“The Idiot” savant - On Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Idiot.

Just 150 years ago, Dostoevsky sent his publisher the first chapters of what was to become his strangest novel. As countless puzzled critics have observed, The Idiot violates every critical norm and yet somehow manages to achieve real greatness. Joseph Frank, the author of the definitive biography of Dostoevsky and one of his most astute critics, observed that it is easy enough to enumerate shortcomings but “more difficult to explain why the novel triumphs so effortlessly over all the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of its structure.” The Idiot brings to mind the old saw about how, according to the laws of physics, bumblebees should be unable to fly, but bumblebees, not knowing physics, go on flying anyway.

Picture Dostoevsky in 1867. With his bride, Anna Grigorievna, he resided abroad, not for pleasure but to escape—just barely— being thrown into debtors’ prison. To pay his fare, Dostoevsky procured an advance from his publisher Katkov for a novel to be serialized in Katkov’s influential journal, The Russian Messenger. But the money was almost gone by the time Dostoevsky left Russia, for the very reason he found himself in financial straits in the first place. Generously but imprudently, he had continued to support the ne’er-do-well son of his first wife while also maintaining the family of his late brother. Anna Grigorievna complained that her sister-in-law lived better than she did.

In her memoirs, Anna Grigorievna described how, exasperated by her husband’s absent-minded generosity, she disguised herself as a beggar, got a handout from her oblivious husband, and confronted him with the donation. When she married Dostoevsky, she thought he had overcome his gambling addiction, but abroad he could not resist roulette, and, of course, always lost. They pawned her dowry, then their clothing. In one letter Dostoevsky begged Katkov for another advance, saying they would otherwise be forced to pawn their linen. It sounds like exaggeration, but he wrote to a friend confessing that he had understated the case, because he could not bring himself to say that they had already pawned it.

In such conditions, the novel Dostoevsky was working on, to be called The Idiot, did not progress well. Five times, the couple was forced to move when landlords would extend no more credit. Dostoevsky was plagued by epileptic seizures, incapacitating him for days. When Anna Grigorievna went into labor with their daughter Sonya, he suffered an attack, and it was hours before she could rouse him to go for a midwife. When the baby died, he experienced guilt as well as grief because, he believed, if they had been in Russia, Sonya would have survived.

Dostoevsky simply had to produce a novel, but refused to cheapen his work. “Worst of all I fear mediocrity,” he wrote to his niece. “I assure you the novel could have been satisfactory,” he explained to his friend, the poet Apollon Maikov, “but I got incredibly fed up with it precisely because of the fact that it was satisfactory and not absolutely good.” At last he abandoned his drafts. Nothing mattered more than artistic integrity.

Dostoevsky resolved to start over with a new premise. The old Idiot dealt with a rogue who committed crime after crime, including rape and arson, but eventually found Christ and goodness. The problem was that Dostoevsky could not make the conversion psychologically convincing, and he was unwilling just to assert it. As it happened, at this very time, Tolstoy was serializing War and Peace in The Russian Messenger—has any publisher been so fortunate as Katkov?—and Tolstoy’s hero Prince Andrei does come to love his enemy in a way that is believable beyond doubt. No novel had ever achieved this feat before, and only one more would do so: Tolstoy’s next work, Anna Karenina. All the more galling, religion was Dostoevsky’s specialty, and so Tolstoy had beaten him at his own game.

Dostoevsky wondered: what if he were to begin with an Idiot who was already a perfect Christian soul? Suppose the novel should ask not whether the Christian ideal is possible but whether it is desirable? Without supernatural powers, would a true Christian do more harm than good in a world of real people with damaged—Dostoevskian—souls?

Dostoevsky proposed “to portray a perfectly beautiful man.” He could think of only three novelists who had tried: Cervantes succeeded with Don Quixote and Dickens with Pickwick, but only by making them ridiculous, rather than psychologically deep. Hugo’s Jean Valjean (in Les Misérables) captures our imagination not by his realistically portrayed inner life but by his prolonged suffering. None of these books tested the Christian ideal itself.

Why might a true Christian cause harm? Plutarch recounts how Aristides the Just would help the illiterate record their votes for the person to be ostracized from Athens each year. Someone once asked him to write down “Aristides.” Since the man was illiterate, Aristides could have written down anything, but performed the task honestly. When he asked why the man wanted to ostracize Aristides, he replied: “Simply because: I am sick and tired of hearing him called ‘the Just.’ ”

People tend to hate their moral superiors. That is why tabloids delight in reporting their lapses. When someone is better than we are, when we have shown our vileness in the face of their goodness, or when we suffer guilt for injuring them unjustly, our lost self-respect often provokes us to behave still worse. We hate them for having been the occasion of our suffering, and we want to change the rules of the game by violating them all the more. In The Brothers Karamazov, the loathsome Fyodor Pavlovich, asked why he hates a particular person, replies “with his shameless impudence: ‘I’ll tell you. He has never done me any harm, but I once played a nasty trick on him, and I’ve never forgiven him for it.’ ” Innocence can be so provoking! When guilt is mild, we may resolve to improve, but when it is acute, we often make ourselves worse, and then still worse, in an endless cycle.

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