Reading The Idiot again after five years I am struck by what does not fit into the usual critical categories, a certain kind of truth in the writing, the erratic unnameable of vision. I begin to see there is no proper category for the vivid, an impulse to reveal, an edging toward light.
The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s book about a good man. Interestingly enough, Prince Myshkin’s goodness represents itself not in virtue but in innocence. In the city, the world of Dostoevsky’s fiction, innocence signifies the inability to navigate through treacherous social waters, a satirical notion. Yet even though the satire is fine, it does not interest me. Satire is manageable and can be taught in the classroom. Common sense is at the root of satire, and if Dostoevsky had common sense he might have been a common writer. An epileptic gambler, Dostoevsky wrote between fits to pay off his debts. At its best the satire in The Idiot grounds a reader who otherwise grows dizzy from traveling in a world too intimately his own — what Lawrence called “the moon of our not-being.”
Beyond the satire an irregular view of reality, common to Dostoevsky’s books, emerges, a kind of intellectual and emotional extremity in which nothing is evaded. The confrontativeness is total. Myshkin himself, an epileptic, passes through heaven and hell. Voices intrude upon his remembering. Are they real? He is found wandering in a park. Multitudes move in and out of his room. A long fever, the love of two women, a fit. In the nineteenth century this was extraordinary; it still is. Does he dream or remember? No one tells us.
The fictive air of this world (from which the sense of no exit begins to take shape) breathes a sort of craziness, a meandering from back-street to parlor, from dreaminess to transparence, from the vaguest of threats to the most specific outrage. There is an upside-downness to the whole thing, as if the novel and its conventions had been turned on its ear. Incivility surrounds the sitting-room and the Bolsheviks are not far off. I used to believe that this sense of the absurd was the quality of Russianness itself, but now, less able to believe in the protocols of reality or even the likelihood of rational experience, I think of this oddness, this Petersburg irreality, as an early revelation that the shape and texture of civilized life had changed and things were not holding together. For the first time the doomed are going to have their day, not to chatter meaninglessly in the background, but rather to stun us with the logic of illness.
The young Ippolit, for example, unwilling to die gracefully, forces situations to their most hectic conclusions — into a kind of total embarrassment in which normal people and their regular ways will be crushed. To his friends who will continue to live when he is dead, Ippolit cries out that if he had his health he would regard poverty and beatings as great luxuries. What consolation exists for a man whose only certitude is that in a month he will be dead and everybody else will be alive. Ippolit’s refusal to deny the nadir of his own predicament creates the purely existential idea that the very fact of aliveness is more important, finally, than the trials to which life puts us. This is the dark wilds of perspective.
The moral tradition in modern literature is made up of those writers who intend, among other things, to point out the growing limitation of temporary experience with a lucidity so profound as to liberate the reader from that limitation. Thus D.H. Lawrence examined the nature of love and passion in a society losing touch with its historical roots, while Henry Miller, more devoted to lust than love, constantly attempted to disenthrall his reader from “the air-conditioned nightmare.” These men were vividly moral writers in their own way, largely original, but it is impossible not to sense the lineal blood debt they both owed to Dostoevsky. More writer and less prophet than either Lawrence or Miller, Dostoevsky sensed that our house had collapsed and felt impelled to save the skeletons. The forces of science had taken two hundred years to uproot the conventions of a God-centered universe, and nobody had yet found a way to transform this dislocation into art, or only a very few. Casualties were everywhere, behind closed doors. This was the time for Dostoevsky’s underground man, that spaceless, repellent self-hater, who, a hundred years later, would be assassinating American presidents. In his psyche, humiliation had replaced enterprise, and his most important secret is a soul-destroying contempt for those who cannot survive on his own original terms, the terms of alienation. Eventually he will stop talking and become intelligible only to those who know the price of losing too much and too often, but for this moment the underground man is all words. What words! A rush of doubt and defiance and self-deprecation and strange, overweening clarity. No longer is he asked to chatter in rhyme or pose against a condescending landscape. No, his presence now makes the novel democratic forever — for he is superb, and he belongs to the novel. He will even take it over. But now he is just there.
There is something else of which I can only hint. Reading The Idiot again I kept waiting for the scene in which Myshkin discovers that Nastasya Filippovna is his sister. Remembering the event, I wait right up to the moment Myshkin holds the crazed lover, Rogozhin, in his arms, beside the corpse of Nastasya, their tears bitter and merging.
It never occurs, this moment. Had I dreamed it?
The question overlooks the possibility that the spectral life of a novel may speak with more authority than the words which shape the body of the book. Books may dream, too. Having read a thousand novels which trace the motion of the mechanical world, we forget that some men have always known that in the world of spirit the saint and sinner claim a necessary kinship. Perhaps I dreamed that Myshkin and Nastasya, lost bewildered children, met as siblings in this larger democracy.
There are worse ways to read a book.
In Dostoevsky we come across a radical kind of impulse, a knowledge of the heart’s motion. We are taken far beyond irony and satire, into the world of paradox where bone-bare despair becomes a celebration of life, intense and desirous. A true saint of the novel, Dostoevsky, charmed by the aspirations of midday people, found his truest expression of life in the underground world, where the ragers and grievers and lovers move in shadows and dance about an occasional shaft of light. He was also that strange figure, a realist, who stood with no hesitation before the spirit and its demands. Vividness is perhaps the best word for his achievement, the flashing of bent light above all our stews.