Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 38

In Search of a Novel

The Dostoevskys arrived in Geneva on August 13/25, spending a day en route in Basel. In the short time afforded them, they hurried out to take in the sights, of which the Basel Museum alone merited Dostoevsky's regard, or more precisely, two of the paintings displayed in the museum. Anna writes:

There are only two really priceless pictures in the whole Museum, one of
them being the Dead Savior, a marvelous work that horrified me, and so
deeply impressed Feodor that he pronounced Holbein the Younger a
painter and creator of the first rank…. "T"he whole form "of Christ" is
emaciated, the ribs and bones plain to see, hands and feet riddled with
wounds, all blue and swollen, like a corpse on the point of decomposi-
tion. The face too is fearfully agonized, the eyes half open still, but with
no expression in them, and giving no idea of seeing. Nose, mouth and
chin are all blue; the whole thing bears such a strong resemblance to a real
dead body…. Feodor, nonetheless, was completely carried away by it,
and in his desire to look at it closer got on to a chair, so that I was in a ter-
rible state lest he should have to pay a fine, like one is always liable
to here.1

This chance visit to the Basel Museum was to have momentous consequences for the creation of The Idiot, in which the canvas of Holbein the Younger plays an important symbolic role. No greater challenge could be offered to Dostoevsky's own faith in Christ the God-man than such a vision of a tortured and decaying human being, whose face bore not a trace of the “extraordinary beauty” with which, as Dostoevsky was to write in the novel, Christ is usually painted. Instead, this picture expresses the subjection of the supernatural Christ to the physical order of nature, conceived “in the form of a huge machine of the most modern construction which, dull and insensible, has clutched, crushed, and swallowed up a great priceless Being, a Being worth all nature and its laws, worth the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of that Being” (8: 339).

1Dnevnik A. G. Dostoevskoi, 1867 g. (Moscow, 1923), 361–366.

-549-

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