Risking Dostoevsky

November 22, 2020

I first read ‘Crime and Punishment’ at college a long long time ago. Being a callow youth I missed the point absolutely about why it is such a towering book, and in fact I found it prosaic and pedestrian. That says more about me as a youth than it does about the book and the writer.

I read it again last year – a long and hardly justifiable hiatus between readings; my only reasonable excuse being that the intervening years had been filled with earning and employment and raising a family. On this point of raising a family, friends of mine, a husband and wife couple, who are members of The Childbirth Trust here in UK, when my wife was about to give birth to our first child, a son, Adam, I suggested to them that I might be able to get a little reading in still here and there nonetheless, once the child was born.

Both of them answered quite without hesitation, no, I wouldn’t, and not for a long time. This turned out to be a true statement. The demands of a firstborn, and only marginally less the demands of a second and a third born, all sons, I found able to keep me in activity and in thought enough to exclude rather more activities than mere reading.

One’s life literally changes, and for the term of its natural course it is changed, by the birth of a first child into a family. This is not a digression from the topic of ‘Crime and Punishment’ and its author Dostoevsky, because I attribute this very fact of having had a first child, and of having had at that moment of feeling a wave of inexplicable joy and marvel suffuse me, a powerful change in me.

The second and third children were also very welcome, and a source of joy and wonder to behold; the unexpectedness of that wave for my first child suffusing me however was aback-taking and unanswerable in terms of it being wholly involuntary in its occurrence.

That event created in me a sudden ramping up of a long and continuing questioning which had been with me most of my life. Beforehand I had formulated in my mind but I had failed to feel its consequent affective impact; that the creation of a child, a new life, from what biologists call stem cells, was no less than an astonishing marvel. I had argued with myself that everything in being appeared to be winding down – eroding, ageing, decomposing, dispersing – and that time passing brought this depletion as an inevitability.

But new birth, of any kind, animal or plant, was seriously different; and radical when set against the course of nature otherwise. Here and every time was created an entirely fresh start. A child normally can expect to live to the age of those people who are its parents; as the Bible says – threescore years and ten. A brand new item then, like nothing else, with no built-in legacy losses passed on to it (I mean not congenital problems but in the ordinary way when a newborn is plain OK fit and healthy)

This I felt was exceptional; not to be passed by and left forgotten. It was the awakening of feeling and attaching this feeling to that hitherto only theoretical position in my head, which as it were ‘awoke’ me proper, from a sort of half-sleep I had been sleeping, having been troubled hitherto only from time to time by my aforesaid sidekick questionings.

The death by violence dished out by Raskolnikov to the loan shark old lady, that is, the pivotal action for the narrative of Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’, had been unable to move me sufficiently in my college days for it to have become motivation, justification enough, for me to have taken a due greater interest in the book.

Raskolnikov’s rationale by which he justified his act seemed to me at that time to be wrong minded but just the result of too much over-thinking coupled with incipient depression of mind; perhaps my own symptoms and situation at the time projected onto the character?

Matthew Arnold, also a depressive by nature, said of William Wordsworth, after having read his poems, that he ‘made us feel the wind on our foreheads again’. This statement to my mind means that Wordsworth’s poems and what they embody as outlook and feeling, had acted as effective therapy on Arnold’s depression and downbeat view of life.

I can only parallel my own personal ‘awakening’ with this therapeutic effect of Wordsworth on Arnold. When my first child was born I was shocked by natural feelings into a revitalisation, and by complete surprise.

In the course of a few months after the birth, I turned up at my local church and sat for the first time through a service voluntarily, and without thoughts that perhaps I should not be there. This sea-change, becoming a Christian follower of The Lord Jesus, was the outer end of my journey from sleep to awakening – but, indeed, this was a new beginning and not a journey’s end. Over the years I have, I hope and believe, moved forwards, onwards, on that journey, which I believe and expect and hope will never end during this present life, until, if it is permitted, ‘in my flesh I shall see God’ .

So this I tend to think is why my second reading of ‘Crime and Punishment’ made last year at an age of 69, told me so much more – about why the novel is so well thought of, and why it is so great; and - as I am now going to speak of - about myself it told me so much which was uncomfortable, so much so, that had I been in such an uncomfortable situation earlier in my life, I may have allowed a wish to have had it not divulged to me to get the better of my judgement.

This week or so I have begun reading ‘The Karamazov Brothers’ in a hope to have a second great novel from Dostoevsky under my belt. It is a long book, over 800 pages in my edition, and I am not yet at 100 of them. The novel however has not disappointed me; and that is a contrary thing to say because it has captivated me. Yet even more so than my reading of ‘Crime and Punishment’ ‘The Karamazov Brothers’ has laid wide open in me terribly unsettling thoughts and ideas about myself.

The power and greatness of Dostoevsky as a writer is in this ability of his to state plainly and in fine detail how his characters think and why they think like that. And he does this without lecturing, and at the same time keeping his narrative extraordinarily alive and pressing forward. But – and I guess I’m not alone in saying and thinking this – on the way as one is reading him one’s own self and outlook and feelings become delicately infused with a terrible sense of vulnerability, as if it were the price of reading and learning from Dostoevsky to have one's own soul operated on my a considerable surgeon along the way.

This might sound like hyperbole to some people, over the top exaggeration? Formerly I had experienced this sense of having been opened up and exposed to myself very particularly when I was reading the monologues of The Police Inspector, who in ‘Crime and Punishment’ almost garrulously talks Raskolnikov into a confession over a course of several months intermittent meetings between them, some merely by chance.

The Inspector’s garrulous ‘psychologising’ on the murder, on hypothetical and on particular suspects has a way of insinuating itself into not just Raskolnikov’s consciousness but also with considerable force into a reader’s own. Very disturbing. Very self-questioning. But at the same time a read not easy to put down, even for a break before the next chapters.

‘The Karamazov Brothers’ holds this same charm and attraction, along with this same disturbing quality, able to open vulnerabilities in readers – but to a much greater degree than even does ‘Crime and Punishment’

I have to say here that my editions have been those translated by Constance Garnett, whose job she has done very well, and has carried, I suspect, much of the flavour and might of the originals into the English of her choosing.

I want to insert here, beforehand to my tackling just one or two of those items that make me self-question my conscience so concernedly, some passages taken from ‘The Karamazov Brothers’ which are prophetic and prescient of the history yet to occur in Russia, and in Europe, proceeding right up to the present age. My adding in these passages for you, I believe, adds great weigh of evidence to my claim that Dostoevsky was a great seer; into the future and also, fiercely, into the hearts of men and women.

The argument I have taken from the book rests on this extract; being the principle concern:

The Christian Church entering into the State could, of course, surrender no part of its fundamental principles for which it stands and could pursue no other aims than those which have been ordained and revealed by God Himself, and among them that of drawing the whole world and, therefore the ancient pagan State itself, into the Church. In that way (that is, with a view to the future) it is not the Church that should seek a definite position in the State, like 'every social organisation,' or as 'an organisation of men for religious purposes' (as my opponent calls the Church) but, on the contrary, every earthly State should be, in the end, completely transformed into the Church and should become nothing else but a Church, rejecting every purpose incongruous with the aims of the Church.

A commentary on this principle then follows, in which are these remarks: (I have emboldened the text where the prophetic statements of Dostoevsky are placed in these extracts from his novel.)

...according to certain theories only too clearly formulated in the nineteenth century, the Church ought to be, is, in brief, transformed into the State, as though an advance from a lower to a higher form…”

“*And for this to happen would be an advantage to the State, that the Church should disappear into it, for science, for the spirit of the age, and civilisation. And if the Church is unwilling to do so, some corner will be found for it by the State, and even that under control; **and this will be so everywhere in all modern European countries. *But Russian hopes and conceptions demand otherwise….”

*If the **Church **resists, **then** a **place **will be set apart for her in the State, —that the Church should pass as from a lower into a higher type into the State, but, on the contrary, that the State should end by being worthy to become only the Church and nothing else.”*

Here next is the liberal freethinker Miusov making his comment on this State versus Church issue:

Well, I confess you've reassured me somewhat," Miusov said smiling, again crossing his legs. "So far as I understand then, the realisation of such an ideal is infinitely remote, at the second coming of Christ. That's as you please. It's a beautiful Utopian dream of the abolition of war, diplomacy, banks, and something after the fashion of socialism, indeed. I imagined that it was all meant seriously, and that the Church might be now going to try criminals, and sentence them to a beating, prison, and even death”

Here now is Dostoevsky laying out the terms of The Great Choice which every one of us has to make in life (my own term “The Great Choice”)

*...if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a live socialist. Before I will accept is not merely the labour question, it is **above all t**hings the atheistic question, … .socialism **is the** form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on earth.*

Bear in mind when you read this citation above here what was to come, and that is now for us history, for Russia in the 20th century, with the Revolution of 1917 and its consequent circumstances until 1989.

Now the conversation in the book turns to the Church’s, as opposed to the State’s, treatment of criminals – bear with me – it’s worthwhile:

*The foreign criminal, they say, rarely repents, for the very doctrines of to-day confirm him in the idea that his crime is not a crime, but only a reaction against an unjustly oppressive force. Society cuts him off completely by force that triumphs over him mechanically and (so at least they say of themselves in Europe) accompanies this exclusion with hatred, forgetfulness, and the most profound indifference …. to the ultimate fate of the erring brother.*

In Europe, as in all places without the compassionate intervention of the Church, for in many cases there are no churches there at all, for though ecclesiastics and splendid church buildings remain, the churches themselves have long ago striven to pass from Church into State and to disappear in it completely. So it seems at least in Lutheran countries. As for Rome, it was proclaimed a State instead of a Church a millennium ago...

And finally the outcome for all States which choose to accept that there is no immortality of the soul:

“*Ah, Ivan has set you a problem!" …. "And the problem's a stupid one. It is no good guessing it. Rack your brains you'll understand it. His article is absurd and ridiculous. And did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there's no immortality of the soul, then there's no virtue, and everything is lawful*

I suspect that Dostoevsky himself may have been in favour of the opinion of the Church acting to subsume the State, and the thereby Kingdom of God on earth being set up. But for me to have said that is not much more than my guess.

Here in these few extracts laid out above, and taken by me from the first 90 or so pages of “The Karamazov Brothers” Dostoevsky has drawn us in prophecy clearly what has happened in Russia and in Europe since he wrote the novel in 1880. Perhaps he felt that The Russian Church would ‘save’ Russia from such a fate in fact; but his abstract analysis of the outcome for unbelief is most accurate in regard to Russia’s 20th century history; whereas his analysis, in fact and in theory, of the future for Europe and for the European nations is faultless, and accurate and extremely prescient.

For here are we now in UK for instance, with a limping Church of England tied to the State as an adjunct that can be wheeled out for Remembrance Sundays and for Royal Weddings and Coronations, statesmen’s funerals and so on. But when the Church of England is not in use by the State it is in a nice little box in a corner; and the spirit of the age works to denigrate it and deny its dogmas and creeds, and as a result what have we?

We have now that situation wherein more and more of what was once felt to be unacceptable is now celebrated. Our people either abandon restraint and let everything rip or else others are floundering about looking for anchorage or a foundation on which to build a spiritual life. Much is superficial here, those many books, videos, shows. on ‘mindfulness’ and on ‘meditation’ and ‘angels’ and on ‘magic’ ‘druids’ and so on; or else there are raves and the macabre phenomenon of multiple fractured family, with stepchildren having several mums and dads, and multiple step-brothers and sisters.

The emotional mess and entanglements are dreadful fallout. The TV reality shows claim to ‘reflect’ society; and this embroilment is absolutely demonstrated by their nefarious displays.

The outcomes, they are beginning to be seen, are that value begins to totter; and so each holds to his/her own value and this becomes the rule, and what one likes and values, is as good as what the next person likes and values. And this kind of thing is our atomisation into believing ourselves individual and individuals, and in some cases of our owning no obligation to any other person, should one so choose.

And it’s all OK. OK because those who would have it differently are all too often all at sea about where to go so as to get a handle on the situation; a handle which is clear and benevolent and answers their need adequately and definitively. The Church of England for these portion of the public appears non-viable for their need and solution.

I can go on but back to the main theme: Dostoevsky and his power to anatomise the soul and in his so doing, doctor it to a better state of health.

One asks oneself, unless a reader is either blind to it ,or else is too well assured of his/her own outlook and opinions, motives and behaviour, as one reads, about how Dostoevsky’s characters behave; and as one absorbs the character analysis he supplies their portraiture – one asks oneself, I see myself in this description, and how well I thought I was doing, but not so maybe?

There’s a story my priest friend used to tell in church. It was about a bishop who gave a sermon in which he went into great detail about the motivations and the thoughts of persons who are selfish and unkind, and of crafty dispositions. After the service a little girl spoke to him and said quite openly without guile or malice “You must be a very wicked person” The bishop taken aback said naturally; “Why do you say that?” The little girl replied that he must be very wicked because he knew all those things he said about the bad people in his sermon.

I believe the little girl has a very good point here. All our thoughts about others arise from our observations of them and our experience of life. Particularly our emotional responses are conditioned by these two things: observation and experience. I do think we must ourselves have felt and thought those things which we see going on around us and castigate. We see them maybe in ourselves, as well as more commonly we see them in others, and so there is a second-level oversight of our conduct in us which we call conscience which intervenes so as to taboo much of this thought and feeling as our own responses. But our analysis in these things I’m pretty sure begins with us, our own behaviours, and ends with us our own behaviours. It is only in the middle of the procedure do we empathise with and refer our direction of thought specifically and particularly to any supposed ‘culprit individual. In our own selves are the stews of rancour and dissimulation, covetousness and lust, gr reed for lucre and grandeur etc; from which we delineate in others their own specifics of traits and dispositions.

“Judge not lest ye be judged” said Our Lord

The venerable ‘Elder’, a monk from “The Karamazov Brothers”, whose gift is to discern deeply into others, and see their preoccupations and attitudes, crimes and errors, tells the reader at one point that the life spent in doing actual acts of kindness, as opposed to one of thinking of but not acting upon those thoughts about doing kindnesses, that this life of active benevolence is a life of suffering and is extremely arduous and painful.

He goes on to agree that it is to such a life Christians are called; and of course many of we Christians do not face up to its full demands and their impacts upon us. The common expectation of gratitude and of thanks for a kind help is not to be relied upon the Elder tells us, nor even anything better than being ignored and abused for one’s care for working for another’s interests and welfare.

It is this life I would venture which is that Biblical ‘refiner’s fire’ of Isaiah’s in which persons are purified by The Lord, day upon day a little more at a time. It is this life which the Elder nonetheless says is the life of ‘true reward’; and this true reward is known communion with God, bearing an inexpressible joy in the heart, despite the rebuffs and setbacks, a joy which realises belief and faith in God to the level of certainty. The Elder says – and I found this wonderful – that one cannot prove to a certainty God’s presence and activity; but nonetheless one is able to feel and experience these presence and activity to a certainty.

Dostoevsky knows people, their inner psyches to a terrible and extraordinarily deep degree. He has characters like the Elder saying things which are beyond perhaps the scope of all but a few men or women in any given generation of mankind to have discerned. I feel honoured and thankful I have been able to have glimpsed that this is so – he says things to me which for myself I could not have thought, nor do I think it likely I would have found elsewhere so much so densely packed into one work of writing or communication – excluding The Bible.

Ezra Pound upon having first met T S Eliot said astonished and joyously “This guy thinks to a purpose things which I have not thought” - my paraphrase. That is Dostoevsky, more so by far than even the great T S Eliot.

So it is, that one feels one has to read on, not in one sitting but over a space; and for two reasons. The quality of the intrigue and debate the novel sets up as its narrative, and the need to resolve and settle in oneself those things which are dredged up from one’s own psyche as one reads, and which so clearly have been called up in response to *the purity of intuitive analysis into this darkness in the souls of we *beings– I use that phrase carefully – and laid out so remarkably in the productions of the mind of this author.

Dostoevsky is said to have said – again astonishingly - and I believe justly and rightly and correctly that: (my paraphrase again)

“Were it to be proved in any way that The Lord Jesus Christ was at all remiss or mistaken or wrong in any sense – I think I would prefer to stay with Jesus”

What can one say? The Lord’s disciples themselves say to Him: “To whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life”