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Chronicler of the depths

by
12 November 2021

Rowan Williams celebrates the work of Dostoevsky, born 200 years ago yesterday

David Cole/Alamy

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81)

THE chances are that the novels of Dostoevsky, whose bicentenary is being commemorated this month, will still be read centuries from now, as Shakespeare’s plays are read, as an abiding landmark for how the human spirit imagines itself. He has the distinction of being a fervently Christian writer who is regarded as a genius by a variety of fervent non-believers.

But this is not all that surprising. One of the watershed moments in the reading of Dostoevsky came with the publication of a study by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin in 1929 (revised and enlarged for a new version in 1963). Bakhtin explained that part of what was unsettling and original in Dostoevsky’s fiction was his “polyphonic” technique: his willingness to allow conflicting voices and perspectives the fullest possible scope.

His novels are, in that sense, like plays: the author’s perspective does not appear as such on the stage. There may be characters who articulate the author’s view, but they have to take their chances along with the rest of them. And Dostoevsky is quite capable of putting his views into the mouth of disreputable, failed, even occasionally demonic figures, inviting us to test things for ourselves, not to take the authorial word for it — just as he also sets out deliberately to make the case for unbelief more forensically and more mercilessly than many atheists.

 

THERE is something definitely theological about this. One 20th-century Russian Orthodox commentator, Paul Evdokimov, liked to say that Dostoevsky positioned his “saintly” figures like icons hung in the corner of the room. They were present, not intervening; not dominating, but inescapable — a sort of image of a God who genuinely makes a world that is different from the divine reality, in which there is always divine presence and divine grace, but no guarantee of divine direction or victory as we would usually understand such words.

Dostoevsky — who loved and repeatedly studied the Fourth Gospel — grasped that the coincidence of cross and glory was the inevitable implication of a world in which freedom was a reality. In various ways, the novels reflect on that coincidence — not providing us with a series of happy endings, or even of compellingly achieved holy personalities, but giving glimpses of spiritual discovery in and through the lives of unlikely characters, the guilty, the confused, the pathological, and the pathetic.

A recent short study of Dostoevsky by the Bulgarian feminist scholar Julia Kristeva goes so far as to say that his novels are always “Christological”, in that they always pivot around a “kenotic” insight: the world is a place from which God is absent, God has withdrawn — that is, God is not an agent among others in the world we see.

For the Word to become flesh is for the Word to live in the centre of divine absence — ultimately in death and abandonment. Faith is seeing/sensing the Word as an absolute imperative of love in the hidden centre of the abandoned world. And the opposite of faith is not doubt, but the confidence that we can fill up the absence of God in the world by setting up ourselves, individually or collectively, as God: setting ourselves up as the providers of final answers, final solutions, that are always in reality utterly destructive of humanity.

Hence what is perhaps Dostoevsky’s most famous and widely anthologised passage, the “Grand Inquisitor” story in Brothers Karamazov, which imagines Christ under cross-examination by the Spanish Inquisition, condemned because he offers humanity a freedom that humanity cannot cope with.

Not that Dostoevksy was a liberal in any remotely recognisable sense. His political views were chaotic and often extreme, critical of all sorts of aspects of Tsarist Russia, but savagely anti-Western, sceptical of authoritarianism, but contemptuous of the individual liberties treasured by the Enlightenment. His journalism is ferocious and abusive (he would have loved Twitter, I’m afraid); he voices unforgivable anti-Semitic prejudices, and, worse still, in Karamazov allows one of his “positive” characters, Alyosha, to imply that there might be something in the myth of Jews’ killing Christian children.

He is as flawed and shocking as any of his characters, and there is no point trying to whitewash him. As with any artist, what asks to be attended to is the shape and rhythm of what is actually made in his works. His unsparing commitment as an artist to letting his own position and authority be questioned does not absolve him of responsibility for the bigotry, violence, and malice tha the can show as a writer, but it does allow us to learn from him without idolising him.

He knows, at least, that he is fallible; he knows that the artistic creator’s voice is not the voice of God, and that the artist’s job is to listen and reflect the free diversity of human interaction, and to say what they have to say only in and through this many-voiced representation.

 

IT IS a cliché to say that Dostoevsky is full of contradictions (he would no doubt have said, “Of course!”): his practice as a novelist was to stage debate and conflict, not to silence it, and those debates were manifestly going on inside him at least as much as outside. But one last point is worth making.

He is associated, rightly, with the depiction of moral extremity, and even atrocity (his description of the sexual abuse and suicide of a little girl in Devils is almost unbearable to read in its account of the state of mind of the abused, abandoned, and self-loathing child). Yet he is also a brilliant comic writer, someone whose eye and ear for absurdity are disturbingly keen. He can show us the vacuous self-importance of fashionable intellectuals, the ridiculous fanaticism of the religious, the self-deluding melodrama of student politicians, and much more in ways that are abidingly and painfully funny.

But this is not just a “by-the-way” fact about him. He writes out of 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 just how inhuman we can make ourselves — by acts of appalling cruelty and betrayal, and by acts of spectacular stupidity.

It takes a very strange creature to achieve the heights and depths, the tragedy and comedy, of human relations. We are strange; and Dostoevsky sets out to rub our noses in our strangeness — so that we begin to get a glimpse of just how strange it is that we should be loved, absolved, and transfigured if we would only allow it. There is plenty there to contemplate for the next couple of hundred years.

 

Bishop Rowan Williams’s publications include Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction (Bloomsbury, 2008).

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