Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'
Back in Nov 2002 I read The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I had turned to this book for two reasons, first, I had read Crime and Punishment the year before and had been gripped by Dostoevsky’s skill as an author. Dostoevsky doesn’t suggest solutions to issues. Rather, he prompts reflection as the attentive reader interacts with his characters. Second, The Idiot was that month’s classic serial on Radio 4. This adaptation for radio, as you shall see, proved to be a source of reflection. It is beyond this reviewer’s abilities to plumb the depths of Dostoevsky’s thought. Instead, all I can offer is a superficial review.
Set in Russia in the 1860’s, the main character is Prince Myshkin just back from 4 years of treatment in Switzerland for epilepsy. Upon his return, he is immediately embroiled in the affairs of his distant relatives as well as those of a new acquaintance, Parfyon Rogozhin. The Prince is an innocent, he speaks with no hidden agenda, guile or tact. He is constantly open and frank, always assuming the good of others. His approach leads to those around him regarding him, at times as idiotic but also endearing. There are implicit references to the Prince as a type of Don Quixote, a perfectly innocent individual.
Rogozhin, on the other hand, is a sensualist, frantic to gain the love of Nastasya Fillipnova. She is a woman of extraordinary beauty who has suffered greatly at the hands of her guardian. Having been debased by her guardian, Nastasya Fillipnova presses, as it were, the self destruct button! She repeatedly acts in a way that cheapens herself, as if she were attempting to prove that she is fallen. The Prince sees in her great suffering and seeks to help and heal her, even offering his hand in marriage. This puts him on a collision course with Rogozhin and yet these two men become brothers, exchanging Crosses as a sign of their relationship. The dramatic climax of the book sees Myshkin and Rogozhin bound together with an overwhelming act of self giving and grace by the Prince. Another main character is that of Aglaya Yepanchina, the youngest daughter of General Yepanchina who falls in love with Myshkin.
Of the multitude of other characters this reviewer would mention another two!
(1) Lebedev. He is a civil servant who is willing to do anything for money. In one scene he offers to put his hands into a fire in order to save some money. What is surprising about this character is that he has reflected on the growth of new ideas in Russia. He has also studied the Book of Revelation. Which as cause and which as effect we are not told! In one scene Lebedev declares that they are living in the age of the third horseman, the one with the scales - the world is being weighed.
(2) Ippolit: A young man suffering from terminal consumption. He is a modern intellectual who has no time for God, rejecting Him on the basis that he wouldn’t have been so cruel as to cut short his life. Ippolit tries to commit suicide but fails, and sleeps as Lebedev warns of the coming judgment.
Listening to the Radio version and then reading the book caused me to reflect. It is, of course, possible that memory is playing tricks but the radio version seemed to focus upon the interrelationships between the characters, particularly where the Prince had a positive impact, yet missed completely the references to the apocalypse. Also, there was no reference to a key element in Dostoevsky’s novel, the picture of Christ taken down from the Cross by Hans Holbein. The Prince and Rogozin come together under the picture in Rogozin’s house; it holds Rogozin’s attention. Ippolit in a long ‘explanation’ of life also refers to the painting. An extended quote is required:-
“…painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ….still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering. But in Rogozhin’s picture there is not a word of beauty, this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who has endured infinite suffering before the cross, wounds, torture, beatings by the guards…In the picture the face is horribly hurt by blows….. how could [his apostles] believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer could resurrect? Here the notion involuntarily occurs to you that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature are so powerful, how can they be overcome. How overcome them, if they were not even defeated now by the one who defeated nature while He lived, whom nature obeyed who exclaimed talitha cumi and the girl arose, ‘Lazarus come forth’ and the dead man came out? Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast….. a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subjected, and it is conveyed to you involuntarily.”
Here Dostoevsky links this novel to two of his other great works: Crime and Punishment which includes the story of the raising of Lazarus and his greatest work of all, The Brothers Karamazov where, in the chapter entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, Jesus, just before His arrest, raises a girl from the dead with the same words used by Ippolit.
In The Idiot the power of death, seen so clearly in the painting serves to weaken the faith of Rogozin and is a fatal blow to the faith of Ippolit. But for Dostoevsky resurrection is the power that shapes our thinking. Strange that these important elements should be missed from the Radio 4 version! But maybe it isn’t so strange. Isn’t Radio 4 simply reflecting much of today’s Western Church? Today many church groups focus upon social and psychological agendas, where Jesus is the answer to problems in this life, our relationships, our sense of fulfillment. Where the ‘abundant life’ of John 10v10 is given a therapeutic or financial meaning; where our desire to be relevant leads us to only address the felt needs of people. The real need: to be reconciled to their creator God gets a back seat. We proclaim Jesus the Therapist rather than Jesus the Saviour! Where messages of Apocalyptic judgment on this world and ‘Cross shaped’ living are infrequently heard and the mighty message of resurrection is not understood.
Did not Paul write:-
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3v10 and again “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins….If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."” 1 Cor 15v17 & v32
The unwillingness of the unsaved to listen to such a message should not surprise us, Paul was sneered at when he preached on the Resurrection - Acts 17v32 and as he explained the message of the Cross is either foolishness or a stumbling block BUT to us it is the power of God! 1Cor 1 v 23. We must confront today’s culture with the message of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, with life death, judgment heaven and hell. We must not let our desire for ratings result in the adaptation of the original. Let us be clear, the Church has no editorial rights! Rather, our responsibility is to live, sing and proclaim what the LORD has done. (Author: Rob Ambler
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