Thursday, January 17, 2013

"The Idiot"

I've been taking advantage of the suddenly snowy (and then rainy) days to work on rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868).  I haven't finished it yet, but I'm about halfway through.

I love Dostoevsky, as anyone who knows me (or my blog) already knows.  I first read The Idiot in 1994.  I remember it exactly, because I remember the apartment I was living in and where I was sitting when I first read it.

It's that kind of book.

I always felt that it was the one Dostoevsky novel I couldn't quite figure out, and I knew that someday, I'd have to go back and dig into it a bit more.  So that's what I'm doing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've become really interested in the role of rumors and gossip in general, and I think they play a significant role in Dostoevsky's novels.  In May of 2012, I examined the role that they play in The Brothers Karamazov (with a nod to Adele and Veggie Tales, of course). 

In fact, I think there's an interesting divide in Dostoevsky's work.  While his earlier novels (in particular, Crime and Punishment & Notes from Underground) focus on the perspective of an individual protagonist and his isolation from the community, his later novels focus on the role of community and its effects on a protagonist (in particular, The Idiot, The Demons, The Brothers Karamazov).

This shift makes sense, given Dostoevsky's growing concern with what he saw taking place in Russian society in the mid-to-late 19th century.

What I think is less explored, though, are the philosophical and psychological implications of Dostoevsky's fascination with rumor as a means of representing the community.

Dostoevsky's protagonists always struggle with uncertainty.  How do they understand themselves and their relationship to the world around them?  How do the ideas they adopt or adhere to function as ways of making sense of the world and its uncertainties?

While Dostoevsky's concerns are serious and philosophical, I think he uses rumors and gossip as a way of showing the everyday operations of uncertainty as well.  Although they serve a comedic function, Dostoevsky's inclusion of gossipy characters and his narrators' discussions of the various rumors circulating around a particular event also probe serious existential issues.

How do we know what is true--about ourselves and about others?  While rumors may seem trivial, as psychological theory has noted for quite some time now, rumors can actually serve as a significant mode of political propaganda.  Rumors have the capacity to function as a means of social control.  They can ultimately inspire--or demoralize--an entire population.

Rumors also have a highly personal component.  Our willingness to listen, spread and/or believe them suggests a lot about our individual concerns.  One of the most enjoyable scenes in The Idiot (in my opinion) depicts this phenomenon. It occurs at the start of Book II.

At the end of Book I, there is a scene and a scandal.  The novel's protagonist, Prince Myshkin, suddenly leaves for Moscow.  As readers, we're shown the scene and we know the gist of the scandal. (No, I won't tell you: you have to read the novel.)

What we don't know, precisely, is why Myshkin left or what his departure "means."  Instead of telling us outright, Dostoevsky's narrator tells us what everyone thinks has happened.

In a narrative move very typical of Dostoevsky's work, the narrator tells us ALL of the conflicting and competing rumors circulating about the prince, both the plausible and the potentially absurd.  Perhaps more importantly, the narrator weighs all of them equally.  If a rumor is dismissed as silly or implausible, it is almost immediately qualified by evidence that suggests that it might very well be possible after all.

One of my favorite points in the novel is Dostoevsky's depiction of Madame Yepanchin's reaction to all of these rumors and their implications.  Although she only met him briefly, she initially liked Prince Myshkin a lot.  Depending on what may or may not have actually happened both before and after his departure for Moscow, she may actually like him still.  But initially, she doesn't know what to think.

She wants to like him, clearly.

I enjoy Dostoevsky's depiction because 1) it reminds me of me, and 2) it shows a very human struggle with information.

While we all grapple with "The Meaning of Life," we also grapple with information filed under the heading of, "He Did What?! No Way."  Two very different types of information, obviously, but both shape how we function in the world--how we treat other people and what we believe to be true, both about ourselves and about others.  In the end, both categories of knowledge can intersect and overlap and thus radically shape the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

Madame Yepanchin is a wonderful barometer for this process. It's not what she says, but what she doesn't say or what she refuses to say, that shapes the entire atmosphere of the Yepanchin household after the prince's departure for Moscow: first, that is for almost a whole month after the prince's departure, it was not considered acceptable in the Yepanchin house to speak of him.  Only once did Madame Yepanchin declare at the very beginning that she had been "cruelly disappointed in the prince."  Then two or three days later she had added, this time without naming the prince, in an abstract way, that the "main feature" in her life was her "continually mistaking of people."  And finally a full ten days later, exasperated with something her daughters had done, she summed up the whole affair with the declaration, "Enough mistakes!  We shall have no more of them!" (199)
Madame Yepanchin sounds like me on my blog sometimes.

She moves from a specific incident (disappointment in the prince), to a generalized sense of the trajectory of her own life as one marked by disappointment in people overall.  Her ultimate conclusion (my favorite point of all time), "Enough mistakes!  We shall have no more of them!" is comic, obviously, but it shows how a series of rumors compels her to make sweeping decisions about her own attitude in the future.


The fascinating element of rumors and gossip is that clearly, no one talks about the prince (including Madame Yepanchin), because 1) no one wants to talk about him because it's kind of an awkward situation, 2) if he really has done what they think he's done, nice people shouldn't be giving him the time of day, much less talking about him, and 3) no one wants to be the kind of person who talks about other people, particularly if it's about people who may or may not be the kind of person the prince might be.

The problem is, these are always the most interesting people and the ones worth talking about.

Thus, by not talking about him, they talk about him all the time... but without ever really talking about him.

The first time I read The Idiot, this characteristic bewildered and confused me.  I found it hard to figure out what was going on and why people were upset (with whom?  about what?).  When I started to reread the novel, I assumed a second reading would help me figure this out.

What I've discovered instead is that, if it could all be talked about and cleared up, there would be no novel.  Dostoevsky is playing on exactly this motif: people often "talk" but without ever really "saying" what it is they're "talking" about.  This is the source of the drama and the tension.

When you think about it, it's an extremely complex and clever narrative device.  In life, our identity often hinges on our deeds and our reputation.  We're "known," not only for what we did or didn't do, but for what other people think or believe we did or didn't do--and this "knowledge" accompanies us over time.  If we occupy positions of social prominence or authority, this second component of our identity can be particularly crucial in shaping the actions and ideas of those around us.

By incorporating this element--the circulation and transmission of rumor--as the very essence of the novel's plot, Dostoevsky offers a fascinating insight into 19th century Russian society itself--its insights, concerns, ideas and inner workings (as he perceives them).  He creates a way of examining the very notion of belief and its influence on action and identity, both individually and collectively.

Needless to say, I'm enjoying it all immensely.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."