Dostoevsky’s Two Idiots: The Charming, Naïve, and Friendly Idiot and…the Deep, Mystical, and Epileptic One (Part I)


When it came to the fool Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seems, was of two minds.  After fleeing from Russia and the outpouring of his first novel, Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky set out for Basil, Switzerland.   Dostoeveky decided that, after writing a novel that was full of depth, complexity, bleakness, and evil, he wanted to write a comic novel that, as he wrote to his niece, would be even more comic than Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

But Don Quixote is no common fool. As Dostoevsky also said to his niece, he thought that the true model for Cervantes, and by implication, his own fool was Jesus. For Dostoevsky, he is the true model for his novel, the Idiot. Dostoevsky tells his niece that Christ is “beautiful” because he is “already a miracle”:

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, as I noted in another blog entry, Dostoevsky doesn’t model his character totally on Christ. Rather, he turns to the most beautiful character in what he calls “Christian literature”: “Don Quixote.” But, reflects Dostoevsky, he “is beautiful solely because he is at the same time ridiculous.”

For Dostoevsky, what makes the fool Christlike is her ability to gain our sympathy. That, he claims, is the “secret of humor”:

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.  

When beauty is ridiculed we don’t simply laugh; we also feel sympathy. In other words, there is something painful that is tied to “beauty” in this world. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is not simply ridiculed in each of his encounters. In fact, the first part of the book show how he, in his simplicity, was loved by children and befriended most of strangers. Myshkin is light, not deep. His comedy is to be found in his naïve trust of others and his optimistic way of greeting the future. He lives on the surface and it seems he has no depth or complexity.

He obviously doesn’t fit into Russian high society. But it is the men who he really doesn’t fit in with. He connects with the women and children more than the men. It is the jealousy of men and their murderous nature that one can see slightly foreshadowed in the first section. The leitmotif of this section is foolish trust and hope. As Dostoevsky would claim, we should sympathize with Prince Myshkin because, though he is a kind of holy fool, he is ultimately thought of as an outsider.   But he doesn’t feel like or even care about whether he is.   Although Prince Myshkin isn’t a fervent worshipper, his life, like Christ’s, is what Edith Wyshchogrod, drawing on saintly narrative (hagiography) would call a “saintly sample.” Myshkin is a folkloric kind of holy fool because he trusts people and only wants them to be happy.

However, this “sample” of the Holy Fool has another dimension.

There are moments when he is mesmerized with the image of evil. And I say image because Prince Myshkin loved to see and draw faces. The moments when he faces death suggest that the Prince may have depth and is grazed by evil. We see this in his witnessing of a beheading.   We also see this in his confrontation, later in the novel with Rogozhin who, out of jealousy, follows him and attempts to kill him. The limit between one kind of fool and the other – the buffer zone Dostoevsky puts between them – can be found in the experience of “epilepsy.” Dostoevsky sees the experience, which Prince Myshkin undergoes in the midst of his flight from Rogozhin, as mystical.

As far as experiences go, it is much different from his foolish relations to others since it is not social and external but deeply internal and complex. Dostoevsky’s writing, in this section, differs from the writing we find throughout the book which is mostly interested in Prince Myshkin’s social relations. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the other idiot, the epileptic one (please note that Dostoevsky tests the meaning of the name “idiot” as it works on a medical register, a social register, and a mystical register).

When the Prince leaves an intense face-to-face encounter with Rogozhin, who is desperate, angry, and jealous and blames the Prince for taking away his fiancé, Kolya, (which simply isn’t true), he goes to the station to take a train. He feels radically alone and in pain. Because he is from Moscow and not St. Petersburg, he is unfamiliar with the city and what ensues resonates a lot with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”:

He was little acquainted with the city. He stopped occasionally at street corners in front of some houses, on the squares, on the bridges; once he stopped at a pastry shop to rest…He was tormentingly tense and uneasy, and at the same time felt an extraordinary need for solitude. He wanted to be alone and give himself over to all of this suffering tension completely passively, without looking for the least way out. He was loath to resolve the questions that overflowed his soul and heart. “What, then, am I to blame for it all?” He murmured to himself, almost unaware of his words. (223-224)

As time passes, the Prince gets more and more anxious and dissociates himself from reality as he is occasioned by a series of unexpected feelings and occurrences. He loses track of time and has a hard time locating things (and himself) in space:

He suddenly forced to catch himself consciously doing something that had been going on for a long time but which he had not noticed till that minute….he had begun now and then suddenly searching fro something around him. And he would forget about it, even for a long time, half an hour, and then suddenly turn again uneasily and search for something. (224)

In the midst of this confusion, the Prince starts having recollections about his location in time and space:

He recalled that at the moment when he had noticed that he kept searching around for something, he was standing on the sidewalk outside a shop window and looking with great curiosity at the goods displayed in the window. He now wanted to make absolutely sure: had he really been standing in front of that shopwindow just now, perhaps only five minutes ago, had he not imagined it or confused something? Did that shop and these goods really exist? (224)

As one can see, Dostoevsky has the Prince wax philosophical in this passage. To be sure, Dostoevesky, unlike anywhere in the novel, shows how the Prince has depth and is complex. In these moments, the Prince goes from being an ordinary “idiot” to a philosophical, or rather, a mystical-slash-epileptic “idiot.”   Like a mystic, he becomes “extraordinarily absentminded,” grows “morbid” and “anxious,” and confuses “objects and persons”(225).   These states of dissociation increase as a realizes that he can’t know for certain that things are what there are and where they are; in addition, as we can see above, he loses track of when or even if he experienced a sensation, memory, or thought in relation to them.

When he actually “discovers” the shop, he “laughs hysterically.” But then he is reminded of Rogozhin’s “eyes fixed on him” and he sinks back into anxiety.   At that moment he realizes that “something absolutely real had happened to him, which was absolutely connected with all his earlier uneasiness”(225). This real experience, which Rogozhin’s anger, jealousy, and intimated threats, is a kind of wake up call. (Since, after all, the idiot in Cervantes’ sense is caught up in the ideal, not the real, this is a wake up call.)

Although this is a pressing thought which pits one idiot (the deep, real, solitary, and complex one) against the other (which is superficial, charming, and friendly), the narrator tells us that the Prince focuses more on his “epileptic condition.” He realizes that what he was experiencing is the “stage just before the fit itself….when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of the soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life’s forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse”(225).

The terms used to describe this state, however, are not physical; they are, rather, drawn from the register of mysticism.   The narrator points out that in these moments of the fit there is a sublime “flash” like “lightening” when everything is illuminated and becomes one. Through this state, he feels joy and hope and, like a mystic, perceives the “ultimate cause”:

His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a sort of sublime tranquility, filled with serene, harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause. (225-226)

Dostoevsky backs up, however, and points out that the moment before this great revelation is a “second moment” which is “unbearable.” When he reflects on this second moment, from a healthy state after the fit, he realizes that perhaps the “highest being” were “nothing but an illness, a violation of a normal state.” And that the “highest state…should be counted as the very lowest.” Faced with this dilemma about how to read the relationship of the two moments, the Prince comes to what the narrator calls the “paradoxical conclusion”:

“So what if it is an illness?” he finally decided. “Who cares that it’s an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, gives a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life?”

These words, without a doubt, don’t disclose a simpleton-slash-idiot so much as a deep thinker who is seeking a serious mystical experience. Although the narrator calls these “vague expressions,” they demonstrate a kind of certainty that we seldom find in fool.   Moreover, the experience is deeply solitary and asocial. In this kind of reflection and experience, we see a fine line being drawn between one idiot and another.

….to be continued….