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.