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From the July/August, 2009
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Russia’s Gospel Writer by Ralph C. Wood

Russia’s Gospel Writer

Dostoevsky & the Affirmation of Life by Predrag Cicovacki
Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction by Rowan Williams

reviewed by Ralph C. Wood

The literary critic Harold Bloom once defined a classic as a book that requires us permanently to rearrange the furniture of our lives. He meant, I suspect, that such a text prevents us from viewing the world through conventional lenses; it requires us not only to see the world with cleansed vision but also to reorder our lives accordingly. T. S. Eliot defined literary greatness in similar terms. “The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions: Dante’s [Divine Comedy] is one of those [books] which one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life.”

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is another. I suspect that it has caused more readers of various types and commitments to redefine themselves both morally and spiritually than has any other non-biblical text, excepting only Dante’s.

Neither of the two books I will consider here—Predrag Cicovacki’s Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life and Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction—is devoted entirely to an explication of The Brothers Karamazov; on the contrary, they both attend to the whole of Dostoevsky’s fiction. Yet this greatest of Dostoevsky’s novels becomes the center of their focus; for it is there, more than in any other place, that Dostoevsky most convincingly confronts the peril and promise of late-Enlightenment modernity.

Fantastic Reality

In Dostoevsky and the Affirmation of Life (St. Augustine’s Press, 2009), Predrag Cicovacki, a professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, focuses on a single injunction that the novice monk Alyosha Karamazov gives to his brother Dmitri near the end of the novel. “Love life,” Alyosha enjoins his troubled sibling, “more than its meaning.”

Like many other readers of Dostoevsky, Professor Cicovacki regards Alyosha as a reliable spokesman for Dostoevsky himself. It is certainly true that Alyosha is warning Dmitri against the mistake made by their skeptical other brother Ivan.

Ivan is the Dostoevskian character who most fully embodies the soul-rending doubts that have become endemic to modern life. Citing the work of Isaiah Berlin, Cicovacki shows that Ivan is wracked by the three most devastating Enlightenment “humiliations” of Christian tradition: (1) the denial that man is the purpose and center of creation; (2) the insistence that man is but a creature of nature like all other animals; and (3) the discovery that reason is not autonomous and objective but subject to overt passions and covert illusions that radically distort its judgments.

Overly simply stated, Cicovacki’s argument is that Dostoevsky does not give typically Western answers to these questions. On the contrary, Dostoevsky is an anti-rationalist who insists, with Alyosha, that it is not only unnecessary but actually impossible to know the meaning of life as a condition for affirming it. In this rather existentialist reading of Dostoevsky, the great Russian is seen as providing a helpfully Eastern vision of life over against a more Western outlook.

The Eastern Church, in Cicovacki’s reading of Dostoevsky, provides the novelist a more intuitive and cyclical view of things than does the rationalist and linear West. Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodoxy is devoted to a mystical sense of the earth as more our mother than our sister; it is committed to the God who is more immanent than transcendent. Dostoevsky regarded life as too contradictory, Cicovacki argues, to be comprehended and lived on strictly rational grounds. As Dostoevsky himself confessed, “there is nothing more fantastic than reality itself.”

Deadly Antinomy

The essential contraries facing Dostoevsky’s characters are voiced by the surly narrator of Notes from the Underground, a man dwelling misanthropically and anonymously in his miserable “mousehole.” On the one hand, the repressive order of man-managed nature is represented by the Crystal Palace, the world’s first huge glass-and-iron structure, the grandiose center for what amounted to the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. It was a triumph of such scientific skill and expertise that it portended the ultimate reduction of humanity to animality by means of a similar mastery and control. The totalizing rationalistic systems of late modernity, whether political or psychological, have frighteningly fulfilled the Underground Man’s fear.

On the other hand, there is the destructive freedom that elevates will over reason, the passions over self-knowledge. In order to keep free from all soul-deadening conformity, we are called to indulge our voluptuous desires in arbitrary acts of self-will. The various irrationalisms of post-modernity again make Dostoevsky exceedingly prescient. One needs only to inspect Benedict XVI’s protest against the de-Hellenization of Christianity to see how Dostoevsky anticipated the advent of nihilistic subjectivism. “The subject decides,” declared the pope in 2006, “on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective ‘conscience’ becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.”

According to the Underground Man, life cannot be both ordered and free, both just and happy. Hence his final despair. The chief contention of Professor Cicovacki’s book is to show that Dostoevsky overcomes this deadly antinomy in the four great novels of his maturity: The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, The Devils (also translated as The Possessed), and especially in The Brothers Karamazov.

Dmitri the Hero

Dostoevsky achieves this triumph by discerning that the Underground Man’s irreconcilable opposites are in fact dialectical polarities that cannot be divided but must be united. Their union requires a subrational affirmation of life as the supreme gift. God grants us the drastic freedom either to ennoble or to degrade this largest of all gifts. Dmitri Karamazov describes such ennoblement and such degradation when he declares that every human heart is imbued with the contradictory ideals of the Madonna, on the one hand, and of Sodom on the other—the utterly sacred and the utterly profane. Hence Dmitri’s famous complaint: “Man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down.”

Though his argument is too subtle and complex for brief treatment, Professor Cicovacki argues that Dostoevsky refuses any such constriction of human life. Its troublesome breadth and incomprehensible variety are the source of its sustaining and invigorating vitality. Ivan Karamazov ends in cruelty and madness because he will not embrace such a harsh and contradictory world. He demands to understand why the universe is full of purposeless suffering before he will embrace it.

Dmitri, by contrast, finds newness of life because he gradually discerns, with Alyosha’s help, that God creates a partially indeterminate cosmos in order to leave room for human freedom. Authentic faith is the willingness to affirm the complementarity of good and evil—indeed, to embrace the God “who lacks any discernible essence and who is the God of existence, the God of the mysterious flow of life,” writes Cicovacki.

Dmitri does not search for the meaning of life but the experience of being alive. He does not ask what the meaning of life is but senses that it is he who is being asked. Dmitri understands that he is being questioned by life and that he must answer with his own life. His answer consists in reverence and awe for life—he serves this life without any demands for rights, or pretensions of greatness. Dmitri is the incarnation of the affirmation of life, even in the face of evil. If there is a hero in The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is it.

Demonic Ease

In his Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (Baylor University Press, 2008), Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, also regards Dmitri as the hero of the novel, but for radically opposed reasons. Dostoevsky, in his view, does not respond to the challenges of the Enlightenment with an existentialist appeal to love life apart from its meaning.

The Anglican bishop-theologian confesses that his task is not easy. Dostoevsky himself notoriously claimed that, if he were pressed to choose between Christ and the truth, he would not hesitate to choose Christ. Yet Williams demonstrates that, by “truth,” Dostoevsky does not refer to the veracity or trustworthiness of being itself, but rather to the modern conception of a closed universe where every effect is inevitably produced by its antecedent cause, where human nature and desire become mechanisms that can be controlled by the powerful, and thus where arbitrary will is all that finally matters. Dostoevsky was right, Williams argues, to reject such a pernicious notion of “truth.”

Williams’s basic thesis is that, for Dostoevsky, love is always a difficult and often deceptive thing, never something obvious and uncomplicated. On the contrary, it’s the demonic that would make life horribly easy.

Ivan Karamazov’s famous claim that, “if God is dead, then all things are permitted” is much more satanic than the traditional reading indicates. He is not simply stating the rather obvious notion that, if there were no afterlife to guarantee justice for the good and punishment for the evil, then everyone would eagerly serve his own will, all restraint being lifted, all crime becoming legitimate. What he really and terribly means is this: If God is dead, then the ego must occupy his vacant place. In the absence of God, there is no transcendent order for determining the difference between atrocity and beauty, between love and hatred of neighbor, between virtue and vice—except as the solitary self decides. No wonder that Nietzsche, the apostle of autonomous will, declared God to be dead at virtually the same time Ivan was making his own pronouncement.

Locked Out from Love

It follows that Dostoevsky’s Devil is not, like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, a friendly “spirit who negates,” a naughty “imp of the perverse,” who keeps life from becoming an endless Sunday-school picnic of tedious yea-saying. He is, instead, the deceptive specter who leaves us in suspense concerning his own reality or unreality: “We do not know,” Williams declares, “what it is that emerges from our own intelligence [as hallucination] and what is given to us and required of us from beyond ourselves—both the vision of God and the vision of total meaninglessness.”

Yet there is hope for Satan’s final defeat and thus our own undeception. The arch dissembler cannot dwell forever, Williams writes, because “he is locked out from the self-commitment of bodily and temporal life and thus from the self-risking of love.” Though Ivan Karamazov ends in demonic insanity, he at least retains the miserable integrity of his unbelief. Dostoevsky might have enabled him (if he had lived to write his sequel to The Brothers Karamazov) to become a holy fool in the Orthodox tradition—a man who, like St. Basil of Moscow, so totally abandons himself to God that he doesn’t bother to wear clothes.

Such a serious estimate of the devil reveals that Dostoevsky may be our profoundest Christian artist. In his fiction, the path toward goodness and salvation is not easily traversed. It is not a matter of discerning the inherent order of the universe and then ordering our lives according to it, in rigorous medieval fashion. Our age faces new possibilities for both good and evil. Dostoevsky is the most convincing modern writer because he engages these new chances and changes, acknowledging rather than avoiding the world’s troubling ambiguity and inherent disorder.

He refuses to make God into a tyrant who constantly slaps the world into shape. He is the God of love, not in spite of his refusal to overrule human freedom but rather because he works through personal agency. “Faith moves and adapts, matures and reshapes itself . . . by the relentless stripping away of . . . egoistic or triumphalistic expectations,” Williams declares. If God were to make faith a matter of assured and relentless progress, then he would not be the self-emptying God but the sovereign Manager of the universe, a divine monster akin to the devil himself.

Christian Open-Endedness

Secular interpreters have often made the opposite case—that Dostoevsky seeks to be a Christian novelist but in fact fails, as his work finally succumbs to the world’s endless ambiguity and uncertainty. As Blake famously said of Milton, so do they say of Dostoevsky: He was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Such skeptics insist that the conflicting narrators and contradictory characters and opposing scenes reveal that Dostoevsky did not succeed in giving fictional embodiment to his Christian convictions.

Rowan Williams turns these critics on their head. Dostoevsky is all the more persuasively Christian, he argues, for refusing “any obvious strategy of closure in the narrative.” Dostoevsky’s inconclusiveness places the real burden on the reader to decide whether Christian faith can offer a lasting reconciliation of life’s seemingly insuperable antagonisms. Never does Dostoevsky make the gospel into a proposition that offers ready dictates or easy resolutions. It is truly Good News in its very oddity, its peculiar refusal to take its place as one among many means to a noble life, as yet another instrument for achieving virtue and avoiding vice. Its truth is singular, paradoxical, strange, unfinished.

Williams’s most revolutionary discovery is that Dostoevsky’s fiction is open-ended and unfinished because it is Christian. His novels are inconclusive (though not relativistic) in ways that reflect God’s own inconclusive action in the world:

The Dostoevskian novel . . . enacts the freedom it discusses by creating a narrative space in which various futures are possible for characters and for readers. And in so doing it seeks . . . to represent the ways in which the world’s creator exercises “authorship,” generat[ing] dependence without control.

Dwelling Amid Tensions

Hence the subtitle of Williams’s book and one of its central insights: Faith and fiction are profoundly linked. They are both practices that stand over against a world of ordinary giving and getting, of hurting and being hurt. Faith is a free response to God’s own freedom as we unexpectedly and undeservedly encounter it within the knotty resistances of the world.

Dostoevskian fiction is similarly gratuitous. It narratively reveals that no human situation can be finally hopeless and finished. Death is rarely the conclusion of Dostoevsky novels. His belief in immortality makes him concerned not primarily with what happens in the afterlife but rather with the eternal worth of every human being, no matter how seemingly valueless.

This means that the Lord of freedom values his creation so profoundly that he permits his creatures freely to refuse both acceptance and understanding of his world. Ivan Karamazov is the most notable example, as we have seen. Ivan assails God, in agonizing protest, for allowing innocent children to suffer unspeakable evils. Nowhere does Dostoevsky provide a vision of cosmic harmony as an answer to this most unanswerable of questions.

Yet neither does he despair of all resolution. His fiction contains no irrationalist resignation to the final untruthfulness of things. Nor does he make Christ into a stark sign of absolute contradiction to the world, an unworldly savior who transports his disciples into blissful acceptance and undoubting faith.

Instead, Dostoevsky has his characters learn how to dwell amid wrenching tensions and contradictions. Among the many paradoxes at work in Dostoevsky’s fiction, Ivan’s protest is perhaps the most obvious. Without an ultimate order of significance, his outcry would have no meaning, his care for children no substance, his love for “the sticky little leaves in spring” no validity.

Catching the Gospel

This transcendent order is immensely complex and often discomforting. Dostoevsky’s Christ does not merely confirm and re-establish the world’s best impulses. He introduces radically new possibilities and realities. He interrupts closed systems of thinking and destructive ways of desiring. He refuses to leave us alone in our joylessness and lovelessness. Yet he never coerces. For then he would become just another force of nature, and the Church would be just another product of culture. “Christ is apprehended,” Williams discerns,

when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire. It does not compel and cannot be treated in the framework of causes and effects; if the possibility is not “caught,” nothing can make it.

To “catch” the gospel is the greatest of all gifts, and to hold onto it is the greatest of all privileges. But such a life entails no promise of happiness or security. There is no guarantee that the world will be healed or that we ourselves shall be spared immense suffering. On the contrary, to be immersed in the viscous reality of the world by making choices and reaping their consequences is inevitably to be burdened by both hurt and guilt.

This explains why Williams finds Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, to be disturbingly un-Christlike. Myshkin causes inadvertent harm, in fact, because he remains so “innocent,” so cut off from a suffering solidarity with other human beings, so “free” of guilty responsibility for them.

Neither is Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov a figure of unalloyed goodness. Hence Father Zosima’s insistence that he leave the monastery and enter the world. Without learning to give and to receive both blessing and injury, he would become a dangerous monk indeed. Even the holiest of Dostoevsky’s characters, Zosima himself, makes his ringing affirmations about love and joy and the goodness of the world only after he has confronted the cost of Christlikeness:

For Jesus to be human at all [Zosima comes to see] . . . is for him to be faced with choices not simply between good and evil but between options that might arguably be good but also bring with them incalculable costs. The options that confront actual historical agents are not like self-contained items on a shelf or rack awaiting buyers; they are part of a continuum of human policies that may be flawed and damaging, and they will already be constrained by what has happened [in the past]. This is the concrete meaning of embracing the consequences of fallenness.

Negative Theology

Perhaps the most remarkable of the archbishop’s claims is that Dostoevsky’s fiction is most faithfully Orthodox (in the Eastern sense) because it is uncompromisingly apophatic. This technical term refers to the inability of all human categories to conceptualize God. Rather than assigning human attributes to God that threaten to make him an infinitely large version of ourselves, we do better to say what God is not: “ Immortal, invisible, God only wise,” as the old hymn declares, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Dostoevsky’s fiction finely embodies this “negative theology” by holding to “the principle that whatever is specifically said of God has also to be un-said as soon as it seems to offer the seductive prospect of a definition of the divine essence.” As Williams affirms,

There is, for Dostoevsky, no form of words about faith that is beyond criticism; sincerity is not enough. . . . To refuse to [admit the relativity of one’s faith] would be to suggest that a point had been reached where there was nothing more to be said—which would be to take refuge in the escape from time which undermines true faith. . . . There is nothing sayable that cannot be answered or contradicted or qualified in some way or another. . . . [E]very new statement of faith has to issue into a linguistic world where it may be either contradicted, ignored, parodied or . . . trivialized as a cliché.

Iconic Hero

In a brilliant final chapter on icons and iconic characters, the archbishop of Canterbury argues that icons reveal the mystery they portray. They are a presence more than an action. They disclose “what is hidden in the person who is confronted by [them]. The more depth and fullness in the depiction, the more the capacity to unveil the beholder.”

It is not surprising that Williams should regard Father Zosima as an iconic figure in this precise sense: Everyone in The Brothers Karamazov finds fulfillment or frustration in relation to him. He—not an abstract theodicy that requires Christians to justify and accept the undeserved suffering of children—is the answer to Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor.

Dmitri, the brother who is blamed for the murder of his father, though in fact he is technically innocent, is the iconic hero of the novel. He comes, ever so gradually and reluctantly, to practice the celebrated teaching of Father Zosima that “all are responsible for all.” Dmitri takes responsibility for having wished and longed for his father’s death. He accepts his undeserved imprisonment in the conviction that he cannot receive God’s mercy except through what Williams calls “an appalled longing for expiation.” Dmitri reveals, above all, that Dostoevsky does not compel a choice between Christ and the truth. Christ is the Truth because he is “the primordial Icon, the eternal image of God.”

Yet he is no obvious or manageable image. In accord with the Christian East, Dostoevsky discerns a deeply kenotic, self-emptying quality in the incarnate Christ. He both reveals and withholds himself. His loving presence is known through his voluntary absence. He creates both “understanding and not-understanding, reverence and contempt.”

It’s not that these opposites are equal and self-cancelling, but that Christ enables and requires his disciples to live within their tension, as he himself supremely lived. “Even the eternal, finally authoritative image, when it is manifested in history, is subject to rejection and disfiguring; the Word of God is not naturally and visibly the last word in history.”

Discarnate Emperor of Nothing

Evil, by contrast, seeks the absolute finality that faith foregoes. It wants to be uncontradicted and unqualified. It does so, Williams argues, by refusing to occupy space and time, to inhabit bodies and histories and limits. Satan is the discarnate emperor of Nothing, a figure for whom all moments and choices and persons are equally null and thus equally interchangeable. No wonder that so many of Dostoevsky’s nihilistic characters end in suicide, the choice to end all choices.

By contrast, the figure in the face of an icon engenders new life. It comes forth to meet the viewer with “an otherness that is ultimately quite inaccessible to me and resistant to my control,” Williams observes. “[I]t is an otherness that seeks itself in me, and enables me to seek myself in it, not a diminution of my own solidity but the condition for it.” Icons invite us to live with transformed if also troubled faces.

Iconic figures who have not yet been transformed are always shown in profile, for not to have a full face is not to be fully human. “When souls start to break down,” declared Dostoevsky’s contemporary Nicholai Gogol, “then faces also degenerate.”

Ours is a faceless and demonic Age of Ashes because so many of our political and economic regimes have had an anti-iconic estimate of human beings, regarding them not as images of God but as undifferentiated and dispensable units to be used for placeless and timeless projects of manipulation and control. In cultures such as ours, where there are few convincing declarations of the gospel and still fewer human icons of Christ, Williams’s alarming description of life within Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils becomes a portrait of our own time:

There are no narrative icons around, and so the cultic icon [employed in worship] is in danger of being seen as equally an empty sign, without power. And when the image, in painted wood or flesh and blood, is experienced as vacuous and ineffectual, the potential for realizing the image of God in actual human beings disappears: no icon, no human compassion or self-questioning.

Confronting the Fiercest Challenges

Predrag Cicovacki has written a provocative and partially convincing book on Dostoevsky. Rowan Williams’s work belongs to an entirely different category: It is the profoundest theological and literary treatise I have read for many years. I commend it especially to those who may disagree with the archbishop’s stance on certain moral issues. None of such current controversies arise in this remarkable book, and in no way do his positions there invalidate his argument here.

It would be a terrible error to dismiss Rowan Williams as “just another liberal.” Rather, he is a theologian who is eager “to break bread with the dead,” as W. H. Auden called our communion with the past. Williams is one of the most eminent theologians of our time for the same reason that Dostoevsky remains one of the most eminent writers of our age. They both enable us to confront the fiercest challenges to Christianity.

Dostoevsky accomplishes this stunning feat by remaining at once profoundly Eastern and Western, both traditional and contemporary. He shares the anguish of Western self-consciousness, even as he engages it with an Eastern iconic imagination. He beckons us not to denigrate but rather to integrate authentic doubt with true holiness of life. •


Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His books include The Comedy of Redemption, The Gospel According to Tolkien, and Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

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