Kissing an Idiot
July 25, 2010 4:23 PM   Subscribe

What's with all the kissing in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot?

I'm about a quarter of the way through The Idiot, and Myshkin tells a long story about how he kissed a village outcast out of sympathy, the village children are kissing him and the village outcast, and Kolya is kissing Myshkin after a slap from Ganya. It's not romantic, it's something more like consolation and sympathy. I can't imagine these were lip-to-lip kisses. Were they on the cheek? On the hand, as Ganya offered to do to Myshkin in apology for the slap? Left-cheek-right-cheek (or is is right-cheek-left-cheek) like the French and Russians do as a greeting? Something....else?

If anyone can tell me, I'd like to know how this kissing was physically performed....and any other info you might have as well with regard to this phenomena in Russia or elsewhere. Thanks!
posted by holterbarbour to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's a different culture, ergo different norms. Kissing's quite common in many non-Western cultures.

I'm not sure what you're asking re: how the kissing was performed...same way all other kisses are performed: with puckered lips.
posted by resiny at 4:41 PM on July 25, 2010

This page from "Guide to Russia" has a bit of a humorous ramble about kissing in Russian culture generally that may be relevant.
posted by onshi at 4:44 PM on July 25, 2010

Resiny, I would expect that the kisser is always using puckered lips-- I'm most curious about the destination of those puckered lips.
posted by holterbarbour at 4:50 PM on July 25, 2010

I'm not sure what you're asking re: how the kissing was performed...same way all other kisses are performed: with puckered lips.

It's pretty clear the question is, is the kissing lips to lips, lips to cheek, lips to hand, what? I wish I could tell you, OP, but I don't know myself. It's been so long since I read the book and I don't remember noticing the kissing, so this is a really intriguing question to me. Hopefully you get some answers.
posted by JenMarie at 4:51 PM on July 25, 2010

Russians do a lot of kissing. It's usually lips-to-cheek, but it can be lips-to-lips without necessarily being at all sexual. For instance, Genevra Gerhart in her wonderful The Russian's World: Life and Language (p. 8 of the second edition) says "'Hello' and 'Goodbye' kisses are fairly common among Russian females and are often on the lips. (You can be insulting if you automatically turn your head away.)"

Contrariwise, Russians don't smile unless they're actually feeling genuine pleasure at the moment, so Americans see them as looking grim/depressed/tragic while they see Americans as looking bizarrely, falsely happy much of the time (or, as Gerhart puts it, they "are often sickened by this treacle"). Like resiny said, it's a different culture.
posted by languagehat at 4:59 PM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing kissing as a standard way to greet/farewell someone. And, like languagehate stated, men don't really kiss on the lip (on the cheek is standard,) but women do. If you could tell me what the Russian word they're using for "pucker" is, I might be able to divine some significance.
posted by griphus at 5:04 PM on July 25, 2010

Oh, sorry. Misunderstood. Like languagehat said, usually lips-to-cheek, but not uncommonly it'll be the corner of the mouth.
posted by resiny at 5:41 PM on July 25, 2010

Another possibility to think of (and I'm dredging this up from back in college days studying Russian Lit. memories, so it could be foggy), but one of my professors taught that Dostoevsky attempted at three Christ-like characters. Two failed and one succeeded. The successful character was Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov from The Brothers Karamazov, the two failed were Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment and Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin of The Idiot. The reasons for failure mainly boiled down to ham-handedness of execution, according to the prof. They weren't believable Christ-like characters. They were almost caricatures. Though that's neither here nor there, just trying to follow my train of thought here.

Taken into context the role of kissing an icon in veneration in Eastern Orthdoxy (and just in Christianity itself. Betrayal of Christ with a kiss, anybody?), Dostoevsky's own writing of characters who posses long-suffering characteristics of saints (also look at the major themes section for the Wikipedia entry on The Idiot), it's not hard to see all of the kissing as a possible set up of Prince Myshkin as a saint-like or Christ-like character. His characterization points towards it. Even the semi-autobiographical inclusion of epilepsy takes on meaning when you take into account how historically epileptics were sometimes seen as persons being in touch with God. Their seizures evidence of being touched by God or receiving some kind of divine epiphany/vision (or being possessed by demons, depends on your agenda I suppose).
posted by kkokkodalk at 8:01 AM on July 26, 2010

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