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The Road Goes On

Wednesday, May 25, 2005 at 11:15 AM

Nothing Else Like It

Travis Kroeker and Bruce Ward, Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity

I read this book in part because I had hope of entering doctoral studies this fall to study under one of the authors (a hope that, alas, is not to be -- at least not for a while).

Dostoevsky is frequently pegged as a key existentialist figure and thus thoroughly "modern." (I won't attempt here to define those last two dense terms and disentangle the relationship between them). Kroeker and Ward try to describe what they see as Dostoevsky's impassioned plea for repentance (a reversal from the current course) from his beloved Russia -- and ultimately, the West.

Ivan Karamazov famously claimed that if God no longer exists in any meaningful way -- as all would-be enlightened and progressive Westerners were presumably believed -- then "everything is permitted."

While Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky's most focused meditation on that nihilistic creed and its dehumanizing implications through dramatic narrative, Kroeker and Ward spend the majority of their discussion on The Brothers Karamazov and its most famous segment: "The Grand Inquisitor": Ivan's fable about the brief return of Christ to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Wading into deep waters of critical discussion, they portray the Grand Inquisitor as Dostoyevsky's supreme artistic achievement, as he gives different and powerful perspectives their integrity while raising profound questions to both the modern West and Christianity. However, the authors argue that Dostoyevsky intended the last word on the subject to be the response given by the pious and mystical monastic, Elder Zosima.

This is a dense text, and I read it much too quickly to cite authoritatively in building some kind of analytic case. But these were my major impressions:

  • Dostoyevsky was in many ways an arch-conservative in the context of 19th-century Russian political and social views. His devastating critique of progressive, idealistic social theories and their inhumane consequences proved prophetic. So he was then and can today be viewed as another social conservative and/or political quietist who emphasizes individual compassion, and personal responsibility but remains aloof from attempts to change the social institutions that contribute to mass suffering.
  • What I now find most interesting about Dostoyevsky, and what this book goes a long way to demonstrate, is that his vision of Christianity and the Christian's responsibility to and for our neighbor and all humanity is much more radical than what I sketched above. The trick is to show how that can be. For Kroeker and Ward, the key is in Dostoyevsky's appropriation of Orthodox mystical and ascetic spirituality.
  • I hope to return to this book at some point. I was deeply moved by their unfolding of the positive Christian vision of humble love Dostoyevsky provides through the Elder Zosima. Their exposition of this theme (no doubt owing to Dostoyevsky's own profound artistry) accomplished the difficult task of making holiness seem profound and vastly powerful, rather than escapist and sentimental.
  • At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men's sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvellously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.

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