Michael D. O’Brien
At the beginning of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, the central character Prince Myshkin is shown a portrait of a young woman named Nastassya Filippovna by a Madame Yepanchin, his hostess. She holds Nastassya in contempt because her moral reputation is tarnished.
“So, you appreciate that kind of beauty?” she asks the prince.
“Yes. That kind—” the prince replies with an effort.
“Why?” she asks.
“In that face—there is much suffering,” he says, as though involuntarily, as though he is talking to himself.
“Beauty like that is strength,” one of the other women in the room angrily declares. “One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.”
Nastassya is indeed physically beautiful. She is also suffering from her victimization: She was seduced by a wealthy guardian at a young age. Now independent, she continuously careens back and forth between despair and manipulative romances. She seeks to control men, in order to transcend her degradation by men.
“Beauty will save the world.” This oft-quoted maxim of Dostoevsky’s, derived from The Idiot, is widely misunderstood and misused in our times. As the author demonstrates throughout the novel, beauty alone cannot save the world. However, one of his primary insights, well illustrated throughout the story, is that beauty and suffering can seize the human heart of the observer for reasons other than carnality or even romanticized idealized attraction, though these may be present at the early stages of a relationship. As the lover grows in love of the beloved, he must continuously seek the ultimate good of the beloved. If his love is to avoid degenerating into selfishness, it must become more and more Christ-like. I do not want to give away the plot of the novel to those who haven’t read it, but let me at least say that toward the end of the story Myshkin’s love for Nastassya is put to a supreme test. He is asked to show mercy, to be a presence of Christ, to the very person who destroys his beloved.
Dostoevsky once wrote in his Notebooks, “Suffering is the origin of consciousness.” A novel like The Idiot could only have been created as the fruit of the author’s personal sufferings. This is why the Church has frequently called artists to open their hearts completely to Christ, so that as they live in the fullness of both crucifixion and resurrection, living words might flow through them. In the age of comfort and materialism, many artists draw back in revulsion from this invitation and, like the rich young man in the Gospel, turn sadly away. They fail to understand that within the mystery of suffering with Christ is hidden a great joy—and inexhaustible riches.
The beauty that will save the world is the love of God. This love is both human and supernatural in character, but it germinates, flowers, and comes to fruition only in a crucified heart. Only the heart united with Christ on the Cross is able to love another as himself, and as God loves him. Only such a heart can pass through the narrow gate of the Cross and live in the light of Resurrection. The good news is that this resurrection begins here and now.
The Christian writer must understand his irreplaceable role: Whether his creations be implicitly or explicitly religious, if they integrate truth and beauty and virtue they are signposts along the saving path.
Michael D. O’Brien is a writer and artist in Combermere, Ontario. He is the author of many books, including the six-volume series of novels, Children of the Last Days, and has shown his paintings in over forty gallery exhibitions across North America. His seventh novel, The Island of the World, is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.