Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What literature can do- Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'

Commuter B: What're you reading at the moment?
Commuter A: Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought it was time I got round to it! What're you reading?
B: Oh, I'm reading The Idiot by Dostoyevsky.
A: Oh, gosh, that sounds serious! Who's Dostoy-whatever-it-was?
B: Um, he's a 19th century Russian author... He wrote The Brothers Karamazov...? Anyway, it's really good, I'm really enjoying it.
A: Mmm, good. Nice. Hmm. What's it about?
B: Hmmm, welllllll. The hero is this guy called Prince Myshkin. He's the “idiot” of the title, an epileptic, and presumed to be mentally effected by his epilepsy. Basically, like a lot of Russian authors of the 19th century, Dostoyevsky was exploring the political and social landscape of the time, critiquing it and, sort of, suggesting solutions...
A: Oh. What was wrong in Russia at the time? I suppose there were lots of serfs and things...? I remember something from history class about everyone getting sent off to Siberia for stealing yoghurt and that sort of thing...!
B: Well yes, I guess sort of like how lots of people in England were got rid of by transportation to here, Australia, around the same time, the Russians were dealing with prisoners by exiling them too. Dostoyevsky actually spent some time in Siberia himself! And was almost executed... But they changed their minds. That seems to have happened a lot with political prisoners!
A: Oh, so he was a political prisoner.
B: Yes, he was part of a group that got reported for treason. I guess like a lot of writers and thinkers, he was pretty disgusted with Russian society and the aristocracy, the gap between rich and poor, and he looked for ways to change the situation. He originally was a fan of this new fangled “Socialism” idea, but eventually didn't like it because of the atheistic viewpoint that often accompanied it.
A: What didn't he like about the atheism?
B: Well, I think basically he agreed that there should be a more equal distribution of wealth and that sort of thing, but he found the ideals he admired were expressed better in the life and teachings of Jesus than of socialism.
A: Oh, so he was a Christian then?
B: Yeah, and in a sense, that's what The Idiot is about! The Prince Myshkin character is supposed to be a sort of Jesus-like figure inhabiting the Russian society at the time, and failing miserably at it, because the way Russians lived was so at odds to how Dostoyevsky thought Jesus would have them live. Dostoyevsky thought the answer to Russia's problems was authentic Christian revival.
A: But his Jesus character fails in some way...?
B: Well yeah, that's the really interesting thing about the book, I think... He creates this character who is so pure he's seen as na├»ve, so loving he falls for two women who cannot marry him, so “simple” he's constantly deceived by others and talked down to... I don't know if Dostoyevsky is saying it's Russians that need to change, because Jesus can't live among them, or Jesus that needs to change! And I'm not so sure his understanding of Jesus... Well, I guess he's not trying to make a character exactly like the real Jesus! So, the Prince, the “idiot” is this sort of, idealised Jesus... That sounds a bit weird to me actually. Hmm... What do I mean? Umm...
A: Do you mean it's a bit hard to idealise Jesus even further!?
B: Well yeah, I guess it just shows that Jesus is so different from us he does stand out... I mean, even Dostoyevsky himself, who clearly wants people to be “better” Christians, to live more like Jesus, failed at this himself, and gambled away all his money, his wife's money, money his friends lent him, and died in poverty... He himself doesn't exactly match the ideal he was painting...
A: Hmm... So interesting! I mean, what an odd thing to write, a book about a man who's too perfect to live...
B: Yeah, it is quite interesting...! 

About our contributor:

Born 1985, Moree.

Raised in the country, but in various towns, not on a farm among the chickens.

Escaped to the Big Bad City, for Journalism school, then an Arts degree. Stayed to do a ministry apprenticeship, then Bible college, and apart from a short stint in Broken Hill, have stuck around in the smog.

Kept notebooks since childhood, mostly of odd-bod sentences that have caught my mind's eye, or heart-rending but squeamishly un-self-aware confessions, pleas, poems and stories.

Have read almost everything and anything since childhood, being both an expert procrastinator and a loner. Favoured children's authors led into Young Adult fiction, and from thence, back in time, toward the Young Adult authors of other periods. I read Little Women and Good Wives once a year until finally, around age 14, I began to actually understand parts of it, and have continued to refresh myself with them on an almost yearly basis. As my knowledge expanded I understood not only the nuances of the girls (and boys!) relationships, I even began see and understand the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalism on Alcott's moral schema.

Figuring out what an author is saying has never been boring to me.

And so, having stuffed my mind with the words of others, I finally, almost inevitably have taken up the pen myself. Although it took the promptings and confidence of a much respected and beloved college lecturer to commit in any serious way to the production of words for others.

I write a blog, sermons, short talks, prayers, a book on Habakkuk and those novels and stories I've had shoved under my digital mattress for years. They're all at assorted stages of completion and publication.

I first attempted The Idiot years ago, at uni, and, I confess, I failed at about page 130 and could not quite manage to read on. It sat, listless, between Dickens and Duve on my nomadic bookshelves since then, until this challenge came to read it again.

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