Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Final Thought for the Year

"The World shall be saved by Beauty"
- Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

Dostoyevsky's great novel, The Idiot, or simply as it is called in Russian: Idiot, has always been one of my favorite novels - long before becoming an Orthodox Christian. Yet I was surprised to read that somewhere within Idiot, Dostoyevsky wrote "the world shall be saved by Beauty" - because I could not remember such a phrase.

Thus I was pleased to come across the complete text of The Idiot at The Gutenberg Literary Archives - because it would be much easier to search for such text in the novel.

Alas, I have done my search, and come to conclude that Dostoyevsky never said "the world shall be saved by beauty."

In fact, beauty is seen in the novel as a great distraction. On the one side there is the sense that "the world shall be saved by beauty" (as you shall see in my study below), but on the other side Prince Myshkin has some very interesting things to say about the opposite of beauty: suffering.

For starters, let me explain that Prince Myshkin is certainly preoccupied with beauty, espcially Nastasia Philipovna's beauty. And in fact what he says as follows below:


When the prince ceased speaking all were gazing merrily at him--
even Aglaya; but Lizabetha Prokofievna looked the jolliest of

"Well!" she cried, "we HAVE 'put him through his paces,' with a
vengeance! My dears, you imagined, I believe, that you were about
to patronize this young gentleman, like some poor protege picked
up somewhere, and taken under your magnificent protection. What
fools we were, and what a specially big fool is your father! Well
done, prince! I assure you the general actually asked me to put
you through your paces, and examine you. As to what you said
about my face, you are absolutely correct in your judgment. I am
a child, and know it. I knew it long before you said so; you have
expressed my own thoughts. I think your nature and mine must be
extremely alike, and I am very glad of it. We are like two drops
of water, only you are a man and I a woman, and I've not been to
Switzerland, and that is all the difference between us."

"Don't be in a hurry, mother; the prince says that he has some
motive behind his simplicity," cried Aglaya.

"Yes, yes, so he does," laughed the others.

"Oh, don't you begin bantering him," said mamma. "He is probably
a good deal cleverer than all three of you girls put together. We
shall see. Only you haven't told us anything about Aglaya yet,
prince; and Aglaya and I are both waiting to hear."

"I cannot say anything at present. I'll tell you afterwards."

"Why? Her face is clear enough, isn't it?"

"Oh yes, of course. You are very beautiful, Aglaya Ivanovna, so
beautiful that one is afraid to look at you."

"Is that all? What about her character?" persisted Mrs. Epanchin.

"It is difficult to judge when such beauty is concerned. I have
not prepared my judgment. Beauty is a riddle."

"That means that you have set Aglaya a riddle!" said Adelaida.
"Guess it, Aglaya! But she's pretty, prince, isn't she?"

"Most wonderfully so," said the latter, warmly, gazing at Aglaya
with admiration. "Almost as lovely as Nastasia Philipovna, but
quite a different type."

All present exchanged looks of surprise.

"As lovely as WHO?" said Mrs. Epanchin. "As NASTASIA PHILIPOVNA?
Where have you seen Nastasia Philipovna? What Nastasia

"Gavrila Ardalionovitch showed the general her portrait just

"How so? Did he bring the portrait for my husband?"

"Only to show it. Nastasia Philipovna gave it to Gavrila
Ardalionovitch today, and the latter brought it here to show to
the general."

"I must see it!" cried Mrs. Epanchin. "Where is the portrait? If
she gave it to him, he must have it; and he is still in the
study. He never leaves before four o'clock on Wednesdays. Send
for Gavrila Ardalionovitch at once. No, I don't long to see HIM
so much. Look here, dear prince, BE so kind, will you? Just step
to the study and fetch this portrait! Say we want to look at it.
Please do this for me, will you?"

"He is a nice fellow, but a little too simple," said Adelaida, as
the prince left the room.

* * *

"Yes, she is pretty," she said at last, "even very pretty. I have
seen her twice, but only at a distance. So you admire this kind
of beauty, do you?" she asked the prince, suddenly.

"Yes, I do--this kind."

"Do you mean especially this kind?"

"Yes, especially this kind."


"There is much suffering in this face," murmured the prince, more
as though talking to himself than answering the question.

"I think you are wandering a little, prince," Mrs. Epanchin
decided, after a lengthened survey of his face; and she tossed
the portrait on to the table, haughtily.

Alexandra took it, and Adelaida came up, and both the girls
examined the photograph. Just then Aglaya entered the room.

"What a power!" cried Adelaida suddenly, as she earnestly
examined the portrait over her sister's shoulder.

"Whom? What power?" asked her mother, crossly.

"Such beauty is real power," said Adelaida. "With such beauty as
that one might overthrow the world." She returned to her easel

It is especially interesting what he says about suffering. That thread is again picked up later, but this time not in reference to Nastasia Philipovna, but in reference to a painting of Christ - specifically "The Dead Christ" by Hans Holbein (can be seen here )

"When I arose to lock the door after him, I suddenly called to
mind a picture I had noticed at Rogojin's in one of his gloomiest
rooms, over the door. He had pointed it out to me himself as we
walked past it, and I believe I must have stood a good five
minutes in front of it. There was nothing artistic about it, but
the picture made me feel strangely uncomfortable. It represented
Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that
painters as a rule represent the Saviour, both on the cross and
taken down from it, with great beauty still upon His face. This
marvellous beauty they strive to preserve even in His moments of
deepest agony and passion. But there was no such beauty in
Rogojin's picture. This was the presentment of a poor mangled
body which had evidently suffered unbearable anguish even before
its crucifixion, full of wounds and bruises, marks of the
violence of soldiers and people, and of the bitterness of the
moment when He had fallen with the cross--all this combined with
the anguish of the actual crucifixion.

"The face was depicted as though still suffering; as though the
body, only just dead, was still almost quivering with agony. The
picture was one of pure nature, for the face was not beautified
by the artist, but was left as it would naturally be, whosoever
the sufferer, after such anguish.

"I know that the earliest Christian faith taught that the Saviour
suffered actually and not figuratively, and that nature was
allowed her own way even while His body was on the cross.

"It is strange to look on this dreadful picture of the mangled
corpse of the Saviour, and to put this question to oneself:
'Supposing that the disciples, the future apostles, the women who
had followed Him and stood by the cross, all of whom believed in
and worshipped Him--supposing that they saw this tortured body,
this face so mangled and bleeding and bruised (and they MUST have
so seen it)--how could they have gazed upon the dreadful sight
and yet have believed that He would rise again?'

His thoughts seem to propose that there should be a beauty in the face of the suffering (and dead) Christ. Such beauty can be seen on other renniassance paintings of the Dead Christ.


Now, later the Prince is accused of saying that the world would be redeemed by beauty. (But I can find nowhere other than the above two conversations that he has discussed such things...) I would have to re-read the whole novel to see if he actually did say something like this somewhere, but he certainly didn't use the words "world" "saved" or "beauty" anyplace other than the above. (Unless some of the text is missing from this archive, but it doesn't seem to be...)

This is most likely where the main quote that I opened my final thought for the year is found:

"Look here, once for all," cried Aglaya, boiling over, "if I hear
you talking about capital punishment, or the economical condition
of Russia, or about Beauty redeeming the world, or anything of
that sort, I'll--well, of course I shall laugh and seem very
pleased, but I warn you beforehand, don't look me in the face
again! I'm serious now, mind, this time I AM REALLY serious." She
certainly did say this very seriously, so much so, that she
looked quite different from what she usually was, and the prince
could not help noticing the fact. She did not seem to be joking
in the slightest degree.


Aglaya is very mad at the Prince here, obviously. He tends to get everyone mad at him because of his unique simplicity of soul.

One last interesting and relevant excerpt. When Nastasia Philipovna is discussing the possibility of people having a deathbed conversion, she says:

How can morality have need
of my last breaths, and why should I die listening to the
consolations offered by the prince, who, without doubt, would not
omit to demonstrate that death is actually a benefactor to me?
(Christians like him always end up with that--it is their pet
theory.) And what do they want with their ridiculous 'Pavlofsk
trees'? To sweeten my last hours? Cannot they understand that the
more I forget myself, the more I let myself become attached to
these last illusions of life and love, by means of which they try
to hide from me Meyer's wall, and all that is so plainly written
on it--the more unhappy they make me? What is the use of all your
nature to me--all your parks and trees, your sunsets and
sunrises, your blue skies and your self-satisfied faces--when all
this wealth of beauty and happiness begins with the fact that it
accounts me--only me--one too many! What is the good of all this
beauty and glory to me, when every second, every moment, I cannot
but be aware that this little fly which buzzes around my head in
the sun's rays--even this little fly is a sharer and participator
in all the glory of the universe, and knows its place and is
happy in it;--while I--only I, am an outcast, and have been blind
to the fact hitherto, thanks to my simplicity! Oh! I know well
how the prince and others would like me, instead of indulging in
all these wicked words of my own, to sing, to the glory and
triumph of morality...

N.P. has lived an immoral life on this earth, because she was always falling prey to her passions. And her final anguish is that there is no way to enjoy the beauty in the world, because of the suffering.

What is the main point of "The Idiot" - that the world shall be saved by beauty?

Or that "beauty" is the most difficult stumbling block in the salvation of the world?

Or both?

~ Fly ~

More about Dostoyevsky...
Complete Texts...

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