What literature can do, Part Two


Commuter B: Well, that conversation was almost too good to be true... Almost like it was scripted or something... Strange...

Anyway, anyway...

What am I going to do if she asks about the book next week?! How am I going to tell her that I kind of don't like it?

Well, not really. It's not like I dislike it totally, it's just that the Prince is getting on my nerves a bit at the moment... He's so “holier than thou” and it just annoys me!

I mean, obviously Jesus lived a life of moral purity, but that's not all there is to Him! If you're going to make a character like Jesus, do you really need to make him a foolish, naïve fop?!

After all, Jesus was a man of action!

And I don't mean in some macho, grunting, Bruce Willis kind of way. He cried, was gentle, cuddled children, cared for the sick. But He didn't just lurk around showing people examples of His handwriting and feeling pitiful love for women with passionate eyes!

The Prince falls so short as a JC mimic!

Jesus wasn't naïve. He wasn't so gentle that He never shouted at the appropriate people in the appropriate moment. He wasn't a doormat, He didn’t leave himself open to every abuse. He was self-controlled, strong, and, after all, didn't save because of His general-all-round-good-guy-ness but by His bloody death and impossible resurrection. If anyone read The Idiot and the Gospel of Mark side by side, they'd have to admit that the historical portrait of Jesus is not very well reflected by Dostoyevsky in the character and actions of Prince Muishkin.

So, I'm annoyed...

But when I can get past that, I can begin to see the usefulness of the character as a mirror to the failing morality of Russian society. Obviously the issues Dostoyevsky was critiquing at the time: use of capital punishment in 'modern' Europe, sexual mores becoming less and less like the Judeo-Christian ideal, even the ethics of ambition are all addressed in an interesting way by Muishkin's interactions with the flotsam and jetsam of 19th Century Russian society.

Dostoyevsky is obviously wanting to demonstrate a sharp contrast between the way Jesus re-incarnate would live and behave in their society, and the way its members actually acted...

But again, I come back to the aspect of the character that annoys me! Why does moral fortitude have to be presented alongside weakness?! Muishkin's physical and supposed mental frailty certainly don't make good moral character attractive do they!

Maybe that's what Dostoyevsky is doing...

As an inveterate gambler himself, maybe his strong concept of a high moral standard combined with a weak understanding of grace and mercy, generating a self-loathing that he projected outward in order to justify/save himself from his own loathing. Maybe he had to ridicule the standard in order not to feel the shame of failing it. He had to paint Muishkin as a 'failure' so that he could feel better about himself...

Or maybe that's too psychological a reading of the text...

Or maybe it's right but wrong in the sense that Dostoyevsky is clearly wanting to demonstrate the truth echoed in the Bible that God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong. The Prince is an 'idiot', but he is the only person of wholly good character in the novel, and Dostoyevsky assumes that he will therefore be admired.

And, I've got to admit, it's pretty 21st Century of me to insist that my moral heroes also come in attractive and strong wrapping... We want our success to be as visible and measurable as possible, even if it's our moral success we want measured!

And so I love and dislike the frailty of Muishkin as a mimic of Jesus. The weakness and foolishness is true, but the naivety and mawkishness is not...

But how to explain that well...?!!