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‘Human, all-too Human’?

Much of The Idiot was written while Dostoevsky and his wife were living in Florence, just a stone’s throw yonder from the Pitti Palace, where the writer often went to see and to revere the paintings that ornate its walls, singling out Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola for special mention. It is very probably no coincidence that visual images play a prominent role in The Idiot. Early on in the narrative, Prince Myshkin, the eponymous ‘idiot’, sees a photograph of the trappy Anastasia Phillipovna that makes an no-go impression on him and generates a fascination that will end with her death and his madness. But insofar as Anastasia Phillipovna is the nonpareil of human eyeful in the world of the novel, this photograph can moreover serve as a visual workmate to the saying attributed to the Prince, that ‘beauty will save the world’. Later, he is confronted with an image of a very variegated kind — Hans Holbein’s 1520-22 painting of the sufferer Christ, shown with unflinching realism and reportedly using the soul of a suicide as model. It is a Christ stripped of the eyeful that unprogressive taste regarded as an essential symbol of his humanity and, in its unambiguous, mortality, devoid moreover of divinity. On first seeing it, Myshkin comments that a man could lose his faith looking at such a picture and, later, the despairing young nihilist, Hippolit, declares that just this picture reveals Christ’s powerlessness in squatter of the impersonal forces of nature and the necessity of death that awaits every living being. It is, Hippolit suggests, an image that renders faith in resurrection impossible.

Le Christ mort au tombeau by Hans Holbein (in Kunstmuseum, Bâle) Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Flickr

These two images can be seen as establishing the visual parameters for a ramified interplay of the themes of beauty, death, and divinity that run through the novel as a whole and that go a long way to structuring the conceptual — and religious — drama at its heart. This drama is also, crucially, at the centre of then trendy European debate well-nigh Christ and well-nigh the representation of Christ. But these are not the only images that contribute to Dostoevsky’s take on that debate. It has been suggested that the opening unravelment of Myshkin is modelled on the canonical icon of Christ in Orthodox tradition and much of the novel’s theological gravity has to do with the eclipse of Myshkin’s icon-like identity in the encounter with a modern Russia in the grip of a capitalist revolution. On his inrush in St Petersburg from the West, Myshkin goes to undeniability on his separated relative, Mme Epanchina ( it is in her husband’s office that he sees the photograph of Anastasia Phillipovna). Mme Epanchina’s oldest daughter Adelaida is a keen ventriloquist landscape painter and over breakfast Myshkin rather inappropriately suggests that the squatter of a man in the moment of stuff guillotined might make a suitable subject for her painting. And, finally, there is an imaginary painting of Christ that Anastasia Phillipovna ‘paints’ in one of her reports to Aglaia Epanchina to whom, by this point, Myshkin has wilt engaged. It is this ‘painting’ that is the main focus of this paper, in part considering it has been under-discussed in secondary literature in comparison with Anastasia’s photograph and Holbein’s sufferer Christ but moreover considering it makes an important contribution to the debate well-nigh Christ and well-nigh how to represent Christ that, as we have seen, is inside to the religious questions at issue in the novel.

This picture is, of course, painted in words and not an very painting, but Anastasia Phillipovna describes it as if it were a painting and she unmistakably wants Aglaia too to see it that way. Dostoevsky thus invites readers too to imagine it as a picture they might see in a gallery. Anastasia Phillipovna depicts Christ as sitting, alone, accompanied only by a child, on whose throne he ‘unconsciously’ rests his hand, while ‘looking into the loftiness at the horizon; thought, unconfined as the world, dwells in His eyes. His squatter is sorrowful’. The child looks up at him, the sun is setting.

On first reading, the portrait might not seem very unusual. It is the kind of portrait that we have wilt rather used to. Christ sitting with children is a subject familiar from innumerable popular Christian books and devotional pictures. Yet in the 1860s images of Christ sitting and of Christ sitting with children were both equally innovative, having relatively few precedents in older iconography.

As regards Christ sitting, this is mostly limited to a unmistakably specified set of images that usually emphasize his power and validity or have a well-spoken liturgical reference, most obviously in the image of the Pancrator, but also, e.g., at the Last Supper or speaking with the Samaritan Woman at the Well.  Similarly, pre-modern traditions mostly neglected images of Christ with children, although this begins to transpiration in the Renaissance. Nevertheless, plane when the theme of Christ manna the children (Mt. 19.14) is taken up by the older Masters, these are mostly heavily-populated prod scenes, in which the interactions amongst Christ and the adults present is the main story. Examples here would include Adam van Noort’s painting of Christ Manna the Little Children (early 17th century), Van Dyck’s (1618-20) painting Let the Children Come to Me.

Painting by Adam van Noort, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons / Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Unsurprisingly, the theme becomes much increasingly worldwide with the rise of romanticism and a new increasingly positive evaluation of diaper and the idea that children had a special unification with the divine, with notable examples from Benjamin West, William Blake, and Charles Lock Eastlake and, by the mid-Victorian era, it had wilt a widespread and popular topic .Unlike in older representations, Christ is now to be seen vacated with varying numbers of children, unaccompanied by a prod of mothers and disciples. This tendency becomes expressly prominent in illustrated Bible stories specifically for children—another miracle of the nineteenth century.

Similarly, Christ now begins to towards sitting, alone, thinking, perhaps plane somewhat melancholic, a Man of Sorrows but without the physical marks of the passion. Examples include Dostoevsky’s Russian trendy Ivan Kramskoy’s Christ in the Desert, a work first exhibited in 1872 (and then in 1873) but which he had been working on through much of the 1860s and therefore trendy with Dostoevsky’s own work on The Idiot.

In a sense, the reason for the new prominence of these themes is not nonflexible to fathom. It reflects a turn to the human Jesus and a new vocalizing on the role of feeling in religious life. The Christ of ecclesiastical tradition was Saviour by virtue of the ontological power of the hypostatic union, uniting divine and human in the very person of his being. It is this identity as both divine-and-human that makes it possible for his innocent suffering on the navigate to be salvific rather than merely tragic. In the wake of romanticism, however, his qualification as Saviour has to do with his uniquely intense God-consciousness and his unrestricted empathy with other human beings, an empathy that extends plane to their suffering and sin.

At the same time, and for related reasons, the theological tideway to Christ became increasingly dominated by historical research, as in the nineteenth century ‘Lives of Jesus’ movement. Here the idea was that the reality of Christ’s life was less to do with his metaphysical qualifications but with the substance of his life in the world, an substance that could (many hoped) be retrieved through historical research. In some cases (David Friedrich Strauss was a prime example) this was part of an overtly anti-Christian or at least anti-ecclesiastical and anti-dogmatic tendency; in others (as in Schleiermacher) it was an struggle to demonstrate how Christ’s personality made him a suitable  mediator between divine and human. In many cases, the vocalizing on Christ’s uniquely universal empathy and historical enquiry could be fused, as in one of the most influential of all the nineteenth century lives of Jesus, that of Ernest Renan.

Renan describes Jesus’s religion as ‘a religion without priests and without external practices, resting entirely on the feelings of the heart, on the imitation of God, on the firsthand rapport of [human] consciousness with the heavenly Father’. Renan’s characteristically 19th century unprogressive assumptions led him to see women as stuff expressly susceptible to ‘the feelings of the heart’ and it was therefore no surprise that ‘women received him eagerly’. ‘[W]omen and children unprofane him’ and

… the nascent religion was thus in many respects a movement of women and       children … He missed no occasion for repeating that children are sacred beings, that the Kingdom of God belongs to children, that we must wilt as children in order to enter it, that we must receive it as a child, and that the Father conceals his secrets from the wise and reveals them to the little one. He scrutinizingly conflates the idea of discipleship with that of stuff a child … It was in effect childhood, in its divine spontaneity, in its naïve bursts of joy, that would take possession of the earth.

Renan too describes for us Jesus sitting alone, on the Mount of Olives, looking out over Jerusalem (which, he tells us, Jesus did often), plunged in a ‘profound mood of sadness’.

Painting by Anthony van Dyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How do these themes resonate with the whoopee and personalities of The Idiot? Clearly, Anastasia Phillipovna’s ‘portrait’ of Christ lives in the undercurrent of Renan’s and similar humanist-sentimental lives of Jesus. But what does this midpoint for the novel’s possible contribution to the religious understanding of Christ as a whole?

The historical Lives of Jesus movement had its scandals, but the parallel moves in art moreover provoked bemusement and sometimes hostility, as in the specimen of other new developments in nineteenth century art. The novelty of this new view of Christ can be seen by reactions to Ivan Kramskoy’s painting of Christ in the wilderness. Tolstoy would later say of it that it was ‘the weightier Christ I know’, but many of the reactions to it were far increasingly negative. For many this was a Christ devoid of divinity, a manifestation of historicist positivism in art. ‘Whoever he is,’ Ivan Goncharov continues, ‘he is without history, without any gifts to offer, without a gospel … [Christ] in his worldly, wretched aspect, on foot in a corner of the desert, amongst the yellowish stones of Palestine … where, it seems, plane these stones are weeping!’

What kenotic Christology refers to as Christ’s state of exinanition (i.e., his human state of weakness and vulnerability, emptied of his divine attributes), is thus rhadamanthine a theme of trendy art at the time of Dostoevsky’s sonnet of The Idiot, paralleling to some extent the minutiae of the historical portrayal of the life of Jesus. Both in historiography and art the same question then arises, namely, how, if Jesus is portrayed as fully human, can his divinity be rescued from the manifestation of what is visibly all-too human?

Extolling Christ’s unrenowned sensitivity and empathy seems not to provide a sufficient fend versus such a collapse. Renan’s sentimentalism, no matter how ‘beautiful’, offers little ultimate protection versus nihilism. This is a eyeful that can neither save the world nor turn it upside down. The sitting Christ, undivided in soul-searching thoughts and given over to melancholy, seems to be a Christ who is in the process of rhadamanthine all-too human. In this regard, it is noteworthy that where Renan’s Christ goes vacated to squint out over Jerusalem at sunrise, Anastasia Phillipovna’s Christ is pictured at sunset. Her portrait reveals the shadow side of Renan’s optimism. For her, the light is fading, as natural light unchangingly must.

But what does this tell us well-nigh Dostoevsky’s novel? Firstly, it underlines the contemporaneity of Dostoevsky’s visual vocabulary deployed in the novel. Not only is this one of the first novels in which a photograph (the photographic portrait of Anastasia Phillipovna) plays a major role, but the image of the sitting Christ, accompanied only by a child, reflects trendy developments in religious art that are moreover remoter unfluctuating with trendy historiography. Holbein’s sufferer Christ is, of course, a picture from an older age. However, on the one hand, it offers a ne plus ultra of the humanizing tideway to Jesus and, on the other (as I have argued elsewhere) it is a theme we moreover find in Manet’s Dead Christ with Angels, exhibited slantingly his better-known Olympia in the same year that The Idiot was published. Like Kramskoy’s painting, this was seen by many critics as sacrilegious and an sneer to faith by virtue of the suppuration of all elements of eyeful and conventional sacrality. Visually, as well as in literary terms, Dostoevsky is entirely in synchronization with the decisive movements of the visual culture of his time.

In fact, commenting in 1873 on Nicholas Gé’s Mystic Night (which, as we have seen, moreover attracted Goncharov’s attention), Dostoevsky showed himself to be zestful to the risks of a one-sidedly humanizing and sentimental tideway to Christ in art. In a review published in The Citizen he writes:

            Squint attentively: this is an ordinary quarrel among most ordinary men. Here Christ is sitting, but is it really Christ? This may be a very kind young man, quite grieved by the wrangling with Judas, who is standing right there and putting on his garb, ready to go and make his denunciation, but it is not the Christ we know. The Master is surrounded by His friends who hasten to repletion Him, but the question is: where are the succeeding eighteen centuries of Christianity, and what have these to do with the matter? How is it conceivable that out of the commonplace dispute of such ordinary men who had come together for supper, as this is portrayed by Mr. Gué [sic], something so oversized could have emerged?

Photo by Yulia Mi from Flickr Christ in the desert, 187, Oil on canvas, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moskow (RU)

Secondly, setting Nastasya’s portrait of Christ in an art-historical context may not directly solve the question as to whether Myshkin is to be regarded as some kind of Christ-figure (and, if so, what kind) but it does illuminate how Anastasia Phillipovna sees him. We know that she reads much and is given to speculative ideas, and it is therefore not at all surprising that her vision of Christ and of Myshkin as Christ is a vision taken from contemporary, humanist, Western sources, a sentimental Christ whose power to save is, at best, fragile. In this way, whether or not we are to read Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Myshkin as a Christ-figure, he is a Christ-figure, albeit a very particular kind of Christ-figure, for her. Whether we can go remoter and say with Evgeny Pavlovitch (a weft whose standpoint is that of enlightened common-sense) that Myshkin’s own understanding of the Christian requirement is drawn from those same Western sources and that his love of Russia and Christian soft-heartedness is an idealism, the product of ‘intellectual convictions’ that he has mistakenly believed were ‘real, innate, intuitive convictions’, is flipside question. To the extent that this is so, however, we can say that Anastasia Phillipovna is not mistaken in seeing in him an instantiation of her own Christ-idea and we might plane discern a deep collusion between them in sharing the fantasy of such a sentimental salvation. In any case, to the extent that Anastasia Phillipovna places her own hope of salvation in such a Christ-figure, it is doomed to fail.

There is one remoter iconographical intertext that is worth exploring in connection with Anastasia Phillipovna’s ‘portrait’, although it is not expressly mentioned. What is mentioned—Evgeny Pavlovitch mentions it—is that Myshkin’s relation to her might be seen as mirroring the gospel story of the woman taken in infidelity and protected by Christ from stuff stoned to death (an undertone reinforced by the story Myshkin himself tells of the outcast Marie he had rescued from ostracism in the little Swiss village where he had lived surpassing the start of the novel’s action). This woman has long been conflated in Christian tradition with Mary Magdalene who, in turn, has been conflated with Mary, the sister of Martha. She, is of course, a woman described in the gospels as sitting at the feet of Jesus, silently listening to his words in one of the few non-hieratic scenes in which we usually see Jesus himself seated. Famously, she is commended as the one who has taken the largest part. If such an tittle-tattle lies in the preliminaries of Anastasia Phillipovna’s portrait, it reinforces, albeit subtly, the associations between Myshkin/Christ and Anastasia Phillipovna/woman-taken-in-adultery, underlining that it is not Aglaia that we are to see in the icon of the silent child, but Anastasia Phillipovna herself. This would imply that her deepest hope is, through Myshkin, to sit at the feet of Christ, listening to his word, taking the largest part. But if this is her hope, then it is well-hidden, screened not only by the substitution of Aglaia for herself but moreover by the sentimental positivism of nineteenth century historicism that comes to expression in her portrait of a melancholy Christ contemplating the light of a setting sun. In this way, it may not only be her psychological injuries that make her incapable of unsuspicious the forgiveness that Myshkin offers, it may moreover be her—and the age’s—misconception of Christ that gets in the way. This, clearly, makes the issue less individual and less psychological. Arguably, it moreover makes it increasingly tragic in a classical sense. This is considering her fate is that of a whole world of values that, in this historical moment, is descending into the impending darkness. Yet—even if Dostoevsky himself does not say this—there might remain a chance, however slender, that this ‘human all-too human’ Christ retains a memory of flipside light and, with that memory, the hope that the values of this present age are not the sole values by which we and the world are to be judged.

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