All writers, not ours alone but foreigners also, who have sought to represent Absolute Beauty, were unequal to the task, for it is an infinitely difficult one. The beautiful is the ideal; but ideals, with us as in civilized Europe, have long been wavering. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is, as a matter of course, an infinite marvel. — Fyodor Dostoevsky in a letter to his niece Sofia Alexandrovna1
There is a striking image in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot: a painting titled The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. The famed Russian author was so disturbed by the image that he remarked, “One can lose his faith from a painting like that.”2 This very real painting by Holbein the Younger finds its way into The Idiot. It hangs above the door in the home of Roghozin, who by the end of the novel has murdered the beautiful Nastassya Filipovna. The Dead Christ comes up in conversations wherein Dostoevksy’s protagonist, Myshkin, is pressed on his Christian hope. In regards to the image, the nihilistic and suicidal Ippolit asks Myshkin, “How could they believe that that martyr would rise again?”3 Dostoevsky’s goal with Myshkin was to pit a “good and beautiful man” against a society hostile to such goodness and beauty. While Myshkin remains optimistic and faithful to his Christian ideals, the story is rife with tragedy. It never includes what Tolkien coined as the “eucatastrophe” — the turn in the story that leads to a happy ending. Tolkien believed man’s history had a eucatastrophe of sorts in the resurrection of Christ. While The Idiot doesn’t necessarily have a eucatastrophe of its own, it raises some important questions about suffering and hope. I suggest that The Idiot explores the finality of death in a manner that makes the eucatastrophe of man’s history seem all the more significant; thus, while the story is tragic, it is beautiful.
The philosophy of nihilism finds its way into the dialogue of The Idiot frequently and with, at the very least, a strong appeal to reason. While nihilism has many branches or schools of thought, it is used in the novel in its most traditional form: the view that life is utterly meaningless. Ippolit, acting as a sort of nihilistic spokesman, says about Holbein’s painting:
If death is so awful and the laws of nature so mighty, how can they be overcome? How can they be overcome when even He did not conquer them, He who vanquished nature in His lifetime . . . Looking at such a picture, one conceives of nature in the shape of an immense, merciless, dumb beast, or more correctly . . . a huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has aimlessly clutched, crushed, and swallowed up a priceless being . . .4
Ippolit echoes these sentiments moments before attempting to commit suicide. His complaint was not against nature as some malevolent force, but rather a blind, stupid force that could crush even the savior of mankind. In the end, Holbein’s painting depicted what Ippolit felt in his heart: that the world is indifferent to good and evil, and that it is simply a place where things come to die.
For Dostoevsky, the painting had a profound effect on him the first time he saw it. His wife Anna remarked in her diary that after seeing the painting at a museum, her husband claimed “a painting like that can make one lose his faith.”5 Myshkin says nearly the same thing in the novel, verbatim.6 The disturbing and quite realistic painting shows Christ entombed, marred, and in a state of rigor mortis. It serves as an icon, or, as Rowan Williams described it, “An anti-icon, a religious image which is a nonpresence or a presence of the negative. . .”7 It is interesting that the nihilist, Ippolit, and the atheist, Rhogozin, appeal to this painting, though not explicitly, as a nihilistic icon of sorts — a presence of the negative. Given nihilism, or atheism for that matter, Christ entombed would have been subject to decay with no hope of resurrection, and that image, naturally, should disturb the Christian. It is as if Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous declaration of the “Death of God” were painted onto a canvas.
Dostoevsky’s novel pits Christianity against nihilism, the latter of which was taking root in 19th-century Russian thought. His ability to wrestle with faith is something Joseph Frank touches on in his biography of Dostoevsky: “In Holbein the Younger, Dostoevsky sensed an impulse, so similar to his own, to confront Christian faith with everything that negated it, and yet to surmount this confrontation with a rekindled (even if humanly tragic) affirmation.”8 Perhaps this confrontation of faith is like Nietzsche’s oft-quoted remark about looking into the abyss: “When you look long into an abyss the abyss looks back into you.”9 Looking at a painting of the body of Jesus devastated by the brutal force of nature, where all of us are made equal in death, can cause one to reexamine his own faith. Yet, as Frank points out, Dostoevsky’s faith remained intact even under the pressure of nihilism. In this sense, he looked into the abyss posed by nihilism and the abyss looked back into him, yet he remained unchanged in his resolve to believe in something rather than nothing.
In contrast to nihilism, The Idiot touches on the reality of beauty as a transcendental truth – something that indicates a reality beyond materialism. For example, Myshkin, the protagonist, is confronted by the antagonist Roghozin, who owns a copy of the painting of The Dead Christ and tends to enjoy looking at it. When Rhogozin mocks Myshkin’s Christianity and questions him, Myshkin replies, “The essence of religious feeling does not come under any sort of reasoning or atheism . . . There is something else here, and there will always be something else – something that the atheists will forever slur over . . . you will notice it more clearly and quickly in the Russian heart than anywhere else.”10 This “something else” is something that transcends the material world. It is something like the qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty. The Russian heart longs for it because it is in many ways the opposite of the nihilistic experience which gripped the Russian intellect at that time in history. Though Myshkin does not attempt to describe what this “something else” is, it is what keeps his faith intact, despite the challenges posed by Roghozin and Ippolit throughout the novel. Dostoevsky, in a letter to his niece Sofia, once remarked, “The beautiful is the ideal; but ideals, with us as in civilized Europe, have long been wavering. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ.”11 In Dostoevsky’s view, Christ is the ideal. In The Idiot, Christ becomes the focal point of conversation between those who hold to a nihilistic view and Myshkin, who claims that beauty can save the world.
This brings us back to Tolkien’s use of the word eucatastrophe. Does this story have a eucatastrophic thread? At first glance, no, it does not. Roghozin goes on to murder the beautiful Natassya Filipovna, Aglaia goes on to marry a con artist, Myshkin never recovers from epileptic fits and is sent off to Switzerland, and Ippolit eventually dies of tuberculosis after failing to commit suicide. Only a closer look at the story, despite its tragic ending, reveals there is more to the story than tragedy. In fact, it awakens a longing for beauty.
For example, when we look outside the story itself and toward its implications, it should become apparent that much of it is symbolic of the larger and more beautiful story of the Gospel. Plenty has been written on the symbolism and the implications of each of the characters involved in the plot of The Idiot. Though that is not the goal of this essay, it seems worth mentioning at least one of those parallels in Natassya Filipovna, her full name being Anastassya Filipovna Barashkova. In an essay for the Journal of Language and Literary Studies, Daniel Miščin points out the significance of Natassya as a Christ symbol. He suggests that her name itself is no coincidence: “The root of the name Anastassya is a Greek noun ἀνάστασις which means resurrection. Moreover, her surname, Barashkova, contains the word барашек, which means lamb in Russian.”12 For this among many reasons, Natassya has often been considered a Christ symbol in the story. Therefore, while the novel functions well to confront death and tragedy, embedded within its pages is a nod towards eucatastrophe.
Miščin suggested another piece of relevant background information, that Holbein’s painting of The Dead Christ has more to it than meets the eye: “an anatomical analysis of this part of the dead body of Christ shows that, despite its asthenic body type, the Adam’s apple is not depicted on the neck. It is hard to believe that, being such an expert in anatomy, Holbein would have failed to paint the Adam’s apple out of negligence or ignorance.”13 He suggests that perhaps this means, theologically speaking, Christ is exempt from the effect of original sin: death. Furthermore, Miščin claims that the painting shows Christ moments before His resurrection. He writes, “Christ’s muscles seem to be petrified in some effort, and together with the strangely curved neck, from that perspective they seem to form the beginning of a movement that requires enormous, supernatural effort. This beginning of a movement would be the first hint of resurrection.”14 Perhaps this is all speculation on behalf of those disturbed by the image Holbein depicted. However, Holbein did go on to paint an empty tomb and an image of the resurrection with a splendor that could counteract the bleakness of The Dead Christ. His painting Noli me Tangere (Touch Me Not) could be seen as a completion of the story of Christ lying in the tomb. For there to be a eucatastrophe, there must first be something or someone who needs saving. In this case, mankind needs redemption and Christ resurrected.
The Idiot appears to be a work in common with C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed — not in type or genre, but in its effect on the reader. It explores the feeling of God’s distance and the struggle by which we come to see ourselves in light of His sovereignty. As Lewis grieved his wife’s passing to cancer, he remarked that “all reality is iconoclastic.”15 Reality tends to shatter our expectations of how the world ought to be. And therefore, Lewis said, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast.”16 Though The Idiot is a fictional story, it confronts the fact that God doesn’t always rescue us from suffering in this life. He doesn’t always protect the innocent from injustice, and sometimes evil goes unchecked. The story is tragic, but for many of us, tragedy corresponds with reality. For Lewis, tragedy was the passing of his wife, a grief that led to deeper reflection on who God is in light of suffering. Similarly, The Idiot examines tragedy as it is often experienced in the real world and poses important questions on the nature of God and suffering.
We might ask ourselves: why are we drawn to tragic stories at all? It could be that the appeal of tragedy is that which it awakens within us. In his book, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner gets at this idea of stories arousing an inner longing for redemption: “What gives ‘fairy tales’ their real power and meaning is the world they evoke . . . a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too . . . a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after . . .”17 In contrast to fairy tales, tragedies don’t often end happily ever after, but they can evoke meaning. The meaning of The Idiot doesn’t seem hopeless or bleak at all. Rather, given the many Christological parallels and the resolve of its protagonist, the meaning of the story seems directly related to the hope of the Gospel.
In addition, beauty is an important mechanism in storytelling for creating this inner longing for redemption. In his book Cultural Apologetics, philosopher Paul Gould writes, “Beauty calls us home. It awakens and transports us. Beauty – in nature, in art, in humans, in the divine – awakens a longing within us for a world where everything is as it should be, where everything fits together in the right way.”18 We tend to notice when things are out of order. In this novel, much is out of order, and the natural impulse is to desire redemption for its characters. Though we aren’t given the satisfaction of a redemptive story in The Idiot, we can in some sense be awakened by the beauty of Natassya Filipovna, the goodness of Myshkin, and the desire for a better ending.
Dostoevsky’s idea that Christ is the figure of absolute beauty manifests in the story as well. Myshkin claims that “beauty will save the world.” Furthermore, the beauty Myshkin refers to is that of Natassya Filipovna (who as noted earlier is, in many ways, a Christ figure.) In response, Ippolit, the committed nihilist, mocks him: “What sort of beauty will save the world? Kolya told me . . . Are you a zealous Christian? Kolya says that you say you’re a Christian yourself.”19 Myshkin, who is often mocked in this manner for his optimistic view of the world, is attacked on behalf of thinking that beauty can be redemptive in such a profound way. Moreover, Ippolit immediately makes the connection from beauty to Myshkin’s Christian worldview. This conversation between a Christian and a nihilist appears to be indicative of Dostoevky’s view that Christ is the figure of absolute beauty. Paul Gould writes, “When we say that beauty can save the world, there is a deeper truth that underlies our hope, because beauty is found in a person, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. Jesus took on our sin and the ugliness, horror, and pain of this world so we can find forgiveness, hope, healing, and wholeness.”20 Gould speaks to Dostoevsky’s point about Christ and beauty: If there is something that transcends the material domain, beauty and goodness are good indicators of it. Furthermore, in a world that is disenchanted , and that is quite literally dying away, the source of this goodness and beauty must also transcend the natural realm. If Christ has resurrected and conquered this domain where all things come to die, and if He is eternal, perhaps He is the best source of all that is transcendent.
But it is not enough for a story like The Idiot to awaken some sense of divine transcendence. The story must speak of something that is, in fact, true, if we wish to ascribe to it anything objectively beautiful. Ippolit admits that God may well be sovereign over all, but he protests that the Christians ascribe too much to God: “We degrade God too much, ascribing to Him our ideas, in vexation at being unable to understand Him.”21 According to Ippolit, if God exists at all, He is not to be romanticized as a personal deity who truly cares about our lives, but rather, He exists in a more Deistic mode by creating us and leaving us to die. Therefore, Ippolit declares, “I do not want this life! If I’d had the power to not be born, I would certainly not have accepted existence upon conditions that are such mockery. But I still have the power to die, though the days I give back are numbered.”22 Because Ippolit did not choose to be born into this world, he feels he ought to at least exercise his own power to take himself out of the world and in this way, rob the authority of the cruel God that put him here. Shortly thereafter, he attempts to take his own life. Ippolit forces us to face crucial questions: is Christianity a sentimental and false view of looking at the world? Are we dressing up God and His love for mankind in a way that makes our death an easier pill to swallow? If so, should we not be more like Ippolit and see the world for what it is, rather than what we wish it to be?
Perhaps the reason we wish for purpose in life and the hereafter is due to something like beauty awakening our sense for something that is true after all. At the very least, just because we wish something to be a certain way does not immediately make it false. Holly Ordway makes this point in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: “True, it is irrational to conclude that because we want something, it must exist — but it is equally irrational to believe that because we want something it cannot exist.”23 Consequently, the Christian hope for a resurrected Christ who will redeem his creation is not negated immediately just because Christians would like it to be true. But what if that longing actually corresponds to an objective reality? Perhaps Lewis is correct when he says, “If I find myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world… Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”24
The Idiot never speaks any further on this matter. However, by surrounding Myshkin with nihilists, atheists, and those who challenge his Christian hope, the novel presses upon us the question: does this longing for meaning correspond to something that is true? Moreover, given what we know about the faith of Dostoevsky, the faith of Holbein the Younger, and the novel’s symbolism, it seems fair to say that there is a trace of beauty extending beyond the story’s tragic conclusion. The arch of redemption extends outward from the story and into our reality. Despite the gruesome realities of death, the horrors of tragedy, and the challenge of the void of nihilism, beauty does prevail. In Christ is eucatastrophe: we have hope.
1 Fyodor Dostoevsky to Sofia Alexandrovna, January 1, 1868 in Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to His Family and Friends, trans. Ethel Golburn Mayne (London: UK: Chatto and Windus, 1914), 135.
2 K. A. Lantz, The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004), 189.
3 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot. Translated by Constance Garnett (The Modern Library Inc., 1935), 388.
4 Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 388-389.
5 Anna Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky/Reminiscences, Translated from Russian by B. Stillman (New York, NY: Riverlight, 1975), 134.
6 Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 206.
7 Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London, UK: Continuum, 2008), 53.
8 Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 549.
9 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Vintage Books Edition. 1989), 89.
10 Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 208-209.
11 Dostoevsky, Letters, 135.
12 Daniel Miščin, “F. M. Dostoevsky and Nihilistic Interpretation of Holbein’s Painting Dead Christ in the Tomb,” Journal of Language and Literary Studies, No. 38 (2021): 61. Accessed July 10, 2023.
13 Ibid., 62.
14 Ibid., 60.
15 C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 66.
17 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper One, 1977), 57.
18 Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2019), 104.
19 Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 363.
20 Gould, Cultural Apologetics, 118.
21 Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 394.
23 Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 137.
24 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 136-137.