Book Review

"Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction" by Rowan Williams

Jordan Easley
Rowan Williams
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009

Fyodor Dostoevsky has been hailed by many scholars as one of the most brilliant and important novelists of all time. His two most famous novels, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, are routinely required reading in many high schools and universities across the United States. He also happens to have been a devoted Christian. Dostoevsky's Christian beliefs, however, have often been a subject of confusion or even criticism for many of his readers. In fact, this Russian Orthodox believer "has been to some extent co-opted into the service of an anguished agnosticism" and even into the "Death of God" movement (2). Yet in recent years, scholars have paid more attention to the role of faith in Dostoevsky's writings, and Rowan Williams, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, is among the best of them.

Over the course of five extensive chapters in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, Williams develops a brilliant argument that upholds both the complexity and integrity of the author's Christian faith. He examines all of Dostoevsky's most well-known novels–Notes from the Underground, The Idiot, Devils, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov–and even a few letters, bringing out various literary and theological themes. Yet the overarching theme is how Jesus Christ is clearly manifest in Dostoevsky's uniquely "dialectical" narrative. "Instead of imagining a deeply divided authorial mind…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" (3).

In chapter 1, "Christ Against the Truth?," Williams examines Dostoevsky's narrative method in light of one of his most famous and shocking statements: "If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it really was the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than the truth" (15). From this opening, Williams demonstrates that Dostoevsky, while concerned with the truth, was not concerned with writing novels as religious apologetics. Rather, he recognized that "'Truth' as the ensemble of sustainable propositions about the world, does not compel adherence to any one policy of living rather than another" (25). In other words, the bare facts about Christ do not guarantee belief in Christ. Furthermore, Williams connects this understanding of Christ to the task of writing fiction. Dostoevsky recognized that fiction should not "approach human affairs as if they belonged to the world of evidence" (58). Instead he allowed a certain "narrative indeterminacy" that created room for "radical patience with the unplanned and the undetermined decisions of agents" (58).

In chapter 2, "Devils," Williams applies this notion of "narrative indeterminacy" and applies it to the role of the demonic in Dostoevsky's novels. Williams analyzes many passages from Karamazov and Devils to explain that the essence of the diabolical is the "perversion of freedom": "The Devil's priority is to prevent historical change and to free human agency in the timelessness of a 'rational' order in which love or reconciliation is impossible" (108). Thus, just as serious "to and fro" dialogue, which is pervasive throughout Dostoevsky's novels, creates a free place for genuine Christian faith, so does demonic dialogue twist this place into something destructive.

Williams continues to discuss in chapter 3, "The Last Word," Dostoevsky's use of dialogue in his novels. In particular, he addresses how the structure of dialogue itself counters the role of the demonic: "If the Devil's aim is silence, God's is speech" (113). But Dostoevsky is not merely claiming free speech for the sake of free speech. Rather, "Speech may be free but it needs to be hearable–otherwise it fails finally to be language at all. And I as speaker need to acquire skills to listen or my response will be no response" (134). Thus, Williams demonstrates how Dostoevsky purposefully employs this kind of dialogue, which allows for a certain amount of irresolution in order to force the reader to enter into dialogue with the characters in the story. Thus, the reader arrives at the Truth without following an obvious agenda. Ultimately, says Williams, Christ is the "'last word,' not as the force which provides the final episode…but as the presence with whom ultimately every speaker may discover an exchange that is steadily and unfailingly life-giving and free from anxiety" (139).

In chapter 4, "Exchanging Crosses," Williams expands his argument by examining how Dostoevsky's characters are like Christ (or not like Christ) in their capacity to foster life-giving dialogue with other characters. He couches this Christ-likeness in terms of feeling "responsibility for all" and "love for the other."

Responsibility is the free acceptance of the call to give voice to the other, while leaving them time and space to be other; it is the love of the other in his or her wholeness, that is, including the fact of their relatedness to more than myself…[it is] confirmation that the tactics of narration in Dostoevsky's novels are inseparable from the vision that drives them. (187)

In other words, it is not simply that the characters in Dostoevsky's novels create a free space where responsible dialogue is possible, but that Dostoevsky as an author actively promotes this kind of dialogue as a structure in which responsible, real-world Christian faith can grow.

In chapter 5, "Sacrilege and Revelation," Williams brings together the various themes of his argument by explaining Dostoevsky's use of imagery and iconography. He first discusses how certain characters in the novels choose to venerate or desecrate the icons of Christ that they encounter. They are not merely reacting to images of Christ, but they are reflecting a Russian Orthodox notion of how Christ is "imaged-forth" by emptying himself, by becoming human. Dostoevsky, says Williams, is intentionally writing a "narrative of vulnerability" in which "a true image will necessarily be something that is broken or spat upon….[It is a] 'kenotic' story at the center…the complex unfolding of true images in narratives of sin and forgiveness, suffering and enduring presence" (224). Thus, Williams weaves together all the theological and narrative strands: Dostoevsky's characters engage in a dialogue (chapter 3) that is part of an indeterminate narrative structure (chapter 1) in which the self-emptying love (chapter 4) of the Incarnate Christ (chapter 5) overcomes violence of the demonic (chapter 2).

Though he does not claim professional authority for this book, Williams has clearly demonstrated that his great abilities as a scholar of theology also serve him well as a scholar of Slavic literature. He is a thorough reader of the text with a strong grasp of the Russian language, though, thankfully, he does not require such knowledge from his readers. The style of the book itself is generally clear, but it is dense in content, demanding full attention from the reader and offering excellent analysis.

This book is not for those who are looking for first-time exposure to Dostoevsky. It assumes that the reader is familiar with all of Dostoevsky's major novels and is difficult to follow without such knowledge. But for Dostoevsky enthusiasts, who are interested in an academically rigorous examination of both the literary and theological aspects of the author's famous works, this is certainly a valuable and thought-provoking read.

Friday, October 30th 2009

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