Somewhere between Literature and Eschatology: The Genre of Romantic Realism

Eras Journal – Carnighan, R: “Somewhere Between Literature and Eschatology: The Genre of Romantic Realism”

Somewhere Between Literature and Eschatology:
The Genre of Romantic Realism
Rebecca Carnighan
(School of Divinity, University of St Andrews)

Introduction

Representing the world both truthfully and beautifully seems to be a nearly impossible task. Perhaps Balzac and Dickens do not finally believe the world to be a beautiful place, but wish to console their readers with an encouraging picture of how the world ought to be. Dickens stops short of describing in full detail the depths of despair to which poverty drives the people of London, because he does not want to cause his readers pain, or show them something repulsive. Balzac is both entertaining and truthful, but he does not remain true to his personal vision. The comedy in their works is overcome by the suffering world. Dostoevsky would take some of their techniques and themes, but let his personal vision guide his stories. Dostoevsky added the strange, tragic beauty of St. Petersburg to the bittersweet comedy of the realists, and introduced a new world of people redeemed within their suffering world, rather than defeated by it.

Dostoevsky’s surprise endings redeem the dark humour of his narratives. An example of this occurs in Crime and Punishment, at Marmeladov’s funeral supper, where Sonya is accused of stealing, and Raskolnikov finally stands up for her. Dostoevsky intentionally leaves both the reader and Sonya in suspended agony, which is at once jarring and humourous. The scene is transformed by the surprising recovery of Sonya’s innocence by Raskolnikov, when there seems to be no hope for rescue. If Sonya had been disgraced, the comical element of the scene would have seemed a mockery. The outcome welcomes laughter, because Sonya feels exuberance equal to the measure of her previous despair.

Like Balzac, Dostoevsky had his dream of a social utopia shattered against reality, and like Dickens, he learned that the city bred as much evil as kindness, but his novels never lost sight of his personal vision, and his “dream of universal harmony never left him”.[1] Dostoevsky does not see the tragic action in his stories as final. His double-eyed vision allows him to comprehend and incorporate into his writing the ultimate redemption of an imperfect and sinful world. Dostoevsky’s people are transformed and united with others by their encounters with the real world, just as he was.

While Dostoevsky was greatly influenced by the work of both Balzac and Dickens, he envisioned and wrote about a true reality, which encompassed and went beyond their natural reality. He was indebted to their fiction, upon which he based his realistic technique, but his visionary fiction allowed for a deeper reality. His Christian perspective shaped and nurtured the realistic style he learned from Balzac and Dickens, because his fiction sees in reality an overall redemptive Christian order.

Practically speaking, the romantic realists’ work had to hold together both the vision and reality in such a way that their readers would be informed, encouraged and entertained. The task for the romantic realist was to try to portray the world truthfully without sacrificing the beautiful vision that Art gives to life. Was the artist’s duty to inform or to inspire? In a nineteenth-century world that had made the novel a commodity, and criticised both romanticism and realism, Dostoevsky faced a problem common to Balzac and Dickens: how to tell a story that was the best truth. Not only did the story have to be truer than life, but it had to entertain as well.

Dostoevsky’s Style

Dostoevsky’s early novel, Poor Folk, is indicative of the popular social novel, and tells the story of the afflicted lower class from their point of view. His later novel, The Devils, on the other hand, incorporates the whole of Russian society, telling the story from several points of view. The later novel does not end tidily, as does Poor Folk, and his characters are a haphazard mixture of good and evil. His unsettling literature is both realistic and enthralling because it is representative of the human tableau, without evidence of a steadying author’s hand.

Rather than seeing Dostoevsky’s novels as descending from the popular penny novel, the Gothic novel, or the ‘adventure novel’ of the early 1800s, Grossman traces only Dostoevsky’s penchant for the mysterious and the unbelievable to the romantic genre. According to Grossman, all of the major classic Russian novelists were attracted to this adventure literature in their youth. Unlucky fugitives, poor orphans and vicious villains characterise the romantic literature at the turn of the nineteenth century. Maturin ‘s Melmoth the Wanderer chronicles the endeavors of Melmoth to win souls to the devil in order to prolong his own life. The young Dostoevsky hungrily read about Maturin ‘s “rich psychology of torture”, and later, made it his own.[2] Madness, blackmail, gluttony, murder, jealous rage and underground conspiracies, drawn from both the ‘penny dreadful’ and daily fuilletons, serve to heighten the significance of the eternal questions he is asking.

Like Balzac, Dostoevsky intrigues his readers with the fragmented external outworking of the plot, his rising action overwhelming and consuming the story all the way to the end. All of the action and dialogue in his novels touches upon the core idea, some abstract concept or question, the significance of which holds the various characters and random events together. Dostoevsky’s signature trait, as an adolescent writer, was to imagine a world that at once threatened and substantiated its central idea. He built a web of complicated circumstances and personalities around a basic dilemma – the move from evil to innocence in the incomplete version of The Brothers Karamazov, the rise of the revolutionary and the fall of faith in The Devils , the failure of attempts at human perfection in Crime and Punishment, and the experiment of the ideal man in The Idiot. Can philosophical hypotheses work in reality if they cannot work in fiction? Dostoevsky’s world of fiction is the workshop that tests theories against life. The novel of the romantics liberates ideas from the old, stagnant writing techniques. Dostoevsky successfully sifts from the cheap sensationalism of the romantic novels profound themes, and unleashes each novel’s central question upon the city. Dostoevsky situates the reader within his realistic fiction, and then begins a philosophical adventure which incorporates his personal vision.

The Vision That Shaped Dostoevsky’s Reality

Dostoevsky was a physically weak man with a passionate character, who, by his own definition, went to “extremes”.[3] He did not break under the weight of the cross, nor did he merely survive. He was transformed by his suffering and freed from it. Dostoevsky’s involvement in the Petrashevsky circle illustrates the level of the young romantic’s idealism, before his own fall from grace. The epileptic fits which were rumoured to have begun when his father was murdered by serfs (but most certainly by the time he was exiled), his loveless first marriage, the death of his beloved daughter and the depression of his later life would impress his work and transform his faith.

Dostoevsky, at the esteemed literary critic Belinsky’s insistence, converted to atheism, disposing of what fragile childhood pietism he had left. Still, this optimistic atheist could not reject Christ. There were times when Belinsky would scream at Dostoevsky, ranting that Christ’s teachings cruelly contradicted the laws of nature, but even he was touched when, as he remarked to another guest about Dostoevsky, “his whole countenance [changed] just as though he were on the verge of breaking into tears”. [4] Dostoevsky’s acceptance of atheistic communism was rapid, whereas his subsequent [re]discovery of Christ occurred by degrees, in the most unlikely of places, amidst the community of Russian peasants in penal servitude. It was there that the idealist and atheist revolutionary died, and the new man, formed by a process we receive only glimpses of in The House of the Dead, rose out of the ashes to create Crime and Punishment. Christ, whom Dostoevsky could never completely surrender, became the central focus of Dostoevsky’s novels, beginning with this story of the fall and resurrection of humanity.

Christ found among the convicts perplexed Dostoevsky, but answered the riddle of much of his life’s work. He had been blessed with fame, education and an esteemed circle of friends, yet it was amidst those paying the price for their transgressions that he felt the presence of Christ. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov tells the story of an Inquisitor who is baffled by a love that overcomes freedom, hunger and suffering. Dostoevsky, while his dialogical style never sought to present an answer to the great riddle of Christ, felt as P. T. Forsyth did that “whatever solved the tragedy of life, also solved all of life”.[5] Christ had to defy reason in order to answer the hope repeated again and again in the stories and myths of all peoples, who hungered after a climax to their narrative.

Dostoevsky began his writing career with the overnight success of Poor Folk , which was acclaimed as a sincere social commentary. Nicholas Berdyaev believes that Dostoevsky’s fifth novel, Letters from the Underground, divides the novels of the two periods of Dostoevsky’s life. He evolves from a “psychologist” into a “metaphysician”, and

ceases to be a humanitarian on the old pattern and no longer has anything in common with Hugo or Sand or Dickens…If he still loves and pities mankind his love has something new and tragic about it. Man more than ever holds the centre of the stage of his work, human destiny is the only thing that interests him; he is no longer treated as a superficial creature but followed into his newly discovered spiritual depths…Dostoevsky is a writer of tragedy; in him the unrest that is latent in all Russian literature reaches its state of highest tension: the wound dealt by the sorrowful destiny of man and his world is quick in him.[6]

Dostoevsky would never entirely abandon the idea of the social novel, or the journalistic style that he picked up writing for his brother’s newspaper. Whether it was a conscious decision, or the pressure of editorial deadlines that altered Dostoevsky’s severe ideals about writing, his stint in journalism expanded his orderly fiction to include the raw, unexplained data and unexpected events of ordinary life. He evolved the social novel to encompass a larger universe. As Fanger comments, “A social novel, in other words, was unthinkable for him except as it touched on moral resurrection: resurrection was the rationale, the rest important but subsidiary”.[7]

Dostoevsky’s characters are set in contrast to one another, both in personality and situation. In Crime and Punishment, the proud intellectual Raskolnikov bows to the humble, suffering Sonya. In The Idiot, the Prince goes out of his way to help the ruined Nastasya and the evil Ragozhin. Even within one heart there exists a dichotomy. In Dostoevsky’s characters, the beastly and the saintly nature of humanity inhabit one person. Nicholas Zernov points out that the rough Shatov exemplifies the most selfless love and the atheist Ivan recreates the story of Christ and the Grand Inquisitor.[8] Even in the most extreme of his evil characters (Stavrogin), one finds something with which to emphathise. In his villains, Dostoevsky “tries to find something to offset the general sinful way of life, some sort of partial justification, even a trace of a conversion to good and truth”.[9] Often, Dostoevsky illustrates the contrast of characters and situations with a play of “Rembrandtesque lighting”.[10] Patches of light battle against the darkness and the reader does not know which will triumph, the sheaves of light or the canvas of darkness. Similarly, elements of dark and light play against one another in the hearts of his characters, in a way that allows one to be illuminated by the other. Zernov, like Fanger, calls Dostoevsky’s style “visionarily realistic”.[11]Dostoevsky works by contrast to illuminate what should be against what already is. His idiot speaks words of profound wisdom, his prostitute points his hero the way to salvation, and his nihilist becomes the protector of a poor, disfigured woman. He weaves his vision for the destiny of humankind into the tapestry of everyday Russian life.

At the beginning of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is walking the “rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope over an abyss”.[12] The dangerous crossing causes Raskolnikov to turn back in fear and fall. Zenta Maurina believes that by the end of the novel Raskolnikov is a cardboard creature, full of the sublime harmony of surrender, and bereft of the dynamic element in most of Dostoevsky’s characters. Maurina does not agree with Raskolnikov’s resurrection, nor does he think that Dostoevsky believes in it, or else he would have painted it more convincingly. Maurina sees Raskolnikov’s complete submission to punishment and his total reliance upon Sonya as a compromise of reality to Dostoevsky’s faith. Taken within his entire body of work, however, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment presents one step in humanity’s journey toward redemption.

The Brothers Karamazov presents a different part of the journey. Alyosha begins his ministry with complete trust in God, but seemingly random, tragic events cause him to call his faith into question. Dostoevsky died before he could write the sequel to The Brothers Karamazov, but there is much speculation as to whether Alyosha would grow more like his atheist brother, Ivan, or like the staret, Father Zossima. Perhaps Dostoevsky’s own life can provide clues about Alyosha’s destiny. Dostoevsky is a resurrected man who is neither defeated by his surrender to Christ, nor bereft of that dynamic of outspokenness particular to his writing. Dostoevsky resembled Raskolnikov and Ivan in more ways than he resembled Alyosha, but he was consumed with Alyosha’s innocence. Perhaps it is because he empathised with the questioning Raskolnikov and Ivan, but the devoted Alyosha, as the Christ figure of his novel, amazed him. His life before his conversion experience was similar to that of Raskolnikov, but after his conversion, his life resembled some strange combination of Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. While in reality, he still had doubts and often gave in to his temptations (Ivan), in his heart he strove after the ideal Christian life (Alyosha).

The Reality That Supported Dostoevsky’s Vision

Dostoevsky went one step further than Joseph Conrad in his idea that beauty could be found within life’s hardness. Conrad, who could not give up the romanticism of another era entirely, wrote in his preface to Within the Tides that:

The romantic feeling of reality was in me an inborn faculty. This in itself may be a curse but when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of hard facts of existence shared with the rest of mankind becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow. And such romanticism is not a sin. It is none the worse for the knowledge of truth. It only tries to make the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a certain aspect of beauty.[13]

It would seem that, for Conrad, at the heart of reality was despair. In Conrad’s fiction, there is no possibility of redemption once a character had chosen darkness. Dostoevsky held the hope that despair was not final, and this hope drove him towards finding some goodness, some beauty, even in his most cruel characters. Dostoevsky’s work would subscribe to this beauty wrought out of life’s ‘hardness’. Dostoevsky’s belief that beauty could save the world inspired open-ended stories of beautiful but tortured people. The fierce beauty Dostoevsky contributed to the world was neither peaceful nor graspable. Mitya Karamazov lamented that:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side…God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of men.[14]

The difference between Conrad’s idea of ‘hard facts’ and Dostoevsky’s acceptance of suffering lies in Dostoevsky’s belief that suffering leads to an inversion of life as humans know it. Whereas Conrad (among others) accepted ‘the romantic feeling of reality’ as both a blessing and a curse, Dostoevsky understood the romantic ethos to be the axis of human reality.

The spheres of Romanticism and realism intersected in the work of Dostoevsky. The frenzies of maddening sorrow and absolute joy transformed scenes of provincial Russian life, echoing the melodrama of the Romanticists. While much realism sought no answers outside the natural world, and Romanticism consisted of fairy-tale and fantasy, the grotesque stories of Dostoevsky set the supernatural within St Petersburg. Dumas’s musketeers will always find a means of escape from their captors, whereas Flaubert’s Emma and Tolstoy’s Anna will find that nothing, not even love, offers escape from life’s inevitable despair. Hardy’s Tess will find that life actually works steadfastly against any overall plan for human happiness. Dostoevsky’s faith allows him to write of a natural world set within the supernatural world, where no burden of suffering is unthinkable or no hope is too incredible, because evil exists, but death has been conquered by Christ.

It is impossible to write a synopsis of Dostoevsky that does him justice. Those who have tried end up portraying him from a particular perspective that only tells half of the story. Christians and atheists alike have emphasised either his concentration on the tragic psyche, his fascination with suffering, or his riddles, which seem to provoke arguments on all sides. Dostoevsky’s writings summarise the nineteenth-century dilemma-humanity caught between creation and the Creator. Dostoevsky’s characters seem to possess a ‘fourth dimension’, because they cannot be easily assigned into a positive or a negative category. Raskolnikov, for example, gives his money to a poor family, in order to bury their patriarch properly, but he also kills a woman in cold blood for her money. Dostoevsky’s characters “stand on the edge of a precipice of crime and degradation, and yet they long for goodness and truth…they are torn between their hopes and fears. Love and hate, a readiness to help and a desire to hurt constantly contest in them, so that no one can predict which direction they will move”‘.[15]

In Dostoevsky’s work, God, rather than the feeling self, is at the centre of reality. Surrender to God is liberation from self-enclosed suffering, and this surrender leads to a world “much bigger and grander than we are”.[16] The religion of Dostoevsky embodies “perpetual development and active love’, with no compromise; it is a ‘religion of freedom with the personality of Christ at its center”.[17]

Dostoevsky did not depict an ideal nineteenth-century Russia, but he created characters that sought the ideal. The beautiful and free in Dostoevsky’s novels are still tormented, still tragic, but they continue to hope for resurrection. The face of Nastasya Filipovna is described in The Idiot as immensely scornful, and yet, “wonderfully good-natured”.[18] Her unbearable beauty arouses Prince Myshkin’s compassion, because of the evidence of suffering in her features. From an eschatological point of view, Dostoevsky leaves room in his novels for the miraculous recovery of a hurting world, in a way that will far exceed human expectation. To say that Dostoevsky’s work is either realistic or visionary would be to pin down an artist “too fluid, too close to life, and life can never be divided by science without a remainder; there always remains something irrational”.[19] Dostoevsky does not attempt to explain or render evil and suffering meaningful. In his fiction, he accepts the ‘irrational’ element of life, and places his hope in a future transformation of this present reality.

Suffering, Love and Knowledge

Charles Taylor describes the transformation of the Romantic vision in the nineteenth century, which carries it forward, while at the same time negating certain features.

The premise of realism then and now is that we somehow in the normal course of things fail to see things aright, that we grasp them only through a veil of illusion which lends them a false enhancement or significance, woven by our fears and self-indulgence. It takes courage and vision to see them as they are; but more than this, it takes the resources of art. We live surrounded by this reality but don’t really see it, because our vision is shaped-and clouded-by our falsely consoling modes of representation. It takes a new, fiercely veridical portrayal to break through the veil.[20]

Taylor cites Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as a body of work that transforms reality through its very refusal to treat life idealistically.[21] Flaubert does not try to complete or enhance the world he sees, because he does not believe, as the romantics, that there is a unity beneath the ordinary reality, waiting to be discovered. The realists’ tendency to affirm the goodness of things as they are, “the arrogation to man of powers formerly confined to God”, does not belong solely to Nietzsche, atheist doctrine and realism.[22] Taylor suggests that this tendency, within the Christian perspective, belongs to Dostoevsky.

In fact, the notion of a transformation of our stance towards the world whereby our vision of it is changed has been traditionally connected with the notion of grace. Augustine holds that in relation to God, love has to precede knowledge. With the right direction of love, things become evident which are hidden otherwise. What is new is the modern sense of the place and power of the creative imagination. This is now an integral part of the goodness of things, and hence the transformation of our stance and thus our outlook helps to bring about the truth it reveals.[23]

Dostoevsky depends upon God for a transforming vision of the world. According to Taylor, he believes that the ultimate sin is closing our selves to grace out of loathing for ourselves and this world. The evils of the world are projected out onto the world and away from us, and we separate from the world, because “we don’t want to see our selves as part of the evil”.[24]

According to Taylor, love gives us a new knowledge of the world and one another. Where we once saw only the bad, we now see the good within the world. Taylor calls this ability a ‘miracle’, because despite all of the evil and ugliness in the world, we desire knowledge of that which is outside of ourselves, and we long to affirm its goodness.[25]Dostoevsky, rather than affirming the world’s goodness, sees its evil. He hopes for a promised but unseen redemption, in spite of the evil he perceives in the world. His work holds together reality and hope because his eschatological vision shapes his reality.

Flannery O’Connor insists that Christian writers have been given the freedom to affirm the overall goodness of the world, while at the same time bringing to light its evil. “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and the absolute? And how can he do all this and be true at the same time to the art of the novel, which demands the illusion of life?” asks Flannery O’Connor, reiterating the main question of romantic realism.[26] Instead of restraining and limiting the subject matter of the Christian novelist, the Christian narrative gives the novelist a perspective of a reality imbued with the supernatural, where anything may happen. Rather than writing only about what is uplifting and edifying to the Church body, Christian novelists are freed by their knowledge of ultimate reality, and the vision that ‘the universe is meaningful’ allows them to make connections never before imagined.

The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. He feels perfectly free to look at the one we already have and to show exactly what he sees. He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God. For him, to ‘tidy up reality’ is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride. Open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.[27]

Certainly Dostoevsky could not be accused of ‘tidying up reality’. It is more a question of whether or not the realistic mode of his work did not betray his romantic vision. In light of the heavily tragic undertones of Dostoevsky’s body of work, how can Dostoevsky be called a true romantic realist? Rather than projecting his personal vision into an objective reality, Dostoevsky saw the objective reality in terms of his personal vision. Dostoevsky accepted this overwhelming reality, and through his uniquely Christian perspective, was transformed by the suffering within it.

In a chapter within The Idiot, entitled ‘My Necessary Explanation’, Hippolyte lists among his reasons for committing suicide the repugnance of death, which conquered even the Messiah. His verbal suicide note, given to a crowded room of party-goers, reminds them of the irresistible force of death, even over Christ, as depicted in Holbein’s painting ‘Dead Christ.’ The most reverent of all the novel’s characters, Prince Myshkin, declares that Holbein’s depiction of the interim between Christ’s death and resurrection may cause a believer’s faith to be ruined.[28] It is this very interim that is central to the Christian faith. The only act that could conquer ‘this blind, dumb, implacable, eternal unreasoning force’ was the death of Christ. The solution to the tragedy of each human life is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, then humankind has the promise of eternal resurrection. Lives lived in unending sorrow, servants burdened with back-breaking work, cycles that never promise any new life and evil that penetrates through the barriers of the faithful heart seem to overshadow the promise of eternal happiness. The human race still lives in the interim between death and resurrection. The mourners, however, have ‘caught a glimpse of God’s new day’, and ache because they have felt, in some tragic experience, how sharp its absence is. Those who mourn are “aching visionaries”.[29]

Without attempting to give evil meaning, Dostoevsky illustrates how unchangeable loss can still bring about personal transformation, through grace, when his characters “transcend what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead, directing their energies toward changes they can make now”.[30] Sonya, from Crime and Punishment, and Alyosha, from The Brothers Karamazov, act as catalysts to their families and their communities, when tragedy would otherwise immobilise them. It is her vision of a future redemption that gives Sonya the strength to return to her family, despite the ridicule she endures for being a prostitute. It is his faith in Dmitri’s innocence that keeps Alyosha’s brother, Ivan, from despair when his brother Dmitri is accused of his father’s death.

Conclusion

Fanger’s work on romantic realism calls into question the responsibility of Art and the artist. Is the artist one who “penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality?”[31] Or does Art aid the general assumption of a temporal and spatial continuity, and use the imagination to suggest an illusion of a universal unity that isn’t really there?[32] Are artists guilty of the worst kind of myth-making, in an attempt to ease the anxiety of accident and chaos in the world?

Flannery O’Connor notes that the sacred history humanity holds in common, that which gives us “ties to the universal and the holy”, that which allows the meaning of its action to be heightened and seen under the aspect of eternity, “is most important to the fiction writer”.[33] Iris Murdoch places the question within a moral framework when she asks, “How can art tell the truth, how can it not lie a little so as to console, even to convince?”[34]She points out that Christianity provides us with a mythology, a story, images, pictures, and “a dominant and attractive central character”.[35] According to Murdoch, Western Christianity itself might be compared with a work of art.

Western art, so solid and so clear, has helped us to believe, not only in Christ and the Trinity, but in the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, innumerable saints and a whole cast of famous and well-loved scenes and persons. Christ as Logos is unifying priniciple and guarantor of thought, Christ as Redeemer the suffering Saviour of man from sin and horror.[36]

Are Christians guilty of suggesting an illusion of universal unity? Do Christians romanticise reality with a picture of how they wish the world could have been, if only Christ had risen from the dead? Christians place a particular, supernatural event at the heart of their objective reality, and their personal vision of redemption transforms a world of endless suffering into one of eternal purpose. Is the central belief of Christianity, that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to give us eternal communion with God, part of a pre-Nietzschean need to reconcile all life’s loose ends into a unified narrative that will give meaning to suffering? No artist or theologian should participate in a story that they themselves do not believe. While it is doubtful whether all of the romantics believed in the stories they created, they at least wished for a happy outcome. The realists chronicled their life and times as conscientiously as a journalist might (or perhaps more so), but they took beauty from the world. They told a story their readers already knew, but ignored what they could not understand, or could not see. Although they believed they were affirming life as it was, without trying to project their own prejudiced wishes onto that life, perhaps their writing neglected a glorious reality that had yet to be experienced. Their fiction mirrored a one-sided reality, seen from the point of view of the defeated.

As Taylor suggests, Dostoevsky’s Christian perspective gave him a double-sided vision. He saw and experienced life from the side of fallen humanity, yet believed in the promise of a risen world, and understood his experience of reality in light of that promise. He felt the weight of the suffering world, yet saw it as transformed, through the promise of redemption. Dostoevsky was not a perfect romantic realist, but that is the point. Dostoevsky knew that a certain ambiguity was “not an embarrassment for Christian theology”, but was rather a sign of our “utter dependence on the grace of God”.[37] He understood the limitations of his art, but his faith allowed him to comprehend a pattern his art could realize without fully articulating.

George Steiner, over and against deconstructionists, contends that Art is something more than just the synthesis of social and political conditions. He claims that Art surpasses rational understanding and is a revelation of the transcendent. What lies beyond all human understanding and language is an otherness, a “real presence”.[38] In direct contradiction to those who believe that all texts are impossibly interwoven in infinite numbers of interpretations, Steiner believes that while texts are not fixed, they are not completely intangible. Art’s indeterminateness of meaning makes it our surest access to the otherness of life.[39] If good art alerts us to an otherness, it does so from the basis of human disunity. How can Art, which typically beautifies and unifies the world, make sense out of evil and human suffering, which are neither beautiful nor whole? Tragedy, which deals with unchangeable loss, must be some sort of a contradiction, “destroying itself as an art, while maintaining itself as an art”.[40] Pain and death and hope and triumph have promise of resolution within the Christian narrative.

The Gospel narratives show defeat turning into victory, the triumph of suffering into death, suffering set up as the adversary of death. The frightful story of Christ’s death becomes a supreme cosmic event. The terrified confused abandoned disciples turn into heroes and geniuses. The story of Christ is the story which we want to hear: that suffering can be redemptive, and that death is not the end. Suffering and death are now joined in such a sway that the former swallows up the latter? Suffering need not be pointless, it need not be wasted, it has meaning, it can be the way. The dying Christ redeems suffering itself, even beautifies it, as well as overcoming death.[41]

Dostoevsky’s fiction captures the tension between mortality and the “sense of eternity (that) resides in our hearts”. Those who mourn sense the discrepancy between this present reality and a promised redemption. Their view of reality is coloured by their vision, and they act according to its possibility. Dostoevsky’s fiction encompasses both life’s tragedy and its comedy, and allows the reader to mourn and to be joyful at what is coming. As a Christian writer, he saw the world from “the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for”.[42]

Write a response to this paper

(the email you send to eras@arts.monash.edu.au will be read by the Eras editorial committee and published on the “Discussion” page)

Notes

[1] Donald Fanger,Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism: A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens and Gogol, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1974, p. 168. Back

[2] Leonid Grossman,Balzac and Dostoevsky, Ardis, London, 1973, p. 73. Back

[3] Zenta Maurina,A Prophet of the Soul: Fyodor Dostoievsky , James Clarke and Company Ltd, London, 1940, p. 107.Back

[4] K Mochulsky,Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1967, p. 119. When Belinsky caused Dostoevsky to renounce Christianity, it was a decision that even after his conversion to Chrisitianity in exile would cause him to be plagued by doubt. For his entire life, he would be chased both by questioning and God. What Mochulsky calls his “prolonged inner tragedy” would inspire Dostoevsky to create one of the greatest and most tortured atheists in the world of fiction – Ivan Karamazov. Back

[5] Peter Forsyth,The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy, Duckworth, London, 1966, p. 210. Back

[6] Nikolas Berdyaev,Dostoevsky , Meridian Books, New York, 1957, p. 28. Back

[7] Donald Fanger,Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism, p. 190. Back

[8] Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets: Khomiakov, Dostoevsky, Soloviev , SCM Press, London, 1944, p. 184.Back

[9] N Zabolotski, “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky Today”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol 37, pp. 41-57.Back

[10] Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 184. Back

[11] Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 185. Back

[12] Zenta Maurina,A Prophet of the Soul, p. 141. Back

[13] Joseph Conrad quoted in Mary Allott, Novelists on the Novel, New York , 1959, p. 54. Back

[14] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Volume I, J M Dent and Sons LTD, London , 1957, pp. 106-107.Back

[15] Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets , pp. 87-89. Back

[16] Gerald Sittser,A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss , Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 88. Back

[17] Zenta Maurina,A Prophet of the Soul , p. 210. Back

[18] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot , Penguin Books, London, 1955, p. 108.Back

[19] Zenta Maurina,A Prophet of the Soul , p. 222. Back

[20] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, p. 431. Back

[21] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self , p. 431. Back

[22] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self, p. 449. Back

[23] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self, p. 451. Back

[24] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self, p. 451. Back

[25] Charles Taylor,Sources of the Self, p. 454. Back

[26] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners , Faber and Faber, London, 1972, p. 178. Back

[27] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 178. Back

[28] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, p. 208. Back

[29] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, Hodder and Stoughton, London , 1989, pp. 85-86. Back

[30] Gerald Sittser,A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1996, pp. 85-86. Back

[31] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners , p. 157. Back

[32] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Chatto and Windus, London, 1992, p. 136. Back

[33] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 203. Back

[34] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 136. Back

[35] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 82. Back

[36] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 82. Back

[37] Garrett Green,Imagining God , W B Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 104.Back

[38] George Steiner, Real Presences , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, p. 230. Back

[39] George Steiner,Real Presences, p. 232. Back

[40] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, pp. 122-123. Back

[41] Iris Murdoch,Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 128. Back

[42] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, p. 146. Back