Reality and Sanctity
By Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson
Dostoevsky's work remains relevant to our age through his concern with the eternal.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was tied to a stake and blindfolded before a firing squad. Biographer Joseph Frank describes the scene: “A cart with coffins could be seen on the side, and a priest came carrying a cross, which they all kissed; some made confessions. The order was given for the rifles to be raised, and this was done; but then the drums of the regiment surrounding the square began to beat retreat.” Dostoevsky was an ex-army officer, so he understood the meaning of this. He had been spared. Whereas he had previously been part of a revolutionary group intent on constructing a socialist utopia, this experience disabused him of these fantasies. His nonchalance regarding whether Christ was of one or two natures transformed into a vehement devotion to Christ’s divinity. And, after his seven years of prison in Siberia, he understood how false were his earlier caricatures of Russian peasants. His brush with death transformed his work from realistic fables to stories resonant with, in Frank’s words, “eschatological apprehension.”
From a literary scholar’s perspective, no writer has had more influence on American literature than Dostoevsky. Who better to show us how to grapple with ideological totalitarianism than the prophet who foresaw it and buttressed dissidents like Solzhenitsyn into standing against it? He never stopped worrying about his literary reputation, but he also never stopped promulgating the unfashionable stuff in which he believed. And he did this not by ignoring the unfriendly cultural circumstances in which he was writing, but by confronting them specifically and by name.
Dostoevsky is not merely a literary titan of the past, but should be a living presence. His work never caricatures people as good guys and bad guys. Within the prison walls, he developed an ability to empathize with perpetrators and victims. In his semi-autobiographical novel The House of the Dead, he observes of the officers, “Tyranny is a habit capable of being developed, and at last becomes a disease”; of the murderers serving sentences, “in many instances, the murderer had been provoked beyond endurance by ill treatment.” The life-like, unfinished human beings he depicts will lead to the forceful exclamation in the hagiography of Father Zosima of The Brothers Karamazov, “We are responsible for all!”
Because of his years in prison, Dostoevsky learned to see past surface-level explanations for Russia’s problems. Despite the trend in contemporary Russia to consider Christianity the faith of peasants or to believe along with the intellectual elite in a solely human Christ, he is, again quoting Frank, “one of the few modern novelists who tried to present absolute Christian values as guides to life. And he does so without evasiveness or compromise, fully aware of all their absurdity and foolishness when seen from the point of view of rational self-interest and common sense.” The spiritual depth of Dostoevsky’s fiction has fascinated readers for more than a century: his questions on theodicy, on free will, on the church, on demons. As Frank lays out for us in his lecture on Notes From the Underground, we must overcome the temptation to use “the work for our own purposes, in terms of our contemporary cultural concerns,” which will prevent our understanding of the work. We must live with eschatological apprehension.
Frank’s Lectures on Dostoevsky, from his annual course at Stanford University, is a book we can recommend to students and Dostoevsky aficionados without a lengthy apology that it is not pretentious and an insistence not to fear its imposing size. David Foster Wallace, in the essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” (included in the book’s appendices), writes, “These readings aim to be explicative rather than argumentative or theory-driven; their aim is to show as clearly as possible what Dostoevsky wanted the books to mean.”
This piece has been abbreviated and republished with the permission of Law & Liberty. Dr. Wilson’s original article, Encountering Dostoevsky, may be found here.