Chronicler of the Deep
Chances are that Dostoevsky’s novels, whose bicentennial is commemorated this month, will still be read centuries from now, as Shakespeare’s plays are read, as a permanent landmark on how the human mind imagines itself. He has the distinction of being a fervently Christian writer who is regarded as a genius by a variety of devout non-believers.
But it’s not that surprising. One of the defining moments in Dostoyevsky’s reading came with the publication of a study by Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin in 1929 (revised and expanded for a new version in 1963). Bakhtin explained that part of what was unsettling and original about Dostoyevsky’s fiction was his “polyphonic” technique: his willingness to allow conflicting voices and perspectives to the greatest possible extent.
His novels are, in this sense, like plays: the author’s point of view does not appear as such on the stage. There may be characters who express the author’s point of view, but they should try their luck with others. And Dostoevsky is quite capable of putting his point of view in the mouths of unsavory, failed, even sometimes demonic personalities, urging us to test things for ourselves, not to take the authors at their word – just as he does. also proposes to deliberately plead the cause. for more forensic and ruthless disbelief than many atheists.
There is certainly something theological about it. A 20th-century Russian Orthodox commentator, Paul Evdokimov, liked to say that Dostoyevsky positioned his “holy” figures like icons hung in the corner of the room. They were present, not intervening; not dominant, but inescapable – a kind of image of a God who truly creates a world different from divine reality, in which there is always the divine presence and divine grace, but no guarantee of divine guidance or victory as we would usually understand it from such words.
Dostoevsky – who repeatedly loved and studied the Fourth Gospel – understood that the coincidence of the cross and glory was the inevitable implication of a world in which freedom was a reality. In various ways, the novels reflect on this coincidence – not giving us a series of happy endings, or even convincingly accomplished sacred personalities, but giving glimpses of spiritual discoveries in and through the lives of unlikely characters, the culprits. , the confused, the pathological and the pathetic.
A recent brief study of Dostoevsky by the Bulgarian feminist Julia Kristeva goes so far as to say that her novels are always “Christological”, in the sense that they always revolve around a “kenotic” vision: the world is a place of where God is absent. , God has withdrawn – that is, God is not one agent among others in the world we see.
For the Word, to become flesh is for the Word to live in the center of divine absence – finally in death and abandonment. Faith is seeing / feeling the Word as an absolute imperative of love in the hidden center of the forsaken world. And the opposite of faith is not doubt, but the confidence that one can fill the absence of God in the world by setting up, individually or collectively, in God: setting up oneself as providers of final answers. , of final solutions, that are still in reality totally destructive for humanity.
Hence what is perhaps the most famous and widely anthologized passage of Dostoyevsky, the story of the “Grand Inquisitor” in Brothers Karamazov, who imagines Christ cross-examined by the Spanish Inquisition, condemned because he offers humanity a freedom that humanity cannot face.
Not that Dostoyevksy was a liberal in a vaguely recognizable sense. His political views were chaotic and often extreme, critical of all kinds of aspects of Tsarist Russia, yet fiercely anti-Western, skeptical of authoritarianism, yet despising the individual freedoms cherished by the Enlightenment. His journalism is fierce and abusive (he would have loved Twitter, I’m afraid); it expresses unforgivable anti-Semitic prejudices and, even worse, in Karamazov allows one of its “positive” characters, Alyosha, to imply that there might be something to the myth of the murder of Christian children by Jews.
He’s as flawed and shocking as any of his characters, and there’s no point in trying to whitewash him. As with any artist, what demands attention is the form and rhythm of what is actually done in their work. His unwavering commitment as an artist to letting his own position and authority be challenged does not exonerate him from responsibility for the bigotry, violence and wickedness he may display as a writer, but he allows us to learn from him without idolizing him.
He knows at least that he is fallible; he knows that the voice of the artistic creator is not the voice of God, and that the job of the artist is to listen to and reflect the free diversity of human interaction, and to say what he has to say only in and through this representation with several voices.
IT IS a cliché to say that Dostoyevsky is full of contradictions (he would undoubtedly have said: “Of course!”): His practice as a novelist was to stage debate and conflict, not to silence him, and these debates inside him at least as much as outside. But one last point deserves to be underlined.
He is rightly associated with the representation of extreme morality, even atrocity (his description of the sexual abuse and suicide of a little girl in Devils is almost unbearable to read in his account of the state of mind of the abused, abandoned and self-loathing child). Yet he’s also a brilliant comic book writer, someone whose eye and ear for absurdity is ominously meaningful. It can show us the empty self-importance of fashionable intellectuals, the ridiculous fanaticism of clerics, the blind melodrama of political students, and so much more in a lasting and painfully funny way.
But this is not just a fact “from elsewhere” about him. He writes with a deep commitment to human freedom and dignity, but that freedom includes, in his eyes, the freedom to be irrational and ridiculous. Sometimes we learn about human dignity by seeing how inhuman we can make ourselves – through appalling acts of cruelty and betrayal, and through acts of spectacular stupidity.
It takes a very strange creature to reach the heights and the depths, the tragedy and the comedy, of human relationships. We are strange; and Dostoyevsky sets out to rub his nose at our strangeness – so that we begin to glimpse how strange it is that we are loved, absolved and transfigured if only we would allow it. There is much to contemplate for the next two hundred years.
Bishop Rowan Williams’ publications understand Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2008).