By morning, when the police arrive, Myshkin’s eyes appear unseeing. He doesn’t answer any of their questions. There’s no indication he will ever speak again. Shortly afterwards, he’s sent back to the sanitarium in Switzerland.
All that we can truly know is that Myshkin felt the reality of a suffering, delirious being and didn’t turn away from that being.
I love how, with one devastating passage, Dostoyevsky breaks open the accepted, meaning of “tenderness” and reveals its stark impurities and contradictions. It doesn’t hold itself apart from the perverse, the ugly, the tormented, the conflicted. A fissure opens, and Dostoyevsky finds within it the baffling, irreducible and to many, unacceptable, textures of the real. Like the relentless progression of a seizure, there is no pulling back.
By the time Dostoyevsky wrote his transcendent passage—so close to the book’s end—he had been through a period of enormous upheaval, less dramatic than his prison years though in its own way no less devastating or demanding. His notebooks for The Idiot show the many ways his book confused and eluded him from the beginning. For nearly a half year, having fled his creditors and living abroad in Geneva, he’d been filling notebooks with at least eight divergent, often wildly contradictory plans and character studies. His epileptic attacks had grown increasingly frequent and severe. “Two days ago I had a most violent attack, but yesterday nevertheless, I worked in a state verging on madness.” Partway through the writing, his first child, Sonya, was born and then, to his and his wife’s devastation, died that May, 1868, a mere three months later. Despairing, he somehow continued writing. In a late summer letter to his friend A.N. Maikov, he wrote “I am dissatisfied with my novel to the point of disgust. I have desperately tried to work but I haven’t been able to—My mind is sick. Now I shall put the finishing touches on Part 3. If I straighten out the novel, I will straighten out myself, if not—I am finished.”
This edge he walked is everywhere palpable in the finished novel. Although he found his doubts hard to shake, in the end he came to feel the scene of Myshkin’s and Rogozhin’s final night together is the book’s justification and defining moment.
For me, part of the particular uncanniness of Dostoyevsky’s work lies in how even as he delves without hesitation or pity into the miserable, cruel, violent, extreme, his books enact a kind of tender holding of those who suffer and live on the margins, each cruel or violent act backlit by the human capacity for tenderness and wonder.
After the initial serial publication of The Idiot, Dostoyevsky could find no publishing house to issue the book in its entirety. It, too, was consigned to the margin. This is not surprising, given its deeply idiosyncratic form and the way it accommodates its own particular necessities, which can be too easily dismissible as sloppiness, confusion, insufficient focus, failed narrative. Yet part of what makes it so indelible and radiantly moving, and its scene between Myshkin and Rogozhin so masterfully and oddly beautiful, is the way in which the book itself becomes the very embodiment of the complexities and challenges of the margin. The Idiot sees and breathes from many margins, not least among them the margin of illness. It holds close the heartbreaking vulnerability of the unprotected body that seizes as Myshkin’s does, or wastes away like the despised peasant girl Marie, or sickens with tuberculosis like the frightened, embittered teenager Ippolit. The body is a site of tenderness, but also a problem that can’t be solved, a fraught place of ongoing crises, wars, injustices, failures. The desire for comfort and the reality of isolation pull and are unresolved.