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C H A P T E R T H R E E A NARROW ESCAPE INTO FAITH Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy “What a comedy!” Ippolit Terent’ev, part 4, chapter 5 “You’re a good fellow, but you’re comical.” Princess Belokonskaia to Prince Myshkin, part 4, chapter 7 The Idiot and Comedy The Idiot (1869) is often singled out as one of Dostoevsky’s most tragic novels. In this respect it rivals Demons, which followed it two years later. What makes The Idiot so grim is not the number of murders or suicides it contains, for there is only one: the murder-suicide of Nastasia Filippovna at the end of the novel. The source of the novel’s pall of gloom is, as Sarah Young argues, that“The Idiot ends with fewer hints of spiritual regeneration or the possibility of new life than Dostoevsky’s other novels,” with “no truly redemptive figure to offset its many ambivalences”1 —this despite the fact that its hero, the sickly Prince Myshkin, is identified by Dostoevsky in three separate places as a Christ figure in his notebooks for the novel.2 At the same time, Demons and The Idiot contain some of the most humorous scenes and outsized characters Dostoevsky would ever compose. Joseph Frank speaks of scenes in Demons of “irresistibly funny broad comedy,”3 while Gary Rosenshield claims“there are more comic episodes in The Idiot than in any of the other major novels.”4 C H A P T E R T H R E E 60 Tragedy and comedy, of course, are not exclusive categories.5 In point of fact, the two are related in Dostoevsky’s universe. Petr Bitsilli speaks of Dostoevsky as the author of the “novel-tragicomedy”6 and Dostoevsky scholarship has long recognized that “the comic element underpins his entire artistic world.”7 But how does comedy enter into the interpretive matrix of The Idiot? After all, in his endeavor to depict a “positively beautiful man,” Dostoevsky not only endowed Myshkin with obvious Christ-like qualities,8 but also identified him as the embodiment of Christian love.9 This complicates the matter somewhat, for, as Rosenshield argues, “If the prince were comic, he could hardly serve as the embodiment of the Christian idea.”10 And yet the comic and Christian worldviews have long been linked in world literature—something Dostoevsky himself comments on in a letter to his niece about The Idiot. The real question is whether the comic elements of the novel or a comic Prince Myshkin shed new light on the question of faith or on Dostoevsky’s own religious convictions. How might a submerged comic discourse in the novel function and how might it explain why “the comic is an integral part of the novel”?11 To date, very little has been written about comedy in The Idiot12 and even less connecting the novel’s comic vision to its Christian themes.13 A comment Dostoevsky made some six years before beginning The Idiot, however, indicates that he might have resorted to humor in the novel as a vehicle for communicating ideas that might otherwise themselves be ridiculed.“The moment you wish to tell the truth [istina] according to your convictions, you are at once accused of uttering copybook maxims,” Dostoevsky writes.“Why is it that if in our age we feel the need to tell the truth, we have more and more to resort to humor or satire or irony in order to sweeten truth as if it were a bitter pill, or to present one’s convictions to the public while pretending to be a shade haughtily indifferent to them or even with a certain shade of disrespect for them—in short, with some mean little concession?”14 The truth, Dostoevsky implies, must be asserted indirectly (through humor, satire, and irony), or even negatively (“with a certain shade of disrespect ”), an attitude that suggests that comedy in The Idiot may perform a similar function. More specifically, the ostensibly negative aspects that attach to Dostoevsky’s comic Christ figure may actually constitute a kind of apophatic discourse that reveals Christ anew to an unbelieving public, both in the novel and among the novel’s readers. In this reading, comedy serves a serious Christology in The Idiot, one that changes how the novel’s conclusion must be understood. 61 A Narrow Escape into Faith Prince Myshkin as Ridiculous Man The first task of a comic apophatic analysis of...


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