Aesthetics of Death in Dostoevsky

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Death plays a recurring theme in Dostoyevsky’s works, as well as in his own life. The dealings with murder and suicide are specifically memorable for their gruesome and perhaps even taboo qualities in his works, but when Dostoyevsky and death are thought of together it is often the plot of Crime and Punishment that comes to mind. This is of course because of its dealing with murder and its consequences – which is to say, a very active and dynamic picture of death. When talking about the aesthetics of death, a much more static, and subtle, vision of it arises – not, in fact, about the beauty of murder. Dostoyevsky himself, when talking about aesthetics, describes beauty as:

“[it] is part of everything that is healthy, i.e., that which is most alive, and every human organism needs it. Beauty is harmony; it is a guarantee of tranquility, it embodies a man’s and mankind’s ideals.”[1]

The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1514, by Hans Fries

However, the subject of death in Dostoyevsky’s works takes on an ambiguous form, as it straddles the line between Dostoyevsky’s Christian ideals, and his moral and aesthetic ideals.

The Idiot

In one of Dostoyevsky’s most famous novels, The Idiot, death plays a major role mostly as an object of art; such as through “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”, the painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, and the execution scene Prince Myshkin illustrates as a painting subject for Adelaida. The Prince, though endorsed as a “wholly virtuous man” has a rather idiosyncratic relationship with beauty:

“We arrived in Lucerne, and I was taken on the lake […] Such sights always unsettle and depress me when I first come across them. I can sense the beauty, but it unnerves me. To be sure, all this was at the height of my illness.”[2]

Myshkin is struck by beautiful scenes, but while he sees the beauty, he is also emotionally aroused by it. The cause for this is hinted at by his being mentally ill.

Recounting of the execution scene

In Part I of the novel, in his first meeting with the Yepanchin’s, Prince Myshkin describes a scene for Adelaida to paint: of a condemned man the minute before the blade hits the neck. Myshkin is fascinated by this scene and describes the moments of life leading up to the death of the man to Adelaida. In its essential elements, it is no beautiful scene. But:

“the ugliness is redeemed by the Prince’s insight into the moral drama of the scene which elevates the whole to the level of tragedy.”[3]

The intense presence of death is still prominent, but through a moral lens and through art, the Prince lends the scene the aestheticism aroused through the elements of tragedy.  Immortalising the moment before death strikes allows life, in the form of art as the preservation of an image, to battle death.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521-1522 by Hans Holbein the Younger

Myshkin, along with other characters and Dostoyevsky himself, react strongly to this painting, (link to Emily’s page). According to Yuri Corrigan:

“The use of Holbein’s painting in The Idiot suggests that, for Dostoevsky, these characters avoid an introspective turn not simply from fear of personal memory, but rather in their flight from a deeper terror-inducing presence that underlies individual memory: namely, the indwelling energies of the “living God” that threaten to disturb and perhaps even destroy the tentative equilibrium of the self.”[4]

A spiritual aestheticism is endorsed by Dostoyevsky:

“without the ideal of Beauty man will languish, die and go mad…And since Christ himself and in his Word carried the ideal of Beauty, I decided: better to instill in the soul the ideal of Beauty; having it…, all will become brothers.”[5]

Despite death and suffering as the subjects, depictions such as the execution scene and Holbein’s Dead Christ are beautiful because of the moral agony and soul-suffering. Together the two embrace “the ideal of Beauty” within the soul.

References

Citations

  1. Goerner, Tatiana. “THE THEME OF ART AND AESTHETICS IN DOSTOEVSKY’S ‘THE IDIOT.’” Ulbandus Review, vol. 2, no. 2, Columbia University Slavic Department, 1982, pp. 79–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748072.
  2. Dostoevsky, Fyodor (2015). The Idiot. Great Britain: Alma Classics Ltd. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-84749-343-9.
  3. Goerner, Tatiana. “THE THEME OF ART AND AESTHETICS IN DOSTOEVSKY’S ‘THE IDIOT.’” Ulbandus Review, vol. 2, no. 2, Columbia University Slavic Department, 1982, pp. 79–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748072.
  4. Corrigan, Yuri. Donna Tartt’s Dostoevsky: Trauma and the Displaced Self. Comparative Literature 1 December 2018; 70 (4): 392–407. doi: https://doi-org.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/10.1215/00104124-7215462
  5. Goerner, Tatiana. “THE THEME OF ART AND AESTHETICS IN DOSTOEVSKY’S ‘THE IDIOT.’” Ulbandus Review, vol. 2, no. 2, Columbia University Slavic Department, 1982, pp. 79–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748072.

Bibliography

  • Corrigan, Yuri. Donna Tartt’s Dostoevsky: Trauma and the Displaced Self. Comparative Literature 1 December 2018; 70 (4): 392–407. doi: https://doi-org.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/10.1215/00104124-7215462.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor (2015). The Idiot. Great Britain: Alma Classics Ltd. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-84749-343-9.
  • Goerner, Tatiana. “THE THEME OF ART AND AESTHETICS IN DOSTOEVSKY’S ‘THE IDIOT.’” Ulbandus Review, vol. 2, no. 2, Columbia University Slavic Department, 1982, pp. 79–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25748072.

Further Reading

  • Bowers, Katherine, et al. A Dostoevskii Companion: Texts and Contexts. Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2018.
  • Elam, Jaqcueline, and Chase Pielak. Corpse Encounters: An Aesthetics of Death. Lexington Books, Lanham, 2020.