Notes on “The Idiot” – Part I


The interest in the holy fool or the simpleton is common to Yiddish literature and Russian literature. The secularized schlemiel that we see in both literatures, arguably, has roots in the holy fool. Ruth Wisse herself notes that we can find the roots of the schlemiel in Yiddish literature by way of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. She cites Rabbi Nachman’s “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man,” written around 1805, as a pivotal text in this regard. And it is the religious simpleton character who, she argues, is the literary source, in particular, for the schlemiel.   While, in Yiddish literature, the first major secularization of the Holy Fool or Simpleton can be found in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd, the most notable secularization of the holy fool in Russian literature can be found in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

After writing Crime and Punishment in 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky left Russia for four years. And during that time he wrote The Idiot. Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the new translation of The Idiot, argues that when Dostoevsky first conceived of the hero of the novel he wanted to depict him as a “proud and violently passionate man, a villain, even an Iago, who is to undergo a complete regeneration and ‘finish in a divine way’”(xi).   However, four days after having this conception, he “threw it everything out and started again.” And a new concept of the hero came to him, instead of a hero who goes from being a villain to a saved man, the new hero, Prince Myshkin, “was to be a pure and innocent man from the beginning, a saintly stranger coming from elsewhere, and the drama would lie not in his own inner struggle but in his confrontation with people”(xi).

Pevear points out how Dostoevsky was looking to “portray the perfectly beautiful man.” And he cites a letter to Dostoevsky’s niece where he reflects on the task before him. Dostoevsky notes that the “task” of representing such a man is “immeasurable.” And he notes how, in Europe, it is “still far from being worked out.” But instead of the “perfectly beautiful man” being based on someone who is cultured, intelligent, and sophisticated, Dostoevsky turns to Christ: “There is only one perfectly beautiful person – Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already a miracle.” However, Dostoevsky doesn’t model his character totally on Christ. Rather, he turns to the most beautiful character in “Christian literature” who, to his mind, his “Don Quixote.” But, reflects Dostoevsky, he “is beautiful solely because he is at the same time ridiculous.”

Dostoevsky’s realization, in this letter, is that the ridiculous, comic character is the most beautiful character in literature.   It is the closest to Christ because “compassion is shown for the beautiful that is ridiculed and does not know its own worth – and so sympathy appears in the readers. This arousing sympathy is the secret of humor.”   Since he is more familiar with characters that do not arouse compassion, Dostoevsky worried that he would fail miserably in his task.

Nonetheless, Dostoevsky wanted to partake and share the “secret of comedy” by creating Prince Myshkin, a simpleton who, as we shall see, is often misunderstood and ridiculed. In the novel, he, like Dostoevsky, returns to Russian from Basil, Switzerland for one reason: to meet good people. This simple mission, however, is misunderstood. Yet, it shows us a doubleness between the comic character and the community that ridicules him. This is something we also see in the classic schlemiel story by I.B. Singer, “Gimpel the Fool.”   In both, the simpleton’s story is not about an “inner struggle” so much his relationship with others, with people.  And, more often than not, his comedic presence not only evokes compassion but it also gives us a sense of how perverted society has become in its mistreatment and ridicule of the simpleton.  This is, of course, a modern problem since society has no patience for the simpleton (a lesson we learn from many writers we have covered in schlemiel theory such as Robert Walser and Franz Kafka).

….to be continued….

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