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From the Winter, 1990 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>Poor Myshkin by Steven Faulkner

Poor Myshkin

Dostoevsky’s Failed Fool-in-Christ

by Steven Faulkner

One afternoon last May I invited a good friend of mine to come over and discuss something that had been needling me about the writings of Dostoevsky. I had been reading Dostoevsky and wrestling with the problem of portraying the good man, the saintly man—not just the naive simpleton who sometimes passes for an innocent man. I found the questions presented intriguing and compelling, not only artistically and intellectually, but spiritually. What is it to be innocent? In the Russian religious tradition, there is what is called a fool-in-Christ, a person who appears as a fool to the world, who chooses to live and act so, but on a higher plane reflects the wisdom of God. This is not wisdom by rational argument, but by the force and beauty of a saintly life. I think St. Francis and some of his followers might easily fit into this tradition. I am not prepared to say that Dostoevsky was trying to portray the classic fool-in-Christ as such in his novels, but in some such “foolish” way he grappled with the problem of the come to mind as having such a character, but I had been particularly vexed by the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.

My friend is an English teacher at a nearby university who has long been fascinated by Dostoevsky. He is a thoughtful man whose opinions I value. I shall call him by my nickname for him, Raphael, after Milton’s angel and “sociable Spirit” who descended from ethereal heights (in this case the more “earthereal” university) to explain everything to innocent Adam. He brought along a student friend whom I had met several times. I will call him Phaedrus (via Plato and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) for he is a seeker of truth, if a rather negative soul.

That May afternoon was mild and lovely. We settled into lawn chairs in my back yard and sipped iced tea. The irises my wife had planted were up, unfolding petals of deep purple, the hawthorn was thick with fresh leaves, and below the hedge the tiny white crowns of lily-of-the-valley had appeared.

I had prepared for Raphael’s arrival with a quote from Milton:

“And now is Raphael come
Into the blissful field, through Groves of Myrrh,
And flowering Odours, Cassia, Nard, and Balm.”

Raphael smiled his recognition of the quote. “An appropriate afternoon to discuss Dostoevsky,” he said.

“Appropriate?” said Phaedrus. “If we’re to talk about Dostoevsky, it should be night, preferably cold and damp with wet snow. Or better yet, a black night with every brick and gutter exhaling spectral mists while some wretched soul wanders forlorn up a dark stinking alley talking very rationally about suicide.”

“You’ve read The Dream of the Ridiculous Man,” said Raphael.

“I’ve read Dostoevsky,” retorted Phaedrus. “That’s vintage Dostoevsky.”

“Ah, but that’s the man before his dream. And we’ve agreed to talk of Myshkin, Alyosha, and Zosima, of men more like those golden children of the sun. Look, the scene is perfect. We even have Myshkin’s setting sun.”

But Phaedrus was not to be dissuaded. “Yes, but with Dostoevsky, the sunlight vanishes so quickly; the darkness comes afoot, insidious, invincible. Out, out brief candle!”

“Perhaps that’s what makes his light so attractive,” I responded, “that he contrasts it with such a terrible darkness.”

“Maybe,” said Phaedrus. “But Dostoevsky’s natural home is underground. Sure he yearns for the light. Who doesn’t? There’s a little photosynthesis in every man. He’s able to extrude one green leaf occasionally, but all his roots—those elaborate systems that nourish his novels—are deep in St. Petersburg swamp mud. He is ineffective describing life in the sunlight. But get him into that alley at night and out of that reeking miasma will stagger a dirty little man: selfish, conceited, hyper-sensitive, evil to the bone. Need more be said?”

I laughed. Raphael smiled. “Yes, more,” I said.

“What more?” cried Phaedrus. “Sure, throw in a stack of paper rubles and a bad dream about spiders. But that’s all. That’s Dostoevsky!”

“But what about the onions?” asked Raphael.

“What onions?”

“Those little acts of compassion. And there are those who live by them.”

“Live on onions? Sounds interesting. Not exactly the groves of myrrh of Steven’s poem there, but I’m willing to listen.”

“Good,” I said. “This brings us to what I wanted to discuss with you. I’ve got a problem with Dostoevsky’s depiction of the good man. I’ll agree with Phaedrus to the extent of saying that Dostoevsky’s evil characters, like Milton’s, are often more fascinating, perhaps more effective, than his good and noble souls. His character Myshkin in The Idiot particularly seems to me ineffective. Of course Dostoevsky himself realized the difficulty of his task. He wrote about it in a well-known letter to his niece Sonya. I have copied it here:

The main purpose of the novel is to portray the man of real excellence and beauty. . . . All those writers—not only ours but European writers as well—who have grappled with task . . . have simply succumbed in the attempt. It proved too much for them. Beauty is an ideal, but no conception of this ideal has yet been worked out, either by us or by the Europeans. There has only ever been one true embodiment of beauty, and that was Jesus Christ. For this very reason the appearance of such an incomparably beautiful person remains of course an unfathomable wonder. . . . of all the noble and splendid figures in Christian literature the most perfect is Don Quixote. But he is so, precisely because he is at the same time a comic figure. Dicken’s Pickwick is comic too. . . . There is sympathy for the clown who does not know the value of beauty, and needless to say this man strikes a sympathetic chord in his readers. . . . I have nothing of this kind to offer, nothing so decisive, and for this reason I am horribly afraid it will be a resounding fiasco. . . . 1

“In his notebooks, after concluding the first part of The Idiot, he writes: ‘My primary hero [Prince Myshkin]—is extraordinarily weak. Perhaps he does not sit weakly in my heart, but he is terribly difficult.’2 And in the same letter he complains that sanctity is not a natural literary theme. ‘In order to create the image of a saint, one has to be a saint oneself. Sanctity is a miracle; the writer cannot be a miracle-worker.’3

“Dostoevsky had the problem of presenting a character who was not only a saint but also a real human being, not a disembodied spirit. And Myshkin is a soul in conflict. As Mochulsky says, ‘In the final text [of The Idiot] the prince’s “divine character” has disappeared; his “justness” has been screened by human weakness. The writer overcame his temptation to write a “novel about Christ.”’4 There is a division in Myshkin’s soul. He is not a pure saint. The prince has the rather disconcerting habit of blaming himself for stray thoughts that pass his mind. He shudders at the thought that the character Rogozhin could kill and then remarks to himself, “Isn’t it criminal, isn’t it base of me to assume such a thing with such cynical frankness?’5 And his face flushes with shame. Of course, Rogozhin is, in fact, quite capable of murder.

“To tell the truth, since I rather liked the prince, I find myself ashamed of his shame, baffled by his refusal to see evil and his tendency to blame himself for just noticing what’s there. I feel this is the crux of Myshkin’s failure: not that he is human in feeling an attraction to lovely ladies or in finding that he cannot be a self-contained individual; but why does he refuse, absolutely refuse, to see personal evil? He has this self-inflicted blind spot. He sees societal evil: he’s against society executing murderers for example; he’s against Europeanization of Russia; but put the evil in the eyes of someone he knows and two plus two no longer equals four. It’s not that he’s too human; he’s not human enough.”

At this point Phaedrus intervened. “I’m not so sure Myshkin is such an innocent. Sure, he’s stupid; he wouldn’t recognize evil if it stripped naked and jumped on his lap. But I think he’s a conniver. He has a way of ingratiating himself with people, worming his way in to get what he wants. Remember that mouse6 says, ‘Don’t suppose I am so candid out of pure simplicity of heart. It is possible that I have my own profound object in view’.”7

This was too much for me. “If you believe that, Phaedrus, then everything Dostoevsky said in his letter about creating ‘a truly beautiful soul’ is a ruse. If Myshkin is out to scheme his way to fame and fortune, then he makes quite a mess of it. No, he is an innocent of sorts. But what bothers me is that he is capable of wisdom, often speaks very intelligently, but prevents himself from being wise in his relationships by refusing to see personal evil. Is this what it means to be a saint? Is this saintly innocence, or a mere caricature? Is this a good man?”

“It bothers you that he’s an idiot,” said Phaedrus.

“Yes. Or rather that he isn’t but sometimes appears an idiot when he recoils from the truth. I trust I make myself sufficiently obscure.”

“But Dostoevsky wanted an idiot,” said Phaedrus shrugging.

“He wanted a beautiful and innocent person, a Christ figure whom society would see as an idiot because their own views are perverted. Myshkin is a man with a shining ideal, but once he believes in that ideal, he gives himself up to it blindly. That willful blindness can be as destructive in its consequences as blatant evil.8 So much of the responsibility for the tragedies in this story must rest with Myshkin himself.

“It’s that irrationality in him that destroys his power to do good. It seems to me that Myshkin fails not because he is Christlike, but because he is only a half-Christ. What we see in the Gospels in the person of Jesus Christ is one who speaks and acts with great authority, who has great compassion for the needy, who speaks wisely. Myshkin can tell parables; but Jesus could recognize evil when he saw it: he could whip the money changers from the temple; he could shout, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’”

“Myshkin refused to judge others. But in the New Testament there are two kinds of judgment: first there is a type of judging to determine the truth or falsity of a charge, the rightness or wrongness of any particular thing; then there is judging to pass sentence. The first is not only permitted a Christian, but required, else how could we avoid evil ourselves? The second, to pass sentence and judge the weight of a crime, is not ours but God’s.

“The Apostle John says of Christ that he was full of grace and truth. Myshkin has grace, but he lacks truth. Jesus told his followers to be innocent as doves, but wise as serpents. Myshkin is a fluttering and helpless dove with not a scale or slither in him. I think this is why he fails to save anyone, fails to convert anyone. I’ve got a good quote from Mochulsky:

He [Prince Myshkin] arrives in the dark world with a shining vision of paradise: bewitched by the primeval ‘image of pure beauty,’ he does not perceive the distortion and perversions of the image. Here are his strength and weakness. . . . The prince . . . looks at the world lying in evil and sees only the ‘image of pure beauty.’9

All this time Raphael had been sitting quietly, listening, sipping his tea. From time to time he would page through some notes he kept in an old spiral notebook, but he just listened. The sun had by this time slipped behind the hawthorn, casting most of the yard in quiet shadow. Finally Raphael spoke up.

“Interesting you should mention Mochulsky,” he said. “I like Mochulsky as a critic and often agree with him. He says that on the empirical plane the prince is a ridiculous simpleton, but that on the metaphysical plane, he is a wise man. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s purpose was not to convert the characters of his novel, but to contrast the two planes of being, to juxtapose the idealism of Myshkin with the disintegrating lives around him, to reveal the dissolution of Dostoevsky’s beloved Russia by the singular light of one “innocent” soul. As Romano Guardini put it: Myshkin ‘lives in the immediate, but he does not suffer from it. He expresses himself directly, but from a point incomparably far away and deeper than that of others’.”10

“Doesn’t suffer from it?” interjected Phaedrus. “The man goes mad! He’s in agony!”

“I think Guardini meant that the immediate world fails to change Myshkin. He agonizes but does not succumb to the world.”

“What do you call going mad? a triumph?”

“Actually, Guardini did call it a triumph, but I won’t go that far. I’ll call it a departure.”

“Sure, the poor fool parted with his brains.”

“In a way they had never been connected. He retreated again, left the intellectual plane through which he had briefly passed. Though his mind retreats, his heart still expresses his enduring love: he strokes the cheek of the deranged Rogozhin.”

“But that’s just the point,” I cried, “I want both: mind and heart! Sure, Mochulsky sees the problem when he says that the prince is a being from another aeon—before the Fall. Consequently, there is in his image a terrible elusiveness. ‘It seems that he does not tread upon the earth, but hovers over it like a bodiless spirit in ineffectual pity for sinful men; he is tormented and commiserates but cannot help.’11 But must he be so ineffectual? I suppose we can say that he rebukes the world by his innocence; but his innocence fails to renew the world. He is not fully incarnated. He’s only half a man. He cannot help.”

Raphael sat back and mused for a few seconds. “Apparently Dostoevsky himself felt Myshkin was lacking. He certainly tried again in The Brothers Karamazov with the character of Alyosha. You can readily see the differences between Myshkin and Alyosha. Alyosha is not epileptic, indeed, he is strong, healthy, red-cheeked. The narrator insists Alyosha is a realist, not a fanatic. He does save people: the boys, perhaps Grushenka, perhaps Dmitri. He gets along with almost everyone; he is not a social misfit. Of course he too is a man who refuses to judge people. He brought to his dissolute father ‘a complete absence of contempt for him and an invariable kindness, a perfectly natural unaffected devotion to the old man who deserved it so little.’12 He pities the girl who apparently would seduce him. He kisses Ivan after his heretical story. He is a man of compassion, but I think you’ll agree, a real man, not a hovering spirit. He can and will marry. He courts Lise. Rakitin calls him a sensualist, ‘a sensualist from your father, a crazy saint from your mother.’13 And he does have a passion for life, life in this world.

“Not only this, but he is capable of being genuinely perturbed by Ivan’s rationalist arguments against belief.”

“But what do you think about his response to Ivan?” asked Phaedrus. “It seems to me quite inadequate. He has an ecstatic vision of his elder and goes blubbering off to kiss the dirt. I don’t quite see how that answers the tough arguments of Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor.”

“And yet there is something to his kissing Ivan, something to his kissing the earth,” I said. “He understands something. It’s not quite like Myshkin groping about and admitting his ignorance.”

“I still think you’ve got a character,” said Phaedrus, “who is rather palely drawn, who does not combine wisdom with action. He may not be an idiot, but he’s a bit anemic.”

Just then my wife brought out a pitcher of iced tea with fresh mint leaves and refilled our glasses.

Phaedrus smiled and thanked my wife for the tea, “Thanks for the onion juice.”

“Is it that bad?” she asked.

“Oh, no, no!” he exclaimed, correcting himself. “It’s a term from Dostoevsky. It means the tea is a welcome relief.”

“Strange way to spell ‘relief’,” she said. “But I suppose that’s Dostoevsky, rather difficult to understand.” She smiled and returned to the house.

Raphael took up the discussion again. “If you want grace and truth, wisdom as well as compassion, mind and heart together, you must make your way to the hermitage in The Brothers Karamazov; Zosima is your man. And yet I’m convinced Dostoevsky thought the ultimate answers were not intellectual. I’ll get to that presently. But first let’s look at Zosima. He has that kind of insight and authority I think you’re looking for Steven. Before Ivan even poses the question of suffering children, Zosima is answering the woman who lost her child, giving her a radiant promise of heaven. But when the answer fails to comfort her, he tells her to weep: ‘Be not comforted,’ he says. ‘Consolation is not what you need. . . . Only every time that you weep be sure to remember that your little son is one of the angels of God, that he looks down from there at you and sees you. . . . But it will turn in the end to quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be only tears of tender sorrow that purifies the heart and delivers it from sin.’14 Thus Zosima gives a meaning to suffering. He does not negate or explain it away, but he exalts it with everlasting purpose.

“He rebukes sorcery and prophesies accurately. He is able to read souls like a book. Witness his perception of Madame Hohlakov’s psychology. He gives practical advice. He encourages the distraught. He is a man of many words.”

Then I said, “I agree that Zosima is very impressive. Unlike Myshkin he is a man of the Church; he lives in a hermitage that is part of a monastery. He lives in association with others, not drifting aimlessly about like Myshkin, who has no permanent address. He is tied to the earthly structure of the Church. The monastery is not a rejection of the world per se, but an affirmation of an earthly expression of the kingdom of God.

“More than this, he is a fully incarnate man. He had once been in love. He had once fought with his own pride and profligate behavior. He was a soldier and even risked a duel. He is a man in love with the earth and the things of the earth: trees, flowers, beasts, people.”

“But he too retreated,” protested Phaedrus. “If you can’t face the world, then get thee to a monastery—is that it? Maybe he didn’t part from his mind, but he parted from the real world. So the old man settles down in his dotage. But if you think such a spiritual authority is so impressive, then why can’t he answer Ivan’s arguments. If he is such a man of the wise word, why no answer for the Grand Inquisitor?”

“But there is,” replied Raphael. “As I’ve said before, Dostoevsky seemed to think that the answers to life were more than syllogisms. He says in a letter that his answer to the Grand Inquisitor is not direct, ‘not point by point to the theses that were expressed earlier’ (in the Grand Inquisitor and before). For Dostoevsky the life and character of Father Zosima, patterned as he is after the true staretz, the “spiritual elder” of the Russian Orthodox tradition, far more profoundly answer the skeptical world-view than any purely rational discourse ever could. This is the point to which I said I would return. The elder contradicts the Inquisitor by a beautiful life: he contradicts falsity both by truth or logic, and by grace. Grace is inseparable from truth.

I think it’s the same thing Dostoevsky was trying to accomplish with Myshkin’s acts of humility, his love of beauty. We see the same response in Alyosha: an act of pity by Grushenka jerks him out of his anger. He understands that Christ worked his first miracle at Cana to give gladness to men, that simple acts of charity are a great and powerful answer to disbelief. Active love is the antecedent to faith, the antidote against unbelief. In answering Madame Hohlakov’s question of how is a sure faith possible, Zosima says,

“By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”15

“Love before logic, you see. This is why Alyosha’s sympathy for the young socialist, Kolya, so changes the young logician. And Kolya’s act of charity in bringing a dog to Ilusha helps save not only Ilusha, but Kolya himself. A kiss is the perfect answer to the Grand Inquisitor—an act of love for the twisted and old man is better than a debate. Christ’s kiss is clearly not an acquiescence, as D. H. Lawrence called it, but God’s love for his radical enemy. That love, not a syllogism, is the Inquisitor’s only real hope. Despite Ivan’s devastating arguments, Alyosha goes on loving him and so, kisses him.

“The book is full of such little onions: a crust of bread for the birds, flowers for Ilusha’s mother, a pillow for Dmitri. At the end of the book, Alyosha cries out, ‘Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!’ And with that ideal, comes the faith to say, ‘certainly we shall all rise again. . . ! A gesture, a kiss, a flower: simple acts of charity refute the hatred of the Inquisitor and build a solid faith. Logic is insufficient in itself. As Janko Lavrin wrote: ‘morality itself, if devoid of beauty, becomes distortion.’16 Beauty and love are constituent parts of truth.

“Because Zosima sees this and lives this, his words have a power that Ivan’s don’t; they are effective and incisive; they change and lift young Alyosha to a similar affirmation of faith and life. I think in Zosima, and incipiently in Alyosha, we have your man of grace and truth.”

“I agree,” I said.

“It’s a good glass of tea,” said Phaedrus.

It was a good afternoon. Sipping onion juice can be a pleasure, whether in the park at Pavlosk, or in the tenements of St. Petersburg, or in Zosima’s garden, or even in Topeka, Kansas. Onions can grow just about anywhere, you know.


1. Dostoevsky, F. M. Pis’ma (letters), ed. Dolnin, A. S., Moscow-Leningrad, 1928, Vol. II. pp. 71–72.

2. Quoted in Mochulsky, Konstantin, Dostoevsky, translated by Michael A. Minihan. Princeton: Princeton, New Jersey, 1967: p. 344.

3. Ibid., p. 346.

4. Ibid., p. 350.

5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, Penguin Classics edition, translated by David Magarshack, Suffolk, Richard Clay, Ltd., 1955. p. 246. All quotations from The Idiot are taken from this edition.

6. Myshkin is Russian for “mouse.”

7. The Idiot, p. 84.

8. Krieger, Murray. “Dostoevsky, ‘Idiot’: The Curse of Saintliness” In Dostoevsky. Ed. Rene Wellek. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 39, 48.

9. Mochulsky, p. 374.

10. Guardini, Romano. “Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’: A Symbol of Christ,” translated by Francis Quinn. In Cross Currents 6, (Fall, 1956), pp. 359–382.

11. Mochulsky, p. 375.

12. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, The Modern Library edition, translated by Constance Garnett. New York: 1950. p. 111. All quotations from The Brothers Karamazov are from this edition.

13. Ibid., p. 91.

14. Ibid., p. 55.

15. Ibid., p. 63.

16. Lavrin, Janko. Dostoevsky, A Study. New York: MacMillan, 1947. p. 146.

Steven Faulkner, contributing editor to Touchstone, lives in Topeka, Kansas with his wife and six children.

“Poor Myshkin” first appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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