Book Review: The Idiot
In 1969, Alfred Appel declared that Ada or Ardor was "the last 19th-century Russian novel". Now we have in our hands a new last 19th-century Russian novel—perhaps even the final one. And while Nabokov selected the obvious and trivial task of combining the Russian and American novels, our "Dostoyevsky" (an obvious pseudonym) has given himself the unparalleled and interminably heroic mission of combining the Russian novel with the Mexican soap opera. I am pleased to report that he has succeeded in producing a daring postmodern pastiche that truly evokes the 19th century.
The basic premise of The Idiot is lifted straight from Nietzsche's Antichrist 29-31:
To make a hero of Jesus! And even more, what a misunderstanding is the word 'genius'! Our whole concept, our cultural concept, of 'spirit' has no meaning whatever in the world in which Jesus lives. Spoken with the precision of a physiologist, even an entirely different word would be yet more fitting here—the word idiot. [...] That strange and sick world to which the Gospels introduce us — a world like that of a Russian novel, in which refuse of society, neurosis and ‘childlike’ idiocy seem to make a rendezvous.
The novel opens with Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, the titular idiot, returning by train to Russia after many years in the hands of a Swiss psychiatrist. He is a Christlike figure, as Nietzsche puts it "a mixture of the sublime, the sickly, and the childlike", a naïf beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the corruptive influence of society. Being penniless, he seeks out a distant relative and quickly becomes entangled in St. Petersburg society.
If this were really a 19th century novel, it would follow a predictable course from this point: the "idiot" would turn out to be secretly wiser than everyone, the "holy fool" would speak truths inaccessible to normal people, his purity would highlight the corruption of the world around him, his naiveté would ultimately be form of nobility, and so on.
Instead, Myshkin finds himself starring in a preposterous telenovela populated by a vast cast of absurdly melodramatic characters. He quickly receives an unexpected inheritance that makes him wealthy, and is then embroiled in a web of love and intrigue. As in any good soap opera, everything is raised to extremes in this book: there are no love triangles because three vertices would not be nearly enough; instead there are love polyhedrons, possibly in four or seven dimensions.
Myshkin's first love interest is the intimidating, dark, and self-destructive Nastasya Fillipovna. An orphan exploited by her guardian, she is the talk of the town and chased by multiple suitors, including the violent Rogozhin and the greedy Ganya. Myshkin thinks she's insane but pities her so intensely that they have an endless and tempestuous on-again off-again relationship, which includes Nastasya skipping out on multiple weddings. In the construction of this character I believe I detect the subtle influence of the yandere archetype from Japanese manga.
The second woman in Myshkin's life is the young and wealthy Aglaya Ivanovna: proud, snobbish, and innocent, she cannot resist mocking Myshkin, but at the same time is deeply attracted to him. Whereas Nastasya loves Myshkin but thinks she's not good enough for him, Aglaya loves him but thinks she's too good for him.
The main cast is rounded off by a bunch of colorful characters, including the senile general Epanchin, various aristocrats, a boxer, a religious maniac, and Ippolit the nihilist who spends 600 pages in a permanent state of almost-dying (consumption, of course) and even gets a suicide fakeout scene that would make the producers of The Young and the Restless blush.
As Myshkin's relationships develop, he is always kind, non-judgmental, honest and open with his views. But this is not the story of good man taken advantage of, but rather the story of a man who is simply incapable of living in the real world. Norm Macdonald, after seeing the musical Cats, exclaimed: "it's about actual cats!" The reader of The Idiot will inevitably experience the same shock of recognition, muttering "Mein Gott, it's about an actual idiot!" His behavior ends up hurting not only himself, but also the people around him, the people he loves. In the climax, Nastasya and Aglaya battle for Myshkin's heart, but it's a disaster as he makes all the wrong choices.
That's not to say that it's all serious; the drama is occasionally broken up by absurdist humor straight out of Monty Python:
Everyone realized that the resolution of all their bewilderment had begun.
‘Did you receive my hedgehog?’ she asked firmly and almost angrily.
Postmodern games permeate the entire novel: for example, what initially appears to be an omniscient narrator is revealed in the second half to simply be another character (a deeply unreliable one at that); one who sees himself as an objective reporter of the facts, but is really a gossip and rumourmonger. Toward the end he breaks the fourth wall and starts going on bizarre digressions that recall Tristram Shandy: at one point he excuses himself to the reader for digressing too far, then digresses even further to complain about the quality of the Russian civil service. The shifts in point of view become disorienting and call attention to the artificial nature of the novel. Critically, he never really warms up to Myshkin:
In presenting all these facts and refusing to explain them, we do not in the least mean to justify our hero in the eyes of our readers. More than that, we are quite prepared to share the indignation he aroused even in his friends.
Double Thoughts and Evolutionary Psychology
The entire novel revolves around the idea of the "double thought", an action with two motives: one pure and conscious, the other corrupt and hidden. Keller comes to Myshkin in order to confess his misdeeds, but also to use the opportunity to borrow money. Awareness of the base motive inevitably leads to guilt and in some cases self-destructive behavior. This is how Myshkin responds:
You have confused your motives and ideas, as I need scarcely say too often happens to myself. I can assure you, Keller, I reproach myself bitterly for it sometimes. When you were talking just now I seemed to be listening to something about myself. At times I have imagined that all men were the same,’ he continued earnestly, for he appeared to be much interested in the conversation, ‘and that consoled me in a certain degree, for a DOUBLE motive is a thing most difficult to fight against. I have tried, and I know. God knows whence they arise, these ideas that you speak of as base. I fear these double motives more than ever just now, but I am not your judge, and in my opinion it is going too far to give the name of baseness to it—what do you think? You were going to employ your tears as a ruse in order to borrow money, but you also say—in fact, you have sworn to the fact— that independently of this your confession was made with an honourable motive.1
The "double thought" is an extension of the concept of self-deception invented by evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers, and, simply put, this book could not have existed without his work. Trivers has been writing about self-deception since the 70s in academic journals and books (including his 2011 book The Folly of Fools). The basic idea is that people subconsciously deceive themselves about the true motives of their actions, because it's easier to convince others when you don't have to lie.
Dostoyevsky's innovation lies in examining what happens when someone becomes aware of their subconscious motives and inevitably feels guilty. There is empirical evidence that inhibition of guilt makes deception more effective, but this novel inverts that problem and asks the question: what happens when that inhibition fails and guilt takes over? The author's penetrating psychological analysis finds a perfect home in the soap opera setting, as the opposition of extreme emotions engendered by the double thought complements the melodrama. Dostoyevsky even goes a step further, and argues that self-consciousness of the double thought is a double thought in itself: "I couldn't help thinking ... that everyone is like that, so that I even began patting myself on the back". There is no escape from the signaling games we play. The complexity of unconscious motives is a recurring theme:
Don't let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.
In a move of pure genius, Dostoyevsky plays with this idea on three levels in parallel: first, the internal contrast between pure and corrupt motives within each person; second, the external contrast between the pure Idiot Myskin and the corrupt society around him; third, on the philosophical level of Dionysus versus The Crucified. And in the end he comes down squarely in the camp of Dionysus and against Myshkin. Just as the Idiot is not ultimately good, so consciousness and the innocent motivations are not good either: the novel decides the issue strongly in favor of the corrupt motive, in favor of instinct over ratiocination, in favor of Dionysus over Apollo, in favor of the earthly over Christianity. We must live our lives in this world and deal with it as it is.
In the brilliant essay The Argentine Writer and Tradition, Borges writes that "what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color". Unfortunately Mssr. Dostoyevsky overloads his novel with local color, which in the end only highlights its artificiality. The lengths to which he has gone to make this novel appear as if it were a real product of the 19th century are admirable, but by overextending himself, he undermines the convincing (though fantastic) anachronism; like a double thought, the underlying deception leaks out and ruins everything. In a transparent and desperate reach for verisimilitude, he has included a series of references to real crimes from the 1860s. One cannot help but imagine the author bent over some dusty newspaper archive in the bowels of the National Library on Nevsky Prospekt, mining for details of grisly murders and executions.
Unfortunately The Idiot is anachronistic in more ways than one: as the juvenile influence of Der Antichrist hints, Dostoyevsky is a fervent anti-Christian who epitomizes the worst excesses of early-2000s New Atheism. Trivers wrote the foreword to Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, so it is no surprise that Dostoyevsky would be part of that intellectual tradition. But the heavy-handed anti-religious moralizing lacks nuance and gets old fast. His judgment of Myshkin, the representative of ideal Christianity, is heavy, but on top of that he also rants about the Catholic church, the representative of practical Christianity. He leaves no wiggle room in his condemnations.
And the lesson he wants to impart is clear: that Christianity is not only impractical and hypocritical, but actively ruins the lives of the people it touches. But these views hardly pass the smell test. While Dostoyevsky has mastered evolutionary psychology, he seems to have ignored cultural evolution. As Joe Henrich lays out in his latest book, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, the real-world influence of Christianity as a pro-social institution is a matter that deserves a far more nuanced examination. So if I could give Mssr. Dostoyevsky one piece of advice it would be this: less Dawkins, more Henrich please. After all, a devotee of Nietzsche should have a more subtle view of these things.
- 1.See also Daybreak 523: "With everything that a person allows to become visible one can ask: What is it supposed to hide?" ↩