Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The devil holds equal dominion over humanity until a date in the far-off future still unknown to us. You’re laughing? You don’t believe in the devil? Disbelief in the devil is a French idea. It is a flippant idea. Do you know who the devil is? Do you know what his name is? Not knowing even his name, you laugh at his exterior form, following the example of Voltaire, at his hoofs, his tail, and horns, which you have invented yourselves, for the evil spirit is a great and ruthless spirit, but he has not the hoofs and horns you have invented for him.

Slugging my way through another piece of Russian literature. Why? Because it came up in the rotation. I’ve got to stop putting them in there, But then, occasionally I come across an idea like the one captured above. The idea that evil does exist in the world, but not in the form we have been taught and in the form we wished we could see it. The devil, according to Lebedev, is not the red creature with horns and hoofs, but is in fact the very heart of man. That’s worth remembering, but is it worth the weeks it takes me to get through the rest of the novel?

Let me add, however, that in every idea of genius or in every new human idea, or, more simply still, in every serious human idea born in anyone’s brain, there is something that cannot possibly be conveyed to others, though you wrote volumes about it and spent thirty-five years explaining your idea; something will always be left that will obstinately refuse to emerge from your head and that will remain with you forever; and you will die without having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps the most vital point of your idea.

Thirty-nine days. It took me thirty-nine days to read The Idiot and now it’s done. Was it worth it? Well, the main character, the idiot, Prince Myshkin, he was kind of interesting. As an idiot, he was clueless as to all the motivations of others and complex relationships that existed around him. He laughed when they laughed, but never really got the joke, nor realized that it was often on him. It was kind of fun to watch others try to deal with him and expect him to act like a normal person.

But the best character was probably Ippolit, the 18-year-old who was dying of tuberculosis and who saw everything different from those around him. His “explanation” in Part III is worth reading again. Speaking of his death and perhaps the heavenly deity that has organized and demanded it to serve His greater purpose, “Can’t I simply be devoured without being expected to praise that which has devoured me?”

Don’t let us forget that the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty. It is sometimes much better for a writer to content himself with a simple narrative of events.