"A Stumbling Block to the Jews and Foolishness to Gentiles" - Some Personal Thoughts on Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot"
Here are some personal thoughts I had after reading The Idiot. If you're interested in more commentary on the book, check out the posts that I did looking at Dostoyevsky scholar Joseph Frank's lectures on The Idiot here and here.
The Basics of the Storyline
Here is the most brief of outlines of the book for those who maybe haven't read it yet. Prince Myshkin is the main character. He is well educated, wealthy, but has suffered from epileptic fits which have severely impaired him. He has gotten treatment for them and is heading home to Russia. He is deeply religious, and right before his epileptic fits, he has this insight into the nature of the universe and the love of God.
The drama of the book centers on who Myshkin meets when he returns to Petersburg, Nastasya Filipovna. She was orphaned when she was little when her parents died in an accident. She was subsequently taken in by an older, rich, bachelor. This man gave her the best education and material prosperity she could ask for. Sadly, he also seduced her and raped her multiple times during her teenage years. This is something that she never was able to overcome and cultivated a deep resentment towards her guardian. This wound manifests itself in a type of self-hatred, a detachment from the cares of life, an impulsiveness, and a weird sort of empathy and charity for the wounds of others.
Totsky, her guardian, wants to marry her off to a young man, Ganya, who has status and wealth as well. It is going to be a love-less marriage, and so Nastasya rebels. It is in this intrigue that Myshkin is introduced to her, as well as another figure, Rogozhin. Myshkin has a deep pity and compassion for Nastasya, and wants to marry her out of a pity and pure type of love, seeing her brokenness. Nastasya is somewhat drawn to the prince, but at the same time will not allow herself to marry the prince out of a type of self-hatred for her past sin. Rogozhin, on the other hand, is a type of rogue. He makes it clear that he wants to possess Nastasya for her beauty. He is impulsive and passionate. And so Nastasya is drawn between the men, running away and disappearing for months at a time, as she bounces between the lives of these two men. (Also, at one point Myshkin and Rogozhin make peace, they offer each other crucifixes representing becoming brothers. Not long after, though, Rogozhin actually tries to kill Myshkin out of jealousy. Their feud over Nastasya will last throughout the book.)
In the interim, Rogozhin passionately pursues her. Myshkin, on the other hand, meets another love interest, Aglaia. She is a young woman from a well-to-do family. Educated and raised on European values. She is attracted to Myshkin in that she sees an image of a European knight pursuing a noble cause. On the other hand, she is somewhat repulsed by Myshkin for his lack of social tact and "idiocy" induced by his epilepsy. And so a pattern emerges in the novel. Nastasya is drawn between Myshkin and Rogozhin, Myshkin is drawn between Nastasya and Aglaia, Aglaia is drawn between the prince and other suitors. Ultimately the novel culminates in Myshkin almost marrying both women at different times, yet both end up falling through.
In actuality, the novel ends in tragedy for everyone. Myshkin marries no one. Rogozhin, in a final lustful attempt to obtain Nastasya, ends up killing her so that he can at least own her body in death. Myshkin is drawn into Rogozhin's disturbing affair, and when he sees Nastasya's dead body falls back in the epileptic fits that he suffered from originally. Aglaia tries to find that true European knight and ends up being swindled by a Polish "knight," who is in actuality lying to her about his background. Ultimately, Myshkin is reduced to idiocy, Rogozhin to a murdered, Nastasya to her self-destruction, and Aglaia to her failed fantasy.
The Outcast and the Sinner
Throughout the novel we see that Myshkin loves the outcast and the sinner. Precisely in this love he extends to them he converts them with his goodness, and they end up aiding Myshkin in some way later on. Those who are not outcasts and able to "participate" in the life of society are the same ones that do not appreciate it. They reject Myshkin, and are ashamed to be near them. In their lives of intrigue, pleasure, and money they miss the good qualities in Myshkin that would actually be a blessing to them. He has a pure heart and the qualities of a good husband, but his idiocy causes them to reject him. Likewise to Myshkin, Ippolit is similar. He actually appreciates life and wants to live a full life, yet he cannot because he is sick and going to die soon.
This is a common theme that I have seen in the religious world. When everything is going well, when we are successful, when others look up to us in a worldly way, we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. Why would I need God if I have everything in my life under control? And so there is a common pattern that I see, that those who allow God into their life are often those who understand their weakness and their need for him. Often this happens when someone hits a type of rock-bottom experience, the death of a loved one, the crushing weight of addiction, a confrontation with one's own mortality, etc. Myshkin and Ippolit are both in this category, having confronted their morality with their sicknesses, they understand life in a deeper sense. Now, they take that in two different directions. Myshkin takes it as a impetus to grow closer to God and to help others. Ippolit, on the other hand, becomes bitter and resentful against the very fabric of reality in his situation of injustice.
Faith ... and Reason?
Myshkin is in a certain sense a Christ figure, but often he’s so idealistic that he doesn’t act properly towards evil people, and gets taken advantage of or drawn into evil that was unnecessary for him to be a part of. This way of presenting a Christian disciple as confounding, or confounded by the world, may be a reflection of the lack of a philosophical tradition in Russian Christianity (and a lack of magisterium). Dostoyevsky is very harsh of Roman Catholicism because of its philosophical rigor and alignment of the Pope as a leader. He thinks that the union of Catholicism with the Roman Empire was a grave mistake. Likewise, he views the work of the Jesuits as something that strips the mystery from the faith, reducing it to something of man's intellect. And so without that Roman tradition, the Russian Christ was conceived of in a different manner. Again, this is seen in the fact that Myshkin is an expression of Dostoyevsky’s view that a purely good, Christ-like, man has no place in Russia. He will be taken advantage of and drawn into evil.
Here is an interesting passage on Roman Catholicism expressed through Myshkin's mouth.
"The prince was listening open-mouthed, and still in a condition of excited agitation. The old man was evidently interested in him, and anxious to study him more closely. "Pavlicheff was a man of bright intellect and a good Christian, a sincere Christian," said the prince, suddenly. "How could he possibly embrace a faith which is unchristian? Roman Catholicism is, so to speak, simply the same thing as unchristianity," he added with flashing eyes, which seemed to take in everybody in the room. "Come, that's a little too strong, isn't it?" murmured the old man, glancing at General Epanchin in surprise. "How do you make out that the Roman Catholic religion is unchristian? What is it, then?" asked Ivan Petrovitch, turning to the prince. "It is not a Christian religion, in the first place," said the latter, in extreme agitation, quite out of proportion to the necessity of the moment. "And in the second place, Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes—that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ—it preaches Anti-Christ—I assure you, I swear it! This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. He cries 'non possumus!' In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire, and everything is subordinated to this idea—beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling;—they have played fast and loose with the most sacred and sincere feelings of men;—they have exchanged everything—everything for money, for base earthly power! And is this not the teaching of Anti-Christ? How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? Atheism is the child of Roman Catholicism—it proceeded from these Romans themselves, though perhaps they would not believe it. It grew and fattened on hatred of its parents; it is the progeny of their lies and spiritual feebleness. Atheism! In our country it is only among the upper classes that you find unbelievers; men who have lost the root or spirit of their faith; but abroad whole masses of the people are beginning to profess unbelief—at first because of the darkness and lies by which they were surrounded; but now out of fanaticism, out of loathing for the Church and Christianity!" The prince paused to get breath. He had spoken with extraordinary rapidity, and was very pale. All present interchanged glances, but at last the old dignitary burst out laughing frankly. Prince N. took out his eye-glass to have a good look at the speaker. The German poet came out of his corner and crept nearer to the table, with a spiteful smile. "You exaggerate the matter very much," said Ivan Petrovitch, with rather a bored air. "There are, in the foreign Churches, many representatives of their faith who are worthy of respect and esteem." "Oh, but I did not speak of individual representatives. I was merely talking about Roman Catholicism, and its essence—of Rome itself. A Church can never entirely disappear; I never hinted at that!" "Agreed that all this may be true; but we need not discuss a subject which belongs to the domain of theology." "Oh, no; oh, no! Not to theology alone, I assure you! Why, Socialism is the progeny of Romanism and of the Romanistic spirit. It and its brother Atheism proceed from Despair in opposition to Catholicism. It seeks to replace in itself the moral power of religion, in order to appease the spiritual thirst of parched humanity and save it; not by Christ, but by force. 'Don't dare to believe in God, don't dare to possess any individuality, any property! Fraternité ou la Mort; two million heads. 'By their works ye shall know them'—we are told. And we must not suppose that all this is harmless and without danger to ourselves. Oh, no; we must resist, and quickly, quickly! We must let out Christ shine forth upon the Western nations, our Christ whom we have preserved intact, and whom they have never known. Not as slaves, allowing ourselves to be caught by the hooks of the Jesuits, but carrying our Russian civilization to them, we must stand before them, not letting it be said among us that their preaching is 'skilful,' as someone expressed it just now."
"But excuse me, excuse me;" cried Ivan Petrovitch considerably disturbed, and looking around uneasily. "Your ideas are, of course, most praiseworthy, and in the highest degree patriotic; but you exaggerate the matter terribly. It would be better if we dropped the subject." "No, sir, I do not exaggerate, I understate the matter, if anything, undoubtedly understate it; simply because I cannot express myself as I should like, but—" "Allow me!" The prince was silent. He sat straight up in his chair and gazed fervently at Ivan Petrovitch. "It seems to me that you have been too painfully impressed by the news of what happened to your good benefactor," said the old dignitary, kindly, and with the utmost calmness of demeanour. "You are excitable, perhaps as the result of your solitary life. If you would make up your mind to live more among your fellows in society, I trust, I am sure, that the world would be glad to welcome you, as a remarkable young man; and you would soon find yourself able to look at things more calmly. You would see that all these things are much simpler than you think; and, besides, these rare cases come about, in my opinion, from ennui and from satiety." "Exactly, exactly! That is a true thought!" cried the prince. "From ennui, from our ennui but not from satiety! Oh, no, you are wrong there! Say from thirst if you like; the thirst of fever! And please do not suppose that this is so small a matter that we may have a laugh at it and dismiss it; we must be able to foresee our disasters and arm against them. We Russians no sooner arrive at the brink of the water, and realize that we are really at the brink, than we are so delighted with the outlook that in we plunge and swim to the farthest point we can see. Why is this? You say you are surprised at Pavlicheff's action; you ascribe it to madness, to kindness of heart, and what not, but it is not so. "Our Russian intensity not only astonishes ourselves; all Europe wonders at our conduct in such cases!
For, if one of us goes over to Roman Catholicism, he is sure to become a Jesuit at once, and a rabid one into the bargain. If one of us becomes an Atheist, he must needs begin to insist on the prohibition of faith in God by force, that is, by the sword. Why is this? Why does he then exceed all bounds at once? Because he has found land at last, the fatherland that he sought in vain before; and, because his soul is rejoiced to find it, he throws himself upon it and kisses it! Oh, it is not from vanity alone, it is not from feelings of vanity that Russians become Atheists and Jesuits! But from spiritual thirst, from anguish of longing for higher things, for dry firm land, for foothold on a fatherland which they never believed in because they never knew it. It is easier for a Russian to become an Atheist, than for any other nationality in the world. And not only does a Russian 'become an Atheist,' but he actually believes in Atheism, just as though he had found a new faith, not perceiving that he has pinned his faith to a negation. Such is our anguish of thirst! 'Whoso has no country has no God.' That is not my own expression; it is the expression of a merchant, one of the Old Believers, whom I once met while travelling. He did not say exactly these words. I think his expression was: "'Whoso forsakes his country forsakes his God.' "But let these thirsty Russian souls find, like Columbus' discoverers, a new world; let them find the Russian world, let them search and discover all the gold and treasure that lies hid in the bosom of their own land! Show them the restitution of lost humanity, in the future, by Russian thought alone, and by means of the God and of the Christ of our Russian faith, and you will see how mighty and just and wise and good a giant will rise up before the eyes of the astonished and frightened world; astonished because they expect nothing but the sword from us, because they think they will get nothing out of us but barbarism. This has been the case up to now, and the longer matters go on as they are now proceeding, the more clear will be the truth of what I say; and I—" But at this moment something happened which put a most unexpected end to the orator's speech. All this heated tirade, this outflow of passionate words and ecstatic ideas which seemed to hustle and tumble over each other as they fell from his lips, bore evidence of some unusually disturbed mental condition in the young fellow who had "boiled over" in such a remarkable manner, without any apparent reason." 1
As a Roman Catholic, I would argue that sometimes the over-zealous pangs of an innocent soul are not appropriate to be expressed. One must me holy, but also adapt to one’s surroundings. Otherwise one will be taken advantage of by others. Be innocent as a dove but wise as a serpent. The Romans have a way of being holy while still living within a fallen world. This too may be an explanation of Myshkin's demise at the end. Other than that while being holy, he really wasn't interpreting holiness correctly, and thus he is a fool or idiot. This leads to the final question of the novel. Is Myshkin the idiot because Christianity is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." Or is Myshkin the idiot because, though he has good intentions, he is not smart about how he lives out his faith in the midst of a fallen world? To me, this is why the ending is so confounding.
A Confounding Ending
The ending of the novel is one in which everyone is struck by ruin and tragedy, both the good and the bad. Myshkin and Rogozhin, Nastasya and Aglaia are all doubles of each other. Myshkin and Rogozhin become "brothers" when they exchange crosses and has his mother bless Myshkin as a son. They both desperately want Nastasya, though for different reasons, one out of pity, the other out of passion. They end up both with her at the end in that scene laying there together with her dead body. Nastasya and Aglaia both are the gorgeous beauties if the book, one fallen and one pure, both feisty. Nastasya writes Aglaia letters telling her how much she loves and admires her. They both are fighting over Myshkin at the end to marry him. Both girls also consider Ganya as a suitor but not really. Then there's the scene towards the end where the four of them are all alone in a room with each other. Then, just like Myshkin and Rogozhin, both girls end up in demise and ruin at the end. The good and the bad versions of humanity both ending up in ruin. Nastasya is dead, and Aglaia is swindled unto marriage by a Polish exile, who was lying about everything and turns her away from her family and she runs away from Russia.
And so the question becomes for me, is Dostoyevsky's point that it is impossible to be both a true Christian disciple and to live a worldly and successful life? Or is that a failure on Dostoyevsky's part in writing these characters, especially in his attempt to portray a truly pure and holy soul?
1 - Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot [with Biographical Introduction] (pp. 341-344). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.