Prince Myshkin, by Ilya Glazounov
«Beauty will save the world». This is one of Dostoevsky’s most often quoted sentences, but seldom knowing precisely what it means. It appears in The Idiot, one of the great novels of the author’s maturity, published in 1868. When trying to interprete such a sentence, you must remember that Dostoevsky usually refrains from taking a stand about the opinions of his characters. These express various points of vue, provoking personal reflexion of ther reader. That means that his novels are no “thesis novels”, even if they do convey a vision of the world and of the human being. Caution is thus necessary before we consider a sentence like “Beauty will save the world” as a personal opinion of the author.
That sentence is pronounced by Hippolyte Terentiev, a pathetic and revolted youg man, suffering of tuberculosis. Making the problem more complicated, the sentence is a question: “Is it true, Prince, that you once said: ‘It is beauty that will save the world’?”(1). Hippolyte is speaking to Prince Myshkin, the central figure of the novel. Myshkin’s love for the beautiful and suffering Nastasya Filippovna, abused by her tutor during her childhood, is pure and compassionate. That selfless and respectful love strongly contrasts with Rogozhin’s destructive passion for the same Nastasya.
That contrast between Myshkin and Rogozhin leads us to some kind of answer to our questions. The same beauty, Nastasya Filippovna’s, captivated both of them. But Myshkin – that people regard as “idiot” because he looks at the world with empathy and innocence – understands that Nastasya’s beauty is hurt, expecting redemption and fulfillment. Gazing at a portrait of Nastasya, Myshkin exclaims: “Ah, should there be kindness in her, everything would be saved!”. Then, darkened, he adds: “Rogozhin could mary her and, a week later, stab her”(2).
Through that contrast between Myshkin and Rogozhin, we already understand that beauty does not, by itself, express all its meanings. You need to look at its context or at the mystery that it suggests. In other words, beauty is seen in the light – or in the darkness – of its spectator. Behind Nastasya’s beautiful face, Myshkin discovers a humiliated and wounded soul, that a selfelss love could heal. While, for Rogozhin, the same face arises a mad, selfish and murderous passion.
It’s worth to read the lines following the quotation. Hippolyte continues to question Prince Myshkin: “... What kind of beauty will save the world? It’s Kolia who told me that... You are a diligent Christian, are’nt you? Kolia asserts that you appear as a Christian”. Kolia, a 13 years old boy, is the son of the family which accomodates Myschkin. The lad, whose heart is pure and generous, admires the Prince, who has made a friend of him. And, actually, what Hippolyte has heard from Kolia is true: Myshkin is deeply Christian. Of course, it is always advisable to be careful when interpreting Dostoevsky, but it is probably not exaggerated to think that Myshkin’s love of Christ is the image of what the writer himself feels.
Therefore, it is probably correct to understand Myshkin’s sentence as: “Christ will save the world”. Christ is the Saviour. Christ, “fairer than the children of men” (Psalm 45, 3), came to return to the man his “first beauty”. In Nastasya Filippovna’s face, Myshkin sees the suffering Christ. He looks at her deeper than the visible, to reach the depth: God’s presence.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there is, truly, the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign”. And Pope Benedict, who quotes that sentence of Simone Weil, adds: “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God” (3).
If we see it in such a perspective – and we are now convinced that it is indeed Dostoevsky’s point of vue – beauty cannot be separated from kindness. The beauty that saves is God’s beauty: in God, truth, beauty and kindness are a single matter. And whoever does something good, does at the same time something beautiful, as we say it in French: “un beau geste”.
In the light of all this, how can we understand the value and the impact of art? Until recent times, most of the artists were in search of beauty, even if it was sometimes through dark, painful or violent realities. Dostoevsky’s novels, where darkness and light are mixed, are a good example of that trend. But our time has dramatically distanced from that vision. A “postmodern” art often tends, not only to criticize, but to fool or destroy, denying to the human being any hope of salvation.
Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdiaev describes art as an action through which man responds to God’s act of creation. The artist continues the Creator’s work, he completes it and makes it its own. But today, we see an “artistic” trend which, on the contrary, joins the Enemy in his destructive work. Where is beauty in that case? In his adress to the artists, already quoted, Benedict XVI reflects on this drift: “Instead of bringing [the onlooker] out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation.”
No, art and genuine beauty brings peace, cures, and restores harmony, even if it uses disturbing or shoking means. “Authentic beauty, however, asserts Pope Benedict, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”
After all, if beauty must “save the world”, it will be by turning our eyes towards the New Creation, where nobody but the Saviour can lead us. The authentic artist is the one who tries to disclose that harmony and that Beauty.
(1) I don’t possess an English translation of Dostoevsky’s works. Therefore, all quotations will be personal translations of the splendid French version by André Markowicz. Here: F. Dostoïevski, L’Idiot, Trad. André Markowicz, Ed. Actes-Sud, coll. Babel, 1993, T. II, p. 102.
(2) Ibid. T. I, p. 70.
(3) Pope Benedict XVI, Adress to the artists in the Sistine Chapel, 21 november 2009.
Fiodor (the other one…)
If you are interested, other posts about Dostoevsky have been published in this blog.
- Dostoevsky peering into hearts (1 July 2012)
- Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 2 – Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin (24 August 2012)
- A spot on the beautiful garment (24 September 2012)
- Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 3 – The light shineth in darkness (20 October 2012)
- The divided man (10 November 2012)
- Seemliness (1 January 2013)
April 24, 2013 – Gentle and compassionate Sonia
June 21, 2013 – The tenderness of a peasant
August 3, 2013 – Beauty will save the world… but how?
September 2, 2013 – Alyosha Karamazov
November 12, 2013 – The Elder Zossima
December 6, 2013 – “You cannot be a judge of anyone”. The Elder Zossima continued
January 3, 2014 – The mysterious visitor. The Elder Zossima again
March 30, 2014 – The teachings of the Elder Zossima