A Failed Novel? Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" - "Lectures on Dostoyevsky" by Joseph Frank
In this first lecture on The Idiot by Slavic scholar Joseph Frank provides clarity on some fundamental themes seen throughout the novel. Mainly, Frank focuses on the dichotomy between ideology and practice, the ideal and the individual, the body and the soul, one's personal life and the Kingdom of God, the ego and the other, etc. Christianity is the call by God to leave the self in service of the other, to deny oneself and take up one's cross. Yet, the demands of everyday life secular society act as a stumbling block to this endeavor. The Idiot is an exploration of the possibility of an authentic disciple of Jesus in a fallen world. This drama is seen within the main character, Prince Myshkin.
When I read The Idiot I was struck by the failure of Myshkin as a character. He was supposed to be a Christ-life figure in the contemporary world, yet he seems plagued by mistakes, setbacks, and moral dilemmas. In my mind I wondered if The Idiot was a failed attempt by Dostoyevsky. And in a certain sense, Joseph Frank admits that he does fail in reconciling this fundamental problem of Christian discipleship in Prince Myshkin. Yet, Frank also makes the point that Dostoyevsky understood that the ideal was only able to be lived out by Jesus Christ, himself, as the incarnation of God as man. The rest of us must try to strive after Christ, but none of us will ever fully overcome this struggle between seeking the good for oneself and living a life totally for others. In that way, I think that The Idiot is a success. Being a Christian in today's world, trying to live by universal moral truths, imitating Christ in all things ... these are endeavors that will make us "the idiot" of our time. It will appear as foolishness and a stumbling block, as St. Paul says. And yet, this is what we are called to do as disciples. In our one on one encounters with people, hopefully they will have that experience of Christ in us and be transformed because of it, even if society as a whole is not radically transformed into some utopia.
Joseph Frank begins his chapter on Dostoyevsky's The Idiot by making the point that, for many, this is Dostoyevsky's most mysterious novel in regards to its meaning. Clearly, there are religious undertones. Myshkin is an attempt at a Christ-like figure in the contemporary world at the time. Likewise, in the character of Prince Myshkin we can see autobiographical elements related to Dostoyevsky's life. 1 This is most clearly seen in the backstory of Myshkin, who suffers from epilepsy and yet finds in these epileptic fits moments of clairvoyance into the religious and metaphysical nature of the universe. For Myshkin, though, this depth of understanding and faith often hinders him in his daily life when he must interact within the worldly decorum of society.
Disconnect Between the Ideal and Reality
The Idiot breaks from the mold of Crime and Punishment, [The Possessed,] and Notes from Underground in that it is not about the radical atheist ideas that were transforming the Orthodox Russia. 2 Yet there is a still a connection in that all of them are about the interaction of ideology, or ideas, with the practicality of real life and the functions of society. "This framework is based on attempting to accommodate some general absolute value or ideal to the real world of human passion and human feeling and revealing its limitations in this way. ... And so what remains is the underlying pattern of the clash between the real and the ideal." The Idiot, though, isn't considering atheist or nihilist ideologies, but the beliefs of Christianity. Could Christ live in today's society? "For, if Dostoyevsky here creates a character who embodies the highest ideals of Christ (as he conceives them), then he also shows the incompatibility of these ideals with a life as lived in the world." Just as Raskolnikov failed in living out his nihilism, Myshkin, interestingly, fails in successfully being a fully Christ-figure in the secular world. 3 He seeks to solve the world's problems and to bring peace and happiness, yet he ultimately fails at this.
Still, though, "love" can be seen in the work in different lights in the different characters. You have the selfish love of passion seen through Rogozhin's desire to take Natashya for his own. You can another form of selfish love reflected in Ganya, who in vanity of his image seeks out love. And finally, there is the Christian love of Myshkin which seeks the good of the other over the good of oneself. [He is willing to forgive Rogozhin, to become brother's with him, to look past Natashya's faults, to becomes friends with Ganya, in so many words, to find the best in everyone.] 4
The Possibility of Authentic Christianity
In Dostoyevsky's attempt to create a Christ-like figure is of course always going to be limited compared to the divine reality of the Incarnation of Christ. Yet, he tries to avoid the pitfalls of other authors attempting the same feat. Don Quixote, for example, was too absurd in his attempt to live out the ideal in the real world. While, on the other hand, Dickens' Pickwick, was too passive. 5 Nor is Myshkin a victim of injustice like Hugo's Jean Valjean. Rather, Myshkin acts by being a presence in the world. He brings Christ's presence by being like him, thus causing a reaction in the other characters one way or another. "The miracle is not in anything that Myshkin does but in the mere fact of his presence as a spiritual force. It is what this spiritual force does to other people that precipitates the action of the book. ... someone who would leave an indelible trace wherever and with whomever he came in contact." It was in the personal interactions that Christ was embodied through Myshkin, not in some type of transformation of social structures or cure-all of societies' ills. 6 A main theme seen in Dostoyevsky's work is that Christianity is not state or societal power, but spiritual transformation. "By this time his Christianity had become that of the humiliated and suffering Christ, come to be sacrificed in this world to bring about its redemption and salvation but in no way to become its sovereign." 7 The combination of religion with state power was the mistake of the Roman Catholic Church in Dostoyevsky's mind. 8
Rather, Christianity is about the crossing of that mysterious barrier between life and death. What will the next life hold? What will my judgment before God be like? It is also about the ideal which Christ sets forth for his followers, an ideal that contradicts the workings of the world. 9 It is contradictory because to be like Christ is to love others more than oneself, to transcend the ego and to give oneself away for the good of others. "'The highest use which one can make of his individuality, of the full development of the ego, is to seemingly annihilate the ego, to give it wholly to each and everyone whole-heartedly and selflessly. And this is the greatest happiness.' Dostoyevsky claims this merging of 'the ego and the all' 'the law of humanism,' and 'the paradise of Christ.' All history, according to him, whether of humanity as a whole or of each man separately, is 'only the struggle and striving to attain this goal.'" 10 It is towards this goal that humanity and history should be marching. And so all humans are in their own journey toward this ideal as well in their lives. Myshkin, as good of a soul as he was, still failed in attaining the ideal in reality. It will only be attained in the life to come. 11
In the words of Dostoyevsky: "Mankind strives towards an ideal opposed to his nature. When a man has not fulfilled the law of striving towards the ideal, that is, has not through love sacrificed himself to people or to another person, he suffers and call this state a sin. And so, man must unceasingly experience a suffering which is compensated by the heavenly joy of fulfilling the Law, that is, by sacrifice." 12 And here the struggle between the self and the service of the Kingdom of God, the law of God, the love of Christ, takes place in every man. This drama is played out in Myshkin, even though he is a pure soul. 13 Here is reflected the age old struggle between the egoism of the desires of the body, and the call to transcend selfish desires in order to live by means of the soul, to love as God does. 14
1 - Frank, Joseph. Lectures on Dostoyevsky. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020) Pg. 125.
2 - 126
3 - 127
4 - 128
5 - 129
6 - 130
7 - 131
8 - 132
9 - 133
10 - 134
11 - 135
12 - 136
13 - 137
14 - 139