Interpreting Prince Myshkin Through Williams and Bonhoeffer

The perennial question of the relationship between Christian theology and culture has one of its magnifying points in the supposed Christ-figures that pepper our popular and not-so-popular cultural artefacts. Debates inevitably emerge regarding the degree to which various products of the imagination, particularly literary characters, do or do not reflect Christ, and whether it is even possible for any product of the imagination to represent Christ.

This last question, however, seems to me to be somewhat misguided. For surely didactic doctrines regarding Christ are just as much products of the imagination such that the question should not be whether “more imaginative” depictions of Christ can be faithful to the person of Jesus, but what it is that literature can contribute to our imaginative engagement with Christ in general.

It is from this perspective that I here want to consider Rowan Williams’ reading of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.  Prince Myshkin is portrayed at the beginning of the novel as a person of simplicity and naivety who nevertheless radiates such goodness that others cannot help but be drawn to him despite his strangeness. Williams argues that Dostoevsky does in fact intend to set up a sort of messianic expectation regarding Myshkin, suggested for example by the association of his appearance with popular Russian depictions of Christ at the time, and more pointedly by Dostoevsky’s own letters at the time of writing The Idiot. However, while some (Dallas Willard is one example who comes to mind) argue that Myshkin is a straightforward representation of Christ, Williams points out that things are more complicated than this.

Williams argues that Dostoevsky frustrates the messianic hopes that we have of Myshkin as we find that rather than bringing peace or redemption, his lack of self-awareness has disastrous consequences both for himself and for those around him. Thus, while Dostoevsky may have set out to create a Christ-figure, he found that he could not or that Christ was better shown by that which is not Christ-like.

This interpretation turns particularly around Williams’ “hard” reading of the exchange of the crosses. In Dostoevsky’s novels, the exchange of crucifixes represents the taking on of the burdens of the other. It is a making one’s self responsible for the other, a Christ-like, self-sacrificial act. Thus, while the exchange of crucifixes between Myshkin and Rogozhin, a dangerous and tormented character, ought to have been the climax of Myshkin’s messianic activity, it in fact becomes a dark parody in which Myshkin has become bound to Rogozhin but unable to save him. The two drag each other down into the abyss. He says “…it is as though he has indeed taken on Rogozhin’s burden, but cannot bear it in a way that changes things or that makes responsibility possible.” (Williams, Dostoevsky,156). For Williams, this is demonstrated particularly by the fact that directly after the exchange of the crosses Myshkin breaks his word and goes to visit Nastasya (which he told Rogozhin he would not do) provoking Rogozhin to an attempted murder.

I had the opportunity to ask Williams about this recently. Because it seems to me that the fact that the exchange of the crucifixes, that the taking on of the burden of the other, does not “work”, does not save anyone, is important. It is not a formula. There are no guarantees. This in itself is a Christological truth – that Christ’s incarnation and the death to which it led were not a magic formula for salvation. Jesus was vulnerable in a real way. The incarnation involved real risk. It could have failed. So Dostoevsky is showing us something about Christ. Williams agreed.

However, I want to push it further: Myshkin, precisely in his failure, here reveals Christ. Certainly, this is not the kind of revelation-of-correspondence in which we enumerate the qualities of Christ and match them to a literary character. Instead, it is a realization about a certain dimension of Christ that happens through an (imagined) event. Gavin Hopps argues that this is precisely how “Christ-figures” are supposed to work, not simply by their correspondence, but through their difference. The image presents Christ and simultaneously recognizes its own inadequacy. So, I think it is possible to read the events after the exchange of the crosses in a different way, a more Bonheoffer-ian sort of way, perhaps. If Myshkin took on responsibility for Rogozhin by exchanging crucifixes with him, then this was an act in which he has taken on Rhogozin’s sin, literally. He becomes culpable for Rogozhin’s sin. The possibility that it is crushing to Myshkin is real. I think that Bonhoeffer would say that, while Myshkin is not a Christ-figure, not a messiah, this is nevertheless where Christ happens. If we simply look at the effects of Myshkin’s taking responsibility for Rogozhin and conclude that Christ is not in this event of taking responsibility, we inevitably end up looking for the flaws in Myshkin that lead to this failure. This is a dangerous path because every human taking on of responsibility, every human happening of Christ, will include such flaws. We cannot judge one taking on of responsibility against another by comparing flaws, and we cannot simply judge the happening of Christ by the outcome.

All of this changes the question from whether or not Prince Myshkin is a Christ-figure to how it is that we make sense of Christ happening where taking responsibility for the other doesn’t “work.”


2 comments on “Interpreting Prince Myshkin Through Williams and Bonhoeffer

  1. Faith, hope, and love –
    the greatest of these is love:
    jump into faith…
    and you’ll see with love.
    Doesn’t matter if you don’t believe
    (what I write).
    God believes in you.
    God bless you.

  2. Josh says:

    Interesting thoughts on Christ’s vulnerability. I think C.S. Lewis says something similar somewhere. You really should use correct spelling of Bonhoeffer … unless it’s ironic somehow.

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