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Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction - The Times

Friday 19th September 2008

Salley Vickers' review of "Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction" by Rowan Williams was published in The Times on 19th September 2008.

by Salley Vickers

Rowan Williams is best known as head of the Anglican Church. As a former Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, he is respected by serious theologians. He is also an honoured poet. What may be less widely appreciated is his prodigious facility with languages, Russian included. These gifts, along with a real feeling for literary narrative, combine in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction to produce a profound and thought-provoking book.

Those familiar with Williams's theology will be acquainted with his reading of the story of Jesus of Nazareth: a disavowal of the assertion of power as a means of control, the refusal of complicity with collective reactions and the willing embrace of the "otherness" of others. And Christ was a figure of vital import to Dostoevsky in his personal convictions but also as a principal theme in his writings.

Williams begins with a perplexing comment in the 1854 letter that Dostoevsky wrote when just released from labour camp. The letter, to the woman who had given him, while in prison, a copy of the New Testament which had dramatically affected his beliefs, asserts "if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth". This declaration has disturbed Dostoevsky readers ever since. Versions of it resound throughout the fiction, finding the clearest echo in The Devils, in the question put to one of the characters: "Didn't you tell me that if it were mathematically proved to you that truth was outside Christ you would rather remain with Christ than truth?"

But Dostoevsky does nothing so crude as create characters to act as vehicles for his own philosophy. Here, as so often, thoughts we might assume his are given to a character holding views in stark opposition to his own. Indeed, the Devil, or his representatives, has many of the best lines. This habit, as Williams convincingly suggests, indicates the very essence of the novels' enterprise. There are no "right" beliefs or ideologies: there is always another way of looking or being. The only right is the exercise of freedom, freedom from the use of violence to control others or suppress their other ways.

In the great parable recoun-ted by Ivan to his younger brother Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov, where Christ returns only to be imprisoned by The Grand Inquisitor, the argument against freedom is famously rehearsed. Christ is finally banished from Earth by the inquisitor because he recognises the "burden and terror" that such a freedom brings and has undertaken to release humankind from bearing it. In Williams's words, according to the inquisitor Christ "respects humanity too much and this kind of respect is at odds with compassion". As the inquisitor explains why he has neutered Christ's radical message of love, the source of it remains silent. His only action is to kiss, as he leaves, the withered cheek of his would-be opponent - an action repeated by Alyosha when he has heard his atheist brother's fable. Herein lies the kernel of Williams's reading of Dostoevsky's apprehension of the relationship between faith and freedom. Neither is reducible to simplistic formulas or pieties; both are expressed in gratuitous and often small-seeming action, which in itself is generative. Nor can either ever be a matter of the assertion of will, although the will may act as a guarantor of existential freedom, for "refusals of self interest for good and evil purposes".

It is this maverick element in human consciousness, which eludes the kind of rational control that leads ultimately to totalitarianism, that is the quick of Dostoevsky's art. In the most original proposition in this highly original book, Williams writes: "Dostoevsky's working out of what might be meant by the possibility of having to opt for the Christ who is 'outside the truth' turns out to be closely connected with an entire rationale for fiction itself ... The attempt to approach human affairs as if they belonged to the world of evidence and determined outcome is bound to end in violence ... The novel, in its narrative indeterminacy, is a statement of 'non-violence', of radical patience with the unplanned and undetermined decisions of agents." As a novelist, I can only add three cheers.

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