Friday, January 30, 2009

Dostoevsky and Belief

"Show an affirming flame."
     --W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

In Dostoevsky's great novels, religious belief is elusive.  Certainly Crime and Punishment contains a story of Christian suffering and redemption, and Demons lampoons the nihilistic radicals.  But I can hardly see The Idiot as an affirmation of Christian faith--it is a book consumed with doubt (more strongly, loss or absence of faith.  I think of Rogozhin and Myshkin, in the dark, discussing belief in God, looking at Holbein's painting, facing each other as contrasting rivals, being ruined in the end).  Notes from the Underground and The Adolescent defy religious definition, and his masterpiece among masterpieces, The Brothers Karamozov, seems an affirmation of Christian faith, but contains within it such diverse and strong characters and ideas of the opposite that again, religious belief is elusive.

I might describe Dostoevsky's novels as a vacillation between belief and unbelief, but that's not quite accurate.  They seem to hold belief and unbelief at the same time, in the same moment, in the same mind.  But at any rate, the tension of belief and unbelief is the substance of Dostoevsky's novels, his characters, perhaps his own soul.

And that may be why I'm drawn to him, why I consider him my master.  I could describe myself as a believer who has always intensely doubted, or as a non-believer that has never actually given up believing.  I find that in Dostoevsky; I find it in the characters that haunt his novels.

I think perhaps the image of the seed in The Brothers Karamozov is significant.  His novels seem wracked with unbelief, but contain within them a seed of belief, a tiny affirmation.  They show an affirming flame, but a tiny one, a flame that barely keeps out the overwhelming darkness.

No comments:

Post a Comment