The Dance of Death in Dostoevskij’s The Idiot

The shattering impression made on Dostoevskij by Holbein’s painting, Dead Christ (which plays a significant role in the novel “The Idiot”), as well as his personal losses during the period of his work on The Idiot, may have directed his attention to the popular Medieval subject Totentanz (Dance of Death), which “the name of Holbein has been so strongly interwoven with” (F. Douce).

In my paper, entitled “The Dance of Death in Dostoevskij’s The Idiot,” I propose the hypothesis that the structure of The Idiot and the image of Myškin were influenced by Holbein’s masterpieces based on the Totentanz. We may assume that Dostoevskij knew these works, since he visited the Museum of Basel and was particularly interested in Holbein (whose painting Madonna in the Family of Burmeisteri Jacob Mayer he also introduced into the text of his novel).

As numerous scholars have shown, on a metaphorical level the image of Myškin contains the features of Christ and the “poor knight” (from Puškin’s poem “The Legend”), who is “a serious Don Quixote,” as Aglaja puts it in the novel. Yet the evangelical and chivalric sides of Myškin’s character split apart, as I attempt to prove, in the scene of the meeting between Nastasja Filippovna and Aglaja. Actually, it is only this union of Christ-like and knightly qualities that keeps Myškin from all the associations that the word “idiocy” suggests, and brings forth the spirituality and kindness which he radiates in the novel.

When discussing Myškin’s idiocy some scholars substitute the term “jurodivyj” for “idiot.” G. Ermilova, for example, writes that “through religious and folk jurodstvo Myškin is connected to the deepest strata of Russian national life and culture.” N. Minihan suggests that the word “jurodstvo,” when applied to Myškin, implies “innocence, deep spirituality and incompatibility with the outer world.” I argue that Myškin can be called a “jurodivyj” only for the short period of time during which the action of the novel takes place. Beyond this period, during his time in Switzerland, Myškin is an idiot in the clinical sense of the word.

Why did Dostoevskij add the qualities of an idiot to the prominent characteristics of Christ and the poor knight in his hero? I believe that an insight into Holbein’s cycle “Totentanz” could help to answer this question.

Holbein’s “Totentanz,” which expresses the idea of the equality of all people in the face of death, consists of forty-nine engravings on wood. Every piece represents a particular figure (from The Pope to The Beggar) in the process of being seized by death. Among these figures only two try to resist death: The Knight (with his sword) and The Idiot (with his “bladder-bauble”). I suggest that Dostoevskij perceived Holbein’s “Dead Christ” in the context of Holbein’s Totentanz, and created in the image of prince Myškin the figure of a death-resisting triumvirate of Christ, The Knight and The Idiot.

Futher in my paper I investigate the other reflections of the images of the Totentanz in Dostoevskij’s The Idiot.

I conclude that in spite of the fierce anti-western stance of its author, The Idiot conveys an authentic sense of the esthetics of the European Middle Ages, where madness or idiocy, as Foucault put it, was considered as “the presence of death in the here and now, but at the same time it is death which has been defeated.”