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Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience
By Malcolm Jones
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2005 Malcolm Jones
All rights reserved.
Dostoevsky's Journey of Religious Discovery: A Biographical Introduction
If Christianity often went by default in educated Russian families in Dostoevsky's day (as it did, for example, in the Herzen, Tolstoi and Turgenev families), this was certainly not the case with the Dostoevskys. In 1873, now aged 52, Dostoevsky recalled that he had been brought up in a pious Russian family and had been familiar with the Gospels from an early age (XXI, 134). Both factors — the early memories and the pious family environment — were vitally important to his development. As a child, he would sometimes be called on to recite prayers in the presence of guests. His brother Andrei remembered that they would attend mass every Sunday, preceded by vespers the previous night, in the Church attached to the Moscow hospital where their father worked as a doctor. They would do the same thing on Saints' days as well. Their parents were evidently not just conventional observers of religious practice. Both, especially their mother, said Andrei, were deeply religious: every significant event in the life of the family would be marked by the appropriate religious observance. Dostoevsky himself received religious instruction from the deacon at the hospital. Before he even learned to read, his imagination had been fired by events from the ancient lives of saints (XXV, 215), who provided models of asceticism, compassion, suffering, humility and self-sacrifice, based on the example of Christ. Such impressions were reinforced by the family's annual pilgrimage to the St Sergius Trinity Monastery, about 60 miles outside Moscow. These major family events continued until Dostoevsky was ten. In fact, in a letter written to A N Maikov in 1870, he would claim to be an expert on monasteries, on the grounds that he had been acquainted with them since childhood (XXIX, i, 118). As Dostoevsky's biographers never fail to mention, his mother taught him to read from a Russian translation of a well-known German eighteenth-century religious primer by Johannes Hübner, entitled One Hundred and Four Sacred Stories from the Old and New Testaments Selected for Children, which was also the childhood reading of the Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky's last novel (XIV, 264). This book, which was supposed to be learned by heart, contained many of the Bible stories that were later to play a key role in Dostoevsky's major novels, including the stories of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, of the trials of Job and of the raising of Lazarus. It was probably the story of Job's unmerited sufferings and his rebellion against God (which he also associates with Zosima and which is the implied response to Ivan Karamazov's rebellion) that made the deepest impression on Dostoevsky. He had read it for himself by the age of eight and we know that he read it again in his mid-fifties, when he was working on A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov (XXIX, i, 43).
It was also in childhood that he discovered the deep spirituality of the Russian people. The story of the peasant Marei, who rescued the young Fedor when he thought that he was being pursued by a wolf, is well known to all Dostoevsky enthusiasts. The memory of the peasant's surprising tenderness as he made the sign of the cross over the comforted child remained with Dostoevsky all his life. He told the story in his Diary of a Writer in February 1876 (XXII, 46–50). One recent Dostoevsky scholar, Sarah Hudspith, even sees the story as having iconic significance in his work.
Childhood memories were of great importance for Dostoevsky, a fact stressed in the Diary of a Writer and emphasized in some of his character portrayals. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Alesha says that people talk a lot about education, but a beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education of all (XV, 195).
At the Military Engineering Academy in St Petersburg, where Dostoevsky studied from 1838 to 1841, he was known to his fellow-pupils for his hermit-like habits, and for spending all his free time reading. Some of this reading served to reinforce his religious upbringing.
A I Savelev, who was an officer at the Academy at the time, noted that Dostoevsky was very religious and scrupulously observed all his obligations to the Orthodox Church. He possessed copies of the Gospels and of Heinrich Zschokke's Die Stunden der Andacht (Hours of Devotion). After Father Poluektov's lectures on religion, Dostoevsky would stay behind and engage in long conversations with him. The other students called him 'the monk Fotii'. An interesting feature of Zschokke's book, in the words of Dostoevsky's biographer Joseph Frank, is that it 'preached a sentimental version of Christianity entirely free from dogmatic content and with a strong emphasis on giving Christian love a social application', a creed which Dostoevsky tried actively to put into practice in the Academy and which apparently won him the respect of his fellow-students. Perhaps we see here the origins of his later interest in a Christian socialism with Western European sources. While it did not apparently involve any lessening of his Orthodox observance, it was nevertheless in harmony with his romantic enthusiasm for those Western novelists, poets and playwrights, whose work he began to devour with such enthusiasm at about this time. Some of them, for example Schiller, Hugo and George Sand, he saw as great Christian writers (XXVIII, i, 69–70; XXIII, 37) and this was not for reasons which were unique to the Orthodox faith. On the occasion of George Sand's death in 1876, Dostoevsky wrote that, while she was never able to bring herself to subscribe consciously to the central idea of Orthodoxy (that 'in the whole universe there is no name but His by which one may be saved'), she nevertheless, in acknowledging both intellectually and emotionally the freedom and moral responsibility of the human personality, accepted one of the basic ideas of Christianity. Dying a deist, with a firm faith in God and immortality, she was possibly, Dostoevsky thought, the most Christian woman of her age (XXIII, 37).
There is little doubt that these words reflect the views of both the young and the mature Dostoevsky. It was a Dostoevsky capable of seeing Western European Christian socialism not simply as a step on the baleful, downward path from Catholicism to atheistic socialism, as he was later to insist (XXV, 7), but also as a bright reflection of the central idea of Orthodoxy. For Dostoevsky was able to appreciate the central ideas of Christianity wherever he found them, even in Western Europe, even when entirely shorn of their Orthodox context and colouring.
At the Engineering Academy, his infatuation with the works of Schiller, Sand and the cohorts of romantic writers whose work enshrined all that was pure and noble in the human spirit, was stimulated and reinforced by his intense friendships with his two young friends, Berezhetsky and Shidlovsky. At the same time, he was reading those other romantic writers who celebrated the supernatural, the dark side of the human soul, the individual's Faustian pact with the devil and the sacrilegious attempt to usurp God's place in the universe; works by such writers as Hoffmann, Balzac, Sue and Goethe himself, which were to merge in his creative imagination with the traditions of Russian sectarianism and Old Belief.
In 1844, Dostoevsky resigned from the army for the precarious life of a professional writer and not long afterwards the manuscript of his first novel, Poor Folk, received a rapturous welcome from the doyen of the Natural School, the critic Vissarion Belinsky. It was inevitable that the young Dostoevsky, like everyone who met him, should fall under Belinsky's spell, and this encounter was to mark a new phase in the evolution of his religious thought. For a while he was fêted in the literary circles of St Petersburg. Many years later he recalled Belinsky's passionate socialism, which in many ways accorded with values to which he was already attracted. For example, Belinsky acknowledged the moral basis of true socialism and appreciated the dangers of the 'anthill society', as Dostoevsky called the socialist ideal. Yet unlike the utopian socialists, Dostoevsky recalls, Belinsky's socialism was of the atheistic variety, and he therefore felt impelled to attack Christianity. Writing in 1873, Dostoevsky remembered an occasion when in the middle of a tirade against Christ, Belinsky pointed straight at him and turned to a friend with the words, 'Every time I mention Christ the expression on his face changes and he looks as though he's going to burst into tears.' Belinsky, says Dostoevsky, went even further than Renan, who saw Christ as the ideal of human beauty, seeing him as the most ordinary man, and even as a possible recruit to socialism. Dostoevsky remembers George Sand, Cabet, Pierre Leroux, Proudhon and Feuerbach as Belinsky's particular heroes at the time; Fourier had already fallen out of fashion (XXI, 8–12). Quite likely, Belinsky also introduced him to the works of Strauss and Stirner. In the same article of 1873, Dostoevsky gives the impression that he had been completely won over to Belinsky's position, which presumably included his atheism, and later in that year he even reflects that he might have been capable of becoming a follower of the unprincipled nihilist Nechaev (XXI, 129). If so, then his youthful enthusiasm for socialism had certainly taken a dramatic turn. But there is other evidence, of that of Dr S D Ianovsky, who saw him frequently in the mid to late 1840s, which contradicts this, and most scholars nowadays believe that in this respect Dostoevsky retrospectively exaggerated his youthful capitulation to Belinsky. Joseph Frank has argued persuasively that he found better support for his own progressive, moral-religious views in the Beketov Circle, and in his friendship with Valerian Maikov. It may well be that Belinsky's charismatic personality exercised an influence over Dostoevsky that faded when he was in the more relaxed company of other friends.
Dostoevsky was now in his mid-twenties, at an age when intellectual views often take shape. It seems very likely that he wavered in his religious views and observance at this time, finding himself caught between two irresistible forces, his emotional attachment to Orthodoxy and the image of Christ on one hand, and his rage at the Church's apparent indifference to the oppression of the lower social classes on the other. Both sometimes led him to excess, and the resulting pressures must have caused him considerable anguish. When he was eventually arrested for his part in the Petrashevsky Conspiracy in 1849, the principal charge against him was that he had read Belinsky's letter to Gogol in public. In this letter, Belinsky had taken Gogol to task for confusing the Christ who brought freedom, equality and brotherhood to humanity, with the Orthodox Church, the servant of despotism, superstition and the knout. No doubt, Dostoevsky agreed with Belinsky's view of Gogol; but however far he strayed into the utopian socialist camp under Belinsky's influence, and later, in his fateful association with the Petrashevsky Circle, he always drew the line when it came to attacks on the image of Christ, which never ceased to move him deeply. Much later, in 1876, he was to reflect in The Diary of a Writer, 'In Russian (that is, genuine) Christianity, there is no mysticism at all; there is only love for mankind and the image of Christ — at least, these are its main points' (XXIII, 130).
Notwithstanding his commitment to the image of Christ, Dostoevsky continued to expose himself to philosophies that incorporated and gave expression to radical atheistic ideas, and to be drawn into their orbit. His regular visits to meetings of the Petrashevsky Circle began in the autumn of 1848 and the details are too well known, and too easily accessible, to require rehearsal here. But A B Gibson is right in reminding us that Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity is a work always to be reckoned with in the study of Dostoevsky, and whether he read it or not is beside the point, because all around him were talking about it. According to Feuerbach, religious experience is not to be discounted, but is to be seen as a projection of the human mind. Whatever Dostoevsky's intention was, there was to be no depiction of religious experience in his novels that could not be satisfactorily interpreted in this way; and the degree to which the most radical questioning of religious claims becomes the ideological cornerstone of his major novels likewise testifies to the deep and permanent impression that thinkers like Belinsky, Petrashevsky and the even more extreme Speshnev made on his creative consciousness during this formative period in his life, when he was still in his 20s and finding his feet as a writer.
While there is plenty of evidence that, during the period of his association with the Petrashevsky Circle and its offshoots, Dostoevsky was moved to indignation by violence against the oppressed and the underprivileged, and that he had a wide intellectual curiosity, there is none that, like Petrashevsky and Speshnev, he looked to revolution from below as a solution. Nevertheless, he was arrested on 23 April 1849. There followed incarceration in the Peter-Paul Fortress, and the gruelling investigation that followed. When conditions were alleviated, he managed to read and even to write a bit. Though he read anything available, he seems to have been particularly interested in two accounts of pilgrimages to the Holy Places, and the works of St Dmitry of Rostov (XXVIII, i, 157), which included plays on religious themes in the medieval tradition. He asked his brother for the Bible (both Testaments), in both the French and Slavonic versions (XXVIII, i, 158–59). However, there is no suggestion that under the pressure of events he entirely abandoned worldly thoughts in order to immerse himself in religion, for he also urgently requested copies of the journal Notes of the Fatherland and Shakespeare. It was here too that he wrote A Little Hero, which had no more religious significance than the rest of his early work. Nevertheless, as Frank speculates, this period may well mark the beginning of that process of close reading of the Scriptures which reached its zenith during the four years in the Fortress at Omsk, with the New Testament as his only reading matter.
First, however, came the death sentence and the last-minute reprieve at the site of execution. In spite of Dostoevsky's words to Speshnev at the scaffold ('Nous serons avec le Christ'), his spirit was understandably far from tranquil at that moment. The unexpected sentence, followed by the unexpected reprieve, would have put the faith of the most devout saint to test. Even Christ seems to have suffered desolation on the Cross (Matthew, 27: 46; Mark, 15: 34). Dostoevsky seems to have continued to hope for something after his physical death and to be terrified more by confrontation with the unknown than by the imminent prospect of total extinction. It would be inappropriate to draw any general conclusions about his religious views from his feelings at such a moment, yet they are likely to have left a deep imprint on his imagination. Some years later, he was to put the experiences of a condemned man on the way to execution into fictional form, notably in The Idiot (VIII, 51–52) and also, more briefly, in The Brothers Karamazov (XV, 146). Whether or not they faithfully reflect his own experience in every detail, he was undoubtedly able to write from first hand experience. From that moment on, he knew that matters of faith were not peripheral to living and dying, but vitally relevant to every minute of his experience. His unexpected, last minute reprieve must have seemed like a veritable resurrection.
The years in the Fortress at Omsk also made an indelible impression. At Tobolsk, each of the Petrashevsky convicts was given a copy of the New Testament in modern Russian. This was the only book that was allowed in prison and therefore the only book Dostoevsky read for the next four years. Miraculously, his copy has survived, complete with markings made with his fingernail at the time, and later underlinings and annotations in his own hand. It has been carefully scrutinized by scholars, especially by the Norwegian scholar Geir Kjetsaa, for clues as to what was most important to Dostoevsky, and some of these findings are reflected in what follows.
His outlook on life, and with it his spiritual life, could not fail to undergo lasting change as a result of the eight years of exile, especially the four years in the fortress. He encountered concentrated evil at first hand and the Schillerian utopianism of his youth suffered a fatal blow. He got to know the Russian people in their deepest degradation and yet, at the same time, came to believe in their underlying spiritual worth. In 1880, in response to Gradovsky's objections to his Pushkin speech, he recalled his experiences at Omsk, defying his critic to say that he does not know the Russian people, and adding that it was from them that he again received into his soul the Christ whom he first knew in his parents' home as a child, and whom he nearly lost when he reinvented himself as a European liberal (XXVI, 152).
Excerpted from Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience by Malcolm Jones. Copyright © 2005 Malcolm Jones. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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