Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Idiot

I just picked up Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," and now I'm engrossed. I can't put it down. He created the book in the most tumultuous time of his life with the intention of trying to create the perfect character. The result is Prince Myshkin, or the "Idiot," which he is referred to by his peers because of his simple ways and sickly complexion. Dostoevsky has the ability to make a character come to life in a simple paragraph. But his characters don't simply come to life as people that we would observe, but as could have arisen only from Myshkin's perception. For example:

"He was very good-looking, well-built young man, also about twenty-eight, of medium height, with fair hair, a small, Napoleonic beard and a clever and very handsome face. Only his smile, with all its affability, was a trifle too subtle; it displayed teeth too pearl-like and even; in spite of his gaiety and apparent good-nature, there was something too intent and searching in his gaze"
"He must look quite different when he is alone and perhaps never laughs at all," was what Myshkin felt.

His descriptions are not only physically detailed, but he ties those physical aspects to a spiritual or mental condition. He threads psychology through physical countenance, which is genius because physical appearance is invariably affected by mental state. With a keen enough perception, one can know anything about someone before they even speak. This perception is Dostoevsky's greatest strength.

Myshkin is innocent, unacclamated with the world, loquacious and seemingly naïve, but behind his innocuous countenance is a keen perception of things around him. Throughout the novel, there is a running conversation in his head about the people he speaks with. At one point he picks up a picture of the beauty, Nastasya Filippovna (sounds beautiful, right?) and remarks,

"He seemed trying to decipher something that had struck him before, hidden in that face. The impression it had made had scarcely left him, and now he was in a hurry to verify it again. He was now even more struck by the face, which was extraordinary from its beauty and from something else in it. There was a look of unbounded pride and contempt, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time something confiding, something wonderfully simple-hearted. The contrast of these elements roused a feeling almost of compassion. Her dazzling beauty was positively unbearable - the beauty of a pale face, almost sunken cheeks and glowing eyes - a strange beauty! Myshkin gazed at it for a minute, then started suddenly, looked round him, hurriedly raised the portrait to his lips and kissed it. When he walked into the drawing-room a minute later, his face was perfectly calm."

Myshkin's incisive perception is made without pretense, allowing him to peer directly into another's soul. Dostoevsky is suggesting something pivotal and also rather philosophical. He suggests that there exists an interiority and an exteriority in every situation. 99% of all human interaction operates on pretense - preconceived thoughts, phrases, perceptions. Occasionally, one will have a truly unique, interesting conversation, but the rarity of such a case should be alarming. As I sat out in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere today, I watched the medley of tourists and Italians meander through the cobblestone roads Trastevere is known for, and saw a particular drawl in everyone's eyes. Maybe Rome was not what they had expected, maybe it didn't offer the couples the rekindled marital excitement they hoped or maybe the Italians were just plain sick of tourists. But the peculiarity was the pretense with which everyone approached the situation. Every action is an attempted reconciliation of the internal world of the mind and the external world of reality; however, the common method of reconciliation is to force the world we see into the preconceived archetypes. For example, say I like a specific girl (yes, like like). All of the sudden, whenever she is around, all of my interaction conforms to that emotion. My emotions alter every conversation in order to make what I want become reality. Thus, my perception of the world is altered as I see it through tainted glasses. My perception is unfaithful to reality because it is sullied by my pretense. This example pertains to any desire: success, honor, family, love, lust, etc. People are so affected by these pervasive desires that it forms a ring of pretense around them. They can't approach or appreciate any situation for what it is, and therefore devalue everything around them, because it fits like a sandwich in a square hole. Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult for us to look one another in the eye? In a society with endless accomplishments - quantum physics, space exploration, personal computers and "therapy" - how is that we can't look at each other? Why is one of the most fearful things for even the most intelligent to lock eyes with someone for more than a split second? We have no trouble staring at another, making measurements and judgments, but the moment their eyes meet our own, panic sets in. Is it timidity? Or is it truly fear? Do we view this meeting of consciousnesses as a threat?

In a world of interiority and exteriority, we cannot bear staring into the interiority of another. Their interiority is a threat to ours. Their view of the world is different than our own, and that disparity threatens the destruction of our perception. With the destruction of our perception comes the destruction of our world. Another's gaze objectifies us. We become as real as the chair we are sitting on, and we disappear into the world of things. Their objectification destroys our subjectivity. With this constant intersubjective warfare, it's no wonder stress levels are at an all time high.

Myshkin, however, offers a solution to the dilemma. He has a particular love for children, and even describes that he was "in love" with children before. His love for children is conversely accompanied by an aversion to adults: "Whatever they say to me, however kind they are to me, I always feel somehow oppressed with them, and I am awfully glad when I can get away to my companions; and my companions have always been children, not because I am a child myself, but simply because I was always attracted by children...My whole life was centered on the children...Afterwards, for the last three years, I couldn't even understand how and why people are sad." Myshin's solution is simple. He views the world through the eyes of a child, absent from pretense and preconviction. His approach to every situation is with calm, perceptive and focused outwards. By turning his eyes out towards the world, rather than in towards the self, he views freely sees the world and others without pretense. Instead of filtering the entire world through his desires, he filters his desires into the world. By emptying himself, he reconciles the tension between the internal and the external and exists unfettered.

This is of course a very Christian message that Dostoevsky is expressing, but the emphasis must be placed on the line, "not because I am a child myself, but because I was always attracted by children." Myshkin is not a child, but he sees the world as one.


Geometricus said...

I think it is time for me to pick up "The Idiot" once again. I remember reading it about 6 years ago, rushing through it and not being able to get enough, much as you describe.

But your thoughts about interiority are like, way deep. This is from the same guy who thought getting tear-gassed on a Paris New Year's Eve was cool? Still, your ability to communicate such a subtle thought in so effective a way that I know exactly what you are talking about is amazing. We at PA would love to take at least partial credit for such lucidity.

My most rewarding experiences have been those I entered without preconceived notions, really listened to people and tried to see things through their eyes. My best teaching has come through intentionally attempting to enter my students inner minds to see how they think and then speaking directly and persuasively into their worldview.

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