When I was young and under the compulsion to affect a deeper experience of life than I had, I was fond of quoting Whittier’s sage-sounding observation that the saddest words of tongue or pen are simply these, “It might have been.” They can be words of profound regret and even bitterness about the roads not taken, but they can also be spoken without sadness in grateful recognition of one’s creatureliness. Being a creature of time and limited possibilities, no matter how much I’ve done, what I’ve done is so pitiably small, but I choose to believe it was mine to do. Decisions were made; and I’ve never gotten over my first discovery that the word decision is derived from decidere, which means to cut off. In deciding for this and then for that, from which followed the other thing, I cut off what might have been. But it is only in moments of ungrateful rebellion against my creatureliness that I resent the fact that what might have been was not. Most of the time I think about what might have been not in resentment but in wonder.
I know for sure that I will never do the monumental thing done by Joseph Frank. I have published, quite literally, millions of words on subjects so various that many, if not most, of them escape recall. I am regularly asked by graduate students in search of something or someone to write about what I meant by one thing or another that I wrote ten or twenty or even thirty years ago. I wrote that, did I? What I wrote is usually not an embarrassment, although there is a touch of awkwardness in not remembering.
The same might have been the case with Joseph Frank. After all, he was a professor of comparative literature and understood himself to be a literary critic. He could very well have ended up giving papers at the Modern Language Association on transgressive gendering or other topics of felt academic urgency. But then—to our good fortune and, I trust, to his gratification—he got interested in Dostoevsky. He started out to write a modest book on the novels, but then, as he rather understates the matter, “my initial intention would grow in size and scope.” Decades later, we have the fifth, final, and very big volume of a biography that will be a standard reference for as long as there are people interested in Dostoevsky, which I like to think will be until Our Lord returns in glory. It is titled Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 794 pp., $35). Frank is now professor emeritus and I cannot help but wonder, not without a smidgen of what I trust is unsinful envy, what must be the satisfaction of a writer’s life commandeered by one grand project.
Frank invested his life in exploring everything pertinent to understanding the life and work of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky: the language, the social and political changes, the literary rivalries, the loves, the illnesses, the frustrations. It seems there is almost nothing left unexplored. The fifth volume picks up at the point of Dostoevsky’s return to Russia from four thoroughly disquieting years in the West and includes the writing of A Raw Youth, The Diary of a Writer, and, by far the most important, The Brothers Karamazov. The last is, I dare say, the greatest novel ever written, and the only novel I have read and reread year after year, always with increased pleasure and admiration. Frank writes:
No previous work gives the reader such an impression of controlled and measured grandeur, a grandeur that spontaneously evokes comparison with the greatest creations of Western literature. The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, King Lear, Faust—these are the titles that naturally come to mind as one tries to measure the stature of The Brothers Karamazov. For these too grapple with the never-ending and never-to-be-ended argument aroused by the “accursed questions” of mankind’s destiny.
A Definite Argument
I would not quibble with a word of that. And yet, in the very same passage Joseph Frank makes a claim that is repeated in various forms throughout his biography. With that claim I have not only a quibble but a very definite argument. In fact, I have the temerity to suggest that Frank is simply wrong when he writes that Karamazov is about “the great theme that had preoccupied [Dostoevsky] since Notes from Underground: the conflict between reason and Christian faith.” I am keenly aware that Joseph Frank probably knows as much about Dostoevsky as any person alive. For all his undoubted knowledge, however, I am persuaded that he misunderstands texts that are crucial to his claim that Dostoevsky’s lifelong obsession was with the presumed conflict between reason and what Frank persistently calls “irrational faith.” Since that claim is key to, in some ways the key to, his construal of Dostoevsky’s life and work, this is no little disagreement. But I will come back to that. First it is necessary and fitting to note, indeed to relish, other aspects of Frank’s achievement.
Underscoring the subtitle “The Mantle of the Prophet,” the fifth volume employs as its epigraph Pushkin’s “The Prophet.” Pushkin had died in 1837, and there is no doubt that Dostoevsky believed that he, Elisha-like, had inherited his mantle. On several notable occasions, he gave public recitations of the poem that were marked with such fervor of devotion that the audience sensed that one even greater than Pushkin was here. The poem speaks of a “six-winged seraph” who cuts open the author’s breast and presses into the wound “a glowing livid coal.”
There in the desert I lay dead,
And God called out to me and said:
“Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see,
And let my works be seen and heard
By all who turn aside from me,
And burn them with my fiery word.”
Dostoevsky evinced the conviction of having been divinely commissioned in a manner that was diffident, almost shy, and utterly devoid of braggadocio. He was anxious about falling short of the task bestowed. An admirer describes her meeting with Dostoevsky: “Most sharply of all remains in my memory the following trait, quite outstanding in Dostoevsky, his fear of ceasing to understand the young generation, of breaking with it. . . . There was not at all any fear of ceasing to be a beloved writer or of decreasing the number of his followers and readers: no, he obviously regarded a disagreement with the young generation as a human downfall, as a moral death. He boldly and honorably defends his intimate convictions; and at the same time somehow fears not fulfilling the mission entrusted to him, and inadvertently losing his way.”
Frank supplies a number of instances in which Dostoevsky seems almost to be pandering to the youth, so worried is he about not losing touch with the shifting currents of thought and yearnings for change. His is not, however, the embarrassing sixties-ish posturing of so many of the hoary headed among today’s intellectuals. Dostoevsky’s wisdom embraced the creatureliness of his aging and mortality. His anxiety was not for himself but for the mission, for the prophecy that will be carried to fulfillment by the successor generation and their children. Frank is especially strong in depicting the churnings of avant-garde opinion, of political and social movements, from sundry socialisms of atheistic and engineering varieties to populist efforts by intellectuals to reconnect with the “simple faith” of the Russian peasantry. For long stretches, Dostoevsky is as much social and political history as it is an examination of the man’s thought and writing. To which Frank would no doubt say, with justice, that the two are inseparable.
Dostoevsky understood himself to be the prophet of a new world in which historical possibility intersected with resurrection hope. I confess that I had always found the ending of Karamazov something of a let-down. There Alyosha Karamazov, the youngest of the three brothers, is surrounded by the boys remembering their poor and shabbily treated friend. Alyosha addresses them:
“Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and right!” . . .
“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s, exclaimed irrepressibly . . . .
“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya proclaimed.
“And memory eternal for the dead boy!” Alyosha added again.
“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “can it really be true, as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”
“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
And then they went off, hand in hand, to the meager funeral meal. As I say, the ending always seemed to me to be marred by an excess of sentimentality, leaving me with the hope that it might have been redeemed by the second volume of Karamazov, focusing on Alyosha, that Dostoevsky did not live to write. But Frank helped me to understand the fitness of the ending, charged as it is with the conviction that the love exemplified by Alyosha is a world-transforming force. At the same time, Frank’s treatment of Dostoevsky as prophet of a world-transforming word lacks a certain weightiness, and I think the reason is that he does not, for whatever reason, take seriously Alyosha’s, and Dostoevsky’s, eschatological hope. Perhaps it is because that hope is part of the faith that Frank calls, with puzzlement often indistinguishable from dismissiveness, “irrational.”
“From them I accepted Christ”
The socialists who took a populist turn in trying to utilize Christianity without Christ viewed Dostoevsky’s reverence for the faith of the Russian people as naive, romantic, and, yes, irrational. Dostoevsky responds that he is well aware of “the transgressions” of the Christ-loving people, but, referring to the years in Siberia, he also knows much more. “I lived with them for some years, shared meals with them, slept alongside them, and was myself ‘numbered among the transgressors’; I worked with them at real, backbreaking labor and at a time when others were playing at liberalism and snickering about the people. So don’t tell me that I don’t know the people! I know them; it was from them I accepted Christ into my soul again, Christ whom I had known while still a child in my parents’ home and whom I was about to lose when I, in my turn, transformed myself into a ‘European liberal.’” One can hardly exaggerate the disdain that attends Dostoevsky’s use of the words “European liberal.”
Dostoevsky’s animus toward European liberalism and Roman Catholicism—which to his mind were of a piece—is another thing that can hardly be exaggerated (see Rodney Delasanta’s “Dostoevsky Also Nods,” FT, January 2002). There are, Dostoevsky said, three ideas contending for mastery over the world. One is “the Catholic idea” embodied in France and at the heart of French socialism. “For French socialism is nothing other than the compulsory unity of humanity, an idea that derived from ancient Rome and that was subsequently preserved in Catholicism.” Rome is infinitely devious and resourceful. It is by no means the antithesis of socialism. “Having lost the kings as its allies,” said Dostoevsky, “it will surely rush to the demos.” Indeed, socialism is simply the secularized version of Catholicism with its claim to universal domination, and the Church is eager to re-sacralize it. Dostoevsky was on to something. There were and are Catholics who think that way. Today’s readers will recall the late and unlamented efforts of “liberation theology” to establish under Marxist auspices what would be, in effect, a new Christendom.
The second great force is “the Protestant idea” that, Dostoevsky said, goes back far before Luther but gained new strength with the unification of Germany in 1870. As Frank describes his thought, “Like the Slavophils, Dostoevsky views Protestantism as fundamentally a protest against Latin Catholic civilization, hence containing nothing positive of its own and ultimately leading to atheism and nihilism.” And the third great force is, of course, “the Slavic idea” incarnated in Orthodoxy and the Russian faithful. Despite the eighteenth-century efforts of Peter the Great to introduce westernizing corruptions, Dostoevsky believed in the fundamental religious and social integrity of Holy Russia. Russia is, for Dostoevsky, the Redeemer Nation, and his fantastical claims for the moral, spiritual, and even intellectual superiority of the Russian people know no bounds. Frank deals with all this in detail, and is particularly deft in his treatment of what we today can only describe as Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism. “Yiddism,” he believed, was a culture within a culture, a people within a people, and therefore a culture and people undermining the integrity and destiny of Orthodox Russia.
A Poor Prophet
Critics, one notes in passing, have been exceedingly harsh in their treatment of Dostoevsky’s nationalism. It is said with derision that, in view of the overthrow of the Tsar, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and the subsequent history of the Soviet Union, Dostoevsky was a lamentably poor prophet. To which the response is that his prophetic office did not consist in predictive powers but in bearing witness to a truth and possibility that, tragically, were shattered by the facticity of history. As Richard Pipes and other historians have underscored, there was nothing inevitable about the Bolshevik takeover. One can readily conjure other and credible scenarios in which Tsardom and Orthodoxy might have cooperated in the realization of something approximating Dostoevsky’s hopes.
Even with respect to predictive powers, the magnificent Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, related by Ivan Karamazov, was eerily prescient in its understanding of the dynamics that would become twentieth-century totalitarianism. Frank observes in a footnote that “Dostoevsky’s nightmare vision of the surrender of inner freedom for untroubled security was also a predecessor of the literary genre of dystopia, represented by such works as Eugene Zamiatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984. The motif of deception—the Grand Inquisitor’s pretense to speak in the name of the true Christ—is closer to the Communist model.”
Dostoevsky is harshly criticized also for his support of the Russian effort to recapture Constantinople as the capital of Orthodoxy. That effort is commonly derided as an exercise in unbridled jingoism, but it is by no means evident today that France and, more particularly, England (“perfidious Albion”) was on the side of the angels in opposing Russia’s effort. The “what if” arguments of history are interminable, but a believable case can be made that today’s “clash of civilizations” and the attendant war against terrorism might be less threatening, or have been avoided altogether, had Christian Russia succeeded in turning back, at least in part, the Muslim conquest. One might even push the question a bit further and speculate that, on the basis of what he foresaw then, Dostoevsky would not have been surprised by what many view as today’s unfolding conquest-by-immigration as Islam relentlessly presses upon a spiritually and demographically dying Europe. Dostoevsky’s eye was ever attentive to the larger patterns of history.
A key to understanding Dostoevsky is “fantastic realism,” a phrase he himself used to describe his work. Frank explains it nicely:
He is always striving to apply to the present the mode of apprehension that he sees as a psychological datum in relation to the past. He looks for the essence of the passing and contemporary by projecting it into the future and imagining its completion (which makes it “fantastic”), but then, with an unflinching moral-social and psychological realism, dramatizing all the consequences of this future, as if it had already occurred or was coming into being.
This fantastic realism is closely tied to Dostoevsky’s appreciation of original sin, although he is not comfortable with that terminology snatched from the Augustinian vocabulary of the West. The ever-so-progressive spreaders of the “European” disease deny the reality of human guilt and freedom, contending that fault and destiny lie with social and economic arrangements. Dostoevsky rejects this in no uncertain terms:
It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness that evil lies deeper in human beings than our socialist-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it has always been; that abnormality and sin arise from that soul itself; and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges.
The Question Is Freedom
There it is, and it will not go away: the question of the soul. It brings us back to the aforementioned disagreement with Joseph Frank, a disagreement which, I regret to say, is inescapable and basic. I regret to say it because it seems almost a sin against gratitude for the enormous gift that is his Dostoevsky. But it must be said: The driving motif around which Dostoevsky’s life and work cohere is not the conflict between “reason and irrational faith.” It is, rather, the conflict between freedom and the enemies of freedom, however variously disguised. It is between the affirmation and the denial of the reality of the human soul.
The simple Russian people knew they had souls. Dostoevsky fiercely defended popular Christian piety, even when it appeared to be superstitious and fantastical. In response to a critic he writes, “They need sacred objects by their side, visible, as reflections of Godliness. One must believe, aspire to the invisible God, but revere Him on earth with simple customs that are related to Him. You can tell me that such belief is blind and naive, and I will reply that faith should be that way. We can’t all be theologians.” And, we might add, a good thing too. The people are not theologians, but, as we shall see, Dostoevsky, although an artist and not a theologian in any academic sense, is given to careful theological reflection. Joseph Frank is inclined to disparage this at almost every turn. He describes Dostoevsky’s Weltanschauung as one of “apocalyptic intuitions of impending cosmic chaos, religious irrationalism, and mystical nationalism”—and they are all of a piece. At several points, Frank even compares Dostoevsky with Kierkegaard in what he calls his intuition of the “total irrationality and subjectivity” of faith.
Yet he also quotes, without attempting to explain, Dostoevsky’s emphatic rejection of the claim that faith is irrational. The real irrationality, Dostoevsky insists, is represented by forms of Enlightenment, and often atheistic, rationalism that he sometimes terms “Euclidian.” “Infinite wisdom,” says Dostoevsky, “crushes the mind of man, but he seeks it. Existence must be unquestionably and in every instance superior to the mind of man. The doctrine that the mind of man is the final limit of the universe is as stupid as stupid can be, and even stupider, infinitely stupider, than a game of checkers between two shopkeepers.” That may be described as an affirmation of the supra-rational, but it is not, as Frank claims, “irrational.” It is, rather, a conclusion to which Dostoevsky is compelled by reason.
A critic writes Dostoevsky in what Frank describes as a “tone of lofty professorial self-assurance”—a tone which, I am sorry to say, Frank too often assumes—about the infantile and irrational nature of religious faith. To which Dostoevsky responds, “You could regard me from a scientific point of view, but not so arrogantly when it concerns philosophy, although philosophy is not my specialty. . . . It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess faith in him, but rather my hosanna has come through the great crucible of doubt, as the devil says in that same novel of mine” (Karamazov). As for science, Dostoevsky is all for it, but what is called science is unscientific and irrational, or just plain “stupid,” when it refuses to take seriously faith and that to which faith points. “The tremendous fact of the appearance on earth of Jesus, and all that came after that, in my opinion demand scientific elaboration. But at the same time, science cannot reject the meaning that religion does have for humanity, if only as a historical fact that is staggering in its continuity and tenacity. The conviction that humanity has about coming in contact with another world is also very significant and cannot be resolved [by dismissing it as ‘infantile’].”
Again, his point is that Euclidian rationalism is not rational enough, and dogmatically atheistic science is unscientific. It is not with Kierkegaard but with Pascal that Dostoevsky should be compared. The heart has its reasons, and as with Pascal and, earlier, with Augustine—although there is no evidence that Dostoevsky was conscious of borrowing from either on this score—there is the awareness of love as a way of knowing. In Karamazov, the chattering Mme. Khokhlakova has picked up bits of fashionable atheism and responds to the saintly Father Zosima’s statement of faith, “But how is one to prove it?” It is surely Dostoevsky who speaks through Zosima when he says that no “proof” is possible but one knows “by the experience of active love. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubts and no doubt can possibly enter your soul.”
Frank says that the rationalist Ivan Karamazov “refuses to make the leap of faith” that would allow him to believe in Christ and his world-transforming power. But it is not a Kierkegaardian leap of faith that is at issue. In the very same passage he quotes Ivan saying that “Even if at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity . . . even then, though all that may come to pass, I won’t accept it.” Then Frank himself comments, “Ivan now finds himself in the same position as those unbelievers mentioned earlier who would not accept miracles even if they were accomplished before their very eyes.” Precisely. But Frank fails to recognize the import of what he has just said. The problem with Ivan is not that he “refuses to make the leap of faith” but that he is blinded to reality by his irrational rationalism.
Frank is similarly confusing the reader, I believe, when he speaks of Dostoevsky’s “visionary beliefs” that the promise of Christ and the possibility of world-transforming love will be realized. Of his Christian faith Dostoevsky writes, “If I believe that the truth is here, in those very things in which I put my faith, then what does it matter to me if the whole world rejects my faith, mocks me, and travels a different road?” To which Frank comments, “Here speaks the voice of his ‘ridiculous man,’ whose dream of the ideal cannot be shaken by the skepticism and incredulity of those who laugh at his preachments. The value of such an ideal, he says, cannot ‘be measured in terms of immediate benefit, but is directed toward the future, toward eternal ends and absolute joy.’ This is the vision that Dostoevsky upholds as the Russian answer to Western ‘enlightenment.’”
That is not a peculiarly Russian answer, however, but simply the Christian answer, which, of course, Dostoevsky believed the Russian soul was uniquely capable of making. Jesus told his disciples that they would be rejected, mocked, and persecuted. Dostoevsky’s words are those of all faithful disciples who, as Jesus said, “continue in the truth.” They are the words of the martyrs, martyrdom being the frequent fate of prophets. For Dostoevsky, faith is required by the reason that it complements and completes. I hesitate to go so far as James Scanlan in his recent book, Dostoevsky the Thinker, in almost making of Dostoevsky a systematic theologian, but there is no denying that Joseph Frank is simply tone-deaf to the philosophical and religious coherence of Dostoevsky’s thought. It is a remarkable and in some ways an admirable thing that Frank could discipline himself to devote decades of his life to, and write thousands of pages on, a figure who most critically defined himself by reference to a Christian faith for which Frank has little sympathy and, it would appear, even less curiosity.
Frank writes, “For Dostoevsky, it was a moral-psychological necessity of the human personality to experience itself as free.” It is necessary to say also that his hard fought conviction, on the far side of his battle with doubts to the contrary, is that the human soul is free, and is that by virtue of Christ. The inescapably Christian logic that permeates his work, and especially Karamazov, is discovered in the two sayings of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” and “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Man is free to choose good and evil. That, too, is part of the dignity of being human. Thus Dostoevsky writes that, if criminals are not punished, “you only plant cynicism in their hearts, you leave them with a seductive question and with contempt for you yourself.” Frank criticizes that as a “sanctimonious plea” for punishment in order to uphold “age-old inherited pieties of the Russian people.” I think not. What Dostoevsky insists upon upholding is the moral agency of the human person.
Frank applies his master template of “reason versus irrational faith” in his interpretation of Father Zosima’s critique of rationalistic socialism. He says Zosima is criticizing those who “rely on reason alone,” but he is in fact criticizing the irrationality of their view of reason. “They have,” says Zosima, “more fantastic dreams than we. They aim at justice but, denying Christ, they will end flooding the earth with blood.” Indeed, “were it not for Christ’s covenant, they would slaughter one another down to the last two men on earth,” and then the last two would kill one another in their fantastic effort to establish the rule of reason apart from the truth of Christ. In our awareness of the consequences of communism’s “scientific” doctrine of history in terms of “dialectical materialism” and other rationalist fancies, Dostoevsky, speaking through Father Zosima, seems startlingly prescient.
Frank writes that Karamazov is about “the moral-psychological struggle of each of the main characters to heed the voice of his or her own conscience, a struggle that will always remain humanly valid and artistically persuasive whether or not one accepts the theological premises without which, as Dostoevsky believed, moral conscience would simply cease to exist.” Frank is right about conscience as a witness to human freedom in Dostoevsky’s thought, but I expect Dostoevsky would be exceedingly impatient with Frank’s essentially aesthetic treatment of conscience apart from the truth to which conscience testifies. Similarly, in the haunting account of Ivan’s dialogue with the devil—whether in his fevered imagination or at some other level of reality—the devil taunts Ivan with the fact that his Euclidian rationality cannot account for his determination to help his brother Dimitry. “You are going to perform an act of heroic virtue and you don’t believe in virtue; that’s what tortures you and makes you angry, that’s why you are so vindictive.” And that’s why, Dostoevsky would have us understand, Ivan’s version of reason is so irrational.
The Majestic Legend
And then there is the majesty of the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. I have sometimes said, only half jokingly, that, if there is one piece of literature that might be added to the biblical canon, it is the Legend. Of course it reflects Dostoevsky’s animus toward Catholicism, but it depicts the temptation to which religion, and all forms of Christian religion, not just Catholicism, are susceptible. Many books have been written on the Legend, and many more no doubt will be. Suffice it to say that the Legend is emphatically not about “the conflict between reason and faith.” It is about the inextricable relationship between freedom and truth. The Grand Inquisitor, with a perversely heroic virtue for which he is prepared to be damned, spends the night explaining to the silent Jesus why he was wrong about truth and freedom. Mankind cannot bear the truth, and is eager to surrender freedom in exchange for the security of lies. The Church has corrected Jesus’ disastrous mistake, the Inquisitor explains, and Jesus has no right to return at this late date to threaten the Church’s necessary and, yes, noble work. Jesus—the way, the truth, and the life—says nothing in response. “The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But he suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless, aged lips.” The Inquisitor shudders and, reversing his earlier sentence of death, opens the cell door. “‘Go,’ he says, ‘and come no more—come not at all, never, never.’ And he let him out into the dark squares of the town.”
There is so much that is missed in Dostoevsky, and in Karamazov especially, when one imposes upon his writing the interpretative template of “the conflict between reason and faith.” Christian faith is the necessary template. Consider the question of theodicy posed Alyosha by Ivan in an argument painfully concentrated on the undeserved suffering of children. It is the ever vexing question of the Holy Innocents. Alyosha has no neat catechism answer for his brother, and Dostoevsky acknowledges in a letter about Karamazov that Ivan’s argument is nearly “irrefutable.” But then there is the suffering, and then the death, of innocent Ilyusha. Is he or Alyosha the “Christ-figure” here, or are they both that? What has happened with Ilyusha participates in the mystery of redemptive suffering. I quoted earlier Alyosha’s words on resurrection. Immediately prior to that, he addresses the boys:
Let us make a compact here at Ilyusha’s stone that we will never forget him, or each other. And whatever happens to us later in life, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones. Let us always remember how good it was when we were together, united by a good and kind feeling which, for the time we were loving that poor boy, made us perhaps better than we are. . . . If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may be the means of saving us. Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on, but however bad we may become, yet when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we have been talking like friends all together, at this stone, the cruelest and most mocking of us will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment.
In the ending of Karamazov, at Ilyusha’s stone, they who are free to choose otherwise know freedom in having chosen love. The knowledge of that possibility “may be the means of saving us.” It is, Dostoevsky proposed, also a possibility for the transformation of society. Only months before his death he wrote about how the European rationalist rejects that possibility, claiming that “If the Christians take over, they will immediately begin to massacre the non-Christians.” Dostoevsky responds, “On the contrary, complete freedom of faith and freedom of conscience is the soul of true Christianity. Believe freely—that is our formula. The Lord did not step down from the cross to inculcate belief by force of external miracle, but precisely wished for freedom of conscience. That is the soul of our people and of Christianity.”
To which Joseph Frank remarks, “Nothing better than such a passage illustrates the baffling mixture in Dostoevsky of an advocacy of the most reactionary social structures in the name of the most liberal principles.” The use of “reactionary” and “liberal” in this context reflects secular liberalism’s habit of mind, precisely the habit of mind that Dostoevsky identifies as “European.” I suggest that Frank finds the passage “baffling” because he fails to see that Dostoevsky is proposing a way to more firmly ground freedom, including political freedom. Freedom must be grounded in the truth, which is ultimately the truth of love, of redemptive suffering, revealed in Christ. One may fault Dostoevsky’s idea of social transformation as implausible or naive or impracticable on any number of scores, but it is hardly reactionary. It is visionary. Or, as Dostoevsky would undoubtedly say, it is prophetic.
Return to the scene where Ivan is challenging Alyosha’s faith most relentlessly, demanding an answer to his story of the general who unleashes his dogs on the peasant boy, and to the catalogue of other cruelties against the innocents that he has related. Alyosha is taken aback, allowing that it would be intolerable to accept happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of even one innocent child. Ivan demands to know whether there is “in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive” such injustice. Then Alyosha remembers, and bursts out, “But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave his innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’”
It is not true that Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky has forgotten Him, but the crucified and risen Christ is safely contained in the category of the irrational. By having Dostoevsky’s story told in conventionally liberal terms of the conflict between reason and faith, the reader is spared the demand for decision about the truth that, Dostoevsky insists, will make us free. For the student of Dostoevsky, it is not necessary to share his faith in order to try to understand his faith. An account of Dostoevsky that does not invite, and perhaps even compel, a decision about what was most decisive for Dostoevsky—without which he says he could not understand himself, and without which he cannot be understood is sadly flawed.
And God called out to me and said: “Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see, And let my works be seen and heard By all who turn aside from me, And burn them with my fiery word.”
I come away from Joseph Frank’s biography thinking, “It might have been.” The sadness is in knowing that many readers, rightly admiring his monumental labors, and having much enjoyed an interesting story nicely told, will close the fifth and final volume with a sense of quiet satisfaction. Unburned. Not even singed.