One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

July 13, 2009

Language, faith, fiction and long Russian names

Herewith a review of a book I read recently. It’s not for the intellectually faint of heart, though!

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction
By Rowan Williams
Baylor UniversityPress, $24.95

In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Lucy finds Linus reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Don’t all those Russian names bother you?” she asks her brother.
 
“No,” he replies, “when I come to one I can’t pronounce, I just bleep right over it!”
 
A little advice if you happen to pick up Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction: Before starting, do your homework on the 19th-century Russian author. Some background in literary theory and criticism (particularly Dostoevsky critic Mikhail Bakhtin) would help, too. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking the Linusian approach and bleeping over large sections of Rowan Williams’ book.
 
The unresolved tension in Dostoevsky’s novels, says the archbishop of Canterbury (yes, it’s that Rowan Williams), “is not — as it is too often portrayed — a tension between believing and not believing in the existence of God. … Dostoevsky is not presenting to 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 political and social world of his day.”
 
Another key point (and this is where some of that literary theory comes in): “[W]hatever Dostoevsky actually believed himself, he could not but put it into a novel as one perspective among others, since he was committed to a particular view of what authorship can and can’t do …. we have a text that consciously writes out the to and fro of dialogue, always alerting us to the dangers of staying with or believing uncritically what we have just heard.”
 
Working from The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s other major novels — Crime and Punishment, Notes From the Underground, The Idiot and Devils (also known as The Possessed) — Williams addresses various questions. What did Dostoevsky mean when he wrote that “if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth … then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth”? How are freedom and the diabolical connected? Why is open-endedness important to the concepts of dialogue and narrative? What might “taking responsibility for others” entail? How does Dostoevsky employ the ideas of holy images and blasphemy?
 
If all that sounds like quite a mouthful … well, it is. Rowan’s book assumes not just a thorough working knowledge of the novels — there are no plot summaries or character lists — but also an ability to hike in the rarefied atmosphere of academic discussion. CliffsNotes this ain’t.
 
“[O]ne of the most serious mistakes we could possibly make in reading Dostoevsky,” Williams says, “is to suppose that his fundamental position is individualistic, simply because of his passionate opposition to determinism.” True freedom, according to Williams’ understanding of the Russian writer, involves the ideas of language and exchange — it is not something that focuses on my arbitrary choices and obliterates any need for an “other” whom I must react to and dialogue with. “Freedom as detachment or freedom as self-assertion will equally lead away from language, toward the silence of nonrecognition.”
 
So if you’re up to a thorough intellectual workout, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction may be the right exercise machine for you. Otherwise, you’ve got a few rounds of literary push-ups to do.

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1 Comment »

  1. Literary push ups… I like that!

    Comment by Doug — July 24, 2009 @ 2:59 pm | Reply


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