Books

Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot": "Beauty will save the world".

We continue our selection of great works of world literature with a special Christian imprint. On this occasion, we are dealing with "The Idiot" by the Russian genius Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Juan Ignacio Izquierdo Hübner-September 3, 2022-Reading time: 6 minutes

Photo: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. ©Wikipedia Commons

Conversation is an art that is difficult to practice. Its quality depends on the richness of our inner world and trust with the interlocutor. Maybe that's why I like conversations about books so much, because then the weight of interest is not so much on my own shoulders, but on those of the author. And if you lean on the back of Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), that interest can very easily escalate into passion. I say this because a few months ago I had a brilliant idea (something that doesn't happen to me very often): I agreed with a friend to undertake together the reading of "The idiot"and, after reading it, we took a walk to discuss it. The question we asked ourselves then motivated me to write this article, and I'm sure it will intrigue you too. 

Years ago I had read other novels by the same author: "Crime and Punishment", "Memories of the House of the Dead" and, more recently, "The Brothers Karamazov". Each of them gave me different feelings. Now I chose "The Idiot", which is not my autobiography (as another friend ironized when I told him about it), but something like an episode in the life of a 19th century Russian "Don Quixote". This reading itinerary has influenced me powerfully. As Nikolai Berdiaev says in "The Spirit of Dostoyevsky": "An attentive reading of Dostoyevsky is a life event in which the soul receives like a baptism of fire". As it is, fire is a good metaphor to describe it.

Okay, let's get to the point (as the dermatologist would say): "Beauty will save the world". This is the key phrase of the play, and the main source of the intrigue we feel with my friend. What an expressive phrase, isn't it? It makes me want to stop writing, look out the window and wander among the clouds. But I will write, because I want to share with you the answers I have found, in the clouds, in the novel and in other books, because you deserve it. It will be necessary for us to put the sentence in context, so let's go in parts (I would add Jack the Ripper):

What the novel is about (no spoilers, don't worry)

Prince Myshkin is a 26-year-old man, cordial, frank, compassionate and naive, who has been living in Switzerland for four years for treatment of epilepsy. When the doctor dies, the prince feels he has enough strength to travel to St. Petersburg, visit a distant relative and try to start a normal life. His qualities, however, lead him to have extravagant encounters with all sorts of people: the most relevant, which will draw him throughout the novel like a lighthouse to a lost ship, will be his love/compassion relationship with a beautiful woman, but who carries within her the pain of a history of abuse. Her name is Nastasya Filippovna. The plot thickens when the prince falls in love, with a noble and pure love, with a young woman from a good family, who in turn reciprocates. Her name is Agláya Ivánovna, and when they ask about her, he replies, "She is so beautiful that it is frightening to look at her." The prince, by the way, is not alone in the field: there are several suitors for one girl and for the other. In this scenario, controversies of all kinds arise, which the characters discuss, making us think and suffer and grow.

Beauty will save the world

About halfway through the book (fear not, I said I won't do spoilers), Ippolit's confession appears on the scene. It is about a 17-year-old boy who is crippled and the doctor has predicted that he has less than a month to live. The prince invites the sick man to stay in the house where he is living, although the others do not understand why he is taking in a young man who, besides being sick, is nihilistic, vehement and inopportune. 

One evening, a small group of acquaintances and friends arrive at the dacha (country house) that the prince is renting to celebrate his birthday. They are drinking champagne, chatting happily, when the young Ippolit expresses a burning and delirious desire to open his heart. The others do not want to hear him, but he asks to speak for the right of those condemned to death. Finally, despite the reluctance of the audience, he begins a long reading of some confessions he had written the day before. But just before he began to read, Ippolit turned to the prince and asked him in a loud voice, provoking the astonishment of all: "Is it true, prince, that you once said that the world will be saved by 'beauty'? Gentlemen," he said, addressing everyone, "the prince assures us that beauty will save the world! And I, for my part, assure you that if he comes up with such perverse ideas, it is because he is in love."

What beauty is Dostoyevsky referring to, what beauty will save the world, why does Ippolit say that this idea came to him because he was in love, where is the strength to discover it, treasure it and spread it with all our energies? Unsurprisingly, this was the main topic of discussion I had with my friend as we strolled under the trees on the campus of the University of Navarra. 

Ippolit's relationship with the author

Both Ippolit and Dostoyevsky himself were condemned to death. The former for tuberculosis and the author, in his youth, for having been caught in a cafe where "revolutionary" (not very serious) ideas were discussed. This biographical episode is narrated wonderfully well by Stefan Zweig in "Stellar Moments of Humanity". 

Fyodor was already blindfolded and waited by the wall to be shot. He was going to die, there was no way out, unless a miracle happened. At the last second - and here is the stellar moment of humanity - the news came that the Tsar had commuted his sentence. "Death, wavering, crawls out of numb limbs," writes Zweig. Dostoyevsky could live; in return, he would have to do four years of hard labor in Siberia and then devote five years to military service. That day, a fundamental man for universal literature was saved, and the idea of a character who could see the world from the perspective of death was born. That gaze could be rebellious, like that of Ippolit, tragic and profound, like that of Dostoyevsky, or compassionate, like that of Prince Myshkin. 

A man who has felt the breath of death behind his ear is in a better position to understand the pain of the most famous person condemned to death in history: Jesus Christ. It seems that I am getting long-winded, but no, I ask you to trust me and to read one last background, for it holds the most important clue before reaching the conclusion.

Holbein's Christ

There are paintings that please, others that surprise and others that change lives. Dostoyevsky's experience in the Basel museum almost sent him into an epileptic seizure. It happened during a trip through Europe with his second wife, Anna Grigorievna, on August 12, 1867. Fyodor was on his way to Geneva with her and they took the opportunity to visit the museum in Basel. There they came across a canvas two meters long and thirty centimeters high that caught the attention of a 46-year-old Dostoyevsky. It was the 'Dead Christ', painted in 1521 by Hans Holbein the Younger. Now you also look at the image, contemplate it slowly, you will see that it is a particularly emaciated, bloodless and run over Christ. 

Dead Christ, Hans Holbein, 1521. ©Wikipedia Commons

How is it possible - I imagine Dostoyevsky wondered as he admired that destroyed body - that Christ paid "that" price to save us? 

Is Christ the beauty that will save the world? He who was defined as "the most beautiful among the sons of men" (Psalm 44) could testify to an unparalleled physical beauty. But Holbein's painting shows a disfigured Christ, which rather reminds us of Isaiah's prophecy: "There is in Him neither beauty that attracts the eyes nor beauty that pleases" (Is 53:2). Let's see, then, what beauty are we talking about? 

Ultimately, there is no greater beauty than the love that has conquered death. The love of the One who gives his life for his friends is the most beautiful thing known to the world. The beauty that saves, that truly saves, is the beauty of love that goes to the extreme of redemptive sacrifice. Therefore, the beauty that will save the world is Christ. God became man to save us, he died to give us life and offer us resurrection. The story of the corpse so crudely portrayed by Holbein has an epilogue, or better, a second part, which confirms the triumph of beauty over death: the overwhelming beauty of the Resurrection. Let us say it in the words of the Apocalypse: "And the city needed neither sun nor moon, for the light of God shone upon it, and the Lamb was its lamp" (Rev 21:23). 

The beauty of Christ's love, which saves us, is what we must discover, treasure and spread with all our strength. Are we not here facing the most important mystery of our lives? To love others as Christ loved us, that is, to love to the point of suffering and dying for the sake of others, is the secret of the meaning of our existence. If we learn this, we will participate in the salvation of the world. No small thing, eh?

The authorJuan Ignacio Izquierdo Hübner

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