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Faith and Reason in Dostoevsky

The great Russian Orthodox novelist transcended the rationalism of modern literature, in an attempt to transcend everything else.

Lectures on Dostoevsky, by Joseph Frank, (Princeton University Press: December 2019), 248 pages.

The battle lines in the supposed war between reason and tradition, science and faith, in the 18th and 19th centuries are a fitting entry point into the life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Russian novelist viewed the world in cosmic terms. Philosophical irrationalism plays a vital role in most of his novels, as does an ongoing ideological showdown between reason and faith. For Dostoevsky, reason could never fully explain human existence. In a letter to his brother Mikhail in 1838, Dostoevsky claimed that “To know nature, the soul, God, love…These things are known by the heart, not by the mind.” The “mind is material faculty.”

Dostoevsky published his debut novel, Poor Folk, in 1846. The tension in his writing between the spiritual and the material was still in flux at this early stage of his career. He was still gleaning ideas from friends and foes in the St Petersburg literati, especially the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a small gathering of enthusiastic writers and critics who met weekly to debate literature, philosophy, politics, and social equality.

A point the late Joseph Frank continually stresses in Lectures on Dostoevsky is that early Russian literature was mostly theological—controlled by religious ideals derived from Byzantine Christianity. That changed in the late 17th century with Peter the Great. As part of a modernizing project for the Russian empire, the Tsar believed the Russian nobility and literate class should reeducate themselves according to Western standards. A split thus occurred in Russian society between the secular literary ruling class and God-fearing illiterate peasants.

This caused a schism within the Russian intelligentsia, too. The rational materialists became known as Westernizers. They mainly spoke French, held their own language and traditions in contempt, and worshiped at the altar of European culture. The Slavophils sought to link Russia’s future with its early historical values. Namely: its Christian faith. They believed Europe was another fallen Rome and noted the glaring similarities: spiritual unity being sacrificed for self-interested ego-centric decadence, moral disorder, and perverted sensuality. Dostoevsky began his career as a skeptical Westernizer. But he eventually became a committed Slavophil.

That spiritual and cultural identity was solidified in a road-to-Damascus moment, which arrived suddenly in 1849. Along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle, Dostoevsky was arrested. This was part of a larger plan by Nicholas I to suppress intellectual freedom across Russian society, which he feared would threaten the social order.

Dostoevsky spent nearly a decade away from Russian public life. The latter part of his sentence required him to serve as a soldier in the Russian army. Four years were spent in a Siberian prison with peasant convicts, but the lasting psychological wound came at the beginning of his sentence. Russian law at the time called for a mock execution to be staged in cases where a death sentence had been pardoned. All relevant props were thus arranged in the Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, where Dostoevsky was kept under lock and key. Prisoners were blindfolded. A firing squad stood before them. Carts of coffins were lined up. A priest arrived with a cross, and last confessions were heard.

The scene was recreated in The Idiot (1868). The novel’s central protagonist recalls hearing a story from a man who believes he has just minutes left to live. “His uncertainty and repulsion before the unknown [was] terrible,” Prince Myshkin explains. But biographical evidence also survives. It comes from Nikolay Speshnev who was also part of the Petrashevsky Circle. The communist and atheist recalled the moment both men began contemplating the prospect of immediate death. Dostoevsky turned to him and said: “We shall be with Christ.”

In the post-Siberian novels, Christian symbolism became a ubiquitous presence in Dostoevsky’s work, where a single theme continually raised its head: the ongoing struggle in humankind between good and evil. In Crime and Punishment (1866) we witness a world where trust in reason alone destroys all emotional ties between human beings. In Demons (1872) Shatov bluntly declares that “reason never [has] the power to define good and evil,” and in The Brothers Karamazov (1880) faith is presented in fundamental terms: nothing less than absolute devotion to Christ’s teachings will suffice.

In Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Frank notes how “Life for Dostoevsky was [now] as it had been for Keats, a vale of soul making into which Christ had come to call mankind to battle against the death of immersion in matter and to inspire the struggle towards the ultimate victory over egoism.”

Most standard 19th century novels embraced human reason with open arms. It sat well with the regimented values of bourgeois society: especially its narrow-minded fixation with wealth, social status, and material success. Dostoevsky’s work, by contrast, is closer to poetic tragedy: a world where social relations and religious metaphysics cross paths with dreams and visions unbound by space, time, or materialist matter. Dostoevsky’s harshest critics often claimed that his novels didn’t reflect the reality of the age he was writing in. They also suggested that his pathological characters would be better off locked behind bars in a mental asylum than polluting the pages of prestigious Russian literary journals.

But those critics appear to have misread the central point of Dostoevsky’s work: that reality itself is a questionable concept. This would seem to explain why Dostoevsky’s characters constantly operate within an eschatological framework. If perpetual anxiety, guilt, and doubt are their dominant emotions, it’s hardly surprising. They spend much of their time contemplating the possibility of hell or paradise beyond the grave. Deeply indebted to the Biblical tradition, this moral and mythological framework gives Dostoevsky’s readers the required tools to think about another one of his central themes: moral transcendence.

He felt any individual could achieve it, if they had the willpower. Once ego was parked at the door, breaking free from their narcissistic chains of vanity would come next. And, eventually the individual could move beyond their own selfish drives and appetites. Only then, Dostoevsky believed, was real freedom a possibility. Two key words are important here: acceptance and faith. Accepting that we never possess total control of the individual and collective life we lead, which is really just a random set of events with no preordained path or pattern. And putting faith in the idea that we live in a world that will always exist beyond the realm of human understanding.

JP O’Malley is a journalist, writer and cultural critic, who writes for a host of publications around the globe on literature, history, art, politics, and society.

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