From Communication to Communion: Dialogic Partnership in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Dostoevsky offers many interesting theological threads to follow in The Idiot, and, for me, amid all of its chaotic conversations I found a compelling account of communion in the dialogic partnership of Prince Myshkin and Lizaveta Prokofievna. This account was supported by their continual dialogic efforts to relate and understand one another. Between Myshkin’s conversational blunders and Lizaveta’s passionate outbursts, their transformative friendship may have been easily missed. It is, however, a valuable lesson in the characteristics of dialogue as well as the theological context of ‘communion’, as the shared presence produced in dialogue lends to a moving opportunity for communion.

Some suggest that entering into a dialogue is the only way change can happen but are quickly frustrated by the reality of the unchanged world. They are not wrong in identifying the significance of dialogue, but when change does not occur in dialogue, it is often because dialogue was never truly entered into. If one consistently expects the other party to conform, they are not offering a dialogue, they are offering a thinly veiled monologue.

Dialogue provides a space for its participants to grapple with their own perspective and the perspectives of others. Dialogue requires active participation lending to a shared presence and, over an extended period of time, allows for transformations to occur. These transformations occur within the participants, in how they consider and relate to their dialogic partner, which supports their communion.

What makes dialogue work is the process it calls for: the participants are asked to enter in humility and stay in patience, willingly agreeing to their own vulnerability, rejecting their own pride; the participants maintain their voices while joining in one conversation and allowing their shared vocalized interaction to influence their interior opinions; and the participants are invited to engage in charity as they come to witness to the other person and express their care dialogically.

The Idiot, published in the late 1860s, depicts a glimpse into the life of Myshkin, its titular character, as he enters Russian society having spent his childhood abroad struggling with epilepsy. This novel explores communication in a variety of interesting ways, but it is the communicative interactions between Prince Myshkin and his relative, Madame Lizaveta Prokofievna Yepanchina, that highlights the opportunity of dialogue to afford growth and ultimately, communion. Through the process of their dialogue, the reader may even recognize rich theological significance of dialogue as a way to encounter communion with God. [1]

I. Foundations of Dialogue

Madame Yepanchina and Prince Myshkin’s initial interaction brings to the forefront their different communicative styles and highlights the reality that dialogue will not come easily for the pair. They are first introduced in the Yepanchin household. [2] Yepanchina begins their conversation with a barrage of interrogatory questions. There is little flexibility in Myshkin’s early speech and he does not truly enter into the conversation; rather, he is an actor waiting in the wings for his monologue, which when performed becomes a soliloquy, dramatically distancing himself from communion. [3] Myshkin’s tendency towards soliloquy recurs throughout the novel and appears to be the result of his largely sheltered upbringing. While perhaps for him it may be an imperceptible emotional distancing, it still creates friction between himself and other characters (e.g. Aglaya) even through to the novel’s end. Fortunately, Yepanchina facilitates his authentic entry into dialogue through her own vulnerability in their first interaction. In voicing her confusion regarding the relevance of certain details to his story, she leaves herself open to criticism and embarrassment for having not ‘gotten it’. And while she is in fact met with laughter, Myshkin’s response is an exercise in adaptability; more importantly, it positions him to enter vulnerably as he shares difficult personal realities he has encountered. [4]

Myshkin’s thoughts regarding Yepanchina are often hidden from the reader, but, more boldly, he quickly begins to vocalize them to her:

I do not have to think, I am perfectly certain that you’re an absolute child in everything, everything, for good or ill, even though you’re the age you are. You aren’t angry with me for saying that? After all, you know my opinion of children! [5]

This statement is slightly cryptic, but in Myshkin’s initial remarks about children his meaning becomes clear: ‘[t]he soul is healed through contact with children’. [6] He then suggests that theirs will be a kind of healing relationship. [7]

Throughout this meeting Yepanchina associates herself with Myshkin in increasingly profound ways. First, she says that they are both ‘good-natured’. [8] Then, after Myshkin pairs them as both being able to read faces, she links their characters further: ‘I believe your character is just like mine, and I’m very pleased; like two drops of water. Only you’re a man and I’m a woman’. [9] This unified image of Myshkin and Yepanchina opens the door for them to be mutually affected by each other.

In their first meeting, we clearly see the foundation being laid between the two. They identify with each other having been exposed in their dialogue and become unified, as Yepanchina openly attests that Myshkin’s sudden appearance in her life is God’s working. [10] From its inception, their relationship is of great significance to Yepanchina, and it is her commitment to their relationship that provides a solid base that supports their mutual entering into dialogue. Later in the novel, we see him more confidently navigate in dialogue with her, but with this evolution in their dialogue there also arises new relational demands that shed light on the difficulties and goals of the dialogic enterprise between humans.

II. Transformation through Dialogue

The evolution of their dialogue is initiated by another typical barrage of questioning by Yepanchina, now referred to as Lizaveta, as she storms into Myshkin’s residence. [11] She confronts him regarding the nature and content of his written correspondence with her daughter, Aglaya, to which he continuously avoids offering an answer. This communicative strategy is suggestive of Myshkin’s resistance to true vulnerability in dialogue. Once he consents to revealing the content of his letter, both parties then enter into dialogue and leave space for sincere inquiry. The language of their dialogue takes a meaningful turn as they exercise a more balanced participation. It inspires a confidence in Myshkin to not only respond, but also to understand what is being asked:

‘You can see that I trust you, can’t you?’

‘I see and understand’.

Lizaveta Prokofievna gave the prince a piercing stare, anxious, perhaps, to see what effect the news about Yevgeni Pavlich had produced.

‘Do you know anything about Gavrila Ivolgin?’

‘You mean… I know a good deal about him’. [12]

Compared with the Myshkin who had just arrived to Petersburg, hidden behind monologues, this increasingly confident dialogician reads his partner, alters the conversation with active assessments, and instinctively relies upon the established kinship between them. [13] Rowan Williams aptly assesses how the ‘enterprise of growth and so the life of narrative thus always involves a venturing into that uncontrolled territory where dialogue and interaction bring to light, not to say bring into being, hidden dimensions in a speaker’. [14] Communicators can attempt to manipulate how they are understood, but through dialogue, as evidenced in Myshkin and Lizaveta’s conversations, participants can push each other to speak simply, to draw out the heart of what is being communicated. Myshkin and Lizaveta’s continual efforts are grounded in their unity, often vocalized by Lizaveta herself (e.g. ‘God himself sent [Myshkin] to be a friend and brother to me’.) [15]

For these two, dialogue is a place where they grow in charity towards each other. To enter into dialogue humbly, bear themselves honestly, participate actively, listen patiently, they express the other’s importance to them. They grow to know each other’s uniqueness and how to find the truth of what the other is saying. They challenge each other and argue with purpose. Rowan Williams writes that as people exchange, affirming their ‘mutual displacement, something new enters the moral situation, and both speakers are given more room to be who they are, to learn or grow by means of this discovery of “themselves outside themselves”’. [16] This change is given proper attention in one of their most sibling-like engagements:

‘What nonsense!’ Lizaveta Prokofievna decided, throwing the note back. ‘Not worth the trouble of reading. What are you grinning at?’

‘Admit it, you thought it was nice too’.

‘What! This rigamarole, eaten up with vanity! Can’t you see they’re all off their heads with vanity and pride?’

‘Yes, but still he has admitted he was wrong and broken with Doktorenko, and the vainer he is the more that must have cost his vanity. What a little child you are, Lizaveta Prokofievna!’ [17]

Somehow, through consistent arguing, their dialogue bears an underlining tone of affection. Though sometimes challenging for the participants, they grow in fraternal affection and learn, for a moment, how to love with words as Lizaveta more freely refers to Myshkin as ‘dear’ and more gently approaches their dialogue. [18] This charity culminates in her freely given expression of forgiveness when he ashamedly begs it for breaking her clay pot during an impassioned speech. [19] The next morning she even goes out of her way to visit him to say:

‘it’s you I’m concerned about, not the vase… you can be sure once and for all that, whatever happens and whatever transpires, you will still be a friend of the household, mine at any rate’. [20]

These two have pushed each other and demanded more patience and presence than the other may have wanted to give, but true to Myshkin’s assessment at the start of the novel their dialogue proves to be a place for healing through committed love. Their dialogic interaction is a place of communion and gives the faintest impression of the fruitful products of dialogue.

III. Conclusion

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, in communion with the saints, ‘we seek, rather, that by this devotion to the exercise of fraternal charity the union of the whole Church in the Spirit may be strengthened’. [21] As man is fallen, the risk of weakening communion exists in the result of his sins, but it does not dissolve that communion. In Introduction to Christianity, then Cardinal Ratzinger identifies the ‘definitive distinguishing mark of man’ as the reality that man is ‘God’s partner in dialogue’. [22] He expounds this idea in recognizing that ‘having a spiritual soul’ means ‘being a creature called by God to an eternal dialogue and therefore capable for its own part of knowing God and of replying to him’. [23]

Considering an intention of dialogue as an eternal encounter with God, its ability to invite communion goes far beyond the individual engagements of humans. And as it does go beyond these limited contexts, it expands them from within. The communion of saints, as Ratzinger explains, is a ‘concretization of the words about the Holy Spirit, as [a description] of the way in which this Spirit works in history’. [24] In our limited attempts in dialogue with one another and our struggle for communion, the Spirit works and transforms. And, while fiction, this transformation is true especially in the heart of Lizaveta, who at the novel’s start was outspokenly against Myshkin and at its close ‘wept unrestrainedly at the sight of the prince in his sick and humiliated state’, thus sharing sorrow in his sufferings. [25]

 


Image Credit

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity (detail), 1425-1427, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410.jpg.

Notes

[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans J. R. Foster and Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 334. Originally published as Einführung in das Christentum (Munich: Kösel-Verlag GmbH, 1968).

[2] Please note that the name used to discuss Lizaveta Prokofievna (Madame Yepanchina) is determined by its use in the novel (i.e., the formal name is used at the time of their introduction and later her informal name is used.)

[3] The extent to which dialogue and monologue enable and prohibit opportunities for communion throughout the literature of this time period may offer interesting insight into Dostoevsky’s works in the literary scene, but will not be explored to its full extent in this article.

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 60.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6] Ibid., 71.

[7] Significantly, Prince Myshkin addresses Madame Yepanchina in this instance in an informal way.

[8] Ibid., 60.

[9] Ibid., 70, 81.

[10] Ibid., 87.

[11] At this point in the novel Madame Yepanchina is consistently referred to by her familiar name Lizaveta Prokofievna, clearly marking a shift in their relationship towards familiarity.

[12] Ibid., 336.

[13] The idea of kinship here does not refer to their actually being related. Rather it refers to the unity they share as affirmed dialogic partners.

[14] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press,

2011), 132.

[15] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 336.

[16] Williams, Dostoevsky, 174.

[17] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 338.

[18] Ibid., 462.

[19] Ibid., 580.

[20] Ibid., 589.

[21] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York: United States Catholic Conference, 1994), 957.

[22] Ratzinger, Introduction, 354.

[23] Ibid., 355.

[24] Ibid., 334.

[25] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 651.

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