An Astonishing Face: Encounters with the Other in The Idiot

‘I can’t understand how one can pass a tree and not be happy at seeing it! Talk to a man and not be happy at loving him! … Look into the eyes that look at you and love you’. [1] Prince Myshkin, the protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, returns to Russia with a fervent desire to see the world through the eyes of love. Believing in compassion as ‘perhaps the sole law of human existence’, Myshkin encounters others with a conviction that he can discern their inner goodness and suffering through meaningful, face-to-face dialogue. [2] The Idiot abounds with references to the physical face, as Prince Myshkin enters a claustrophobic world of faces ready to engage him. It is an experience not unlike entering a Russian Orthodox church, where one is enveloped in ancient gazes across rows of glistening icons. This secular iconostasis of characters, however, is situated firmly in the parlours of St Petersburg. In this space, face-to-face exchanges are deeply human and physical. They shine with delight and, at other times, they are charged with shame, jealousy, and anger. In The Idiot, faces are adored, despised, kissed, and slapped as the reader is consistently made aware of the body’s fragility.

By inviting readers into this strange world of faces, Dostoevsky clears the path for surprising confrontations. Facial expressions are integral to the semiotics of gesture in the novel. Indeed, Leslie A. Johnson argues that the entire novel can be interpreted as an exploration of the primordial face-to-face encounter. [3] Facial pallor, blushing, tension, and smiles all perform the necessary task of revealing each character’s desires and propelling the narrative forward. ‘A look or glance’, Johnson writes, ‘has the full-fledged status of an action fraught with consequence’. [4] Nastasya Fillopovna’s portrait travels among members of the Ivolgin household like a relic, serving as a point of tension among all who gaze at her face; Ippolit’s ‘terrible shame verging on despair’ is expressed in his ‘fearfully pale’ face and the distortion of his features; [5] Rogozhin’s darkness is often shown in the ‘glittering’ eyes that trail and haunt Myshkin. In light of Johnson’s observations, this essay uses the face-to-face encounter as a means for understanding the desires and vulnerabilities of its characters.

 

The Indestructible Imago Dei

Considering the theological significance of the face-to-face encounter can enrich our reading of The Idiot. Facial expression serves as a sign of one’s status as God’s image-bearer. As the first point of contact for human relationship, the physical body is the ‘primordial’ sacrament, making the invisible visible. [6] As Aidan Nichols writes, ‘man is the locus of God’s self-disclosure’, and in the face of Christ, God revealed an image that is ‘unique and definitive’. [7] Because seeing the risen Christ’s face can only be a post-apocalyptic event, Christians engage in an unceasing dialogue between the visible and invisible in prayer, envisioning the face for a sense of presence. Augustine writes in his Confessions: ‘Do not hide your face from me… to be far from your face is to be in the darkness of passion’. [8] St Gregory Nazianzen writes that ‘Out of dust man was created in the image of the Immortal. Being but dust, I am bound to life below; having also a divine part I carry in my breast the longing for eternal life’. [9] And, the face of Christ is also a crucial factor in our own transfiguration. [10] God’s self-revelation through the face of Christ sets the precedent for art to reflect man’s identity as imago Dei. Nichols writes, ‘if God has elected to show himself definitively in the form of a human life, then may not the artist shape and fashion visual images which will add up to an exegesis of revelation?’ [11] Vladimir Lossky explains that this imago Dei is ‘indestructible’, and yet the novel’s characters, including Myshkin himself, reveal the ways in which this beauty is abused, manipulated, and distorted by sin. [12] Myshkin’s oft quoted assertion that ‘beauty will save the world’ is only true insofar as one acknowledges that, whilst humans are capable of demonstrating radical compassion, their faces also betray a vulnerability to shame, disease, and death. Unlike gilded icons, Dostoevsky’s characters are not yet transfigured. They are shown simply as they are.

Unlike gilded icons, Dostoevsky’s characters are not yet transfigured. They are shown simply as they are.

In fact, Dostoevsky uses references to traditional iconography quite sparingly. Unlike most of Dostoevsky’s works, The Idiot is surprisingly sparse in its references to the sacramental practices of the church. [13] Iconography often features prominently in many of Dostoevsky’s other novels, where its presence is not incidental. [14] Yet it is easy to overlook those icons that do feature in The Idiot. The dying Ippolit rests beside an icon with no description. Nastaya Filippovna kisses an icon while setting a wedding date with Rogozhin, and once more before fleeing from Myshkin to Rogozhin. Yet Dostoevsky makes use of portraiture instead, namely in the photographic portrait of Natasya, and Hans Holbein’s painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. While some Dostoevsky scholars have described the novel’s characters as ‘living icons’, neither they nor their portraits can perform the exact same function as a traditional icon. [15] An icon represents the divine and symbolises a saint in their transfigured form. It functions as a tool for contemplation, directing the gaze upwards and beyond the present moment. Dostoevsky’s characters may be image-bearers, but their interactions are certainly challenging. Nevertheless, the Russian term obraz, meaning both ‘icon’ and also ‘face’, suggests a relationship between the face-to-face encounter and transcendent experiences. [16] The following sections will explore the significance of this encounter as a dialogue and a call to action.

 

Encountering the Other: The Call of Dependence

Myshkin hopes to cultivate a sense of paradise on earth through a transformative, transcendent encounter with the Other. Describing his own face as infant-like, Myshkin approaches strangers with curiosity and a belief that he can detect suffering through a face-to-face encounter. Mikhail Bakhtin describes Myshkin’s ability to see things outside a limited field of vision as ‘another’s surplus’. [17] Truth can only emerge in authentic, dynamic interaction with the Other. It is not derived from objectification or seeing past another individual’s being, but through a desire to be enriched by the Other. Bakhtin calls this process ‘live-entering’ or vyzhivanie. [18] Live-entering is a practice in empathy; it acknowledges the Other as a wild, dynamic, and individual being, separate from the observer’s ‘I’. Those who speak with Myshkin begin to share truths they would otherwise repress. Myshkin entertains the Yepanchin women with his ability to read faces. Adelaida has a ‘happy face’ that can ‘quickly understand a person’s heart’. [19] Alexandra’s beautiful face contains a ‘secret sadness’, reminiscent of the Holbein Madonna in Dresden. [20] Aglaya is ‘so beautiful, one is afraid to look at her’. [21] Myshkin studies Nastaya’s portrait, surmising that her life has been ‘no ordinary affair’ and filled with suffering: ‘the eyes say that, these two little bones just here, the two points under the eyes where the cheekbones start’. [22]

Holbein, Darmstadt Madonna (detail)

Emmanuel Levinas’s theory of the face-to-face encounter as an experience of ‘brute otherness’ explains how such encounters facilitate the process of ‘live-entering’. Levinas’s own assertion that ‘in the access to the face there is also access to the idea of God’ is congruent with the notion of humans as image bearers. [23] For Levinas, the face-to-face encounter between the self and Other is a concrete and particular event. [24] When Myshkin sits across from Rogozhin on the train to St Petersburg, Dostoevsky contrasts Myshkin’s light blue eyes with Rogozhin’s small grey eyes. There is a relatedness already present in this exchange, as each person is already Other. Levinas claims that ‘brute otherness’ is constituted by dependence and vulnerability. [25] Each witness to this event is confronted with a sense of responsibility for the other person; it is an exchange of ‘plea and command’. In Totality and Infinity (1961), Levinas writes:

The epiphany of the Absolutely Other is a face by which the Other challenges and commands me through his nakedness, through his destitution… Hence, to be I signifies not being able to escape responsibility. [26]

This call of dependence requires an answer. This other person needs acceptance and risks rejection. Through this, one is made aware of their power to heal or harm. Thus, the allure of Nastasya, a woman whose beauty can ‘turn the world upside down’, provokes opposite reactions from Myshkin and Rogozhin. [27] Where Myshkin seeks to free Nastasya, Rogozhin jealously seeks to possess her and eventually murders her. Nastasya’s portrait is deeply affecting, and Myshkin sees beyond her ‘boundless pride and scorn’ into ‘something trusting, something astonishingly ingenuous’. [28] This vulnerability evokes compassion. Hers is a ‘dazzling beauty’ that ‘verges on the intolerable’. [29] Indeed, Myshkin kisses Nastasya’s portrait like an icon, only later to experience anxiety at the sight of her. Nastaya’s mystery and Otherness evoke devotion and fear. Her desperation and vulnerability appear later in their reunion: ‘she was standing face to face with him…. [H]e stared silently at her; his heart was overflowing and ached with anguish…. She sank to her knees before him, … gazed at him hungrily, clutching at his hands’. [30] Marked with hunger and anguish, their exchange reveals the mystery and challenge of an ongoing dialogue between the self and Other.

 

The Face and the Cross

Despite Myshkin’s sense of responsibility for the vulnerable, he fails in establishing paradise in Russia. The country he romanticised is stifled by materialism and greed. Because Myshkin is unable to integrate seamlessly the spiritual and the material, his efforts to empathize with others provoke further confusion and resentment. Linda Ivanits asserts that this failure to marry spirit and matter further elucidates the novel’s preference for portraiture over iconography. [31] Unlike the characters’ pale, contorted faces, icons direct viewers to Christ as the wounded healer, the ultimate witness and solution to suffering eyes. The triumph of Christ shimmering in gilded icons is instead replaced with the jarring image of Holbein’s Christ in the tomb. While both forms of art invite curiosity, Holbein’s Christ is confronting. It asks its viewers to resist averting their eyes. Dostoevsky likewise urges his readers to do the same, through Nastasya and Ippolit’s feverish, suicidal gestures, and Myshkin’s own epileptic seizures. These faces have not yet seen paradise. Their encounters are hindered by shame and fear. Myshkin is drawn to the vision of ‘the condemned man’ with magnetic force. Early on, he suggests Adelaida ‘draw the face of a condemned man in the minute before the guillotine falls’. Myshkin claims that by looking into the face of a condemned man, he ‘understood it all’ because in this exact moment, this man also ‘knew everything’. [32]

Dostoevsky contrasts these moments of transcendence with the reality of death. The condemned man’s appearance of total helplessness is shattered by his swift execution. Nastasya’s own face, alluring, dark, and dynamic, is ultimately shrouded in a white sheet. Her violent death eclipses Myshkin’s attempts to discern the full truth behind her ‘passionate expression’. Myshkin’s capacity to respond to her vulnerability is also limited, and any accessories of pride—diamonds, ribbons, and lace—are shed and scattered along her body. Without a candle, Rogozhin’s eyes ‘shine’ on the Prince. Both men soon experience their own deterioration of body and mind in the darkness. Myshkin’s final face-to-face encounter is not with ‘beauty’ but a collapse into the dark, inverse of himself. [33] Like Holbein’s dead Christ, there is no final glory yet. Their bodies are left broken. [34] Myshkin had commented that a man ‘could lose his faith’ looking at Holbein’s Christ, and by the end of the novel there is no direct assurance of a glorious transfiguration. All that remains is the very image imprinted in Myshkin’s memory of the cross and the head of the condemned man. [35] This is the only lasting image in a novel whose characters are not content to look at a man and ‘be happy at loving him!’

The Idiot’s face-to-face encounters serve to expose the treacherous space between Myshkin’s vision of Paradise and the reality of human fragility. In tracing rapid transitions between delight and despair, Dostoevsky reveals dialogue that is stumbling over itself, endlessly seeking and rejecting the invitation of the Other. Myshkin strives to overcome his own chronic sense of alienation through such encounters, only to confront the unknown and unsettling within himself. In the dark, Myshkin joins that elusive, endless ‘feast of the world’. [36] The faces he meets are like his. They are pale and twisted, they are looked upon with love.

 


 

Image Credit

Hans Holbein the Younger, Darmstadt Madonna (detail), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Muschelnische.jpg.

Notes

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Meyers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 585.

[2] Ibid., 242.

[3] Leslie A. Johnson, ‘The Face of the Other in Idiot’, Slavic Review 50, no. 4 (1991): 868.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 315.

[6] Pope John Paul II refers to the body as the ‘primordial sacrament’. See Paula Jean Miller, ‘A Theology of the Body: A New Look at Humanae Vitae’, Theology Today 57, no. 4 (2001): 505.

[7] Aidan Nichols, The Art of God Incarnate: Theology and Image in Christian Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980), 36.

[8] Quoted in Maurice Hunt, The Divine Face in Four Writers: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Hesse, C. S. Lewis (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 15.

[9] Quoted in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Cambridge: James Clark, 1991), 117.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nichols, Art of God, 48.

[12] Lossky, Mystical Theology, 124.

[13] Rowan Williams writes that Myshkin has ‘little firsthand knowledge of Orthodox practice, and his belief, while violently hostile to Roman Catholicism, shows no sign of rootedness in any other church and is expressed solely in terms of pochvennost’ in relation to the Russian soil.’ See Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 189-190.

[14] See Sophie Ollivier’s ‘Icons in Dostoevsky’s Works’ in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, eds. George Pattison and Danielle Oenning Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 51.

[15] For Dostoevsky, the Russian icon also serves a cultural function, expressing the ancient faith, spirit, and perseverance of the Russian people. See Jefferson J. A. Gatrall, ‘The Icon in the Picture: Reframing the Question of Dostoevsky’s Modernist Iconography’, The Slavic and East European Journal 48, no. 1 (2004): 1.

[16] Ibid., 3.

[17] Alina Wyman, The Gift of Active Empathy: Scheler, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016), 115.

[18] Wyman argues that vyzhivanie ‘should be recognized as an ideal concept that represents the unrealized and, perhaps, unrealizable potential of dialogue in Dostoevsky’s world’ (118). Also see Wyman’s discussion on Dostoevsky’s ‘dialogical truth’.

[19] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 80-81.

[20] Linda Ivanits notes that ‘secret sadness’ or sorrow is also a known characteristic in the Russian icon ‘Vladimir Mother of God’, among other ‘Tenderness’ icons. See her Dostoevsky and the Russian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 101.

[21] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 82.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Johnson, ‘Face of the Other’, 870.

[24] For further reading, see Michael L. Morgan, ‘The Ethical Content of the Face-to-Face’, in his The Cambridge Introduction to Emmanuel Levinas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 59.

[25] Ibid., 60.

[26] Morgan notes that this face-to-face is unlike Martin Buber’s I-Thou encounter as it occurs without an intermediary. Ibid., 61-66.

[27] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 86.

[28] Ibid., 85.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 482.

[31] Ivanits, Dostoevsky and the Russian People, 100.

[32] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 67, 69.

[33] Rowan Williams contrasts Myshkin with Rogozhin as his dark counterpart and alter ego in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

[34] See Julia Kristeva’s fascinating commentary on Holbein’s painting in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

[35] Myshkin urges Adelaida to simply paint to ‘the cross and the head’.

[36] Myshkin’s sense of alienation from the world is described as separate from the ‘feast of the world’ and ‘grand festival’. Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 446.

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