Holy Fools: Prince Myshkin and Alyosha

Submitted by Corina Leu on Thursday, 11/5/2009, at 12:11 PM

Writers are constantly engaged in a dialogue with each other. However, Dostoevsky is very different in that he's more likely to engage in a dialogue with older versions and representations of himself. Perhaps the reason many consider The Brothers Karamazov one of his best works, is because here, Dostoevsky has yet another chance to revise and correct past "mistakes." Although it is difficult for many Dostoevsky fans to consider his previous works as mere stepping stones, this last masterpiece, should prove to everyone that indeed there is a "better" way to perfectly portray a "perfectly good man," that there is a better way to better express feelings of love, that there is a way to end a novel without making readers feel lost and disappointed. I don't necessarily think that his previous works are mere stepping stones leading up to this last and greatest novel, but in The Brothers Karamazov, one can easily discern the development, growth, and acuity that Dostoevsky expresses.

In Book 1 and Book 2, Dostoevsky engages in intense character development. Although I have read the book before, re-reading The Brothers Karamazov as placed in the context of all of Dostoevsky's preceding works, really allowed me to better understand where the foundations for some of his other characters were emerging from.

A character that I especially enjoyed was Alyosha. It is clear from his descriptions, that Alyosha is a revised version of Prince Myshkin. "But he did love people; he lived all his life, it seemed, with complete faith in people, and yet no one ever considered him either naive or a simpleton." (Dostoevsky 19) Unlike Prince Myshkin, Alyosha doesn't sound like an idiot, or that he would ever be seen or called an idiot. He had "the gift of awakening a special love for himself." (Dostoevsky 19) Like Myshkin, "he seemed not to know the value of money at all." (Dostoevsky 21) But unlike Myshkin, Alyosha is also described as a a man who "did not want to be a judge of men, that he would not take judgment upon himself and would not condemn anyone for anything." (Dostoevsky 19) Although there are obvious similarities between the two men, I'm glad that Dostoevsky decided to take away Prince Myshkin's honesty. After all, no one ever likes an honest man as much as they like a man who doesn't judge. Alyosha is a better man because his character forgoes honesty for the sake of  cultivating himself as a man who does not judge or condemn. He is more Christ-like, because he understands the value of making people feel understood and appreciated for who they are.

The Prince's Passivity

Submitted by Richard S. Hevier on Thursday, 11/5/2009, at 2:30 AM

It appears to me that Dostoevsky sees passivity as an inevitable aspect of the perfectly beautiful man.  The prince, with his innocent lamb-like quality, withstands abuse from many different angles accordingly.  He rarely rebutts insults that are thrown at him (the closest I can remember is when he tells Ganya [page 88] that he does not appreciate being called an idiot) and is often murky in his convictions, such as his love-letter to Aglaya where he has no solid idea as to what exactly he feels for her.  Still yet, although he is certain of his love (albeit one of pity) for Nastasya, he allows potential suitors to abuse her.

He has an uncanny ability to reveal truth but does not act much upon it.  I think Dostoevsky could have had the prince play a more active role in his destiny and that of others while retaining his innocence.  Why is it that Keller has to be the one to stand up for Ippolit upon reading his "Explanation" when the prince, the great discerner of truth, remains too dumbfounded to take any action.  He comes off as a pawn on the chess board of some tangled web of love and deceit.  Characters confide secrets in him, sometimes out of respect and good will (General Epanchin) and other times maliciously (Ganya).  But what does he do with them?  He wanders, he wallows, he gets confused, and renders himself powerless with indecision.  Action comes to him because he sits back and waits, and in this way he is not perfectly beautiful because he lets bad things happen.  As the revealer of truth, he identifies evil, but as an idiot, that is most of the action he takes.  An essential element in being a perfectly beautiful person is being active in the pursuit of good.  In other words, not being a "poor knight," as Aglaya said.  I think Dostoevsky gets part of it right--the prince is innocent and knows truth.  He can distinguish between good and evil where other characters cannot.  However, he, far more than otherwise, fails to pursue good.  Sometimes, when he does do good, it is by accident.  Take for instance his confronting Rogozhin at his house.  He was wandering around the city, and by chance, identifies it.  It seems that Dostoevsky stripped the prince fairly dry of desire.  This is a pity, since a desire to do good is essential to doing good.  I wish that he showed the courage that he did with Marie in Switzerland throughout the whole of the novel.  I don't think he was up to the task.

Incompatibility

Submitted by Daeyeong Kim on Thursday, 11/5/2009, at 1:48 AM

With the conclusion of The Idiot, we are forced to consider the effects Prince Myshkin, the Christ-figure, had on society. Dostoevsky brings the story full-circle: Myshkin returns to his sanitarium in Switzerland, mentally distraught after Nastasya’s murder. General Ivolgin, Ippolit, Nastasya Filippovna are dead, Rogozhin is sentenced to Siberia, and Aglaya hastily marries a Polish count who ends up ruining her. Not only does the Prince fail to save himself, but also fails to save others; even worse, he seems to have only caused chaos in society.

If Myshkin is Dostoevsky’s Christ-figure, is Dostoevsky providing a critique on Christ himself? Myshkin, as a character, can be essentially boiled down to a role of a “truth revealer.” Thus, either there is a failure in Myshkin’s messianic role, or society’s failure to be receptive to salvific truth. Obviously, there is something artificial in assigning all of the blame on either party. As mentioned in class, Aglaya provides great insight in Myshkin’s character: “you have no tenderness, only truth, that makes it unfair” (426). The prince’s relationship with Nastasya Filippovna serves as a microcosm of the incompatibility between Myshkin (Christ) and society. In the end of the novel, Nastasya Filippovna is driven to a last minute suicide; despite her sincere wishes to marry the prince and be “saved,” she simply cannot handle the prince’s truth, compassion, and love. It is hard to cast the blame entirely on Nastasya or prince Myshkin. There is definitely the role of Nastasya’s pride, and as Aglaya puts it, her preference to remain a quasi-lofty “fallen angel” (569); on the other hand, there is the prince’s raw truth that is too bare for the world to swallow. So I don’t think Dostoevsky is providing a critique of Christ or the world, but both—and pointing to the seeming disjunction between the two. 

A Beautiful Humanist

Submitted by Brigitte C. Morency on Wednesday, 11/4/2009, at 11:42 PM

I am constantly amazed by how timeless Dostoevsky's characters are. His thorough examination of the human condition is, for me, what makes his work so wonderful. I think Dostoevsky was at heart a humanist, even more so than a devout Christian. "The Idiot" revolves around the characters themselves, not a strict narrative framework. Conflict is a result of their selfish, debauched actions, rather than external events. In this way, Dostoevsky recreates life on paper. Our day to day lives are motivated our personal beliefs and actions. Really, is there any reason we do anything we do? Why are we here; why do we love; and why do we constantly analyze our lives?

I think Dostoevsky experienced keenly a love of the human spirit. Why else would he seek to create a "prefectly beautiful man" like Myshkin? It would certainly have been a draining and frustrating endeavor for the fragile author. I feel that Dostoevsky was accutely aware of the impossibility of his endeavor. In many ways, Myshkin fails to be a perfect man: he is unable to survive in such a complicated world. And yet, through his failure, insight into the human condition materializes. There can be no perfection in an imperfect world because it is not natural. To say the Prince is an anomaly in his world is a fair judgment. By calling him an "idiot," his peers constantly separate themselves from him. Perfection is not tenable in the modern social world. Yet, the Prince, through his compassionate love comes the closest to attaining perfection within his soul. Sadly, since his "perfect" nature is unknown even to him, Myshkin is powerless to save those he cares about.

Despite its harrowing climax, I think "The Idiot" was one of Dostoevsky's most optimistic works, if only for himself. He proved that he could create a truly "good" man amid the turmoil of a corrupted world. For the humanist, the affirmation of the goodness of the human spirit is reward enough, even if it fails to create much change.

Final Reflection on "The Idiot"

Submitted by Elyse J. Yarmosky on Wednesday, 11/4/2009, at 8:14 PM

I kind of had an epipheny last class, which I tried to put into words, but I'd like to expand on my thoughts. Forgive me if this is really unclear...it's more a "stream of consciousness" idea.

I still want to believe that Prince Myshkin is supposed to represent some idea of Christ. Though Dostoevsky has written him as a "perfect man," we all realize he's not perfect. Corina pointed out last class that he's ridiculously awkward and naive. Yet for some reason, he arrives in Petersburg and mayhem ensues. Those who fall for his innocence and "perfection" are too crazy to handle it (i.e., Nastasya Fillopva's convinction that the Prince is just too good for her leads to her running back and forth betwen Rogozhian and Myshkin).

The society in which the Prince enters simply cannot handle his truthfullness. In fact, they dissolve in the face of it. Is this, then, a critique of the people who recieve Christ as the perfect man when, in truth, he is nothing more than ordinary?

In almost all other ways, the Prince resembles Christ. He is overflowing with Christian compassion and pity for those less fortunate. He has come mysteriously from abroad to "be among the people." His prescence there only heightens the scandal and moral decrepency of the Petersburg society, because people recieve him as perfect.

I believe that Christ wasn't perfect. Instead, he was innocent and compassionate, yet it is in the way in which society receives him as godlike that leads to trouble. If you think about it, many of us form our moralities, beliefs, convictions around this man--some even kill in his name. And that's not his fault, but the fault of our society believing in something that maybe we cannot handle: perfection.

I know this is incredibly cynical. But nothing made me more distraught than when we discover that Myshkin returns to his "idiotic" state in the hospital in Switzerland. I made the connection in class to the figure of Christ in his tomb in the Holbein painting. To me, the Prince returning to Switzerland and staring, deadpan, at the world, his idiocy proclaimed infinitively and definitely, is like the Christ in the painting: an ordinary man, mortal and vulnerable, who is actually far from perfect.

Berdyaev’s and Dostoevsky's Emo Love

Submitted by Danielle M. Morrissette on Wednesday, 11/4/2009, at 5:08 PM

 While reading Berdyaev’s article that we didn't have time to discuss last time, I kept thinking to myself “Dostoevsky is so emo." It just reminds me of those sad emo children who mutter “what’s the point of caring when all it brings is pain".  However, I do believe to an extent that Berdyaev is on to something here. Poor Myishkin's fiery love was extinguished by the pain of life in Russia and women are to blame, according to Berdyaev and Dostoevsky. I also agree with Berdyaev that Dostoevsky sees sexual debauchery as a way of self-destruction, which is of course completely in line with the traditional Christian view on sex.

However, I do not agree with Berdyaev that Dostoevsky views women with more hostility that Tolstoy. I completely disagree. I think that Dostoevsky at least creates genuine sympathy for women like Nastasya Filipovna and Sonya from Crime and Punishment. He does not see them as tempters of men as Berdyaev seems to think so. I think that Dostoevsky really believes that they are victims of men.  Yet I do agree that Dostoevsky's view points throughout his works are very masculine in nature and he for sure doesn't develop his female characters as well as his male characters. 

My question to Berdyaev or to Dostoevsky would be, if love leads to confusion and pain, what is the alternative? Solitude? Chastity? Would people be more complete human beings this way? Tolstoy would probably think so, but I can't be so sure about Dostoevsky. I think that he might just be complaining about the dangers and risks of love without having any real solutions. 

Judging Myshkin's Character

Submitted by Susannah E. Rudel on Monday, 11/2/2009, at 9:04 PM

             Keeping in mind our discussion in class about the changing character of Myshkin between Parts I and II, I was intrigued by two conflicting portrayals of him toward the end of Part IV of The Idiot.  When Aglaya meets with Nastasya she describes the prince as still being like the “poor knight,” speaking of his “noble simple-heartedness and infinite trustfulness” (568).  She also says that she loves him because he is easily deceived and yet will forgive anyone who deceives him.  Interestingly, she has deceived the prince herself, such as when she acts as though she is going to marry him if he proposes and then runs from the room laughing.  While Aglaya presents the prince as we saw him at the beginning of the novel, Evgeny presents a completely opposite view of him, blaming him for humiliating Aglaya; Evgeny admonishes Myshkin: “Is it possible, while loving a girl, to humiliate her so before her rival, to abandon her for the other one, right in front of that other one, after making her an honorable proposal yourself…” (581).  In this case, Myshkin is portrayed as deceptive, in that he was engaged to Aglaya and yet hesitated to choose her when given the option to have Nastasya instead.  First, it is ridiculous, and frustrating as the reader, that these characters are so incapable of making up their minds.  Second, these conflicting portrayals of Myshkin lead me to question what we’ve learned about him, in that while he seemed to be so insightful at the beginning, he now seems more like the idiot he is often referred to as being; it’s hard to have faith in his understanding and insight when he claims that he’s marrying Nastasya despite fearing her face and that he would like to love her and Aglaya at the same time. 

Representation of Character as a Displacement and Meaningless Suffering

Submitted by Muddasir M. Ayaz on Sunday, 11/1/2009, at 11:58 PM

I couldn't help but notice the fact that Nastasya Filippovna's entry in Part 3 of The Idiot  is a representative presence as opposed to an actual presence, which seems surprising given the degree of attention her character is afforded in Part I. In fact, for someone who doesn't say much in Part II and the beginning of Part III, she gets nearly as much attention from auxiliary characters as Prince Myshkin. Just as the portrait was the reader's first glance at Nastasya Filippovna, here in Part III, the first account of her is the Prince's impression of her. This leaves a strong impression on the reader, given that we are told, "if, loving a woman more than anything in the world or anticipating the possibility of such a love, one were suddenly to see her chained up, behind iron bars, under a warder's truncheon, the feeling would be something like what the prince was enduring now." The employment of suffering in the scene is evident, but its purpose is not. The idea of suffering in redemption is certainly not the one we are to interpret (evidenced perhaps more clearly in Ippolit's tirade).

Rather, the suffering, an amalgam of mental, emotional, and physical suffering (the physical element represented in Nastasya's beating), affords no sympathy. It does not redeem any of the characters. It has no redemptive value whatsoever. Rather, the entire scene is referred to as a "farce". The value of the suffering to which these characters are privy seems unfortunate and often pathetic; sympathy over suffering is reserved perhaps only for the Prince. I'm fine with accepting that conclusion, but it leaves a rather large hole in the form of the Holbein painting. Given the account of the painting (particularly Ippolit's account in Part III), there is no indication that the portrayed Christ has suffered for a cause. The account that is given seems to do just the opposite -- it reduces the suffering to an affair of the body, and in attempting to remove the spiritual element of suffering, it becomes nothing more than a tool for instituting realism. I don't think that's the answer, but why is it that Dostoevsky writes about suffering (a favorite pastime of his) with such a lack of spirituality?

To Be Or Not To Be: Ippolit's Dilemma

Submitted by Brigitte C. Morency on Sunday, 11/1/2009, at 5:17 PM

The more Dostoevsky delves into the pschye of Ippolit, the more obvious his essential relationship to Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin becomes. These men are not simple literary foils to one another. Ippolit's lack of faith in a Christian God is more a disillusionment with the human experience than a hatred of religion. His fast-approaching death, to which he constantly alludes, makes him afraid to waste a single moment. In his "article," Ippolit lambastes people who "value their lives too little" (394), living without purpose or conscious thought. He fears the Christian notion of the afterlife because it makes people afraid to live the lives they have in the present. Strangely, however, Ippolit tries desperately to be taken seriously by his peers, even going so far as to attempt suicide in their presence. He's not college educated because he doesn't want to waste what little time he has left reading books; however, he grapples with communicating complicated ideas about God and the meaning of life. He talks about killing dozens of people without consequence, but he fails to kill even himself. Ippolit is a man full of contradictions, and seems to personify the famous phrase:"To be, or not to be."

The Prince, however, is "renowned" for his straightforwardness and simple motivations. He has the uncanny ability to accurately read the people around him at a glance. Yet, he seems to be at a loss when it comes to Ippolit. The Prince seems sure of his destiny, maintaining his kindly nature despite the despotism, gossip, and hatred of the people around him. But somehow, the utter lack of faith embodied by Ippolit paralyzes him. The Prince loves instinctively; Ippolit is too caught up in his impending doom to care about anyone else. The former never questions the power of collective destiny, while the latter blames the world for cutting him out of its future.

It would seem that these men have nothing to learn from one another, but their polarizing personalities compliment one another. Ippolit admits that he loves the Prince, a sign that redemption is still possible for this broken man. Rogozhin, on the other hand, tells the Prince he hates him because he has "usurped" Nastasya's love. Who, then, will be "saved" by the Prince? Both Rogozhin and Ippolit are passionate, strong-willed men; however, Ippolit's acute awareness of his mortality humbles him the face of the Prince's compassion. Rogozhin is caught up in petty jealousies and obsessions with worldly matters (i.e. sexual passion). His outright rejection of the Prince's brand of "true" love leads to his ultimate destruction. 

The Certainty of a Death Sentence, and Responses ...

Submitted by Daeyeong Kim on Saturday, 10/31/2009, at 7:51 PM

In the beginning of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin first shares his obsession with the guillotine with the Epanchins’ valet. Although the guillotine was invented for a quick, relatively “painless” death, Myshkin seems to think that, on the contrary, there might be more suffering involved. He notes, “the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second—your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and it’s for certain—the main thing is that it’s for certain” (23). He echoes this sentiment when he shares the story about a man being led to the scaffold with Mrs. Epanchin and her daughters. Undoubtedly, Myshkin’s fascination with the brief—but simultaneously eternal—moments before the execution stems from Dostoevsky’s first-hand experience with a death sentence, before being sent off to Siberia.

This motif is picked up by Ippolit in his long suicide note in Part Three; his consumption, like a legal execution, is also a form of death sentence. The judicial language used by Ippolit clearly confirms this connection:  “What court has any business here? Who precisely needs that I should not only be sentenced, but should graciously keep to the term of my sentence?” (412). Earlier in his note, he separates himself from the world, noting that “I was a man whose days were already numbered” (406). Like the Prince, Ippolit confirms that the suffering is largely derived from the certainty of death; furthermore, he grapples with the reality of a death sentence—how it throws morality and beauty out the window.

Earlier in the note he shares an anecdote about how he returned a wallet with crucial documents for a jobless doctor.  Contrastingly, he also wonders why he shouldn’t go shoot a dozen people before his “two- or three-week term” is over and “why the same thought doesn’t occur to people in the same situation as mine, in only as a joke.” According to the nihilistic Ippolit, morality is reduced to “a joke” in the face of imminent death; the good (returning a wallet) the bad (amoral killing spree) are seemingly random, valueless acts. Subsequently, Ippolit also rejects the Prince’s belief that beauty will save the world. In response to the prince’s suggestion to enjoy the trees (natural beauty), he viciously replies, “What do I need your nature for, your Pavlovsk park, your sunrises and sunsets, your blue sky, and your all-contented faces … ? What do I care about all this beauty, when every minute, every second, I must and am forced to know that even this tiny fly that is now buzzing near me in a ray of sunlight, even it participates in this banquet and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I alone am a castaway …?” (412-413). Their differences are also well-observed in their contrasting reactions to Hans Holebin’s painting in Rogozhin’s house: Ippolit is halted by the “horrible anguish and confusion” that must have “smashed all … hopes and almost … beliefs” on the day that Christ died; Myshkin, too, acknowledges that “a man can even lose his faith from that painting” (408, 218). However, upon this initial reaction, Myshkin quickly moves beyond the painting and relates four “parables” to Rogozhin—the last one being about how a mother looking at her child’s face captures the essence of Christianity. Presumably, this can somehow also give value to morality and beauty, even in the face of an imminent death sentence.  However, I haven’t figured out yet how Myshkin is able to overcome Ippolit’s nihilistic conclusion with this story.

This is a spontaneous and a rather random connection, but I was reminded of Larkin’s Aubade after reading Ippolit’s note: (excerpts)

Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.  

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse

But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always.

The similarity in language is certainly there. But the most interesting parallel for me is between the conclusions of Ippolit’s note and Aubade. Ippolit states: “But enough. When I get to these lines, the sun will probably already be risen and “resounding in the sky”…. So be it! I will die looking straight into the wellspring of force and life, and I will not want this life! … I still have the power to die” (414). Larkin’s poem concludes:

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Admittedly, Larkin doesn’t have to grapple with the extreme immediacy of death. But I do think both the urgency is there (just maybe not in the same degree as Ippolit’s). Larkin concludes, “Work has to be done.” Ippolit seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion, except that “suicide may be the only thing I still have to begin and end of my own will” (415).

A Lack of Faith

Submitted by Elyse J. Yarmosky on Thursday, 10/29/2009, at 5:27 PM

We talked briefly in class today about the connection between the Prince's moment of clarity that precedes his epileptic attacks and the "sublime illumination" that a condemned man might feel minutes before he is beheaded. There is another angle here, represented by the role that Holbein's painting plays throughout the story. The painting is at once a representation of the mortality of the apparently immortal Christ figure and an atheistic stab to the conscious of a believer. All three of these aspects blend together to present the idea that everyone, no matter how grand or rich or celebrated or scandalous, is at his or her base a simply ordinary human being.

The Prince is supposed to be the idealized perfect man, yet he fumbles his words, interjects with awkward honesty, tends towards cynicism, and to top it off, has epilepsy which has left him branded as "an idiot." Nastasya Fillipova is strikingly beautiful, powerful, the desire of countless men; yet at her core she is emotional and vulnerable. We see the beginnings of her downward spiral at her birthday party, where she apparently has succumbed to the "fever" of the dramatic insanity happening to and around her. We are reminded, perhaps, that nothing, and nobody, is this book is, in fact, perfect. Scandals await around every corner. Gossip, money, greed, and drinking dominate the social scene. Hearts are broken and sold for roubles. Everything is a mess. 

Therefore, it's not surprising to me that the painting of Christ in his tomb is a central image of the book. Perhaps it is meant as a symbol of pure faithlessness. Christ is but a human; the world is a disaster. How can one have faith in a world, in humanity, where people die, people steal, people beat each other senseless? It's all incredibly cynical for a novel that supposedly centers around the perfect man, yet I think this is precisely the point. Maybe society isn't ready for a perfect man. Maybe we never will be.

As for the clarity felt by both the Prince before an episode and by the condemned man before his execution, I think that these are both fleeting moments that many of us ourselves have experienced (I know I have as an atheist, though definitely to a less intense degree). These are moments in which we try to hold on to what we've got, but in a world of such darkness, we lose our faith, and everything goes black.

Foucault's Panopticon

Submitted by Samuel T. Aden on Thursday, 10/29/2009, at 9:37 AM

Something brought up in a class discussion briefly weeks and weeks ago has been very useful in trying to identify the structure with which Dostoevsky presents the Idiot. Before going any further it would be important to note that Dostoevsky's writings are composed in a manner that we have roughly termed 'notes' that are discursive bursts of eccentric characterization, often (always) presented from the perspective of a certain character, or omniscent narrator. Though the notes themselves are interesting to structurally examine, it seems almost to defeat the purpose of the efforts Dostoevsky makes to present a decentralized, multi-perspectivist account of his fictionalized events. That said, let us turn to the structure of his notes.

The concept I would like to present here is Foucault's Panopticon. Though the Panopticon itself is a structure designed for a prison, Foucault's project uses the structure itself as a representation of social (I guess one could say 'cultural') power structures pidgeonholeing the individual social subject into managable catagories from an omniscent eye surveilling the entire population. The interesting part to Foucault's argument is that there does not necessarily have to be anyone in the central tower (the eye), and that it is precisely by virtue of the fact that anyone in the society can 'go up the tower' that the presence of the social construct itself has the power to inflict this universal sense of guilt; this is surveillence.

How I would like to relate this to Dostoevsky's narrative methodologies in the Idiot is really basic at the moment. Dostoevsky is engaged in a project of fiction, so the individuals that will be presented, or "surveilled", will from the beginning be construed in relation to one another - as one social body. This social body, this fictional world that Dostoevsky is building is the panopticon. Dostoevsky's narrator is the individual in 'the tower' telling the reader everything (s?)he sees. We as readers are children not tall enough to see over the banister and have only their omniscent perspective to refer to to underderstand what is happening.

There are obviously significant differences in Foucault's critique of discipline and Dostoevsky's narrative structures, such as even in the basic power relationship between the authority and subject: Foucault's as one of control and oppression, and Dostoevsky's as one of creation of fiction. The next step I would take with this is to somehow juxtapose Dostoevsky's methods in fiction and Foucault's method of genealogy (which goes back to Nietzsche, as Foucault's perspective was admittedly taken from/inspired by Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals). But this is getting much to out of hand.

The Illumination in Myshkin's Epilepsy

Submitted by Jack L. Seaver on Thursday, 10/29/2009, at 2:34 AM

Dostoyevsky repeatedly shows Myshkin to be the only sane man in an insane world, someone who is capable of charity and goodwill in the face of overwhelming cynicism. We've talked some in class about the irony of Myshkin being called an "idiot" when really he appears to be the smartest person in the room, but I think the long section in Part 2 where Myshking, on the verge of an epileptic fit, talks about what it's like to suffer from the disease. The part of this description which stuck out most to me was the revelation/illumination which he describes as preceding the fit itself.

The fact that the Prince has these moments of complete clarity implies that he is given some sort of greater view on life. If this is true, then the Prince is not the smartest man in the room despite being an "idiot," but precisely because the very thing that causes everyone else to label him an "idiot" actually is the root cause of his greater intelligence. This may be a (big) stretch, but maybe the whole thing is a metaphor for how people view genius. Because they cannot understand it, they reject it, in the same way they reject the Prince because he supposedly is very stupid. The Prince, the smartest man in the room, is smart because of his idiocy, which is really just mislabeled by cynical, shortsighted people incapable of understanding his genius. If the chaos of the narration in this scene is any indicator, perhaps the Prince himself does not fully understand it.

The terror of the epileptic fit itself seems to stand as a metaphor for the burden the Prince carries as a result of his illness. Just as his moments of illumination are accompanied by debilitating seizures, so the disease which grants him clarity is accompanied by the scorn of people who look down upon him.

Myshkin Cannot Make Anyone Happy

Submitted by Danielle M. Morrissette on Thursday, 10/29/2009, at 12:08 AM

This is the crux of the perfect man problem: While he is "perfect" or Christ-like honest person who says and does as his heart dictates according to his moral disposition, he cannot make any one happy. This is Myshkin's set back throughout the work. He doesn't have "polite" conversation with the Epanchin women on their first meeting, he tells the truth to Nastasya Filipovna that she shouldn't marry Ganya, he visits Nastasya Filipovna's aparment after her returns to St. Petersburg after six months and greatly angers Rogozhin, he upsets the would-be son of Pavlishchev, Burdovsky, by giving him money despite the fact that he helped to slander Myshkin in an article, he upsets Lizaveta Prokofevna by wanting to give money to Burdovsky regardless of the fact that he participated in the sladerous article, and Myshkin still decides to chose Nastasya Filipovna over Aglaya. This guy cannot get a break from anyone! 

This leads to the question as to what he should do. Should he lie in order to be a crowd pleaser? Should he marry the more respectable girl instead of the loose girl that he loves? Should he act within the normal human morality and as others think fit? To all of these questions, Dostoevsky would most certainly answer no. However, it seems to me that poor Myshkin has a very tough lot in life. Not only does he have epilepsy, but he can't feel revenge, he can't lie, and he can't feel all of the range of human emotions. This is why I think that characters in the work keep getting angry with him. He's too unreal!

 

Roubles & Kopecks

Submitted by Zainab M. Khalid on Wednesday, 10/28/2009, at 9:58 PM

What distinguishes The Idiot from Dostoevsky’s other works- if the first part is worth enough to judge by- is its treatment, in the crudest form, of wealth, more specifically, the power of money. The theme of money is deeply entrenched in most of Dostoevsky’s work with the bleak perception that money is an economic factor of control, that we are defined by our possession of money, or the lack of it. But perhaps “define” is the wrong word to use. Rather, the decisions we make, the lives we lead are greatly affected or shaped by either the pursuit of wealth or the certain social triumph that accompanies the possession of wealth.

 This is most clearly explored in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov’s poverty was not only a problem of necessity, it also paralyzed what was, to his mind, his ascendancy as a member of the superior class of man, to the heights of glory achieved by heroes of history such as Napoleon. His decision to kill the old woman arose in part not so much from dire need but from an assertion of this notion that he was indeed a superior man, and could therefore transgress laws set for ordinary men. The murder was an exercise, or more accurately, a test of his ability so that the emphasis here is more on the domination of a man through his capacity for greatness rather than the potential of money to possess human greed and therefore become his driving force. For Raskolnikov, money is the vehicle for greatness, the lack of which remains an impediment to his ascension, but is not the primary motive behind his crime.  

Yet even so, the clout of material wealth prevails in a world that is increasingly defined in terms of pecuniary value, so that nothing is sacred anymore; to survive one must have a source of income, crushing all old-world notions of pride and virtue, so to speak, and forcing all to succumb to this cold lifeline made of currency and property. This sacrifice of the self in exchange for material security is avidly described in Sonya and Dunya’s situations. Both surrender their freedom, bodily and otherwise, in order to support their families. Luzhin’s power over Raskolnikov’s family is solely on the basis of his role as a benefactor, and it is later this very reason that his influence is so limited.

In The Idiot, however, Dostoevsky seems to go even further. The social class that he illustrates in this novel is not marked with poverty in the same way as in Crime and Punishment. None of the characters are engulfed in the kind of decrepit poverty that has become so familiar a setting for many of Dostoevsky’s non-heroes. Yet they, to my mind, seem to be enslaved to the domain of money in a manner unprecedented by any of the previous social milieus that Dostoevsky presents to us, the acute awareness of the humiliation of poverty notwithstanding. The condition of this social class is tied to a vicious, callous consciousness of the cold, hard monetary value of a human being. The refinement of the

No character could embody this more perfectly than Nastasya Filipovna. Her situation manifests the festering moral degradation of the moneyed classes. The lascivious attention paid to her by the many men that continuously hound her is tantamount to bidding over the ownership of her body. The general guilefully offers her priceless pearls while Totsky and Rogozhin bargain over her blatantly with roubles tainted with lust. She has always, as a “kept woman,” been an owned woman. Nastasya speaks of her past with Totsky succinctly, “he kept me like a countess, money, so much money, went on me.” (pg 162) Her entire existence has been broken down into roubles and kopecks, because for Totsky, spending money on her is merely an exercise of maintenance of property.

Nastasya recognizes all too well her financial slavery to these wealthy men. She understands that so long as she remains dependent on their money, she will never truly be her own mistress, “because nothing on me is my own; if I leave, I’ll abandon everything to Totsky [him], I’ll leave every last rag, and who will take me without anything?” (pg 163)This is the marked baseness of evolved, material society; it becomes clear that the quest for material wealth dominates all spheres of life, being in the modern world of capital and investment, the soundest way to acquire power. This quest can for many men eclipse even the most instinctive impulses of human nature, such as happiness. Ganya is, until the end of Part 1, willing to sacrifice any prospects of leading a happy- not necessarily excessively prosperous- life, preparing to marry a woman he has grown to despise just so that he may obtain her dowry.

The prince remains the only man in the room who is willing to take Nastasya as a wife, despite her status as a fallen woman whose only respite lies in the significant dowry that is provided by her despised sexual abuser. Yet perhaps what drives Nastasya to the brink of insanity, is her awareness of her own hypocrisy, “I didn’t live with him for five years, but I took his money and thought I was right! I really got myself confused.” Perhaps this is where Nastasya’s guilt, despite her tempestuous defiance of societal condemnation, stems from- the fact that despite her raging hatred for them, she is still consciously shackled by her financial dependence on these men who seek to own her.

Perhaps this is partly why she chooses, instead of marrying the Prince and sharing in his new-found inheritance and an aristocratic title, to run off with Rogozhin. She senses in the Prince that she has “seen a man for the first time” in that his intentions are pure (inasmuch that they are devoid of any worldly interest. His affinity for suffering and his subsequent need to be moved by compassion are not driven from lust or selfishness in the literal sense of the word). Yet perhaps she considers any decision to marry the prince to be a perpetuation of the same prison of financial dominion- in other words, the prince may have been the answer to her dreams, but she would still be buying her freedom. This she cannot bear, and therefore chooses Rogozhin, because his crude and vulgar offer of a hundred thousand roubles for a night with her, payment up front, is at least honest in its gaping, hideous perversion. There is no facade here, no concealing the despicable truth, no false offerings of propriety garnished with amenable refinement. And this, at least, is bearable precisely because there is no hypocrisy involved.

As Nastasya flings the package of rouble notes into the fire, it is almost a metaphorical act, a ritual, to cleanse herself of the filth of money, to break free from the vice-like grip of the worldly, as much as it is an act of contempt aimed as an insult and test for her enemies. Nastasya, therefore, acts against her own prospects for happiness. This conscious act against her self- interest hearkens back to the notions of desire, freedom through the assertion of self-will that is almost masochistic, that is explored at length by the Underground Man in Notes from the Underground. Nastasya makes a conscious decision to reject the Prince’s proposal and instead run away with Rogozhin, inflicting suffering on herself as a demonstration that she can choose, that she is not shackled by any constraints and acts on free will, exactly the same notion that, so he claims, spurs the Underground Man to choose to harm himself.

This however propels Nastasya to new levels of despair and suffering, because there is no contentment in her decision to come away with Rozoghin, because although he loves her with twisted passion, she is driven to run away out of fear of her feelings for the Prince, so that by damning herself by running away with a man like Rogozhin, she is actually keeping herself safe from the more painful possibility of her failure to fulfill the expectations of the one person who matters the most to her. In this way, her actions are a testament to the Underground Man’s retreat into the abyss of his cellar; it is both an escape from fear of action and an assertion of mastery of fate, so very similar to Nastasya’s continual assertions that “I am my own mistress.”