Rowan Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction

Rowan Williams is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, whose tenure from December 2002 to December 2012 saw him presiding over royal weddings and various controversies involving the Church of England’s position on gay marriage or the ordination of female priests. Somehow, in that time period, he managed to write ten books, including Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, which appeared as part of a larger four-part series on “The Making of the Christian Imagination,” commissioned by Baylor University. It is a safe bet that an archbishop is well-placed to comment on Dostoevsky’s faith, but what of the language and the fiction? Williams, it turns out, is something of a devotee of literature, and the sermons and speeches by him available on YouTube all demonstrate a fierce appreciation for the novel’s ability to grapple with the central questions of faith itself. What’s more, his love of Dostoevsky spurred him to learn Russian, that he might read Dostoevsky without the intermediary of a translator, and that appreciation is evident on every page of this book. A caveat, however: Williams assumes a strong familiarity with Dostoevsky’s works, frequently drawing on two or more in a single paragraph, and had I not recently read the four major novels it would have been much more difficult – and therefore less enjoyable – to follow Williams’ various arguments.

In his Introduction, Williams makes a case that Dostoevsky is intensely relevant to our modern era because the world of his fictions is one “in which the question of what human beings owe to each other […] is left painfully and shockingly open, and there seems no obvious place to stand from where we can construct a clear moral landscape.” I share this assessment, in full: we no longer have a sense of mutual obligation, and much of our political polarization is driven by competing answers to this most crucial of questions. Our moral landscape, in other words, is hideously fractured. For Dostoevsky, Williams tells us, the “incapacity to answer that question coherently – or indeed to recognize that it is a question at all – [is] more than just a regrettable lack of philosophical rigor; it was an opening to the demonic – that is, to the prospect of the end of history, imagination, and speech, the dissolution of human identity.”

In the chapter “Devils,” Williams explores the various representations of the demonic in Dostoevsky’s fictions. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, three characters are linked by their literalist interpretations of hell: Fyodor Dostoevsky, who envisions a literal hell; Father Ferapont, a half-crazed elderly monk who sees demons around every corner; and Ivan Karamazov, whose struggle with faith culminates in a dialogue with the devil. Fyodor Dostoevsky famously imagines hell as a literal place, with physical dimensions, and this farcical image gives him permission to reject it entirely:

You’ll pray for us sinners; we have sinned too much here. I’ve always been thinking who would pray for me, and whether there’s any one in the world to do it. My dear boy, I’m awfully stupid about that. You wouldn’t believe it. Awfully. You see, however stupid I am about it, I keep thinking, I keep thinking – from time to time, of course, not all the while. It’s impossible, I think, for the devils to forget to drag me down to hell with their hooks when I die. Then I wonder – hooks? Where would they get them? What of? Iron hooks? Where do they forge them? Have they a foundry there of some sort? The monks in the monastery probably believe that there’s a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now I’m ready to believe in hell, but without a ceiling. It makes it more refined, more enlightened, more Lutheran that is. And, after all, what does it matter whether it has a ceiling or hasn’t? But, do you know, there’s a damnable question involved in it? If there’s no ceiling there can be no hooks, and if there are no hooks it all breaks down, which is unlikely again, for then there would be none to drag me down to hell, and if they don’t drag me down what justice is there in the world? Il faudrait les inventer, those hooks, on purpose for me alone, for if you only knew, Alyosha, what a blackguard I am.

Whenever a Dostoevsky character lapses into French, you can be sure they’re full of shit, and that’s how we are to regard Fyodor’s disingenuous, self-pitying and self-exculpatory monologue. Williams: “The diabolical is a stage prop for Fyodor, an occasion for mockery or satire, an alibi for his own anarchic cynicism and clownishness.” Morality can be whatever he wishes, for the punishments offered to him by religion are, in his conception, laughably false – but even Fyodor is not so cynical to believe his own words, and Father Zosima will soon give him advice that cuts through his clownish facade to the core of his character:

Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to the passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.

Zosima counters the figurative and foolish hell of Fyodor’s imaginings with a much more literal hell: a loveless, bestial existence in pursuit of the basest of life’s pleasures.

Williams illuminates another, less obvious aspect of Dostoevsky’s thinking on the nature of the demonic: that of the relationship between abstract love, frequently aimed at the “general good,” and the more difficult and more rewarding job of loving a single human being in all their frightening complexity and particularity. William Blake: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatter.” That argument emerges again in Dostoevsky; in fact, in a famous anecdote from his life, he was said to have once shouted down some puffed up intellectual preening himself on concern for the Russian peasantry by telling him he would accomplish more real good by teaching a single peasant child how to read. According to Williams, the demonic in Dostoevsky’s fiction is that which “de-realizes” or “disincarnates” human beings, divorcing them from the body and the particular. You cannot, in any meaningful sense, “love humanity.” Humanity is an abstraction. The preeminent example of a character enchanted by abstractions is Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, whose evident desire to do good – according to his own conception of the good – blinds him to the pain he inflicts on those who stand in his way, who become mere sacrifices for that vaunted “greater good.” In this respect, he is a chilling fictional stand-in for the painfully real disciples of his philosophy – Lenin, Stalin and Mao – whose certitude in a coming utopia allowed for the deaths of millions.

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction is a rambling, discursive book, and Williams frequently gets lost in his own elaborate arguments. It is also an original piece of scholarship, a powerful meditation on morality, and a summons to return to Dostoevsky’s works and read them through Williams’ eyes.