I’ve been enjoying the novels of Dostoevsky the last few years (I’ve read and reread Brothers Karamazov, then The Idiot and Demons), as well as American Southern authors, from Flannery O’Connor to Faulkner, who evoke something of his sense of hopeless poverty, and Russian spiritual authors, from the Vladimir Lossky to Catherine Doughtery to the Philokalia, who I feel have . . . something important to say to us in the West. I also find something hopeful in the bleak hopelessness of English Catholic novelists like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. But no one speaks to me of both that bleak poverty and that special Russian sense for the Gospel like Dostoevsky. I’ve been trying to figure out why.
I have felt like part of the value of the Russians is that, for all their problems, they speak into the West from the outside. Their problems are not our problems, so they offer a perspective that can at least shake us out of the narrow ways we often frame things.
I’ve had a sense that somehow this fits into the Russian debate, at Dostoevsky’s time, between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Dostoevsky was one of the Russians who thought that they shouldn’t be imitating us in the West. On the one hand, Slavophilia (whatever it means) makes me nervous. I believe in Catholicism, which means rising above our national biases into the universal perspective of Christ; I hate nationalist Christianities, and Russian Orthodoxy is one of the most nationalist. I don’t want to follow Russians deeper into their self-regarding parochialism.
On the other hand, that might be what makes the Russians useful for us: they can shake us out of our Western biases, help us see beyond the narrowness of our own sort of nationalism, and so recover a Christianity that is bigger than America and the modern West.
I recently began another read through Crime and Punishment, and found this wonderful line, already in the second chapter:
“A follower of the latest ideas was explaining to me just the other day that
in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”
From the pen of the Slavophile Dostoevsky, the line is obviously ironic. It identifies the problem of the West as a kind of know-it-all pseudo-scientific outlook that thinks it rises above basic human relationships. Dostoevsky’s word “compassion” nicely ties together a central part of the supernatural Gospel with the most natural parts of human existence. “England”—that’s us—thinks it’s too sophisticated for either Jesus or basic human decency.
I happened to read these lines in a bright white Urgent Care, with one of those home improvement shows playing on the television in front of me. On tv, they’ve just knocked open a wall and discovered some new opportunity. I wasn’t following exactly, but the contractor says to the couple, “Do you want to switch over to a tankless water heater?” They say, “Is that within our budget?” He says, “Oh, it will only be fifteen hundred dollars.” And she says, “Yes, I think we should do it: for our future, and for the environment!”
The impression is that “normal” people have thousands of dollars to throw around on spur-of-the-moment ideas; that we should be “investing” in “our future”; and that the most meaningful things in life are how fancy your latest renovation is. There is no interior life, no need for compassion, no relationships, just lots of expensive stuff.
Meanwhile, I read about Dostoevsky’s characters, horrifically poor, living in a hallway, dying of consumption and drunken despair, physically beaten by their bosses, hiring their daughters out for prostitution because they have no other hope of feeding their starving children.
Two very different worlds: Dostoevsky’s Russia and our modern West.
Within the first thirty pages, a main character is on his kness, arms stretched out like a cross, proclaiming his wretchedness to his wife. The same character has proclaimed of himself, “There’s no reason to feel sorry for me! I should be crucified, nailed to a cross, not pitied.”
But he says of the Crucified: “He who has pitied all men and who has understood everyone and everything, He will take pity on us; He and no one else; He is the judge. He will come on that day and He will ask: ‘Where is thy daughter who sacrificed herself for her wicked and consumptive stepmother and for a stranger’s little children? Where is thy daughter who pitied her earthly father, a useless drunkard, , and who was not dismayed by his beastliness?’ And he will say: ‘Come forth, I have already forgiven thee!’ . . . Then He will summon us, too: ‘Come forth, He will say, “even ye! Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weaklings, come forth, ye shameless ones! . . . And He will say, ‘I receive them, oh, ye wise men, I receive them, oh ye learned men, because not one of them hath ever considered himself worthy. . . . ‘And He will stretch forth His arms to us, and we will kiss His hands . . . and we will weep . . . and we will understand all things.”
In our world of HGTV, we pretend that compassion—compassion for one another, compassion for the poor, the compassion of Christ, our own desperate need for compassion—is a thing of the past, solved by economic “progress.”
Of course, that’s not true. Though we might not live in the wretched physical poverty of Dostoevsky’s characters, we real human beings still feel the terror of all sorts of emotional and relational and spiritual poverty. We still anaesthetize our pain, just like Dostoevsky’s drunks. But we pretend that economic growth replaces compassion. And we lose the immediacy of the Cross, Dostoevsky’s sense that our whole lives revolve around the pity and suffering of Jesus Christ.
That’s one of the reasons to read the Russians, and all those other authors who still know that suffering is real.
It might explain, too, why our South American pope sounds so strange to the ears of rich white Americans . . . .