Apocalypse not yet

21 May 2011 § Leave a comment

According to some ridiculous bloke in America, I have about half an hour left left before The Rapture arrives, at which time I will either be swept up to heaven or destroyed in earthquakes and rivers of blood. Probably the latter. It’s been a source of endless entertainment on Facebook and Twitter, and then I remembered that I had written an undergraduate essay on apocalyptic themes in Crime and Punishment so I thought I’d share a few of the ideas from it, and think about how I might have answered the question today.

The title of the essay was “Apocalypse was his vocation”, taken from a book on Dostoevsky by C.M.Woodhouse published in 1971. I talked about the hellish physical conditions of St Peterbsurg that pervade the novel from its opening sentence: the oppressive heat, the dirty stinking city, the storm that rages during Svidrigaylov’s last night on earth and in parallel the squalor and depravity of daily life that surrounds Raskolnikov. There’s a great description in Humiliated and Insulted that I’d have quoted if I had known it:

a bleak, gloomy city, with its depressing soul-destroying atmosphere, its pestilential air, its priceless palaces always covered in grime, its dim miserly sunlight and its evil, half-crazed people who had brought [Nelly] so much suffering.

Then there are the apocalyptic dreams, particularly Raskolnikov’s hideous vision of the end of the world that occurs while he’s in prison. He dreams that people are afflicted with a disease which makes the sufferer believe that he is incontestably right and that everyone else is wrong, and describes the breakdown in society that ensues.

I also talked about the battle between good and evil that is taking place within Raskolnikov and which is represented externally by Sonya and Svidrigalov, and the importance to the plot of the Lazarus story. Raskolnikov himself undergoes a spiritual rebirth, his own personal apocalypse. There is also the element of judgment that Raskolnikov initially takes upon himself, deciding that the old woman does not deserve to live.

I concluded my essay by talking about what I saw as the prophetic elements of Dostoevsky’s writing, something which is widely discussed and which I’d come across in the context of the quotation that gave us the essay title. Woodhouse claimed that much of what Dostoevsky was writing was unintelligble to his contemporaries and that each generation of readers understand him better than the one before, as the world becomes increasingly populated by alienated Raskolnikovs and underground men. I now disagree with what I wrote then; I think Dostoevsky’s genius is not in prophesy but in an ability to pick out universal human themes that retain their relevance across the ages.

I’ve been delving a bit into orthodox theology, in an attempt to understand Dostoevksy’s attitude to Christ, and one thing that’s really interested me is the orthodox attitude to sin and grace. Thanks largely to St Augustine, the Western belief is that we are all born sinful; we have all inherited Adam’s sin, and we can only be saved by God’s grace which must be given by him. Some say that God’s grace is available to all, but we’ve also been saddled with the gloomy doctrine of predestination by which only those chosen to receive God’s grace can be saved and everyone else is damned, no matter how good they are. The orthodox church on the other hand believes that we are born good, and that we all have the ability within us to overcome sin and achieve perfect goodness. Adam’s sin is not inherited, it was merely an isolated incident, an example of what can go wrong.

Dostoevsky’s spirituality seems, above all, to consist of an intense devotion to Christ, and he sees Christ as the perfectly beautiful man, the example to which we should all strive. In a passage in his notebook, written just after the death of his first wife, Dostoevsky argues for the existence of a future paradise founded on perfect, Christ-like love. We can never achieve this on earth, he says, because it is in human nature always to strive for something better: if everything was perfect we wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. (He expands on this in the Crystal Palace section in Notes from the Underground). Therefore there must be an afterlife where this perfect victory of love can take place. He doesn’t need a Last Judgement or Hell; his novels show the misery and destruction that comes in this life to those who, through the pursuit of their own passions and the demands of their own egos, stray away from the search for Christ.

It’s gone 6 o’clock now and we’re still here. Good. Perhaps I’ll get this book finished after all.

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god made man

13 May 2011 § Leave a comment

As is probably obvious, I’m more than a bit obsessed (or even possessed) at the moment and I keep seeing Dostoevsky connections all over the place. I even started thinking about Raskolnikov whilst Bohemian Rhapsody was playing in the car the other day (although I suppose really Camus’s Mersault is closer). Last week I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and found it profoundly disturbing. Pullman portrays Jesus as an ordinary preacher, with no particular special powers, and imagines a twin brother, called Christ, who is inspired by a mysterious angel figure and instructed to write the story of Jesus’s life in which “truth” must take priority over “history”. The angel and Christ together concoct miracles from perfectly ordinary occurrences, whilst conjuring up a vision of the church that will come and knowingly sacrifice Jesus so that the church has a great founding myth. So far, so good, it’s not far removed from the Grand Inquisitor.

As I continued to read, I found myself both appalled and attracted by the story; it’s all so plausible (not the twin brother thing, necessarily, but just the whole general idea). I know the historical Jesus stuff is nothing new, but seeing it told like this, written in a style that so closely mimics that of the gospels, even reusing familiar gospel phrases, made it feel dangerously reasonable and tempting. Then, as I’ve been writing about The Idiot and Prince Myshkin this week, I understood a bit more the effect that the Holbein painting of the dead Christ has on the characters in the novel.

The painting is of a horribly realistic dead Christ, his body bruised, his face already green with decay, god become unimaginably human. Prince Myshkin says of it that some people may lose their faith by looking at the picture, and it later exerts its influence on poor, impressionable Ippolit. We’re so used to seeing graphic images today that it’s easy to overlook the effect that this painting would have had – especially on Dostoevsky’s Russians who were more accustomed to seeing Christ portrayed in highly stylised icons, not flesh and blood realism: Dostoevsky spent so long gazing at it in the gallery in Basel where it hangs that his wife had to drag him away, fearing it would provoke an epileptic fit.

Pullman’s novel does the same thing to us as Holbein’s painting; they both force us to confront the human Jesus. Dostoevsky’s response to the humanity of Jesus is one of the themes of The Idiot and something that I’ll be exploring in the chapter I’m currently writing on Prince Myshkin and Alyesha Karamazov.

Diversions and distractions

1 May 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve already mentioned that I felt the need to fill a rather gaping hole in my knowledge of Russian literature by finally reading Gogol’s marvellous Dead Souls, and now that I’m getting down to some serious writing and research, I’m finding more interesting diversions along the way. Firstly, I’ve had to go and reread Fathers and Sons to remind myself about literary nihilists: Turgenev’s Bazarov provides some of the inspiration for Raskolnikov.  I hadn’t read it since the first year Russian lit course, and I assumed that the copy on my bookshelf was mine from back then, so I was surprised and puzzled to find that in fact it had a sticker on the back from a secondhand bookshop in Ithaca, NY and someone else’s scribbles in it. I’m still trying to remember why on earth I bought it; I don’t really like Turgenev and rereading it now has confirmed my prejudices. I was on holiday at the time, perhaps I feared running out of stuff to read. I still haven’t quite finished it. I must wade through the last few pages whilst Bazarov dies.

My second diversion has thrown up an interesting puzzle. I’m working on Dostoevsky’s Christ-like characters, particularly Prince Myshkin at the moment, and was reading the passage where Aglaya recites Pushkin’s Poor Knight poem. I decided to look up the original Russian, and discovered that in fact Aglaya selectively quotes it and misses out several verses, completely distorting Pushkin’s vision for her own ends. Puskin’s knight is driven by a vision of the Virgin Mary, and prays only to her, excluding the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and she is his Lady who inspires him in battle. When he dies, the Devil tries to claim his soul because he’s not been saying his prayers properly, but Mary intercedes for him and he is duly admitted to Paradise. Aglaya omits almost all references to Mary, and has the Knight daubing Nastasya Filippovna’s initials on his shield instead of Ave, Mater Dei. So the whole thing becomes even more of a mockery than I had initially realised – and of course with it being Pushkin, Dostoevsky can safely assume that his readers realise this. That’s the easy bit; now I just have to figure out how it all fits in.

Next diversion is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – a friend was describing it to me, and I realised that I have to read it for another take on the old problem of the conflicts between the values of the organised church and the original teachings of Jesus. These are only diversions though: I mustn’t turn into Edward Casaubon.

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