Thursday, April 28, 2011

Russian Literature, Part 2

Dostoevsky's The Idiot

One of the Great Novels by One Greatest Novelists

In Greek mythology, the nine Muses are sisters.  In our world, the arts are related, often reflecting each other and reinforcing the same themes.  In each art, the images, the leitmotifs, the common shades and hues are found in each sister art.  So symphonies and operas build off of literary themes.  Paintings and sculptures portray heroes and scenes of poetry and fiction.  Philosophy is portrayed in music and art, and likewise, it grows out of music and art.  Literature, it has been said, is history without footnotes, and it can even be said that literature is theology without Bible verse references.
The idea of creating the plot of a novel around the message of a painting is quite profound.  In art, a part of reality is enlarged and distorted to give a greater sense of a transcendent truth.  Thus The Iliad, in one sense a story of the Trojan War, cuts into the 10th year of that war and highlights Achilles’ inner and outward struggle over honor and mortality, with few details about the events of the war.  Even photography can achieve this effect.  Think for example of the picture of young John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father’s coffin in November of 1963.  That picture conveyed the pain, the loss of innocence, and the rebounding courage of the whole nation at that moment.
Each work of art has a theme, a greater message, or if you wish, a code.  The idea of a code or deeper meaning behind the surface is always fascinating.  For this reason, spy novels and movies are fun, conspiracy theories are attractive, and apocalyptic Bible studies and novel series attract even the most impious of souls. When locusts are really Soviet helicopters, the imaginative possibilities are endless.  Surface messages can be quite dull or uninspiring, but a secret code changes the landscape.
There is a great work of literature that is based on a theme or code contained in a work of art, that is, a painting.  This literary work has had an incredible attraction for its readers.  The implications of the story are incredible and world changing.  The painting in the novel is of the most important religious figure in all of history—the Lord Jesus Christ.  And while the painting itself is brilliantly done, exhibiting great talent in the Renaissance artist who conceived it, its deeper message exceeds the visual work of art.
This message has been interpreted in a way that would change the world by changing the whole central message of Christianity. 
Enough of this curtain raising one inch at a time to tantalize the audience.  The painting is “The Dead Christ” or “Christ’s Body in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger.  The novel that is built around this painting is The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published in 1868.
Dostoevsky had read about the painting in a book called Letters of a Russian Traveler by Nikolai Karamzin.  Karamzin said that in the painting “one does not see anything of God.  As a dead man he is portrayed quite naturally.”[1]   
Wanting to see the painting, Dostoevsky and his wife went to the museum where it was on display.  Dostoevsky stood on a chair to see the painting, which is about six feet long and ten inches high.  His wife, Anna Grigorievna, left this account of the experience:

On the way to Geneva we stopped for a day in Basel, with the purpose of seeing a painting in the museum there that my husband had heard about from someone.  This painting, from the brush of Hans Holbein, portrays Jesus Christ, who has suffered inhuman torture, has been taken down from the cross and given over to corruption.  His swollen face is covered with bloody wounds, and he looks terrible. The painting made an overwhelming impression on my husband, and he stood before it as if dumbstruck…When I returned some fifteen or twenty minutes later, I found my husband still standing in front of the painting as if riveted to it.  There was in his agitated face that expression as of fright which I had seen more than once in the first moments of an epileptic fit.  I quietly took him under the arm, brought him to another room, and sat him down on a bench, expecting a fit to come at any moment.[2]
            This painting provides the central message of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.  In the novel, one of the characters owns a copy of the painting, which leads to a discussion of it in the novel.  This painting captures the central theme of that novel.  Richard Pevear writes, “The question it (the painting) poses over the whole novel:  what if Christ was only a man? What if he suffered, died, and was left a bruised, lifeless corpse, as Holbein shows?  It is, in other words, the question of the Resurrection.”[3]
            In the late 19th century, liberal theologians in Europe and American began coming to the same conclusion about Christ as the Unitarians and Deists of the earlier part of the century.  The great pronouncements of the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were buried under the new Enlightenment of the German higher critics. The secular, Science-appeasing, Darwinian, naturalistic world-view readjusted theological studies so as to exclude the deity and resurrection of Christ.  The good man and great teacher Jesus was dead and buried, and on the third day, his disciples, having psychologically worked through their grief, resurrected the spirit of Jesus.  Or at least, that is what the new theologians thought they discovered.
            The sunny optimistic theological suicide of the West was not quite so palatable to one whose spiritual journey was like that of Dostoevsky.  In his personal life, he had faced death, standing before a firing squad awaiting execution where he was suddenly pardoned and exiled to Siberia.  The political and social landscape of Russia and its climate with its harshness upon the body and soul left one to choose either Nihilism—with heavy vodka drinking for sacraments—or Christianity.  Spared the idealism of the Enlightenment, the materialistic successes of the Industrial Revolution, and even the sunny clime of both Europe and America, the Russian intelligentsia were more prone to see the spiritual dimensions of the issues of the day.  (In America, the experience of living in the defeated South enabled Robert Louis Dabney to see issues with a similar prophetic clarity.)  With this background it mind, one can see why a vivid image of the horribly broken and bruised body of Jesus Christ brought Dostoevsky to a greater realization of Christ’s death and to a greater sense of the necessity of the resurrection.   For Dostoevsky, the reality of Christ’s manhood and very real death brought on his near epileptic reaction. His experience must have been similar to that of the disciples.
            In this novel, the main character, the Idiot, is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin.  Prince Myshkin returns from a mental asylum and seeks to find a place in St. Petersburg society.  A wide-ranging host of characters—males and females, young and old, the weak and the strong, the well born and the more common, people of society and people of baser reputation—come to know Prince Myshkin.  Dostoevsky’s characters, like those of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage, represent a wide and universal range of human predicaments.  For various reasons, all are strangely drawn to Prince Myshkin, and they desire his advice, his company, and his approval.  But all regard him with amused detachment, with cynicism, and with disbelief.  He is, in short, in all of their opinions and pronouncements, an idiot.  His naïve answers to their questions, his gullibility, his lack of social inhibitions, and his all-too-frank honesty all confirm their conviction that Prince Myshkin still belongs in the asylum.
            By the end of the novel, most of the characters’ lives are just as hollow or warped as at the beginning.  Those whose lives are changed are actually worse off.  Ippolit, a terminally ill atheist, is neither healed of his disease or his cynical hatred of life.  The beautiful, but tragically flawed Nastaya is not lifted up from scandal, but is killed by her emotionally unstable lover Rogozhin.  No acquaintance of Prince Myshkin is redeemed; no one in his circle of friends is lifted up from their petty and empty lives.  The idiot is removed from the supposedly sane world and taken back to the asylum.
            Just like the Prince of Peace, Prince Myshkin has a royal title that is questioned.  Just like Jesus, he came among his own and they knew him not.  Just like the Master Teacher, he instructed them in a better way, but they rejected it.  But unlike Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Prince Myshkin was a good man and nothing more.  He could not redeem or rescue anyone.  As a truly good man, he was better off in an asylum for the insane than in the sane world.  Likewise, Jesus Christ as a truly good man and nothing more would have done this insane world no good.
            The powerful image of Holbein’s painting, like the powerful presentation of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, reveal the true code of reality of this world.  (Mel Gibson’s subsequent moral and theological breakdown do not discount the worth of his earlier works.) As Paul stated it in I Corinthians 15, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith and our lives are futile.  If Jesus Christ were nothing more than a good man, then we are better off having Him in an insane asylum or in a tomb than having Him deceive us about this hopeless plight.
            A few years back, lots of readers pored over the best selling The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.  Like Dostoevsky’s classic, this piece of fiction revolves around a greater message contained in a piece of art, Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”  The secret code of the painting supposedly revealed that Jesus was married and had a child, and hence 2000 years of Christology is flawed.  These “truths” were suppressed to allow for an evil agenda fomented upon a naïve world by the Church.  The truth of this fiction, as claimed by the author, will supposedly set us free.  While The Da Vinci Code captured the attention of Athenian readers (who are always interested in something new), the book is rapidly becoming lost in the boundless sea of forgotten and forgettable fiction.  Meanwhile, Dostoevsky’s masterpiece will remain.

[1] Richard Pevear, “Introduction” to The Idiot.
[2] Account quoted in Pevear’s introduction, xiii.
[3] Ibid, xiii.

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 25--29 The Battlefield for the Heart of Man

 God and devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Monday, April 25
Finish Reading Tolstoy Selections This Week:  "Master and Man" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych."  If you wish, you can read "Family Happiness."
Read the Humanities Blog essay on Russian Literature.
Finish Reading and discussing the introductory material to Darwin's Origin of the Species.
Receive Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto.  Humanity students of the world unite; we have nothing to lost but faith and freedom if we do not seek for Godly Reformation.

Tuesday, April 26
Discuss Readings--Tolstoy, Darwin, and Marx
Begin Assignment from Western Civilization:  Either write four pages of Notes about the 19th Century or write a two page (typed) report on either Socialism, Communism, or Nationalism. (Due Wednesday of Next Week.)
Finish watching "Victoria and Her Sisters."

Wednesday, April 27
Continue Discussing the Readings.
Continue Working on the writing assignment.
Discuss and work on the Darwin Chapter Assignments:  Due on Thursday, Friday, or Monday.

Thursday, April 28
Updates on Darwin Works and Readings.
Continue working on Writing Assignment.
Exchange Tolstoy for Dostoevsky

Friday, April 29
Updates and Presentations on Darwin
An Antidote to the Communist Manifesto:  "The Christian Manifesto of 1984" by Francis Nigel Lee
Edging into Dostoevsky

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”

In her essay The Russian Point of View, Virginia Woolf said:
The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of  Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.

 The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now."

Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation, 2007

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Russian Literature, Part 1--A Post from the Past

Russian Literature, part 1

God's grace is beyond our comprehension, both personally and culturally. No doubt but that 20th century Russia was a land that suffered heavily. World War I was a disaster for Russia, and it was followed by two revolutions, and then by a brutal civil war of the Whites against the Reds. That war saw the emergence of the Bolsheviks (Communists). In time, the brutality and ruthlessness of Lenin spawned the maniacal murderous dictator Josef Stalin. For several decades, Stalin brutalized and exterminated the various subject peoples within the Soviet Union. These atrocities did not cease even when Stalin was forced to pay for his mistake of trusting Adolf Hitler by pulling the total might of the USSR into a war for survival against Nazism. The Russian people emerged victorious in that war, but were still under the reign of Stalin until the early 1950s. Stalin's several successors were improvements over him only by comparison.

Added to wars, revolutions, Communism, and atrocities, Russia suffers from a harsh climate, cultural pessimism, and an oftentimes theologically deficient Christian church. Yet God has granted certain blessings to the Russians, and through them, to the world.

One of those blessings is the writer Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy penned two of the greatest novels of all times: War and Peace and Anna Karenina .
There are several obstacles to getting into these novels. Primarily, they are both quite long. And being Russian, the names (and Russian uses of patrynomics along with nicknames and last names)creates difficulties in getting the characters straight. War and Peace, for example, has more characters than Russia had population at the time of the book's setting (the Napoleonic Wars).

It might be easier to read Anna Karenina before reading War and Peace. But there is still a better way to begin trekking across the vast steppes of Russian literature. Tolstoy's shorter writings appear in numerous collections. He wrote quite a few novellas, which can be defined as either really long short stories or really short novels. I introduced my Modern World Humanities class to Tolstoy through the book shown above, titled The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Quite a few variations of this book exist. This particular one has four selections: "The Death of Ivan Ilych," "Family Happiness," "The Kreutzer Sonata," and "Master and Man."

Here is what I recommend: Begin with "Master and Man." I first read it years ago in high school and never forgot it. It is a purely Russian story, including cold, snow, a sled, a peasant, a rich landowner, and vodka. The story concerns Vasili, a money-hungry land baron, and his faithful servant Nikita. A trip to a neighboring village to conclude a profitable land deal results in their getting lost in the snow. I will stop here and let you find out what happens. In short, the story will endear you to Tolstoy and enable you to see the power of his vision.

"The Death of Ivan Ilych" is perhaps the most famous of Tolstoy's shorter works. The slow demise of Ivan, his agonies and despair, and his re-evaluation of the world around him make this a powerful parable-like picture of our plight in this world.

"Family Happiness" appears at points to be an ironic title. Marya, the first person narrator of the story, seeks romantic happiness though both proper and improper means. She is young, full of life, and hopelessly romantic in her vision of life. Like Anna Karenina, her quest for love leads her toward destruction, but unlike Anna, she sees the error of her ways.

"The Kreutzer Sonata" is an unusual story where a bitter, wicked man tells of his failed marriage. I have no in-depth comment on it; I did not like the story and will keep the jury out concerning a judgment of that work.

In the first three works cited, Tolstoy repeats a major theme: There is a superficial side of life. It is all surface. It may include romantic idealism or economic success or social standing. Whatever the case, this glittering surface lures us unto it to the point that we miss reality. In each story, the major character is brought to a change of mind in the closing scenes. Tolstoy's concluding revelations are not great and profound occurences. The change occurs not within a series of actions, but from within. Tolstoy's characters receive revelations, but revelations such as those we know from the Holy Spirit. At one point then, the character is chasing after something false, illusive, and empty. Then they see a greater, a spiritual, a true reality. The subtlety of the change is the surprising point. It is like an atheist who becomes a believer: He suddenly sees and interprets all reality from a radically different starting point.

Tolstoy is one of our great Christian writers. But let us understand what it means when an artist is a Christian. First of all, a Christian writer is writing fiction, not submitting himself to an ordination board of a Reformed presbytery. Fiction is not systematic theology. It is art. Art distorts; it is fabric and is a fabrication; it is an untruth. But it is cast in this distorted fabricated form in order to better deliver a message. Jesus' parable of the lost sheep tells us nothing about the economics of agriculture and stock management. A 1% loss of a flock is negligible. One lost sheep is simply the cost of doing business. But Jesus gives this story to show a greater truth: God's sovereign love for the lost sheep. As William Faulkner said about himself, he wrote fiction because he was interested in truth.

Second, Tolstoy's being a Christian writer does not tell us whether or not he went to heaven when he died. Tolstoy's theology is a hodgepodge of Biblical snippets, sentimental mush, contrariness, contradictions, and humanistic reasonings. You would not want him to teach your Sunday school class, but don't worry: Tolstoy was in much opposition to the organized church. Perhaps the state of Russian Orthodoxy commends his opposition. But he was not a Luther. He was a mystic at points, however. By Christian writer, I mean that Tolstoy self-consciously borrows from and builds upon Christian truths. "Master and Man" shows the Christian message of redemption and sacrifice for others. "The Death of Ivan Ilych" shows the vanity of this world and the need for repentance. "Family Happiness" illustrates the nature of true family and marital love. War and Peace carries a host of characters through stages of weakness and failure to spiritual insight. Anna Karenina, my favorite Tolstoy novel, contrasts one who grows in grace in the midst of family life with one whose life is wrecked by sin.

Yes, Russia has suffered much, but God has still blessed that land.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Darwin, Marx, and a Russian Antidote

Assignments for the week of April 18--22

The Maelstrom of the 19th Century:  The Positivism of Comte, the Uniformitarian Geology of Lyell, the Nationalism of Bismarck, the Imperialism of Victorian England, the unbelief of Schopenhauer,  the Naturalism of Darwin, the Communism of Marx, the Social Darwinism of Huxley,  and a world losing its soul.

How can we grasp the major ideas of a century? 

"Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it."
Leo Tolstoy
Darwin and Marx

Monday:  Survey of Ideas, Ideologies, and Events

Discussion of the introduction to Darwin's Origin of Species
Reading Assignments from Origin of Species

The Antidote:  Tolstoy's "Master and Man"

Tuesday:  More Ideas, Ideologies, and Events
Work on Readings and Reports

The Antidote:  "Master and Man" and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"

Wednesday:  The spectre of Communism
Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto

The Antidote:  More about Tolstoy

Thursday:  Connections between the Darwinian Worldview and Other Idealogies, including Marxism

Friday:  Good Friday

More Quotes from Tolstoy:

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."
"Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women." (from War and Peace)
"rest, nature, books, music…such is my idea of happiness…"
"Every lie is a poison; there are no harmless lies. Only the truth is safe. Only the truth gives me consolation - it is the one unbreakable diamond."

"Music is the shorthand of emotion."
"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town."

Monday, April 11, 2011

From the Battlefields of Europe to the Battle for the Human Mind

Assignments for the Week of April 11--15

Finish movie Les Miserables
Handouts on Napoleon

Napoleon: From Corsican Upstart to the Grand Marshal to Emperor
Notes and Reading

Essay Test Over Les Miserables--An Escape Through Parisian Sewers
Chasing Napoleon Across Europe...and into Russia
Meet Leo Tolstoy

Reading Tolstoy
Intellectual Movements of the 19th Century
Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species

From Darwin to Marx to....Modernity
The Second Paper is due (Either Jane Austen or French Revolution)

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Age of Napoleon and the Pen of Victor Hugo--April 4--8

What kind of man was Napoleon?

"Had these events occurred at the beginning of the present century, there can be little doubt that Bonaparte would have been obliged to face a war crimes tribunal, with an inevitable verdict of 'guilty' and a sentence of death or life imprisonment. The evidence then produced would have determined, forever, in the minds of reasonable people, the degree of guilt he bore for events that had cost four or five million lives and immense loss of property."
Paul Johnson, Napoleon
napoleon bonaparte, napoléon bonaparte, history of french revolution, napoléon

Continue with the film:  Amazing Grace
From the Reaction of Thermidor to the Rise of Napoleon
Victor Hugo and Les Miserables discussion

Notes on Napoleon
Victor Hugo and Les Miserables discussion

Napoleon--Maps, Battles, and More
Victor Hugo and Les Miserables discussion
TURN IN PAPER (Either the Jane Austen Paper or French Revolution Paper)

Napoleon's Road to Russia...and Miserable Retreat
Victor Hugo and Les Miserables

Finish Les Miserables

"What we learn from the study of the Great [French] Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions."
Prince Petr Kropotkin, Russian naturalist, author and soldier
writing in 1909 on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution