INSTABILITY AS A SITE OF RADIANT TENDERNESS: DOSTOEVSKY’S THE IDIOT
The beauty of The Idiot lies in its opposition to closed systems. It’s not so much a story as it is a set of questionings, wonderings, wounds, disruptions. A listening that doesn’t believe in conclusions, doesn’t want them.
Its nature is plural. Its structure dissonant, hectic, often awkward.
Its hard truth is Prince Myshkin’s epileptic body, his vulnerability to his own unstable physical existence and almost everything around him.
Yet this instability is also a site of radiant tenderness, even moral goodness.
After years of seizures, his blue eyes are still unguarded, his gaze ‘trusting,’ ‘gentle,’ ‘intent’.
It’s this persistent, awkward gentleness he carries wherever he goes – into the privileged vestibules and drawing rooms of Petersburg, the dim room of the murderer Rogozhin.
It is impure, this gentleness, this porosity. Precarious, often confused. Conflicted, misguided. This is why I trust it.
When I need a place to go inside my mind that will show me something that’s not ugly, this is where I go.
I feel an impulse to draw close to Myshkin the way he draws close to the murderer Rogozhin.
If the world of the book weren’t also cruel I wouldn’t go there.
I go back to the ruinous night of Myshkin and Rogozhin together in Rogozhin’s room after Rogozhin’s murdered Nastasya. Her body lies in the bed under a white sheet behind a green curtain. Only the tips of a few marble toes poke out.
Her white dress is on the floor, and white ribbons, flowers.
Myshkin stays with Rogozhin because Rogozhin has asked him to. It is that simple. A simplicity that isn’t simple.
They must speak only in whispers, Rogozhin instructs. He grows increasingly feverish, more frightened.
Myshkin stays but his legs are trembling. His heart beats wildly. He keeps looking intently at Rogozhin.
I am inside and outside the room as I notice intently paired more than once not just with Myshkin’s gaze but with Rogozhin’s, as if each is relentlessly doubled and mirrored in the other. That word a thread binding them like the first words that ever passed between them on the train to Petersburg when Rogozhin asked the shivering young stranger in the seat directly across from him,‘Cold?’ and Myshkin looked into his eyes and answered, ‘Very.’ Those words a sudden blade between them.
But now in his darkened room Rogozhin mutters ‘unintelligible words’ as he assembles a makeshift bed from cushions he’s taken from the sofa and arranges them on the floor near the green curtain for himself and Myshkin. When he looks up, his face fills ‘with a strange dreaminess’.
‘We can lie here together. We won’t confess and let them take her away.’
Why does Rogozhin say ‘we’? Why doesn’t Myshkin try even once to turn from him? Why doesn’t he think of calling the police? Of fleeing?
And now Rogozhin takes Myshkin’s arm tenderly and eagerly. He leads him to the makeshift bed.
The terror seems slowly to be passing but Myshkin’s legs are still trembling. Suddenly it’s clear to him that the words he’s been using are the wrong ones, always have been.
They lie on the cushions but Rogozhin seems to neither hear nor see him, though his dark eyes glitter, are open.
Myshkin jumps up from the cushions, stares at him with terror. What hope is there for him, for anyone? Rogozhin is crying, laughing, raving.
But as he sits in a nearby chair and watches, a ‘new sensation gnaws at his heart’. He lies down once more, gently places his face ‘close to the pale, motionless face of Rogozhin’. Tears flow from his eyes onto Rogozhin’s face as he passes his trembling hand over Rogozhin’s hair and cheeks, caressing and soothing him.
They stay this way for hours.
By morning Myshkin’s eyes appear unseeing, and he can’t speak. It seems he will never speak again.
This must be why I return over and over. Because one frightened, trembling man spends a ruinous night, despite everything, not turning from the reality of another man’s suffering.
But each time I come back I grow confused by Myshkin’s muteness. This is the part that most troubles and haunts me even as it seems almost inevitable, even reasonable after hour upon hour of intermittent lucidity mixed with unspeakable tenderness and horror. Still, there’s something about it that refuses closure, any hint of confinement by definitive meaning. Its radical freedom slips easily past my wanting to know it, slips free of everything.
And still I keep wondering, what did that night do to Myshkin, what did it take from him, maybe even give him, though I know I have no way to answer. Whatever I might think is no more than pale scraps of conjecture, intuition, feeble gatherings of evidence, watchfulness, assumptions. Though even worse are the reductive, obliterating labels: trauma, relapse. What is horror when it contains everything at once? – cruelty and kindness, love and hate, ugliness, hope, sharpnesses and blurrings, imprisonment, freedom – How does Myshkin hold it in his body?
Bakhtin believed the genius of Dostoevsky’s work lies in plurality. That this is its moral integrity and freedom. No single consciousness stands apart from or dominates others, or views them as objects. The task is to understand they aren’t shadows.
I see this in Myshkin and Rogozhin.
‘Every moment is unfinalized transition.’
Are there voices inside Myshkin’s muteness? Quiet shiftings, transitions?
Or after weeks of boundaries gradually blurring and dissolving inside him, then his night with Rogozhin, has he entered another kind of language, one that has nothing to do with words, with voices, but with tears falling on another’s cheek until it’s unclear whose tears are falling or whose cheek is whose, and it doesn’t matter.
Maybe Myshkin has heard all he needs from other voices. Maybe he’s heard Rogozhin so deeply he no longer needs that kind of hearing.
But what if none of that is true? What if there is only emptiness – stillness, silence, desolation?
In his notebook, Dostoevsky imagined speaking to the prominent jurist and historian, Konstantin Kavelin:
Living life has flown away from you, and only formulas and categories are left but that seems to make you happy. That way one has more peace and quiet, you say.
But when trying to begin The Idiot, he spent months filling three notebooks with eight shifting plans, demolishing category after category until finally ready to draft the novel’s first part he wrote it quickly but then changed his mind and threw it all out. ‘My head was in a spin. It’s a wonder I didn’t go out of my mind . . . I’ve started over again, details crop up that I find fascinating and stimulating . . . but will it develop under my pen? . . . I am so afraid . . .’
He wrote to Turgenev, ‘Realism has been driven to the point of triviality . . . a narrow utilitarianism. Poetic truth is viewed as wild raving. You worry that your Ghosts is too fantastic. But in my opinion there is too much that is real in it. The genuinely real element is the sadness of the intelligent and perceptive person living in our times, a sadness you have detected and conveyed. Ghosts is filled with sadness.’
In 1854, he sent a letter to his brother, ‘At 12 p.m. sharp, that is, exactly on Christmas, I put my chains on my legs for the first time, they weighed about ten pounds, and it was uncomfortable to walk with them. They put us into open sleighs, separately; everyone was accompanied by a police officer, and in a caravan of four sledges, with a police officer in front, we departed from St. Petersburg. I had a heavy feeling in my heart.’
The caravan traveled first to Omsk, where he was imprisoned for four years. After that he was transferred to Semipalatinsk. He remained in Siberia for nine years.
Bakhtin said of the world of Dostoevsky’s books, ‘A single person, remaining alone with himself, cannot make ends meet even in the deepest and most intimate spheres of his own spiritual life, he cannot manage without another consciousness. One person can never find complete fullness in himself alone.’
But Myshkin sits alone on the green hill at Dr. Schneider’s sanitarium in Switzerland.
No one knows what else to do with him now that he’s not speaking.
I can’t know what’s in his mind. Does he remember Rogozhin? Does he think of the peasant girl Marie, or the children who gathered by the waterfall, or of Nastasya Fillipova? Has the world turned to a faint mist inside him, is he himself a mist, emptied of himself and everyone?
All that can be known is that at rare times a visitor comes he stares straight ahead and seems to neither see nor hear them.
But once ‘joy suddenly flooded his soul’.
And once, on the train to Petersburg he sat across from a dark-haired young man, a stranger, Parfyon Rogozhin. It was November, the third-class carriage’s windows covered with fog. He was dressed too lightly in a foreign-style cloak and the stranger noticed him shivering:
With an indelicate smile, with which satisfaction at the misfortunes of others is sometimes so unceremoniously and casually expressed, he asked:
‘Very’ answered his neighbor, with extraordinary readiness . . .
Myshkin’s eyes were ‘large, blue and intent,’ their expression ‘gentle.’