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….

Circumscribed: Circumcision as Dismemberment in Shteyngart’s Absurdistan – Part I


In Hebrew the word for circumcision is “brit.”  Brit is the same word used for “the covenant” between God and Man.   In fact, the first covenant between God and Man mentioned in the Torah is between Abraham and God.  When Abraham, at his late age in life, circumcises himself, God makes a covenant with him which becomes the foundation for all covenants in the Torah.  In fact, it is associated with the preservation of the Jewish people:

This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and thy descendants after thee, every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised on the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations (Genesis 17:10-12).

Like Abraham, Gary Steyngart’s main character Misha (from his second novel, Absurdistan) is also circumcised at a late age.  But while Abraham would refer back to his circumcision as the site of his greatest promise and the greatest joy, Misha looks at it as the source of his greatest suffering.  It is not his entry into the covenant so much as the sign of his mutilated masculinity (which really isn’t mutilated), his father’s mad obsession with Judaism, his hatred of Hasidim, and his membership in “pre-historic” tradition that he literally finds primitive in contrast to his more modern “multicultural” experiences.

Misha likens his circumcision to a wounded penis.  Although he fulfilled his father’s request by having a circumcision, he is very resentful. But instead of aiming this resentment at his father, he levels it on Hasidim and on Jewishness.  When he negatively describes his penis, his Jewishness is also being trashed.  It’s a world he would like to leave behind.  He’s more interested in living in New York with Rouenna, his Black-Latino lover who left him for someone else.  His love for her and New York is greater than his love of Judaism because, quite simply, he finds little to love in it (besides his father’s love for it).  The source of this problem, I am arguing, is his circumcision.

However, in an interview with Gary Shteyngart, when asked “Why did you decide to use the really kind of horrifying circumcision scene?” says that its not his circumcision that is the problem: it was Misha’s relationship with his father.  Misha’s father – and his “demand” that he be circumcises – is a part of what he calls his “awful” “ethnic circumstances”

The book does take a kind of skeptical attitude towards religion, Judaism, Christianity and even Islam sometimes comes in. The idea of the father wants this; the son doesn’t want this. This is the father imposing his will on the son and the results are not good. In some ways, it’s more about the relationship between the father and the son than it is about the actual act. In the scene leading up to it, is a long discussion between the father and the son about why he has to do this. In a way, a lot of the characters in this book are trapped in ethnic and religious circumstances that they didn’t call for. What’s so interesting about going around the world is that people are just trapped in these awful circumstances.

However, his relationship to these “awful” circumstances not only informs his father’s insistence on Jewishness; it also influences his negative description of the circumcision and, more importantly, his belief that he became a “holy fool” (a schlemiel) as a result of his first American experience of forced circumcision.  In other words, he had “been had” (as he says in the prologue) because he loves “too much” AND because of his “awful circumstances.”  And this makes him the holy-fool-who-agreed-to-a-circumcision.

In the second section chapter entitled “Dedications,” Misha likens himself to Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot:

Like the prince, I am something of a holy fool.  I am an innocent surrounded by schemers. I am a puppy deposited it a den of wolves…Like Prince Myshkin I am not perfect. (15)

However, when he looks more deeply into “how” he became such a holy fool, we readers learn that this cause and the life are so entirely different from Prince Myskin since Prince Myshkin wasn’t circumcized at a late age.  And while Prince Myshkin is a “holy fool,” Misha is something else:

How did I become such a holy fool? The answer lies rooted in my first American experience. (15)

His first American experience was the circumcision.  And this experience was set up by his father: he decided, in 1990, that: “his only child should study to become a normal prosperous American at Accidental College.” But before he went to the college, he would first have to get circumcised.

The description of what prefaced this decision is troubling.  And this casts a curious shadow over the circumcision.   Misha notes how, after his mother had died, he and his father were living together in a “tight, humid apartment in Lenningrad’s southern suburbs.”  And both were becoming something “other” : “neither of us could understand what the other was becoming.”

After writing this, we see what he has become: his penis or “khui.”  He tells us that “one day” when he was “masturbating furiously on the sofa, my legs splayed apart so I looked like an overweight flounder…Papa stumbled in upon me.”   His father tells him to “put it away” and has a “man-to-man” talk with him about his journey to America and the new life he will live:

“Mishka,” my papa said, “you’ll soon be in America, studying interesting subjects, sleeping with local Jewish girls, and enjoying the life of the young”(16).

After sharing a few deep moments with each other, the father asks that Misha do one thing for him.  Misha thinks he means losing weight, but it is something else, something more Jewish:

“Idiot,” Papa said…”You’ll never be an American.  You’ll always be a Jew.  How can you forget who you are?  You haven’t even left yet. Jew, Jew, Jew.”(17)

These last words have the ring of anger to them.  And they imply that his father doesn’t want his son to assimilate.  He wants his son to always think of himself as a Jew.  And to guarantee this, he gives him the “other reason” why “you’re going to America”(17):

“Once you land in New York, go to this address. Some Hasids will meet you there, and they will circumcise you”(17).

At this point, Misha flies into horrific reflections on what will happen to his penis (Khui).  In his mind, he had now developed a big penis and would no longer be picked on by his classmates who considered him a Jew-with-a-small-penis:

The pain was clouding my eyes, the pain of having the best part of me touched and handled and peeled like an orange.  Since becoming gigantic, I had gotten used to a kind of physical inviolability….No one dared touch me now.  Or wanted to touch me, for that matter.  “I’m eighteen years old,” I said.  “My khui will hurt terribly if they cut it now.  And I like my foreskin.  It flaps”(18).

But in the end, he bends to his father’s greatest desire for him.  He realizes that his father is no longer ashamed of being a Jew: he is a Baal Teshuva of sorts.  And Misha’s penis is the sacrifice, so to speak.

At the time, he forgets his terror because his love for his father is too great.  This love is wrapped up in several physical aspects of his father:

Some wags say that men spend their entire lives trying to return to their mother’s womb, but I am not one of those men.  The trickle of Papa’s deep vodka breath against my neck, the hairy obstinate arms pressing me into his carpet-thick chest, the animal smells of survival and decay – this is my womb.  (18)

In other words, when he is near his father he becomes like a child.   And this is what makes him a holy fool of sorts (almost like Abraham). The only question in his mind is “what is a Hasid?”

They are the one’s his father is giving his son over to; they are the gatekeepers of America.  Before Misha can experience America, he must have a Jewish experience: circumcision.  As I will show in the next blog, this is the experience that he must overcome if he is to be his own person.   Unlike Abraham, the circumcision is something he only does for his father and will be something he would rather leave behind.  It brings him more shame than good.   This revised – fictional -reading of circumcision is what I call “circumscription.”

To be continued….