Saturday, November 23, 2013

"We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!" - The Idiot's six murders

Prince Myshkin is alone in one of the finest scenes in The Idiot, Part II, Chapter 5, in which he wanders around St. Petersburg, thinking.  Just walking and thinking.  “He was in a tormented state of tension and anxiety, and at the same time he felt an extraordinary need for solitude.”  His author gives it to him.

The scene is written as a stream of consciousness, a technique Dostoevksy was inventing from scratch:  Myshkin looks at shop windows, wonders if someone is following him (yes), thinks deep thoughts, worries about his epilepsy, reviews recent events, which must have been useful for those who read the novel as a serial – it was useful for me, too – all in the apparently random but psychologically plausible order that characterizes good stream of consciousness writing.

Now he wanted to ascertain without fail whether he had really stood, only five minutes ago, perhaps, in front of the window of this shop, or whether he had imagined it, got something mixed up.  Did this shop and these things in its window really exist?  For he did feel in a particularly ill state of mind today, almost the same state of mind that had affected him before at the beginning of the fits that had accompanied his earlier illness?

And in fact an epileptic fit is approaching.  It ends the chapter:

Then suddenly something seemed to open before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul.  This moment lasted for half a second, perhaps; but he clearly and consciously remembered the beginning, the very first sound of his terrible howl, that tore from his breast of its own accord and which he could not stop by any effort.

Also, at this exact moment, someone is trying to stab the prince.  He had been thinking about murder during his wandering fugue:

Though really, what am I saying? (the prince continued to muse).  He didn’t murder those creatures, those six people, did he?  I seem to be getting things mixed up… how strange this is!  My head seems to be spinning…  (ellipses in original)

It is in this passage that Dostoevsky introduces one of the curiosities of the novel, which is actually one of its unifying devices, that murders occur in sets of six.  The reference, a footnote tells me, is to a genuine 1868 case where a student murdered a family of six, which helps to a certain extent to give a reasonable explanation to some of the associations of murder and the number six – the characters have all been reading about the crime in the newspaper, so it is on their mind, just as it is on Dostoevsky’s.

It does not explain why murder is discussed so often, and in such inappropriate settings.  And some of the allusions are distinct.  Here Lebedev, the same fellow who giggled and sneezed rather than answering a direct question, begins to tell (at Myshkin’s birthday party!) a bizarre parable about medieval cannibalism:

One such cannibal, approaching old age, announced of his own accord and without any compulsion that throughout his long and poverty-stricken life he had killed and eaten personally and in the deepest secret sixty monks and several lay infants – about six of them, but no more, that is, very few compared to the number of clerics he had eaten.  (III, 4)

This is part of an elaborate drunken nonsensical argument about the spread of railroads – “We have all stewed to mush, all, all of us!”  Which makes us easier to eat, I presume.

Forty pages later, but still at the same party, another character fantasizes about murdering ten people, which is perhaps a mistake of Dostoevsky’s but I think instead a deliberate escalation of the body count.  With all of this talk, murdering six is no longer a sufficient example of evil.

The murder theme is an example of the artfulness of Dostoevsky.  I will follow it in one last post tomorrow.

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