“Oh, by the way, could you tell me if you’ve read Dostoevsky?”
This, in my opinion, is a good way to close an initial conversation with a therapist you are thinking to work with.
If they answer “No,” or appear uninterested in the topic, I would drop them. If they answer “Yes,” and seem enthusiastic, that is a good sign.
For, like no other, Dostoevsky was the writer most willing to plunge himself, and us his readers, into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human psyche - all those places that we are so keen to stay out of.
Even on reading his books, our mind will constantly reassure us that, no, we couldn’t possibly be like Raskolnikov, or Rogozhin. We couldn’t even be like Dmitri Karamazov. We’re really not like that at all and we would never do what they did, no matter how much circumstances might push us. And somewhere we know - that is not true. We could do the same, and worse.
For this reason, I maintain that Dostoevsky has a grip on the soul of every true therapist. We are the ones who are willing to visit those depths within us. And we are the ones who wish to support others to do the same, for their own healing.
To the literary world, three of Dostoevsky’s novels stand out from the others and are constantly seen in lists of the greatest novels ever written. Those are Crime & Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and the one I am going to write about here, The Idiot.
Fans of The Idiot are like fans of something that one is a little hesitant to reveal to others, perhaps like being a “trekkie.” This is because the novel speaks so deeply to some people that their lives become irrevocably changed by it. To others, it makes little sense.
The novel is not written well. Stylistically, it’s a mess. Part One completely flows, taking place all in the course of one day. It engirdles us and sweeps us willingly along with its narrative. However, each of the successive three parts becomes more wooden until, by the end, it’s like we’re reading an entirely different novel. The change in style seems to reflect the changes in circumstances that beset Dostoevsky’s life at the time. The decreasing state of his health, punctuated by his epileptic fits. His fighting with fellow author Turgenev. His flight back to Russia from Europe. His ever-insecure financial state, exacerbated by his gambling.
The “idiot” of the book’s title is Prince Lev Myshkin - a not especially rich Russian prince, but a nobleman, nonetheless. The name Lev Myshkin, implies in Russian “Lion-Mouse.” And such is the prince. He’s an incredibly open man, who both entices and concerns all who meet him, and whom is also regularly demolished in front of others by his bouts of epilepsy, like the author himself. As the novel begins, Myshkin is returning to Russia from Europe, where he has spent years in a clinic being treated for epilepsy and anxiety.
Myshkin is perhaps modelled on Christ, plenty of commentators believe so. But what I found so compelling about the character is that Dostoevsky draws him so well that he truly reaches into the hearts of those who read the novel. I am unaware of his parallel in literature anywhere. He is perhaps Christ, if Christ would write about himself.
Myshkin is not some perfect, moral man, like those commonly found in traditional spiritual works, or American novels of a certain era. Nor is he drawn from any typical hero archetype. He simply does his best to speak his truth in all situations. He has deep, emotional wounds but does little to hide them. In one of the novel’s early scenes, he finds himself in a meeting with a wealthy and important man - General Epanchin - and an ambitious and aggressive young man - Ganya. Myshkin does nothing to try to impress them but just talks of his feelings on arriving in their company and being without money. They are initially nonplussed by this seemingly worthless young vagabond. But his sheer openness also intrigues them and they soon warm to him. Such scenes are repeated throughout the novel.
Myshkin is compelling because he is the man who hides beneath the surface of all men. He is who we know we would be if we only dared to be that open and vulnerable. Myshkin fascinates both the other male characters of the novel, and the reader, because he is like a case-study in what might happen if we were ourselves totally open and vulnerable.
Somewhere, all of us men know that socially we live a lie. We have learned the “game” of being a man and do our best to play it. We compete with other men and hide our heart and our feelings behind a practiced facade. We try to do what we think is expected of us. Myshkin is compelling because he just doesn’t play that game.
Dostoevsky drew the numerous male characters in the novel from archetypal forms. One by one, as they interact with the central character, they become utterly intrigued by him, whether they be alcoholics, liars, angry young men, military men, seducers, administrators, noblemen or brawlers. Myshkin’s capacity for openness seems to command respect from all, even though there is little else about him, in particular his appearance, to suggest he deservers it.
As he leaves the general’s presence, Ganya shows Myshkin the picture portrait of an incredibly beautiful young woman, Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov, whom Ganya is determined to marry. Myshkin is struck dumb by the picture and can barely take his eyes from it.
Nastasya is reputedly the most beautiful woman in Saint Petersburg and is pursued unrelenting by an assortment of suitors, all desperate to enchant her with their wealth, power or looks. Yet, Nastasya holds a dark secret. She is an orphan who was systematically abused as a teenager by her guardian, Totsky. This abuse has torn her inner world apart, leaving her filled with thoughts of revenge, underscored by a deep desire to no longer live.
Whereas all other men, on seeing Nastasya, are captivated by her looks and simply desire to possess her, Myshkin sees only the tragedy that has befallen her beneath the facade. He immediately resolves one thing. He must, no matter what else, save her.
Myshkin’s rescuing activities with fallen women have their precedent, we soon learn. Whilst in Europe, he had tried to save a village simpleton who had been seduced by a traveling salesman, causing her to be violently shunned and shamed by the rest of her village. He convinced the local children, who would taunt and throw stones at her, to instead give her love. Yet, she soon died of the consumption, and Myshkin's turning of the children's attitude resulted in he himself becoming shunned.
Having intrigued and impressed General Epanchin, and been offered a room in Ganya's house, Myshkin is taken to meet the general’s wife and three daughters. These he also captivates with his bizarre openness and honesty, again after their initial scepticism. After the meeting, the youngest and prettiest of the three, 22-year old Aglaya, begins to have designs on perhaps making him her husband, thoughts she drives away when she thinks about him more rationally.
We now have three of the four main protagonists - Myshkin, Nastasya and Aglaya. We of course need an especially evil male to complete things and to balance out Myshkin’s goodness. Enter Rogozhin, who Myshkin randomly met in the novel’s opening scene, where the two found themselves in the same compartment of the train to Saint Petersburg.
A corrupt, violent and yet successful merchant, Rogozhin is also determined to marry Nastasya. He wants to possess her totally and holds the upper hand towards this end for one reason. Nastasya recognises in Rogozhin the person whom the wounded side of her truly seeks - the one who will kill her.
Part One of the novel concludes with the scandalous entry of Nastasya, Rogozhin and the crowd of drunks they hang out with into a formal social gathering where Myshkin and Ganya happen to be present. Although she has never met him before, and initially takes him for a servant, Nastasya becomes fascinated by Myshkin and, at a party later that night, briefly agrees to marry him.
Having spent a significant chunk of his novel describing the events of just one day, Dostoevsky now moves things forward some months and relocates the action from St Petersburg to Pavlovsk, a nearby resort town. Nastasya, having lived with Myshkin for a little while, has left him for Rogozhin, whom she also leaves sporadically for other suitors. This behaviour attracts gossip that she is a “loose women,” something the novel infers to not be true.
Myshkin regularly agonises over his inability to “save” Nastasya, whilst Rogozhin, desperate to possess her fully, is constantly tormented by her apparent love for the prince. Nastasya uses Rogozhin’s jealous nature to torture him, letting him get close and then telling him that it is Myshkin she truly loves. Rogozhin begins to obsess on killing Myshkin and, indeed, attempts to stab him to death one afternoon as he walks up the stairs in his hotel. Myshkin is saved by an epileptic fit, which sends him falling down the stairs and out of Rogozhin’s grasp.
Recuperating with friends, Myshkin becomes convinced that Rogozhin intends to kill Nastasya, fuelling his desperation to save her still further.
Meanwhile, Aglaya has herself become increasingly fixated on Myshkin. She arranges secret meetings with him yet, when asked, laughs outright at the suggestion that she wishes to marry him, or is even interested in him. Outwardly, she regards him as a complete idiot. Her sisters and mother shake their heads at her forthrightness, seeing clearly that she is deeply in love with the prince. Aglaya too is pursued by an assortment of eligible young men, including the unfortunate Ganya, all of whom she merrily dismisses with girlish caprice.
In the meantime, Nastasya, many social classes beneath Aglaya, has taken up residence in a nearby mansion, donated by a man enraptured by her beauty. She becomes a social magnet in Pavlovsk, soon surrounded by all sorts of colourful characters, from all walks of life. She is driven around in a luxury carriage and finds ways to regularly antagonise the wealthy of the district. One afternoon, in a local park, she and Rogozhin cause a scene in front of the strolling Epanchin family. The prince ends up grabbing the arms of a young officer, to stop him from striking Nastasya, who she herself has just struck across the face with a riding whip. Myshkin later narrowly avoids having to fight a duel with the young officer, who has demanded satisfaction.
At a gathering of the Epanchins and other wealthy friends, where Myshkin is also present, Aglaya insists on reading out a well-known Russian poem about an unfortunate character known as the “poor knight.” In the poem, the knight’s demise results from his fixation on perfect beauty, in the form of Mother Mary. Aglaya reads the poem faithfully but for one sentence, where she substitutes the initials on the knight’s shield for “NFB” - signifying Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov. In so doing, she is letting Myshkin know that she sees him as this “poor knight.” And that, whilst laughing at his obsession with Nastasya, she is also not concerned about it.
By now, Myshkin himself has fallen well and truly in love with Aglaya and professes to her family his desire to marry her. Myshkin’s love for Aglaya is more a traditional, romantic love. And, whilst she herself persists in ridiculing him and insisting that she has no interest in him whatsoever, he knows from her behaviour that this is untrue.
Seeing their favourite daughter’s unacknowledged desire to marry Myshkin, the Yepanchin’s decide to hold a formal social gathering where the most important public personages of the district will be present. Their intention is to show Myshkin off to them, allowing him to gain social acceptance and thus, they hope, clearing the way for the couple to marry. Knowing Myshkin’s bizarre and naive nature, he is advised to simply sit there and say nothing but pleasantries.
At the gathering, Myshkin, counter to his usual nature, launches into lengthy, inappropriate and intensely-delivered tirade about the Catholic church, to the growing disdain of the guests. All attempts to calm him down fail and he eventually succeeds in accidentally smashing a priceless Chinese vase and then collapsing in an epileptic fit.
At this point, one might think that all is lost for Myshkin and Aglaya. But, actually, Aglaya is coming slowly round to admitting her deep desire to marry the prince. However, as this realisation grows, and despite her belief that the prince’s fixation on Nastasya is only a “rescuer” trip, Aglaya becomes increasingly jealous of her rival. She elects to confront Nastasya one evening, determined to put her in her place, once and for all. Myshkin, Aglaya, Nastasya and Rogozhin thus meet in the book’s most climatic scene.
Aglaya launches into a lengthy and bitter tirade about Nastasya to her face, detailing her history and her faults in great detail, determined to crush her completely. The prince stands there, horrified but mute. She pounds Nastasya verbally over and over, until the other finally collapses, seemingly unable to fight back against her opponent, many social classes above her.
But Nastasya realises that she holds one ace up her sleeve. Reviving herself, she regains her feet, and screams at Aglaya that she only has to call the prince and he will marry her instantly, dropping the other forever. Both women now direct their hate-filled gazes to Myshkin. Whom will he choose? Myshkin, clearly in a double-bind between his romantic love for Aglaya and his desperation to protect Nastasya, hesitates for a moment before moving towards Aglaya. But, seeing his hesitation, Aglaya puts her hands to her face and rushes from the room, devastated. Myshkin attempts to run after her but is held back by Nastasya, who then collapses in his arms.
Moments later, being comforted on the sofa, Nastasya revives and is jubilant that it is she who has won the battle for Myshkin. She sends Rogozhin, who has taken no significant part in the drama, away, and lies there with the prince, happily being tended by him. He agrees to marry her in a month’s time, as she demands.
Myshkin, however, is desperate to get in touch with Aglaya. He wants to set the record straight. He visits the Epanchin’s house daily but is told he is not welcome by her family, horrified by Aglaya’s collapse and seeking to protect her. In seeking to find some way to reach her, Myshkin confides in another of her suitors, Evgeny Pavlovich. Pavlovich is sympathetic to the prince but also tells him that he simply cannot marry both Nastasya and Aglaya. Myshkin is caught so deeply in a double-bind inside of himself, driven by conflicting desires, that he cannot really come to terms with this reality.
The weeks pass. Aglaya has left town with her family and Myshkin has failed to reconnect with her. Nastasya has purchased an amazing dress for the wedding. Pavlovsk locals are up in arms about the forthcoming marriage and gossip is rife.
Outside the church on the actual day of the wedding, true to form, Nastasya runs away with Rogozhin, who has a carriage nearby. They ride to St Petersburg with Myshkin pursuing a day later. Myshkin finally catches up with Rogozhin to find he has murdered Nastasya with a single stab to her heart. The two men pass the night together in a strangely trancelike state.
Rogozhin is arrested for the murder the next day and sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Siberia, his lawyer having pleaded that he had a fever of the brain. Aglaya rejects her family and runs away with a Polish con-man, posing as a count, embarking on a miserable life. Myshkin, apparently unable to process what has happened, returns to the Swiss clinic that was treating him previously, now in something of a psychotic state. Friends visit him over the following years but he can no longer recognise them and is completely lost.
All four characters thus end up in anything but a happy state - Nastasya dead, Aglaya married to a con-man, Rogozhin in prison and Myshkin insane.
Its ending regardless, The Idiot has captivated countless men and women over the years. But why? What draws us to the story and these four characters, despite the disaster that their lives finally become?
There seems to be something in the intensity and depth of the relationship between them that overwhelms any need for a happy ending. It almost doesn’t matter that they all end up destroyed, for somewhere we sense that something truly archetypal has taken place that has not been related in print before.
The novel leaves me with deep questions and has caused me to introspect on its themes to try to find answers.
Myshkin is torn between his romantic love for Aglaya and his desperation to save Nastasya - a seemingly spiritual desire. But, in trying to get both, he ends up destroying not only himself but also everyone else. Is Myshkin, with his extreme naivety and openness, at fault? Or is this simply how things are?
Why did Aglaya, knowing the man she loved was driven as he was, still elect to try to destroy Nastasya as she did? Surely, she would have realised that, seeing her opponent crushed, Myshkin would feel unable to leave her?
In writing what I consider to be the most human, spiritual novel ever, shouldn’t Dostoevsky at least have had the decency to give it a happy ending? It’s like he’s showing us how man can be but then telling us that it will anyway end in disaster!
On reflection, I think one of the things that Dostoevsky is pointing to is that it is the depth of engagement with our underlying nature, through the processes of life, that is important. Not our happiness or our future. They are secondary. By trying to create a happy ending for ourselves, we risk sacrificing a depth of meaning in our lives.
Aglaya feels compelled to crush her rival, despite having enough understanding of the situation to know that this will destroy also herself. It seems apparent that she has been magnetically attracted into this conflict because, as a spoiled rich girl, she has never had to fight for anything. All has been provided for her by her parents, whom she blames and deeply resents, and she has thus no knowledge of her animal nature. She embarks on her own journey when she finally falls into her actual inner world.
Myshkin is compelled by his spiritual nature to try to save Nastasya, refusing to see that doing so will destroy not only her but also the woman he loves. He is Christ-like in his feelings and attitude but insufficiently grounded to function in the world, and thus finally only succeeds in creating still more pain and suffering, not least for himself.
Nastasya might struggle to receive love, and always end up clinging to her damaged self-image, but I suspect that she also does not want a man who merely wants to save her. Myshkin, so driven by his need to save and rescue, simply cannot recognise this. Rogozhin fills the part of her that desires revenge on society. Time and again, she chooses this option over the possibility of self-healing.
The Idiot is superbly rich in human psychology. The character of Myshkin, with his Christ-like openness that draws in people, regardless of their social status, also points us to one possible way forwards. To me, he is saying that we can be open and that we will be accepted, even though we may not create happiness. Indeed, by having his lead character pursued by two of the most beautiful women in the city, he could even be said to be encouraging young men to share more of their heart!
Yet, on a deeper level, Dostoevsky is presenting our mind, and the mind of Western man, with a deep challenge. Are you willing to be authentic and to trust? Even if you have no way of knowing how it will end?
Indeed it is a fascinating story. And the allusion to Christ is really an allusion to a perception of Christ. A naive and innocent love often characterized as unconditional love being Christ-like in the sense that there is no expectation. Rene Girard writes about this story in his book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. He makes the point that Myshkin in effect by his desires that are lofty, stands apart from the other three. "He is the man with the most remote desire in the universe of the nearest desire. As far as those around him are concerned it is exactly as if he had no desire. He does not let himself be trapped in the triangles of others. Envy, jealousy, and rivalries abound in his presence but he is not contaminated. He is not indifferent - far from it - but his charity and pity are not as binding as desire. He never offers other characters the support of his vanity and they are always stumbling around him." I see how this can be seen as Christ-like for his life expressed no desire except to do the will of his father. The real character of Christ's love was far from naive and innocent. He fully understood the deep antipathy that humanity had towards one another and God. Girard writes of this as the mimetic conflict at the heart of humanity. Where our imitation of the one we seek to imitate reaches a point with the violence of a scapegoat must happen to maintain the order of society. Theologians have characterized Christ's sacrifice as love that carries no expectation. More specifically, that Christ died to satisfy the judgement of God towards humanity. However, Girard, sees something different. He has proposes that Christ did not die to satisfy God's wrath against mankind, but rather to satisfy mankind's wrath towards God. In saying this, Girard is saying that Jesus' death as the scapegoat is a supreme act of a loving God. It only falls to each person to receive that love from which healing and reconciliation are the rewards. I don't want to rewrite Dostoevsky's great story, for it reveals the many dimensions of humanity's conflict with itself. However, for Myshkin to truly be the archetype of Christ, he would have had to die a death that probably would have saved at least one if not all of but each of other three main characters from the fate that they may or may not have justly deserved.
Is it possible that the hero of the story is not in the characters , rather it is in the epileptic seizure ? The need for total honesty and electrical disconnect , the epileptic is unable to control themselves , and inside of this crazy story , everyone has their moment of spastic fits of all kinds ... proving that "love" lays outside of reason ? There are two plays , one by David Penhallow Scott "Matilda's Waltz" and Robert Rechnitz " Lives of Passion " both of these plays had characters that were not people , the protagonist was an energy , " god " - The one was the knitting bag of the old hawaiian lady , and the other was the aprhodite , goddess of passion , but in this story , the Idiot , I would suggest that the protagonist is the epileptic seizure that creates irrational love , jealousy , knifing , even the desire to save someone from drowing , and thus sinking your own self . Even the severe truth telling , is a form of epileptic honesty , that loosens up the colors on the palette and forms new dynamics . The title , "The Idiot " sets everyone back into their genesis , where they started from - I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the story , I may look into Dostoevsky if it lands in my hands .