This year I had two ambitious reading goals both of which I began in January. The first was to read, from cover to cover, N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. This heavily footnoted tome was much more readable than I thought it would be and was, most of the time, a pleasure to read.
My other goal was to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot . This one was not as easy to read. It was occasionally pleasant and frequently a chore. It is hard to read novels because one has to have a significant amount of uninterrupted time in order to remain connected to the flow of the novel through remembering plots and caring about characters. After eight months and several road trips with Calana driving I was able to make enough dents in the book to make it through
As I read the novel I felt like I was reading an important piece of literature. Now that I have finished I am not sure if I have or not. Throughout the novel Dostoevsky is posing the question: Can a truly innocent person survive in this world? The author responds to this question in a masterful way but I want to be careful and not give away the book’s ending. Needless to say D’s writing style is difficult compared to our century and the challenge of translation doesn’t make it much easier. However, it is worth the effort to dive into a world that is so unlike our own but wrestling with the same demons.
Dostoevsky also presents a picture of the wealthy and very bored aristocratic class of 19th Century Russia. The socio-cultural differences with our world are significant but it is not surprising to see that debauchery laced with boredom leads to self-destruction regardless of the century. While few in our world enjoy the level of leisure and wealth that these characters do, their bored immorality, presented so well, runs just as rampant in our world. The gap between centuries, continents and cultures is not so great after all.
There is a tradition in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches which venerates a character known as the Holy Fool. You can even see this character indirectly described in works by many authors. The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s indirect and somewhat cynical reflection upon this tradition. Kallistos Ware discusses the tradition of the “fool for Christ” in his book, The Inner Kingdom.
Consider this final thought experiment. Christian teaching has always held that there is no human person free from sin apart from Jesus Christ himself. Isaiah says: “We all like sheep have gone astray…” (53:6) and of course Romans 3:23 reminds us that we have all sinned. Of course, it is impossible for any adult human person to live a completely innocent life. Prince Myshkin, the “idiot” in Dostoevsky’s book, lives a life that is, if not completely pure, almost innocent. This novel paints a picture of what would happen to someone who would live that way. Read the novel or someone else’s review to see what happens but before you do think about the question below:
Q: If such a person actually existed, apart from Jesus of course, what do you think would happen?