Self-Destruction as Love? Kenosis at the Conclusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

In a letter written in 1864, Fyodor Dostoevsky gives a memorable account of the self as an obstacle to the act of Christ-like love:

To love a person, as oneself, according to Christ’s commandment, is impossible. The law of the self is binding on earth. The I stands in the way. Only Christ was able to, but Christ was the eternal ideal of ages… The highest use to which man could put his self and the full development of his I is to destroy that I, to give it away in its entirety to each and everyone, completely and unconditionally. [1]

Here Dostoevsky posits the destruction of the self as necessary for true Christ-like love to occur. Alan Jacobs locates Dostoevsky’s statement within a tradition of Christian interpretation of the idea of kenosis, the Greek word for ‘emptying’ or ‘humiliation’ used by St Paul to describe Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion (Phil. 2:7). [2] According to John Givens, Dostoevsky’s understanding of kenosis in this letter is embodied in the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin. [3] Givens maintains that Myshkin’s tragic fate at the end of the novel ‘precisely mirrors the Christ-like complete and unconditional destruction of the self in service of others that Dostoevsky describes [in the letter]’. [4] The ‘other’ for whom Myshkin destroys himself is of course Rogozhin, who has murdered Nastasya Fillipovna. Givens claims that in his final interactions with Rogozhin, Myshkin fulfills ‘the demands of the cross and Christian fraternity’ by ‘responding to Rogozhin’s act of murder with unconditional love’. [5] His act of ‘staying with [Rogozhin] and comforting him through the night’ along with his subsequent madness thus constitute ‘a kenosis’ and an ‘imitation of Christ’. [6]

Yet Rowan Williams maintains that Dostoevsky’s later writings (particularly The Brothers Karamazov) re-evaluate the understanding of kenosis as self-destruction articulated in the 1864 letter. [7] Williams claims that for the later Dostoevsky, ‘the self remains a locus of feeling and thought, and specifically of love’, even while ‘bracketing … of the self’s agenda for the sake of another voice’ remains essential. [8] These comments thus suggest that Prince Myshkin’s fate in The Idiot, published four years after the letter was written, need not be understood as a straightforward affirmation of Dostoevsky’s earlier sentiment. The tragic ending of The Idiot could instead represent Dostoevsky’s depiction of the failure of his previous understanding of kenosis as self-destruction on the way to his later views on kenotic love. Williams maintains that Dostoevsky’s later perspective resembles Alan Jacobs’s dialogical understanding of kenosis, which Jacobs develops through the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin. [9] A brief analysis of Jacobs and Bakhtin’s perspective on kenosis might therefore serve as a new vantage point from which to assess the final moments of The Idiot and re-evaluate Givens’s claim that Myshkin’s final actions are a paradigm of kenotic love.

Jacobs critiques the understanding of kenosis as self-destruction through Bakhtin’s analysis of understanding and receiving the other in dialogue. [10] For Bakhtin, understanding the other must involve ‘preserving one’s own position of extralocality and the surplus of vision and understanding connected with it’. [11] This requires ‘an active (not a duplicating) understanding’. [12] Bakhtin maintains that passive or duplicating understanding eradicates the positive capabilities of dialogue: ‘passive understanding … contributes nothing new to the word under consideration, only mirroring it, seeking at its most ambitious, merely the full reproduction of that which is already given in the word – even such an understanding never goes beyond the word’s context and in no way enriches the word’. [13] Jacobs notes that this mode of understanding is an ‘ethical failure’ that abandons the speaker ‘in a Cartesian fortress-self’. [14] Eradicating the self in total passivity to the other results in mere duplication of that other, abandoning her within her own subjectivity and in no way enriching her in the process. Thus, Jacobs claims that ‘kenosis in the sense of … self-annihilation is forbidden by the Bakhtinian understanding of love’. [15]

Yet, while Bakhtin derides ‘passive empathizing, being possessed, losing oneself’, he maintains the importance of ‘the answerable act/deed of self-abstracting or self-renunciation’. [16]  Jacobs characterizes this as ‘an ascetic self-discipline that does not eradicate the self but chastens it’. [17] Bakhtin describes this as an active understanding that ‘establishes a series of complex inter-relationships, consonances and dissonances with the word and enriches it with new elements’. [18] Here the listener, by remaining an ‘other’ for the speaker, enriches rather than duplicates her in the act of understanding through the ‘surplus of vision’ that accompanies being a self. Interestingly, Bakhtin gives ‘the descending [?] of Christ’ as an example of this self-renunciation. [19] Jacobs expands on Bakhtin’s insight, noting that in relinquishing his claim to equality with God in the Incarnation, ‘[Christ] does not cease to exist, he does not eradicate his “I”, but instead achieves true “self-activity”… precisely by virtue of his perfect servitude’. [20] Christ’s incarnation then provides a model of kenosis whereby one actively displaces oneself in service to the other but retains in a preserved selfhood the ability to engage the other in dialectical love. [21]

Yet the deeper issue in their interactions is that Myshkin’s self-erasure results in a passive mode of understanding.

We can see Jacobs’s and Bakhtin’s critiques of self-annihilation as the basis of kenotic love exemplified in Myshkin’s final interactions with Rogozhin in The Idiot. [22] Myshkin’s erasure of himself begins before his final madness and is evident throughout his conversations with Rogozhin. From a Bakhtinian perspective, one initial problem with viewing Myshkin’s response to Rogozhin’s revelation of the murder as truly kenotic is that he does not actively give Rogozhin opportunities for further self-disclosure. While he does intermittently question Rogozhin about the murder, his questions remain concerned with individual facts of what has happened rather than prompting ethical or personal reflection from Rogozhin. Throughout their conversation, Myshkin confirms that it was Rogozhin who killed Nastasya, asks how he killed her, asks whether he had intended to kill her in Pavlosk, and confirms that he and Nastasya played cards together. [23] His question regarding whether Rogozhin had previously intended to kill Nastasya seems poised to prompt real dialog. But when Rogozhin is surprised and confused by the question, Myshkin rephrases it in purely factual terms (‘Did you never take the knife to Pavlosk?’) and ceases this line of questioning. [24] These questions do not give Rogozhin opportunity to disclose his intentions, thoughts, or feelings in order to have his ‘word’ enriched by Myshkin’s active understanding.

Yet the deeper issue in their interactions is that Myshkin’s self-erasure results in a passive mode of understanding. This becomes clear in their exchange following Rogozhin’s response to Myshkin’s one meaningful question, which itself suggests his passivity: ‘Parfion, what do you want to do?’ [25] Bakhtin’s notion of passive understanding as ‘duplicating’ becomes particularly insightful as the two characters’ perennial doubling culminates in Myshkin’s response to Rogozhin’s plan for further concealing the murder:

‘So let her lie there near us, near you and me…’
‘Yes! yes!’ the prince assented fervently.
‘So no confessions and no taking her away.’
‘N-not for anything!’ resolved the prince. [26]

Myshkin responds to Rogozhin by mirroring his intentions back to him. His act of understanding does not provide enrichment to the Rogozhin’s self-disclosure but duplication. This mimetic dynamic continues and intensifies throughout their conversation:

‘Wait, did you hear that?’ Rogozhin broke in swiftly, sitting up fearfully on the cushions. ‘Did you hear?’
‘No!’ the prince replied just as quickly and fearfully, looking at Rogozhin….
‘I can hear’, whispered the prince firmly.
‘Shall I bolt the door or not?’
‘Bolt it…’ [27]

In his reproduction of Rogozhin, Myshkin goes so far as to order him to bolt the door, having internalized Rogozhin’s intentions and grasp of the situation. At a moment where Rogozhin lacks any ethical or personal bearings, Myshkin’s self-evacuation constitutes an abandonment of Rogozhin within his own fractured subjectivity, tragically embodied in Rogozhin’s subsequent descent into delirium. This false kenosis prevents Myshkin from receiving and enriching Rogozhin in a true act of kenotic love, which might have involved guiding Rogozhin to a clearer grasp of the ethical consequences of Nastasya’s murder and the beginnings of repentance. When Rogozhin initially finds Myshkin to bring him to the scene of the murder, he tells him, ‘friend, I need you’. [28] Yet faced with the burden of entering into loving exchange under such circumstances, Myshkin tragically (though perhaps understandably) abdicates his role as a ‘you’ in relation to Rogozhin. He becomes simply an extension of his ‘I’ and leaves Rogozhin’s need unfulfilled.

While Givens locates the great moment of Myshkin’s kenosis in his choice to stay with Rogozhin through his delirium, this analysis suggests that the opportunity for Myshkin to truly receive Rogozhin in love has already been lost at this point. As Myshkin looks over him in his delirium we are told that Rogozhin ‘seemed oblivious of him altogether’, further emphasizing the sense of Rogozhin’s imprisonment within himself. [29] Givens claims that Myshkin’s tears flowing onto Rogozhin’s face ‘become a striking metaphor for [his] kenosis’. [30] But it is difficult to see how this kenosis could be anything more than metaphorical given that the text never indicates that Rogozhin is even aware of Myshkin’s final actions or benefits from them. Dostoevsky’s comment that ‘he was no longer aware of his tears and knew nothing of them’ can perhaps apply equally to Myshkin and Rogozhin in a final instance of their doubling. [31] Yet this doubling tragically indicates their mutual alienation, with Myshkin’s subjectivity emptied and Rogozhin imprisoned within himself.

Givens’s claim that Myshkin’s actions at the end of the novel constitute a truly Christ-like kenosis is part of his larger reading of the ‘submerged comic vision’ of The Idiot. [32] My reading of Myshkin’s actions as a false kenosis, on the other hand, would place the novel more firmly within the realm of the tragic. This suggests that Myshkin is certainly worthy of empathy and even perhaps a certain admiration at the end of the novel, as are many tragic heroes, but calls into question the idea that he should be taken as an exemplar of Christ-like kenosis. Myshkin’s final actions and fate in The Idiot can perhaps be understood as Dostoevsky putting to the test the model of kenotic love he articulates in the 1864 letter and finding it wanting. While this results in tragedy for Myshkin and Rogozhin, it perhaps anticipates the more positive depictions of a dialectical kenotic love that Williams identifies in Dostoevsky’s later work.



Image Credit

Mathias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512,


[1] Quoted in Liza Knapp, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’: A Critical Companion (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 219.

[2] Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001), 104-105. Jacobs attributes a similar understanding to Simone Veil.

[3] John Givens, ‘A Narrow Escape into Faith? Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy’, The Russian Review 70, no. 1 (2011): 111.

[4] Ibid., 110.

[5] Ibid., 112.

[6] Ibid., 110–111.

[7] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2009), 173.

[8] Ibid., 174, 172.

[9] Ibid., 174. Cf. Jacobs, Theology, 101-112.

[10] Henceforth quotations from Bakhtin will be given from their original sources, although most are also discussed in Jacobs, Theology, 105-110. I mention this to emphasize my indebtedness to Jacobs for this reading of Bakhtin’s work.

[11] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 299.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 281.

[14] Jacobs, Theology, 106.

[15] Ibid., 107.

[16] Mikhail Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist, trans. Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 16.

[17] Jacobs, Theology, 108.

[18] Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 282.

[19] Bakhtin, Toward a Philosophy of the Act, 16. The question mark indicates some uncertainty on the part of the translator about the word ‘descending’.

[20] Jacobs, Theology, 109.

[21] Jacobs never questions whether this perspective is complicated by Christ’s crucifixion, focusing on the Incarnation. This is too large a question to really address here, but we can briefly note that the crucifixion happens within the pattern of resurrection and ascension. This act of kenosis then is not one in which Christ irrevocably abandons the other (John 14:18), who is certainly ‘enriched’ in the exchange.

[22] I am assuming throughout my analysis that Myshkin’s actions and final breakdown do not represent his being overcome by epilepsy. Givens claims that such an explanation is rejected in the text (See Givens, ‘Narrow Escape’, 111), and on this point I am inclined to agree with him. Such an explanation would give little ethical significance to the conclusion of the novel.

[23] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Meyers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 643-47.

[24] Ibid., 646.

[25] Ibid., 644.

[26] Ibid., 644-645.

[27] Ibid., 646-647. Emphasis added.

[28] Ibid., 639.

[29] Ibid., 648.

[30] Givens, ‘Narrow Escape’, 113.

[31] Dostoevsky, Idiot, 648.

[32] Givens, ‘Narrow Escape’, 117.

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