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Dostoevsky: When Mystery Takes Over

Someone told me about listening to an author discuss a book she had written some years before. The book was fairly well-received, but the author hasn’t written another one since. The reason: she based so much of the book on people and events from her life that she found herself bereft of anything more to write about.

I have some opinions on what that explanation suggests, although I’ll keep them to myself. In any case, the relationship of an author’s work to events in his own life is an interesting one. Some critics have made too much of the relationship–their evaluations of books are more like a detective’s evaluation of a crime scene than of a response to the book itself. The New Criticism sprung up in the middle decades of the twentieth century in an effort to oppose this tendency. New Critics emphasized that works of fiction are not authorial biographies. While some authors may put some of their own experiences into a book, others will not.

Flannery O’Connor, who was sympathetic to the New Criticism, is a prime example of why it can be dangerous to assume that an author’s works reflect something about his background. To read O’Connor’s stories, one might be tempted to think that she had suffered a violent childhood or something of the sort. She didn’t. Her life was not easy, but she did not usually build stories around real-life experiences. In fact, she became quite irritated when people sent her letters insisting that Georgia wasn’t filled with violent convicts that massacred innocent travelers. She hadn’t been insinuating that it was. All the letter writers had really told her was that they misunderstood her point.

480px-Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_ProjectFyodor Dostoevsky is a different story, however, as I found after finishing The Idiot and Dostoevsky’s Wikipedia article. His novels aren’t autobiographical, but certain themes from his life keep showing up. Like Dostoevsky, the main character, Myshkin, suffers from epilepsy. A major character in The Idiot (as well as another character in Crime and Punishment) dies of consumption. So did Dostoevsky’s mother. Myshkin talks about a man condemned to death whose sentence was commuted to imprisonment just minutes before his execution. Dostoevsky–who had a taste for socialism in his younger years–went through that same experience.

Fortunately, Dostoevsky never crammed all his life experiences into one novel and subsequently lost his ability to write. But, however different his writing was from Flannery O’Connor’s, they both shared an important characteristic–a respect for mystery. In Dostoevsky’s case, that respect includes an understanding that, to quote The Idiot, “the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Myshkin attempts to save Nastasya Filippovna, a woman that most people view as fallen. The church, he later notes, might forgive her, but society will not. But Myshkin’s innocent nature works against him. In his attempts to redeem her, he not only underestimates the volatility of her own nature, he fails to take into consideration another man who wants Nastasya Filippovna, no matter the cost to any of them. In trying to redeem Nastasya, Myshkin destroys himself.

“Beauty will save the world,” Myshkin asserts, to the bemusement of those around him. Myshkin is certainly better at seeing beauty than is the Russian society in which he finds himself. Yet his end is anything but beautiful. “For a long time,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything?”

Solzhenitsyn concluded that beauty might reach people who had rejected truth and goodness, the other two members of that old trinity. And something does reach out through the pages of The Idiot. There is a strange beauty in the mystery of Myshkin’s existence–however it ends. We are left with a conviction that he was more right than anyone around him understood. Whatever the problems that entangled him, Myshkin recognized the reality of transcendence. He was surrounded not only by bodies, but by souls. And he strove to value them.

Dostoevsky–epileptic or not–was not Myshkin. He made a number of mistakes in his personal life, and they were not caused by innocence. But perhaps he, like Solzhenitsyn, viewed Myshkin’s words as a prophecy. The ugliness of our best efforts may yet be turned around by mysteries beyond our ability to understand. We walk by faith, not by sight.

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Progress and Poison Gas

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.”

Who went on this diatribe? Some sort of left-wing pacifist? Hardly. It comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton Address. It was a surprise for me to read, actually. I covered World War I in a few too many U.S. History classes, and the war just isn’t the same from an American point of view. We were involved in the war for only a year–and we didn’t spend most of it stuck in trenches. The war had a far bigger impact on Europe. That Solzhenitsyn would trace godlessness back to World War I was food for thought.

I went on to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque perhaps exemplified his generation. At nineteen he was conscripted to fight in the war, but he was initially eager to fight: “We are going to save the world.” But war was not what he, or many other young Europeans, thought it would be. Some–J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance–emerged from the war emotionally damaged, but with their faith still intact. But for Remarque–however seriously he took his family’s Catholicism during his childhood–the war shattered his world.

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession,” writes Remarque, “and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Remarque never fought in battle, although he served very close to the front lines and was wounded by long distance artillery. The severity of his wounds forced him to give up his dream of becoming a concert pianist.

Remarque, and many other young Europeans, found the reality of war very different from what they had been taught while growing up. “For us lads of eighteen [our parents and teachers] ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity…to the future…in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But…the first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”

Young Europeans had grown up being taught that scientific progress was going to turn the world into a better place. Then scientific progress was used to kill people more quickly. We might think of nuclear warfare after a sentence like that, but poison gas predated nuclear weapons. Some people postulated that The Lord of the Rings was really about nuclear warfare. The Ring, of course, doesn’t symbolize any specific modern weapon (Tolkien hated allegory). Tolkien was also no fan of nukes–in fact, he commented that the Allies had taken the Ring and used it–but poison gas was what he knew about. Some authors speculate that writing fiction about war in Middle Earth was cathartic for him–it was a way to deal with the horrors he had faced, dealing a blow through literature to the wartime technologies that had worsened the bloodbath.

One benefit of reading fantasy, dystopian, and science fiction literature is that such stories tend to avoid the pitfall that entrapped the young people of World War I. Many of them focus on science’s destructive power. Have we forgotten the lessons that Remarque and Solzhenitsyn were trying to teach? The way that science is usually discussed in the media and in schools makes me wonder. How is it that many of us still believe in infinite progress when we live in a post-WWI world? More to the point, why do we define “progress” as “technological progress”? If we could progress in controlling our abuse of technology, that would be progress indeed.

Remarque’s book isn’t a pleasant read: in fact, the Nazis burned All Quiet on the Western Front for being too anti-war. (Remarque was thankfully out of the country, or they probably wouldn’t have been opposed to throwing him in with it.) The book may not offer a neutral viewpoint about World War I (and indeed, what novel would?). But, if you want to understand the impact World War I had on Europe, All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t a book to pass up.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Realistic Fiction

 

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