Dostoevsky's Literary Burden of Representing Saints

Perhaps no one in the history of modern literature was as conscious as Dostoevsky regarding the literary burden taken on when it came to presenting or representing an unassailably good person. Such a depiction was weighed down with representational disadvantages: it took talent but was not impossible to depict a great sinner who undergoes conversion or is capable of such; it took a unique talent, someone of Dostoevsky’s psychological acuity, to lay bare the psyche of the person alienated from others, self, and God and free-falling into incoherence. But how to depict a truly good man, indeed, a man who is nothing short of a saint, someone who has died to self and made himself available to others, was a task for which Dostoevsky was unsure that his or indeed anyone’s literary gifts were a match. Hagiography is a genre of long-standing, but no modern writer confuses it with literature, which requires characters that are not only believable in the modern world, but show the capacity to negotiate and transcend it.

But just such a depiction, as Dostoevsky’s Notebooks suggest, was essential to his vocation as a writer. There was, however, more to the vocation than succeeding in constructing such a character. For Dostoevsky it was both an existential and religious need. It was an existential need for him in that it was intolerable that sin, brokenness, and despair, both on the individual and social front, would be the last word. It was a religious need in that convinced as he was that Christ defines the nature of truth that this truth be represented in a figure whose life is a mirror to that life that heals fractures within the self, drains it of its poisons, gifts a new way of seeing the world, and enables a form of living that is the answer to the world characterized by carelessness, physical and psychological violence, undeserved and unrequited suffering, and Enlightenment deformation, which at best deracinates subjects attracted to the power of knowing and makes community impossible. But perhaps above all Dostoevsky sees that a cultural crisis is looming with Russia not only being unhinged by the disorder of its appetites and softened by the hymns to reason, but is now challenged by the haters of its Christian past with its social, legal, moral codes. If Christianity has become questionable, nonetheless, Dostoevsky is convinced that in principle it is also the answer, although the outcome of actual crisis which has Russia at its center, is given only in ambiguous signs.

There can be no doubt that Dostoevsky is a thinker of crisis and decision and thus in a literary sense an apocalyptic thinker. It is a mark of his main work that the reader is asked to choose between forms of evil and good writ large, and in books such as the The Brothers Karamazov and Demons it is quite clear that the Book of Revelation provides something of a frame in that a complication in the fundamental act of reading the signs is the difficulty of distinguishing between Christ and the anti-Christ, between Christ and what might pass as Christ, that is, Christ made less challenging by being amped up by power and spectacle. That Dostoevsky was an extremely flawed human being there can be no doubt. Equally, however inconvenient for some interpreters who would wish him to be more up to date, Dostoevsky is a Christian, or at least after sampling as a young man various non-Christian alternatives he found his way back to Christianity. In his Notebooks Dostoevsky leaves us in no doubt as to when. Having allowed himself to be instructed by the European Enlightenment and having flirted with more radical forms of political thought anxious to bring down the status quo, Dostoevsky landed in a camp for political prisoners in 1860. He spent four years there, faced a firing squad, and read the New Testament which only in the previous decades had been translated into Russian.

The effect of the New Testament is everywhere in his work, albeit with a far more mystical and eschatological valence that one can find in Tolstoy’s moralizing adaptation. While this is not the only—and maybe not the main—reason why Dostoevsky is so on hard Catholicism, which, in his view, reflects the beastly union of faith and power, and Protestantism, which submits scripture to the canons of reason, it is definitely one of the reasons. Still, it should be said that while the Christianity of the New Testament does not have the same critical leverage over Russian Orthodoxy, since Dostoevsky can give a moving description of an Orthodox liturgy, by and large he also holds the feet of the Russian Orthodox Church to the proverbial fire which, as The Brothers Karamazov reveals, has its own issues when it comes to the commerce between faith and power. If we take a broad view of his novels, with their biblical epigraphs, their emphasis on sin and redemption, repentance and forgiveness, we find ourselves surprisingly within the horizon of the first-century Galilean.

One of the many aspects of Dostoevsky’s genius is that he reads disorientated Russia back into the New Testament and, correlatively, the New Testament forward into a Russian that, all evidence to the contrary, he thinks can be read by the biblical text. This is a Russia in spasm, at once experiencing the death throes of the old arrangement between Christianity and customary and political reality, while also giving birth to something antithetic, something of the apocalyptic order of Yeats’s rough beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” Thus, it is not only Dostoevsky’s mastery of the grotesque and his ability to expose fractured and unstable individual and social psyche that make him a model for the work of Flannery O’Connor, but also his conviction that Christ alone is the medicine for us sick moderns whose major gifts seem to include torturing others, tormenting ourselves, and demonstrating an inverse Midas touch: everything we touch crumbles into dust, and our fantasies are signifiers of our despair and self-loathing that make our worlds too ugly to live in. It is in this context that Dostoevsky feels called on to say: beauty will save the world. Of course, in this statement there is both hope and fear. Dostoevsky is not altogether sanguine that beauty and/or Christ will have the last word, though they ought to.

To return to the problem of figuration of saints. Readers of Dostoyevsky’s fiction are well aware that the crucial figurations are made in The Brothers Karamazov and concern the elder (starets) Zosima but to a certain extent also his prize follower, Alyosha Karamazov. Importantly, however, The Brothers Karamazov is not the only Dostoevsky novel in which he attempts to provide such a figuration as a counterweight to the overwhelming mixture of suffering, sin, and alienation in the world. Dostoevsky’s first major attempt is the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. The title of that book itself proves inauspicious. The prince is an idiot in the etymological sense of being idiosyncratic and eccentric, but also someone who can justifiably be cast as a fool insofar as he is lacking savoir faire. Prince Myshkin is in equal parts unbearable good and objectionably naïve, an eccentric who proves time and again to be profoundly perceptive, while also clueless regarding the level of brokenness of people and their commitment to revenge and general mischief. His compassion usually runs ahead of his judgment as he inserts himself in situations where the aims of preventing harm and rehabilitating character are, undoubtedly, commendable, but where the outcomes are made far worse by his interference. If there is comedy, it is comedy of the blackest sort: Prince Myshkin leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, even to the extent of being complicit in murder and suicide. If his epilepsy gives him a sort of clairvoyance, it also signals a penchant for dreaminess, and it determines that when he is most needed to forestall evil or defeat it he is unavailable.

Intended to be Christ-like in terms of compassion for suffering, the ability to forgive, and to see into the soul of a particular person, in the end Myshkin figures more Don Quixote than Christ: he is lovable in his eccentricities and in his vain hopes that everything will turn well, but in the end a dangerous idealists unable to hold anyone responsible and unlikely to be a match for the rampant evil in the world. The Brothers Karamazov represent a second chance for Dostoevsky to adequately represent a saint in the modern world, and he grasps the nettle in his depiction of Zosima and Alyosha, the first a person who leaves the world for the monastery, the second who leaves the monastery for the world, thereby insinuating that the novel is far more about the belonging together of monastery and the world than about their unassailable difference. The figuration of saintliness in The Brothers Karamazov is more overt, while also being more subtle than that offered in The Idiot.

Zossima is modeled on the famous 18th century saint, Tikhon of Zadonsk, and also Starets Ambrosy who was Dostoevsky’s spiritual director in the monastery at Optina Pustyn, seventy miles outside Moscow. Starets Ambrosy was especially helpful to Dostoevsky in his dealing with the death of his infant son, Alyosha, in 1878.To indicate that Zosima has models, of course, says nothing about the intelligibility of Dostoevsky’s elevation of this character and his level of success. Dostoevsky’s own critical assessment was that his rendering of Starets Zosima in Book 6 was superior to his literary performance in Book 5 in which we find the famous chapter of rebellion that so exercised the existentialists and the equally famous chapter on the Grand Inquisitor which came to be read by some as a prophetic-apocalyptic rendering of a dystopia that in the early 20th century actually came into being with the October Revolution. It should be noted that the antecedent likelihood of this judgment being true is small. Both of Ivan’s set pieces in Book 5 are magnificent and it should not be surprise that they are some of the most anthologized pieces of fiction in all of literature. In addition, literature favors the interesting who by definition are not rocks that we can rely and build on, but whose erring we follow with something like guilty pleasure.

In her Notebooks Simone Weil commented on the massive representational difficulty when it comes to depicting truly good people who are by the nature of the case psychically coherent. Further, success in the representation of a truly good person seems be made impossible if the figure is placed outside or to the side of the world that is in need of repentance and saving. True Zosima is a monk, but he was not always so, and we are supplied with a back story about a conversion away from the careless and arrogant life of an officer given to the Pushkin shenanigans of duels and contempt of his subordinates and towards Christian values of humility and loving attention to others. Certainly, Dostoevsky underscore the charism of Zosima, indicated in different ways by the respect he is held in the monastery and by the flood of pilgrims who visit the monastery looking for a healing word of consolation, forgiveness, or simple understanding. Nonetheless, Zosima lives in an enclosure and is separated spiritually as well as physically from the blandishments of society in which in the last instance each self is its own world.

Dostoevsky’s strategy with regard to the problem of figuration is essentially to double down and exacerbate the putative irrelevance of this particular holy person by having him secreted in a monastery far from the madding crowd, but then turning the tables by making the enclosure of the monastery the only prospect of cure for a convulsive Russia. The monastery is, indeed, physically walled off from the world. As such it represents a retreat in two senses, in the negative sense it indicates a taking leave of the world and in a positive sense of it being a space of reflection and contemplation in which we regain the prospect of establishing right relation with oneself, others, and God. Along this positive axis, which is the one that Dostoevsky pushes, the monastery is nothing less than a radical experiment in living with others which, given the lack of natural affinity given by ties of blood and friendship, requires forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, all virtues that are absent in the social world in which the Karamazovs move.

This Russian social world, as depicted by Dostoevsky, is a world of carelessness, pride, lust, and repressed rage. It would be going too far to say that the monastery represents the crucible of the affections. But certainly it is the constant practice of the above virtues that does the difficult work of establishing fraternity in the concrete, just the opposite of the abstract form imported from the French Enlightenment and adhered to in different ways by the effete bourgeois, Miusov, who cannot get over having once met Diderot, the manipulative, cynical seminarian Rakitin, who shows that the Russian Orthodox Church has enemies within as without, by the impressionable teenager Koyla who is in the market for ideas that will accompany his tendency towards swagger, and the illegitimate, and emotionally and intellectually stunted Smerdyakov who praises the Enlightenment ideas of equality while wanting to be judge of all and the last one left standing.

With regard to fraternity what is important about the monastery for Dostoevsky is not that the monastery is the exception in that it has what society does not have. What is important is that the monastery shows that fraternity is possible and isolates those practices that constitute true community apparently impossible in a world marked by the contagion of physical and psychological violence. Community comes into being when the other is accepted despite his shortcomings and his failures. Forgiveness is radical in that it looks through and beyond what is unpalatable about a person and sees each person with the eyes of Christ as both in need of conversion and yet on the other side of the sin that mars them and drags them down. The wished-for conversion of oneself and others is a process that itself involves suffering. It is not only the backstory of Zosima’s own conversion that illustrates this. It is an important theme in his discourses with the women who come to the gates of the monastery that he might console them in their suffering or that for a moment he might bear their unbearable guilt in their confession. Nothing short of repentance is required, and repentance does not consist of saying that I’m sorry, but a breaking with the past and the habits that define it, an acceptance of guilt, but also a joyous acceptance that Christ will bear the burden. Conversion, as elucidated by Zosima, is not only towards the other self that comes to be in conversion, but towards other selves in what is at once a radical act of identification with them in their broken state and radical solidarity with them in their sin and alienation.

One could make a good case that solidarity with others in their suffering and sin is the essential Christological theme of the great novel. It receives a first look in the scene of the meeting of the Karamazov family in Zosima’s cell that is set up to mediate a dispute regarding inheritance between Fyodor Karamazov and Dmitri Karamazov. In the cell the elder performs two acts which should be viewed as complementary, in fact two sides of the same coin. In a move that seems to come from nowhere he blesses Dmitri (and not Alyosha), suggesting that he will suffer much, while intimating that this is more than a simple prediction, but a prophetic promise that Dmitri Karamazov will find his life to be figured Christologically in that his identification with a sinful humanity, and his imbrication in it, is such that, although blameless for the murder of his father, he is willing to take on the punishment that is due the crime. The other major action performed by Zosima in his cell is his rebuke of Fyodor Karamazov who is clowning around and creating a scene in the monastery cell. The rebuke indicates that deep spiritual perception goes hand in hand with compassion and kindness, and that while with it one can see well beyond where a particular sinner happens to be (Dmitri), it entertains no illusion as to how humanly deformed a sinner actually is (Fyodor). Perhaps one might add to these two actions an intended contrast between the seriousness of Christian love and its frivolous counterfeit suggested by the silly Madame Khokhlakov when she gushes Romantic concerning the spiritual prospects that reside in the suffering of the poor and thoughtlessly suggests that she would like to be one of them. Compared with what Zosima teaches about solidarity and identification, this is a form of spiritual parasitism. Kokhlakov is depicted as empty ninny who has led a life of indulgence and has pampered her daughter Lise to such an extent that she is given to emotional theater and maybe even a tendency towards Schadenfreude.

Dostoevsky makes it clear in his presentation of Zosima that this monastic version of Christianity is ordered towards practice and life. It is not incidental that this monastic form of Christianity is Christocentric through and through and is ordered to the Christ of the Gospels. To the extent to which it does—in common with many Russian Orthodox thinkers in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Solovyov would be an example)—Dostoyevsky very much keeps in mind the Gospel of John from which he takes his epigraph for the novel. Dostoevsky reads the Gospel of John as supplying the visionary supplement to the healing praxis of Christ that is the subject of the Synoptic Gospels. There are a number of crucial features in Zosima’s vision. Despite the heavy emphasis on the cross and vicarious suffering, one very obvious feature of Zosima’s spirituality is the deep conviction that ultimately Christianity is a religion of joy and that accordingly the point of view from which even the cross is seen is that of resurrection. This rhymes with the general Eastern Orthodox view that not only does Christ abide with the suffering and the sinful, but in his resurrection sums up creation and makes it all that it was meant to be and even more. When Dmitri Karamazov kisses the earth in the novel, this represents neither a return of paganism nor nature mysticism. Rather what is being uplifted is the original goodness of creation which remains intact despite the length and breadth of corruption. A deep cleansing of perception is required, however, for this to be seen.

If there is another feature of Zosima’s Christian vision that is on the same level as the optics of resurrection, it might be the instruction that each of us remember. Although remembering has its origin in the liturgy, which in turn can be remembered, it is intended by Zosima to play an important role in engendering coherence in individual selves and in society such that society can be shaped as a true human community. At one level the recommendation to remember is purely formal in that without memory a self is impossible. At another level, and one more in alignment with liturgy, memory has two substantive functions, two ways to recall of the good that has happened in our life. Recall of the good, for Zosima as for his protégé Alyosha, gives sustenance in human lives that almost inevitably are marked by suffering and failure, and is also fruit insofar as good deeds engender hope in a world given to despair, whether this despair is acknowledged or not. Perhaps more emphatic in Aloysha than in Zosima his spiritual master, remembering also features remembering the dead who, if they are remembered by Christ, should also be remembered by all of us who are passing through life. One of the most extraordinary things about Zosima’s vision is that if the memory of the good assist us in the ongoing and future making of community, remembrance of the dead heals the past by not letting death have the last word over those whom history and time cast down. Of course, this particular thought has become well established in the modern Catholic thought through the work of Johann Baptist Metz.

Up until now we only been intimated that Zosima’s Christian vision and praxis has as its ultimate horizon the world and not simply the monastery. That this is so becomes evident in the elder’s peculiar commission of Alyosha to leave the monastery and go into the world. Such a commission suggests that for Zosima the world is not made for the monastery, but the monastery for the world. In the figure of the elder Dostoevsky will not authorize any Manichaean-like segregation of the monastery from the complex social world of modern Russia. Zosima’s perspective is resolutely Johannine in that the “world” that would act contrary to the will of God in Christ is everywhere: there is a no exception to the rule. The elder’s perspective is also recollective of the very best of the Greek monastic tradition in imagining not only that the monastery is a site of painful purification, but also a site of temptation and more specifically a struggle between contending accounts of the nature of Christianity.

In what is one of the more powerful scenes in Book 6 Dostoevsky stages what amounts to a battle for souls between Zosima and the great ascetic Ferapont who tellingly represents a more hermetic than communitarian or cenobite form of monasticism. That from a literary point of view Dostoevsky could make so much of this contrast is astonishing. Ferapont is from Desert Father central casting. For Ferapont the essential task of the monk is self-perfection. It is decidedly not learning to love others in their manifest weaknesses, which through Zosima Dostoevsky has identified both as the greatest spiritual need and what Christianity actually has to offer the world. Ingredient in Ferapont’s striving for perfection is compulsive discipline, which is at odds with Zosima’s regime which, although rigorous is flexible and also does not regard discipline to be an end in itself. In addition, Feramont lives on the razor’s edge between good and evil and quite literally sees evil everywhere. The contrast with Zossima’s sober and balanced prioritization of goodness both as origin and end despite the evil and depravity of human beings could not be more stark, nor for that matter could the subtlety of Zosima’s analysis of demons, who are not the horned, tailed, and lustful creatures of our livid imaginations, but the inhuman capacity of malice and destruction at the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

Given the depiction of Zosima as a person of extraordinary empathy with and spiritual knowledge of others, Ferapont comes across, and is supposed to come across, as psychologically obtuse. But perhaps even this is to grant him too much insofar as no more than the Grand Inquisitor does he ever take an actual person into account. In the depiction of Ferapont in Book 6 the recall of the Grand Inquisitor of Book 5 is deliberate. Dostoevsky sees Ferapont to be something of an echo of that self-described ascetic who casting aside Christ as idealistically supporting human freedom and responsibility, takes the burden of the world on his old shoulders. Moreover, like the Grand Inquisitor, Ferapont is given to spectacle which necessarily involves appeal to the extraordinary and not the miracle that allows us to be reborn and the Spirits’ small voice which adapts itself to Christ’s reticence and silence beyond Pilate.

The commission of Alyosha by Zosima to go out into the world is regarded by Dostoevsky as defining Zossima’s Christian vocation and indicates that in Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic imagination the transformation of the world and the generation of human community represents the fundamental message of Christianity. Alyosha, who is sometimes referred as an “angel,” which is both a term of affection and a marker of sainthood in Orthodox theology, brings the virtues of forbearance and forgiveness forged in the monastery to bear on all his relations in the world, into his relation with his father as well as his two brothers, into his relation with all the women of the novel, the “kept-woman” Grushenka, the prideful Katerina, the immature Lise, and into his relations with the young people including the precocious Koyla and the sickly Ilyusha, who before he is befriended by Alyosha is broken in spirit as well as body.

Like Zosima Alyosha can see more in a person than appears to be there and understands well each person’s implication in sin such that no one is truly without guilt. Despite the theatrics of Ivan he sees his nobility, and in Dimitri he sees beyond his womanizing and jealous rages the capacity to sacrifice and to love. He sees through the mask of self-righteousness the wounded pride of Katerina, and though he is earnest in his conviction that he will marry Lise, Alyosha is more than aware of the distortion revealed in her tantrums and her will to hurt. Importantly, however, unlike Prince Myshkin, in Alyosha spiritual perception precisely does not provide an example of tout comprendre et tout pardoner. Alyosha cannot bring himself to embrace the serpentine Smerdyakov, and he has deep suspicions not about the faith of the seminarian Rakitin, but about his spiritual and moral health.

Alyosha is depicted as having some growing up to do. This is especially evinced in his near apostasy regarding the saintliness of the elder when the body of Zosima begins to smell, thereby failing one of the juridical tests regarding sainthood, a miracle understood to be a contravention of nature. Alyosha recovers and sets aside proof and by doing so comes to grasp the contradiction as asking that he attend after the manner of Zosima to all existence as a sign in the Johannine sense and thus a ground of hope of the continuing fruitfulness of Christianity in a world ideologically in crisis.

Alyosha is the saint primed in the monastery who is meant to be in the world to be a leaven and an active agent of transformation. I have spoken already to some differences in the depiction of Alyosha and Prince Myshkin. One important one that I have not talked about thus far is Alyosha’s greater capacity to have healthy relations with women. As Dostoevsky depicts them in The Idiot in ingeniously writing failure into his own depiction of a would-be saint, these relations are dreamily unreal, and he constantly falls foul of manipulation. It seems to be Dostoevsky’s thought that if Russia is going to have a future then there has to be a third option beyond lust and desexualized respect.

In this respect it is far from incidental that in The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha is described as handsome, is obviously attractive to women, and tellingly is described as “healthy” as if to press as much distance between him and the quixotic Prince Myshkin as possible. This third option, which is sexual desire elevated to love, is, however, no mere third. It is central to a Christian vision that is eschatological in nature and has it that the fractured relations between men and women need to be healed and that such healing is indicative of the rule of Christ in opposition to the rule of power. Eschatologically, instead of mutual incomprehension between men and women, there will be psychic transparence; instead of suspicion there will be mutual help; instead of egoism there will be self-sacrifice in both cases, and, of course, also the exhibition in both men and women of the general Christian virtues of forbearance and forgiveness.

This healing in the eschatological register was, of course, a thought he shared with his friend, Vladimir Solovyov, with whom he also shared a vision of what the Antichrist might look like in modern Russia or more generally in the modern world. Of course, even Solovyov could depend upon earlier intimations of this eschatological truth in Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nyssa. Still, the existential exigence the thought of reconciliation between men and women receives in The Brothers Karamazov is unparalleled and without anticipation. Dostoyevsky was fully aware of his own broken relations with women and how difficult it is to fix them. While the reconciliation between men and women will not constitute the kingdom—relations between the generations, relations between persons from different social classes also are in need of repair—it is a necessary condition and a necessary feature of that human community (Sobornost) that is the aim of a Christianity that would be indispensable in the reshaping of a modern world given to formlessness. We, men and women, are redeemed together or not at all.

Alyosha, for Dostoevsky, is what the monastery primes in the step back into thoughtfulness and recollection that helps clarify a vision of relation between selves, others, world and God, a crucible in which through discipline we purify desire, and in our daily being together do the hard work of love. Alyosha is Dostoevsky’s Christian response to the insidious workings of the Enlightenment that promises depth but makes facile, but also the despair and nihilism of which it is the breeding ground. Alyosha is what stands between Russia’s descent into the abyss and Christianity’s final failure, given the presumed failure of Catholicism and Protestantism, and the questionable state of the Russian Orthodox Church given over too often to theocratic dreams. To be in the line of Zosima is to be in the line of Starets Ambrosy and Saint Tikhon. But Dostoevsky lives in hope that goodness too is contagious. He thinks he has shown it in the case of Zosima, and that he has begun to show it in Alyosha. In any event, Alyosha, at twenty is the future, and that future is already constellating around him in the children. For Dostoevsky, because it is Christ, it is the children. It is always the children.

This essay continues an earlier three-part installment by Cyril O’Regan on the monstrous in modernity.


Featured Image: Cerkiew w Banicy - Iconostasis, Date taken: 7 September 2011, Taken by: JerzyTarasiuk; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 PL.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan