After three months of struggling to remember the exorbitant amount of deeply developed characters with foreign names and dense dialogue, I’ve finally finished Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, my second experience of his full-length novels. A few years ago, I read his final book and magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov in about the same amount of time, and while I can’t totally ascribe the same significance or genius to The Idiot, which was written not on a Russian deathbed but in the depths of a gambling addiction to roulette in Europe, my mind has been once again indelibly marked by this 19th century Russian.
*Spoiler Alert: if you are worried about me giving away the ending of a famous 150 year-old classic novel then you’ll want to just skip to the last paragraph.
The protagonist is a twenty-something prince of noble lineage but with little to no family or money to show for it. After spending much of his life in a Swiss sanatorium that he increasingly became unable to afford, he ventures home to Russia and inherits a small fortune while falling in with a group of exceptionally eccentric friends. Having come of age largely outside the auspices of conventional social interaction and education, the prince is largely looked upon as an idiot. He trusts everyone, he always tells the truth, he blindly allows others to take advantage of him and quickly offers them forgiveness afterward. Every character in the entire novel is baffled by the prince’s paradoxical purity, marked by his ostensible absent-mindedness while regularly astounded by his insight and thoughtfulness. As a literary expression, this prince is Dostoyevsky’s attempt to imagine profound and perfect beauty in the form of a human being; he is the Christ-figure of the novel, Dostoyevsky’s Don Quixote; a down-to-the-bone idealist. His convictions are honorable and unbreakable; and thoroughly rupture his social circle filled with comically extremist maniacs on the verge of self-destruction. The prince is ultimately incapable of saving his loved ones from themselves and ends up back in the care of the Swiss doctor. Blissfully unconscious of the events that led him there and unable to recognize his friends’ faces because of his precarious psychological condition, the prince’s story comes to a close.
Dostoyevsky’s criticism of modern society shines throughout the novel as the prince’s virtue threatens again and again to subvert the world of his fellow characters, like an epileptic Socrates whose very presence is a question mark to all social and intellectual norms and conventions. I cannot help but remember the chronically misunderstood prophetic Jesus of Mark’s gospel, who demonstrates profound power through weakness and suffering on behalf of others. I’m also reminded of a well-known chiasmus of Thoreau’s in Civil Disobedience:
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
While Thoreau isn’t a person I typically look to for political thought, such a quote is difficult to sit with for long, especially on a week when the foul evils of white supremacy rear its pointy white privilege in such a public fashion, when the hopes and plans for a better future for thousands of immigrants are threatened, and so on. It sounds just like a quote from the back of my Barnes & Noble Classics version of the book (which might be what called HDT to remembrance):
“…in a world obsessed with money, power and sexual conquest, a sanatorium is the only place for a saint.”
I’m inclined to agree. In social environments that are fueled by the existence of economic injustice, it is costly to be true to one’s ideals of beauty. It certainly cost Socrates, Jesus, and our prince (and countless other heroes, prophets and truth-tellers), that’s how the story always goes. The Idiot leaves us with the unanswered question of the disjunctions and fractures between our confessed ideals of perfection and beauty and the way in which those are impossible to realize within the context of (especially modern) society.
If you haven’t read Dostoyevsky and want to, I’d recommend starting with one of his shorter works (Notes from the Underground, The Double, etc.) to familiarize yourself with his style before moving onto his 600+ page monsters! The Brothers Karamazov remains my favorite work of literature, it’s always soliciting, like a needy neighbor (Lk. 11:5), always insisting on having influence on the way I think. The Idiot is absolutely stunning in its portrayal of the existential and psychological condition of humans as modern social beings, anticipating sparks of figures like Nietzsche and Freud. From Ippolit, the terminally-ill 18 year-old driven to an aggressive, Hamlet-esque (“To be or not to be…”) bout with the philosophical question of suicide, to Lebedev, the acute but inelegant critic of western “progress”—and his best friend, the alcoholic and pathological liar, General Ivolgin—Dostoyevsky’s characters are impressively dynamic and full.