The Christology of a Russian Genius

The Idiot The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Dostoevsky’s favorite Gospel was that of John. In a letter to his niece soon after beginning work on The Idiot he explains why he loves John’s Gospel: “It finds the whole miracle in the incarnation alone, in the manifestation of the beautiful alone.” He then continues, “The main idea of [The Idiot:] is to portray a positively beautiful man. (Italics his)” In addition to viewing John’s Gospel separately from the other three, Dostoevsky, a man who’d spend many years immersed in Christian mysticism, was always curious about the Gospel of Mark, which has no inclusion or mention of the resurrection.I t is a spare story of Christ’s life and acts entirely lacking the miraculous tone of John’s Gospel, and ending abruptly with the agony of Jesus’ final moments on the cross.

And indeed, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot consistently asks the question: what if the Gospel of Mark was the only testimony of Jesus we had? What if Christ didn’t resurrect? What is the role of a perfectly beautiful man within society and within Russia and how do we view this man if resurrection and redemption do not exist. Prince Myshkin, our idiot and our hero, was conceived as just that: a perfect Christian in the flesh and a reflection of Jesus of Nazareth within the Russian aristocracy.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky was recommended by my Aunt Lia. Unbeknownst to me, Russian Literature is her favorite, and perhaps not known to her is that Russian Literature is my favorite as well. The two Dostoevsky books she recommended to me: The Idiot and The Possessed (or The Demons depending on the translation) are the two great works of Russian literature that I had not yet read.

At the beginning of our story we find Prince Myshkin on a train towards Russia where he is returning after years of being away in Central Europe to recover from sickness. “I’m going to be with people now” he thinks to himself on his way back. Despite being a Prince he has only one relative in Russia, but he does managed to befriend a few people on the train. Rogozhin, who is described almost as Myshkin’s opposite – having dark hair and sitting in the shadows – tells Myshkin of a girl Nastasya who he is very intrigued by because of her sordid past and large dowry. The story revolves around this conflict – as Myshkin meets his family and enters the Russian social circles acting the part of pure goodness yet seen as a fool by the others. He comes to love Nastasya not for her beauty or dowry but out of charity because of the abuses she takes. Rogozhin falls in love with Nastasya out of passion. The two fight over her, Myshkin acting perfectly good and in control, even in conflict but Rogozhin ends up killing Nastasya out of jealousy, driving Myshkin insane and into presumed agony for the rest of his life.

I love Dostoevsky because he is the most philosophical of novelists while yet being capable also of the suspense and mystery of a fantastic crime novelist, the worldly wit and irony of societal satirist, and the mundane madness of familial dramatist. Most of Dostoevsky’s characters begin as symbolic figures or personified ideas thrown into society. These characters and the ideas they embody soon become realistic enough to face harsh ridicule and judgment of the society in which they live. The original ideals the characters grew out of are often destroyed in Dostoevsky’s books but sometimes they do withstand the judgment of society. And then, in some cases like The Idiot, these ideas weave through the novel in multiple levels, giving us the drama of Myshkin, the loneliness of Mark’s Gospel, but also, if we look hard enough, the glory of the incarnation and resurrection of John’s Gospel.

When Prince Myshkin, our Jesus figure, conflicts with Rogozhin over their mutual love of Nastasya we must look to the specific ways in which our author chooses to describe the two loves. Rogozhin’s love is that of passion and “eros”, while Myshkin is drawn to her out of charity. The author actually chooses the words ‘Agape,’ which is often used in the Greek Gospels to describe the love that God has for humanity. When Nastasya is ultimately killed by Rogozhin out of his blind erotic passion and jealousy, Myshkin goes insane, having no love left for anyone. In this state, he is described as ‘empty’, or in Greek, kenosis.

This word, empty, or kenosis, can mean many things within Christian Theology. It ‘s most prominently used to describe the Incarnation: that a man completely empties himself in order to become God’s will and full nature. It can also be used in Christian morality, that we should empty ourselves as God did to create the cosmos and humanity. In Russia, however (and to Dostoevsky), the nature of kenosis is seen as a great mystical question because by emptying oneself, one becomes filled with the Holy Spirit. Only through Prince Myshkin’s struggle and tragedy can he become filled with God’s spirit. Myshkin, then, moves from a state of beauty and love of humanity to tragedy. Agape to kenosis and for Dostoevsky, with kenosis comes resurrection.

The death and resurrection question appears to our characters themselves at two turning points in the novel. The first time, our characters are standing beneath Holbein’s painting of Jesus being pulled down from the cross, a painting in which Jesus’s face is depicted without expression of victory or sublime beauty, but with the agonized mien of a man tortured, beaten, and crucified. “It’s enough not to make you believe in God” Myshkin exclaims upon seeing it. Later in the novel, someone asks how Jesus’s female companions, his disciples, his contemporaries, or, for that matter, anyone at all could believe that a face that brutalized and beaten could defeat the laws of nature through resurrection.

Dostoevsky incited himself to create The Idiot, an infinitely gentle and viceless being, by challenging himself to do something no other author had done (besides Cervantes creating Quixote, he admits). But Dostoevsky didn’t want to create a fool for people to laugh at and ignore. He is Dostoevsky, so, with his characteristically grandiose bellicosity, he wanted to submit his character to the scorn and ridicule of Russian society. Like Christ before him, Myshkin can’t hack it in this world. His agape angers the social elite, alienates his family, and ultimately drives him mad. Dostoevsky, both existentialist and Christian mystic, isn’t simply exploring a “What if Jesus lived today” theme (which one might be tempted to believe from this summary.) He seems to be making a statement about the impossibility of pure agape in society, while also trying to demonstrate the process of resurrection. He may even be exploring the themes of Mark’s Gospel and searching for its resurrection. I can’t even begin to fully understand the intricacies and complexities of his characters. I don’t know what his point is overall. Does he intend Myshkin’s insanity to be the same as Christ’s bruised and beaten face? Is he asserting that resurrection and eternity occur because and only because of this horrific suffering from agape and kenosis. Or is their something more in the love of Nastasya. Her name is short for Anastasia, which in Russian means resurrection. Does Dostoevsky mean then for Myshkin to go insane while chasing a resurrection? Is that reading too much into this? I don’t know, but as with all of Dostoevsky there is always more to his books than the most detailed reader and astute critic can uncover.

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky do the greatest translations of Russian literature. Their translation of The Idiot and their introductory notes further this claim. And in their introduction they discuss the autobiographical components of the novel: Dostoevsky, at age 28, was sentenced to death for political crimes and led to a scaffold where he stood blindfolded before a firing squad. According to other condemned men there, Dostoevsky, whispered to a friend, “We will be together with Christ.” His friend replied: “A Handful of Ashes.” The execution was a mock one, and Dostoevsky was transferred to Siberia for seven years. In The Idiot, Myshkin talks of executions on several occasions, once saying: “Now he exists and lives, and in three minutes there would be something, some person or thing – but who? And where?” The Idiot is also a deep exploration of this question, of Dostoevsky’s impending doom, of the questions we all ask about death and eternity. There is no conclusion to these questions because the end of The Idiot is like Holy Saturday, when we, like Jesus’ disciples, are left wandering the hills without a guide, assuming the story is over, that tragedy is its end.

Note: Absent from this are many necessary citations for events, definitions, opinions and more. I can refer those interested to where many of these assertions and quotes first appeared.

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4 responses to “The Christology of a Russian Genius

  1. Hey Adam,
    I don’t want to read the rest of the review, because I want to read the book. I’ll come back some time in the future. Although I will say that many authorities now believe that in addition to its mysticism, John is also the most accurate historically in many ways. For example, the refusal of the Jews to enter Pilate’s area during Christ’s Trial. Many of the sites discussed (including the five porticoes at a pool of healing whose name escapes me at the moment), have been proven more accurate than the Synoptic Gospels, lending weight to the argument that the person who told the stories in John may have actually been there (with significant add ons by someone with a late 1st century understanding of theology). I could discuss it more intelligently if I were completely sober and this were Sophomore year of college when I wrote my “Jesus existed as a person” paper. I love the reviews buddy.

  2. Rory, I always thought you spoke most intelligently about the New Testament after a few Jamesons sitting in the dark corner of the Blarney Stone. Do you remember anything about the battle over the inclusion of The Book of John and why the early fathers included it? I’ve been leafing through years of my Theology notes but couldn’t find anything in it about that.

  3. Hi Adam
    loved your comments. As you mentioned I was unaware of your love for Russian Literature. My mother a very intellectual and deep woman introduced me to this great writer (and many others) in my early teens. I read The Idiot right after Crime and Punishment. After narrating the dichotomy between Good and Evil, Dostoevskij seems to deepen his interest in the topic of Good in this novel (The Idiot).

    Prince Myskin represents the full splendor of a man living among a world populated by men and women who instead live in the darkness .
    He’s a spiritually superior human being, with a soul generosity and a candid faith in others that is accompany by a total life inexperience and paralysis of the will, but tries to redeem the world with his innocence and compassion.

    Love Dostoevskij because behind every world every character every novel is a deep understading and discovery of human psychology and spirituality.

    Glad you enjoyed the book…Lia

  4. Okay… you’ve got me hooked. As soon as Ian finishes reading Crime and Punishment, he’s promised to pass it on to me. Thank you, Adam and Lia…

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