Friday, August 24, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 2 - Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin

Dostoevsky in 1847

I have been absent from the “blogosphere” longer than expected. So, it is time to return to my promise to present some special figures from Dostoevsky’s universe: the marginalized, the humiliated, the rejected, the crazy, the sick.

The man I would like to talk about today is a character in The Idiot, a novel for which I have a special affection. General Ivolgin, to describe him in a few words, is a pathetic old man, mythomaniac, quite a drinker, but in whose heart lies goodness, and that a painful awareness of his decay crosses his mind, at times. The gentle Kolya, his youngest son, torn between shame and tenderness inspired by his father, speaks to Prince Myshkin: “Look at my father, the general! See what he is, and yet, I assure you, he is an honest man! Only... he drinks too much, and his morals are not all we could desire. Yes, that's true! I pity him, to tell the truth, but I dare not say so, because everybody would laugh at me - but I do pity him!(*). Myshkin, the “idiot”, has quickly realized what kind of man is the general, and he shows patience, respect and kindness towards him.

The reader discovers general Ivolgin’s mythomania through several episodes, some of which generate hilarity mixed with bad conscience. But the narrator – Dostoevsky does not identify him and does not clearly identify himself with him – gives an interesting portrait of the general, in which the members of his family, especially his wife, Nina Alexandrovna, are also mentionned. “... He had (...) experienced fits of sudden fury, but not very often, because he was really a man of peaceful and kindly disposition. He had tried hundreds of times to overcome the dissolute habits which he had contracted of late years. He would suddenly remember that he was “a father”, would be reconciled with his wife, and shed genuine tears. His feeling for Nina Alexandrovna amounted almost to adoration; she had pardoned so much in silence, and loved him still in spite of the state of degradation into which he had fallen. But the general's struggles with his own weakness never lasted very long. He was, in his way, an impetuous man, and a quiet life of repentance in the bosom of his family soon became insupportable to him. In the end he rebelled, and flew into rages which he regretted, perhaps, even as he gave way to them, but which were beyond his control. He picked quarrels with everyone, began to hold forth eloquently, exacted unlimited respect, and at last disappeared from the house, and sometimes did not return for a long time.

From his first meeting with Myshkin, Ivolgin flounders in the ridiculous excesses of his imagination. As he just moved into his new home, a room rented to the general’s wife, the prince comes face to face with the general, who introduces himself: “General Ivolgin, retired and miserable...” The general asks the prince’s Christian and genreric names. As the prince answers: “Lev Nicolaevitch”, he immediately declares that he is a childhood friend of his father:
– So, so, the son of my old, I may say my childhood's friend, Nicolai Petrovitch.
– My father's name was Nicolai Lvovitch.
– Lvovitch, repeated the general without the slightest haste, and with perfect confidence, just as though he had not committed himself the least in the world, but merely made a little slip of the tongue. He sat down, and taking the prince's hand, drew him to a seat next to himself.
– I carried you in my arms as a baby, he observed.”
Gradually, the general becomes completely immoderate. As Myshkin tells him that his father died some years ago, Ivolgin questions him about his mother:
– Your mother...
– She died a few months later, from a cold, said the prince.
– Oh, not a cold – believe an old man – not from a cold, but from grief for her prince. Oh! your mother, your mother! heigh-ho! Youth! youth! Your father and I, old friends as we were, nearly murdered each other for her sake.
The prince began to be a little incredulous.
– I was passionately in love with her when she was engaged, engaged to my friend.”

The general continues in the same vein, when Kolya, sent by his mother, comes and asks him. In the presence of his wife and the prince, Ivolgin goes on worse and worse, inventing a new episode that Myshkin’s father would have witnessed.
– It did not occur, it's a mistake! said Nina Alexandrovna quickly, looking, at the prince rather anxiously. Mon mari se trompe, she added, speaking in French.
– My dear, se trompe is easily said. Do you remember any case at all like it?
When the general was gone, his wife spoke to the prince: 
– You will have to excuse very much in my husband (...), but he will not disturb you often (...) Everyone has his little peculiarities, you know, and some people perhaps have more than those who are most pointed at and laughed at. One thing I must beg of you: if my husband applies to you for payment for board and lodging, tell him that you have already paid me...”
The general, indeed, as the habit of engaging in small trickery, or even petty theft, to pay for his drink.

A few pages later, the general turns ridicule again. He emphatically tells an incident that happened to him during a trip by rail. But a member of the audience declares that she read “absolutely the same story” in a newspaper a few days ago!
The general blushed dreadfully; Kolia blushed too (...) – I assure you, said the general, that exactly the same thing happened to myself!

But the climax of the general’s mythomania is reached when he claims, in a passionate speech, having been close to Napoleon, in Moscow, during the Russian campaign. No less than a dozen pages are devoted to this unforgettable episode. At the turn of another fanciful story, the general suggests he was Napoleon’s pageboy.
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) The red boy
– Why, did you say... began the prince, and paused in confusion. The general gazed at his host disdainfully. – Oh, go on, he said, finish your sentence, by all means. Say how odd it appears to you that a man fallen to such a depth of humiliation as I, can ever have been the actual eye-witness of great events.
And the general gets embarked on a story more and more incredible, that the prince listens politely and even, when it is not too improbable, he kindly approves:
– All this is most interesting, said the prince, very softly, if it really was so... that is, I mean... he hastened to correct himself.
– Oh, my dear prince, cried the general, who was now so intoxicated with his own narrative that he probably could not have pulled up at the most patent indiscretion...
And this is what happens: the general tells how, at night, witness of tears of the emperor, he advised him to write a letter to Josephine, and how, when Napoleon left Moscow, he asked him to write something in the album of his little sister, aged three:
– ... and he wrote in the album: ‘Ne mentez jamais! Napoléon, votre ami sincère.’ [Do never lie! Napoleon, your sincere friend]. Such advice, and at such a moment, you must allow, prince, was...
– Yes, quite so; very remarkable.”

Ivolgin suddenly stops:
– How I have kept you, prince! It is really most unpardonable of me.The general rose.
– Oh, not in the least, said the prince. On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I'm really very much obliged to you.
– Prince, said the general, pressing his hand, and looking at him with flashing eyes, and an expression as though he were under the influence of a sudden thought which had come upon him with stunning force. Prince, you are so kind, so simple-minded, that sometimes I really feel sorry for you! I gaze at you with a feeling of real affection. Oh, Heaven bless you! May your life blossom and fructify in love. Mine is over. Forgive me, forgive me!

The next day, in complete crisis, the general has left the house and wanders in the street. Kolya tries to reason with him, but the old man is somewhere else:
– ‘Where is my youth, where is my golden youth?’ Who was it said that, Kolia?
– It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father, cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.
The general still evokes the past, the suffering he inflicted on his family. Kolya again:
– Look here, dear old father, come back home! Let's go back to mother(...) Why are you crying, father? Poor Kolia cried himself, and kissed the old man's hands.
– You kiss my hands, mine?
– Yes, yes, yours, yours! What is there to surprise anyone in that? Come, come, you mustn't go on like this, crying in the middle of the road; and you a general too, a military man! Come, let's go back.”
But the general continues to speak in a strange way. On several occasions, probably inhabited by his Napoleonic story, he says: “the King of Rome.” Exhausted, he sits on the steps of a porch and pulls Kolya towards him:
– Bend down, bend down your ear. I'll tell you all... disgrace... bend down, I'll tell you in your ear.
– What are you dreaming of? said poor, frightened Kolia, stooping down towards the old man, all the same.
– Le roi de Rome, whispered the general, trembling all over.
– What? What do you mean? What roi de Rome?
– I... I..., the general continued to whisper, clinging more and more tightly to the boy's shoulder. I... wish... Kolia broke loose, seized his father by the shoulders, and stared into his eyes with frenzied gaze. The old man had grown livid... his lips were shaking, convulsions were passing over his features. Suddenly he leant over and began to sink slowly into Kolia's arms.
– He's got a stroke! cried Colia, loudly, realizing what was the matter at last.
And a few days later, the general passes over

The tender and painful affection that Kolya feels for his father, as well as the embarrassed and worried respect showed towards him by the prince, clearly show that kindness, generosity and ideal are hidden behind the lunacy and the eccentricities of the old man. After all, there is in him something of the child, the child he remained because he could not accommodate the adult world and its meanness.

Children love stories – to listen or to tell them –, filling up their memory and their heart of dreams, beauty and life. Dostoevsky wrote somewhere that drunkards are, of all people, “the nicest.” Maybe that the form of madness as evidenced by general Ivolgin belongs also to “nice” persons, dreamers, people wounded by life who think they are Napoleon...

Before pointing the finger or condemning the Ivolgins, the gentle mythomaniacs, let us look at our masks, our hypocrisy, our dishonest compromises with “dirty things” that give the appearance of “decent”.

(*) All quotations are from the English version of The Idiot, translated by Eva Martin, e-book on

Saturday, August 4, 2012

All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord

Hokusai (1760-1849) The Wave

In the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan, a friend sent me a poignant message. This elderly widower, has the habit of praying the Divine Office each day. On Sunday morning of the "first week", this office consists of two psalms (62 and 149) and the Song of Creation from the Book of Daniel (Dan 3, 57-88). In this song, all the elements of nature, plants, animals and humans are invited to praise God, "praise and exalt Him above all for ever" ... Here's what my friend wrote :

"This morning, the Office proposes the Song of the three youn men : 'All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord... O all ye spirits and winds...' Freeze-frame : impossible to continue in such a mood, this morning. Is'nt this the pure evil falling for the second time on innocent victims ? (and I do not intend to judge President Truman for allowing the use of nuclear weapons). Is'nt this a disaster of the same kind as that of the innocent child, for which Ivan Karamazov cannot forgive God? On this first Sunday of Lent we are already on Good Friday."

How, indeed, could we "praise the Lord" for all his works, when our heart is still filled with these terrifying images, and our spirit tortured by the thought of all these drowned victims ?...
We know how the issue - the enigma - of God's "silence" in front of the outbreak of evil has always been a stumbling block, a kind of "proof" of God's non-existence. The great believer that Dostoevsky was, doubtless refers to his own internal debate when he writes the famous pages of The Brothers Karamazov known as "Grand Inquisitor". But we know that there is no answer to that question. Or at least, there is no other answer than that given by God himself in the kenosis and the death-resurrection of Christ.

So I can understand, respect, and even share, my friend's reaction. On second thought, I remembered a passage from Roy Schoeman's book, Salvation is from the Jews, I mentioned in a previous post. Schoeman quotes a deeply moving excerpt from the autobiography of Mel Mermelstein, a seventeen years old Jew who survived Auschwitz (By bread alone: the story of A-4685). Back to his village after his release, Mel tells how he has just learned his parents and sisters death :

I walked towards the gate where my uncle was waiting for me. Shocked, my eyes filled with tears, I sat in the grass and covered my face with my hands. My uncle placed his hand on my head and said, "God wanted it so, and holy is His judgment. '" I raised my head slowly in disbelief to hear the words he had uttered.
"I know... I know, Moishele. Listen, before you ask, before any question, repeat after me: Boruch Dayen emess ". I repeated these words meaning: "Blessed be the righteous Judge." These words, traditionally spoken in the announcement of a death seemed quite inappropriate. But when I had pronounced them, relief began to overwhelm me.
"Do you want me to bless God for this unbearable pain? Do you want me to call 'just' this hideous injustice?" I do not remember the exact words I used, but the impression of having been fooled still persists. To believe that God could be present somewhere in Auschwitz was too much.
"Moishele, Moishele, please..." My uncle was crying now. "Your questions are legitimate, but you're not the first to ask them. 'As we bless God for the good that He sends us, should we bless Him for evil'. These are words written in the Talmud. These are words that go beyond our understanding, but if we do not pronounce them there is no hope for us. Bitterness, yes, but despair not. The Jewish way is to bless and hope, bless and hope until hope and blessing overcome pain and even bitterness, and human beings learn to go on."
My uncle went on saying: "God is just, God is good. But people who forget it sometimes, they let themselves lead by evil, they lose the sense of the image of God in themselves, and then they become beasts of prey".
"Perhaps should we translate the prayers, he said. 'Blessed is the righteous God who judges.' He does not forget. Sometimes it's as though he needed time to absorb everything he saw, to react and give the reward. But you will see, Moishele, you are still young. You'll see. He does not forget!"

May we always rekindle the hope of our fellow human beings, as the "liquidators" of Fukushima's plant do it today, risking their lives, or - more achievable - by putting a hand of compassion on the head of those who are destroyed by suffering.


Myshkin prize 2012

You may have read in the media that a «Myshkin Prize» (founded by a group of intellectuals among whom Peter Sloterdijk) was awarded, in 2012, to a certain Stéphane Hessel, the author – adulated as a saint – of a pamphlet called «Indignez-vous» (Be indignant).

Due to my old frienship with Prince Myshkin, I had the pleasure to receive a copy of a letter of protest sent to the jury of the Prize by the father of The Idiot, the great Fiodor Dostoevsky himself. Here it is :
«To the members of the jury of the Myshkin Prize,
On behalf of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, I want you to know that I totally disapprove the awarding of a prize bearing his name – by what right?? – To Mr. Hessel. The latter, whose old age however deserves respect, has no other merit than having published twenty or so pages, trite and digestible enough to win tens of thousands of suckers, too happy to buy themselves a cheap good conscience.
Be assured of my indignation.
Fiodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky»

You will easily understand how eagerly I consider it my duty to inform you of this letter.

Fiodor (the other one)