Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
We have all heard, though usually in a bad movie or in a bad book, that your whole life flashes before your eyes in the moment you are about to die. But what really happens, what does someone really think about, in the moments before death? Is it about the past, about the life that is about to end, or is it, strange as it may seem at first, about the future? In one of the great, if largely forgotten, Russian novels of the 19th Century, Fyodor Dostoevsky describes what went through the mind of a man moments before his execution. He describes what had actually happened to him when, in l849, he was arrested with thirty others for crimes against the state and taken to St. Petersburg to be shot.
Dostoevsky stood there, his hands tied behind his back, while the firing squad was assembled and everything made ready. The soldiers took their positions and, at the order, aimed their rifles, the commander raised his arm ready to give the order to fire. And then…nothing, not a sound, until the firing squad was ordered to lower their rifles and the prisoners were informed that their death sentences had been commuted to exile in Siberia.
There is a marvelous line uttered by the marvelous Dr. Johnson in the l8th century: “Tell a man he is to be executed in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Tell a man, a man who will become one of the world’s great writers, that as soon as the firing squad is ready he will be shot to death, it produces a sensitivity, an insight into the meaning of existence, that twenty years later will allow him to write The Idiot and to create in Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin a character unique in world literature, a young man everyone thinks an idiot and everyone knows is wise.
Dostoevsky has Myshkin tell Dostoevsky’s own story, the story of a man who with others is led to the scaffold to be shot for “political offenses.” and then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, given a reprieve. “Yet in the interval between those two sentences…he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes.” The condemned, according to Myshkin, “remembered it all with extraordinary distinctness.” He remembered how they were all led out to the courtyard, how they were tied up, how the priest came to each of them in turn with a cross, how, with only a few minutes left, he still felt that he had “so many lives left in those few minutes that there was no need yet to think of the last moment,” but what was really “dreadful” was the “continual thought, ‘What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life – what eternity! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing. I would count every minute as it passed. I would not waste one!’ He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”
It did not happen. The condemned man did not treat every moment as an age. He discovered that it was impossible to live like that. Myshkin, for his part, “somehow can’t believe” that it cannot be done; he believes that it should. Someone asks if he thinks he “will live more wisely than anyone?” “Yes,” he replies, “I have thought that too sometimes.” And then admits that he has “lived less than others” and “knows less of life than anyone.”
Just returned to Russia from Germany where was treated for a long, debilitating illness, Prince Myshkin has neither wealth nor any immediate family. None of his distant relatives want anything to do with him until, inheriting a fortune, they cannot get enough of him. His intense emotional nature, his willingness to speak his mind honestly, openly and without regret, is dismissed as nothing more than the inexperience of youth. When he remarks that children “understand everything,” and can give “exceedingly good advice,” it is all the proof needed that he is, himself, still a child. A child they quickly come to like when he explains that he had been ill, so ill that he “really was almost like an idiot;” a child a few of them begin to suspect more grown up than the others around them when he adds, “But can I be an idiot now, when I am able to see for myself that people look upon me as an idiot?”
Everything in The Idiot is, one way or the other, connected with the absolute importance of every moment of time. Everything of real importance, everything right and true, is known, or rather felt, immediately; everything else, all the ordered duplicity of civilized society, the misguided conventions of a world filled with corruption. No one understands this better than Nastasya Filippovna, a woman of astonishing beauty who does not hide her disdain for all the poor fools willing to sell their souls to have her.
“Everyone is possessed with such greed nowadays,” she announces with a glittering smile to a gathering in which Myshkin sits as a kind of disinterested observer; “they are all so overwhelmed by the idea of money that they seem to have gone mad.” In front of everyone, she tells Gavril Ardalionovitch, who wants to marry her for the money she has acquired through her relations with other men, that he is a “shameless fellow! I’m a shameless woman, but you are worse.” And then, turning to Prince Myshkin, whom she has only just met, asks with all the pride and contempt of which she is capable, “Would you take me as I am, with nothing?” Myshkin does not hesitate. “I will, Nastaya Filippovna.”
Some think Myshkin like Don Quixote, a fool, an idiot, willing to idolize a fallen woman and worship her as the incarnation of pure beauty. Others have the vague feeling of something they had once been taught, the lost memory of what Christian love was meant to be. Taking Myshkin at his word, Nastasya Filippovna dismisses his offer, and does it in a way that suggests a depth of feeling, a knowledge of her own fatal flaw, that only Myshkin understands.
“You may not be afraid, but I should be afraid of ruining you, and of your reproaching me with it afterwards.”
She turns to a villainous character, Rogozhin, so desperately in love with her he would rather see her dead than with anyone else, and asks him for a hundred thousand rubles. She throws it into the fire and with hatred in her eyes tells Gavril Ardalionovitch, who wanted to marry her for her money, that he can have it all if he can get it out before it burns. And then, just before she leaves, she tells Myshkin he should marry someone else, the young girl Aglaia Epanchin, instead of her.
The frenetic, half-crazed conversation of Nastasya Filippovna, the strange, demented confessions of what she thinks about herself and everyone else, is not some brief digression, a single stand alone psychological study of a woman in distress,; it is what goes on through six hundred closely printed pages. One intense conversation after another, one long disquisition on what some tortured soul wants the world to know and then, later on, what someone else decides he or she has to say, do not just move the action forward; they are the action of the story, action that holds the reader in its grip from the first page to the last. There is a reason why Friedrich Nietzsche thought Dostoevsky without equal in the ability to lay bare the deeper workings of the human soul and the twisted imaginings of the human mind.
Aglaia Epanchin, the youngest of three sisters, is so beautiful, Myshkin tells her, “that one is afraid to look at you.” She treats him as if he really is an idiot, mocking him, behind his back and to his face, but still tells him things she would never have told anyone else. After a young man, dying of consumption, tries to shoot himself in front of people he knows despise him for his poverty and radical ideas, but fails because he forgot to load the gun, she admits to Myshkin that she had “thirty times…dreamed of poisoning myself, when I was only thirteen, and writing it all in a letter to my parents. And I, too, thought how I would lie in my coffin, and they would weep over me, and blame themselves for having been too cruel to me….Why are you smiling?”
Aglaia “asked rapid questions, talked quickly, but sometimes seemed confused, and often did not finish her sentences.” She was in love with him, but the question was whether she would have been if he had not been “looked upon by every one as an idiot.” That her family was upset by her feeling about him was a joy to her. What she felt and why she felt it was a mystery, what Dostoevsky calls, “the fantastic strangeness of the human heart.”
Prince Myshkin may be an idiot, but he is still a prince, a member of the Russian aristocracy, and, through inheritance, a wealthy man. Aglaia’s family invites the most important people they know to meet him. Most of the people who come to meet Myshkin are “empty-headed people who were themselves unaware, however, that much of their superiority was mere veneer, for which they were not responsible indeed, as they had adopted it unconsciously and by inheritance.” Myshkin tries to explain to them what they are lacking, and how serious their ignorance.
There is no “idea binding mankind together today,” he insists. The belief in progress, in western ideas of material improvement, in the greatest good of the greatest number, is nothing but a vast charade. “And don’t try to frighten me with your prosperity, your wealth, the infrequency of famine, and the rapidity of the means of communication. There is more wealth, but there is less strength. There is no uniting idea; everything has grown softer….”
Myshkin is not talking about national greatness or national power; he is talking about the Russian, and perhaps not just the Russian, soul. There is “a spiritual agony, a spiritual thirst, a craving for something higher,” that has to be satisfied. Myshkin, who like Dostoevsky himself, suffers from epilepsy, finds that meaning, that lesson, in what happens, not when he is facing his own imminent death, but what happens to his mind and heart when, during an epileptic fit, he feels “the direct sensation of existence in the most intense degree.” In that one moment, “worth the whole of life,” he seems “somehow to understand the extraordinary saying that ‘there shall be no more time.’”
Lyon Nikolayevich Myshkin did not believe what everyone else believed; he did not believe in what the world thinks important. He believed in the importance, and the integrity, of the human soul. Myshkin was an idiot. Would that more of us were fools like him.