Published June 9, 2019
“For he did not care for pomp or wealth, nor even for public esteem, but cared only for truth!”
-The Idiot, Part 4 Chapter 10
From what we have of the notebooks Dostoevsky used in planning The Idiot, it is clear that many of the characters underwent various revisions, excisions, and transformations, but none more so than the protagonist of the novel, Prince Myshkin. Originally conceived basically as a rapist that finds Christ, Dostoevsky abandoned this typical redemption tale in favor of pursuing an ideal that had haunted him a long while, but that he feared he lacked the ability to bring to life- the creation of a truly beautiful, truly ‘Christian’, yet believable character. Using Jesus and Don Quixote as prototypes, Dostoevsky wrote Myshkin to lack the otherworldly willfulness of these inspirations, instead having him travel listlessly through the formal haze of bourgeois Saint Petersburg, causing a sensation wherever he goes with his unguarded honesty, inability to engage in small talk (for example, when asked by a young woman he has just met what she should paint, he suggests the face of a man just before execution), and lack of class awareness.
Myshkin, like Dostoevsky himself, is epileptic, having undergone four years treatment in Sweden before returning to Russia at the beginning of the novel. His seizures are preceded by a euphoric feeling that he claims he would trade ten years for, a phenomena many of us who experience such fits and spells refer to as “going yellow”. If all this talk of piety and ecstasy is boring you, let me assure you that the book itself is wrought with tragedy, and that Dostoevsky gives us a wonderful counterbalance to Myshkin in the form of Ippolit, the consumptive doomer.
While both characters challenge the petty social conventions that govern the world around them, Myshkin does so out of blind compassion and ignorance, while Ippolit does so out of hatred and spite. Running with a ragtag group of atheists (that is, when he is well enough to get out of bed), Ippolit smothers social gatherings in his apocalyptic sadness, at one point triumphantly destroying a birthday party by reading his heaping philosophical manuscript before failing to kill himself while his audience impatiently yawns. Both deeply afflicted by illness, Myshkin’s epilepsy leaves him a pathetic “idiot” which draws as much scorn as it does compassion from others. Ippolit on the other hand is deeply reviled except by a couple friends (Myshkin among them), and the time bomb of his illness makes his orientation towards death a necessity. Yet, in another sense their respective illnesses both shield them from the weight of the middling and meddling endured by all of the other characters who have no recourse but to try to play the game as constructed, with Myshkin seemingly floating above convention and Ippolit raging below it.
As in the story, these character types with such polar conceptions of reality are driven together today by largely the same mechanisms of society that were present in 19th century St. Petersburg, where bourgeois values and utopian materialism first realized they could exercise far more power through an alliance than through conflict. Dostoevsky is often recognized as having predicted the rise of the Soviet Union, and it is positively chilling when the character Lebedev points out how the trains that can bring bread to a population can just as easily be used to destroy them. After all, the middle class values stability above anything else, something the materialist is happy to offer up in the form of institutional authority, utilitarian tyranny, and state consolidation in exchange for freedom and capital.
Both Myshkin and Ippolit exist at the fringes of social acceptability. Myshkin is tolerated and even occasionally venerated for his religiousness except for when he becomes TOO religious-when he forgives sinners, aids the poor, ignores social conventions, or goes on an amazing tirade about how the Catholic Church’s striving after earthly power led to the rise of atheism and socialism. Ippolit is tolerated because he is dying, and even then only by the nihilists that hold up his suffering as proof of meaninglessness, a young boy in search of a mentor, and Myshkin. While tradition offered places for both these souls, they are too inconvenient for a society in transition, and so one goes fitfully to the grave and the other to the madhouse.
The Epileptic and the Autist are driven together by their failure to be focus grouped. The Epileptic is shouted down, medicated, and made out to be an “idiot” for asking that we show empathy for both sides, that we do not cast judgment prematurely, and that we consult the vaults of human wisdom rather than random phrase generators for the orientation of our ethics. Meanwhile woke, state run psychiatry offers the Autist either lobotomy or castration, with those refusing such a choice being sentenced to serve life under NEET house arrest.
In The Idiot, Dostoevsky shows us that sometimes freedom can only be exercised through negation, and that inhabiting our religious, sensual, or rational modes of orientation at the exclusion of the others can be disastrous. Luckily for the Autist, Epileptic, or anyone else, Dostoevsky reconciles all this as promised in The Brothers Karamazov books two and three. Oh wait, he died before he wrote them.