Daniel J. Mahoney
Reading Dostoevsky Religiously
Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition
edited by George Pattison
and Diane Oenning Thompson
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001
280 pp.; $60
The great 19th-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is universally recognized as a profound psychologist (a point acknowledged by no less an authority than Nietzsche) and a penetrating analyst of the modern human condition. He is also widely and justly credited for his prophetic anticipation of the murderous left-wing totalitarianism of the 20th century. In addition, a range of influential religious thinkers including Karl Barth, Nikolai Berdyaev, Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, and Malcolm Muggeridge have celebrated Dostoevsky as the modern Christian writer par excellence, a luminous witness to the truth of Christianity amidst the spiritual and intellectual dislocations of the modern age.
But these thinkers did not always agree as to the precise nature of Dostoevsky's Christian affirmation. De Lubac's The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (1943) presents Dostoevsky's work as the great modern antidote to Nietzschean nihilism. In de Lubac's view, Dostoevsky was the prophet who resisted the temptation of the "death of God" and dramatized the prospects for the resurrection of the soul through the spiritual overcoming of nihilism. The great theologian Karl Barth saw in Dostoevsky the supreme analyst of the forlornness of man without God, the novelist-theologian who had powerfully depicted all the horrible consequences of human estrangement from God. In an almost Calvinist manner, Barth's Dostoevsky reaffirmed the radical sovereignty of God. And in his extremely influential book on Dostoevsky (published in English translation in 1934), Berdyaev read Dostoevsky as a proto-existentialist, an advocate of the "abyssal freedom" of the individual against the rationalist reduction of the world to the rule of inhuman necessity.
Many critics, believers and unbelievers alike, have even gone so far as to question the authenticity of Dostoevsky's Christian faith. In Dostoevsky: A Critical Study (1916) the English thinker John Middleton Murry presented Dostoevsky's work as a vindication of "human personality" against both positivistic science and the old Christian verities. Murry's "humanistic" reading was quite representative of the early English reception of Dostoevsky's work. Dostoevsky's contemporary, the Russian Orthodox writer Leontiev, forcefully criticized Dostoevsky's portrayal of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, taking Dostoevsky to task for un-Christian sentimentality and pantheism—a judgment echoed more recently by Alain Besançon, among others. In this view, Dostoevsky was ultimately a romantic gnostic, a passionate soul who was even willing to choose Christ against the Truth (as Dostoevsky famously put it in a letter to Mrs. Fonvizin).
Such critics doubt that Dostoevsky ever really overcame unbelief, or succeeded in disentangling his Christian faith from a distinctively modern romanticism and sentimentality. The great German writer Stefan Zweig eloquently expresses the case for the prosecution: "At one and the same time [Dostoevsky] is the truest of believers and the most arrant atheist. … He loves both the servant of God and the man who denies God, both Alyosha and Ivan. … In the very presence of God, Dostoevsky remains banished from the land of unity."
These "vicissitudes of Dostoevsky criticism" are expertly presented in the editors' remarkable introductory essay to this excellent collection. It is undoubtedly the fullest and fairest overview of European and English-language criticism on Dostoevsky and the religious question. For the most part, the contributors take for granted Dostoevsky's status as an Orthodox (and orthodox) Christian writer and thinker. But there is nothing narrow or sectarian about this book. The writers have chosen to read Dostoevsky religiously in the most capacious sense of that phrase. The essays in the volume explore, among other themes, the place of the theological categories of Law and Grace in Dostoevsky's poetics, Dostoevsky's reading of the Gospel of John, his treatment of the Russian monastic tradition in such works as The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov, and iconographical symbolism and Trinitarian themes in a variety of his novels. Other essays compare Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, and examine religious themes in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as well as in some lesser-known works such as The Landlady and A Little Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree.
Many of the essays in this volume are deeply informed by Mikhail Bakhtin's "dialogism." Bakhtin famously distinguished Dostoevsky the ideologue and polemicist ("the small Dostoevsky") from Dostoevsky the pluralist, the author of "polyphonic" novels in which the full complexity of the human condition is explored with the help of many, often discordant voices.
Bakhtin's dialogic pluralism is sometimes confused with relativism and a denial of any authoritative truth claims. Indeed, the Christian Bakhtin, a critic of communism's "monologic" distortion of reality, has been appropriated by postmodernists who want to impose on the intellectual world a tedious and tyrannical mono- logue of their own. In contrast, the contributors to this volume utilize Bakhtin's framework to deepen our appreciation of Dostoevsky's engagement with modern life and the human soul without ever forgetting his abiding concern for spiritual truth. For example, Dianne Oenning Thompson's essay on "Problems of the Biblical Word in Dostoevsky's Poetics" brilliantly employs Bakhtin to highlight the Dostoevskyan use of irony and to show how he was finally able to transcend it "through the poetic use of the biblical word." Thompson ably demonstrates how "Dostoevsky aimed to reanimate the authoritative word of conventional Christianity, grown calcified through formulaic repetition, by making it internally persuasive, and thus authoritative at a deeper level of psychological and spiritual complexity."
The essays in this volume in no way replace older readings, and the best of them fruitfully draw upon them. In my view, some of the authors in this volume are a bit too preoccupied with literary theory and would benefit from a more straightforward or naïve engagement with the texts under consideration. The essays by the Russian scholars Ivan Esaulov and Vladimir Kantor are an impressive indication of the kind of humane scholarship that is now possible in a Russia freed from ideological tyranny.
My one serious disappointment is that the contributors to this volume do not seriously engage the critics of an "orthodox Christian" reading of Dostoevsky, critics whose positions are so ably summarized in the editors' introduction. The one notable exception is Avril Pyman's extraordinary essay, "Dostoevsky in the Prism of the Orthodox Semiosphere." Pyman convincingly argues that Dostoevsky's "devotion to Jesus Christ outlasted and outshone his doubts as to His divinity." She lucidly traces the "conscious effort" which accompanied Dostoevsky's affirmation of faith and the numerous ways in which he continued to be weighed down by doubt right to the bitter end. But drawing on Father Georges Florovsky's critique of Dostoevsky's work (this remarkable priest-scientist-theologian perished in the Soviet gulag), Pyman suggests that Dostoevsky leaves us with a unique form of "unresolved" polyphony. This polyphony points to the truth of sobornost', the solidarity of the faithful. Despite Dostoevsky's unresolved doubts, his work continues to provide a powerful response to those who wish to renounce God and human limits in the name of both "will and Science," as the Devil puts it in The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky never completed his great final novel, which was to be called Atheism. But in truth, that novel is resplendently dispersed in his entire post-Siberian corpus. We should all be grateful that this condemned political prisoner was given a reprieve to live—and write—again.
Daniel J. Mahoney teaches at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. His most recent book is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent From Ideology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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