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The gospel according to Dostoevsky

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Williams, Rowan: Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. Continuum, 2008. ISBN 9781847064257

Williams, Rowan: Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. Continuum, 2008. ISBN 9781847064257'"The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by observing its prisoners." Dostoevsky said that, after doing a little time.' –John Cusack, playing US Marshal Vince Larkin, in Con Air (1997).

It is a little surprising to find Dostoevsky quoted in a Hollywood blockbuster, let alone a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Perhaps even more surprising that the quote is genuinely apposite, and less misrepresenting of Dostoevsky than is often the case when he is quoted out of context (although the punchline of the sentence is usually rendered 'by entering its prisons').

However, the quote occurs in Notes from the Underground, a book written in a voice which is not strictly speaking Dostoevsky's own. And although the meaning of the statement might at first seem obvious, there is more than one possible interpretation.

'As long as language remains possible, so does contradiction. There is nothing sayable that cannot be answered or continued or qualified in some way or another ... Thus there is no end to writing.'

That is the voice of Rowan Williams, developing his argument that the essence of Dostoevsky's art as a novelist, and faith as a man, was a radical openness to argument and contradiction, to a 'polyphony' of voices — even a sense that 'having the last word', seeking to impose philosophical closure on a narrative, far from being one's privilege as a novelist, is essentially demonic.

This makes quoting Dostoevsky a problematic exercise, and understanding his actual thinking a life long quest. But Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, theologian, literary critic and something of a fellow traveller when it comes to Russian Orthodoxy, brings a high degree of 'street cred' to the table. And the result is not only exciting but potentially life-changing.

It is Williams' belief that Dostoevsky practises his understanding of Christianity in the very act of writing, that indeed he developed 'a theology of writing'.

But this does not mean that he arrives forearmed with a set of incontrovertible dogmatic truths, and then moulds his narrative in accordance with them, making sure that it proves them correct and that it is obvious which character or systems of thought are endorsed, and which are not. Nothing could be further from his understanding (or indeed any intelligent reading) of what Christianity demands from us.

Rather, in a kind of literary imitation of the Creation and the Incarnation, he practises the narrative, psychological and spiritual discipline of allowing each character, each point of view, to be genuinely heard, indeed entering the book only in the voice of a fellow character, whose views have no especial privilege over any others.

His writing allows the other truly to be the other, which is, perhaps, psychologically and socially, the ultimate Christian act. The irony is that this leaves him highly vulnerable to misreading. The glory is that this very vulnerability is (in a novelist's terms) Christ-like.

Williams' book is packed with paragraphs to commit to memory, nuggets of perception that offer more and more as one stretches to meet them. To read him is to grow intellectually. His discussion of icons in Dostoevsky (and in Russian Orthodox theology generally) is alone worth the price of the book.

Dostoevsky is often seen as the anguished agnostic par excellence. Williams argues this is a misinterpretation, that springs partly from his enthusiastic embrace by a post religious culture in the grip of mass amnesia about the nature of religion and religious world view, and of the great variety of cultural expressions — art, literature, philosophy — which have been informed, and formed, historically, by Christianity.

The tension in his novels is not one between atheism and theism. Rather it is around the question of whether 'we could imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity and depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate'. The catch is that, 'in order to put such a challenge, the novels have to invite us to imagine precisely those extremes of failure, suffering, and desolation.'

Cassandra GoldsCassandra Golds is a Sydney-based author of children's fiction. Her latest book is The Museum of Mary Child.

Topic tags: Cassandra Golds, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and FictionRowan Williams, Continuum, 9781847064257



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Existing comments

Thanks so much for alerting me to this book. It is many years since I read Dostoevsky but this makes me think I need to go back to him together with Rowan Williams' book.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 24 April 2009  

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