Magazine article The Spectator

A Dark and Desolate World

Magazine article The Spectator

A Dark and Desolate World

Article excerpt

DOSTOEVSKY: LANGUAGE, FAITH AND FICTION by Rowan Williams Continuum, £16.99, pp. 290, ISBN 9781847064237 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

While the Anglican communion has been disintegrating, its symbolical head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been writing an analysis of Dostoevsky's novels.

This in itself presents a need for explanation: Dostoevsky has generally been assessed as an habitué of the territory between agnosticism and atheism, but Rowan Williams sees him as the author of 'a Christocentric apologetic'. Yet the characters in Dostoevsky are miserable and dysfunctional obsessives in the main; neurotic and repulsive creations of a mind that many have judged intellectually and morally opaque. In the 19th century and throughout the Soviet era Dostoevsky's critics considered his books unhealthy. This does not seem to worry the Archbishop, who confesses, indeed, to having found the writing of his account 'a delight'.

He is scrupulous in avoiding censorious language in explaining the ghastly conduct and opinions of Dostoevsky's fictional creations, and it is usually only in accounts of child-abuse that he refers to 'contemptible behaviour'. Otherwise there is a marked emancipation from the conventional restraint that Christian writers (let alone archbishops) have tended to demonstrate in alluding to facets of human sexuality. Williams notes the 'unequivocally erotic terms' and 'orgastic impulse' of a character in Crime and Punishment without resort to euphemism; there is, similarly, little that is veiled in his explanation of 'the assault on a symbolic and otherwise invisible penis'.

This last is the meaning he attaches to a bitten finger in The Brothers Karamazov. It is doubtless very diverting, but what does it tell the reader about Heaven and Hell, life and death?

This is a study of the religious identity of the ideas articulated by Dostoevsky's literary puppets. Williams rightly notices at once that Dostoevsky was not writing to explain whether or not God exists, and is concerned primarily -- through several tortured shifts of context -- with what society is like both when it is influenced by religious belief and when it is not. Dostoevsky's dreadful characters (Williams refers to his world as peopled by 'robbers and murderers') declaim all manner of religious ideas and degrees of agnosticism and atheism. None of them is brought to a systematic conclusion -- or to a conclusion of any sort. Everything is held in suspension, in a social and moral atmosphere, however, which appears to presage decay and dissolution. It is, that is to say, all very Anglican. Of Dostoevsky himself, and of his formal if residual Orthodox beliefs, the reader learns almost nothing. It is his characters who speak to us in this book, and Williams correctly warns us not to take their opinions as Dostoevsky's.

A brief summary of Dostoevsky's life would have helped. Even a paragraph would have been enough. Instead Williams leaves the uninitiated reader to guess or to go elsewhere for information. There are several bare references to Dostoevsky's imprisonment, yet even here, for so seminal an event in his moral formation, no explanation is offered. This is a book for the specialist enthusiast; it assumes a great deal of prior knowledge. …

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