The Idiot

First published in 1868, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been a favorite of Russian literature.

The novel seeks to expose the tragedy that occurs when a truly good and beautiful human being encounters the rudeness and cruelty of the real world. Its character portrayal is likened to another literary great, the 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote.

idiot__characters__by_ladylotte-d35szjy

The Idiot gains its title from the central character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin [Myshkin], a young man troubled by epilepsy which was at the time equated with simplicity of mind, or idiocy.  His condition highlights his goodness and open-hearted simplicity and much of the novels tension is created by his interaction with characters who mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.

Dostoevsky’s account of one man’s struggle with the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society is according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is:

..one of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.

So, what happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world?

The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay. With money as the principal object of importance, the value of human dignity and the source of human love are redefined in relationship to it. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are objectified, dishonored and consequently destroyed by the people who supposedly love and desire them.

idiot 2

This world of the novel is also full of drunks and rogues, even murderers,  and a high society full of superficial nothings who are surrounded by self serving underlings seeking a high position.

In contrast to this world, Prince Myshkin stands out with simple goodness.

In the midst of this world Dostoevsky depicts Myshkin as an almost Christ-like character, epitomised so by his immense compassion and love for others.  The novel contains an series of encounters between Myshkin and the other characters, many of whom have committed offenses against him. His attempts at assisting them even after their slights, emphasise his selfless compassion.

The novel is a tragic satire. Dosotoevksy used the novel to discuss and critique Russian Christianity. In it Prince Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to joy, the joy God feels for his creation. For him, true religion is more akin to a feeling than a set of rules to follow.

tolstoy

This idiotic sentiment of his leads him only to suffering. Though he attempts to help those around him, he fails and this failure, finally drives him to insanity. The tragedy of the novel is that it would seem his effect on this world is ultimately zero.

Does Myshkin fail to bring good? Is his own goodness inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal?

Far from it.

The novel remains a classic for its embodiment of true religion, one of compassion and a quest to right injustice. It remains a timely warning against the vices of wealth and privilege and false morality. And it points beyond itself to the truest man, the one who suffered so that we might see inequalities redressed and true humanity valued.

crucifix

The Intelligence of Emotions

This post is a summary of a great article by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. You can read the full post here.

She summarises the wok of Martha Nussbaum, who shows that story telling belongs to the realm of moral philosophy. Both narrative and play deepens the inner world; it becomes a place for individual creative effort and for the trusting identification of self within the world.

__________________________________________________

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,”

the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect.

To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

Nussbaum writes:

We cannot understand [a person’s] love … without knowing a great deal about the history of patterns of attachment that extend back into [the person’s] childhood. Past loves shadow present attachments, and take up residence within them. This, in turn, suggests that in order to talk well about them we will need to turn to texts that contain a narrative dimension, thus deepening and refining our grasp of ourselves as beings with a complicated temporal history.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall, a sweet illustrated story about how we fall in love with books

 

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

She revisits the rationale behind the book’s title:

Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control — and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.

But this neediness — a notion invariably shrouded in negative judgment and shame, for it connotes an admission of our lack of command — is one of the essential features that make us human. Nussbaum writes:

Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

And yet neediness, Nussbaum argues, is central to our developmental process as human beings. Much like frustration is essential for satisfaction, neediness becomes essential for our sense of control:

The process of development entails many moments of discomfort and frustration. Indeed, some frustration of the infant’s wants by the caretaker’s separate comings and goings is essential to development — for if everything were always simply given in advance of discomfort, the child would never try out its own projects of control.

[…]

The child’s evolving recognition that the caretaker sometimes fails to bring it what it wants gives rise to an anger that is closely linked to its emerging love. Indeed, the very recognition that both good things and their absence have an external source guarantees the presence of both of these emotions — although the infant has not yet recognized that both take a single person as their object.

 

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm

This interplay of two imperfect beings is, as Joseph Campbell memorably observed, the essence of romantic love. An intolerance for imperfection and for the basic humanity of our own neediness, Nussbaum notes, can impede our very capacity for connection and make our emotions appear as blindsiding, incomprehensible events that befall us rather than a singular form of our natural intelligence:

The emotions of the adult life sometimes feel as if they flood up out of nowhere, in ways that don’t match our present view of our objects or their value. This will be especially true of the person who maintains some kind of false self-defense, and who is in consequence out of touch with the emotions of neediness and dependence, or of anger and aggression, that characterize the true self.

Nussbaum returns to the narrative structure of the emotions and how storytelling can help us rewire our relationship to neediness:

The understanding of any single emotion is incomplete unless its narrative history is grasped and studied for the light it sheds on the present response. This already suggests a central role for the arts in human self-understanding: for narrative artworks of various kinds (whether musical or visual or literary) give us information about these emotion-histories that we could not easily get otherwise. This is what Proust meant when he claimed that certain truths about the human emotions can be best conveyed, in verbal and textual form, only by a narrative work of art: only such a work will accurately and fully show the interrelated temporal structure of emotional “thoughts,” prominently including the heart’s intermittences between recognition and denial of neediness.

Narrative artworks are important for what they show the person who is eager to understand the emotions; they are also important because of what they do in the emotional life. They do not simply represent that history, they enter into it. Storytelling and narrative play are essential in cultivating the child’s sense of her own aloneness, her inner world. Her capacity to be alone is supported by the ability to imagine the good object’s presence when the object is not present, and to play at presence and absence using toys that serve the function of “transitional objects.” As time goes on, this play deepens the inner world; it becomes a place for individual creative effort and hence for trusting differentiation of self from world.

In the remainder of Upheavals of Thought, which remains a revelatory read in its hefty totality, Nussbaum goes on to explore how the narrative arts can reshape our psychoemotional constitution and how understanding the intelligence of the emotions can help us navigate the messiness of grief, love, anger, and fear.

________________________________________________________________

Maria Popova’s full article can be read here.