May 31, 2010

Such Playful Thoughts

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. In his acceptance speech, he wrote the following:

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world".

There's just one problem. Dostoevsky never said any such thing. This quote is actually a line from one of his novels. While an author's perspective will certainly be revealed in his literary work, it is unwarranted to assume that every word penned by an author is meant to be read as if it were a direct representation of his own thoughts.

One aspect of Dostoevsky's writing that I appreciate is precisely his ability to embody philosophical ideas within the pages of his great novels, to show how these ideas shape and direct the thoughts and actions of the characters he brings to life. While it is tempting to assign the author's own viewpoint to the main protagonist, even this can be misleading. The Western tradition of literature typically tracks the growth and development of characters. This is particularly the case with Dostoevsky's novels of redemption. Within the course of a novel, the main character may say one thing early on only to recant later.

With this, let us examine the context in which the infamous quote is found. I'll quote extensively from the translation of The Idiot done by Pevear and Volokhonsky and published by Alfred A. Knopf in the Everyman's Library series in 2002. The scene takes place in Prince Myshkin's rented dacha, late in the evening on his birthday. There has already been much carousing and speechifying, when the consumptive nihilist Ippolit begins to speak.

“Is it true, Prince, that you once said 'beauty' would save the world? Gentlemen,” he cried loudly to them all, “the prince insists that beauty will save the world! And I insist that he has such playful thoughts because he's in love now. Gentlemen, the prince is in love; as soon as he came in today, I was convinced of it. Don't blush, Prince, or I'll feel sorry for you. What beauty will save the world? Kolya told me what you said.... Are you a zealous Christian? Kolya says you call yourself a Christian.”
The prince studied him attentively and did not answer.1

Notice here that as the reader, we do not actually hear the Prince make the statement he is alleged to have made. These words have been put in his mouth by a man whose own view of the world is diametrically opposed to his own. Oddly enough, he chooses to keep silent. Perhaps this is a tacit admission of the truth of what has just been said, or perhaps Dostoevsky intended to create a parallel between Prince Myshkin and Christ in the way they remained as silent as a lamb before the shearer.

There is only one other place in which the phrase “beauty will save the world” appears in the writings of Dostoevsky. Again, it is a statement attributed to Prince Myshkin by one of his acquaintances. In this last occurance, Myshkin is being briefed prior to his engagement party by his soon-to-be fiancée.

“Listen once and for all,” Aglaya finally could not stand it, “if you start talking about something like capital punishment or the economic situation in Russia, or that 'beauty will save the world'... I'll certainly be glad and laugh very much, but... I'm warning you ahead of time: don't let me set eyes on you afterwards! Do you hear? I'm speaking seriously! This time I'm speaking seriously!”2

Clearly, this is the sort of thing his nearest and dearest expect Prince Myshkin to say. Just as clearly, it is a statement for which he is ridiculed. While it is possible that Dostoevsky meant this statement to be an expression of his own personal viewpoint, it seems like a rather ineffectual way of putting it forth.

A more convincing refutation of the notion that Dostoevsky actually believed that the world would be saved by beauty comes from a consideration of the novel. (Spoiler alert: the rest of this paragraph reveals several plot denouements.) Alone of all Dostoevsky's post-exile novels, The Idiot does not contain a moment of redemption. It ends in madness, death, and apostacy. The Prince returns to a state of idiocy far worse than his previous condition. Nastasya (a name referring to the Resurrection) is knifed by Rogozhin, as has been foreshadowed throughout the novel. And finally, Aglaya (“light”) departs from the Orthodox Church into the “darkness” of Roman Catholicism. (Note to my RC friends: this comment reflects the virulent Romophobia of Prince Myshkin.) If Dostoevsky intended this novel to illustrate the thesis that beauty will save the world, he has done a very poor job of it indeed.

What, then, was Dostoevsky's purpose? Why write such an unrelentingly bleak novel? I am indebted to Richard Pevear for the following insights from his brilliant introduction. He provided the following extensive quote from a letter Dostoevsky wrote to a niece on January 13, 1868.

The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man. There is nothing more difficult in the world and especially now. All writers, not merely ours, but even all European writers, who have merely attempted to portray the positively beautiful, have always given up. Because the task is immeasurable. The beautiful is an ideal, but this ideal, whether ours or that of civilized Europe, is still far from being worked out. There is only one perfectly beautiful person – Christ – so that the appearance of this immeasurably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, already an infinite miracle. (That is the sense of the whole Gospel of John: it finds the whole miracle in the incarnation alone, in the manifestation of the beautiful alone.) But I've gone on too long. I will only mention that of beautiful persons in Christian literature, the most fully realized is Don Quixote; but he is beautiful solely because he is at the same time ridiculous.3

Does this mean that we should view Prince Myshkin as a Christ-figure? Perhaps, but only as a contrast and not as a direct parallel. While Dostoevsky intended to present his idiot as a positively beautiful man, the figure of Christ is not absent from the novel. In his travels through Europe, Dostoevsky went out of his way to visit Basel precisely to see one painting in an art gallery. This painting is The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger.

For commentary on the role this painting plays in The Idiot, I turn again to Pevear's introduction:

Each of the three main male characters of the novel – the saintly “idiot” Myshkin, the passionate, earthbound Rogozhin, and the consumptive nihilist Ippolit – defines himself in relation to this painting. The question it poses hangs over the whole novel: what if Christ was only a man? What if he suffered, died, and was left a bruised, lifeless corpse, as Holbein shows him? It is, in other words, the question of the Resurrection.4 . . . . what if Christ were not the incarnate God but, in this case, simply a “positively beautiful man,” a “moral genius,” as a number of nineteenth-century biographers of Jesus chose to portray him, and as Leo Tolstoy was about to proclaim -- “a Christ more romantic than Christian,” in René Girard's words, sublime and ideal, but with no power to redeem fallen mankind?5

If Dostoevsky intended Prince Myshkin to provide a contrast to this portrait of Christ, it may be that there is another contrast to be found. The Saviour of the world appears as a painting of a horribly mutilated corpse, but this is not the only portrait the reader encounters in The Idiot. The doomed Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov presented one of her suitors with a photographic portrait of herself. Speaking of this portrait, another character declared, “You can overturn the world with such beauty.”6

Comparing this statement with the more famous one regarding beauty and the world, I am forced to conclude that Adelaida Ivanovna Epanchin has provided the more accurate summary of the novel. The literary evidence indicates that Dostoevsky did not himself believe that “beauty will save the world.”

This does not invalidate the truly profound theological opinions expressed over the past century and a half which have taken this quote as a starting point. I have written what I have written because I am a middle-aged fogey who experiences mis-attributions the way some people experience fingernails on a chalk board. If, after reading this, someone still insists that Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world” I will simply ask to see their citations. And no, Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not provide any when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.


1. page 382

2. page 526

3. xv

4. xiii

5. xviii

6. page 80

May 23, 2010