason at the end of the novel, the face of the ‘idiot’ announced in the book’s title. In fact, the face of the dead Christ in Holbein’s painting points to the function of the other two faces. They, too, are tests of faith, because both Myshkin and Nastasia Filippovna, in their names and their fates, are tied to the novel’s Christological themes. Moreover, as embodiments of the novel’s comic and tragic plot trajectories respectively, they bring into conflict and ultimate resolution the themes at the heart of our analysis.
When Myshkin first glimpses Nastasia Filippovna in a photograph his first day in St Petersburg, he remarks: ‘An astonishing face!…I do hope she’s good! It would redeem everything!’ When he views the photo again four chapters later, he kisses it reverently, thus confirming its iconic qualities. By the end of the novel, however, he tells Radomskii that he can no longer bear to look at Nastasia Filippovna’s face. Radomskii later ponders, ‘What did that face mean, that he was so much afraid of, and yet so loves?’ As it turns out, ‘that face belongs to a woman morbidly bent on her own destruction. Myshkin is right to be afraid of it, for Nastasia Filippovna Barashkova, both in her name and her actions, is key to Myshkin’s own fateful imitatio Christi. Like Myshkin’s her name alludes to the central tenets of Christian belief. If the name Lev Myshkin alludes to Christ Christ as the meek ‘Lion of Judah’ who can open the seven seals in Revelation 5:5, the book of the New Testament so important in the novel, then Christ as the slain lamb who is resurrected is conspicuously inscribed in the name Nastasia (from the Greek anastatis, ‘resurrection’) Barashkova (from the Russian barashek, ‘lamb), as commentators have pointed out. On the surface, the Christological allusion inscribed in her name is ironic. While her death at the hands of Rogozhin activates the meaning of sacrificial lamb hinted at in her last name, it also pointedly negates the resurrection hidden in her first name. Indeed, Rogozhin wraps Nastasia Filippovna’s body in oil cloth and surrounds it with four opened bottles of antiseptic precisely to mask the smell of her already decaying body. As in the painting of the Holbein Christ, it appears there can be no resurrection here.
Yet Nastasia Filippovna as a Christ figure, or in theological parlance, a ‘type’ of Christ, provides a clue to deciphering the novel’s macabre climactic scene, which, as critics have noted, eerily evokes the Holbein painting. LIke Holbein’s dead Christ, Nastasia Filippovana’s murdered body lies in a state of decay, while Rogozhin and Myshkin hold vigil a few feet away. Here, ‘that face‘ whose meaning we have been divining invites comparison with the face of the Holbein Christ described by Ippolit Terent’ev. Now shrouded by oilcloth, it is a blank space on which we may inscribe the features of the dead Christ, the ‘face of a person just now taken down from the cross,’ still preserving ‘a great deal of the warmth of life’ but not ‘spared in the slightest.’ Like Christ in the Holbein painting, Nastasia Filippovna is the very image of suffering and sacrifice. Whereas Christ offers himself as an innocent sacrifice for the sins of all men, Nastasia Filippovna’s death can be viewed as an innocent sacrifice for the sin of one man: Totskii, who molested her when she was a teenager. The problem, of course, is that ultimately Nastasia Filippovna herself rejects this narrative. Throughout the novel, Nastasia Filippovna seeks to punish herself for her past with Totsky, but in seeking out Rogozhin’s knife, she is also seeking to hurt others. Unlike Christ’s sacrifice, her death is a lashing out, a punishment aimed at Totskii as much as herself. Rather than innocent sacrifice, then, her death is a classic example of Dostoevskian laceration: a self-inflicted wound meant to wound others.
Not so, Myshkin’s sacrifice. The ‘complete destruction of the reasoning facilities’ that Dr. Schneider of the Swiss Clinic diagnoses as a result of Myshkin’s vigil with Rogozhin over Nastasia Filippovna’s body is at once the medical description of his relapse into idiocy as well as a sign of the imitatio Christi that Nastasia Filippovna’s death makes possible. If Nastasia Filippovna is ultimately revealed as a failed Christ figure, her death nevertheless serves to point us back to the novel’s true Christ figure, whose transformation from ridiculous man to idiot precisely mirrors the Christ-like complete and unconditional destruction of the self in service of others that Dostoevsky describes in his famous notebook entry written on Holy Thursday, 1864, upon the death of his first wife: ‘To love a person, as oneself according to Christ’s commandment, is impossible. the law of the self is binding on earth. The I stands in the way. Only Christ was able to, but Christ was the eternal ideal of ages…The highest use to which man could put his self and the full development of his I is to destroy that I, to give it away in its entirety to each and everyone, completely and unconditionally.’ Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy appears to be just such a relinquishment of self for the sake of others. Though it costs him his sanity, Myshkin follows Christ’s commandment, loving Rogozhin as he would himself, staying with him and comforting him through the night. As Dostoevsky wrote in his notebooks to the novel, ‘Compassion [is] the whole of Christianity.’ Idiocy is thus both the price Myshkin pays for this compassion and a sign to others of his imitation of Christ.”
Tomorrow: Concluding thoughts on The Idiot (why DID Dostoevsky give the last word to Lizaveta?) and some introductory thoughts on Demons