The Immature Christ: Childish Compassion in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

‘Well that’s … the sort of thing you read about in novels! Prince, darling, that’s all old-fashioned nonsense, the world has grown wiser nowadays’. [1] Thus declares Nastasya Filippovna of Prince Myshkin’s marriage proposal in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Nastasya’s remark is at once sarcastic and desperate, for she is aware of her own complicated situation yet hoping that the chivalry of old tales—or, indeed, the salvation of Christian scripture—may still be possible through one man’s remarkable compassion. Dostoevsky understood that such stories reference something beyond themselves and promise order to the chaos of earthly life. Myshkin, however, vainly and repeatedly attempts to redeem reality according to his own archetypal backstory, revealing that although stories may provide wisdom or comfort in their ‘fixed and immutable’ events and characters, this does not render them appropriate to understanding or influencing reality in its complex dynamism. [2] Myshkin, who supposedly ‘approximates the extremist incarnation of the Christian ideal of love’, offers an idealistic salvation he cannot actually provide, ultimately failing as a Christ figure not because he lacks universal love and near-divine virtue but because he does not also develop the essential human maturity and particularity of the incarnate Saviour. [3]

I. ‘Children all the time’: The Archetype of Simplicity

Upon his return to Russia, the epileptic Prince Myshkin recounts his convalescent years in Switzerland. These chapters read like a parable, accounting for Myshkin’s potential advent as a Christ figure. New Testament resonances are immediately apparent in the prince’s fondness for donkeys and children: for donkeys because they are ‘hard-working, strong, patient, cheap, and long-suffering’, and for the children because he is convinced that ‘the soul is healed through contact with children’. [4] These parallels present the primary ways in which readers might expect Myshkin to emulate Jesus: long-suffering compassion and healing simplicity. Most overtly, the prince’s interactions with children in these chapters are reminiscent of Jesus declaring that ‘to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’. [5] Dostoevsky is known to frequently associate childhood with Christ and a religious ‘golden age’ and, like the prince, suggests that children have ‘an excellent grasp of life’s most profound matters’. [6] Indeed, this paradisal sense of comfort and clarity permeates Myshkin’s time in Switzerland, which concludes in communal harmony evocative of the heavenly kingdom.

Myshkin’s relationship with Marie, a scorned peasant woman, further denotes his life in Switzerland as a redemptive analogue. In offering Marie a kiss of unconditional (and unsought) acceptance, Myshkin models mercy for the village children, who imitate him in caring for the despised woman. It is thought that Marie corresponds to Mary Magdalene, for her absolution of an implied sexual sin may symbolically mark the beginning of Myshkin’s self-assumed ministry of ‘the highest ideal of love and compassion’. [7] Marie may also be considered a Marian figure, for, as the subject of Myshkin’s first act of mercy, she may, in some sense, be said to give birth to his possible future as a Christ figure. Her subsequent singing may thus represent a sort of Magnificat, an effusion of joy even as she considers herself ‘a great sinner’, raised from shame yet counted among the ‘humble and meek’. [8] Further, in kissing her, Myshkin demonstrates his determination to rescue those condemned to ‘public disgrace’, much in the way Joseph avoided exposing his betrothed to undeserved shame. [9] Even Marie’s death takes on Marian imagery as the children deck her grave with roses. [10] It appears, then, that she comprises the archetype of both the redeemed sinner as well as the exalted Virgin, a pattern that later informs Myshkin’s perception of and relationship with Nastasya Filippovna.

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen

Although his interactions with the children and Marie appear parabolic and Christic, Myshkin’s redemptive deed in Switzerland is not the beginning of any real developing ministry. Instead, it establishes an archetypal approach to compassion which proves ineffectual amidst a more complex reality. [11] While it is necessary to account for the stubborn and irrational depravity of Russian society, the prince, in his blind love and goodness, fails to engage people as they truly are in their particularity and suffering. Rather than developing as a protagonist, he remains ‘a complete child … in development, spirit, character, and perhaps intelligence’. [12] Although the prince protests against this characterization, he also concedes that he neither likes nor understands ‘grown-up people’ and treats them as he would children, pronouncing Lizaveta Prokofievna, for instance, ‘an absolute child in everything’ without considering her idiosyncrasies more intimately and intentionally. [13] On the one hand, his innocent openness toward adult characters may further indicate Myshkin as a Christ figure, for he generously (and even absurdly) believes in their potential for spiritual goodness. [14] This, however, proves too simplistic an approach anywhere beyond his idyllic youth in Switzerland and leads him to disregard the dynamic complexities—the ‘individual ineffable’—which comprise the fabric of truth according to Dostoevsky’s theological imagination, as well as, perhaps, the core of Christian compassion. [15]

II. ‘A human being’: The Irony of the Idiot

The Christian life is one of archetypal imitation, of ‘putting on’ Christ as in Romans 13:14. Prince Myshkin, however, fails to effectively emulate the Christian archetype because he does not imitate the maturity or suffering of Jesus the ‘true historical man’, and thus does not develop the capacity or the experience necessary for saving compassion. [16] Therefore, Myshkin is unsuccessful as a salvific figure not because he is not innocent or well-meaning, but because he does not engage authentically with humanity. After all, Christ saved mankind via incarnation, in which he submitted to the physical and mental development of earthly existence, the innate particularities of the individual, and the painful defects of fallen man. [17] Myshkin, however, lacks observable development and does not appear able to suffer alongside those he seeks to help; instead, he adheres to an archetypal, static, and ‘universal’ approach to compassion even in situations which require a mature understanding and ‘particular’ love. [18]

The most attractive facet of Myshkin’s character, his childlikeness, is also that which is most off-putting; it is at once appealing and appalling, for it suggests his potential as a Christ figure yet indicates the reason for his failure in this regard. In considering the prince’s childlikeness, one might draw at least a superficial connection to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which represents another attempt at depicting ‘a perfectly good and beautiful’ person in contrast to an increasingly chaotic adult world. [19] Both princes appear to possess a quasi-supernatural purity and to demonstrate insightful simplicity. However, it seems fitting for the Little Prince to offer insight as an allegorised child but unnatural and grotesque for Myshkin to interfere in adult situations according to the undeveloped perception of a man who never grew up properly. This immaturity—as with childhood throughout Dostoevsky’s works—appears initially idyllic but risks becoming egocentric and irrational. [20] While simplicity flourishes within the allegorical realm of stories such as The Little Prince and even Myshkin’s own backstory, the prince’s childlikeness becomes childish, for it is ill-equipped to negotiate the real world of ‘deception, passion, sickness, and murder’ represented by Russian society. [21] Aquinas emphasizes that although Christ, like Myshkin, welcomes children to himself, he does so according to fully-developed ‘human mental and physical powers that allow him to perform true human acts’. [22] Central to Christ’s humanness, then, is his mature capacity to make ‘a real human decision’, to encourage childlikeness in children and—presumably—to treat adults with consistent innocence but corresponding appropriateness. [23] As previously demonstrated, however, Myshkin declares that his ‘friends have always been children’, and he proceeds to treat everyone he encounters as such without proper discernment. [24]

The most attractive facet of Myshkin’s character, his childlikeness, is also that which is most off-putting.

Like his childishness, Myshkin’s compassion initially appears beatific yet unintentionally becomes the hand of wrath which causes the destruction of the one he seeks to save. When the prince first encounters Nastasya Filippovna, he sees that she, like Marie, is shamed for a sin she did not invite. Just as he offers Marie a kiss out of pity rather than romantic love, Myshkin proposes marriage to Nastasya, hoping to restore her name and virtue. At first, Nastasya seems to accept the prince’s promise that he will love her as though she really is as pure as he pretends, declaring: ‘[the prince] is the first man I have met in my whole life whom I can trust…. He believed in me at first sight and I believe in him’. [25] This appears to be a realized dream for Nastasya and a gesture of genuine compassion by the prince. As the novel develops, though, Myshkin becomes increasingly and inextricably entrenched in a complicated adult reality for which his idealistic mercy is not prepared, and Nastasya’s destructive doubt becomes perhaps more relatable than the prince’s blind determination to save her. Although Nastasya claims to believe in Myshkin, she also appears to realize that she has no real reason to do so. Christ can be trusted not only as the authoritative Son of God but also because he proved his faithfulness by taking on flesh in order to ‘suffer with’ and for mankind according to the very definition of compassion. [26] Christ’s humanity is the proof of his credibility, for he is a Saviour who can not only redeem but empathise with the human condition. [27] Myshkin, despite his physical illness, confesses that he could never ‘understand how and why people could be depressed’. [28] How, then, can he claim compassion for the seemingly manic-depressive Nastasya? What right does he have to propose engagement when he has not engaged the shame and suffering of his intended bride?

When Nastasya cannot comprehend the prince’s proposal, he asks her ‘why on earth’ she still feels ashamed and dismisses her as feverish. [29] Unlike Christ lamenting from the depths of despair, Myshkin pronounces absolution without understanding the particular suffering of others; he is troubled by their discomfort but does not develop the mature capacity to ‘suffer with’ them. Instead, he proposes cures before understanding the nature of the ailment, applying the same balm to diverse wounds like a child playing doctor. This approach diverges from that of Christ, who models specific modes of healing for particular physical and spiritual maladies: a touch to heal leprous hands, a sigh to open deaf ears, mud to clear murky vision. [30] While divine grace is common to each of these miracles, they testify to Christ’s compassion for particular sores, situations, and souls. The prince, by contrast, diagnoses and treats Nastasya according to an archetype rather than as a human individual. Even as Myshkin sees that she is ‘unwell’ and calls her repeatedly by name—implying a sense of apprehension and intimacy—he confesses his complete lack of experience and understanding, both of which are central to the mature, suffering humanity of the incarnate Christ. [31] Although Nastasya declares that the prince is the first real  ‘human being’ she has encountered, it becomes clear that he ironically fails as a Saviour because he has not developed as a man. [32] Rather than achieving a peaceful end like Marie, Nastasya is essentially damned by the prince’s bestowal of an immediate and total absolution that did not also share in her suffering and, as predicted by her initial scoffing, Myshkin’s compassion is apparently limited to the archetypal love of stories.

 III. Conclusion

Many would consider prince Myshkin of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot an example of the holy fool or saviour archetype; however, his incapacity to develop or suffer alongside others instead renders him an inchoate Christ figure. Myshkin’s childlike innocence initially suggests salvation but becomes childish ignorance, a perpetual immaturity which promises clarity but contributes to chaos and which resembles compassion but results in catastrophe. In this way, the prince fails as a Christ figure not because he is not spiritually pure enough but because he is not human enough to effectively emulate the saving compassion of the incarnate Christ. Perhaps, though, this is where Dostoevsky paradoxically succeeds in presenting a ‘perfectly beautiful man’, for in acting according to his own assumed archetype instead of imitating the maturity and particularity of Christ, Prince Myshkin may reveal via negativa the pre-eminence of the divine yet inimitably human Saviour. [33]

 


Image Credits

Banner Image: El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind, c. 1570, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_Healing_the_Blind_MET_DT407.jpg.

Georges de La Tour, The Penitent Magdalen, c. 1640, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Georges_de_La_Tour_009.jpg.

Notes

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 173-174.

[2] Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), 9.

[3] Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, ed. Mary Petrusewicz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 577.

[4] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 59, 71.

[5] Matthew 19:14.

[6] Aleksandr Babuk, ‘The Myth of Childhood as an Embodiment of the Golden Age in Dostoevsky’s Oeuvre’, Russian Studies in Literature 51, no. 2 (March 2015): 33–53, https://doi.org/10.1080/10611975.2015.1024051.

[7] Sarah Young, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative: Reading, Narrating, Scripting (London: Anthem Press, 2004), 90.

[8] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 78; cf. Luke 2:52.

[9] Matthew 1:19.

[10] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 78.

[11] William Leatherbarrow, introduction to The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), xix.

[12] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 78.

[13] Ibid., 81.

[14] Alina Wyman, The Gift of Active Empathy: Scheler, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016), 113.

[15] Ibid., 115.

[16] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Seeing the Form, vol. 1 of The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, eds. Joseph Fessio and John Riches, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), 305.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Frank, Dostoevsky, 580.

[19] Alex Makelov, ‘Inevitability as a Common Perspective on “The Idiot” and “The Little Prince”’, November 15, 2013, https://amakelov.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/inevitability-as-a-common-perspective-on-the-idiot-and-the-little-prince-essay/.

[20] Babuk, ‘Myth of Childhood’, 35-36.

[21] Makelov, ‘Inevitability’.

[22] Michael Gorman, ‘Incarnation’, in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, eds. Brian Davies and Eleonore Stump (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 431.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 79.

[25] Ibid., 164.

[26] ‘Compassion (n.)’, Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 25 April, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/compassion.

[27] Cf. Hebrews 4:15.

[28] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 79.

[29] Ibid., 174.

[30] Mark 3:5, 7:34, and 8:23-25.

[31] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 45.

[32] Ibid., 185.

[33] Frank, Dostoevsky, 587; Balthasar, Seeing the Form, 305.

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