Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

The Archbishop's Dostoevsky - TLS

Wednesday 8th October 2008

A. N. Wilson reviews "Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction" by Rowan Williams.

by A. N. Wilson

Fyodor Dostoevsky's views on religion are notoriously hard to pin down with confidence. If you collected up the criticism devoted to Tolstoy, there could be no doubt about what he believed at any stage of his journey. Yet in the history of Dostoevsky criticism we find, for example, Henry Miller reading Dostoevsky as a great social revolutionary, whereas others have seen him as a diehard conservative. Rowan Williams, in his latest book, quotes (and rebuts) William Hamilton, who sought to enlist Dostoevsky as a forerunner of "Death of God" theology; Georges Florovsky, who saw Dostoevsky as an exemplar of Russian Orthodoxy; Malcolm Jones, who has linked him to "post-atheism" in contemporary Russia, and judged him to exemplify the workings of "minimal religion". Clearly, all these contradictory readings cannot be right. Or can they? Is that precisely the nature of the difficulty?

We need a guide who combines the gifts of a literary critic and a trained theologian to work out how far the novels of Dostoevsky can be used as vehicles for such explorations. We also need a guide who is deeply versed in the ethos and spiritual traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church to place Dostoevsky, and the tormented exchanges of his characters, within some intelligible historical framework. Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury combines all these qualities, and more.

There are many insights in Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction which will illumine its subject's novels, and which could only have come from this interpreter. Williams's discussion of The Idiot, and the salience of Holbein's painting "Christ in the Grave" (1521) for our understanding of the protagonist, is a case in point. "Holbein's [deposition] shows (though this is not explicitly described in the novel) a corpse seen from alongside – not only a dead man fixed at a moment in the past (there are Orthodox depictions of the dead Christ and his entombment), but a dead man in profile, a double negation of the iconographic convention. In a fairly literal sense, this is a 'diabolical' image." There will be few non-Orthodox readers who are aware of the fact, presented here by Williams, that in the tradition of icons, the only figures who normally appear in profile are demons or Judas Iscariot. This is a very pertinent addition to Williams's accumulation of readings of the Idiot's character. Far from seeing Myshkin as Christ-like, Williams alerts us to his "lethal weakness": "the person who is presented as innocent and compassionate in Christ-like mode is in fact unwittingly a force of destruction". With even greater precision, he hits the target with this paradoxical statement: "Myshkin is a 'good' person who cannot avoid doing harm" – about the neatest summary of The Idiot that has ever been written. In the conclusion to his book, Williams makes the striking claim that the fusion of incompatibilities in which so much of Dostoevsky's work consists, creates something comparable to the traditions of icon-painting.

It is this fusion of a surrender to the claims of an independent truth and a surrender to the actual risks and uncertainties of asserting this truth in word and action that makes the entire enterprise of spiritual – and specifically Christian – life one that is marked by the decentring and critique of the unexamined self. What is so distinctive about Dostoevsky's narrative art is that he not only gives us narratives in which this difficult fusion is enacted; he also embodies the fusion in his narrative method, in the practice of his writing, risking the ambitious claim that the writing of fiction can itself be a sort of icon.

As we read Williams's discussion, and become absorbed not only in his enjoyment of Dostoevsky's novels, but also in his own wide reading in the patristic literature and immersion in the Eastern traditions of Christianity, we begin to realize that ambiguities and downright contradictions which seem so startlingly "modern" in Dostoevsky's pages are often matters that have always been inherent in theology. The book thereby combines a rereading of Dostoevsky with an attempt to confront, not merely the storm clouds of the nineteenth century, as Ruskin called the theological crisis of faith, but also our contemporary phenomenon of Darwinian revivalism which believes itself to have answered, or repeated, the destruction of theology's claims to plausibility.

The book therefore begins where, one suspects, Dostoevsky himself would want a book published in 2008 to begin – if he were still with us and observing contemporary life. The author starts, not with the great Russian literature that is his theme, but with "the current rash of books hostile to religious faith". "They treat religious belief almost as a solitary aberration in a field of human rationality; a set of groundless beliefs about matters resting on – at best – faulty and weak argumentation". In contrast to these writers, whose work, it could be said (though the author does not quite say it), was all anticipated in the writings of the later Dostoevsky, Williams spells out the way in which religion actually operates in individual human lives. This was central to Dostoevsky's work as a novelist. Williams's book is a work of literary criticism, but it begins, therefore, as if it were one of theological apologetics.

If this causes some methodological problems as Williams goes along, they are certainly problems that Dostoevsky would have relished. Outside the Roman Catholic traditions represented by writers such as François Mauriac or the later Evelyn Waugh (both of whom Dostoevsky, with his horror of "the foul Roman God", would have found morally and aesthetically repellent), the better Western novelists have tended to fight clear of theology. Their works might contain a religious element, but they are not vehicles, as Dostoevsky's great novels are, for the presentation of raw metaphysical debate. It simply is not possible to read The Brothers Karamazov without becoming engaged with the God questions: Does he exist? If he exists, how can the suffering of a child even be thinkable? Is there an alternative to the seductive, and ultimately blasphemous allure of the Grand Inquisitor's creation of a religion which offers mystery and authority? As we turn the pages of Karamazov, that monumental whodunnit, the question of who killed the brothers' horrible father becomes inextricably tied up with theological matters. Is the novel the most Christian fictional work ever written, or the most damning indictment of religious faith, from which in fact no "realist" account of religious belief could ever be extrapolated? Or is it neither? Is it a book which enables the reader to wrestle with these questions, unshackled either by obedience to a tightly defined religious system, or by that equally limiting worship of science which the nineteenth century erected as a substitute?

Commentators on Dr Williams's record as a church leader have sometimes observed his apparent capacity simultaneously to hold two totally incompatible beliefs. This debate need not concern us here, unless we find it irresistible in passing to reflect that Dostoevsky's own views on female – let alone gay – bishops would be all too easily imaginable. Whether or not there is an advantage in doublethink when performing an Archbishop's agonizing role of reconciling the ill-thought-out positions of American liberals and African conservatives, the capacity to hold opposite viewpoints on religious matters is precisely what Dostoevsky's characters demonstrate again and again. Williams acknowledges from the outset his indebtedness to the great Russian critic-philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, whose Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics has been essential reading since it was first published in 1929, and which has had such an immense effect on literary theory.

Bakhtin's development of what he called "dialogism" perhaps reflected his own necessarily secret attitudes to Orthodoxy. The Party bullies were profoundly suspicious of his readings of Dostoevsky, and saw him as a religious subversive. As far as I know, Bakhtin's religious position remains a mystery to this day. The 1920s in Russia was not an easy time to come clean about such matters, and this brutal historical fact probably explains some of the tortuousness of Bakhtin's reflections on religion and literature. Nevertheless, it was Bakhtin who taught us – and Williams reinforces the message in innumerable bits of valuable close reading of the texts – that Dostoevsky is an essentially "polyphonic" writer. Read in this way, the novels do not reflect a divided mind, or a struggling existentialist doubter; they are themselves demonstrations of the areas which have to be explored if one is to make sense of any of the great questions of philosophical theology. If the doctrine of the incarnation is true, for example, it could never be settled by "scientific" analysis. Christians follow not a mere Logos, as the Platonists did, but an enfleshed Logos, a Logos crucified by involvement in human sin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would probably not have much appealed to Dostoevsky, but the Russian would have seen the poignancy and potency of the German pastor-martyr's declaration that the only God in whom he could believe was a suffering God. As Williams puts it:

Dostoevsky is not presenting us a set of inconclusive arguments about "the existence of God", for and against, but a fictional picture of what faith and the lack of it would look like in the social and political world of his day – an assumption articulated by Bakhtin, and also one that shapes some of the most interesting philosophical discussion of Dostoevsky in recent decades.

This is an attractive position to follow, and it certainly avoids falling into the crude trap of believing that the later novels are simply Slavophile or Christian manifestos. But there is a difficulty with it. And the difficulty is raised by the strange voice of Dostoevsky himself, not merely in the books but also in the journalism. If there is a lack in Williams's rich book – and it will certainly be enjoyed by a wide audience and stimulate an eager rereading of Dostoevsky – it is not that it fails to refer to Dostoevsky's journalism (there is plenty of ripe reference to A Writer's Diary), but that it does not confront the problem which this journalism presents to the "polyphonic" reading of the novels. The novels are indeed polyphonic, and it is impossible to catch their essence unless they are read with the patience and the eye for detail that Williams repeatedly demonstrates. But Dostoevsky himself makes abundantly clear (in The Devils, for example) what he thinks of the pernicious influence of 1840s liberals; and the mockery heaped on the heads of old Verkhovensky or of Karmazinov (Turgenev) is precisely of the kind we should expect from Dostoevsky the journalist. Indeed this journalist, far from fading away as the novelist in him got into his stride, is ever-present. As if aware of the aesthetic, not to say philosophical, difficulty which this will present, Dostoevsky invents local narrators in The Devils and Karamazov who relate the strange events as if from the position of the town gossip. But even the use of the narrators cannot entirely blind us to the presence of Another – namely the violently intemperate journalist Dostoevsky who both is, and is not, a part of the dialogues which he constructs for his characters, and for the narratives of the shadowy storytellers. The hectoring satirist, the bombastic nationalist, the predictable anti-Semite who wrote the reams of journalism would not, one feels, have been capable of writing the great novels; and yet – this is the paradox and the proviso – Dostoevsky was not writing (to use the Miltonic metaphor) the novels with his right hand and the journalism with his left. The loud-mouthed Slavophile journalist is there in the very texture of the novels.

English novelists have often done time in their youth as journalists in some shape or form. Yet in almost all cases – whether you think of Marian Evans working on The Westminster Review, or Graham Greene as a sub-editor on The Times, or even of Martin Amis or Alan Hollinghurst on the TLS – the job has been seen as a way of making ends meet before they took wing as purely "creative" writers. The career of Dostoevsky (1821–81) unfolded in a different way. He was involved off and on throughout his career with Russian periodical literature; but far from shaking off the humiliating trappings of hack work, his trajectory rose towards it. He wrote for the St Petersburg Gazette in his youth, after the publication of Poor Folk (1846), and the novels thereafter are all laced with such reflections about the current state of the world as, in an English tradition, would more naturally be found in newspaper columns or other periodicals. The House of the Dead, written about his four years in a Siberian prison camp (from 1849 onwards), is journalism of the first degree. His marvellous travel sketches, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863), are a superbly scornful, and accurate, picture of contemporary Europe. In his European wanderings, accompanied by his much younger second wife Anna, he had written The Idiot and, after the completion of Besy (The Devils, or, as it is called in a brilliant new Penguin translation by Robert A. Maguire, Demons), Dostoevsky returned from his European wanderings to take up the editorship of The Citizen (Grazhdanin). The articles that he himself wrote for this publication, now given the title of The Diary of a Writer and running to well over a thousand pages, must certainly be read alongside the great novels of the later period.

The repeated railing against the corruptions of the West, the defence of a belligerent and militaristic foreign policy against Austria and Turkey, and, above all, the reiteration of the belief that Russians are the God-bearers of history, are familiar Slavophile themes to anyone who has read the literature of the 1870s. "So please don't tell me that I do not know the people! I know them; it was because of them that I again received into my soul Christ Who had been revealed to me in my parents' home and Whom I was about to lose when, on my own part, I transformed myself into a 'European liberal'". There are endless such moments in this later journalism, when we find ourselves reminded of the more histrionic characters in his novels. No one could enlist the journalist Dostoevsky, as they have enlisted Dostoevsky the novelist, as an Ur-member of the Death of God school, nor even, one suspects, as a post-atheistic minimalist, whatever that is. But equally, only the insensitive could fail to see that it is essential to read the novels as narratives in which ideas repellent to Dostoevsky are given freedom to breathe. Indeed, in one of his finest chapters, Williams argues that this is central to Dostoevsky's entire purpose as a writer, and as a religious thinker. Auden's line about teaching the free man how to praise comes to mind. Williams's Dostoevsky is cleverly constructing a rhetoric of freedom, discovering a language which can escape determinism. Brilliant as the Archbishop's book is, however, neither he nor anyone else will ultimately solve the riddle, which is one of the reasons why Dostoevsky remains one of the most endlessly interesting writers who ever lived.

Was it Dostoevsky who thought that if man ceases to believe in his immortality and in God, then all is permitted? Or was it Ivan Karamazov, as filtered through his murderous half-brother Smerdyakov, as a feeble excuse for having killed his own father? Is it Dostoevsky, or the Devil, or Ivan Karamazov imagining the Devil, who says that he would rather give up everything and become a merchant's wife lighting votive candles? It certainly seems very like the Dostoevsky who, in 1854, shortly after being released from prison, wrote to Natalya Fonvizinia, "if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth". How does one interpret the self-dramatizing outbursts by Dostoevsky the journalist with the comparable, sometimes all but identical statements made in the novels by people who are on the verge of being unhinged? A good example, explored by Williams, is Marya Timofeevna Lebyadkina, the funny little crippled sister of the drunken captain in The Devils, one of the most Dickensian figures in the whole Dostoevskian oeuvre. (The casual slitting of her throat is surely one of the most unbearable events in the novel.) During a scene which begins as semi-farce, when she bursts into the respectable general's widow's drawing room after church, she makes the famous speech about watering the earth with tears which will bring forth joy. Williams cautiously tells his readers that the words have "been taken too hastily for an expression of Dostoevsky's own spirituality". Williams points out Marya Timofeevna's heterodoxy, not to say heresy – "God and Nature are all one", she says, and she identifies the Virgin, "the hope of the human race", with "Sacred Mother Earth". "She is in some sense a prophetic presence", Williams comments, "but we are warned to read her words with care". Her theological confusions have much in common, he adds, with those of others "who have turned their backs on transcendent reality", including the key members of the revolutionary cell who cause all the diabolical catastrophes in the story.

His attempts to make sense of this passage for the reader perhaps demonstrate the limitations of any attempt to explain the novels, rather than give oneself up to them. At first it almost seems as if Williams the professional divine is marking the ravings of poor Marya Timofeevna for her theology Finals. Then, as if conscious that such an approach is inapposite, Williams changes gear. First comes a "lit crit" reading of the passage – Marya has a fantasy that she has given birth to a baby whom she has drowned in a pond, and this, Williams argues, perhaps reasonably, "anticipates" the murder of Shatov, to whom she is spinning the yarn, and whose body is eventually destined to be dumped in the pond; it also echoes the gospel narrative which gives the book its title – the cascading of the Gadarene swine into the sea. But having corrected her theology, Williams then turns in the opposite position where he does approve of it after all. When Shatov tells the wicked Stavrogin to repent and water the earth with his tears, "it is a sign of reconnecting with a reality Stavrogin is fleeing from, reconnecting with what is outside his head or his will . . . . Marya is right to the extent that reconciliation with God and with nature are inseparable". Phew! So the poor lame grotesque perhaps gets her Upper Second after all.

At points such as this, one feels that the commentator is trying to represent Dostoevsky as a more coherent, and in a sense more respectable artist than he really was. It feels as though a gentle Western intellectual is bringing his great Russian friend forward to introduce to us. As Dostoevsky shouts something out, perhaps on the verge of an epileptic fit, or asking to borrow some money for the gambling tables or shouting an anti-Semitic insult, we imagine Williams rendering his comments as some subtly phrased compliment to the Dean and Chapter. But the moments when Williams's pages give off this tone are rare. For the most part, we feel ourselves uncannily inside not merely the novels, but the mind that made them. There is something electrifying in Williams's chapters on Dostoevsky's treatment of the demonic, on his exploration of blasphemy and on the Russian's incarnational profundity. Precisely because Dostoevsky was trying, in the face of nineteenth-century determinism, to free his characters, and his readers, from the deadness of systems, he took the risk of incoherence. For that reason, trying to extract sense from him is a delicate task.

Towards the end of his book, Williams quotes that quite extraordinary story which Dostoevsky tells in A Writer's Diary for 1873. (It is Number 4 of The Citizen.) A young peasant pilgrim, for a dare, receives his Communion, but does not swallow it. Instead, to fulfil the dare, he must take the consecrated morsel, place it on a stick, and fire a gun at it. As he does so, he sees the crucified figure whom he is shooting, and he himself passes out of consciousness. Williams uses this story for a deft analysis of the way comparable blasphemous acts in the novels (Fedka placing a mouse in a glazed icon, for example, in The Devils) alert the reader to the manner in which religious truth can be envisioned. "The interwoven stories of Zosima, Markel, Alyosha and Mitya are his mature essay in imaging the holy – not simply in one 'achieved' character, despite the pivotal significance of Zosima, but precisely in the interaction and mutual mirroring in these lives." The point is nicely made. But the shock of the story of the peasant shooting the eucharistic morsel is, as Dostoevsky insists, uniquely Russian: the young peasant with his gun, his defiance, his awful penitence. Only a man who believed in the ultimate reality of Christ in the Eucharist would have perpetrated the act of shooting.

Perhaps one of the deepest mysteries of our own times is not that Darwinian atheists, whom Dr Williams takes to task in his opening pages, have emerged from the milk-and-water post-Enlightenment religious traditions of England to mock simple-minded American-style Evangelicalism. It is that the Russian Orthodox faith, which Dostoevsky was right to see as something different in kind from the religion of other nations, has survived nearly a century of Marxist atheism, with civil war, massacre, starvation and a relentless attempt to eradicate it from the Russian soul by persecution and by programmes of materialist education. Whether a Western intellectual believes in it, or feels at home in it, is an irrelevance. No sooner had the Soviet Union imploded than there reappeared, in full view, the Church of Fr Zosima and Bishop Tikhon, seemingly strengthened by its torments – just as in Dostoevsky's novels murders and drunkenness, child-molestations, suicides and blasphemies actually quicken the faith of indelibly drawn, mired but redeemed characters.

Back · Back to top