Dostoevsky’s Two Idiots – Part II


In the midst of Prince Myshkin’s epileptic fit, everything becomes double. And this doubleness brings out Dostoevsky’s approach to the fool-as-mystic. If one is to understand what is at stake with the fool, one must, for Dostoevsky understand the tension of opposites: namely, the struggle between good and evil.   This struggle occasions and weights down on “the idiot.”

Prince Myshkin’s mystical state, as I noted in the last blog entry, is punctured by thoughts that run contrary to this mystical state. There is a juxtaposition of the physical and the metaphysical. In one second, he experiences bliss, in the next moment, however, he experiences fear and confusion. The narrator of The Idiot depicts this fluctuation by a kind of writing that leaps back and forth between one thing and another. It pits one second in time against another:

His reasoning, that is, his evaluation of this moment, undoubtedly contained an error, but all the same he was somewhat perplexed by the actuality of the sensation. What, in fact, was he to do with this actuality?   Because it had happened, he had succeeded in saying to himself in that very second, in its boundless happiness, which he fully experienced, might be worth his whole life. “At that moment,” as he once said to Rogozhin in Moscow, when they got together there, “at that moment I was somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase time shall be now more. Probably,” headed smiling, “it’s the same second in which the jug of water overturned by the epileptic Muhammad did not have time to spell, while he had time during the same second to survey all the dwellings of Allah.” (227)

But in the next paragraph, Dostoevsky suggests the opposite of light and revelation: darkness. Prince Myshkin sits alone in a bench in the darkness. A “thunderstorm” seems to be lingering. Meanwhile, the Prince tries to “forget something present, essential.” What could it be?

Dostoevsky tells us that it is the idea of murder: “an extremely strange recent murder, which had caused much noise and talk.” It is this thought – or rather, memory – of murder which marks a second odd moment; one which devours his mystical experience: “as soon as he remembered it, something peculiar happened to him again.”

At this moment, a “new, sudden idea came into his head…” This idea is one that is contrary to murder and malevolence; namely, the idea of innocence.   The Prince associates the idea with Lebedev, a foolish acquaintance (who is obsessed with John’s Revelations) and his nephew who is young…and innocent. He walks in that direction so as to reach the nephew and be saved from…the other idea…the one about murder. But what ends up happening is that, as in the mystical-slash-epileptic experience, he loses a sense of where he is and where he is going.

The “sudden idea” spurs the Prince to “peer into everything his eyes lighted upon, he looked at the sky, at the Neva. He addressed a little child he met.” As he does this, the narrator wonders if the Prince’s “epileptic state was intensifying more and more.” At this point, the narrator drifts away from a character who, it seems, has lost control and is looking to seize the “sudden” idea of innocence in reality so as to save himself from the other idea…of death.

But the two ideas clash. As he “recalls Lebedev’s nephew,” the “strange thing was that he kept coming to his mind as the murderer Lebedev had mentioned when introducing the nephew to him.”   At this point, the narrator suggests that, in Basil, Switzerland the Prince didn’t have to think about murderers. He could live a simple, innocent and carefree life. But in Russia, his idea of innocence was muddied. In Russia, the Idiot is troubled:

He had heard a great deal about such things (as murderers) since his arrival in Russia; he followed them persistently. And earlier he had even become much too interested in his conversation with the waiter about the murder of the Zhemarins. (228)

Since the Prince started “to believe passionately in the Russian soul,” he started thinking what these murders meant. This leads him to think of Rogozhin who, he knows, is malicious and dangerous. To be sure, his mystical-epileptic state occurred after leaving Rogozhin who, upon leaving, made a pact of friendship with the Prince. They had exchanged Crosses and shook hands as a sign of trust. But, even then, we can see that the trust is tainted with deep uncertainty:

The prince took off his tin cross, Parfyon (Rogozhin) his gold one, and they exchanged them. Parfyon was silent. With painful astonishment the prince noticed that the former mistrust, the former bitter and almost derisive smile still did not seem to leave the face of his adopted brother – at least it showed very strongly at moments. Finally Rogozhin silently took the prince’s hand and stood for a while, as if undecided about something; in the end he suddenly drew the prince after him, saying in a barely audible voice: “Come on.”(222)

Rogozhin brings the Prince to his old mother who smiles at the Prince and blesses him. They leave and Rogozhin asks the Prince to embrace him. But, right before doing it, Rogozhin puts his arms down: “He could not resolve to do it; he turned away so as not to look at the prince. He did not want to embrace him. (223)

This ambivalent love comes back to haunt the Prince when he thinks about the “Russian soul.”   He thinks about the Russian other after he thinks about himself and his discoveries. He wonders if he can trust someone like Rogozhin, an exemplar of the “Russian soul.” This soul is not clear like his own; it is “murky”:

Oh, he had endured so much, so much that was quite new to him in those six months, and unlooked-for, and unheard-of, and unexpected! But another man’s soul is murky, and the Russian soul is murky…Here he had long been getting together with Rogozhin, close together, in a “brotherly” way – but did he know Rogozhin? (228)

In the midst of this reflection, which is obviously troubling, he tries to distract himself with the idea that there is an innocent Russian other: Levedev’s nephew. The narrator calls this distraction a “reverie.” But it is interrupted, and the epileptic fit starts coming closer once the reverie is pierced with the idea of murder. And the ideas, once again, clash:

Was it he who killed those six beings, those six people? I seem to be mixing things up…how strange it is! My head is spinning…But what a sympathetic, what a sweet face Lebedev’s elder daughter has, the one who stood there with the baby, what an innocent, what an almost childlike expression, and what almost childlike laughter! (228)

The narrator finds it “strange” that the Prince had “almost forgotten that face and remembered it only now.” It is strange because the narrator, like the innocent Idiot Prince in the first part of the book, remembered the faces of the innocent and turned to them for inspiration and faith in humanity. To be sure, the narrator seems to be suggesting that the memory of such faces – in their utmost simplicity and innocence – is necessary if one is to do away with the complexity and murkiness of the Russian soul that we see with murderers and characters like Rogozhin.

However, this simple faith can’t compete with evil. The narrator demonstrates this by going hysterical over the thought that Rogozhin will kill the prince yet…he “won’t kill in a disorderly way. There won’t be chaos.”   These thoughts, apparently, echo those of the prince who, after thinking about all the things that Rogozhin did to show he was a “brother” and “faithful” (including the blessing by the mother) were a lie: “meanness”(229). This realization seems to destroy the prince’s innocence: “Despair and suffering seized his whole soul.” And he loses what Dostoevsky calls “the special idea” that suddenly came upon him. This idea is the idea – and the image/face – of innocence.

However, Dostoevsky decides to retain the trace of this idea and demonstrate the struggle that the Idiot must go through in order to save it, and the hope for humanity, from destruction. The doubleness, here, shows us that the fool, for Dostoevsky, must, at some point, struggle with cynicism. No mystical experience can shelter him from the deception and misdeeds of humankind.  It is this “reality” that defies the trust that should be the defining feature of humanity – the trust is the trait of innocence, the holy fool, and the child  – rather than “murkiness.”

… be continued

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