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Dostoevsky & ‘Don Quixote’

In response to:

The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote from the June 11, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

Fairness requires a reminder that the paradox implied in the title of Simon Leys’s erudite and moving essay, “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote” [NYR, June 11], originally belongs to Dostoevsky, who on January 13, 1868, in a letter from Geneva confided to his favorite young niece, Sophia Ivanova, how immensely difficult it was to realize his idea for a new novel. He wrote:

The main idea of the novel is to present a positively beautiful man. This is the most difficult subject in the world, especially as it is now. All writers, not just our, but European writers, too, have always failed whenever they attempted a portrait of the positively beautiful. Because the task is so infinite. The beautiful is an ideal, but both our ideal and that of civilized Europe are still far from being shaped. There is only one positively beautiful person in the world, Christ, and the phenomenon of this limitlessly, infinitely beautiful person is an infinite miracle in itself. (The whole Gospel according to John is about that: for him the whole miracle is only in the incarnation, in the manifestation of the beautiful.) But I am going too far. I’d only mention that of all the beautiful individuals in Christian literature, one stands out as the most perfect, Don Quixote. But he is beautiful only because he is ridiculous. Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick (who is, as a creative idea, infinitely weaker than Don Quixote but still gigantic) is also ridiculous but that is all he has to captivate us. Wherever compassion toward ridiculed and ingenious beauty is presented, the reader’s sympathy is aroused. The mystery of humor lies in this excitation of compassion.*

At the time when he wrote this letter, Dostoevsky was working on his own variation of the “Christ as Don Quixote” or “Christ Ridiculous” theme: Prince Myshkin of The Idiot. From here a line can be dotted back to Mr. Leys’s essay: both Cervantes and Dostoevsky were targets of Nabokov’s iconoclastic vitriol.

Lev Loseff
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire

Simon Leys replies:

I did not know the remarkable letter by Dostoevsky commenting on Don Quixote, and Professor Loseff should be thanked for pointing it to our attention. The association between the figures of “Christ-like Don Quixote,” “Christ Ridiculous,” and Prince Myshkin—“the Idiot”—is apposite and illuminating.

In fact, however, the phrase which I used for the title of my little essay (“The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote”) is a straight quotation from Unamuno.

  1. *

    F.M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 28-2 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1985), p. 251. I am grateful to my colleague, Dick Sheldon, for helping me with this translation. For a sensible discussion of Dostoevsky’s views of Cervantes see V.E. Bagno, “Dostoevskii o Don Kikhote Servantesa” in Dostoevskii: materialy i issledovaniia, Vol. 3 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1980), pp. 126-135.

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