The Genius of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”


I have a friend who just returned from Moscow. She’s one of those special people who spreads light around the world with her music and unprejudiced open-heartedness. In fact, when my girlfriend and I were saying good-bye to Chiang Mai three months ago, she arrived that weekend expressly to give us a farewell concert, and it was magical. In Moscow, however, it was different. She experienced difficulty in getting gigs and making connections, and moreover felt this heavy pall over the entire land, a spiritual burden that made the country a bubble of icy inertia. When she told me this, I had just finished The Idiot, and I wasn’t in the least surprised.

While there are detractors, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote an absolute masterpiece in The Idiot, flawed as it might be. Above all else, it is a heartfelt lamentation, an invitation to a vigil for the broken Russian (and human) spirit, and if one trains his ear hard enough, he may catch the passionate strains of the Russian composer Borodin’s artful overtures. With that being said, I won’t mince words: I hated the ending. I mean, I absolutely loathed it. When Dostoyevsky set out to craft “the most beautiful human being”, as he said in a letter, he succeeded in the character of Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin, the airy and unassuming “prince” who looks upon all with equal sincerity and compassion, and who, in his boundless innocence, also has an alarming dearth of social know-how. He is, of course, a Christ figure, and in the end he is persecuted by a ruthless society (proclaiming to be Christian) that must persecute him in order to preserve its own hollow values.

Because Dostoyevsky is such a master at depicting personalities, I hated to see the almost mechanical undoing of Myshkin, Natasya, Aglaia and Rogozhin in the end. Despite his own mad designs, Dostoyevsky has a way of drawing you into each character’s complex psychological makeup, and you find yourself growing fond of them as scene after crazy scene unfolds. But, at least for Myshkin’s part, I realize that his undoing was a key necessity; otherwise, the author’s point is lost. I’ll paraphrase how I put it to a friend recently:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky depicts humans so artfully and accurately that you almost forget that he’s using the book to make, perhaps, a larger philosophical point as well. Myshkin is returned to a degraded position, utterly hopeless: after everything, he’s merely another doctor’s patient who can’t place any of his beloved Russian visitors. It’s excessively cruel, but it makes a harrowing statement that is important–in this insensitive world that we’ve created for ourselves, there’s no place for what some might call a Prophet. The Don Quixotes of society are processed through a horrible machine and ground into their constituent animal elements. In a word, the spirit is eviscerated by an exacting reductionism that in many ways has come to define our “modern” outlook.

As a writer myself, I have to wonder how difficult it was for Dostoyevsky to effectively kill off the prince in the end, after so many absurd and humorous misadventures that made the “poor knight” as much a saint as a laughingstock. Like Don Quixote, at least for this reader, one can’t help but feel a great comradery, admiration and sympathy for Myshkin. Of course, sometimes he is unbearably naive, and you find yourself rolling your eyes. Do you remember how easy that one guy Keller (who earlier helped write up a defamatory article about Myshkin for a widely circulated newspaper) was able to borrow money from the prince, almost needing no explanation for it at all besides something like “I’ve been trying to think of a pitch to you, but can’t come up with one–I’d just like to drink more”?

I’ve noticed that there’s always cynical, dark humor and a kind of great cruelty present in the Russian literature that I’ve come across which, I should add, is always superb. I have to assume that this cruelty and darkness is a reflection of Russia’s historical experience. You have to admit, after only a glance, that she is a long-suffering nation, rent by internal socioeconomic conflicts, class disputes, and the incorrigible complacency of her nobility. The starkness of the weather, too, must contribute to that numbing sense of hopelessness, which Dostoyevsky captures so sharply. When my friend told me of her experience in Moscow, the account converged with my own feelings after having finished The Idiot. What better way to spell out the collective failure of materialism than to place such a “beautiful human being” in the cosmopolitan crucible of a thoroughly vain and bankrupt society, with all its sophisticated turmoil, pettiness, and facile soap opera?

I could wax on and on–this book is an incredible human achievement, and whether you take it on a metaphorical level or just at face-value, it’s not only extremely entertaining but also offers a lot of food for thought. Along the way, Dostoyevsky makes a lot of cutting observations about people that are still very relevant to this day–one such passage that sticks out to me is his rant about the “unoriginal” people of the world who think themselves to be just the opposite, but in fact are not. This is reflected in the consumptive Ippolit’s excoriating condemnation of the ambitious yet miscalculating Gavril Ardalionovich, whom we can only hope was somewhat chastened after that exchange.

In any case, I’d like to open this up for discussion–please leave your thoughts in the comment section below! There are so many different facets of this book, and I’m totally relying on you guys to pick up the varying threads. Some discussion questions to get us started…

–How does Aglaia compare to Nastasya Filoppovna? Does one represent innocence and the other defilement and corruption, or is it deeper than that?

–Late in the book, Yevgevny Pavlovitch gives Myshkin a very astute summary of himself, memorably asserting that he is “innately inexperienced”. That’s an unheard-of phrase. What do you take from it?

Myshkin is constantly being mocked as an idiot. Do you think he’s really idiotic, or is it just the Russian way of saying that, because he doesn’t have ulterior designs on others or behave prudently, that he’s somehow simple, different, or incapable of functioning in the society? Is there an argument to be made that he is the most intelligent of them all?

–The invalid Ippolit, who by the end of the novel has finally succumbed to his illness, had quite a lot to say on the meaning of death, much of it nihilistic in nature. (“If only one could die without explanations!”) What do you think of his vision of Nature being likened to a “crude beast”, mercilessly devouring all in its jaws, even the savior Christ himself?

–If Myshkin is Christ, is Rogozhin Judas, or perhaps a composite of the Roman society that crucified Christ? What was your take on the last scene, when Rogozhin leads Myshkin to the concealed corpse of Natasya at midnight?

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