Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

It is to Johan Sebastian Bach that I entrust the task to convey my best wishes for Christmas. His music expresses, better than I ever could, the humble grandeur of the Emmanuel. The Christmas Oratorio, which is a set of cantatas for the Christmas time is superbly played by Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the head of the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir. The set is on YouTube, in 19 sections. I suggest you the first one, but watching it you will have access to all, if you feel like it. Let your ears and heart be filled with joy. We all need it ! Merry Christmas Fiodor

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Little quiz about the Middle East

Jerusalem 1948. Jews expelled from the Old City by the Arab Legion

More than ever, Israel has a bad reputation in the media. The massive vote at the UN General Assembly (it must be remembered that it includes a wide majority of dictatorial and/or corrupted and/or totalitarian states) has boosted the excitement of the media against the Hebrew State.

Let me say clearly that I am in favour of the “two states” solution, which means an independant Palestinian state, event through important concessions on behalf of Israel. This seems to be the position of Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party. We can however wonder if it is not merely tactical, while the strategic aim remains the destruction of Israel, an objective that Hamas has no scruple to assert. Recent statements of Khaled Mechaal on this subject are very clear. Moreover, I recommend you strongly the reading of the charter of the Hamas.

To give you, on the political reality of the Middle East, an outlook which is slightly different from that of our "politically correct" media, here is a little quiz.


1.  At the end of the 19th century, the most numerous inhabitants in Jerusalem were:
A. Muslims
B. Jews
C. Armenians
2.  Compared to the British Mandatory Palestine, and excluding the “occupied” or “disputed” territories, the the State of Israel spans an area of:
A. 85 %
B. 12 %
C. 20 %
3.  About 3 500 to 10 000 Palestinians (according to various sources) were killed over a period of 10 days, by:
A. The Israelis, during the first “Intifada”
B. The Israelis, during the “Cast lead” operation
C. The Jordanians, in September 1970
4.  800 000 is the number of:
A. Jews expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s founding
B. Palestinian Arab refugees during the war of 1948
C. Syrians who left the Golan in 1967
5.  The Palestinian national claim is the result of:
A. The occupation of the Gaza Strip by Egypt
B. The occupation of the West Bank by Jordan
C. Israel's occupation of the disputed territories since the 1948 war
6.  The PLO (of Yasser Arafat and Mahmud Abbas) has abolished its Charter goal of destroying the State of Israel
A. In 1993 (Oslo)
B. In 1987 (first Intifada)
C. Never
7.  Among the 270 000 Arab inhabitants of East Jerusalem, want to live in a Palestinian State:
A. 30 %
B. 98 %
C. 70 %
8.  Which statement is true ?
A. A Jew is member of the Constitutional Court of the Islamic Republic of Iran
B. A Jew is member of the Egyptian governement
C. An Arab is a judge of the Supreme Court of Israel


1. B: About “Jerusalem”, the Grand Dictionnaire Larousse du XIXe siècle, published in 1875, quotes: “City of Asiatic Turkey, capital of Judea, chief town of a sanjak of Sidon pachalik. Population can hardly be estimated at more than 18 000 or 20 000 inhabitants: 8 000 Jews, 5 000 Muslims, 3 000 Greeks, 1 500 Latins, 1 000 Armenians, 100 to 200 Syrians and Copts”. Let us add that, in 1899, Jerusalem has 70 000 inhabitants, among which 45 000 Jews.
2. C: The Kingdom of Jordan was created on eighty percent of the territory of the Palestine Mandate allotted to the United Kingdom in 1921. It is thus the Palestinian Arab state, and was recognized as such by Israel untill the Oslo Agreements. This was natural, since more than three quarters of the population of Jordan are of Palestinian origin. And the Arab population in Judea and Samaria were Jordanian until 1967.
3. C: Jordanian Armed Forces during "Black September". Estimates range between 3 500 (Jordanian sources) and 10 000 deaths and more than 110 000 injured (Palestinian sources). The “Cast lead” operation (2008-12-27 to 2009-01-19) led to 1 300 Palestinian victims, half of which were armed men. The first Intifada led to 1 162 Palestinian victims.
4. A: Between 1948 and 1960, it is estimated that more than 800 000 Jews were forced into exile from countries like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, etc.., where they were sometimes located over two millennia. Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war are estimated at about 700 000, a significant number of which have left their villages at the instigation of the Arab Higher Committee, who promised them to return after the defeat of Israel. The Six Day War has led to the departure of about 100 000 Syrians from the Golan Heights.
5. C: Of course. No protest was expressed against the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Egypt or against the occupation of the West Bank by the Hashemite Kingdom (1948 to 1967).
6. C: Despite verbal assurances given in the framework of the Oslo Agreements in 1993, the goal of the destruction of Israel has never been removed from the Charter of the PLO. As an evidence, this statement of Adli Sadeq, Ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in India, in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, daily newspaper of the PA, on November 26th 2011: “Hamas, Fatah and the other factions are not waging war against Israel right now for reasons related to balance of power. There are no two Palestinians who disagree over the fact that Israel exists, and recognition of it is restating the obvious, but recognition of its right to exist is something else, different from recognition of its [physical] existence.”
7. A: According to a survey conducted by the American researcher David Pollock (published in the Washington Post in 2011): 30% say they would prefer to be Palestinian citizens in the framework of a two-state solution, while 35% say they would choose Israeli citizenship. (Others gave no answer or refused to answer). 40% said they would consider moving to another neighborhood to become citizens of Israel rather than become Palestinians, and 54% said that if their neighborhood were assigned to Israel, they would not emigrate to Palestine.
8. C: Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab, is a judge of the Supreme Court of Israel since 2003. We can also mention, among many others, the case of an Israeli Arab Muslim, Jamal Hakroush, Deputy Inspector General in the Israeli police since 2011.

As a conclusion, if we want there to be peace, one day, in this part of the world, we must first clean up the spirits and correct the vocabulary. There is work to be done! ...


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The divided man

Mme Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) Portrait of Prince Sergey Gagarin

The human heart is divided. The line between good and evil crosses him throughout (cf. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”, The Gulag Archipelago). The human being carries within himself a "double" which contradicts him, opposes him, or forces him. Dostoevsky is so penetrated by this truth that it becomes a recurring motive in his work. There is, of course, The Double, one of his first novels, entirely built on this theme, but the idea of "double" appears in many other books and is illustrated by many other characters. And in his 1877 Writers Diary, he writes: "The ‘double’ is a grave and bright idea, and in my whole work, I've never pursued nothing of more important than this idea".

Among many others, a character in The Adolescent appears to me to illustrate marvelously this fundamental human ambiguity that Dostoevsky calls "the idea of the double". It is about Versilov, the father of Arkady, the teenager who is also the narrator of the book. Illegitimate son of an aristocrat – Versilov – and of a servant, the teenager goes in search of this imperceptible father. Imperceptible because divided and thus "double". At no time, the face, the words or the gestures of Versilov seem completely transparent, simple and true. Everything is "double". It is at the end of the story, after a redeeming event, that the man will appear unified, simplified, restored.

Quite puzzled by the behavior of his father, whom he found after a long separation, Arkady comes there to exclaim, during a discussion with a friend: "I beg you to tell me the whole truth. What I exactly want to know, is what he is as a man... " The reader shares moreover the uncertainty of the narrator. He sees him, sometimes trembling with admiration and tenderness for Versilov, and sometimes looking with suspicion, and even disgust, to a father who is often so distant and cynical. An example, from the first angle: Arkady has just seen his father again after a stormy break. They spoke, but without saying anything that matters. Arkady takes back his father: "We arrived at the exit door, and I, I always followed him. He opened the door, the wind rushing in put out my candle. Then, suddenly, I grabbed his hand. It was a pitch black night. He jumped but did not say a word. I bent up to his hand, and suddenly, eagerly, I began to kiss his hand several times, many times. – ‘My sweet boy, why do you love me so much?’ he muttered, but this time in a quite different voice. His voice had trembled, something entirely new sounded there, as if it was not him who spoke".

From the opposite angle, a situation where the darkness of Versilov shows through the outside of a generous act. In a chivalrous way, he has destroyed a document which would have allowed him to claim an inheritance, and so to wrong the one who was really entitled to it. Hearing that, Arkady exults and tells it to one of his friends: "What a man! What a man! No, but who would have done that? I exclaimed on cloud nine". But his interlocutor – Vassyn – introduces the doubt into his mind: " – I agree with you, many would never have done it... and, no doubt, this is an extremely selfless act... – But?... Tell the bottomm of your thought. Vassyn, you add a 'but'? – Yes, of course, there is also a 'but', the act of Versilov, it seems to me, is maybe a little bit fast, and maybe not quite so straightforward, smiled Vassyn. – Not so straightforward? – No. There is there a kind of 'pedestal'. Because, anyway, he would have been able to do the same thing without injuring himself... "

So, throughout the book, we wonder if Versilov is a righteous man, a victim of events, or a bastard... But that is not really the question! Dostoevsky’s puropose is precisely to show us that he is – and that we are! – both. We will not be able to draw a conclusion until the "bastard" has passed away.

But as dark as the acts of the man may appear, they have almost always their part of light. The relationship which exists between Versilov and Arkady’s mother reflects this ambiguity. This young widower of the good society could have been "satisfied" with seducing the poor Sofia Andreevna, recently married to one of his servants – Makar Dolgoruky –, and then abandon her once achieved the aim. But, inexplicably, he seems to have become attached to her. Arkady notices: "I would not swear that he has loved her, but that he dragged her behind him all his life, that is a fact". Even more surprising, this apparently unscrupulous Versilov feels remorse and comes to ask for forgiveness to the man – a servant! – whose wife he has stolen: "He told me spiritually, tells Arkady, that he had sobbed on the shoulder of Makar Ivanovitch, that he had specially convened for the thing in his office. And she, during this time, she remained prostrate, I do not know where, fainted in her small domestic’s cage..." In Versilov, as in many other characters of Dostoevsky’s novels, exists an internal dislocation. Impossible, throughout the pages of the novel, to know the fairness from the feint. Only the outcome will operate the unity inside him, as the result of a real passover.

Would not the divided man be thus rather a "wounded" man, whose kindness is more important than the wound, and therefore a man in the process of unification, of restoration? All Dostoevsky breathes such a hope. A hope based on the most central belief of the Christian revelation: the faith in a love that no evil can destroy, a love that "never ends"(1Cor 3). This is why, almost always, the characters of the Dostoevskian drama reach an increasing of humanity through testimonies of true love – even unaccomplished. The one to whom love is given enters a path of healing and collects the fruit of the redeeming love. As, for example, in the following scene, which concludes the second part of The Adolescent: "We went out on the canal, and we began leaving. – ‘Will you never kiss me from the bottom of the heart, like a child, as a son kisses his father?’ he whispered, with a strange tremor in his voice. I kissed him warmly. – ‘My sweet... always keep your soul as pure as you have it at the moment’. Never in my life I had kissed him before, never I would have been able to imagine that he wished it himself".

It is still in The Adolescent that we encounter one of the most beautiful characters of a "deified" person: Makar Dolgoruky, the father of the young Arkady. In a next article, I shall try to sketch his portrait. And, why not, to continue in the same direction, with other pure hearts: Alyosha, Myshkin, Sonia ...

Fiodor (the other one)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 3 - The light shineth in darkness...

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942).  Lonely woman
Continuing our journey with Dostoevsky, to meet the marginalized and humiliated, I would like, now, to mention some women. They are 'secondary' characters which appear in two of the great novels of maturity. First, Sofya Ivanovna “possessed by devils” ["la Hurleuse"] and “Stinking” Lisaveta, in The Brothers Karamazov, then Maria Timofyevna Lebiadkina, “the Cripple” in Devils, The mere mention of their nicknames indicate the contempt they suffer. But, as in contrast, the writer highlights the richness of heart and soul – and even the beauty – of these scorned and ridiculed women.

Let us begin with Sofya Ivanonvna, “possessed by devils”. She is the second wife of the patriarch Fiodor Pavlovitch Karamazov. An orphan who “grew up in the house of a general’s widow, a wealthy old lady of good position, who was at once her benefactress and tormentor”. Without insisting, the narrator tells to have heard “that the orphan girl, a meek and gentle creature, was once cut down from a halter in which she was hanging from a nail in the loft, so terrible were her sufferings from the caprice and everlasting nagging of this old woman, who was apparently not bad-hearted but had become an insufferable tyrant through idleness (1). The rest of the story tells us that she was married to the old Karamazov after the death of the first wife of the latter. She undergoes the hardships and humiliations imposed by this debauchee, who does not fear to bring prostitutes in the matrimonial home. Sofya finds however a considerable support at the old servant Grigori. As very often, in our author’s books, it is simple and humble people who show the most beautiful qualities of heart. So, Grigori “took the side of his new mistress. He championed her cause, abusing Fyodor Pavlovitch in a manner little befitting a servant, and on one occasion broke up the revels and drove all the disorderly women out of the house”. Obviously, it is not difficult to imagine the suffering born by this poor woman. As a result of this terrible suffering, “this unhappy young woman, kept in terror from her childhood, fell into that kind of nervous disease which is most frequently found in peasant women who are said to be ‘possessed by devils’. At times after terrible fits of hysterics she even lost her reason”. It is that Sofya Ivanonvna, “possessed by devils”, who will give birth to the second and third brothers Karamazov: Ivan and Alexey (Aliocha). “When she died, tells the narrator, little Alexey was in his fourth year, and, strange as it seems, I know that he remembered his mother all his life, like a dream, of course”. Knowing the quality of soul of Aliocha, we suspect how much, still a child, he had perceived the kindness, the love and also the suffering of his mother. As for the brave servant Grigori: “His sympathy for the unhappy wife had become something sacred to him, so that even now, twenty years after, he could not bear a slighting allusion to her from any one, and would at once check the offender”.
Ilya Repine (1848-1930) A poor girl

The figure of “Stinking” Lizaveta is even stranger. She appears for the first time in the novel when the servant Grigori – him again – discovers her whereas she has just given birth to a baby in Karamazov’s garden. This gardent, surrounded with a solid fence, is closed at day fall. One night, Grigori, alerted by his wife who said she had heard as a child crying from the outside, gets out and perceives groans coming from the small shed which, at the back of the gardent, shelters baths. “Opening the door of the bath-house, he saw a sight which petrified him. An idiot girl, who wandered about the streets and was known to the whole town by the nickname of Lizaveta Smerdyastchaya (Stinking Lizaveta), had got into the bath-house and had just given birth to a child. She lay dying with the baby beside her...” Thanks to the care of Grigori and his wife, the child is saved, but Lizaveta dies the next day. To the reader, who wonders why this poor person climbed the fence of the Karamzov’s garden to deliver, the narrator supplies elements of explanation, but remain, as usual, on the mode of the hypothesis. An evening of binge and drinking bout, Karamazov and his companions had discovered Lizaveta sleeping, stretched out along a hedge. One of the jolly fellows had then asked a question of the most cynical: “Whether any one could possibly look upon such an animal as a woman, and so forth.... They all pronounced with lofty repugnance that it was impossible. But Fiodor Pavlovitch, who was among them, sprang forward and declared that it was by no means impossible, and that, indeed, there was a certain piquancy about it, and so on...” The narrator tells us nothing more about it, but lets us know that “five or six months later, all the town was talking, with intense and sincere indignation, of Lizaveta’s condition, and trying to find out who was the miscreant who had wronged her. Then suddenly a terrible rumor was all over the town that this miscreant was no other than Fiodor Pavlovitch.”
But who is this Lizaveta? She responds quite well to the image of what the Russian Orthodox tradition called the "fools in Christ": men – more rarely women – who engage in strange behaviors, living like tramps and witnessing through their wise "madness", the real madness of the world cut off from God. By the mouth of his narrator, Dostoevsky gives us a moving description of Lizaveta: “This Lizaveta was a dwarfish creature, “not five foot within a wee bit,” (...) Her broad, healthy, red face had a look of blank idiocy (...) She wandered about, summer and winter alike, barefooted, wearing nothing but a hempen smock. Her coarse, almost black hair (...) was always crusted with mud, and had leaves, bits of stick, and shavings clinging to it, as she always slept on the ground and in the dirt (...) Many people in the town, especially of the tradespeople, tried to clothe her better, and always rigged her out with high boots and sheepskin coat for the winter. But, although she allowed them to dress her up without resisting, she usually went away, preferably to the cathedral porch, and taking off all that had been given her – kerchief, sheepskin, skirt or boots – she left them there and walked away barefoot in her smock as before (...) In fact, every one seemed to like her; even the boys did not tease her (...) She would walk into strange houses, and no one drove her away. Every one was kind to her and gave her something. If she were given a copper, she would take it, and at once drop it in the alms-jug of the church or prison. If she were given a roll or bun in the market, she would hand it to the first child she met.
What a contrast between the innocence and the generosity of the poor Lizaveta and the calculating perversity of her rapist! About Smerdyakov – whose name means "stinking" – the strange figure, half-witted, half-scoundrel, whom becomes the child born of rape, he will be the instrument of some kind of terrible immanent justice by being the assassin of his parent, the old man Fiodor Karamazov.

Devils, written by Dostoevsky in 1871, is probably his darkest novel. Surprisingly prescient of the events that would take place in Russia, it stages characters imbued with a Promethean nihilism, whose only real plan is to destroy a society considered retrograde. Dandies at a loose end, bourgeois and aristocrats, seduced by the "new ideas", plot and intrigue in an almost collective frenzy. It is in this context that the novel's main character, Nikolai Stavrogin woould have married Maria Timofyevna Lebiadkina, the "Cripple", sister of a retired captain, a drunkard and an amateur poet.

Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)  The blue shawl
This poor lame woman is a dreamer, kind of a mystic. The narrator – who, in this novel, speaks in the first person – visits her. Quite and serene in the midst of the miserable and sordid environment where she live, “mademoiselle Lebiadkina” amazes her visitor: “At some time, perhaps in early youth, that wasted face may have been pretty; but her soft, gentle grey eyes were remarkable even now. There was something dreamy and sincere in her gentle, almost joyful, expression (...) Strange to say, instead of the oppressive repulsion and almost dread one usually feels in the presence of these creatures afflicted by God, I felt it almost pleasant to look at her from the first moment, and my heart was filled afterwards with pity in which there was no trace of aversion(2). Her drunkard of brother beats her, and she is subject to nervous crises after which “she forgets everything that's just happened (...) She's an extraordinary person for dreaming; she'll sit for eight hours, for whole days together in the same place.” She recounts memories of the monastery where she would have formerly stayed, and evokes a child she would have had once. But is all this only daydreaming? Anyway, her narrative expresses a simple and moving faith. The circumstances in which Nikolay Stravogin would have married “the Cripple” are particularly dark, and the novelist makes nothing to clear them up. Stavrogin’s mother, Varvara Petrovna herself, wonders if they are really married. Having met the unfortunate in a church service, she took her home. She questions her son: “Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, she repeated, rapping out her words in a resolute voice in which there was a ring of menacing challenge, I beg you to tell me at once, without moving from that place; is it true that this unhappy cripple – here she is, here, look at her – is it true that she is... your lawful wife?” Nikolai says nothing, smiles, kisses the hand of his mother, crosses the room and goes to Maria Timofyevna: “– You should not be here, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch said to her in a caressing and melodious voice; and there was the light of an extraordinary tenderness in his eyes. He stood before her in the most respectful attitude, and every gesture showed sincere respect for her. The poor girl faltered impulsively in a half-whisper: – But may I... kneel down... to you now? – No, you can't do that. He smiled at her magnificently, so that she too laughed joyfully at once”. Dostoevsky entitles this chapter of the book: “The subtle serpent”, a title that appoints, of course, the elusive and disturbing Nikolay Stavrogin. We shall never know if it is by some perverse challenge that he married the “Cripple” or if he really felt for her true compassion. No character at Dostoevsky, is totally bad (nor totally good). Anyway, in this context of intrigue and lies, this poor woman without malice or falsity is like a little light, humble, flickering, but how comforting.

It is the genius of Dostoevsky to succeed in giving life to such characters, paradigms of the disorder and the darkness that inhabit the human heart, but also models of a humanity whose goodness is preserved in spite of the mud and the perversity into which it is plunged. Of course, it is not easy for you to make a clear idea from some snippets. That is why I recommend you to read fully Dostoevsky’s great novels. You will not regret it!

Fiodor (the other one...)

(1) All quotations are from Ebook #28054, The Brothers Karamazov, tranlated by Constance Garnett,
(2) All quotations are from Ebook #8117, Devils (The Possessed), translated by Constance Garnett,

Friday, September 28, 2012

Fortunately, there is Israel


It has been a long time since I wrote something about Israel. An opinion article published today by La Libre Belgique, provides me the opportunity(1). Entitled BDS, a campaign against peace, the text is signed by a group consisting mainly of professors from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). They protest against the recognition by the academic authorities of the ULB, of a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) circle. This circle is radically anti-Israeli and is advocating the boycott of everything that comes from Israel, including exchanges between scientists and between universities. Rightly, the signatories of this opinion letter, emphasize that "legitimate criticism addressed to the government of a given country does not allow to discriminate in its citizens". They point out, moreover – and the media have often overlooked it – that the BDS campaign "is not only a criticism of the policy of the Israeli government" but aims, in fact, at denying the legitimacy of the State of Israel(2).

Now, here we are at the heart of the question. By successive shifts, expertly maintained by a skillful propaganda – especially through the manipulation of images – many of our media have embraced the "Palestinian cause" without nuances and let themselves be dominated by an "anti-Zionism" which amounts to an outright denial of Israel's right to exist. And the authors of the article add: "It should not be necessary to be anti-Israeli to defend the Palestinians". This is exactly what I believe.

I would even dare to say that, if one day – for what I hope obviously – the Palestinians obtain to live in a democratic State freed from their hateful and violent factions whether theocratic or ultra-nationalists, they will owe it in good part to Israel and to its tenacity. Are there many other countries which do not bend in front of the vociferations of those that we must call islamo-fascists? Still ongoing events – the shock wave of which is not to stop –, give us a obvious example of this phenomenon. In our countries, politicians, journalists and religious leaders rise, not against horrifying violences – they have already caused more than thirty deaths – but against a crappy video, of uncertain origin, suddenly brandished as the supreme insult of the West to the sacred values of Islam!(3).

I wrote it several times, I'm not a big fan of the Israeli government, far from it. But what State would do better in the situation, unparalleled in the world, that Israel knows? Despite errors and blunders, immediately denounced and amplified to infinity by our media, despite violence, which it is not clear how a country constantly threatened, attacked, demonized, could escape completely, despite acute social problems... Despite all this, the State of Israel lives, works, studies, invents, innovates, develops, welcomes, and hopes.

Jacques Tarnéro
If you want to understand a little better the causes and mechanisms of the delegitimization that Israel undergoes for several years, read a book of Jacques Tarnéro: Le nom de trop. Israël illégitime?(4) (A name too much. Israel illegitimate?) Why does the name of Israel disturb? Why the obsessive hostility of which the country is the object? How is it that "gentle people" from among us become vectors of hatred? As writes it Pierre-André Taguieff in his foreword, Jacques Tarnéro engages in an in-depth analysis of this "total hatred of Israel which has become part of the global ideological landscape".

By the way, it is worth noting that Tarnéro does not hesitate to criticize severely some political and cultural drifts he observes in Israel. He does not hesitate to denounce an "intellectual Poujadism fed by bigotry and ignorance" which, he says, "is also part of the Jewish intellectual landscape today" (p. 242). But, he adds, "as much the Israeli political class seems devoid of imagination today, as much Israeli society sparkles with thousands of creative and generous inventions. Its infinite capacities of automockery shows the intellectual liveliness of a society yet subject to uncertainties (to put it mildly) of everyday life"(p. 245).

Fethi Benslama
All that being said, Jacques Tarnéro shows how much the delegitimization of Israel is a highly profitable business - at least in the short term - for an Arab-Muslim world locked into resentment and rage. Quoting extensively the Tunisian psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama, author of a Déclaration d’insoumission, à l’usage des musulmans et de ceux qui ne le sont pas (Statement of insubordination, for the Muslims and for those who are not), Tarnéro concludes: "Far from emancipating the Arabs, the endless denunciation of the ‘Zionist imperialist, colonialist Evil’ locks the Arabs in a collective paranoia that drowns rather than helps. Helping Palestine to enter in civilization means to state that, far from freeing, terrorism destroys Palestine at the same time it destroys its fantastical enemy" (p. 214).

At the end of his foreword, Pierre-André Taguieff greets Jacques Tarnéro saying it takes a lot of courage "to defend Israel against its countless unscrupulous accusers". I do not consider to be particularly brave, but I fully associate myself with Tarnéro’s brilliant plea.


(1) BDS: une campagne contre la paix. La Libre Belgique, September 21st, 2012, p. 55. Among the signatories - that this statement honors - we find, besides a “bunch” of professors, presidents or former presidents of the bar, the names of the film-maker Luc Dardenne, the Minister of State Roger Lallemand, Marie-Jo Simoen, honorary general Secretary of the FNRS, Pierre Van Ommeslaghe, Sollicitor to the Court of Cassation, etc.
(2) A similar call: Le boycott d’Israël est une arme indigne (The boycott of Israel is a despicable weapon), was published in November, 2010 in Le Monde (here) by a group of personalities from the French intellectual, political and artistic world.
(3) This video, Innocence of Muslims, circulated on the Net for more than a year, without "disturbing" anybody. In a few minutes, you will find easily, on YouTube or elswhere (MEMRI, for example), videos of a greater virulence, inviting the Muslims to murder Jews and Christians …
(4) Jacques Tarnéro, Le nom de trop. Israël illégitime?, Paris, Armand Colin, 2011. It is worth noting that this remarkable book suffered an impressive media "boycott". As far as I know, no important French media (newspaper, magazine or Website) wrote a single line about it: Is’nt this highly significant?

Monday, September 24, 2012

A spot on the beautiful garment

Marc Chagall, Isba on fire

One day, you learn, one way or another, that a parent, a relative or a friend is dragging a disgrace, a betrayal, or a shameful passion behind himself... How do you feel ? How will you now reconcile affection, friendship or esteem you have for the person and the awareness of this dark area of himself he tries somehow to conceals?

This is, roughly, what I am feeling at the moment. What is it all about? A few days ago, a correspondent, organizer of a high-quality blog, which dedicates itself mainly to the defense of Israel, sends me a sadden message. She visits my blog and knows my admiration for Dostoevsky. But she writes me: "... I am devastated, I just learned that Fiodor Dostoevsky really did not like the Jews, the Jewish nation and the Jewish religion ..." and she asks me what I think of it. She has, indeed, just discovered a text, entitled The "Jewish Question" which Dostoevsky published in March 1877 in A Writers Diary(1). There, unquestionably, the writer indulges in an all-out attack against those whom he calls "the Israelites". And, according to our criteria of today, this text can, without hesitation, be qualified as anti-Semitic.

At first, acknowledging the friendly message that was sent to me, I answered a little bit too fast: "... This is obviously not the best pages written by Dostoevsky - and this is an understatement. That said, in a few words, and while waiting to address the issue more in depth, I would simply say that he is dependent on the prevailing mentality of the orthodox society of his time. He thus conveys, more or less, the anti-Jewish stereotypes (we still cannot, it seems to me, speak of anti-Semitism) as taste for money, absence of "Russian" roots, subservience, etc." I must say that I read the Writers Diary a dozen years ago. At the time, less sensitized to the issue of anti-Semitism, I read this passage – twenty pages in a volume of 1,500 – without much attention, surprised, maybe embarrassed, but leaving the benefit of good faith to this Fiodor that I considered already, not only as one of the four or five greatest writers of all time, but also as a master in humanity.

But now, I have just read again the twenty pages of The "Jewish Question" and, really, they stick in my throat! Hence this new painful feeling: my admiration for the writer and his novels is not affected, but I must now reckon with this unbearable side of his work – and therefore, to a certain extent, of his person. Dostoevsky, it seems, has fallen into anti-Judaism, or even anti-Semitism (event if the term itself, with its racist meaning, did not appear before 1879, two years after the publication of his text in the Writers Diary).

If it was necessary to look for "extenuating circumstances" in favour of Dostoevsky, various factors could be taken into consideration. First, there is the perspective with which we now consider him, and it is necessarily "anachronistic". There is also the historical context of Russia at the time, with the abolition of serfdom and the social crisis that ensued. Then, the inescapable Slavophilism of Dostoevsky is to be taken into account, and still more, his belief that the Russian people, with its Orthodox tradition, is "théophore" (bearer of God), and that there cannot be any other. On the other hand, the writer leans on events or circumstances which, in themselves, involve Russians as much as Jews, if not even more. But dependent on the anti-Jewish common prejudice, he blames "the Israelites" for all kind of troubles. So, as Aucouturier writes in a note: "Dostoevsky (and he was not the only one) attributes here to the 'Jews' what was the fact of numerous middle-class persons, merchants, and kulaks, Jews or not: the repurchase of the lands of nobles ruined by the emancipation of the farmers, or incapable to adapt themselves to it. Between 1861 and 1881, the ownership of nearly 18 million hectares of land changed"(2). As for the impressive ability of the Jewish people to maintain, through thick and thin, its cultural and religious specificity, we see it today as remarkable and as a sign an admirable fidelity. But Dostoevsky, provided with his concepts of political analysis, does not see anything but a "State within a State". Finally, we can say that if the great Fiodor has a sharp tongue against the Jewish people, he is hardly softer towards the major European nations, especially Poland.

But after all, is it necessary to look for excuses and defend the indefensible? We will have to wear the beautiful garment with the spot... However, so much Dostoevsky is detestable when he gets entangled in theories of political nature, as is the case here, so much he seduces and touches us when, leaving the generalizations and ideological extravagances, he dives into the depths of the human heart. There, he finds – in a kind of contradiction of his own opinions – the antidote to his hazy theories or, at least, openness and hope. This is precisely what he does in the chapter immediately following The "Jewish question", entitled The burial of a "citizen of the world". The writer mentions a letter addressed to him by a young Jewish woman, about whom he speaks with great sympathy. She recounts the funeral of an old doctor of German origin. This man, for over half a century, demonstrated extraordinary generosity, especially towards the deprived people and, in particular, to many poor Jews of the town where he exercised. His funeral was the occasion of a real fraternization between Russians and Jews. In this "isolated case ", Dostoevsky sees a paradigm of what can lead to solve what he called The "Jewish question." Here are some lines from the last page of this text: "But say, at this moment, it is almost resolved, the famous 'Jewish question'! The pastor and the rabbi are united in a common love, they almost kissed each other in front of the tomb under the eyes of the Christians and the Jews! No matter if, once back home, each parties return to the old prejudices:drop after drop, the water wears away the stone. And it is such 'citizens of the world’ who overcome the world by uniting it; prejudices will fade a little after each individual case, and eventually vanish altogether. This old man leaves behind him legends, writes Miss L..., Jewish herself, who also wept over the 'good head’ of this friend of men. But the legends are a first step towards action; they are the living memory and the constant reminder of the 'conquerors of the world’ to whom the earth belongs.... "

But read this whole chapter here . It is not very long and it is worth it. You will discover another image of the writer: a Dostoevsky who, beyond its anti-Jewish prejudices, expresses his hope and its faith in the human being.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Unfortunately, I could not find any English translation of the text on the web. The French translation can be read free online on Gallica website. The best edition and translation in French is the work of Gustave Aucouturier, collection La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1972. The "Jewish question" is on pages 936-956.
(2) Ibid., p. 1530, note on p. 580.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 2 - Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin

Dostoevsky in 1847

I have been absent from the “blogosphere” longer than expected. So, it is time to return to my promise to present some special figures from Dostoevsky’s universe: the marginalized, the humiliated, the rejected, the crazy, the sick.

The man I would like to talk about today is a character in The Idiot, a novel for which I have a special affection. General Ivolgin, to describe him in a few words, is a pathetic old man, mythomaniac, quite a drinker, but in whose heart lies goodness, and that a painful awareness of his decay crosses his mind, at times. The gentle Kolya, his youngest son, torn between shame and tenderness inspired by his father, speaks to Prince Myshkin: “Look at my father, the general! See what he is, and yet, I assure you, he is an honest man! Only... he drinks too much, and his morals are not all we could desire. Yes, that's true! I pity him, to tell the truth, but I dare not say so, because everybody would laugh at me - but I do pity him!(*). Myshkin, the “idiot”, has quickly realized what kind of man is the general, and he shows patience, respect and kindness towards him.

The reader discovers general Ivolgin’s mythomania through several episodes, some of which generate hilarity mixed with bad conscience. But the narrator – Dostoevsky does not identify him and does not clearly identify himself with him – gives an interesting portrait of the general, in which the members of his family, especially his wife, Nina Alexandrovna, are also mentionned. “... He had (...) experienced fits of sudden fury, but not very often, because he was really a man of peaceful and kindly disposition. He had tried hundreds of times to overcome the dissolute habits which he had contracted of late years. He would suddenly remember that he was “a father”, would be reconciled with his wife, and shed genuine tears. His feeling for Nina Alexandrovna amounted almost to adoration; she had pardoned so much in silence, and loved him still in spite of the state of degradation into which he had fallen. But the general's struggles with his own weakness never lasted very long. He was, in his way, an impetuous man, and a quiet life of repentance in the bosom of his family soon became insupportable to him. In the end he rebelled, and flew into rages which he regretted, perhaps, even as he gave way to them, but which were beyond his control. He picked quarrels with everyone, began to hold forth eloquently, exacted unlimited respect, and at last disappeared from the house, and sometimes did not return for a long time.

From his first meeting with Myshkin, Ivolgin flounders in the ridiculous excesses of his imagination. As he just moved into his new home, a room rented to the general’s wife, the prince comes face to face with the general, who introduces himself: “General Ivolgin, retired and miserable...” The general asks the prince’s Christian and genreric names. As the prince answers: “Lev Nicolaevitch”, he immediately declares that he is a childhood friend of his father:
– So, so, the son of my old, I may say my childhood's friend, Nicolai Petrovitch.
– My father's name was Nicolai Lvovitch.
– Lvovitch, repeated the general without the slightest haste, and with perfect confidence, just as though he had not committed himself the least in the world, but merely made a little slip of the tongue. He sat down, and taking the prince's hand, drew him to a seat next to himself.
– I carried you in my arms as a baby, he observed.”
Gradually, the general becomes completely immoderate. As Myshkin tells him that his father died some years ago, Ivolgin questions him about his mother:
– Your mother...
– She died a few months later, from a cold, said the prince.
– Oh, not a cold – believe an old man – not from a cold, but from grief for her prince. Oh! your mother, your mother! heigh-ho! Youth! youth! Your father and I, old friends as we were, nearly murdered each other for her sake.
The prince began to be a little incredulous.
– I was passionately in love with her when she was engaged, engaged to my friend.”

The general continues in the same vein, when Kolya, sent by his mother, comes and asks him. In the presence of his wife and the prince, Ivolgin goes on worse and worse, inventing a new episode that Myshkin’s father would have witnessed.
– It did not occur, it's a mistake! said Nina Alexandrovna quickly, looking, at the prince rather anxiously. Mon mari se trompe, she added, speaking in French.
– My dear, se trompe is easily said. Do you remember any case at all like it?
When the general was gone, his wife spoke to the prince: 
– You will have to excuse very much in my husband (...), but he will not disturb you often (...) Everyone has his little peculiarities, you know, and some people perhaps have more than those who are most pointed at and laughed at. One thing I must beg of you: if my husband applies to you for payment for board and lodging, tell him that you have already paid me...”
The general, indeed, as the habit of engaging in small trickery, or even petty theft, to pay for his drink.

A few pages later, the general turns ridicule again. He emphatically tells an incident that happened to him during a trip by rail. But a member of the audience declares that she read “absolutely the same story” in a newspaper a few days ago!
The general blushed dreadfully; Kolia blushed too (...) – I assure you, said the general, that exactly the same thing happened to myself!

But the climax of the general’s mythomania is reached when he claims, in a passionate speech, having been close to Napoleon, in Moscow, during the Russian campaign. No less than a dozen pages are devoted to this unforgettable episode. At the turn of another fanciful story, the general suggests he was Napoleon’s pageboy.
Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) The red boy
– Why, did you say... began the prince, and paused in confusion. The general gazed at his host disdainfully. – Oh, go on, he said, finish your sentence, by all means. Say how odd it appears to you that a man fallen to such a depth of humiliation as I, can ever have been the actual eye-witness of great events.
And the general gets embarked on a story more and more incredible, that the prince listens politely and even, when it is not too improbable, he kindly approves:
– All this is most interesting, said the prince, very softly, if it really was so... that is, I mean... he hastened to correct himself.
– Oh, my dear prince, cried the general, who was now so intoxicated with his own narrative that he probably could not have pulled up at the most patent indiscretion...
And this is what happens: the general tells how, at night, witness of tears of the emperor, he advised him to write a letter to Josephine, and how, when Napoleon left Moscow, he asked him to write something in the album of his little sister, aged three:
– ... and he wrote in the album: ‘Ne mentez jamais! Napoléon, votre ami sincère.’ [Do never lie! Napoleon, your sincere friend]. Such advice, and at such a moment, you must allow, prince, was...
– Yes, quite so; very remarkable.”

Ivolgin suddenly stops:
– How I have kept you, prince! It is really most unpardonable of me.The general rose.
– Oh, not in the least, said the prince. On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I'm really very much obliged to you.
– Prince, said the general, pressing his hand, and looking at him with flashing eyes, and an expression as though he were under the influence of a sudden thought which had come upon him with stunning force. Prince, you are so kind, so simple-minded, that sometimes I really feel sorry for you! I gaze at you with a feeling of real affection. Oh, Heaven bless you! May your life blossom and fructify in love. Mine is over. Forgive me, forgive me!

The next day, in complete crisis, the general has left the house and wanders in the street. Kolya tries to reason with him, but the old man is somewhere else:
– ‘Where is my youth, where is my golden youth?’ Who was it said that, Kolia?
– It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father, cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.
The general still evokes the past, the suffering he inflicted on his family. Kolya again:
– Look here, dear old father, come back home! Let's go back to mother(...) Why are you crying, father? Poor Kolia cried himself, and kissed the old man's hands.
– You kiss my hands, mine?
– Yes, yes, yours, yours! What is there to surprise anyone in that? Come, come, you mustn't go on like this, crying in the middle of the road; and you a general too, a military man! Come, let's go back.”
But the general continues to speak in a strange way. On several occasions, probably inhabited by his Napoleonic story, he says: “the King of Rome.” Exhausted, he sits on the steps of a porch and pulls Kolya towards him:
– Bend down, bend down your ear. I'll tell you all... disgrace... bend down, I'll tell you in your ear.
– What are you dreaming of? said poor, frightened Kolia, stooping down towards the old man, all the same.
– Le roi de Rome, whispered the general, trembling all over.
– What? What do you mean? What roi de Rome?
– I... I..., the general continued to whisper, clinging more and more tightly to the boy's shoulder. I... wish... Kolia broke loose, seized his father by the shoulders, and stared into his eyes with frenzied gaze. The old man had grown livid... his lips were shaking, convulsions were passing over his features. Suddenly he leant over and began to sink slowly into Kolia's arms.
– He's got a stroke! cried Colia, loudly, realizing what was the matter at last.
And a few days later, the general passes over

The tender and painful affection that Kolya feels for his father, as well as the embarrassed and worried respect showed towards him by the prince, clearly show that kindness, generosity and ideal are hidden behind the lunacy and the eccentricities of the old man. After all, there is in him something of the child, the child he remained because he could not accommodate the adult world and its meanness.

Children love stories – to listen or to tell them –, filling up their memory and their heart of dreams, beauty and life. Dostoevsky wrote somewhere that drunkards are, of all people, “the nicest.” Maybe that the form of madness as evidenced by general Ivolgin belongs also to “nice” persons, dreamers, people wounded by life who think they are Napoleon...

Before pointing the finger or condemning the Ivolgins, the gentle mythomaniacs, let us look at our masks, our hypocrisy, our dishonest compromises with “dirty things” that give the appearance of “decent”.

(*) All quotations are from the English version of The Idiot, translated by Eva Martin, e-book on

Saturday, August 4, 2012

All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord

Hokusai (1760-1849) The Wave

In the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan, a friend sent me a poignant message. This elderly widower, has the habit of praying the Divine Office each day. On Sunday morning of the "first week", this office consists of two psalms (62 and 149) and the Song of Creation from the Book of Daniel (Dan 3, 57-88). In this song, all the elements of nature, plants, animals and humans are invited to praise God, "praise and exalt Him above all for ever" ... Here's what my friend wrote :

"This morning, the Office proposes the Song of the three youn men : 'All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord... O all ye spirits and winds...' Freeze-frame : impossible to continue in such a mood, this morning. Is'nt this the pure evil falling for the second time on innocent victims ? (and I do not intend to judge President Truman for allowing the use of nuclear weapons). Is'nt this a disaster of the same kind as that of the innocent child, for which Ivan Karamazov cannot forgive God? On this first Sunday of Lent we are already on Good Friday."

How, indeed, could we "praise the Lord" for all his works, when our heart is still filled with these terrifying images, and our spirit tortured by the thought of all these drowned victims ?...
We know how the issue - the enigma - of God's "silence" in front of the outbreak of evil has always been a stumbling block, a kind of "proof" of God's non-existence. The great believer that Dostoevsky was, doubtless refers to his own internal debate when he writes the famous pages of The Brothers Karamazov known as "Grand Inquisitor". But we know that there is no answer to that question. Or at least, there is no other answer than that given by God himself in the kenosis and the death-resurrection of Christ.

So I can understand, respect, and even share, my friend's reaction. On second thought, I remembered a passage from Roy Schoeman's book, Salvation is from the Jews, I mentioned in a previous post. Schoeman quotes a deeply moving excerpt from the autobiography of Mel Mermelstein, a seventeen years old Jew who survived Auschwitz (By bread alone: the story of A-4685). Back to his village after his release, Mel tells how he has just learned his parents and sisters death :

I walked towards the gate where my uncle was waiting for me. Shocked, my eyes filled with tears, I sat in the grass and covered my face with my hands. My uncle placed his hand on my head and said, "God wanted it so, and holy is His judgment. '" I raised my head slowly in disbelief to hear the words he had uttered.
"I know... I know, Moishele. Listen, before you ask, before any question, repeat after me: Boruch Dayen emess ". I repeated these words meaning: "Blessed be the righteous Judge." These words, traditionally spoken in the announcement of a death seemed quite inappropriate. But when I had pronounced them, relief began to overwhelm me.
"Do you want me to bless God for this unbearable pain? Do you want me to call 'just' this hideous injustice?" I do not remember the exact words I used, but the impression of having been fooled still persists. To believe that God could be present somewhere in Auschwitz was too much.
"Moishele, Moishele, please..." My uncle was crying now. "Your questions are legitimate, but you're not the first to ask them. 'As we bless God for the good that He sends us, should we bless Him for evil'. These are words written in the Talmud. These are words that go beyond our understanding, but if we do not pronounce them there is no hope for us. Bitterness, yes, but despair not. The Jewish way is to bless and hope, bless and hope until hope and blessing overcome pain and even bitterness, and human beings learn to go on."
My uncle went on saying: "God is just, God is good. But people who forget it sometimes, they let themselves lead by evil, they lose the sense of the image of God in themselves, and then they become beasts of prey".
"Perhaps should we translate the prayers, he said. 'Blessed is the righteous God who judges.' He does not forget. Sometimes it's as though he needed time to absorb everything he saw, to react and give the reward. But you will see, Moishele, you are still young. You'll see. He does not forget!"

May we always rekindle the hope of our fellow human beings, as the "liquidators" of Fukushima's plant do it today, risking their lives, or - more achievable - by putting a hand of compassion on the head of those who are destroyed by suffering.


Myshkin prize 2012

You may have read in the media that a «Myshkin Prize» (founded by a group of intellectuals among whom Peter Sloterdijk) was awarded, in 2012, to a certain Stéphane Hessel, the author – adulated as a saint – of a pamphlet called «Indignez-vous» (Be indignant).

Due to my old frienship with Prince Myshkin, I had the pleasure to receive a copy of a letter of protest sent to the jury of the Prize by the father of The Idiot, the great Fiodor Dostoevsky himself. Here it is :
«To the members of the jury of the Myshkin Prize,
On behalf of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, I want you to know that I totally disapprove the awarding of a prize bearing his name – by what right?? – To Mr. Hessel. The latter, whose old age however deserves respect, has no other merit than having published twenty or so pages, trite and digestible enough to win tens of thousands of suckers, too happy to buy themselves a cheap good conscience.
Be assured of my indignation.
Fiodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky»

You will easily understand how eagerly I consider it my duty to inform you of this letter.

Fiodor (the other one)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Italy, as we love it

Look at this great video, found on a friend's blog.
[Unfortunately, this video is no more available with Youtube in some countries]. Watching it, we experience a moment of true humanity, in other words, a moment of transcendence: in a theater, but above all in hundreds of hearts, Beauty, Truth and Goodness are gathered in freedom. This was Italy at best: culture, lyricism, «franciscan» simplicity –even in the Opera –, its slightly rough sweetness, its joy of living without vulgarity... Italy, and Italians, as we love them.

What is it? We are in March 2011, at the Rome Opera, for a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Italian Unity. Berlusconi is present. Riccardo Muti leads Verdi’s Nabucco. Before the performance, the mayor of Rome took the stage to denounce the budget restrictions on culture imposed by the government. At the time of the famous “Va pensiero”, the sublime chorus of slaves, evoking the deportation of the Jewish people to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, the audience is as if electrified. Riccardo Muti explains: “... when we came to the famous Va pensiero, I immediately felt that the atmosphere became tense in the audience. There are things that you cannot describe, but that you feel. Previously, it was the silence of the public that reigned. But when people realized that the Va pensiero would start, the silence was filled with genuine fervor. You could feel the public's visceral reaction to the lament of slaves singing: ‘O my country, so beautiful and lost!’

Even before the chorus ends, the public was already shouting “bis”, and applause and endless cheers followed. Although he had already done it at La Scala in 1986, Muti hesitated to grant a “bis”. For him, an opera should not be interrupted. He explained: “I did not want just an encore. It had to be for a specific intent”. But when rose the cry: “Long live Italy!”, the conductor turned, faced the audience, and spoke: “Yes, I agree with that ... My thirty years are passed, and I have lived my life, but as an Italian who has traveled many times around the world, I suffer from what is happening in my country. So I accept your request for an encore of Va pensiero. This is not just for the patriotic joy that I feel, but because tonight, when I was leading the choir singing ‘O my country, so beautiful and lost’, I thought that if we continue like this, we will kill the culture on which the history of Italy is built. In that case, we, our homeland, would really be ‘beautiful and lost.’ ”

After a round of enthusiastic applause, including the singers on stage, Riccardo Muti went on: “As we are in a very Italian mood, and as Muti spoke very often to deaf ears [There is a play on words: in Italian, “muti” means “dumb”] for so many years ... Let us make an exception... We are at home, right? The theater of the capital, with a choir who sang beautifully, and who is superbly accompanied... If you dont mind, I suggest you to join us and sing together”. Then, smiling, he added: “But a tempo!

Look and listen at this, see the singers wiping the tears running on their faces... An unforgettable moment of communion, of fervor and restored pride. [Unfortunately, this video is no more available with Youtube in some countries].


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dostoevsky peering into hearts

Ivan Nikolaevitch Kramskoy (1837-1887), portrait of an old man.

Dostoevsky experienced humiliating infirmities, such as epilepsy or addiction to gambling. His life was marked by terrible trials: a father murdered by his peasants, a death sentence followed by a mock execution, the penal colony, debts, etc. It was probably his own experience of suffering that shaped the way he glances at the marginalized, the humiliated, the rejected.

In each of the great novels of maturity – that Svetlana Geier calls nicely the “five elephants” – Dostoevsky depicts one or the other figure of drunkard, of madman, of sick or disabled person. Take for instance Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment, Hippolyte Terentyev and General Ivolgin, in The Idiot, the poor Olia, in The Adolescent, Maria Timofeevna, in Demons, or “Stinking” Lizaveta , in The Brothers Karamazov.

During the next few weeks (or months...), I will try to depict some of these figures. As usually, I shall do it appealing mostly to the text itself. My main purpose is to awaken the desire to read – or read again – these wondeful books of the great Fyodor. Those who do it will come forth grown, matured, called for more respect and compassion for their fellow human. Some will even find seeds of the Gospel and assurance that their thirst for redemption is not unfounded.

Christian Bobin – another writer that I love – has subtly expressed the feeling experienced by the reader of the great Russian: “I never met worshipers of Dostoevsky, but people who had been burned by that reading. He speaks of souls as the issue of a battle (...) Dostoevsky is a living. It's a burst of pure life, like a spark jumping from the fire. This pure life of fire sends a spark which jumps into the book. Then, it becomes a mere instrument for living”.

But, if you are looking for readings in which the characters are clearly identified as “good” or “bad”, Dostoevsky is not for you. In his books, you find very dark characters, as Stavrogin and Pyotr Verkhovensky, in Demons, or Svidrigaïlov, in Crime and Punishment. But even the most radiant figures, such as Prince Myshkin, Sonya Marmeladov, Alyosha Karamazov, or Makar Dolgoruky have their dark side and their imperfections. They are human beings...

Semyon Zaharovytch Marmeladov

To initiate the topic, I would like to mention again the soul-stirring drunkard of Crime and Punishment, Semyon Zaharovytch Marmeladov. On 15 January 2011, in the French version of this blog, I posted an article called “La plus belle prière” (here). I quoted a large section of the novel in which Marmeladov, mocked by the customers of the tavern where he gets drunk, starts a heartbreaking declaration of faith. Faith in the mercy of a God who does not turn away from the “drunkards” and the “weak ones”.

Marmeladov is a fallen clerk. He wastes the scarce household resources in taverns, forcing his daughter Sonia into prostitution to support the family. However, despite his decline, Marmeladov manages to “maintain a moral sensibility of heartbreaking depth”, as written by Joseph Frank, author of a masterly biography of Dostoevsky(1).

In a dialog with Raskolnikov, Marmeladov does not hesitate to recognize his ignominy. He explains that Sonia, his eldest daughter, is engaged in prostitution. He also mentions his wife, Katerina Ivanovna, that poverty and tuberculosis grow to hysteria. He goes on: “Granted, granted, I am a scoundrel, but she is a woman of a noble heart(...) Do you know, Sir, do you know, I have sold her very stockings for drink? Not her shoes – that would be more or less in the order of things, but her stockings, her stockings I have sold for drink! Her mohair shawl I sold for drink(...) We live in a cold room and she caught cold this winter and has begun coughing and spitting blood too(...) But her chest is weak and she has a tendency to consumption and I feel it! Do you suppose I don't feel it? And the more I drink the more I feel it. That's why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink. I drink so that I may suffer twice as much! (2).
I do not think that it is through masochism that Marmeladov delights in a suffering fueled by drink. It is rather a kind of self-punishment, like a penance he inflicts to himself, aware as he is of his decay and of the responsibility he bears.

A few chapters later, the reader learns that Marmeladov was run over by a cab. In blood, covered with wounds, he is carried home. “Marmeladov was in the last agony; he did not take his eyes off the face of Katerina Ivanovna, who was bending over him again. He kept trying to say something to her; he began moving his tongue with difficulty and articulating indistinctly, but Katerina Ivanovna, understanding that he wanted to ask her forgiveness, called peremptorily to him: ‘Be silent! No need! I know what you want to say!’ And the sick man was silent, but at the same instant his wandering eyes strayed to the doorway and he saw Sonia. Till then he had not noticed her: she was standing in the shadow in a corner. ‘Who's that? Who's that?’ he said suddenly in a thick gasping voice, in agitation, turning his eyes in horror towards the door where his daughter was standing, and trying to sit up. ‘Lie down! Lie do-own!’ cried Katerina Ivanovna. With unnatural strength he had succeeded in propping himself on his elbow. He looked wildly and fixedly for some time on his daughter, as though not recognising her. He had never seen her before in such attire. Suddenly he recognised her, crushed and ashamed in her humiliation and gaudy finery, meekly awaiting her turn to say good-bye to her dying father. His face showed intense suffering. ‘Sonia! Daughter! Forgive!’ he cried, and he tried to hold out his hand to her, but losing his balance, he fell off the sofa, face downwards on the floor. They rushed to pick him up, they put him on the sofa; but he was dying. Sonia with a faint cry ran up, embraced him and remained so without moving. He died in her arms.(3).

In this striking picture, a drunkard, a prostitute and a hysterical woman are gathered by the same tragedy. But it is with the invisible presence of the God of mercy, and under His gaze – captured by the pen of the writer – that transfigures their misery. Let us listen again to Joseph Frank: “A world that would be completely devoid of meaning is intolerable and appears as a supreme humiliation to the human spirit.” By peering into the heart of the most wounded and the most miserable people, Dostoevsky endorsed that belief and he conveys it to us with irresistible power.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Miraculous Years,1865-1871, Princeton University Press, 1996.
(2) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Part I, Chapter 2.
(3) Ibid., Part II, Chapter 7.