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Book review: Conversations with Dostoevksy: On God, Russia, literature, and life by George Pattison

by
10 May 2024

Richard Harries enjoys fresh engagement with Dostoevsky’s thought

MORE than any other novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky raises the big questions of human existence: whether there is a God, immortality, suffering, and suicide. In addition, he is concerned with issues very much alive in the modern world: anti-Semitism, the treatment of women, and the part played by the State.

George Pattison has devised an original way of evaluating Dostoevsky’s views for our time by letting him “appear” from some post-death state to a somewhat jaded secular academic. This enables Dostoevsky to be questioned not only on his own views, but on how he has been interpreted since then.

It is an imaginative device that could have failed, but, with Pattison, succeeds. He is on top of the literature, and he writes clearly in a way that is accessible to the general reader as well as the academic community. The first half of the book consists of these conversations with Dostoevsky. The second half continues the discussion in a more formal academic way.

For good and ill, Dostoevsky has been hugely influential. In particular, his belief in Russian nationalism was taken up in Nazi Germany, and it lies behind some of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda; for, in The Possessed (also entitled, The Devils, or The Demons), the forces of anarchic secular liberalism are likened to the Gadarene swine, and Putin draws on this trope in affirming traditional Russian values as opposed to the decadent individualism and liberalism of the West.

The Orthodox Church has traditionally supported a much closer alignment of Church and State than the Catholic West. In Dostoevsky’s time, this was linked to a fervent belief in the part played by Russia and its suffering people in the renewal of humanity. Pattison assesses this kind of nationalism in a judicious manner, as he does the charge that Dostoevsky was anti-Semitic.

Dostoevsky clearly shared the anti-Semitism of his time, which was before the terrible pogroms, but Pattison argues that his Jewish characters are not as unsympathetic as is sometimes alleged. All the time, Pattison is aware of the difficulty of distinguishing Dostoevsky’s own views from that of any of his characters, a difficulty compounded by the fact that he was polyphonic. Many different voices speak in his head.

There is also the other teasing question about the relationship between literature and life, which runs through the book. Dostoevsky makes good use of the Bible in his stories, notably the raising of Lazarus and the miracle of Cana, and, this, too Pattison brings out. Dostoevsky gives us one of the major Christ-figures in literature in Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and he also has Christ appear before the Grand Inquisitor. But is this Christ too weak? Is he really a redeemer?

One of the key themes in The Brothers Karamazov is that we should take responsibility before everyone, for everyone, for everything. It is also present in Crime and Punishment through the symbolic sharing of crosses. Pattison argues that the Russian word vinovat means not just taking responsibility, but being guilty, and here he takes issue with Rowan Williams. So, in the translation that Pattison uses, Markel, dying of consumption, tells his mother that “everyone of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I more than all.”

Whatever the exact meaning of the Russian word, however, responsibility and guilt cannot simply be equated. If they could, this would evacuate the words “responsibility” and “guilt” of all meaning. To be guilty is to be in the position not only that I am responsible, but also that I could have chosen differently and I am liable to blame.

On the other hand, I can feel responsible without being blamed. I can feel responsible for what is happening in Gaza and Ukraine, in the sense that they remain areas of personal concern. I have a responsibility, an obligation, to do what I can in response, but I am not to blame for all that is happening. Cain was guilty of his brother’s murder, but, even if he had not murdered him, he should still have felt a sense of responsibility towards him as a brother and fellow human being.

Pattison, drawing on a wealth of literature, gives us a Dostoevsky for the issues of our time and every time, and can be strongly recommended.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. He is the author of Haunted by Christ: Modern writers and the struggle for faith (SPCK, 2019).

 

Conversations with Dostoevksy: On God, Russia, literature, and life
George Pattison
OUP £30
(978-0-19-888154-4)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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