Beauty Will Save the World

I was tempted not to buy this version of the book, solely because of the grotesque image on the cover. But it was an Oxford Classics edition, which are my favourite, so I resolved to put up with the image even though I grimaced every time I opened it.

The Idiot was my Christmas reading. I do love a good Russian classic (I read The Brothers Karamazov this summer), and what drew me to this lesser-known work of Dostoevsky was the oft-quoted line, “Beauty will save the world” said by the main character, Prince Myshkin. This line sounds wonderful and intriguing on its own, but I wanted to know the context. How will beauty save the world? Save the world from what?

After finishing the book, I still ponder those questions.

I’m not going to give a whole plot summary of the book because others have already done it (and very well, too) so I’d suggest heading over to Emily Burns Morgan’s article to get better acquainted with the rich plot and cast of characters.

My only other knowledge of the book apart from the beauty line was that it was “depressing” and something my friend “would never want to read again.”

Most Russian classics are depressing but they obviously contain something worthwhile or else they wouldn’t be considered classics, so those words of warning only made me want to read the book more.

In case you’re wondering who the Idiot is, he’s Prince Myshkin (also referred to as the Prince). 26 years old at the outset of the novel, he’s returning to his native Russia after many years in Switzerland where he received extensive treatment for his epilepsy. Characters often call him an “idiot” because he is seen as “simple”—only speaking the truth, usually saying too much, failing to read social cues, frequently falling for swindlers’ schemes because he is always willing to help.

As Morgan says in her article, the illness he suffers from even more than epilepsy is being “afflicted with extreme compassion.” Extreme indeed. The book makes you question the extent to which honesty and compassion is good. “What makes a man good?” seems to be exactly the question Dostoevsky wanted readers to ask when he sketched out Prince Myshkin’s character, who is easily identifiable as a Christ figure (albeit a flawed one).

Dostoevsky writes to his niece:

The main idea of the novel is to depict the positively good man. There is nothing more difficult than this in the world, especially nowadays. …The good is an ideal, and neither we nor civilized Europe have yet succeeded in working out such an ideal for ourselves. There is only one positively good man in the world, and that is Christ. … Sympathy is aroused for the good man who is ridiculed and who does not know his own worth, and this sympathy is aroused in the reader too. This arousing of sympathy is the secret of humour. …. I have nothing of the kind, absolutely nothing, and therefore I am terribly afraid that [my novel] will be a positive failure.

There are times when Prince Myshkin confounds those around him because he cuts to the heart of their issues with startling acuity, but other times (many times), he positively fails to say or do the right thing.

Prince Myshkin fails catastrophically at the end when he has to decide between two women—Nastasya Filippovna, a femme fatale whom Myshkin is immediately enraptured by and whose love/hate would ruin him; and Agalya Yepanchin, a younger woman who is just as beautiful and tempestuous at times, but who is ultimately pure, tender, and childlike. We actually believe her when she says she loves Myshkin.

The Prince, however, chooses Nastasya—the “fallen woman.” On one hand, the Prince’s action is understandable given his uber-compassionate nature that stretches so deep he thinks no man/woman is too far gone, and yet on the other hand, his friend Yevgeni Radomsky scathingly but truthfully challenges him about the problem with his lofty ideals:

But for the sake of compassion and to satisfy her, how could you have put to shame another girl, high-minded and pure, and degrade her in those arrogant and hate-filled eyes? What lengths will compassion go to after that? Why, it’s incredibly out of proportion! How could you, if you loved a girl, humiliate her in front of her rival, reject her in favour of the other, after you’d proposed to her yourself . . . and you did propose to her, didn’t you, you told her in the presence of her parents and sisters! After that, may I ask if you are an honourable man, Prince? And didn’t you deceive that heavenly girl by telling her you loved her?

So how does this all fit in with “beauty will save the world”? Based on the climactic scene above, it is easy to tell that Prince Myshkin thinks of himself as a saviour figure. But he doesn’t end up saving anyone in Russia—he loses them. Contrast this with his earlier time in Switzerland, where society scorned another fallen woman almost to the point of death but whom the Prince, however, had compassion on her and loved back to life.

If beauty means love and truth, then I can get behind “beauty will save the world,” but I think the Prince also meant it aesthetically—physically.

In Part 1, the Prince says to Agalya and her family, “It’s hard to judge beauty; I’m not ready it. Beauty is a puzzle.” Those words contain a lot of truth for a young man of 26 years making his entrance into “normal” society. But then just a bit later in the novel, the Prince meets beauty embodied in the person of Nastasya Filippovna, and he rashly  proposes to her and she accepts, only to leave him a few minutes later for a rogue named Rogozhin. So the Prince says he won’t judge beauty but then does almost immediately. He sees Nastasya, deems her beautiful, wants to have/save her, and blindly follows this dangerous beauty to multiple “deaths”:

1) the physical death of Nastasya (she’s murdered by Rogozhin)

2) the destruction of Agalya (she runs off with a dishonest Polish émigré, becomes a Catholic fanatic, and is cut off from her family), and

3) the Prince’s “death” or exile from Russia and society—he gets sent back to Switzerland, sicker than ever to undergo more treatments in a clinic.

All this because of beauty?

The other instance that makes me think the Prince is talking about physical beauty ties in with the cover image, which is actually the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, a 16th century German artist. The Prince sees the painting hanging in Rogozhin’s house and rightly proclaims how horrific it is. You couldn’t tell it was Christ (as I obviously didn’t) because it looks like any man’s decomposing corpse.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein. 1520-1522.

“I do love looking at that picture,” muttered Rogozhin after a pause, having forgotten the question it seemed.

“That picture!” cried the prince, struck by a sudden thought. “That picture! A man could lose his faith looking at that picture!”

“Yes, that’s another thing going,” Rogozhin confirmed surprisingly.

What is the relationship between beauty to faith? Could an ugly subject in a painting make you lose your faith? Or is there something still beautiful here about the truth of Christ’s suffering? About love embodied? About real life and real death?

Perhaps the Prince’s ideals are beautiful but they are abstract and disembodied from the world he now resides in. Knowing the context that spawned the book’s famous quotation, I am more skeptical about it now than before, but I think it all hinges on what beauty is.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 So says John Keats in his last lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn.

It’s not surprising that a 600-page book touches on the big questions of truth, beauty, and goodness. I will leave you with a line from one of my favourite characters in the novel, Prince S, who gently and accurately interprets Prince Myshkin’s saviour complex:

Dear Prince, . . . It is not easy to establish paradise on earth, and you do seem to count on that a little; paradise is a difficult business, Prince, a great deal more difficult than it seems to your splendid heart.

Paradise is a terribly difficult, rather, impossible business on earth, as our fallen hero learns by the end. But for all the depressing pieces in this novel, glimpses of truth/beauty about the human condition emerge from the wasteland, making The Idiot so worth the read and the ugly Oxford cover.