Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 9, 1988

The Idiot and the Subtext of Modern Materialism

Roger Anderson, University of Kentucky

The middle years of the nineteenth century mark significant changes in Europe's social and intellectual climate. On the one hand the maturation of industrial capitalism reshaped older social patterns by putting an unprecedented emphasis on private competition for money. Under the pressures of an expanding bourgeoisie, traditional definitions of social status, such as class, family, and identification with the land, were rapidly giving way to the impersonal measure of hard currency. On the other hand, new scientific theories were explaining the objective workings of nature with such authority that they captured the imagination of the age, sending it off along new lines of speculation toward a basic reinterpretation of life itself. The mutual accommodation long observed by science and theology was quickly breaking down during these years. From many points of the compass science was quickly forcing consideration of man as but an extension of objective forces in nature that could be understood and used, but not changed. Taken together, the rise of money as a social determinant and the new, objectifying definitions that science was applying to human identity were causing a general shift toward materialism in Europe that successfully displaced more traditional social and religious assumptions.(1)

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot during this transition, while living almost exclusively in the West. It is a novel filled with brooding apprehension over the materialist ethos then consolidating around him. In response, he vigorously criticizes both the economic "laws" that celebrate competitive individualism and the formulation of naturalistic "laws" which deny the spiritual identity man had traditionally presumed to be his. In what follows I will discuss a few basic assumptions of that ripening materialism and suggest that they play a compositional role in The Idiot.

From one perspective the West's new competition over money is central to Dostoevsky's thematics of personal greed in the novel. Its pursuit helps clarify the motivation and behavior of a wide variety of primary and secondary characters. On a broader level, the materialist definitions of man-in-nature, then circulating in science, carry an unsettling post-Christian despair, and help clarify the apocalyptic symbols many critics see as predominant in The Idiot. The objectification of man, by money or in nature, poses fundamental problems that Dostoevsky seeks to overcome through the influence of his "truly good man." Myshkin, of course, was meant to be a teacher who could lead those languishing in greed or existential despair into a renewed spiritual faith. But Dostoevsky himself admitted that his hero did not fulfill that hope.(2) Myshkin's failure to bring a better alternative to fruition marks what I see as Dostoevsky's inability to resolve modern cultural problems he describes with such artistic honesty and power. In this sense, The Idiot is more a novel of metaphysical definition than of action. Its problems organize character and


symbol into a single, bleak, metaphysical statement. (3)

Dostoevsky surely followed the rise of nihilist and utilitarian thought at home, especially as formulated by Chernyshevskii and other Leftists associated with such journals as Sovremennik. But The Idiot points to questions that exceed particular ideology or political camp. It stands out by its more basic dismay at the course of modernity wherein private greed threatens brotherhood, and naturalistic definitions of man threaten the traditional legitimacy of spiritual faith.

*     *     *

Dostoevsky deeply mistrusted the pursuit of private wealth as the new measure of well-being, and he wrote often about how that pursuit threatened to fragment modern society into a destructive and self-serving individualism. In his article "Primiritel'naia mechta vne nauki"(4) he draws attention to a "lichnyi egoizm" that sets each against all in a general struggle for advantage whose first casualty is the moral stability of society itself.(5) Interestingly, Dostoevsky uses the same term here, "atomization," that was also used in the West to describe its own contemporary social ills. In his history of materialism, first published in the late 1860's, Friedrich Lange discusses "a purely atomistic conception of society in which all motives ordinarily called moral drop out."(6) The result, Lange warns, is "an increase of the wants of all those who can satisfy them, in consequence of the failing sense of community and exorbitant pleonexia which is, in fact, one of the characteristics of our time." (240-241)

It is worth noting that Dostoevsky's mistrust of the West's laissez faire competition had wide currency in Russia that cut across usual ideological boundaries. Slavophiles and pochvenniki, including Dostoevsky, certainly saw the West's materialistic egoism as signaling a moral decay they wanted to keep from spreading into Russia's still-healthy social organism.(7) But the Left, too, voiced grave mistrust of how such economic individualism might infect Russia with its "cancer." Chernyshevskii, like Herzen and Bakunin, wrote in favor of adapting industrial capitalism to the collectivist and cooperative traditions of the Russian obshchina. (8) Together, Left and Right urged Russia to guard its traditions of communal cooperation and avoid the social costs that unrestrained competition was already imposing on the more advanced West.

As many critics have pointed out, The Idiot portrays a world devoted to money and its power. It is a world in which wealth is regularly substituted for worth, where predation succeeds while attempts at fostering a unified community regularly fail. The issue has numerous thematic variations, and their accumulation is a clear indictment of the social ethic that rewards this greed and considers it natural. The pursuit of money is treated with such consistency among a wide range of society that it supersedes differences of class, age, or intelligence. The general urge to acquire wealth so exceeds the particularity of private motivation that it takes on an organizing value of its own in The Idiot.

From the novel's beginning, for example, we see the aristocratic General Epanchin mastering intricacies of investment banking. He


represents the aristocrat who has made a successful transition to the new money economy, and he uses its power to establish his social position. Moral questions, such as Totskii's abuse of Nastas'ia Filippovna as a child, are irrelevant to the practical General for he needs Totskii's money to advance within the new financial elite. In fact, Epanchin contrives to help Totskii buy Nastas'ia's silence with the aim of arranging a marriage between Totskii and one of his own daughters. Moral sensibility recedes to be replaced with a self-justifying scramble for private monetary advantage.

In contrast, we have the fallen nobleman General Ivolgin who has long since lost his pride and hereditary status in society. His sense of inner shame at financial failure is distorted into a crafty servility. He regularly makes a travesty of his family's past dignity in order to acquire money, even in the smallest amounts. Whether on the rise or wane, Dostoevsky presents a nobility that has forgotten its heritage in the pursuit of present financial gain.

Money is also clearly the prime determinant in the world view of the new generation. Here we find Gania Ivolgin. His cynicism at being both poor and of noble birth leads him to dedicate his life to becoming "King of the Jews." The religious reference here is subverted when he explains that he hopes to be the richest money-lender in Moscow. He would willingly crush whoever stands in his way without hesitation. Gania is a portrait of the new financier who knows the leveraging power of wealth and eagerly subordinates human relationships to its acquisition. He has successfully translated his feelings of personal humiliation, together with his wish to establish his autonomy, into the sheer quantity of money he dreams of controlling. Dostoevsky presents Gania as emblematic of the emerging capitalist who eagerly exchanges a monetary for an existential identity. As such, he is symptomatic of the new Russia that Dostoevsky feared.

The primacy of money is typical of the lower classes as well. Here we find the crowd of pseudo-nihilists who try to pass off one of their number as a nobleman and the rightful heir to Myshkin's own inheritance. Family name, like personal dignity or the responsibilities of class, loses its intrinsic value. Such traditional values become but tools by which a wide range of individuals seek to acquire as much money as possible in the shortest time.

Toward the novel's end we gain a particularly gloomy insight into the richest and most influential circles of the Russian aristocracy. The soiree at which Myshkin accidentally knocks over the beautiful Chinese vase brings together custodians of Russia's national heritage. Dostoevsky has Myshkin tell them in the most direct terms that they are moribund in their self-centeredness and have lost their social value. They are as selfish and isolated from one another in guarding private wealth as are those who eagerly claw their way toward just such wealth. Money's impersonal power replaces personal definition with competition and grounds relationships in predation. The result is a sense that human interaction is a function of commercial contracts and mistrust.

Earlier at Nastas'ia Filippovna's famous birthday party, we have


a regular portrait gallery of high and low classes joined at the same level of monetary greed. All concerned ignore Nastas'ia's emotional wounds, along with her human worth, in a general scramble to either buy her or fantasize about having the money others are willing to pay for her. It is a bitter reflection of the new ethic of supply and demand. The hundred thousand rubles smoldering in the fireplace is such a strong image that it dominates the scene. It so arrests the general attention that it takes on a identity of its own, regulating the rise and fall of each participant's self-perception. Nastas'ia realizes that the money represents predation above all, and she mocks her own auction to the highest bidder as a masochistic rebellion against this trafficking in flesh.

It is in the context of modernity's atomistic pursuit of money that we recall Lebedev's apocalyptic monologue. He is one of Dostoevsky's famous buffoon-philosophers who is memorable for his contrast between a medieval vision of life and that of the 1860's. Lebedev describes the new age as ordered about technological progress and its domination of nature. Its emblem is the railroad. With tremendous material power at their disposal, says Lebedev, modern people exploit each other, as they do nature, in order to serve their private sense of control:

And don't frighten me with your prosperity, your riches, the infrequency of famine, and the rapidity of the means of communication! There is more wealth, but less strength; the binding idea is lost; everything has become soft, everything is flabby, and everyone is flabby. We've all, all, all grown flabby!(9)

As material control ascends, the spiritual connections that traditionally joined the individual to both his community and God have withered. On the other hand, declares Lebedev, medieval man was poor in possessions and physical comforts, but he was infinitely better off existentially for he knew beyond doubt that an eternal home awaited him after death:

Show me anything like that force in our age of vice and railways ... show me an ideal that binds mankind together today with half the strength that it had in those centuries. (430)

Lebedev's prophesies are of an apocalyptic future in which society will become ensnared and lost in the very railway system it has created with so much pride. His message is that of diminishing human purpose, a gradual degradation of identity until humanity descends to the level of the very status Western technology and finance were learning to manipulate so well:

... the whole thing sir is damned, the whole spirit of the last few centuries, taken together as a whole in its scientific and practical application, is perhaps really damned, sir! (422)

The intricacies of foreign credit and industrial modernization are for Lebedev signs of the same deterioration that leads modernity to replace faith in the soul with "the physical instinct of self-preservation" as "the basic law of humanity." (424)

*     *     *


Through Lebedev Dostoevsky states clearly the paradox that was basic to the materialist vision of the modern age. A growing control of the impersonal laws found to govern finance and nature was leading Europe's intelligentsia to contemplate humanity's subordination to those same laws. It is a problem that George Lukacs addresses in his discussion of art's movement out of medieval into modern consciousness. As modern fictional heroes were discovering their own objectification in society and nature they were losing an older intimacy with what Lukacs calls epic forces of the transcendent. Nostalgia might remain, but without any real possibility of recovering the world those characters still remember and desire.(10) The modern author could describe the working of the social and material world with considerable sophistication, but could no longer satisfy the hero's lingering urge to touch life's wholeness through personal choice or action. The price paid is a resulting subtext of alienation and subjugation.

Lebedev’s warning leads us to a broader set of materialist concerns than the thematics of money alone can encompass. Clearly, the novel's pessimistic symbolism charts broad, transpersonal issues shaking European society of the day. The novel's generalized competition over wealth and the steady erosion of spiritual faith are complementary to certain scientific "laws" of nature then under intensive discussion in the West. Those laws and their effects are embodied in the lives of central characters. In particular, we can find elements of Darwin's theory of evolution and the physics of entropy, as they were popularly understood. Familiarity with these can serve to clarify the figures of Rogozhin, Ippolit, and the epileptic Myshkin himself.

In the mid-nineteenth century European science was producing truly revolutionary redefinitions of nature and of human identity. The universe was coming to be seen as a single vast mechanism, impersonal in its processes, and governed in a manner that, as the historian of science Frank Turner puts it, "separates nature from God, subordinates spirit to matter, and sets up unchangeable laws as supreme."(11) Dostoevsky's residence in the West came at the high point of such scientific naturalism. On all sides, the mind-body duality that had long been accepted by both secular and religious thinkers was being systematically dismantled. Human identity was being redefined as having less to do with God than with the same natural laws that govern matter and all life forms. T. H. Huxley had this central tenet of materialism uppermost in mind when he wrote:

The question of questions for mankind — the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other — is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things.(12)

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species (1859) was, of course, a central document in the growing evidence of humankind's determined status in nature. Briefly, he defined human identity functionally, as the result of our interaction with the physical environment we happen to occupy. Human virtues and aspirations, like our variable physical characteristics, derive from the same mechanism of adaptation that causes change in life generally.(13)

Darwin's determinist theory was particularly disturbing to European


thought for two reasons. First, it denied the presence of any teleology, defining humanity as but part of a larger process that has no goal and moves at random through each generation of each species. As I. Bernard Cohen has recently put it, after Darwin human life could be described as "merely a temporary end-product of an everlasting evolutionary process."(14) Second, Darwin stressed competition as a natural condition, not only between species, but particularly between members of the same species. Traditional ideals of community and its moral improvement were giving way to the mechanistic vision of life, which Lebedev refers to, in which survival is its own goal and its own justification. The way the modern individual perceived himself and others could not but change as a result. Thomas Kuhn dwells on this issue in his history of science saying:

The belief that natural selection, resulting from mere competition between organisms for survival, could have produced man ... was the most difficult and disturbing aspect of Darwin's theory.(15)

This objectification of human identity in a world of impersonal material forces fits squarely with the capitalist ethic of the time. Both considered a general competition over limited resources as the natural foundation of modern society. Dostoevsky directly indicts that alignment in 1873 in his article "odin iz sovremennykh fal'shei."  There he inveighs against Darwin by name, saying:

Give all these exalted modern teachers a real chance to destroy the old society and build it anew and there will result such darkness, such chaos, something so crude, blind and inhuman, that the whole edifice will fall apart under the curses of all mankind....(16)

The centrality of impersonal processes of biology that subsume humankind was a fundamental issue in European discourse, and Dostoevsky displays it prominently in the person of Rogozhin. Rogozhin is a compelling emblem of social Darwinism, an ethos based on sheer survivability. His presence is consistently physical and primitive. He is given to direct action and is ready to use violence without hesitation in order to get what he wants. Ethical questions cannot gain his attention, and he seems born to a world of physical conflict in which the compulsion to satisfy immediate desires is its own justification. Rogozhin is a figure associated with the deep past, but even though his lineage and house are both ancient he has no concept of continuity over the generations or of any obligation to stewardship. Rogozhin's antiquity suggests, rather, an atavistic crudeness. His instinct is to hoard all that he or his predecessors have accumulated and to covet with suspicion whatever he does not yet control. In this respect, he represents a fearsome simplification of those materialistic drives that Dostoevsky attaches to General Epanchin, Gania Ivolgin, and the upper strata of Russian aristocracy generally.

Rogozhin’s house is a place filled by motifs of primitive retention and greed. Its association with rich castrates is an emblem of hoarding taken to its end. Here ownership is most successful when it avoids reciprocity. Whatever is not given back to the world is itself proof of ownership to an extra degree. That competitive drive results in the fantastic house in which fine art is thrown in with junk. The house is a symbol of an underlying urge to accumulate without discrimination, limit, or finally, purpose


beyond itself.

The physicality of Parfion's urge to possess Nastas'ia Filippovna is itself an extension of the Rogozhin house. He is driven to own her utterly, just as his house claims ownership of whatever it can physically capture and keep. His sexual excitement proceeds from an exaggerated instinct to consume, even to ingest, the object of his passion. This is why he kills Nastas'ia on their wedding night. Her continued existence in any way external to himself threatens his most basic urge to dominate his environment. Murder is the final act of possession and it relieves him of a reciprocity, sexual or familial, that he cannot understand.

Dostoevsky weights heavily the naturalistic details of Nastas'ia's murder and Rogozhin's vigil over her body. They arrest our attention in the same way the smoldering ruble notes dominate the scene of Nastas'ia's birthday. In both cases she is a sacrificial figure. As money is the focus of her social degradation, physical death degrades her body. The silent room, Nastas'ia's immobility beneath the stark white sheet, and especially the Zhdanov disinfectant that masks her putrefaction, all declare an oppressive physical inevitability that allows no alternative. The scene presages some of the grisly naturalistic descriptions Zola later was to display so prominently in his novel Nana. In his general make-up, and particularly in the vigil scene, Roqozhin suggests the feature most commented on by those disturbed by Darwin's theory - the subordination of social and moral values to physical urges to compete and dominate. Both Rogozhin and Nastas'ia are best seen, I think, as subject to a single process whose force overwhelms judgment or free will. They are predator and victim in nature's most fundamental drama.

The second principle of science, discussed widely in Europe of the 1860's, which I see as having symbolic importance in The Idiot, lies in the realm of physics. In 1852 Lord Kelvin proved that every transformation of matter into energy, as from energy back into matter, entails a minute, bur irretrievable, loss of order in the universe. This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and is called entropy, heat death, or decay. Each term implies the slow, but fated, deterioration of all organized form. The impact of entropy on Western society was deeply disturbing for it described what lay in store at the far edge of the materialist paradigm. Rudolf Arnheim, in his provocative book Entropy and Art, conveys a sense of how the sophisticated nineteenth century was forced to confront its own inevitable degradation:

When it [the Second Law] began to enter the public consciousness a century or so ago, it suggested an apocalyptic vision of the course of events on earth. ... The sober formulations of Clausius, Kelvin, and Boltzmann were suited to become a cosmic memento mori, pointing to the underlying cause of the gradual decay of all things physical and mental.(17)
Turner considers evolution and entropy as complementary in their messages that humankind occupies but a peripheral place within a world of impersonal randomness.(18) Both theories replaced spiritual faith in a purposeful cosmos with a world filled with pointless struggle, in which all life appears and disappears without purpose, until it mutates into the unrecognizable. This is the vision that Nietzsche was soon to introduce in his Also


sprach Zarathustra as the dark notion of "eternal return," of unending geological cycles where life is condemned to be a grotesque farce of creation and disintegration without point.(19) The cosmic sweep of entropy, charting the inexorable movement of all order toward decay and disorder, is a basic issue in The Idiot. It organizes the fundamental symbols Dostoevsky distributes between Ippolit and the Holbein Christ, and speaks directly to the question of Myshkin's epilepsy.

In his long reading to the assembled guests at Pavlovsk, Ippolit describes the scorpion of his dream and shares his impression at seeing the Holbein Christ. Ippolit's terminal consumption forces the ultimate question on him of Life's value and purpose. For a while he struggles to "scatter the seeds" of good deeds as a way of overcoming his own death in time, of ensuring that something of himself will remain after his death. But, the sheer weight of that impending death overwhelms his attempts. He prefers the company of Meyer's wall as a truer gauge of reality than the illusion of life's seasonal renewal in nature. Hidden behind the promises of each cycle of regeneration, he recognizes life's unalterable motion toward inexorable destruction. The scorpion he sees is monstrous, but not only for its danger to him personally. It is "dreadful just because... there are no such creatures in nature." (441) That is, the scorpion stands for an abstract, unstoppable force behind nature, a principle whose workings control each life while it cannot be affected in return. 

In this same scene Ippolit describes "the deaf and blind destiny" that decrees his being "crushed like a fly." (444) To accept this inevitable fate is to face life's pointlessness squarely, to give up all involvement in what he declares the chimerical promises of nature and human society. The dissolution of hope for meaning beyond the process of his own physical decay expands again to cosmological proportions in the description of his "last conviction," (460) which he associates with the Holbein Christ. The famous painting, of course, presents Christ as physically broken and dead, without a hint of spiritual renewal. Ippolit juxtaposes Christ here to-the term "laws of nature" whose physical process devours all organized meaning in the cosmos: "... if the laws of nature are so powerful, then how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them?" (447)

The reference here to some universal process of physical degradation, to which there is no exception, repeats just that metaphysical distress that the law of entropy carried with it. Ippolit's description of that general process is distinctive for its mechanical imagery:

Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up — impassively and unfeelingly — a great and priceless being ... The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated... (464)

This is a vision of man's terminal objectification in nature.


It conveys well the irony of science's ability to describe, and prove, humanity's eventual disappearance into an oblivion which pre-scientific thought had long considered subordinate to spiritual faith. Ippolit's "final conviction" expresses well a dismay, widely shared in social thought of the time, at the pessimistic conclusions modernity was finding to its own accelerating progress.

*     *     *

Myshkin poses Dostoevsky's challenge to the materialist vision that proceeds from both the capitalist measure of value and new scientific conclusions about man's place in nature. The Prince is unique in his exemption from knowledge of a reality that oppresses others. His ethereal features of lightness and delicacy give the impression of a dematerialized presence, without physical volume, and beyond ordinary human passions. With his fair hair and innocent, humble eyes he seems stylized, more appropriate to an old icon than to modern St. Petersburg. Myshkin's dissociation from objective reality is established early by his light foreign clothing, so inappropriate to a Russian winter, his designation as the last of an ancient family, his lack of concern with money, and his long years of unconsciousness while in Switzerland. In all these respects he is a figure of edenic exception to physical and social competition. He has access to a spiritual unity that many characters seek for themselves. They are drawn to his innocence as they struggle in a world ordered by selfish mistrust and alienation. From footman to general, society sees in him a beautiful alternative to the reality they know and wish to escape. Nastas'ia Filippovna and Aglaia see in him their personal rescuer from a vulgar society. Mrs. Epanchin sees him as a child whose naiveté evokes her own. She is drawn to him as she tries to ease him into a worldly behavior she herself denounces. Even Gania's lingering conscience is pricked by Myshkin; the young capitalist sees his own venality most clearly when with the Prince.

Myshkin's exemption from the world others know is grounded in his epilepsy. It positions him at the very edge of the time and space others live in. There, ordinary laws of reality give way without notice to visions of a general union of the self with a transcendent wholeness that Lebedev proffers as superior to modernity's "progress." Myshkin is an especially clear example of what D. K. Traversi suggests as Dostoevsky's aspiration to exceed historical time and physical limits in favor of direct revelation of some cosmic order. (20)

But epilepsy is one of Dostoevsky's famous two-edged swords. Myshkin does have direct access to a spiritual unity that many characters seek for themselves. But on the other hand, he cannot sustain those who are drawn to his special vision. He inspires Nastas'ia and Aglaia to seek a new life as his wife, but he cannot physically be a husband. What is more, he humiliates both by telling each that he loves and is ready to marry her. There is no bridge for these women to his exemption from the "laws" of society and nature. They must live with the full knowledge of their loss while Myshkin is forever a stranger to the experience of such loss. At the same time, Ippolit asks Myshkin to help him die with dignity. The only answer he receives is "pass us by in peace," and it is his latent spite, not his wish for alternative, that is then released. Afterward Ippolit and Gania engage in a


shocking exchange of mutual recrimination in which each one's frustration and animosity crush the last remnants of his spiritual sensitivity.

The effect Myshkin has on such individuals is to bring them face to face with secret wishes for a better world they cannot enter. To acknowledge such a wish openly is to confront the impossibility of attaining it. The limits they see are all they have for they cannot share Myhkin's epileptic visions. The pain that results for them is too much to bear, and they either embrace death, like Nastas'ia, or give themselves over to a terminal cynicism, as do Ippolit and Gania, that corrodes them completely. Both ends mark capitulation to the hegemony of a world where alternatives of spiritual aspiration collapse beneath the weight of social and physical fact.

The rise and fall of hope gains generalized expression at the same party where Myshkin breaks the vase. His attractive innocence is especially bright here and he pierces the calculating veneer of Russia's social elite to reveal in them remnants of spiritual sensibility. They even begin to speak openly of civic virtue and remembered kindness. They are buoyed up momentarily by recollection of life's spiritual potential as they relax their usual competitive behavior. But, carried away by his ecstasy at finding such potential in them, Myshkin suffers an epileptic seizure that breaks the momentary alternative they all enjoy. Here epilepsy destroys Myshkin's reputation by turning his spiritual delicacy into a gross physical disease. With Myshkin writhing on the floor, each guest retreats immediately back into his or her protective shell of strict self-interest.

Myshkin's epilepsy is so symbolically suggestive because of the paradox underlying it. It is the result of his physical decay even as it leads to ascension beyond the physical world. Epilepsy suggests an alternative to the rules of biology even as it proceeds from a biological pathology. Myshkin is himself aware of that paradox and speaks of it openly: "Yes, one could give his whole life for this moment." (257)  But Dostoevsky is quick to add the price Myshkin pays: "Stupor, spiritual murk, idiocy stood before him as the clear the result of these 'peak moments.'" (257)

The duality and paradox of Myshkin's epilepsy is finally settled in favor of his physical disease. The materialist paradigm that declared physical 'forces as the final reality is unchallenged a the novel's close, despite Dostoevsky's wishes to the contrary. Myshkin's collapse and return to the Swiss clinic repeats the same physical laws of progressive decay that operate in the novel as a whole and in the new assumptions of Western science. Myshkin's destruction rhymes with Nastas'ia's end and with the naturalistic details of Christ's own decomposition. The Zhdanov fluid cannot mask her unavoidable corruption, and Ippolit's wish for solace is no answer to that same end awaiting his body. Myshkin's epilepsy is of a piece with that of the dead and the dying. Each example gives its own variation to a general rhythm whose movement is from a condition of spiritual order, based on hope, toward accumulation of physical disorder and decay. Epileptic visions, like Christ's promise of renewed life, or Nastas'ia's secret wish for a return to innocence, meet the same end.


At the novel's close Rogozhin, the murderer, and Myshkin the visionary, are joined by the same tears of mental and physical collapse. It is a condition that avoids questions of free will or sin. It is hard to speak of Rogozhin, Ippolit, Gania, or Russian society as choosing the condition of selfishness that pervades the novel. It is more accurate to say each lives reflexively in relation to the generalized presence of such selfishness in and around him. Together they suggest that choice is determined by environmental imperatives to compete for private advantage. Personal choice for them does not translate into any free behavior that can lead to actual experience of the better alternative each wishes from life. Hope for such an alternative certainly exists in all to some degree; that is the basis of Myshkin's suggestive power in the novel. But renewal or transformation does not hold for any who turn to him. Rather, sustained contact with the Prince leads such characters to a final acknowledgment that their world is bound by social or physical restrictions none can rise above. In this respect Myshkin is himself an unwitting accomplice to the accumulation of disorder that marks the work's basic rhythm. The Idiot suggests the dead end many in Europe and Russia feared as man's future. Dostoevsky's portrait of dissolving stability here was his caveat to Russia from one observing the modern West at close range.

Pictures of a dissolving stability, in Russian society and individuals, continue to haunt The Possessed as well. The late 186O's and early 1870's were disheartening years for Dostoevsky as he assessed the possible future costs of the West's materialism then penetrating Russia. It was not until The Brothers Karamazov that he artistically formulated that viable faith, embodied in Father Zosima, which could transform an individual's life and serve to bind community together once more.


  1. For a good summary of materialism as a philosophy and its effect on late nineteenth-century social, as well as scientific, European thought see Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man and Reason: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Thought. (Baltimore, 1971) , esp. pp. 3-40.
  2. See Dostoevsky's own criticism of his inadequate hero in his Pis'ma. Ed. A. S. Dolinin. 4 Vols. (Moscow, 1928-1959), Vol. II. p. 71 (Jan. 13, 1868), p. 160 (Jan. 25/Feb. 6, 1869).
  3. Robin F. Miller in her Dostoevsky and the Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Cambridge, Mass., 1981) points to such a metaphorical rather than psychological sense of the novel in her remark on p. 226: "As Dostoevsky searched for his idea he increasingly stripped away his hero's particular biography to create a more mysterious, allegorical, even mythical hero."
  4. "Primiritel'naia mechta vne nauki," in Dnevnik pisatelia za 1877 god. (Paris, 1946), pp. 22-27.
  5. See Bruce K. Ward, Dostoevsky 's Critique of the West: The Quest for the Earthly Paradise. (Waterloo, Ontario, 1986), esp. pp. 87-91 for a helpful compilation of Dostoevsky's critical evaluation of bourgeois individualism in the West


    of his time.
  6. Friedrich A. Lange, History of Materialism and Criticism of its Present Importance. Trans. Ernest C. Thomas. 3 Vols. (London, 1881), Vol. II. p. 251.
  7. See, for example, V. V. Zenkovskii, Russian Thinkers and Europe. Trans. Galin S. Bodde. (Washington, D.C., n.d.), pp. 42-54. Wayne Dowler has provided a more recent and comprehensive assessment of what the pochvenniki resisted in Western society. In his Dostoevsky, Grigor'ev and Native Soil Conservatism (Toronto, 1982), esp. pp. 80-81, Dowler suggests the pochvenniki feared the competitiveness, social inequality, and lack of cohesion in Western society, particularly the atomization that accompanied bourgeois individualism.
  8. See Alexander Gerschenkron, "The Problem of Economic Development in Russian Intellectual History of the Nineteenth Century, in Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought. Ed. Ernest J. Simmons. (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), pp. 26-28.
  9. F.M. Dostoevsky, Sobranie sochenenii v desiati tomakh. Ed. L. P. Grossman, et al. (Moscow, 1956-58), Vol. VI, p. 430. All future references to The Idiot are from this edition and are provided in parentheses after the quoted material.
  10. See Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 98-99.
  11. Frank M. Turner, "Victorian Scientific Naturalism," in Darwin to Einstein: Historical Studies on Science and Belief, ed. Colin Chant and John Fauvel (New York, 189O), p. 51.
  12. T. H. Huxley, Man's Place in Nature and Other Essays. (London, 1910), p. 52.
  13. Interestingly, Karl Marx considered Darwin's evolution as consistent with the historical development of economics he saw determining society. For Marx, science and technology are part of the same adaptation over time that distinguishes the physical changes Darwin describes in nature. See Karl Marx, "The Development of Machinery," in Capital. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. 2 Vols. (New York, 1957), Vol. I, pp. 391-408.
  14. I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science. (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), p. 298.
  15. Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1962), p. 172.
  16. Dnevnik pisatelia za 1873 god. (Paris, 1946), p. 362). B. E. Lewis, in his "Darwin and Dostoevsky," Melbourne Slavonic Studies, Vol. 11 (1976), pp. 23-32, provides a sketch of Dostoevsky's numerous negative references to Darwin. Dostoevsky had both Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection Relative to Sex and On the Expression of Sensations in Man and Animals in his private library. On the Origin of Species was available in Russian translation as early as 1864. Dostoevsky's rigorous


    criticism of Darwin was broadly shared in Russia of the 1860's, quite beyond usual ideological divisions. As with the rise of industrial capitalism, both the Russian Left and Right were appalled at the pathology of individual competition that Darwin's theory entailed. For an overview of Russia's reaction to Darwin in the 1860's see George L. Kline, "Darwinism and the Russian Orthodox Church," in Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought. ed. E. J. Simmons (Cambridge, Mass., 1955), pp. 307-328.
  17. Rudolph Arnheim, Entropy and Art: An Essay in Disorder and Order. (Berkeley, 1971), p. 9.
  18. F. M. Turner, Between Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England. (New Haven, 1974), p. 28.
  19. See William Barrett, Irrational Man. (Garden City, N.Y., 1958) pp. 165-181 for a good discussion of Nietzsche's weaving of contemporary questions of science into his Zarathustra figure.
  20. See Derek A. Traversi, "Dostoevsky," in Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Rene Wellek. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1962), esp. p. 164.
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