Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/14/2011

Dostoevsky’s THE IDIOT – not a medical or social science manifesto

A fine howdy do! Some colleagues and I drew up our lists of 20th-century American novels for RE-reading this summer, and I’ve already had to revise my list.

One replacement is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in place of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.

Last week I was half-heartedly searching library data bases for articles on a subject I’ve forgotten.  An article about Dostoevsky and Al-Qaeda popped up (1). Don’t ask me—I didn’t read it, and I was disconcerted that it came up in my search. The abstract says the article focuses on Dostoevsky’s descriptions of terrorism and how a 19th-century novelist could inform us about Al-Qaeda. Indeed! I did a word search in the article for “idiot” because I do that in articles about Dostoevsky. I love The Idiot. “Idiot” is used in the article, but not THE Idiot.

For sport I used to ask friends if they’d ever read The Idiot.  An apparent revival of interest in The Idiot has taken the sport out of that question. I first read the novel in 1987 when I was teaching a World Literature course at Salem State College in Massachusetts. The grand old man of the department suggested it would be a good balance to Forster’s Howards End. I never figured out the connection, but I fell in love with The Idiot.

After seeing the Al-Qaeda article, I couldn’t get The Idiot out of my mind. I gave in and searched for articles on it. In one, I came across the (to me, startling) information that

Faulkner’s early reviewers also noted the Dostoevsky connection. Evelyn Scott (1893-1963), the Southern novelist who reviewed The Sound and the Fury in 1929, linked the novel with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and argued that Benjy Compson “is a better idiot than Dostoevsky’s” (2).

Graduate students in English probably know this connection. I, having only (now mostly unused) degrees in music, read both novels on my own without benefit of scholarship, so I’d never made the connection.

A fine howdy do! Now both novels have to go on my summer list because they are two of my favorite novels. I know Dostoyevsky isn’t 20th-century or American, but how can I not put The Idiot on my list next to As I Lay Dying?

Not being glibly conversant with the linguistic theories of Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco, or with Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, or Post-Post-Structuralism—or any of the literary theories one ought to know about, I read novels in the most immediate (and emotional) way. I like ‘em or I don’t like ‘em, and I either do or do not think I “get it” when I read a novel.  That can include reading myself into the story—the worst of all reading strategies. Pretty basic and unlearned approaches to literature.

For example, I taught that World Lit course a short three years after I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.

If you’re going to read further here, you have to promise not to make assumptions. I am not comparing myself to Dostoevsky or his “idiot,” Prince Myshkin. The “idiot” is epileptic. He has seizures. (So, remember, did Dostoevsky.)  I’m not comparing myself to them in the first place because Prince Myshkin has grand mal seizures, as did Dostoevsky. Mine happen inside my head, and you would never know they are happening if I didn’t tell you. So please, don’t think I’m reading The Idiot as my story or comparing myself in any way. I’m talking about an intersection of realities. My condition simply gave me the gift to be interested in The Idiot.

The one bit of secondary material I read in 1987 (because that grand old man of the English Department was something of a nut about Hesse) was Herman Hesse’s “Thoughts on The Idiot by Dostoevsky.” I looked it up a couple of days ago because I didn’t remember what it said. And I found what must have been the paragraph that guided my reading of The Idiot. At least is says what I’ve always taken to be the essence of the novel (I do little original thinking).

The “idiot” . . . is at times close to that boundary line where every idea and its opposite are recognized as true. That is, he has an intuition that no idea, no law, no character or order exists that is true and right except as seen from one pole – and for every pole there is an opposite pole. Settling upon a pole, adopting a position from which the world is viewed and arranged, this is the first principle of every order, every culture, every society and morality. Whoever feels, if only for an instant, that spirit and nature, good and evil are interchangeable is the most dangerous enemy of all forms of order. For that is where the opposite order is, and there chaos begins (3).

For me, because my ideas were first informed by Hesse, that’s the substance of the novel. The Idiot is a very dangerous fellow. He understands the ambiguities—no, the polar opposites—inherent in every situation. He understands, in this small example from the novel, the difference between the crimes of the rich and powerful (from which class he comes) and “ordinary” criminals. At a formal dinner celebrating his own birthday, he breaks into the conversation saying,

Not long since I visited a convict prison and made acquaintance with some of the criminals. . . men who have murdered . . . and feel no remorse whatever.  . .  the very most hopeless and remorseless murderer. . . still knows that he is a criminal; that is, he is conscious that he has acted wickedly. . . Those of whom [we are speaking] do not admit that they are criminals at all; they think they had a right to do what they did, and that they were even doing a good deed, perhaps. I consider there is the greatest difference between the two cases. . . (4)

His friends always assume he is either having a seizure or is simply an “idiot” and either ridicule or ignore him. The Prince tells the truth, and sane, intelligent people can’t comprehend the difference between his perception and his “idiocy,” the aura of his seizures.

The Prince has “dangerous” powers of observation not because he is epileptic, but because his epilepsy gives him a humility others lack which allows him to be observant. Most of us—epileptic or not—lack the ability, the willingness, to look at the world humbly and directly. Shall I be corny and conclude with a statement that would make me shudder if a student wrote it? Seizures don’t automatically make one observant about reality. (I know.) So there’s something far more complex and important going on in The Idiot.

There. That’s not literary criticism. It’s moralizing. But I’m a musician, so. . . .
(1) Straus, Nina Pelikan. “From Dostoevsky to Al-Qaeda: What Fiction Says to Social Science.” Common Knowledge 12.2 (2006): 197-213.
(2) Bloshteyn, Maria R. “’Anguish For the Sake of Anguish’—Faulkner and His Dostoevskian Allusion.” Faulkner Journal 19.2 (2004): 69-90.
(3) Hesse, Hermann. “Thoughts on The Idiot by Dostoevsky” from My Belief: Essays in the Life and Art. Trans. Denver Lindley. HHP (Hermann Hesse Page). Ed. Günther Gottschalk. 2001. Web. 12 Jun. 2011.
(4) Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Chapter 29. Web. 13 Jun. 2011.


  1. […] the often-described and “scientifically” studied connection between epilepsy (particularly the temporal lobe   variety) and “religious experience.” What I’m thinking about is “Providence.” What […]


  2. […] for my students went far beyond the scope of a first-year writing class. Perhaps because—as a temporal lobe epileptic—I have a strained relationship with my own body, I never feel quite certain what is […]


  3. […] who would want to, anyway? Mark Lepore has never had a seizure in his temporal lobe, or he wouldn’t think transcending his body would be a good […]


  4. Just a few thoughts… when connecting Dostoevsky to terrorism, I don’t think “The Idiot” is the right novel. “Demons” was about a terrorist/socialist cell that forms within a community and destroys itself from within, while at the same time wreaking havoc on the community. That would be the novel that I would study to gain insight into the workings of modern-day terror cells.

    I also think that calling the Prince an “idiot” is more to draw a parallel between Myshkin and the idea of a holy fool, which was popular in Russian culture at the time. Holy fools were considered to be under Christ’s protection, which is why they could say things that normally would get people arrested. It doesn’t have to do so much with actual insanity I think as it does with making that association.


  5. […] I’d have one of my  temporal lobe oddities, and all bets would be off. My body would float away, and I’d be left holding my mind in […]


  6. Speaking about meaning @Holly fool @ in Russian tradition it is term about people who have capability to sow things which are not visible to others. Real meaning of IDIOT by Greek ancient definition is “Man who does need the company of others, society; somebody who is so close to God’s or he is GOD. But by my opinion Knjaz Myshkin was totally different from others, he is not holly fool but he is so good lucid all means very sincere personality..For sometimes aura got give to you quiet good perception but after seizures we are lost for reality temporary..Knjaz Myskin is man with very huge high I.Q…and honest man.In most novels of Dostoevsky personality of Myshkin is really good developed till the end. In the most of novels you have lot of questions from writer as Fyodor Dostoevsky speaking about “Between Good and Evilness”, “God’s existance” etc..So this is my opinion…B.T.W. After my first attack..epilepsy I am very sincere with people..What we say..something is pulling me for tongue..Yes Idiot a novel is great riddle still



%d bloggers like this: