Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, "The Idiot"


Read from June 28th to July 26th, 2013

My rating

That tragic solemnity hidden behind the strident, aggressive, crazy scenes in The Idiot has always made me think of Ancient Greek mysteries - the Eleusinian mainly, but also the Dionysian ones. Firstly because of the exemplarity of the main character, secondly because of the artificiality of the world that surrounds him: a frenetic, delirious, demented world that indulges in the voluptuousness of the ridicule, of the villainy, on the principle that if you acknowledge your flaws and weaknesses everything is permitted.

Like Herman Hesse in his beautiful essay "Thoughts on the Idiot by Dostoyevsky", I've had some difficulty in accepting unreservedly the comparison to Jesus, that seemed to me too obvious, too general and finally too vague. After all, as Hesse says, "you can compare to Jesus anyone who has been touched by one of the magical truths, who no longer separates thinking from living and thereby isolates himself in the midst of his surroundings and becomes the opponent of all."

Prince Muiskin is Jesus-like in the same way Jesus was exemplary-hero-like. His arrival home is, like many other heroes' of illo tempore, a descensus ad inferos, only his search is not followed by the final triumphant ascent, like in the Eleusinian Mysteries or other myths, on the contrary he remains forever trapped in immanence.

Hesse calls the prince's way of thought "magical" because "more than once he has stood on the magic threshold where everything is affirmed, where not only the most farfetched idea is true but also the opposite of every such idea". No wonder the others tend to insult and stultify him - unconsciously they perceive him as a destabilizing force that, by accepting both sides of the coin, threatens the very order of their world.

This prince whose soul is connected to the music of the spheres and who contemplates the harmony of contraries is a seductive image, but only partially true. For there is something the hero cannot fully understand and is fascinated by: Death, the main theme of the novel.

It is in quest of the sense of death that Muishkin begins his harrowing of Hell only to find himself in front of a vanity fair, which hides its desperate ephemerality behind strident, loud, theatrical words and empty big gestures, a world confined by rules that must be respected, where the slightest movement is hardly innocent, and where nothing is really touched by tragic, only by hideous, grotesque, burlesque. Here he meets a pathetic Munchhausen represented by General Ivolgin, who hides his fear of life behind invented stories with himself in the star-role; a washed-out Cassandra, represented by Hyppolyte, who hides his fear of death behind rudeness and cynicism and whose failed suicide questions both the free will and the grandeur of human gestures; a picturesque Russian Falstaff represented by Lebedeff, who hides his fear of divine retribution behind Apocalyptic interpretations and is eager to acknowledge how base he is; a grim fallen angel represented by Rogojin, who hides his fear of love behind insane jealousy, evil-mirroring the prince's feelings and actions; and the Beauty, in her dual aspect, angelic and demonic, represented by Nastasia and Aglaya, and who hides her fear of perdition behind exaltation and pride and chooses dark over light because she doesn't really believe light still exists.

A mad, mad world, whose pitiful pathetism is the result of the eternal conflict between the effort to conform to the high society rules and the instincts its members are unable to suppress in themselves. Therefore, its artificiality is deliberately emphasized by the narrator: the world is false, delusive, unreliable and only one person can see behind the masks. And this person is nothing but an idiot in their eyes.

Every single being of this world is marked by Death and thus excused, in the eye of the prince, of any extravagance, misdeed or even crime (this is one of the possible interpretations of his out-of-this-world kindness):

I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime. A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal.

And this is because, as Hyppolyte believes,

...death is so terrible and so powerful, that even He who conquered it in His miracles during life was unable to triumph over it at the last.

And, interesting enough, the prince seems to find a way to save this unworthy world not (only) in Faith, but in the contemplation of Beauty. Protecting the Beauty becomes his crusade. Therefore, when despite all his efforts the Beauty is insanely destroyed, the prince is too. Like a tragic Don Quixote's, his quest proved to be only blowing in the wind.

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