Cahiers Figura

Seeing and Believing in Dostoevsky's "The Idiot"

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At the heart of Fyodor Dostoevsky's great, and murky, novel The Idiot lies a painting: Hans Holbein's naturalistic­ devotional masterpiece Der Leichnam Christi im Grabe (The Corpse of Christ in the Grave, 1521). As is weil known, Dostoevsky's "encounter" with the painting, in the Basel Art Museum in August 1867, was a decisive and traumatic one, a desperately ecstatic viewing that nearly resulted in an epileptic seizure. Given the dialectical nature of 50 much of Dostoevsky's thinking, it is perhaps no surprise that the painting's suffocatingly oppressive horizontality (its dimensions are 30 .5 x 200 cm) and ail too humanly-dead Christ should serve as a catalyst for the "solution" to the creative crisis surrounding the composition of The Idiot. Fewer than live months later, on 1 January 1868, he was able to describe his project to his beloved niece Sofia Ivanova in the following terms :

The idea of the novel is an old and favourite one of mine, but such a hard one that for a long time I didn't dare take it up, and if I have taken it up now, then absolutely because I was in a nearly desperate situation. The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful person. There's nothing more difficult than that in the whole world, and especially now. Ali the writers, and not just ours, but even ail the European ones, who ever undertook the depiction of a positively [ italics are Dostoevsky 's] beautiful person, always had to pass. Because it's a measureless ideal. The beautiful is an ideal, and the ideal-both ours and that of civilized Europe-is far from having been achieved. There's only one positively beautiful person in the world-Christ, so that the appearance of this measurelessly, infinitely beautiful person is in fact of course an infinite miracle.

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Pour citer ce document:
Epstein, Thomas. 2008. « Seeing and Believing in Dostoevsky's The Idiot ». Dans Paroles, textes et images : Formes et pouvoirs de l'imaginaire. Article d’un cahier Figura. En ligne sur le site de l’Observatoire de l’imaginaire contemporain. <>. Consulté le 24 avril 2019. D’abord paru dans (Chassay, Jean-François et Bertrand Gervais (dir.). 2008. Montréal : Figura, Centre de recherche sur le texte et l'imaginaire. coll. Figura, vol. 19:2).
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