Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The center will not hold

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land,
A hard working man and brave.
He said to the rich "Give your goods to the poor."
But they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.
Woody Guthrie

The Idiot is Dostoevsky's most autobiographical novel. We get uncomfortably close to the experience of his last-minute pardon before a Siberian firing squad, and his epilepsy and its spiritual impact color the entire novel. It's also his clumsiest work, full of excesses and false leads as a season of Days of Our Lives. And yet it's sublime and pitiable all at once, just like the central consciousness Prince Myshkin, and serves as the germinating seed from which will spring the later, greater Brothers Karamazov.

19th-century Russia has come unglued from its traditional past, and no one knows the rules of the game as she spirals toward Apocalypse. Everyone is a potential rogue, a cynic, a tyrant and a democrat by turns. Church, State, Wealth are all unreliable, and the social order is topsy-turvy. Prince Myshkin is Christ-like in his innocence and in the purity of his love. He's capable of forgiveness and must be martyred as a result. Fyodor runs him through the wringer, and exhausts the reader with a marriage plot that itself is totally unhinged and ends with happiness for none. Myshkin is not a fool but he is foolish. He's not technically an idiot but the decayed aristocracy he walks amongst must regard him as such, despite the fact they're drawn to his capacity to teach them about suffering and kindness. The Idiot features some great villains: Ippolit, Roghozin, Nastasia Fillipovna, Ganya. Extremely complicated souls!

I feel closer than ever to Myshkin's character, inhabiting the silly and amoral society I do. I get the sense Dostoevsky rejected much of Russia's past, but was nonetheless conservative because he feared too much freedom--take away government and Church and tradition (those repressive structures) and humans might devolve to the point that only their appetites lead them. What societal Superego can control libido run amok? What moral arbiters will remain? Somehow Dostoevsky and his mysterious charlatan Lebedev foresaw that Stalin would result for Russia. What awaits George W. America?