Success in Tragedy? Thoughts about Joseph Frank's "Lecture Two - The Idiot"

The Idiot - Lecture 2

In lecture two on The Idiot, Joseph Frank brings out more of the paradoxical elements of the book. Myshkin is filled with God's love, seemingly intensified by his epileptic fits, yet at the same time it is these very issues that prevent him from fitting in to society, and ultimately lead to a tragic ending as he spreads himself out too much in trying to help those around him. But is his attempt wrong? Certainly not. Likewise, there is Rogozhin who, though being brought up in a religious family, has fallen completely from it in his lusts. There is Nastasya, who having a pure heart, cannot bring herself over the self-hatred that she formed as a result of her abusive upbringing. There is also Ippolit, young and thoughtful, yet bitter because of his illness and impending death. And finally, Aglaia, idealistic and fiery, yet gets swindled by a liar in the end. And so the paradox between the Christian ideal and the individualities of everyday life manifest themselves throughout the book. 

And so again, Frank brings us to the question, was this a successful novel? Did he create a truly pure soul? Did he create a Christ-like figure in the contemporary world? Well, it depends on what you consider success or failure. In one sense, Dostoyevsky made his point clear that the ways of God are so far above the ways of man, that one who tries to live as a disciple of Christ will not be understood by the world, nor accepted. It is only Christ himself who can perfectly bring the eternal love of God into the minutiae and individuals problems of man's world. 

Yet, on the other hand, what is the disciple supposed to do? Myshkin's life ended in ruin, and also seemingly brought ruin to those around him. Was he successful as a disciple? Should he have tried to do what he did? Certainly there are points in which Myshkin brings those around him to the contemplation of God, but as far as the ending, why the tragedy? ... is Dostoyevsky's point that there will never be a perfect ending on earth for those who choose to give up everything and follow Christ? The early Church and Roman Martyrs certainly bore witness to this. I can't help but think of Ignatius of Antioch's quote as he is being shipped to Rome for his execution. "Oh how I long to be ground up for Christ like the wheat is ground for the eucharist." 

Let me know your thoughts below if you think The Idiot was a successful novel. 

The Christian Ideal and Practical Life
Joseph Frank begins lecture two reiterating that The Idiot is one of the most difficult of Dostoyevsky's works to pin down. It was one that he produced in a more spontaneous way than his other major works. A month before the first part was due, he rewrote Prince Myshkin, taking a chance on creating a pure soul. It is also a novel, though, that reveals the most personal expression of Dostoyevsky's own self. 1 

Here is a perfect summary of Myshkin's character by Frank: "The analysis begins with a simple question: what is the theme of the book? The answer can be stated with equal simplicity: it is the Passion of Christ - but with a difference. Prince Myshkin is a Christ-like figure, who appears in the world, is destroyed, and, in a certain way, leads to the destruction of others while inspiring them at the same time." The key limiting factor of the book is that Myshkin is a regular man. One may try to embody Christ's presence on earth, to be his disciple, to love others in a God-like manner, but no one will be successful like Christ because he was the God-man. Myshkin, and all of us, are "In a certain sense, ultimately betrayed by his humanity." Christ's love is universal in the sense that he completely transcended the limitations of his humanity in loving all people of all times, of offering salvation to the whole world, of making God's love perfectly incarnate. But, even for the holiest saint, this seems to be impossible to perfectly imitate as the individual man is limited to loving those people within his sphere of life. 

Even the family, as holy as it is, requires that mother and father ignore of the needs of others to take care of their own. 2 "Only at the end of time, when man will be transformed into some kind of asexual, seraphic being can genuine universal love be possible." This, too, is Myshkin's struggle in the book and his ultimate downfall. He is always torn between the eternal life of Heaven-beyond and the practicalities and needs of the here-and-now earthly world. Myshkin's mind often turns to the end of time, to death, to ideals not bound by time and place. Frank presents this in the different scenes in which Myshkin reflects on the horror of the death penalty and the times he witnessed it happen. 3

Interestingly, in these reflections of Myshkin, he hints at the idea that for the condemned man as he walks toward his execution, living out the last moments of his life, he begins to truly appreciate life. In one of the cases, the man is pardoned at the last moment ... and when he returns to his former way of life, forgets the resolution he made to cherish every moment. Myshkin too is beset with this paradox, though he believes it is possible to be successful in it, having himself returned "from the dead" of his epileptic seizures and treatments. 

The "Egoism of Suffering"
Myshkin's spiritual mission has an impact on those around him who are caught up in their worldly pursuits, intrigues, and selfishness. His character casts light onto the other's faults and brings about a certain type of self-awareness for them. 4 This light brings about, what Dostoyevsky calls, an "egoism of suffering" upon those characters. Most clearly this is seen in the character of Nastasya. She has been raised by a man who rescued her from being an orphan and at once gave here everything in the way of education and material needs, yet at the same time, took everything from her in that he seduced/raped her repeatedly in her teenage years, taking her innocence from her. Now he wants to sell her off in marriage and move on to another woman because of her rebellious hatred towards him. [Apparently he was about 30 years older than she was. I get the sense that his wasn't altogether uncommon in that time, though I am unsure of this.] Nastasya is simultaneously proud, self-reliant, educated, compassionate, and yet also filled with self-hatred, contempt toward the world, and self-destructive tendencies (as all abused people justifiably may be). She will not conform to the plan that Totsky (her "guardian") has for her to marry the young man, Ganya, for his fitting status. Likewise, she will also not take Prince Myshkin up on his marriage proposal because he is a pure soul, and she despises herself too much. Rather, she is tempted to run away with Rogozhin, a man who clearly only wants to "own and possess" her for her beauty, just as Totsky did. 5 

"Unable to break the grip of what Dostoyevsky calls the egoism of suffering, this subtle and complex form of egoism causes her a great deal of suffering and will ultimately destroy her. ... Nastasya's suffering, however, does not lead to any sort of moral self-purification. Her egoism of suffering does not have that effect; it is a means of taking revenge, not of inner transformation." The question of Prince Myshkin's Christ-like presence comes to bear here. Can he help Nastasya overcome her self-hatred? Before the Prince arrives to Petersburg there is a section of the book where he helps another woman who was depressed, and out of pity falls into a quasi-relationship with her. Here, too, we see that Myshkin seeking to play the role of Christ in that he loves her unconditionally for who she is, not for her status, her beauty, or her body. Yet, as Nastasya runs away in self-destruction, Myshkin is pulled towards a love that is more earthly in nature, as he seeks the hand of Aglaia. Again, the divine ideal and the humanness of Myshkin are at conflict. 6

The Prince's character shifts in that in the beginnings his epilepsy is more of a minor characteristic in forming who he is. Towards the middle of the book, as Myskhin has these interactions with these varied characters, it becomes clear that Myshkin's driving religious force is somewhat connected to these epileptic fits. It is right before he is about to go into a fit that he is filled with the most overwhelming ecstasy and insight into the nature of the universe. 7 Here, the main theme of the ideal and the practical, comes back into play. It is these epileptic fits that give him a glimpse into the divine realm, they clarify what is truly important in life. And yet, his fits prevent him from ever fully being a part of everyday life, or at least understanding those with whom he is interacting. 

"For now, his highest values are shown to be rooted in, and traced to, his experience 'of peacefulness and of ecstatic devotional merging with the highest synthesis of life' that he feels in the epileptic aura. But he also knows that 'stupefaction, spiritual darkness, idiocy stood before him as a glaring consequence of these 'higher moments,' These higher moments thus have no place in the world and can only lead to disaster." Again, a theme of the book is the disconnect between the narrow path of Christ and the earthly everyday life. 8 [I am getting the sense here that Dostoyevsky, or at least Frank, is emphasizing a type of disconnect between Christianity and reason. This may be a strain of thinking that was more prevalent in Orthodoxy (certainly Protestantism) but is not present in Roman Catholicism. In Roman Catholicism faith transcends reason, but there is not as much of a disconnect between the two. "Faith and reason are like two wings by which one soars to the knowledge of the truth." as John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio introduction. This dislike for Roman Catholicism is also present in The Idiot in certain passages. Frank will hit upon this theme later in his lecture.] 9

Tragic Endings
Myshkin's struggle to embody true Christian charity is not the only dichotomy that is present in the book. There is an interesting look into Rogozhin's life, briefly. He is a rogue. He is pursuing Nastasya out of lust, to own her. He tries to murder Myshkin to take him out of the picture. At the end he performs a truly evil deed (will not spoil it here). Yet, there is a scene in which Myshkin goes to his house, in which they talk about faith, in which they exchange crosses and become "brothers." Obviously there is some great disconnect in Rogozhin's life for this to be the case. One can be raised in the Christian faith, and yet fall so far from Christian love. 

Another paradoxical figure is the young nihilist, Ippolit. He is bitter against the world, a true hatred for the injustice of reality because he knows that he is dying from an illness. Yet, at the same time, there is a desire that he has for others to live out the moral law. He looks up to the prince and also calls him out to do better in certain scenes. And yet again, we see here a young man who by all outward appearances has renounced God and Christianity, and yet still longs for it in his heart somewhere. "The episode involving the Young Nihilists is another illustration of the same point. They appear to be attacking morality, but at the same time, they insist that the prince behave like 'a man of conscience and honor'. They believe in egoistic self-interest but assume that their own motives are pure and untainted. They believe instinctively (or subconsciously) in the moral values they appear to have discarded and lambaste the prince for not living up to them. ... Ippolit is very important as the first of Dostoyevsky's metaphysical rebels, who revolt not against the moral norms of society (as did Raskolnikov) but against the injustices of the human condition itself." 10 This is Ippolit's egoism of suffering, to reconcile the fact that life is good, yet he is going to die young. Others will be able to enjoy life, but not him. 11 

Returning to the topic of Roman Catholicism, the other love interest in the book for the Prince, Aglaia, embodies the Christian view of the West instead of the Prince's "Russian kenotic Christ." She looks for a holy warrior, one who keeps the honor of society. She is formed by the European ideals wherein the Church and state sought to be unified. [This Dostoyevsky sees as a great failure of Catholicism, that it tried to unite state and Church. He believes that doing so only corrupted the Church in that it caused its followers to seek too much of this earthly life. In fact, Dostoyevsky goes so far as to claim that it was the Jesuitical, rationalist, Roman Catholicism of Europe that brought about the rise of atheism. In contrast, the Russian kenotic Christ is one who, like the Prince, appears as foolishness to this world, one's whose actions and demands cannot be reconciled with secular honor and prosperity, one inevitably focused on the afterlife.] Fittingly, Aglaia ends up running off with a Polish knight who fits this image, only to then realize she has been swindled and he lied to her to steal her money. 12

The climax of the novel culminates in tragedy as the demands of these two principle forces end up bringing everything down in ruin. The desire to live Christ's agape love with his desire to also be a part of the world and resolve its ills, leads to an ultimate mental breakdown of the prince. [And so what is the point? Ultimately it seems to be that line from the Gospels, "One cannot serve both God and mammon."] "The book ends with the famous ***** scene, whose effect, Dostoyevsky said, he could guarantee. The prince returns to the darkness of epilepsy, consoling Rogozhin, the ********, whose crime was partly caused by Myshkin's epileptic illusion, and whose life seemingly led to nothing but catastrophe. Nonetheless, the book ends on a note indicating that, at least with some people, Myshkin's moral inspiration continues to have an effect." 13

1 - Frank, Joseph. Lectures on Dostoyevsky. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020) Pg. 139.
2 - 140
3 - 141
4 - 142
5 - 143
6 - 144
7 - 145
8 - 146
9 - 148
10 - 149
11 - 150
12 - 151
13 - 152