Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1951
What happens if you place an outright descent person into an environment where personal and social conflicts are raging? In his novel “The Idiot”, Fyodor M. Dostoevsky (1821-1881), develops this thought experiment. The title refers to the protagonist, Prince Myshkin who spent many years in a Swiss sanatorium, secluded from the world, for treatment of his epilepsy. When he returns to St. Petersburg, he is perceived as a worldly innocent stranger, an “idiot” because of his childlike mind. He is confronted with a highly complex world that is just as strange to him as he is to his fellow men.
Can a moral life-style actually do harm? At least in the case of Prince Myshkin, this ends in a disaster. The prince meets a beautiful young woman, Nastasya Filipovna Barashkova, and wants to help her. She is torn between two suitors. To protect all parties involved from great harm, Prince Myshkin intends to propose to Nastasya himself. But life does not work as straightforward as this, as everybody of us knows from his own everyday experience. Whom should we give a donation? Should we buy organic or regional food? Are the new promises of salvation through a healthy lifestyle the ultimate answer to our problems? Nastasya is the one closer to us ordinary people. She is not a pure, innocent being. Her actions rather characterize her as shaped by complexes, desires, and insecurities. Myshkin, his rival Rogozhin, and Nastasya are tormenting each other in a triangle relationship. When Nastasya, out of her with good intentions, tries to find Myshkin a match she only accelerates the tragic developments. People are no chess figures, and the main characters of the novel develop a fatal extent of hatred, love, and envy: Rogozhin kills Nastasya, Myskin is faced with the ruins of his actions and loses his mind, like Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The childlike-naive prince analyzes with precision the motivation of the persons around him and registers how they try to mock and manipulate him. But he is not able to adapt his own persona, and his drive for what is good, to the necessities. The novel is interwoven with philosophical debates of timeless beauty. At one point, Myshkin’s interlocutor exclaims that there must be a limit also to compassion. Myshkin, as he does not really know how to counter this, gets a headache and withdraws. This sounds familiar: Eventually, we will no longer be able to accept any more refugees, as the basic view in Europe is in regards of the current discussion about immigration. You mustn’t feign a headache but rather have to ask yourself: How much compassion is allowed? And how should we act to present the world from ending in a disaster?
Dostoyevsky portrays a Russian society in a state of upheaval: An authoritarian tsarism witnessed reform concepts and communist ideas developing. At that time, at any time, just wanting to be good is not enough. Such kind of altruism can hardly be successful. Even if you want to realize moral values in the world, you have to possess a certain sense of reality.
Dostoevsky wrote this book in 1868, to make some money again. His gambling habit kept him constantly plunged in debt, and this also made his wife and him flee from Russia. However, her hope that on a tour through Europe her husband could be kept away from the roulettes tables was in vain. Dostoyevsky was no good Prince Myshkin, he was a human being – one who showed an incredible sensitivity for the human psyche while lighting up all his shades.
Translated by Annika Backe