Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lessons from The Idiot

How far can compassion go, then?

Russian novelist Dostoyevsky published The Idiot serially from 1868-9, just two years after his famous Crime and Punishment.  The close proximity of the publications was influential: many saw The Idiot's protagonist as an inversion of the one in Crime and Punishment.  While the latter was a criminal, in the former Dostoyevsky strove to create what he described as a "positively beautiful man."

Indeed, Prince Myshkin is a man of outstanding compassion, simplicity, humility, gentleness, and forgiveness.  His virtues make him the hero of the novel.  Yet, to many, they also make him an "idiot."  (Myshkin's epilepsy--a medical condition that Dostoyevsky had himself--also contributed to his appearance as an idiot.)  

Myshkin's childlike naivety frequently becomes a source of amusement for those within his social circle.  He is derided as a fool--an overly generous, forgiving fool--who allows others to take advantage of him.  His straight-forward, unfiltered conversation is perplexing to some and outlandish to others.

A perfect child, and even quite pathetic; he has fits of some illness; he's just come from Switzerland, straight from the train, strangely dressed ... he's almost like a child, though he's cultivated. 

Dostoyevsky's purpose in developing Myshkin's character was to create a Christ-like figure and to place him in a materialistic, corrupt, and frequently fake society.  Would Myshkin's exemplary virtue elevate the society around him?  Or would he be dragged down in the dredges himself?

The question is aptly illustrated in a portrait that serves as a powerful symbol in the novel: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein.  Dostoyevsky viewed the painting first-hand and was captivated by its vivid, stark depiction of death.  There is no glorification here; Christ's flesh is painted as the dead, decaying flesh of any human being.  

One of the characters describes the painting:

In the picture this face is horribly hurt by blows, swollen, with horrible, swollen, and bloody bruises, the eyelids are open, the eyes crossed; the large, open whites have a sort of deathly, glassy shine.  But strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that ... how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?

How could one believe, seeing the realism of death and every indication of defeat?  It makes Christ's death on the cross seem like an act of self-destruction.  And that is precisely the path many of the characters of the novel tread, most notably Nastasya Philippovna.  

As a young child, Nastasya was left without any parent.  An older, wealthy gentleman became her guardian, who later sexually abused Nastasya as an adolescent.  Four years serving as his concubine seared her soul with shame and guilt.  

When Myshkin meets Nastasya, he perceives her innocence, despite society's condemnation of her as a fallen woman.  Nastasya is attracted by his compassion and assurances of hope, but cannot escape the road to self-destruction.  Myshkin offers salvation; all she can see is a dead Christ.  And so, time after time, Nastasya takes the action that validates her (mis)self-conception: that she is destroyed.

Nastasya sees her fallenness with such intensity that she cannot see past the tomb to Easter Sunday.  She forgets there is a Resurrection--for Christ, and for her.

In such an instance, how far should Myshkin's compassion go?  

Nastasya is pulled between the path of salvation (represented by Myshkin) and that of destruction, which lies with a gentleman named Rogozhin.  Rogozhin's feelings for Nastasya are violently passionate.  His jealousy is as pointed and sharp as the tip of the knife he hides in a drawer.  

When Nastasya prepares to leave with Rogozhin, Myshkin--moved by pity--proposes to her.  

"I will consider that you are doing me an honor, and not I you.  I am nothing, but you have suffered and have emerged pure from such a hell, and that is a lot.  Why do you feel ashamed and want to go with Rogozhin? you...Nastasya Filippovna.  I will die for you, Nastasya Filippovna."

His offer is rejected, but Myshkin's compassion is undeterred.  At the climax of the novel, Myshkin is once again presented with the opportunity to save Nastasya.  The stakes are higher for Myshkin, as doing so causes him to sacrifice the romantic relationship he was developing with another character, Aglaya.  Aglaya is from an upstanding family, a young and pure girl who fills Myshkin with happiness.

Nevertheless, Nastasya accepts Myshkin's proposal to marriage and a wedding date is set.

The groom is motivated by pity, like that one would experience for a sick child.  The bride is partly filled with vindictive pride, eager to prove that she is just as worthy of Myshkin as anyone else.  She is also riddled with the conviction that, underneath it all, she is unworthy of anyone.

As the wedding nears, a friend pragmatically advises Myshkin:

"She deserves compassion?  Is that what you want to say, my good Prince?  But for the sake of compassion and for the sake of her good pleasure, was it possible to disgrace this other, this lofty and pure girl [Aglaya], to humiliate her before those arrogant, before those hateful eyes?  How far can compassion go, then?  That is an incredible exaggeration!  Is it possible, while loving a girl, to humiliate her so before her rival, to abandon her for the other one, right in front of that other one, after making her an honorable proposal yourself ... ?"

Was Myshkin's sacrifice redemptive?

In short, no.  Nastasya could not leave the path of self-destruction.  Though love, compassion, and forgiveness were extended to her, waiting for her at the head of the church aisle, on her wedding day she ran into the arms of Rogozhin ... and straight to her death.  

While I championed Myshkin for the majority of the novel and thoroughly liked his character, I, too, thought him an idiot on occasion.  It seemed as though his compassion veered into enabling at times.  He would not stop trying to save Nastasya, even though his efforts produced the same result time after time.  

Myshkin risked everything and the result?  Nastasya was murdered, Aglaya married an impostor who didn't love her, Rogozhin was found guilty and sent to hard labor in Serbia, and Myshkin lapsed into mental insanity from which he wasn't expected to recover.

The novel is a tragedy; there is no happy ever after for the characters.  One must speculate Dostoyevsky's message to the reader.  Did Myshkin's compassion go too far, to the point where he unwittingly contributed to the self-destructive behavior?  For that, one may well call him an idiot.

But it may be, too, that society is the idiot.  They could not understand Myshkin's compassion.  Aglaya was consumed with jealousy and left Myshkin, unable to comprehend his feelings toward Nastasya.  Likewise, those around Myshkin were perplexed by his behavior.  Instead of supporting him in his efforts to save Nastasya, they rebuked and derided him.  

For me, it is a reminder that, though Myshkin is the hero and the "positively beautiful man," he remains that: a man.  It takes more than a man to redeem.  We need a God-man.   

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