Sunday, November 24, 2013

Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting! - Dostoevsky looks at paintings

The Idiot is a murder story, a mystery story investigating a homicide, the death of this man:

Image from Wikipedia. The Hans Holbein painting is in Basel, where Dostoevsky saw it many times.  A copy of it hangs in a house where, in the novel, a murder will take place.

‘That painting!’ the prince exclaimed suddenly, under the impact of a sudden thought.  ‘That painting! Some people might lose their faith by looking at that painting!’  (II, 4)

Or gain their faith, depending on what they make of Christ shown so clearly as human.  The image is foreshadowing, although given Dostoevsky’s improvisation, at the point the painting first appears, a third of the way through the novel, it is fair to ask:  foreshadowing of what?  The author will figure that out by the end of the novel.

This Holbein painting pulls us back into Part I of the novel, the single day in two hundred pages in which the holy fool Prince Myshkin is reintroduced to Russia after a long stay in Switzerland, where he too got to know the Holbein.  He mentions another Holbein, a Madonna in Dresden, but this is merely a hint of the motif.  The strongest connection is to another Basel painting, not specified by Myshkin, that portrays the moment before an execution.  Myshkin then describes, in a two page paragraph, a painting he imagines on that subject, “’exactly a minute before death,’” although his description includes the prison, the awakening and transport of the condemned man and his thoughts along the way before he gets to the scaffold, the guillotine, and the priest.

“Paint the scaffold so that only the last stair can be seen clearly and closely; the condemned man has stepped on it: his head, white as paper, the priest holding out the cross, the man extending his blue lips and staring – and knowing everything.  The cross and the head – that is the painting, the face of the priest, of the executioner, of his two assistants and a few heads and eyes from below – all that may be painted on a tertiary level, as it were, in a mist, as a background…  That’s what the painting should be like.”  (I, 6, ellipses in original)

This is told to a trio of beautiful young women Myshkin has just met.  He is a little awkward as a conversationalist.  You should see the story he tells next, in Part I, Chapter 6, in a single uninterrupted twelve page paragraph.

Strangely, eighty pages into the novel, this is the second time Myshkin has described the moment before an execution.  He first does so in the second chapter, again, using a long single paragraph.

“When you put your head right under the guillotine and hear it sliding above your head, it’s that quarter of a second that’s most terrible of all.  This isn’t my imagination, you know, many people have said the same thing…  Take a soldier and put him right in front of a cannon in a battle and fire it at him, and he’ll go on hoping, but read out a certain death sentence to that same soldier, and he’ll go mad, or start to weep.  Who can say that human nature is able to endure such a thing without going mad?  Why such mockery – ugly, superfluous, futile?  Perhaps the man exists to whom this sentence has been read out, has been allowed to suffer, and then has been told: ‘Off you go, you’ve been pardoned.’  A man like that could tell us, perhaps.  Such suffering and terror were what Christ spoke of.  (I,2, ellipses mine)

I quoted that passage at some length because it is so clearly related to Dostoevsky’s own experience in 1849, when his own execution by firing squad was commuted moments before the guns went off.

And what comes up just a few pages later?  A painting, of course – the painting of a character who will, by the end of the novel seven hundred pages later, be murdered.

I am in a sense constructing a better novel out of pieces of the book Dostoevsky actually wrote, but the pieces all are right there, put in place by the author for anyone to use.
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  1. I can see what Prince Myshkin means, but I've always had the opposite experience. The great religious art I have seen usually makes me reconsider my disbelief. Great paintings have that effect on me.

  2. I honestly did not notice this until your comment - but Myshkin's line is deliberately ambiguous. Lose their faith in what?

    1. I’ve always taken Myshkin’s line to mean that we lose faith in the possibility of Christ being divine. I can’t actually see any ambiguity here, but that’s possibly because I am missing something.

  3. I agree with James above. Art should only magnify ideas of the spirit.

  4. Curious, isn’t it, that despite the improvisatory nature of the writing, there is so much foreshadowing. I’ve often wondered about this. I think it’s because Dostoyevsky, in the earlier stages of the novel, throws out at the reader all sorts of things that may or may not lead to something by the end. Most of them don’t, and are mere loose ends (there are lots of those). But then, some do. And when they do, they’re “foreshadowings”.

    Of course, this sort of thing is miles away from the meticulous planning of Henry James (whom I keep mentioning in this context because he strikes me as being diametrically opposite to Dostoyevsky in every way possible), but it gives the impression of being in the writer’s head as it is working: we aren’t just presented with the finished product - we actually see the wheels being made to turn, we see the process of creativity itself. In the process, we are often led up dead ends, and inevitably, there’s much that just doesn’t work. But I tend to find that witnessing the process of creation, of “coming into being”, is in itself exciting.

  5. Do you think Paula is a robot? Her profile goes to something called (shudder) Paleo Brownies. Not that robots cannot have opinions about art and fiction, why not. So welcome, Paula.

    I am not convinced that James and Dostoevksy are so different. These extracts from James's notebooks suggest that, just like Dostoevsky, he did much of his decision-making during the process of writing. He had to write to know what he was writing.

    Both writers turned to dictation for the last decade or two of their career, resulting in longer, more stylistically distinctive, highly oral novels, too.

    I credit the writer's unconscious or semi-conscious thought for much of the patterning found in pre-Flaubert fiction. Dostoevsky is not just "throwing out" ideas" but also trying to order them himself. So he has these paintings in his head, and he is sorting them out in some way, trying to find the right association. He knows, or hopes, they go somewhere. Flaubert's great innovation was to realize that with proper planning (actual planning, with all of the sorting done in advance) an entire novel could be constructed in this manner. No more loose ends, no more "earlier stages." Only the final, perfect stage.

    Watching and figuring out the "process of creation" is enormously exciting. That is one of the main purposes of Wuthering Expectations.

    You have answered your own question about the ambiguity of Myshkin's line. You have "always taken" it to mean something - so you had to interpret it. "Some people might lose their faith [in X] by looking at that painting!" You filled in the X, but other answers are possible. Myshkin might mean it one way, Dostoevksy another. The ambiguity is inherent in the grammar of the sentence.

    1. "He had to write to know what he was writing."
      -As the old saying goes: How can I know what I think until I've heard what I say?

      "Both writers turned to dictation for the last decade or two of their career, resulting in longer, more stylistically distinctive, highly oral novels, too."

      How did James work at his dictated novels? I'd always assumed that the difference between James and Dostoevsky's spoken writings, as you might say, was that James dictated his novels so that he could work at them over and over again, whereas Dostoevsky had to produce words faster than he could write them himself.

    2. My knowledge of the difference in dictation methods is limited to two points:
      1. Dostoevksy's assistant used a pen; James's, a typewriter.
      2. D. quickly married his assistant, who to some unknown degree became a collaborator. James did not.

      The discussion has got me wondering.

  6. I completely agree with Myshkin's point, watching some pictures can make you lose your faith. I almost lost mine after watching Snakes on an airplane. :)

    Others had their faith (and patience) tested by a different picture, The Passion of the Christ: so much blood and pain being shown so needlessly ! Or was it?
    "But the sufferings of her tortured child a mother has no right to forgive; she better dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, What becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, _even if I were wrong_. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

    Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

    "No, I wouldn’t consent," said Alyosha softly.

    "And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?"

    "No, I can’t admit it. Brother," said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, "you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and suffered for everyone."


    1. Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.

      -The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life by William James. 1891

    2. Huh, William James. So why exactly are our current moral philosophers tormenting those fat fellows? What are they learning that is new?

    3. Philosophy doesn't want to learn anything new. Its purpose is to find new complications to old problems.
      Moral philosophers aren't tormenting those fat fellows. They are looking for non-existent situations in which they might justifiably kill them. All the same, it's curious that it's fat chaps that get hypothetically sacrificed. One could imagine moral dilemmas in which the thinifers had to die for the greater good but moral philosophers don't seem to consider them.

    4. We have been wondering some of the same things.

  7. This is like the philosophers of today who spend their time pushing fat men in front of a trolley. In their imagination, I mean. Or so I hope.

    Fortunately for Ivan, Alyosha is too meek to just laugh in his face.

    Museums must be a roller coaster for some people - faith lost! faith regained! Not that I have not experienced the same thing, but what I usually lose faith in is contemporary art, or at least the curators of contemporary art museums.

  8. "Museums must be a roller coaster for some people - faith lost! faith regained!"

    That is so great. I'm certainly stealing it.

  9. I don't know how Dostoevsky didn't go mad.

  10. The experience is very hard to imagine. It is curious, isn't it, to see Dostoevsky asking exactly that question, how did he not go mad, twenty years after the fact.

  11. Dostoevsky's Myshkin can lose his faith because of the perceived lack of spiritual truth in Western religious art as compared to the Eastern Orthodox icon (which deliberately has little realism). Dostoevsky saw the vulgar/realist West as infiltrating the rich spiritual tradition of the East and the "vulgarity" of Holbein's painting having a destroying effect on the Easterner's faith.

  12. It is a testament to Dostoevsky's good sense as an artist - and I mean this sincerely - that he did not put any of that into the actual novel.

  13. Dostoevsky's good sense has been questioned by some. There was a time when I knew exactly which of Dostoevsky's characters the following lines from Borges were describing. Sadly, time and beer have erased a lot of memories; so a little help figuring them out would be greatly appreciated:
    "Russian writers and their imitators have repeatedly demonstrated, tediously, that nobody is impossible. Somebody may commit suicide out of happiness, for example, or become an assassin as an act of benevolence. Two people can love each other so much that they simply must part ways forever. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility."

  14. Borges was right, a few stereotypes aside, I never question the reality of Dostoevsky's characters.

    I do sometimes question the likelihood that so many odd birds end up in such close proximity, or maybe just the likelihood that so few characters notice how odd they all are.