‘I Am the Sole Outcast’: Ippolit Among Dostoevsky’s Atheists


Henri de Lubac observes that ‘Dostoevsky’s books abound in atheists’. [1] The novelist explores the ‘psychology of unbelief’ by making many of his most arresting characters non-believers and nihilists. [2] George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson offer that Dostoevsky ‘rather too frequently gave all his best lines to the Devil’ and that the author ‘was uniquely gifted in depicting the agony of atheism and the spiritual predicament of humanity without God’. [3]Pattison and Thompson argue that this talent begets a question which may never be fully answered: What is the nature of the faith that Dostoevsky imagines emerging from this compellingly rendered ‘furnace of doubt’? [4] This article does not propose to examine the manifold subtleties of this question but simply to introduce the general function of atheism in Dostoevsky’s work, in order to specifically consider how Ippolit, the young, consumptive nihilist in The Idiot, contributes to answering the prenominate question.

Ippolit calls himself an atheist, but he does not set out his personal philosophy as thoroughly as some of Dostoevsky’s other nonbelievers do. [5] Ippolit’s youth and the severity of his disease make the vicissitudes in his thinking and emotion extreme and unpredictable. His constant reversals may detract from the content of his statements, but I propose that Ippolit’s fervor and instability present an opportunity for readers to encounter the lineaments of apparent unbelief in a particularly insightful stage. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky uses Ippolit to demonstrate the raw intuitions of a nonbeliever in order to foreground the ways in which these intuitions align with those of a Dostoevskyean believer.

II. Atheism in Dostoevsky’s Fiction

A brief consideration of atheistic instincts from the Christian perspective will help frame this discussion. De Lubac and Jacques Maritain give an account of the interaction between belief and atheism that corresponds to how the same dialogue appears in Dostoevsky’s fiction. In his essay ‘On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism’, in which he discusses Kirillov from Demons, Maritain posits that the ‘absolute atheist’, in the purity of his passion, ‘is but an abortive saint’. [6] He also describes the ‘pseudo-atheists, who believe that they do not believe in God but who in reality unconsciously believe in Him’. [7] These claims imagine a strong affinity between the intuitions of atheists and believers; both saints and nonbelievers perceive corruption in the world and dedicate themselves to what they determine to be the correct moral choice in response to the brokenness they witness. [8]

De Lubac says that atheism in Dostoevsky begins with this moral choice. [9] He argues that there is an affirmation of worship embedded in the structures of a nonbeliever’s commitment that reveals that ‘the atheist pays homage to faith’. [10] This discussion leads de Lubac to an essential thesis he identifies in Dostoevsky: ‘Man is a “theotropic” being. Violently attacked on all sides, faith is indestructible in his heart’. [11] In an apophatic mode characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky often charts a negative way to this conclusion. [12] He de-emphasizes the explicit presence of Christ and focuses on the ‘horror’ and ‘greatness’ of man’s rejection of God. [13] It may seem counterintuitive for Dostoevsky to depict so many atheists as he attempts to articulate humanity’s ‘incoercible aspiration’ toward God, but the unlikely nature of his subjects may intensify the poignance of his affirmations of faith. [14]

Rowan Williams comes to a similar conclusion as Maritain and de Lubac when he argues that, for Dostoevsky, both atheists and believers understand ‘what a world that is informed by “presence” looks like and what a world looks like that is without this’. [15] This awareness of ‘presence’ may cause atheists to be particularly sensitive in daily life to iterations of the sacred, though they ostensibly deny its existence, and thereby it can nudge them toward the unconscious belief Maritain imagines for the ‘pseudo-atheist’. [16] From the reverse perspective, Bruce Ward considers the value these characters offer to believers and argues that the preponderance of atheists in Dostoevsky’s passionately religious fiction begs the question: ‘What is the religious meaning of atheism?’ [17] Ward helpfully adds that ‘this question acknowledges that atheism has something to teach faith’. [18] Dostoevsky’s recurring engagement with atheist ideas in his characters insinuates a dialectical interaction that requires a nonbelieving voice. Malcolm Jones argues that because ‘atheism retains the seeds of apophaticism’, the denial of orthodox faith creates the conditions for its rebirth. [19] On this view, atheism becomes more than a foil for religion and potentially provides ingredients to belief that it may not otherwise possess. Dostoevsky looks to narrate the entire arc of a death and resurrection as he uses his fiction to articulate an unorthodox route into traditional faith. Dostoevsky’s imagined trajectory requires a substantial digression into unbelief and ultimately generates authentic faith in the forging fires of doubt.

III. Ippolit within Dostoevsky’s ‘Dialogic’ World

Ippolit briefly plays a central role in the narrative of The Idiot when he reads what he intends to be his final manifesto: a ‘letter’ he titles ‘My Necessary Explanation’. [20] He reads the text out loud at a drunken party and is interrupted a few times, but he ultimately manages to deliver the lengthy text in full despite his shortness of breath. He presents his dying thoughts and looks to offer justification for his impending suicide. The scene is predictably strange and fervent–as the party goes on around him, Ippolit suddenly wakes up startled from a nap, and after a few moments, he places ‘a large, official sized package, stamped with a big red seal’ before the partygoers. [21] The act of transcribing his story and philosophy in order to read it out loud makes Ippolit’s ‘voice’ salient and vulnerable. Though he insists that the stamped package is a simple ploy to amplify the ‘mystery’ of his letter and momentarily attract everyone’s attention, the package seems almost to be a proxy for Ippolit’s entire self. The real ‘mystery’ is that of his incarnate personhood, which he offers to the crowd through the letter in the subconscious hope that they will respond with something more than basic attention. [22]

The subtly sprawling, dialogic nature of Ippolit’s confession invites the reader to reconsider his ‘failure’ and the death of his belief.

Examining the nature of Ippolit’s voice in this moment will help clarify his ‘position’ within the dialogue about belief and unbelief. Mikhail Bakhtin, an authoritative critic of Dostoevsky, identifies the ‘polyphony’ he sees at work within the Russian novelist’s ‘dialogic’ imagination. Bakhtin sets out that ‘a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices, is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels’. [23] Bakhtin argues that a key to the polyphony of these novels is Dostoevsky’s ability to inhabit and represent perspectives other than his own, which in turn makes an ‘idea’ in his novels not the product of a single character or consciousness, but the site on which many of the characters and consciousnesses in the novel interact. [24] Bakhtin calls Ippolit’s monologue a ‘confession with a loophole’ and notes that it is an open-ended combination of the personal and ideological that obscures the line between the two, revealing the dialogic nature of even a single voice. [25] This view complicates the claims of unbelief in Ippolit’s confession and may intimate a fruitful convolution at the heart of his atheism. The medium and instability of Ippolit’s confession seems designed to establish distance between Dostoevsky and the character’s ideas, but the form in this case may suitably communicate a statement about the paradoxical simultaneity of belief and denial. [26]

During his ‘Explanation’, Ippolit oscillates between extreme vulnerability and qualifying everything he says to cast doubt on its validity. Rowan Williams references Bakhtin when he considers Ippolit’s confession and notes in it the interplay of personality and impersonality, of visibility and invisibility. [27] Ippolit embodies the entire dialogic process Bakhtin describes as he engages in a kind of conversation with himself. He unsays what he says, may believe what he denies, and his ultimate ‘act’ becomes inaction–even his attempted suicide has a ‘loophole’ when the gun misfires. Evaluating the ramifications of Ippolit’s vertiginous approach to speech and action, Alexander Spektor argues that the young nihilist’s confession ‘undermines the possibility of authentic discourse’ and shows that discourse always ‘prefigures violence’. [28] Though Spektor’s assertion is technically accurate and aligns with Ippolit’s own comment on the failure of discourse, it offers an incomplete picture. [29]

Ippolit goes through a dialogic process of becoming as he writes and then reads his explanation. [30] Ippolit’s letter is not the ‘necessary explanation’ of his exit from community and the world, but an uninvited, unnecessary, even gratuitous gesture at participating in community. The apparent failure of his movement toward community does not negate his intentions. Furthermore, the effect of his confession is not necessarily completed at the party; once he has offered this text-version of himself, he cannot undo the action, and his words may yet have further influence on others. [31] The incompleteness and open-ended nature of discourse in Dostoevsky precludes so-called ‘success’ but also means any particular ‘failure’ is not permanent. The process that Ippolit endures offers a dramatic analog to the descent into doubt that gives way to the rebirth of faith. The subtly sprawling, dialogic nature of Ippolit’s confession invites the reader to reconsider his ‘failure’ and the death of his belief.

IV. Ippolit’s Religious Intuitions

Before he takes out the package and begins his confession, Ippolit speaks one of the most famous phrases in the novel, ‘Is it right, Prince, that you once said the world would be saved by “beauty?”’ [32] Though it is Myshkin who believes in the salvific power of beauty, Dostoevsky has Ippolit say the line. [33] That Ippolit speaks these notable words might suggest that, more than any other character in the novel, he desires and intuits a transcendent plane and a saving power that exists beyond the ordinary phenomena of quotidian life. If this is the case, Ippolit’s imagination is distinctly religious in nature. Ippolit has a mocking tone in this moment, but he may yet insinuate his agreement with the Prince’s statement by a circuitous route.

Insofar as it is fortified by the doubt Dostoevsky dignifies, Ippolit’s positive view of beauty appears to bear more personal and perhaps religious significance than the Prince’s more explicitly stated belief. Ippolit returns to the concept of beauty near the culmination of speech:

What is there for me in all this beauty, when I am forced every minute, every second, that even this tiny fly buzzing in the sunbeam near me, even that is a participant in all this festival and chorus, knows its place, loves it, and is happy, while I am the sole outcast, and only my cowardice has prevented me from seeing it before now! [34]

Ippolit claims he is in solitude and has an ostensibly negative view of the ‘harmonious festival and chorus’ he observes in the world. His experience of solitude, however, pushes Ippolit to seek community desperately. Though he feels separate from and humiliated by the crowd at the party, his confession brings him to them and, as noted above, he gives substantially of himself to the crowd through his confession. Moreover, his suffering has given Ippolit insight into the beauty of the world. Most of the other characters cannot give such a particular and compelling description of universal harmony as Ippolit speaks here. He comes to perceive harmony in its absence, but that absence gives him an awareness of what Williams calls ‘presence’.

Ippolit’s nearness to death accentuates to him the value of the smallest things about the world.

Just after his introduction in the novel, Ippolit explains that he came to Pavlosk, where Prince Myshkin and the Yepanchins, among others, are gathered, because there ‘at least [he] can see a tree in leaf’. [35] He seems to forget having said this a few pages later when he repeats, ‘Do you know I came here to see the trees?’ [36] In his confession, Ippolit reverses course and claims he forgot he ever mentioned the trees before eventually admitting that he may have said it after all. [37] Why does Ippolit return again and again to the trees? His desire to see trees in leaf before he dies reveals that Ippolit has a sense of the goodness and beauty of the world that he later wants to obscure. His move to hide this sense may show its dearness to him. Ippolit’s nearness to death accentuates to him the value of the smallest things about the world. During his confession, he also comes to affirm the significance of ‘individual good deeds’, even those that exist on the smallest scale. [38] Ippolit’s vitriol and his constant reversals may distract the eye of the reader away from what becomes a ‘disguised narrative of charity, grace, and resurrection’. [39]

Rowan Williams argues that the essential question in Dostoevsky’s fiction is: ‘What is it that human beings owe to each other?’ [40] Williams says that to ignore this question borders on the demonic. [41] In The Idiot, Ippolit may have the keenest sense of the centrality of this question and in his confession he begins to attempt an answer to it. At the end of his study on Dostoevsky, de Lubac describes an interesting and beautiful scene as he imagines the characters, especially the atheists, from throughout Dostoevsky’s oeuvre joining Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov as he weeps and blesses the earth: ‘Do we not feel at this point that those beings whose ambiguous ecstasies had left us perplexed are all gathered round Alyosha? … Yes, they are all there.’ [42] All those who sputtered and fumed as they recognized the difficulty of confronting the reality of responsibility that Williams notes may be conjoined through their shared intuitions about the closeness of suffering and beauty. The meditations on beauty and charity that emerge in Ippolit’s ‘explanation’ despite or because of his atheism earn him a key spot among this cloud of witnesses. [43]



Image Credit

Banner Image: Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea (detail), 1808-1810, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Der_Mönch_am_Meer_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.



[1] Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Riley (New York: Meridian Books, 1963), 188.

[2] Stephen Bullivant, ‘A House Divided Against Itself: Dostoevsky and the Psychology of Unbelief’, Literature and Theology 22, no. 1 (2008): 17, 19.

[3] George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, ‘Introduction: Reading Dostoevsky Religiously’, in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, ed. George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17.

[4] Ibid., 18; Paul Ramsey, ‘No Morality without Immorality: Dostoevsky and the Meaning of Atheism’, Journal of Religion 36, no. 2 (1956): 91.

[5] Kirillov, Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov, and the Underground Man, in addition to being at least a little older than Ippolit, all have more opportunity to describe the reasons for and applications of their various positions. They are engaged much more often in criticism on Dostoevsky.

[6] Jacques Maritain, ‘On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism’, The Review of Politics 11, no. 3 (1949): 267.

[7] Ibid., 268.

[8] Ibid., 273-275.

[9] Lubac, Drama, 208.

[10] Ibid., 211.

[11] Ibid., 212.

[12] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008), 211. Williams sets out that this apophatic habit may have contributed to forming the circumstances that fostered Russian nihilism and atheism.

[13] Lubac, Drama, 177, 186. De Lubac argues that in Dostoevsky a ‘silent’ Christ ‘remains in the shadow’.

[14] Ibid., 213.

[15] Williams, Dostoevsky, 223.

[16] Bullivant, ‘House Divided’, 29. Bullivant aligns with Maritain in his conclusions at the end of an examination of Dostoevsky’s ‘psychology of unbelief’ and its inherent belief in humanity and freedom.

[17] Bruce K. Ward, ‘Dostoevsky and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’, Literature and Theology 11, no. 3 (1997): 279.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Malcolm V. Jones, ‘Modelling the Religious Dimensions of Dostoevsky’s Fictional World’, New Zealand Slavonic Journal 37 (2003): 50, 46.

[20] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 401-437.

[21] Ibid., 403. He seems to keep ‘resurrecting’ like this throughout the novel – another essay might have the space to consider this habit of Ippolit’s and discuss the significance of his being always between sleeping and waking while he more generally exists at the edges of life and death and of belief and unbelief.

[22] Eric Ziolkowski,’Reading and Incarnation in Dostoevsky’, in Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition, ed. George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 157. Ziolkowski argues in this essay that reading aloud participates in the ‘constant compulsion of [Dostoevsky’s] narratives towards intimating and depicting the phenomenon of incarnation’. While Ziolkowski considers characters reading mainly biblical texts, this scene works well within his logic.

[23] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6.

[24] Ibid., 85, 88. Though political constraints prevented Bakhtin from commenting much on Dostoevsky’s faith, the interaction between belief and unbelief is among the most essential dialogues at play in Dostoevsky’s work and Bakhtin’s theory applies nicely.

[25] Ibid., 241.

[26] Steven Cassedy, Dostoevsky’s Religion (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 175, 177. Cassedy notes that Dostoevsky often takes this arm’s-length approach to key ideas in his novels–for example Raskolnikov’s article and Ivan’s famous poem–and points toward a similar conclusion that, in Dostoevsky, ‘beliefs often come in antinomic pairs’.

[27] Williams, Dostoevsky, 108-109, 117.

[28] Alexander Spektor, ‘From Violence to Silence: Vicissitudes of Reading (in) The Idiot’, Slavic Review 72, no. 3 (2013): 571.

[29] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 415-416.

[30] Bakhtin, Problems, 252. Bakhtin says the end of the dialogic process is often the generation of a self.

[31] Ibid., 550. He does attempt to fully unsay his confession later, but the prince resists this.

[32] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 402.

[33] This is yet another example of Dostoevsky’s ‘arm’s-length’ approach to many of the essential contentions in his novels. This distancing technique seems to create fruitful complications that contribute to a general dialogic conception of truth and belief.

[34] Ibid., 435.

[35] Ibid., 302.

[36] Ibid., 311.

[37] Ibid., 407.

[38] Ibid., 425, 427.

[39] Carol Apollonio, Dostoevsky’s Secrets: Reading Against the Grain (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009), 99. These affirmations scattered amidst his nihilistic ramblings may also place Ippolit alongside Ivan in his love of ‘sticky little leaves’, and next to Grushenka and Alyosha in their celebration of ‘giving a little onion’.

[40] Williams, Dostoevsky, 14.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Lubac, Drama, 243. Cf. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 362-363.

[43] De Lubac, though, doesn’t mention him.

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