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Dostoevsky: When Mystery Takes Over

05 Dec

Someone told me about listening to an author discuss a book she had written some years before. The book was fairly well-received, but the author hasn’t written another one since. The reason: she based so much of the book on people and events from her life that she found herself bereft of anything more to write about.

I have some opinions on what that explanation suggests, although I’ll keep them to myself. In any case, the relationship of an author’s work to events in his own life is an interesting one. Some critics have made too much of the relationship–their evaluations of books are more like a detective’s evaluation of a crime scene than of a response to the book itself. The New Criticism sprung up in the middle decades of the twentieth century in an effort to oppose this tendency. New Critics emphasized that works of fiction are not authorial biographies. While some authors may put some of their own experiences into a book, others will not.

Flannery O’Connor, who was sympathetic to the New Criticism, is a prime example of why it can be dangerous to assume that an author’s works reflect something about his background. To read O’Connor’s stories, one might be tempted to think that she had suffered a violent childhood or something of the sort. She didn’t. Her life was not easy, but she did not usually build stories around real-life experiences. In fact, she became quite irritated when people sent her letters insisting that Georgia wasn’t filled with violent convicts that massacred innocent travelers. She hadn’t been insinuating that it was. All the letter writers had really told her was that they misunderstood her point.

480px-Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_ProjectFyodor Dostoevsky is a different story, however, as I found after finishing The Idiot and Dostoevsky’s Wikipedia article. His novels aren’t autobiographical, but certain themes from his life keep showing up. Like Dostoevsky, the main character, Myshkin, suffers from epilepsy. A major character in The Idiot (as well as another character in Crime and Punishment) dies of consumption. So did Dostoevsky’s mother. Myshkin talks about a man condemned to death whose sentence was commuted to imprisonment just minutes before his execution. Dostoevsky–who had a taste for socialism in his younger years–went through that same experience.

Fortunately, Dostoevsky never crammed all his life experiences into one novel and subsequently lost his ability to write. But, however different his writing was from Flannery O’Connor’s, they both shared an important characteristic–a respect for mystery. In Dostoevsky’s case, that respect includes an understanding that, to quote The Idiot, “the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Myshkin attempts to save Nastasya Filippovna, a woman that most people view as fallen. The church, he later notes, might forgive her, but society will not. But Myshkin’s innocent nature works against him. In his attempts to redeem her, he not only underestimates the volatility of her own nature, he fails to take into consideration another man who wants Nastasya Filippovna, no matter the cost to any of them. In trying to redeem Nastasya, Myshkin destroys himself.

“Beauty will save the world,” Myshkin asserts, to the bemusement of those around him. Myshkin is certainly better at seeing beauty than is the Russian society in which he finds himself. Yet his end is anything but beautiful. “For a long time,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything?”

Solzhenitsyn concluded that beauty might reach people who had rejected truth and goodness, the other two members of that old trinity. And something does reach out through the pages of The Idiot. There is a strange beauty in the mystery of Myshkin’s existence–however it ends. We are left with a conviction that he was more right than anyone around him understood. Whatever the problems that entangled him, Myshkin recognized the reality of transcendence. He was surrounded not only by bodies, but by souls. And he strove to value them.

Dostoevsky–epileptic or not–was not Myshkin. He made a number of mistakes in his personal life, and they were not caused by innocence. But perhaps he, like Solzhenitsyn, viewed Myshkin’s words as a prophecy. The ugliness of our best efforts may yet be turned around by mysteries beyond our ability to understand. We walk by faith, not by sight.

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