The Perils of “Enthusiast” Virtue
1. Melville’s “Enthusiast”: The Perversion of Innocence
For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril;—nevertheless, the sea is the sea, and these drowning men do drown. (357)1
This language and this metaphor tell us at once that in Pierre we are in a universe bordering or even overlapping Lord Jim’s. It is just as obvious that this is the universe which has been mine throughout this study. This relevance alone can justify my using a novel whose often incredible weaknesses—indeed whose horrors—would seem to argue conclusively against its being taken seriously. The shrieking melodramatics of style and action are beyond excuse or apology. Yet even Melville’s alternative title, The Ambiguities, expresses his central concern with the cleft consciousness that I have emphasized as characterizing the tragic sense. Here, perhaps, we approach the essential cause of Melville’s difficulties with this novel: his failure to hold consistently to the distinction between himself and his disorderly hero. In contrast to Gide and his Michel, for example, the distance between Melville and Pierre, demanded by the objectivity of Melville’s role—by his need to contain Pierre’s divisive vision within an aesthetically harmonious structure—frequently comes close to vanishing altogether. And as it vanishes so, of course, does the aesthetic power of his novel: as he yields uncritically to the absurdities of his hero, so we refuse any longer to yield to him. Melville, here as in Moby Dick, is himself trapped by the order-destroying despair that is his theme. But he fails here to do what he did in Moby Dick in the face of his dark vision: in the language of Mann, he fails to transcend despair by giving it an aesthetically controlled voice. Instead, its chaos brings on his own by undermining his art.
Thus the very source of Melville’s failings in Pierre strengthens its claim to being thematically urgent to my undertaking. The aesthetic justification for excluding it reveals my thematic need for it as almost indispensable. This is the furthest extent of my apology for the time I must spend on so unreadable a work. Its special usefulness to me stems from the nature and the direction of Pierre’s enthusiasm. Not, of course, from the mere fact of his enthusiasm, for we have been moving from one total “enthusiast” to another throughout. But Pierre’s enthusiasm falls upon him in a state of literally paradisiacal innocence. Seen by him as morally pure, it is totally conditioned by his moral inexperience even as it initiates him into its corrupt world quickly and roughly. In Pierre’s original and youthful motives there is nothing of Ahab’s drive to make vengeful war upon that in the world which has dared to wrong him, humiliate him, and thus to finish with him, leaving him as “the insulted and the injured.” Pierre’s situation is more casuistic, indeed, is truly polar: untouched himself, his innocent Eden still open to him, he must give his newly awakened moral sensibility full rein to confront and consecrate the one flaw he has discovered. He must disinterestedly champion righteousness absolutely and sacrificially in an attempt to restore a world of perfection unflawed, to convert all to the transcendent good that has until now flowed above and through his world unchallenged. Under the binding dictate of this moral intuition, he must at whatever cost to himself and others become the agent of this divine goodness, of whose undisputed dominion he has always been assured. He must now counter the vision of evil that he has found lurking beneath, tauntingly reminding him in the ambiguous portrait of his father that it has been there openly staring at him all along. Shaken out of his pre-ethical “aesthetic” bliss, he must trade his innocence, which unquestioningly assumed a natural perfection, for the moral striving for a newly human perfection. As we see the natural traded for the moral-human, the “aesthetic” for the ethical, the state of innocence for the state of experience, the “naive” for the “sentimental,” we see again the sublime humanistic objective whose dangerous futility Mann was later to trace—as Melville traces it here—the creative synthesis urged by Blake, by Schiller, by Goethe, by Emerson.
There is no resting on this side of total awareness and total commitment, of so thorough an identification with the godhead as to become its image. There is to be no compromise for the sake of simple human obligations that allow the dutiful routine of every day whose need persists despite the shattering seizure and the extremity it brings. As Pierre’s late and despairing vision reveals, the God-enfolded world demands that the homely catnip be overwhelmed by the pretentious amaranth:
But here and there you still might smell from far the sweet aromaticness of clumps of catnip, that dear farm-house herb.… that plant will long abide, long bask and bloom on the abandoned hearth. Illy hid; for every spring the amaranthine and celestial flower gained on the mortal household herb; for every autumn the catnip died, but never an autumn made the amaranth to wane. The catnip and the amaranth!—man’s earthly household peace, and the ever-encroaching appetite for God. (405)
But to what god does this relentless appetite lead? To the Titanic, the anti-Olympian bringer of chaos, Enceladus. For in his vision Pierre assumes the godhead, becomes the image of this divine undoer. His original transcendental identification with Christ has been thus perverted in the nightmare he now lives through, in that “ideal horror” that reflects his “actual grief” (407). Nietzsche, we may remember from my first chapter, placed the chaotic Titanic temperament significantly within the tragic framework as the pre-Dionysian antagonist of the Apollonian. Surely this is a long way from the easy grace of the natural world or its sublime transformation into the chivalric Christian world.
It was the latter that Pierre’s haughty mother dreamed of at the start as she tried to reconcile her desire for his heroism with her fear of the willfulness needed to achieve it.
Now I almost wish him otherwise than sweet and docile to me, seeing that it must be hard for man to be an uncompromising hero and a commander among his race, and yet never ruffle any domestic brow. Pray heaven he show his heroicness in some smooth way of favoring fortune, not be called out to be a hero of some dark hope forlorn;—of some dark hope forlorn, whose cruelness makes a savage of a man. (22)
Thus her hope that “he remain all docility to me, and yet prove a haughty hero to the world” (22).
This prayer for epic rather than tragic greatness proves to be too much to ask, so that his mother’s slight apprehensiveness proves prophetic: his dedication to sacrificial heroics moves him to haughtiness against her as well, in her eyes surely “makes a savage” of him. His movement to the choice of a self-aware moral greatness follows upon the permanent destruction of his idyllic pre-ethical world. It was the unshadowed world, the naturally and socially rich world of blithe optimistic acceptance—one which could persuade the knightly apprentice to Christian gentlemanliness to mock at the possibilities for earthly sorrow: “Well, life’s a burden, they say; why not be burdened cheerily?” (25) This is the Pierre who has “not wholly escaped” the “amiable philosophers of either the ‘Compensation,’ or ‘Optimist’ school,” those who “deny that any misery is in the world” (325); the Pierre who has not known grief and can “half disbelieve” (47) in it. The idyl of Pierre and his queenly Lucy seems to persuade our author as ironist (for he, at least, knows what is coming) to raise his voice with theirs in almost hysterical celebration:
Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above.…
Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! We lived before, and shall live again; and as we hope for a fairer world than this to come; so we came from one less fine. From each successive world, the demon Principle is more and more dislodged; he is the accursed clog from chaos, and thither, by every new translation, we drive him further and further back again. Hosannahs to this world! so beautiful itself, and the vestibule to more. (36–37)
Yet it is to be Pierre himself who becomes Enceladus, the demon principle emanating from chaos. In this early stage no break in natural perfection can seem to Pierre to signal its permanent destruction. The hallelujah which Melville, echoing his ecstatic hero, has just shouted for us, has told us that whatever in this fair world is less than “the true fair” (to use the appropriately Platonic notion of Spenser’s lovely Sonnet 79 from the Amoretti), whatever reveals a not totally exorcised demonism, can be used to translate this world into one yet closer to the heavenly, “the true fair,” and to complete exorcism. All leads upward, then, for the enthusiast, who responds to the shocking confrontation by evil with a renewed enthusiasm that, through the moral striving of the man-god, can transform all. It is no wonder that at first Pierre shudders at the threat of the “far profounder gloom” (47) which he senses in Isabel’s face, that under its spell he turns in fear away from Dante, “Night’s and Hell’s poet” (48). Of course it turns out to be Dante who later supplies him with the ambiguous epigraph to comment on what the revelation of his father’s sin has really done to him:
Ah! how dost thou change,
Agnello! See! thou art not double now,
Nor only one! (100)
Melville himself, in a more candid moment, acknowledges that what the shock of truth about his father has shattered in Pierre is permanently and irreparably shattered: “Ay, Pierre, now indeed art thou hurt with a wound, never to be completely healed but in heaven; for thee, the before undistrusted moral beauty of the world is forever fled …” (75). It is the end of the “aesthetic” and the invitation to the dangerously deceptive ethical that can never allow the restoration and the satisfaction it promises. Of course, Melville’s indication of this deception and the consequent self-deception reveals the extent of his distinctness from Pierre, his freedom to judge Pierre.
There is clearly much that is Emersonian—or at least what was popularly thought of as Emersonian—in Pierre’s attitudes to the natural world and moral sentiment. We know of Melville’s impatience with the facile consolations of transcendentalism, so that as we find Pierre subject to them we may expect to find him opening himself to the revenge of a dark irony. Thus we ought to fear the worst as we see him react to the vision of intimate evil where he had most faith in virtue. He reacts with unquestioning confidence in his moral intuition and its divine source as well as in his own ability to remain spotless even while indulging his willfulness. For he claims his will to be subservient to the “divine commands” (125) with which he so assuredly identifies himself. To prove himself “divinely dedicated” (125), to guarantee his freedom from self-interest, he must hurt—perhaps destroy—himself and his: “… he was almost superhumanly prepared to make a sacrifice of all objects dearest to him, and cut himself away from his last hopes of common happiness, should they cross his grand enthusiast resolution …” (125). And of course they must cross it.
In turning away from “all common conventional regardings” (125), he must disdain mere human opinion out of deference to “the Christ-like feeling” (125) that answers “the inflexible rule of holy right” (126). And in proper transcendentalist fashion he will turn from the impure conformist world to the natural universe itself, inspirited throughout by the goodness of divinity:
This day I will forsake the censuses of men, and seek the suffrages of the god-like population of the trees, which now seem to me a nobler race than man. Their high foliage shall drop heavenliness upon me; my feet in contact with their mighty roots, immortal vigor shall so steal into me. (126)
But that evening, as Pierre moves toward his first meeting with Isabel, the friendly Eden on which he has been depending is severely transformed—perhaps Melville’s ironic comment on Pierre’s bland security in nature’s goodness and receptivity. It is a strong and fearsome picture:
In that wet and misty eve the scattered, shivering pasture elms seemed standing in a world inhospitable, yet rooted by inscrutable sense of duty to their place.… [the mysterious mountain masses] shaggy with pines and hemlocks, mystical with nameless, vapory exhalations, and in that dim air black with dread and gloom. At their base, profoundest forests lay entranced, and from their far owl-haunted depths of caves and rotted leaves, and unused and unregarded inland overgrowth of decaving wood—for smallest sticks of which, in other climes many a pauper was that moment perishing; from out the infinite inhumanities of those profoundest forests, came a moaning, muttering, roaring, intermitted, changeful sound: rain-shakings of the palsied trees, slidings of rocks undermined, final crashings of long-riven boughs, and devilish gibberish of the forest-ghosts. (128–129)
Here is a new and different nature, bereft of innocence. Here is the hellish instead of the heavenly, the “inhumanities” that should warn Pierre of what he forsakes and what he invites when he forsakes the human. And this is what he does as he heads toward Isabel. Is it perhaps not a warning also that, under pressure from the “rotted” world to which he is now to be exposed, Pierre’s innocence will go the way of nature’s and eventuate in the human equivalent of this forbidding picture? If it is such a warning, Pierre can hardly be said to sense it very strongly. For following this bleak natural prospect, as he approaches Isabel’s door, Pierre’s transcendental assurance seems to be totally without shadow:
Infallibly he knows that his own voluntary steps are taking him forever from the brilliant chandeliers of the mansion of Saddle Meadows, to join company with the wretched rush-lights of poverty and woe. But his sublime intuitiveness also paints to him the sun-like glories of god-like truth and virtue; which though ever obscured by the dense fogs of earth, still shall shine eventually in unclouded radiance, casting illustrative light upon the sapphire throne of God. (131)
The downward path taken by Pierre’s innocence is traced in his movement from Christ to Enceladus, from an almost gratuitous benefactor to an almost gratuitous murderer, from the disinterested agent of Agape to the tortured agent of Eros—in short, from the light-bearing transcendentalist to that devotee of darkness, Captain Ahab. Melville originally comments on Pierre’s desertion of everyone’s interest but the unknown Isabel’s, on his desertion of every duty but his abstract duty to “Truth” and “Virtue,” with an ardor to match Pierre’s: “Thus, in the Enthusiast to Duty, the heaven-begotten Christ is born; and will not own a mortal parent, and spurns and rends all mortal bonds” (125). This ardor, stemming from our sometimes critical author, should assure us—and perhaps does—except that in retrospect, in light of the fall which follows, it should assure us only of the savage irony it conceals. We are of course to remember this when we see Plinlimmon, the pragmatic preacher of “virtuous expediency,” specifically condemn the imitation of Christ by “inferior beings” as leading to their eventual involvement in “unique follies and sins, unimagined before” (250). And so it is to be with Pierre who, as the best and worst of men, has courageously but fatally chosen to break Plinlimmon’s injunction to man: “he must by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being, or any cause, or any conceit” (251).
In calling the one duty to which Pierre enthusiastically responds the “abstract duty to ‘Truth’ and ‘Virtue’” and in opposing it to the simple human duties, the immediate, individual, and personal duties that in his history he has helped to accumulate day by day—duties to family, to his beloved, to himself, and to history—I have meant to suggest the point of weakness in this “amaranthine” identification with godhead. It is what a Personalist like Berdyaev, in the existentialist tradition, terms “objectivization.” And it is, as we have seen from the first in this volume, the inescapable demonizing consequence of the ethical stage pursued overzealously, the consequence of Hegelian (or Emersonian) immanence claiming our too enthusiastic allegiance, which means our abandonment of everything less abstract, of all that touches us and warms our flesh. Thus just before Melville ambiguously identifies Pierre with “the heaven-begotten Christ,” we are told that his new call to enthusiasm and duty, his undeviating pursuit of virtue and truth as these are dictated by his moral intuition, “in its mature development, when it should at last come forth in living deeds, would scorn all personal relationship with Pierre, and hold his heart’s dearest interests for naught” (125, my italics).
This prideful assumption of the absolute is most dangerous, as Plinlimmon tells us. We must remember further that the source of true Agape is not in an impersonal abstraction but in a capacity for immediate, individual, personal love endlessly and indiscriminately multiplied. It cannot be produced by inverting all normally discriminated attachments, damning them, and seizing upon their opposite. For the latter, however sacrificial its consequences, has also been carefully discriminated, however inversely so. Pierre himself early senses the upside-down character of his inner revolution as he speaks of the “reversed idea in my soul,” “profoundly sensible that his whole previous moral being was overturned” (102). It becomes painfully clear that inversion of this sort, exclusive and destructive as it is, only too easily becomes perversion as the pretension to disinterestedness fades to reveal the wild passion that has been underneath motivating all.
There is additional evidence of his decision to be an indifferent savior of those who have been socially outcast as a consequence of sexual waywardness. After having defended Delly Ulver as a matter of Christian principle before his mother and the Reverend Falsgrave, he reacts typically to Isabel’s first mention of Delly’s difficulties: “… I am still uncertain how best it may be acted on. Resolved I am, though, to succor her” (183). And so he does, including Delly in that bizarre—even absurd—threesome who that night take their quixotic flight. Her addition to the party serves no purpose so much as it does the demonstration of the indifferent, all-embracing ethical principle whose champion Pierre has become. Yet in embracing all he must touch none—which shall lead him ultimately to reject all.
It is through touch that his underground, incestuous motive is revealed, and, having been revealed, undercuts whatever sanctions his actions—questionable at best—may have claimed and leads him to a meaningless, uncontrolled, and almost random annihilation at the end. Having begun his crusade so much more on the side of the angels than Ahab was—or so it seemed—he ends on the other side even beyond Ahab, who, we must remember, to the end had some poor remnant of his “humanities.” When, tortured by his thankless struggle to live the truth and write the truth, Pierre is comforted by the warm grasp of his sister Isabel and is asked whether his torments have been removed by her touch, he answers in startled desperation, “But replaced by—by—by—Oh God, Isabel, unhand me!” (321) And he acknowledges the changed aspect of virtue, even as we saw the changed aspect of nature earlier. He is overwhelmed by the ambiguous dual principle:
Ye heavens, that have hidden yourselves in the black hood of the night, I call to ye! If to follow Virtue to her uttermost vista, where common souls never go; if by that I take hold on hell, and the uttermost virtue, after all, prove but a betraying pander to the monstrousest vice,—then close in and crush me, ye stony walls, and into one gulf let all things tumble together! (321)
He half-seriously questions whether Isabel is his sister and warns the gods to look out for the heavenly fires which they inspired in him, for now that heaven and hell are no longer separated the fire will roar uncontrolled in its transformed fury to do its worst. He concludes his tirade by reducing virtue and vice to “two shadows cast from one nothing” (322). With this assertion of nothing as the sole “substance,” the atheistic existentialist has discovered himself.
Pierre has been a long time making this total confrontation. He has had evidence enough even before he undertook the actual flight with Isabel. In announcing his final plan to her he insists again and again on his moral purity and on the purity and harmlessness of the plan, a plan to which “heaven itself did not say Nay” (226). All this over-protestation as he seeks to justify their need to live before the world as man and wife! Yet Pierre himself seems shocked at the plan and expects Isabel to be literally floored by it, so that perhaps he is not as convinced of its purity and his as he must protest he is. He holds Isabel up and whispers it to her:
The girl moved not; was done with all her tremblings; leaned closer to him, with an inexpressible strangeness of an intense love, new and inexplicable. Over the face of Pierre there shot a terrible self-revelation; he imprinted repeated burning kisses upon her; pressed hard her hand; would not let go her sweet and awful passiveness. (226)
So the game was really up before it started, although despite this “self-revelation” Pierre forges ahead and does not draw his inevitable conclusions, personal and moral, until the later scene of painful caresses.
Yet his self-deception in his supposed service of his ideal is made clear even earlier. Pierre has sworn to “know nothing but Truth; glad Truth, or sad Truth; I will know what is, and do what my deepest angel dictates.… From all idols, I tear all veils …” (76). His search for truth shows him the limits of his mother’s prideful love and the importance of beauty in the blissful life he has passed. He answers this recognition in an unfortunate imitation of Lear:
Welcome then be Ugliness and Poverty and Infamy, and all ye other crafty ministers of Truth, that beneath the hoods and rags of beggars hide yet the belts and crowns of kings. And dimmed be all beauty that must own the clay … (106)
But Melville is obliged also to face the naked truth and to “tear all veils.” And unhappy as he is (“Save me from being bound to Truth, liege lord, as I am now” ), he must outdo his hero by acknowledging his weakness as well: though Pierre was “charged with the fire of all divineness, his containing thing was made of clay” (126). Melville must follow this with the admission of Isabel’s beauty and its profound attraction for Pierre. Surely we are to recall Pierre’s invocation to ugliness as we read our author’s uneasy concession that
womanly beauty, and not womanly ugliness, invited him to champion the right. Be naught concealed in this book of sacred truth. How, if accosted in some squalid lane, a humped, and crippled, hideous girl should have snatched his garment’s hem, with—“Save me, Pierre—love me, own me, brother; I am thy sister!”—Ah, if man were wholly made in heaven, why catch we hell-glimpses? (127)
It should be no surprise, then, to find Melville upbraiding high-minded “self-imposters”—Plato, Spinoza, Goethe, “with a preposterous rabble of Muggletonian Scots and Yankees, whose vile brogue still the more bestreaks the stripedness of their Greek or German Neoplatonical originals” (244). Undoubtedly Emerson is among the “Yankees.” We have seen that Pierre too has caught “hell-glimpses,” enough of them to make him turn in anger upon these affirming philosophers who have deluded him. Though more hysterical, he echoes his author in having about the same cast of villians:
Now I drop all humorous or indifferent disguises, and all philosophical pretensions. I own myself a brother of the clod, a child of the Primeval Gloom. Hopelessness and despair are over me, as pall on pall. Away, ye chattering apes of a sophomorean Spinoza and Plato, who once didst all but delude me that the night was day, and pain only a tickle. Explain this darkness, exorcise this devil, ye can not. Tell me not, thou inconceivable coxcomb of a Goethe, that the universe can not spare thee and thy immortality, so long as—like a hired waiter—thou makest thyself “generally useful.” (356)
Actually it is Vivia, the author-narrator of Pierre’s book, who writes this, although we are told that Pierre is speaking through him. Is this not a likely hint that in much the same way Melville is speaking to us through Pierre? Too much so and too often so, there is reason to feel. And the similarity of their maledictions against the “amiable philosophers” is significant evidence.
Despite these realizations, Pierre is able to welcome Lucy’s incredible gesture when she comes to Pierre and Isabel to sacrifice herself to them. Her reason—“I feel that heaven hath called me to a wonderful office toward thee” (365)—has all too familiar a ring to us, as it should have to Pierre. Apparently Pierre’s enthusiasm is contagious! Lucy answers her mother’s pleas with Pierre-like confidence:
What she was doing was not of herself; she had been moved to it by all-encompassing influences above, around, and beneath. She felt no pain for her own condition; her only suffering was sympathetic. She looked for no reward; the essence of welldoing was the consciousness of having done well without the least hope of reward. (384)
By now Pierre should know better; he should appreciate the final irony in the fact of Lucy’s saintly commitment just after he has himself seen the final futility of his own commitment. Instead, he responds to her as indeed a divine agent and decides to defend her mad resolve against all comers. Assured of her purity, he worries only whether his dismal quarters could be “the place that an angel should choose for its visit to earth” (366). The language used by Melville suggests even he may share this judgment. Yet the story carries its own judgment of her self-dedication: for it is her decision and Pierre’s stalwart defense of that decision against those it hurts that set off the grotesque torrent of blood with which the novel closes.
Perhaps Melville has been too candid about Pierre. With a too great relentlessness he has traced how “the heaven-begotten Christ” has changed to Enceladus, how Pierre’s dedication to an immanent, all-absorbing moral order has changed to his Ahab-like, hell-bent war against the hostile, amoral chaos. One could not have begun meaning to have more purity of intention or have ended with less. As unique as the open generosity of his original motive are those secret “unique sins” into which existential logic perverts it—which is what the coldblooded, “non-benevolent” Plinlimmon predicted. Melville clearly finds the sensible, unsympathetic Plinlimmon distasteful (“there was still something latently visible in him which repelled” ), but he faces the unhappy and necessary truth of Pierre, the grandly noble alternative. Nor can the final blame rest elsewhere than with Pierre, not even with that detestable, Plinlimmon-like society whose own inhumanities challenge Pierre to take too much on himself. Melville has promised to be “more frank with Pierre than the best men are with themselves”—surely more frank than Pierre himself can be until it is far too late—even though as a consequence of Melville’s frankness Pierre “shall stand in danger of the meanest mortal’s scorn” (127). So let us be careful with Pierre, who is meant to be among the very “best men,” lest we become as scornful as Plinlimmon and reveal ourselves to be among the “meanest” of mortals. Melville himself suffered from a divided and uncertain allegiance to Pierre that often brought him also to an overzealous rage which consumed the aesthetic possibilities of his work. Perhaps Pierre was too extreme a case, tracing too extreme a movement. Yet in coming toward the end to the demoniacal stage we by now well recognize and in occupying it so fiercely, he should be instructive to us even if he was hopelessly elusive for Melville.
2. Dostoevsky’s “Idiot”: The Curse of Saintliness
Though Christ encountered woe in both the precept and the practice of his chronometricals, yet did he remain throughout entirely without folly or sin. Whereas, almost invariably, with inferior beings, the absolute effort to live in this world according to the strict letter of the chronometricals is, somehow, apt to involve those inferior beings eventually in strange, unique follies and sins, unimagined before.… What man who carries a heavenly soul in him, has not groaned to perceive, that unless he committed a sort of suicide as to the practical things of this world, he never can hope to regulate his earthly conduct by that same heavenly soul? … he must by no means make a complete unconditional sacrifice of himself in behalf of any other being, or any cause, or any conceit.
Plotinus Plinlimmon (249–251)
If Pierre has committed the unique sins, Dostoevsky’s Myshkin is guilty of the unique follies—in their way, perhaps, as destructive in their consequences. The critic cannot begin to talk about the problem of Myshkin without citing Dostoevsky’s famous claim, “My intention is to portray a truly beautiful soul.” And this claim would seem clearly to remove Myshkin from consideration as a tragic visionary in my sense. It would rather argue that Dostoevsky has here transcended the tragic vision and, in portraying a true saint, has reached to a considerably more sublime vision. It would argue consequently that the inevitable half-darkness in which I have seen all these extreme protagonists to be wandering may be unequivocally and divinely lightened, that the duality which characterizes their moral life may—given enough innocence and purity—reach a higher reconciliation. In arguing for this exalted affirmation, it would, in other words, argue against my claim for the inescapability of the tragic vision within the conditions of extremity and the aesthetic and existential demands for authenticity, as our crisis-novelists have conceived these. And since one can hardly dispute Dostoevsky’s passion for extremity or the fierce candor of his authenticity, I must find a place for even his sublimest work or else qualify my general contention considerably. I have chosen The Idiot, then, as the most difficult of his works to bring within my context and as perhaps the most crucial of all novels from the standpoint of my dialectic. I see it as the case against my view a fortiori, with its protagonist at the end of the spectrum toward which I have been shading constantly, the seemingly angelic end farthest removed from the open demons with which I started. It remains to be seen whether this spectrum returns upon itself so that, as our intermediate novels seemed to be prophesying, we end much where we began and moral progression is finally illusion.
In this one case, then, I must use this second novel of the chapter, not as a nontragic (or a less than tragic) analogue, but as an even more critical example of the tragic. Not, of course, that any sensible reader could even for a moment see Myshkin as being transformed into a demoniacal creature. He is surely not to be confused with Pierre. Both are self-sacrificing enthusiasts, but while Pierre’s dedication to virtue stems from a prideful and highly self-conscious assumption of righteousness, Myshkin takes up the burdens of humanity with a humility that makes no pretensions for his role—indeed that would deny any which others would make for him. Pierre is a self-appointed Jesus while Myshkin would shrink from any such imputation, although his actions, combining personal disinterestedness with lack of pronouncement, based on love of persons rather than love of principle, seem far more Christ-like. Thus this comparison would suggest that, as Dostoevsky intended, Myshkin approaches the Christ parable without its obvious perversion into parody—a perversion we have frequently witnessed, if nowhere more forcefully than in Pierre. But if I know better than to try to transform Myshkin into one of that rebellious group of visionaries of whom Pierre is our most recent and most extreme example, neither can I allow his goodness to remain unquestioned by casting all blame for his unhappy end upon a fallen and uncomprehending world that cannot tolerate the divine simplicity of innocence. I must hope it is not merely the cold unyielding eye of Plinlimmon I am using as I claim to find the novel casting some of the blame on Myshkin through the very presumption upon the rest of humanity that his humility inversely asserts.
It may of course be that Dostoevsky did not totally succeed in his attempt “to portray a truly beautiful soul” or at least it seems likely that he was not totally satisfied with the results. If he were satisfied, would he have felt the need to pursue the problem of saintliness and worldliness in the more careful and qualified way he did with Zossima and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov? Zossima’s saintliness seems unquestionable, but it is dramatically inconclusive in that he had to retire from the world to achieve it. He is transfigured from a licentious worldling only through the monastery, which is the safeguard against extreme situations because it forbids human involvement. Zossima appears to recognize as much in summoning Alyosha to a more difficult saintly mission:
… this is not the place for you in the future. When it is God’s will to call me, leave the monastery.… I bless you for great service in the world. Yours will be a long pilgrimage. And you will have to take a wife, too. You will have to bear all before you come back.2
It seems, then, that Dostoevsky may have felt some sense of failure with Myshkin, leading him to try again with Alyosha to explore the possibilities of sainthood operating with the necessary limitations of its human agent within a fallen world. And Dostoevsky was too much of a Christian not to insist that the fallen world would somehow have to be reflected in its saintly but human intruder, and that the intruder would have the humility to accept and assert this fact. So Zossima sends forth Alyosha to a danger and a suffering perhaps beyond what he could trust himself to undergo. The story as regards Alyosha was left unfinished by Dostoevsky and, although the children are cheering him at the close of the novel, many doubts are left about how he would have made out in the unwritten sequel—with the Aglaia-like, sick figure of Lise lingering in the background casting many of them. Given his Karamazov name and Dostoevsky’s honesty—as well as my own theory about the tragic—I remain at least as skeptical as Eliseo Vivas is in his essay3 whose persuasiveness allowed me to turn back to The Idiot with confidence. I am skeptical finally because all I have really to go on is the earlier failure of Myshkin, a failure Dostoevsky took seriously enough to try again in The Brothers Karamazov, even if he could not bring Alyosha far enough for us to judge whether he can do better, indeed whether man can do better. So it still must be Myshkin’s career we examine to find Dostoevsky’s detailed study of the consequences of man as Jesus.
There is Zossima as well as Alyosha in Myshkin. His retirement in the Swiss sanitarium both before and after the action of the novel is clearly his withdrawal from human involvement, his monastery where his modest sanctity goes its way in peace. He is, like the saint, unfit for society, which will not understand him, labels him “idiot,” and keeps him apart in forced solitude. When he recovers enough superficial similarity to his fellows to get by, he returns to society where his essential position remains the same, his ideas “idiotic” and his language gibberish. But his involvement brings the darkest of troubles to others and himself, and he shall have to withdraw again to his sanctuary where he can safely commune with himself and make literal the symbolic distance between himself and the world.
During his worldly trials also the impulse to retreat is alive in him. When his difficulties managing with people seem insuperable, he has a “terrible longing … to leave everything here and to go back to the place from which he had come, to go away into the distance to some remote region, to go away at once without even saying good-bye to any one” (291).4 Or: “Sometimes he longed to get away, to vanish from here altogether. He would have been positively glad to be in some gloomy, deserted place, only that he might be alone with his thoughts and no one might know where he was” (329). But at this stage of his career he must not take the way of Zossima. We are told, after the first of these passages, that he did not consider his “terrible longing” “for ten minutes; he decided at once that it would be ‘impossible’ to run away, that it would be almost cowardice, that he was faced with such difficulties that it was his duty now to solve them, or at least to do his utmost to solve them” (291). And after the second of these passages he turns back to the world to look into those taunting wild eyes of Aglaia. True to his Christ-like decision to mix with the affairs of the world, he must confess to Ippolit that he has “always been a materialist” (368) in a statement that Ippolit wisely considers significant. A very special sort of materialist, it goes without saying.
There is much else about Myshkin that is divided. Whatever duality we find in him is evidence of his humanity, his imperfection, his similarity to the lesser people about him. For example, Keller, with Lebedyev the basest and most obviously “underground” creature in this story that is filled with them, has been confessing to Myshkin the confusion in him of the noble and the base, the undercutting of every noble intention by an insidiously base countermotive: he ashamedly admits that he had decided to make a full confession of sins to Myshkin and then, even while still feeling this need profoundly, had thought of turning it to profit by asking Myshkin for money. Indeed, he is even using this novel form of double confession as a new way of extorting money from Myshkin. And surely Myshkin knows this, although he cheerfully allows Keller to succeed. Myshkin tries to account to Keller for the following of the noble by the base, the impulse to confess by the impulse to extort:
“But most likely that’s not true; it’s simply both things came at once. The two thoughts came together; that often happens. It’s constantly so with me. I think it’s not a good thing, though; and, do you know, Keller, I reproach myself most of all for it. You might have been telling me about myself just now. I have sometimes even fancied,” Myshkin went on very earnestly, genuinely and profoundly interested, “that all people are like that; so that I was even beginning to excuse myself because it is awfully difficult to struggle against these double thoughts; I’ve tried. God knows how they arise and come into one’s mind.” (293)
In part, of course, this is God’s humble man seeing in himself the weaknesses of others in order not to be the self-righteous judge. But Myshkin is indeed concerned about his own “double thoughts.” Only a few pages earlier we were told, “of late he had blamed himself for two extremes, for his excessive ‘senseless and impertinent’ readiness to trust people and at the same time for his gloomy suspiciousness” (285).5
There is also Myshkin’s conviction of the momentary ecstasy allowed by his epilepsy in the moment of pure light that preceded his fits. In phrases that sound like Mann in his more dangerously “spirituel” moments, Myshkin debates the ambiguities of disease and health with himself:
… he often said to himself that all these gleams and flashes of the highest sensation of life and self-consciousness, and therefore also of the highest form of existence, were nothing but disease, the interruption of the normal condition; and if so, it was not at all the highest form of being, but on the contrary must be reckoned the lowest. And yet he came at last to an extremely paradoxical conclusion. “What if it is disease?” he decided at last. “What does it matter that it is an abnormal intensity, if the result, if the minute of sensation, remembered and analysed afterwards in health, turns out to be the acme of harmony and beauty, and gives a feeling, unknown and undivined till then, of completeness, of proportion, of reconciliation, and of ecstatic devotional merging in the highest synthesis of life?” (214)
We may be reminded of his earlier performance before the Epanchin women, his existential psychoanalysis of the executed criminal, which concluded with his speculation about the hearing of the clang of iron at the last moment or about that brief (and yet unending) all-significant moment in which the head may know it has been cut off. Alexandra’s reaction to Myshkin’s recital can serve for the later dialogue with himself as well, and perhaps for Myshkin’s more than simple temperament generally: “That’s nothing like quietism, certainly” (61).
I have claimed that it was Myshkin’s ability to return to enough of a superficial similarity to his fellows that enabled him to return to society, but that his continuing difference from them got him and them into trouble. The examination of his divided temperament has revealed that much of him was capable of being truly similar to those around him, all too similar. Thus his difficulties may be traced primarily to his incompleteness in any direction, to his being only half-saint (or half-“idiot”) and half-man, half out of the world but half committed to it. It is this double-ness that misleads Aglaia and results in both their falls. With this in mind we can trace the development of their relationship. We may note at the outset that Myshkin himself undergoes a significant development, a fact that argues for his all-too-human imperfections and complexities. Myshkin moves from saintly to human attitudes; and then, after Aglaia has been partly persuaded to trust his human emotions, he reverts to the saintliness that must desert her for a wider obligation of love.
Myshkin’s initial championing of Nastasya is clearly presented to us in the framework of Quixotism. Aglaia puts his first note to her in a book which turns out to be Don Quixote, and in the poem she recites about the “poor kinight”—the title she both admiringly and scornfully applies to Myshkin—she inserts Nastasya’s initials as those the knight, inspired by “an all-consuming fire” (238), inscribes in blood upon his shield to defend in battle. The perceptive Yevgeny, in that all-important dialogue with Myshkin at the end, corroborates the notion that Myshkin’s chivalry in behalf of Nastasya was caused by “the first glow of eagerness to be of service” (553), which accompanied Myshkin’s return to Russian society. Myshkin, “a virginal knight” “bewitched” by Nastasya’s “demoniacal beauty,” was “intoxicated with enthusiasm” (553), the word that returns us to the universe of Pierre. Yevgeny’s claims remind us of Aglaia’s definition of the poor knight as “a man who is capable of an ideal, and what’s more, a man who having once set an ideal before him has faith in it, and having faith in it gives up his life blindly to it” (235). She leaves no doubt that she means the ideal to be a lady, the lady whose initials he carries. And she terms the poor knight the serious equivalent of Quixote.
Myshkin’s feelings for Nastasya partly confirm the diagnosis. He urges Rogozhin not to consider him as a rival for Nastasya even though Myshkin repeatedly takes her away from him. Denying that he and Nastasya ever lived together, Myshkin says, “I explained to you before that I don’t love her with love, but with pity. I believe I define it exactly” (196–7). But the kind of love Myshkin is capable of is to change. On the eve of his birthday, despite Rogozhin’s account of Nastasya’s most recent aberrations, Myshkin is able to claim cheerfully, “my new life has begun to-day” (348). Rogozhin himself acknowledges this fact by noting the remarkable change in Myshkin. The cheerful change is that he is able to believe in his personal and domestic future as this is related to his personal and normally human love for Algaia. So he can tell Aglaia of his feelings for Nastasya, “… I only pitied her, but … I … don’t love her any more” (413). We cannot help noting that in his “new life” love and pity have become separate entities: he has dropped the saint’s Agape to pick up the humanizing Eros. He can go on to tell Aglaia, “I can’t love her now … I can’t sacrifice myself like that, though I did want to at one time” (415).
It seems, then, that Myshkin is becoming Aglaia’s knight rather than Nastasya’s, the medieval knight-errant of the lady fair with amorous obligations rather than Spenser’s allegorical, dehumanized knight in the arduous service of holiness. After all, we have only Aglaia’s word for it that Myshkin was carrying Nastasya’s initials. We may remember that in the poem, before hurling himself into battle, the knight shouted, “Lumen coeli” (238). And we are told several times that it is Aglaia who represents the light-principle to Myshkin. Nastasya’s ambiguous letters to Aglaia are full of Myshkin’s assertions that Aglaia is a “ray of light” (432) to him; and Myshkin himself has told her, after denying his ability any longer to sacrifice himself for Nastasya, “In my darkness then I dreamed.… I had an illusion perhaps of a new dawn” (415). No wonder the vaguest prospect of a possible future with Aglaia prompted Myshkin to dream of beginning a “new life.” So perhaps it is to be Aglaia’s light rather than Nastasya’s darkness that our poor knight must serve—which would mean that he would also be serving himself. For he would be lightening his own darkness instead of trying, however fleetingly, to bring the irrevocably lost Nastasya “to seeing light round her once more” (413).
Despite his continuing feelings of obligation to the spiritual burdens of Nastasya which he has helped to amass, Myshkin appears to have persuaded Aglaia that he has made a moderate return to humanity. Not a complete return to normality, since it is the “poor knight” in him that the fiercely romantic Aglaia loves. A childlike enthusiast herself, she must have something of quixotic dedication in Myshkin, but must have it sufficiently stripped of its most obvious idiocies to be undeserving of her bitterest contempt. And of course she must have it hers and not another’s, despite any claim to misfortune that deserves a champion. But Myshkin has promised more than he can deliver at the due date. His partial saintliness that recalls him to duality will not allow him to sustain his “new life,” and it leads him, as Yevgeny makes abundantly clear, to be false to obligations to Aglaia as sacred and at least as seriously undertaken as those earlier ones to a caritas that embraced Nastasya. When the mad Rogozhin, knowing Myshkin’s weakness only too well, speaks of Nastasya’s companion madness and of their doomed future together, he challenges Myshkin to say whether he can still be happy. “‘No, no, no!’ cried Myshkin with unspeakable sadness” (436). Perhaps he already knows that he cannot keep his back turned and that his hopes for a new life were founded on self-deception. And when, as we know he must, he chooses Nastasya over Aglaia in that harrowing scene of mutual lacerations, we know he has returned to self-sacrificing enthusiasm. By the time of his final conversation with Yevgeny—during which the latter tells him that Aglaia loved him “like a woman, like a human being, not like an abstract spirit” (556)—he is able to assert once again that despite his fears he loves Nastasya “with all my heart” (556). When we are told that “in his love for her there was an element of the tenderness for some sick, unhappy child who could not be left to shift for itself” (562), we know that love and pity have become identified for him again and finally. We may wonder whether there may not be considerable truth in Yevgeny’s accusation: “… didn’t you deceive that adorable girl [Aglaia] when you told her that you loved her?” (554) As for Aglaia herself, Myshkin has destroyed her, has converted her childlike idealism into fraudulent and decadent romanticism, and has brought her incipient demonism into the open. When we learn that she marries a swindling Polish count and ends by converting to Catholicism, we should know Dostoevsky’s prejudices well enough to be provided with incontestable evidence of the unhappy disposition he has made of her.
It is difficult to witness her fall and, seeing its relation to Myshkin’s rejection of her, not to ask with Yevgeny, “And where was your heart then, your ‘Christian’ heart? Why, you saw her face at that moment: well, was she suffering less than the other, that other woman who has come between you? How could you have seen it and allowed it? How could you?” (554) But of course Myshkin is responsible for more than this. It seems that it was he who continually drove Nastasya into Rogozhin’s murderous hands and who at the same time whipped Rogozhin into the frenzy needed to turn homicidal. And Myshkin is painfully aware of it. His analysis of Nastasya’s madness, for example, is brilliant in its probing accuracy. He understands why again and again she has deserted Rogozhin after promising to marry him, in order to run off with Myshkin, only to be even more terrified of her feelings of guilt with the little saint whom she must in turn desert to seek her fated death once more at the hands of Rogozhin. Her final turn—and she knows it is to be the last one—is to Rogozhin. After the murder Rogozhin tells Myshkin, “it was you she was afraid of” (579). She feared death with Rogozhin less than life under Myshkin’s all-discerning, all-forgiving eye. Myshkin’s earlier analysis prepares us for all this:
That unhappy woman is firmly convinced that she is the most fallen, the most vicious creature in the whole world. Oh, don’t cry shame on her, don’t throw stones at her! She has tortured herself too much from the consciousness of her undeserved shame! And, my God, she’s not to blame! Oh, she’s crying out every minute in her frenzy that she doesn’t admit going wrong, that she was the victim of others, the victim of a depraved and wicked man. But whatever she may say to you, believe me, she’s the first to disbelieve it, and to believe with her whole conscience that she is … to blame. When I tried to dispel that gloomy delusion, it threw her into such misery that my heart will always ache when I remember that awful time. It’s as though my heart had been stabbed once for all. She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn’t even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say to herself at once, “There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature!” Oh, perhaps you won’t understand this, Aglaia. Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on some one. Sometimes I did bring her to seeing light round her once more, as it were. But she would grow restive again at once, and even came to accusing me bitterly of setting myself up above her (though I had no thought of such a thing) and told me in so many words at last, when I offered her marriage, that she didn’t want condescending sympathy or help from anyone, nor to be elevated to anyone’s level. (412–413)
Yet Myshkin must persist, with what consequences we know, going on to condemn himself for the suspiciousness revealed by his acute perceptions. This leads him to insist with inner shame on his own unworthiness. Almost immediately before Rogozhin’s assault upon him, Myshkin has been upbraiding himself for harboring dark thoughts about Rogozhin: “Ah, how unpardonably and dishonourably he had wronged Rogozhin! No, it was not that ‘the Russian soul was a dark place,’ but that in his own soul there was darkness, since he could imagine such horrors!” (218) Immediately before the young nihilistic invaders slander him mercilessly before his friends, Myshkin senses their ruthless intention but turns angrily upon himself:
… he felt too sad at the thought of his “monstrous and wicked suspiciousness.” He felt that he would have died if anyone had known he had such an idea in his head, and at the moment when his guests walked in, he was genuinely ready to believe that he was lower in a moral sense than the lowest around him. (244)
But of course his least generous thoughts about others are always his most accurate ones.
Myshkin is of course always ready to blame himself for the sins of others, a proper saintly attitude. But it seems to drive his more sinful fellows to ever more desperate crime. When Yevgeny concedes that he is willing to forgive Ippolit his behavior, Myshkin, unsatisfied, suggests this is not enough: “You ought to be ready to receive his forgiveness too” (324). He is answered rather skeptically by Prince S. (and wouldn’t it be more appropriate if these lines were spoken by the shrewd Yevgeny himself?) that reaching paradise on earth poses more difficulties than Myshkin will face. His translation of this Zossima-like notion into action infuriates far more seriously those who have offended him. He very nearly treats Rogozhin as the wronged party when he meets him for the first time after the attempted knifing: “We were feeling just the same. If you had not made that attack (which God averted), what should I have been then? I did suspect you of it, our sin was the same, in fact” (346–347). Rogozhin’s scornful laugh promises that he feels dared to do still worse. Myshkin’s youthful tormentors are also frustrated by the impossibility of offending him, so that he drives them to exceed their viciousness moment by moment while he takes the blame for it. The ill and sensitive Ippolit softens momentarily and seems ready for conversion. Instead, there is reversion, and Myshkin, all-seeing once more, admits he has been expecting it, although he has done nothing to head it off.
Suddenly Ippolit got up, horribly pale and with an expression of terrible, almost despairing, shame on his distorted face.… if I hate anyone here … it’s you, Jesuitical, treacly soul, idiot, philanthropic millionaire; I hate you more than every one and everything in the world! I understood and hated you long ago, when first I heard of you; I hated you with all the hatred of my soul.… This has all been your contriving. You led me on to breaking down! You drove a dying man to shame! You, you, you are to blame for my abject cowardice! I would kill you if I were going to remain alive! I don’t want your benevolence … (282–283)
We have seen, then, how through his Christian humility with Nastasya, Rogozhin, and Ippolit, Myshkin has refused to give his beloved humanity the human privilege of sinning, of being offensive and arousing moral indignation. Myshkin has the keenness to understand what he is driving them to do, and yet he cannot do otherwise himself. Instead of easing and consoling them in their raging “underground” ambivalences, he is making their way infinitely more difficult. His irrational Christ-like transcendence of mere ethical judgment turns deadly. He knows it and persists, becoming dangerously offensive himself. By assuming himself worse than others, he gives them a greater moral burden than in their human weakness they can carry. They break under it and become worse than without Myshkin they would be—partly in order to spite him. But there is no stopping Myshkin, laboring as he is under the psychosis of humility, perhaps in its own way not much less blameworthy than Pierre’s psychosis of pride.
This sprawling novel is made up of several long, climactic, and calamitous scenes well spaced and interspersed with digressions and minor movements. The calamities increase until the final catastrophe, and, as we have seen, much of the responsibility for all of them must be borne by Myshkin. What is so destructive in him is the sense others must get from his infinite meekness that they are being judged. Of course, Myshkin knows the sin of pride that is involved in judging and so carefully refrains, condemning himself instead. But this very inversion of the process constitutes a form of judgment too for the guilty, in many ways a more painful one than conventional judgment. Thus Aglaia can tell him, “I think it’s very horrid on your part, for it’s very brutal to look on and judge a man’s soul, as you judge Ippolit. You have no tenderness, nothing but truth, and so you judge unjustly” (406). Myshkin charges her with being unfair to him, and perhaps she is. But there is some justice in her claim that Myshkin’s unerring depth of moral perception makes it impossible for him to miss the slightest failing in others, however quick he may be to condemn his own suspiciousness and to ask forgiveness. The relentlessness of his moral candor makes any subsequent involutions all the more painful to bear.
Aglaia’s judgment of his judgment seems more profoundly to the point than that of unworthies like Keller and Lebedyev. For these, Myshkin’s refusal to play the judge, as in the case of Keller’s “double thoughts” in the passage I have examined, seems most effective; for with their lackey baseness they find it useful, indeed profitable. Keller responds to Myshkin’s confession of his own similar guilt rapturously: “Even the preacher, Bourdaloue, would not have spared a man; but you’ve spared one, and judged me humanely! To punish myself and to show that I am touched, I won’t take a hundred and fifty roubles; give me only twenty-five, and it will be enough!” (294) Dostoevsky emphasizes the point by having Lebedyev walk in even before Keller has left and begin the same routine, closing with another celebration of the prince’s power to “judge humanely” (294). As these creatures shriek their abjectness throughout the novel, using their self-condemnation as their major weapon, we cannot help seeing in them a parody of Myshkin’s own devout humility, a parody that perhaps strikes a resounding note in the monologue of that other buffoon, Clamence, in Camus’ The Fall.
It is Myshkin’s rational inversion in matters of moral judgment that Yevgeny appears to be referring to in speaking of his “lack of all feeling for proportion” (553), his power of “exaggeration that passes belief” (554) in their late dialogue to which I have referred several times. He must wonder “whether there was natural feeling or only intellectual enthusiasm” (554) in Myshkin’s extraordinary actions in behalf of Nastasya. He indicates the nature of Myshkin’s enthusiasm by adding, “… in the temple the woman was forgiven—just such a woman, but she wasn’t told that she’d done well, that she was deserving of all respect and honour, was she?” (554) Compassion is admirable, but senseless inversion that inflicts pain on the more blameless is another matter. Contemplating the wreck of Aglaia, Yevgeny asks, “What will compassion lead you to next?” (554) Here as elsewhere in this conversation Myshkin miserably cries out that he is to blame. Yevgeny answers pointedly and “indignantly”: “But is that enough? … Is it sufficient to cry out: ‘Ach, I’m to blame?’ [sic] You are to blame, but yet you persist!” (554) Precisely—he persists to the end. As we watch Myshkin preparing for his marriage with Nastasya, we are advised: “As for protests, conversations like the one with Yevgeny Pavlovitch, he was utterly unable to answer them, and felt himself absolutely incompetent, and so avoided all talk of the kind” (563).
The conversation with Yevgeny has furnished us with crucial commentary throughout. It is significant that Dostoevsky seeks to make certain that we take Yevgeny seriously, in part at least as his spokesman. For the book, like all of Dostoevsky’s, is filled with the pompous prattle of fools, especially fools who try to be rational. But there seems to be no irony in the credentials our author gives Yevgeny, who in the key conversation speaks “clearly and reasonably” and “with great psychological insight” (552). The narrator admits strongly, “Altogether, we are in complete sympathy with some forcible and psychologically deep words of Yevgeny Pavlovitch’s, spoken plainly and unceremoniously …” (550). Of course it is possible that our author is posing as a worldly, sensible narrator who cannot help but sympathize with Yevgeny—although Dostoevsky is hardly the sort of novelist who plays tricks with “point of view.” It is true that some of Yevgeny’s analysis reveals the limitations of the somewhat cold-blooded realist and skeptic that he is. He was the fellow introduced, ironically, into the midst of the recital and discussion of the “poor knight” and described there as having “a fine and intelligent face and a humorous and mocking look in his big shining black eyes” (237). Unlike Myshkin, he is often ironic and uncharitable, especially with Ippolit, but like Myshkin he is usually right. Although Dostoevsky is frequently cruel to his more rational characters—and Yevgeny betrays no “underground,” no great internal life—he treats Yevgeny well at the close, even if Yevgeny knows “he is a superfluous man in Russia” (584). He becomes an influence on Kolya, takes charge of Myshkin’s future, and is deeply moved by Myshkin’s unlikely prospects. The author acknowledges that “he has a heart” and even gives him one of his most lovable and delicate creations, Vera Lebedyev. I think Yevgeny has won enough of Dostoevsky’s approval for us to conclude that he is there to help us judge Myshkin rather than to be judged through Myshkin.
Yevgeny, neither a creature of the “underground” nor a proponent of a political or philosophical program, holds a unique position among the important figures in the novel. One of the major forces in it is what we might call a kind of Benthamite liberalism or, more simply, the “modern idea.” Most forcefully—and brutally—represented by the group of young people surrounding “the son of Pavlishtchev,” it receives in several places Dostoevsky’s usual and powerful attack that reduces it to the cannibalism that eliminates all moral questions. But the primary inadequacy we witness in this mechanical reduction of the human is that it fails to account for the very complexity of motive among those who hold it. Thus among several of Myshkin’s assailants, notably Ippolit, we see the intrusion of the unpredictable “underground” elements that demoniacally counteract the push-button principle of self-interest. So the demoniacal is a second major force, most purely represented by Nastasya and Rogozhin. But as there are “underground” elements within the “liberal,” so there are angelic elements within the demonic. In the portrait of Nastasya, after all, Myshkin saw “something confiding, something wonderfully simple-hearted” associated with the “look of unbounded pride and contempt, almost hatred” (74). The duality we see in Myshkin, that Myshkin sees in himself, he does indeed share with those around him, even down to Keller and Lebedyev. And, of course, the third major force would appear to be the purely angelic, with Myshkin its representative—except that we have had reason enough to worry about whether he really does not fall back into the second group. The final alternative is that of the withdrawn and unattached, the always uncommitted because skeptical, Yevgeny. It is from this position, the only one with which the narrator expresses any identification, that the third is made most persuasively to appear illusory, a self-deceived version of the second. One prefers not to be left with Yevgeny and suspects that Dostoevsky would have preferred someone more throbbing. But the alternatives come at a high price, and Yevgeny’s presence as well as Myshkin’s failure proves it.
Like so many others, The Idiot is a novel of the desperate struggle for personal human dignity in a world that finds endless ways of depriving man of it. In the major action, in the minor actions like Ippolit’s “Explanation” and mock suicide or like General Ivolgin’s pitiable end at the hands of the pitiless Lebedyev, in the countless minor tales that are related to us along the way, always it is the beseeching human cry that asks that one may really matter and may be cherished for mattering. The youthful, deluded “liberals” demand dignity with such ferocity and spite that we are assured of the savage sickness that speaks through them and their program. Our openly demoniacal creatures have a purity and an integrity of demand so intense that, given the alloyed nature of what we can be given at best in life, they can be satisfied only when their life itself has been refined away to the nothingness they have sought. Myshkin seeks only to give dignity to each, even—or rather especially—at the cost of his own. But the bizarre enthusiasm of his relentless efforts appears as an inversion that, perhaps more surely than any alternative, would deny dignity to others through its very magnanimity. Thus he too must be rejected. And Yevgeny, the retiring critical intelligence that knows the futility of the problem too well to bother confronting it, helps us reject Myshkin’s kind of offer as the others do. Myshkin retires to his wretched safety, and we are sorry to see him go—as is Yevgeny who really “has a heart.” For we are left with no further alternative possibilities—where can one go beyond Myshkin?—since Yevgeny’s way is also the way of retirement.
Or is there not another possibility, however imperfect, after all? The last words in the novel are spoken to Yevgeny and not by him. They are spoken by one of Dostoevsky’s most magnificent creations, Lizaveta Epanchin, the general’s wife and Aglaia’s mother. Totally Russian and totally winning, if perhaps not totally sane, she is complaining about the unreality of Europe: “… all this life abroad, and this Europe of yours is all a fantasy, and all of us abroad are only a fantasy” (586). She is always a vigorous force for life, however messily she runs it. Even the ruin of Aglaia cannot long deter her. She must return to pick up her reality at home and must speak to the expatriate Yevgeny “almost wrathfully” and in warning against withdrawal. For Myshkin has not spoken the last word, although he has spoken the most extreme word. Whatever word is spoken beyond this is not spoken out of the tragic vision.
1 From Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, by Herman Melville, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, Inc., 1949). Copyright, L. C. Page & Company, Inc. All page references are to the 1949 edition.
2From The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), p. 76.
3“The Two Dimensions of Reality in The Brothers Karamazov,” by Eliseo Vivas, in Creation and Discovery (New York: Noonday Press, 1955), pp. 47–70.
4 From The Idiot, by Feodor Dostoevsky, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House, Inc., 1935). Copyright by The Macmillan Company. All page references are to the Random House edition. Excerpts are reprinted with the permission of The Macmillan Company.
5 One could point out, as evidence of Myshkin’s less than angelic inconsistency, his bitter attack on Roman Catholicism (518) in that wild engagement party that culminates in the breaking of the vase and his second fit. His fervent partisanship, his avid hatreds, might be looked upon as humanizing elements that bring him away from the world of love and closer to the world of principle and to Pierre. However, anxious as I am to make my case, this evidence seems unconvincing. For one thing, Myshkin, hopelessly out of place on this hopeless and even absurd occasion that is designed to domesticate him, is just talking and cannot stop—with an urgency and a compulsive panic that lead to the epileptic fit which may already have sent out its forerunners. For another, when Dostoevsky gets off on the problems of Roman Catholicism and of Russian-ness, he seems to lose all aesthetic presence and ventriloquizes freely. I cannot, then, take this passage seriously, as being more than an errant insertion in this book that is so full of them. Always uninhibited by formal considerations, Dostoevsky never lets himself go more recklessly than in The Idiot. Thus Myshkin’s momentary invective is just one of many inconsistencies and excursions in this difficult, often confusing and imperfect novel.