13 May 2011 § Leave a comment
As is probably obvious, I’m more than a bit obsessed (or even possessed) at the moment and I keep seeing Dostoevsky connections all over the place. I even started thinking about Raskolnikov whilst Bohemian Rhapsody was playing in the car the other day (although I suppose really Camus’s Mersault is closer). Last week I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and found it profoundly disturbing. Pullman portrays Jesus as an ordinary preacher, with no particular special powers, and imagines a twin brother, called Christ, who is inspired by a mysterious angel figure and instructed to write the story of Jesus’s life in which “truth” must take priority over “history”. The angel and Christ together concoct miracles from perfectly ordinary occurrences, whilst conjuring up a vision of the church that will come and knowingly sacrifice Jesus so that the church has a great founding myth. So far, so good, it’s not far removed from the Grand Inquisitor.
As I continued to read, I found myself both appalled and attracted by the story; it’s all so plausible (not the twin brother thing, necessarily, but just the whole general idea). I know the historical Jesus stuff is nothing new, but seeing it told like this, written in a style that so closely mimics that of the gospels, even reusing familiar gospel phrases, made it feel dangerously reasonable and tempting. Then, as I’ve been writing about The Idiot and Prince Myshkin this week, I understood a bit more the effect that the Holbein painting of the dead Christ has on the characters in the novel.
The painting is of a horribly realistic dead Christ, his body bruised, his face already green with decay, god become unimaginably human. Prince Myshkin says of it that some people may lose their faith by looking at the picture, and it later exerts its influence on poor, impressionable Ippolit. We’re so used to seeing graphic images today that it’s easy to overlook the effect that this painting would have had – especially on Dostoevsky’s Russians who were more accustomed to seeing Christ portrayed in highly stylised icons, not flesh and blood realism: Dostoevsky spent so long gazing at it in the gallery in Basel where it hangs that his wife had to drag him away, fearing it would provoke an epileptic fit.
Pullman’s novel does the same thing to us as Holbein’s painting; they both force us to confront the human Jesus. Dostoevsky’s response to the humanity of Jesus is one of the themes of The Idiot and something that I’ll be exploring in the chapter I’m currently writing on Prince Myshkin and Alyesha Karamazov.