Saturday, December 7, 2013

Nelson « Madiba » Mandela

Nelson « Madiba » Mandela

In tribute to a man who knew how to overcome hatred and worked towards reconciliation, this "black and white" boys’ choir, full of enthusiasm, from his country,

And also:


Friday, December 6, 2013

“You cannot be a judge of anyone." The Elder Zossima, continued

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) - The Hermit
Even five minutes before his death, they said afterwards wonderingly, it was impossible to foresee it. He seemed suddenly to feel an acute pain in his chest, he turned pale and pressed his hands to his heart. All rose from their seats and hastened to him. But though suffering, he still looked at them with a smile, sank slowly from his chair on to his knees, then bowed his face to the ground, stretched out his arms and as though in joyful ecstasy, praying and kissing the ground, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.”(1).

Such was the death of Elder Zossima. But what kind of man was he? What kind of role does he play in the complex composition of The Brothers Karamazov? After all, an entire book – about one-twelfth of the work – is almost entirely dedicated to him. Nevertheless, even if the old monk has a determining influence on the young Alyosha, he does not really participate in the plot of the novel. As Paul Evdokimov points out, Dostoevsky’s spiritual characters (the Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, or Father Tykhon, in Demons) are present "as icons." They are not actors in the story, but they enlighten it.

The spiritual light he receives from his master is the power that will lead Alyosha throughout the novel. And the sections on this monk form a kind of spiritual biography, written by the disciple, that Dostoevsky integrates into the story, under a significant title: “Notes of the Life of the deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zossima, taken from his own words by Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov”.

The old man whom Alexey (Alyosha) has known is a peaceful man, rooted in God, with a bright and comforting look. But it was not always so, as the elder portends in these words: “It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my hearts sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long, happy life — and over all the Divine Truth, softening, reconciling, forgiving!

The reader then discovers the darker side of the life of Zynovy, the name he bore before entering the monastery. As a young man, he entered the Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg. He remembers how, in military life: “many of my childish impressions grew dimmer (…) I was transformed into a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature. A surface polish of courtesy and society manners I did acquire together with the French language. But we all, myself included, looked upon the soldiers in our service as cattle.

Ilya Repine (1844-1930) - Ivan the Terrible and his son
This last statement comes to life in an event he describes in detail. He has just incited another soldier to a duel. “In the evening, returning home in a savage and brutal humor, I flew into a rage with my orderly Afanasy, and gave him two blows in the face with all my might, so that it was covered with blood. He had not long been in my service and I had struck him before, but never with such ferocious cruelty.” The next morning, at dawn, he sees the sun rising and hears the birds singing, and he feels in his “heart as it were something vile and shameful.” He suddenly remembers  the event of the previous evening. “It all rose before my mind (…), he stood before me and I was beating him straight on the face and he was holding his arms stiffly down, his head erect, his eyes fixed upon me as though on parade. He staggered at every blow and did not even dare to raise his hands to protect himself. That is what a man has been brought to, and that was a man beating a fellow creature! What a crime! It was as though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through.” Now, a lieutenant, his friend, comes and finds him for the duel... He tells him to wait a moment, rushes to the closet of his orderly: “’Afanasy’, I said, ‘I gave you two blows on the face yesterday, forgive me’, I said. He started as though he were frightened, and looked at me; and I saw that it was not enough, and on the spot, in my full officer’s uniform, I dropped at his feet and bowed my head to the ground. ‘Forgive me’, I said. Then he was completely aghast. ‘Your honor... sir, what are you doing? Am I worth it?’ And he burst out crying as I had done before, hid this face in his hands, turned to the window and shook all over with his sobs.

Immediately afterward, the one who is going to become the Elder Zossima goes to the scene of the duel. His opponent shoots first and misses. But our man, instead of fighting back, throws away his gun and asks for forgiveness... The reactions are mitigated: the honor of the regiment, etc. But his comrades are completely confused by the fiery words he addresses to them. He announces to them that he is resigning from the regiment in order to enter a monastery. The rumor of the event spreads quickly: he becomes a kind of hero, and many people try to meet or to invite him. It is in this context that he meets a mysterious visitor. But that is another story... to be continued. 

In the meantime, we can underline how much, for Dostoevsky, the experience of humiliation and repentance are crucial in shaping the consciousness of a man. Indeed, Fr Zossima will never forget that his heart was capable of sheltering such a violence: “Though it’s forty years ago, I recall it now with shame and pain”. Shaped by such an experience, he would be able to welcome without judging and to comfort by testifying of God’s mercy. He would not stop teaching his disciples: “Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of any one.

Today, we seek to exonerate ourselves from any fault and, if necessary, we make of our deviations standards. Meanwhile, there are a few who find favor in our eyes, and we easily regard a criminal as a "monster". Through deified characters, Dostoevsky reminds us that "the heart of man is complicated and sick"(2) and that we all share a responsibility in evil: “For no one can judge a criminal, until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime (…) Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me.”

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project
(2) Jeremiah 17, 9.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Elder Zossima

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) The Vision of the Youth Bartholomew

To complete my journey – which I know is quite imperfect and subjective – through the five big novels of Dostoevsky, I intend to talk about the character of the Elder(1) Zossima(2).

Even if he is not the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder plays a very important role, were it only as a result of his influence on the young Alyosha. He appears at different times in the story, and one of the twelve books of the novel (the sixth, which is about 80 pages) is completely dedicated to him. This means that he will deserve more than one article.

The novel is entirely driven by irony – this is particularly evident in the titles that the writer gave to his chapters –, and I shall be faithful to this approach by beginning with the end, more precisely with the death of the Elder. 

The old man is enveloped with a reputation of indisputable holiness. Father Ferapont is the only monk who looks at him scornfully and directs a dull hatred at him. So, all expect that, after his death, the body of Fr. Zossima will remain intact and will not decay, something that in the popular devotion is a clear sign of holiness.

But it turns out that, very soon after the death of the old monk, "the breath of corruption" – this is how the writer entitles this chapter – becomes perceptible in the cell where the body is exposed. From the announcement of the death, an agitated crowd had gathered at the monastery, waiting for miracles. Father Païssy, confessor of the Elder, is worried about it and even takes offence: “Such immediate expectation of something extraordinary, he said, shows a levity (…) unseemly in us(3)

But now, there was no way to doubt it. “The fact is that a smell of decomposition began to come from the coffin, growing gradually more marked, and by three o’clock it was quite unmistakable.” Very soon, the news spreads like wildfire through the city and is a source of scandal. Also at the monastery, it is a great temptation and scandal. The jealousy that some once directed to the Elder turns to hatred. “For though the late elder had won over many hearts, more by love than by miracles, and had gathered round him a mass of loving adherents, none the less, in fact, rather the more on that account he had awakened  jealousy and so had come to have bitter enemies…” Some do not even hesitate at all to speak ill of his teaching: “He followed the fashionable belief (…) He was not strict in fasting, allowed himself sweet things (…) He abused the sacrament of confession…” Actually, the devotees show their real face, as hypocrites. Blinded by their greediness for supposedly supernatural signs, they are unable to see and recognize the obvious: the Elder Zossima was a saint.

It is now Fr. Ferapont, accompanied by a group of monks, who enters the cell where the body of the Elder rests, screaming: “Satan, go hence! Satan, go hence!” Father Païssy intervenes: “You cast out the evil spirit, but perhaps you are serving him yourself (…) Go away, Father! said Father Païssy, in a commanding voice, it’s not for man to judge but for God. Perhaps we see here a ‘sign’ which neither you, nor I, nor any one of us is able to comprehend.

The young Alyosha himself, who received so much from the Elder, is shattered for a time under the influence of the general suspicion. Everything that happened, all these taunts, hurt and destabilize him. The man that he loved most in the world is "dishonored". He runs away  from the monastery, but in the evening, he returns there and enters the cell where the body of Elder Zossima lies. There, he finds Fr. Païssy reading the Gospel. Alyosha kneels in a corner and prays. “His soul was overflowing but with mingled feelings; no single sensation stood out distinctly; on the contrary, one drove out another in a slow, continual rotation. But there was a sweetness in his heart and, strange to say, Alyosha was not surprised at it”. Gradually, Alyosha falls asleep listening to the reading of the story of the Wedding at Cana (Gospel of John, chapter 2). In a dream, he sees the Elder Zossima who tells him: We are rejoicing (…)We are drinking the new wine, the wine of new, great gladness…” Alyosha wakes up, gets up and leaves, full of excitement. He throws himself down on the earth and kisses the ground weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vows passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever…” Then, he gets up, full of an unspeakable strength. “Someone visited my soul in that hour, he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words”. So, beyond death, the Elder fills his disciple with a new energy that will inspire him and make of him a fighter of love.

We will have to discover what dwelled in the heart and in the soul of the old man Zossima. That will be for a future article.

Fiodor (the other one)

Ambrose of Optino
(1) This is how we translate the Russian word “starets”. In the Russian tradition, this name is given to a monk whose wisdom and discernment make of him a spiritual father.
(2) Several figures have inspired the writer to portray the character of Zossima. First, Tikhon of Zadonsk, who lived during the second half of the 18th century. Dostoevsky made use of his writings to compose the teachings of the Elder Zossima. But it is especially the Elder Ambrose of Optino who was used as a model. We know that the novelist went several times to the Optino monastery. According to Vladimir Lossky, "The outdoor setting, the description of the monastery up to the slightest detail, the expectation of the visitors, the scene of the reception at the Elder, remind one of Optino".
(3) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Hare With Amber Eyes

About three years ago, deeply moved by Daniel Mendelsohn’s, The Lost, I published a text about it in my blog. The book told, in minute detail, the investigation led by the author to find tracks of parents, citizens of Bolechow, an Ukrenian shtetl, who disappeared in the storm of the Shoah.

And now, as we met recently, one of my cousins of Israel made me present of a book called La Mémoire retrouvée, the French translation of The Hare With Amber Eyes(1). I just finished reading it. In this book too, a man in his forties (Mendelsohn was born in 1960 and de Waal in 1964) undertakes a reconstitution of his Jewish family’s story. But the characters of the two books evolve in very different worlds: the Mendelsohns of Bolechow belonged to the middle class, while de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi, a family of very wealthy bankers from Odessa who settled in Paris and in Vienna.
Edmund de Waal

The main thread of the two stories is also very different: starting from some tiny clues, Mendelsohn engages in a thorough search for witnesses and for memories, whereas de Waal, who possesses plenty of elements enabling him to reconstitute the lives of his ancestors, chooses to paint the picture by following the route of a collection of netsuke(2) gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the end of the 19th century.

Guided by the route of the netsuke rather than by the chronology, de Waal portrays several of his ancestors. The trip begins in Tokyo, where Ignace – Iggie –, the last possessor of the collection before the author, lives for several years. Then Paris, the elegant district of Parc Monceau, where Charles Ephrussi settled in the 1870s. Charles was a banker, but also an art lover, friend of impressionist painters as Renoir and Manet, or writers like Jules Laforgue or Marcel Proust. He anticipated the fashion of “Japonisme” and gathered the collection of 264 netsuke of which de Waal will follow the track. We also discover the “patriarch”, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, who, in the 1850s, made a fortune with the wheat trade in Odessa. Then, it is Vienna, with the sumptuous Ephrussi Palace, built by Viktor, the great-granduncle of the author. We also learn to know Elizabeth, the grandmother, who married Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch gentleman. Some simple but impressive pages are devoted to the collapse of the Ephrussi family empire, in the late '30s. With the Anschluss and the triumphal entry of Hitler in Vienna, a large number of Jews - among which the Ephrussi - flee Austria. Among those who will stay, almost 70,000 will be killed...
Vienna - Ephrussi Palace 
Throughout his route, de Waal brilliantly evokes the atmosphere, the political and cultural background, the fashions, etc., that the Ephrussi experienced in Paris, Vienna or Tokyo. He draws a the same time a portrait without flattery, but not without affection, of these so diverse ancestors, who lived in a privileged circle and who, however, were immersed in their time.

Edmund de Waal is a ceramist. He practices a “minimalist” art. But his approach of the story, even if there is no pathos in it, is anything but minimalist. To provide an overview of the story, which is also History, he accumulates plenty of notations of all kinds, drawn from various sources: public and family archives, objects, newspapers, pictures, etc. The result is quite convincing: a valuable literary work and a precious document on events which marked the History.

The story of the Ephrussi family, if different from that of the Mendelsohns, yet affects us similarly. Because both confront us with the disappearance of an entire world, the sinking of the European Jewry. The emotion comes from the remembrance, revived by an image or an object that evoke a memory with more power than the event itself. No wonder, therefore, if both de Waal and Mendelsohn refer to the same verse of Virgil: Sunt lacrimae rerum (There are tears for things). In Aeneid, the Latin poet tells how Aeneas, who left behind himself the destroyed city of Troy, where he lost friends and relatives, arrives in Carthago. On the walls of a recently built temple, he discovers a fresco depicting scenes from the Trojan War. For the Carthaginians, it is nothing more than a decorative pattern. But Aeneas has experienced it as a tragedy that marked his flesh and his heart; he then bursts into tears and whispers: “Sunt lacrimae rerum – There are tears for things”.


(1) Edmund de WAAL, The Hare With Amber Eyes, London, Random House, 2010.
(2) Tiny carved figures used in the Japanese traditional clothing.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Job, Jeremiah, Yosl…

Is it a coincidence? Four days before Yom Kippur, a colleague passes me a book and asks me to give him my opinion. The story, which takes only about twenty pages of the book, is entitled Yosl Rakover talks to God(*). It begins with these words:In one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in a little bottle and concealed amongst heaps of charred stone and human bones, the following testament was found, written in the last hours of the ghetto by a Jew named Yosl Rakover.

I read these twenty pages breathless, crying, my heart in knots. A dazzling text, a powerful cry, rebellious and peaceful at the same time. An incredible profession of faith in the midst of the worst horrors. Job and Jeremiah together... It is only by reading the essay of Paul Badde, which occupies most of the pages of the book, that I realized that it was fiction. But, as Emmanuel Levinas writes (in the last pages of the book), this text is true as only fiction can be.

The author of the story is Zvi Kolitz, a Lithuanian Jew, born in 1919. Emigrated to Palestine at the beginning of World War II, he was active in the Zionist movement and was even an agent of the Irgun. In 1946, he published his story in a Yiddish magazine of Buenos Aires, on the occasion of Yom Kippur. Then settled in New York, Zvi Kolitz died there in 2002.

The ups and downs of this text are amazing. For a long time presented as an authentic testimony, deprived of its real author, Yosl Rakover’s testament circulated around the world, raising many questions, but arousing everywhere a real fascination. Even if the fate of this story and that of the author are exciting, it is perfectly possible to ignore them and receive the text in all its strength and brilliance.

I confine myself here to quote a few fragments. But first, it is necessary to set the scene. It is April 28th, 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto is living its last hours, in a deluge of fire and under a barrage of artillery. Yosl witnessed the death of his wife and his six children, and now his time has come. In the house where he writes, lying on the ground, he is surrounded by the bodies of his comrades, fallen before him: I look into their faces and it is as if irony had washed over them, peaceful and gently mocking. As if they wanted to say: ‘Have a little patience, you foolish man, another minute or two and everything will become clear to you, too’.” 
The fall of the Warsaw Ghetto

Indeed, he is unable to understand, otherwise than in revolt and anger, the killing madness that surrounds him. The animals of the forest seem so dear and precious to me that it pains my heart to hear the criminals who are now masters of Europe likened to them. It is not true that there is something of the animal in Hitler. He is — I am utterly convinced of it — a typical child of modern man. Mankind has borne him and raised him and he is the direct, unfeigned expression of mankind's innermost, deepest-hidden urges. In a forest where I was hiding, I met a dog one night, a sick, starving, crazed dog, his tail between his legs. Immediately we felt our common situation (…) He rubbed up against me, buried his head in my lap, and licked my hands. I don't know if I have ever wept the way I wept that night; I wrapped myself around his neck and cried like a child (...) I was ashamed before the dog, for being not a dog but a man.

But it is God, that he always wanted to serve with dedication – with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength to whom Yosl now turns. He wants Him to give reasons. Because, he says, God has hidden His face. God has hidden His face from the world and delivered mankind over to its own savage urges and instincts (…) In such a circumstance I have, naturally, no expectation of a miracle and do not beg of Him, my Lord, that He should take pity on me. Let Him veil His face in indifference to me as He has veiled it to millions of others of His people…Yosl knows that God is just, and even that He is the God of vengeance and our Torah threatens death for the smallest of transgressions”. But the Talmud tells us that a single death sentence from the High Council in seventy years was enough to make people call ‘You murderers’ after the judges. The God of the other peoples, however, whom they call ‘the God of Love,’ has offered to love every creature created in His image, and yet they have been murdering us without pity in His name day in, day out, for almost two thousand years.

Then, Yosl stops his thoughts to profess his faith. I am proud to be a Jew. Because being a Jew is an art. Being a Jew is hard (…) I believe that to be a Jew is to be a fighter, an eternal swimmer against the roiling, evil current of humanity. The Jew is a hero, a martyr, a saint (…) One is born a Jew as one is born an artist. One cannot free oneself of being a Jew. That is God's mark upon us (…) I believe in the God of Israel, even when He has done everything to make me cease to believe in Him. I believe in His laws even when I cannot justify His deeds. My relationship to Him is no longer that of a servant to his master, but of a student to his rabbi. I bow my head before His greatness, but I will not kiss the rod with which He chastises me. I love Him. But I love His Torah more.

Finally – and these are the most ardent pages – Yosl addresses his God. And so, my God, before I die, freed from all fear, beyond terror, in a state of absolute inner peace and trust, I will allow myself to call You to account one last time in my life.He demands to know. O tell us, what more must happen before You reveal Your face to the world again? (…) Now, more than at any previous stage on our endless road of suffering — we, the tormented, the reviled, the suffocated, the buried alive and burned alive, we, the humiliated, the mocked, the ridiculed, the slaughtered in our millions — now more than ever do we have the right to know: Where are the limits of Your patience?

Surprisingly, this call changes into intercession and a demand for mercy. And I wish to say something more to You: You should not pull the rope too tight, because it might, heaven forbid, yet snap. The temptation into which You have led us is so grievous, so unbearably grievous, that You should, You must, forgive those of Your people who in their misery and anger have turned away from You. Forgive those who have turned away from You in their misery, but also those of Your people who have turned away from You for their own comfort (…) Forgive also those who have taken Your name in vain, who have followed other gods, who have become indifferent to You (…) I am saying all this to You in plain words because I believe in You, because I believe in You more than ever before, because I know now that You are my God. For You are not, You cannot be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrific proof of their militant godlessness.

And the prayer becomes like a blind leap into faith, but incredibly daring and with plenty of extraordinary nobility. “I cannot praise You for the deeds You tolerate. But I bless and praise Your very existence, Your terrible majesty. How mighty it must be if even what is taking place now makes no impression on You! But because You are so great and I so small, I beg You — I warn You — for Your name's sake: Stop crowning Your greatness by veiling Your face from the scourging of the wretched!
Zvi Kolitz
Finally, speechless, stunned, we must listen to the last words of Yosl to his God. He first recalls the story of a Jew who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. On an island where he landed, his wife was struck down by lightning and his child carried of by a wave. Left alone on his rock, he exclaimed: God of Israel, I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death — I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever — even despite You.And Yosl appropriates these words of fire: You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You. Praised be forever the God of the dead, the God of vengeance, of truth and judgment, who will soon unveil His face to the world again and shake its foundations with His almighty voice. Sh'ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my soul.

Once the book was closed, and after recovering  my senses somewhat,  I thought that I had just read the answer to the Grand Inquisitor found in The Brothers Karamazov...


(*) Zvi KOLITZ, Yosl Rakover talks to God, First Vintage International Edition, 2000. Besides the story itself, the book includes an essay by Paul Badde on Zvi Kolitz, a short text – a speech given in April 1955 – by Emmanuel Levinas, entitled Loving the Torah more than God, and another one of Leon Wieseltier. The text of the story is available online

Monday, September 2, 2013

Alyosha Karamazov

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Boy on a lawn
Alexey (Alyosha) Karamazov is a “radiant” figure, among the best known of Dostoevsky's fictional universe. The freedom he shows facing difficult and even dark situations is quite amazing. The family drama described in the very last and brilliant novel of the great Fyodor does not leave Alyosha indifferent, but it makes him grow up and mature. His eyes are able to discern precious stones in the middle of the mud. His kindness radiates and awakens, in those who meet him, feelings of trust and bursts of faith.

Having sketched the portrait of the elder son, Dmitri (Mitya), who possesses a passionate and excessive temperament, and then Ivan’s, a dark, restless, tortured person, the novelist describes the third son Karamazov, Alyosha: First of all, I must explain that this young man, Alyosha, was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic (...) He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love” (I, I, IV)(1). Indeed, at the beginning of the story, Alyosha is a novice in a monastery, where the elder Zossima is his spiritual father.

Sofya Ivanovna, Alyosha’s mother, who died when he was not yet four years old, left deeply impressed memories in his soul. He remembered one still summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (that he recalled most vividly of all); in a corner of the room the holy image(2), before it a lighted lamp, and on her knees before the image his mother, sobbing hysterically with cries and moans, snatching him up in both arms, squeezing him close till it hurt, and praying for him to the Mother of God, holding him out in both arms to
the image as though to put him under the Mother’s protection...” (I, I, IV).

Because of his simplicity and his purity of heart, the young man shows a surprising freedom which opens every door for him: “Here is perhaps the one man in the world whom you might leave alone without a penny, in the center of an unknown town of a million inhabitants, and he would not come to harm, he would not die of cold and hunger, for he would be fed and sheltered at once; and if he were not, he would find a shelter for himself, and it would cost him no effort or humiliation. And to shelter him would be no burden, but, on the contrary, would probably be looked on as a pleasure.” (I, I, IV).

Throughout the story, we see Alyosha trying and rescue his two elder brothers. So it is that he tries to applie the recommendation – a kind of prophecy – made to him by the elder Zossima: Christ is with you. Do not abandon Him and He will not abandon you. You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy (...) Go, and make haste. Be near your brothers. And not near one only, but near both.” (I, II, VII). He is very close to Dmitri, whose excess and extravagance do not hide for him a heightened sensitivity and a deep generosity. And even if his relationship with Ivan is more difficult, Alyosha feels for him an equally deep love. He understands what his anguished search means. In a dialogue with a libertine seminarian, who is convinced that all the Karamazov are debauched and miserly, Alyosha asserts: “It is not money, it’s not comfort Ivan is seeking. Perhaps it’s suffering he is seeking (…) he has a stormy spirit. His mind is in bondage. He is haunted by a great, unsolved doubt. He is one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions” (I, II, VII). The famous chapter called the "Grand Inquisitor" (Part II, Book V) illustrates this thinking of Ivan, for whom the suffering of an innocent child is incompatible with faith in a good God. The implacable demonstration of the "Grand Inquisitor" leaves Alyosha disarmed. Ultimately, his only answer is a kiss on the lips of his brother. And Ivan, deeply shaken, says to him: It’s enough for me that you are somewhere here, and I shan’t lose my desire for life yet” (II, V, V).

To look at the others with a merciful gaze and without any judgment is the typical behaviour of the deified man. And that is the way Alyosha is perceived, especially by his brother Dmitri:
You are an angel on earth. You will hear and judge and forgive. And that’s what I need, that someone above me should forgive” (I, III, III).

The old patriarch himself, Fyodor Pavlovich, in his ignominy, was able to perceive something of the goodness that dwells in the heart of his younger son Alyosha ‘pierced his heart’ by ‘living with him, seeing everything and blaming nothing.’ Moreover, Alyosha brought with him something his father had never known before: a complete absence of contempt for him and an invariable kindness, a perfectly natural unaffected devotion to the old man who deserved it so little” (I, III, I). Moreover, Alyosha will say to his father: “I know your thoughts. Your heart is better than your head” (I, III, VIII).

Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945), Future monk
Alyosha is deeply affected by the death of his beloved elder Zossima. It is for him a terrible test. But, after a painful inner struggle, it results in a new birth. The young man leaves his cell: His soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him (…) Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. ‘Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,’ echoed in his soul. What was he weeping over? (…) He longed to forgive every one and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything (…) But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul (…) He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy. And never, never, all his life long, could Alyosha forget that minute. ‘Some one visited my soul in that hour’, he used to say afterwards, with implicit faith in his words” (III, VII, IV). What an amazing experience of birth given by a spiritual father !

Further in the novel, beautiful pages describe Alyosha’s relationships, full of tenderness and respect, with kids (see Book X: “The Boys”), in particular with Kolya Krassotkin and Ilusha Snegiryov. About these episodes, I refer the reader to three texts (unfortunately, not yet translated into English) published in the French version of my blog: “N’ayez pas peur de la vie”, “Ilioucha – ‘Si je t’oublie, Jérusalem…’ and Éternellement, main dans la main”.

Dostoevsky's “five elephants”(3) – not only The Brothers Karamazov – are an inexhaustible mine. But one day I shall have to stop digging there. In the meantime, I felt obliged at least to call to mind the elder Zossima. More to come!

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All the quotations (Part, Book, Chapter) are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated into English by Constance Garnett,
(2) In the main room of the Russian houses, one or several icons occupied a corner - Krasnoie ugol or "beautiful place" - where they could be seen and worshiped by the inhabitants and visitors.

(3) That is the name given by Svetlana Geier, who translated Dostoevsky into German, to the five great novels of the writer's maturity

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stop disturbing your neighbours !

After a few weeks of absence, I have to give a sign of life...
But what can I say in the middle of all these horrors, accompanied by diplomatic side-stepping and awkward media silences?
Oh yes, of course! There is an inexhaustible subject of indignation: Israel!
This drawing was published in the Jerusalem Post.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Beauty will save the world… but how?

Ivan Kramskoï (1837-1887) Portrait of a woman
These days, by browsing some pages of The Brothers Karamazov, I stopped on a surprising passage which, until then, had not so much struck me. It would, it seemes to me, be useful to recall it, in order to complete the reflection that I published HERE – quite some time ago – on Dostoevsky’s famous sentence: "Beauty will save the world."

In this passage, Dmitri, the elder of the brothers, conveys the overflowing of his passionate heart to his younger brother Alyosha. He depicts himself at one and the same time as "mystical and sensual." He recites a poem of Schiller, the Festival of Eleusis, and dwells on a verse: "To insects – sensual lust!". The way he comments on it forces us to think again about beauty.

I am that insect, brother, and it is said of me specially. All we Karamazovs are such insects, and, angel as you are, that insect lives in you, too, and will stir up a tempest in your blood. Tempests, because sensual lust is a tempest—worse than a tempest! Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many riddles weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man(...)(1)

Breathtaking understanding of the human heart, torn between heaven and earth. In it, actually “the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side”. This is why the same object can arouse contemplation or greed, and often both together! As I suggested it in the comment of May 2012, the beauty of Nastasya Filippovna captivates Prince Myshkin as well as Rogozhin, the two heroes of The Idiot, but while she inspires compassion and kindness to the first one, she fills the second of a destructive passion.

Recognize that our heart is mixed, to become aware of the greed and the selfish sensuality that coexist with our higher feelings – “God and the devil are fighting there...” – can lead us on the path of goodness and make us reach the real beauty. This is nothing less than what the tradition called "spiritual warfare."

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett,

Friday, June 21, 2013

The tenderness of a peasant

Mikhaïl Nesterov (1862-1942) -
Russian boy

A few weeks ago, with the character of the humble Sonia, from Crime and Punishment, I wanted to open a new wing of the "Dostoevsky’s memorial" which I have tried modestly to establish for years. After having presented the humbled, the children, the crazy and the rejected, I intend now to present some examples of this “deified” humanity towards which all the work of the great Fyodor leads us. Just this once it will not hurt to break with tradition, the character whom I would like to evoke today does not appear in one of the five great novels of his mature years, but in a short story published in February 1876 in the Writer’s Diary. The peasant Marey – it is both the title of the story and the character's name – recounts a childhood memory of the writer(1).
(…) I remembered the month of August in our country house: a dry bright day but rather cold and windy; summer was waning and soon we should have to go to Moscow to be bored all the winter over French lessons, and I was so sorry to leave the country. I walked past the threshing-floor and, going down the ravine, I went up to the dense thicket of bushes that covered the further side of the ravine as far as the copse. And I plunged right into the midst of the bushes, and heard a peasant ploughing alone on the clearing about thirty paces away. I knew that he was ploughing up the steep hill and the horse was moving with effort, and from time to time the peasant's call "come up!" floated upwards to me. I knew almost all our peasants, but I did not know which it was ploughing now, and I did not care who it was, I was absorbed in my own affairs. I was busy, too; I was breaking off switches from the nut trees to whip the frogs with. Nut sticks make such fine whips, but they do not last; while birch twigs are just the opposite (...) Even as I write I smell the fragrance of our birch wood: these impressions will remain for my whole life. Suddenly in the midst of the profound stillness I heard a clear and distinct shout, "Wolf!" I shrieked and, beside myself with terror, calling out at the top of my voice, ran out into the clearing and straight to the peasant who was ploughing.
It was our peasant Marey. I don't know if there is such a name, but every one called him Marey – a thick-set, rather well-grown peasant of fifty, with a good many grey hairs in his dark brown, spreading beard. I knew him, but had scarcely ever happened to speak to him till then. He stopped his horse on hearing my cry, and when, breathless, I caught with one hand at his plough and with the other at his sleeve, he saw how frightened I was.
"There is a wolf!" I cried, panting.
He flung up his head, and could not help looking round for an instant, almost believing me.
"Where is the wolf?"
"A shout ... someone shouted: 'wolf' ..." I faltered out.
"Nonsense, nonsense! A wolf? Why, it was your fancy! How could there be a wolf?" he muttered, reassuring me. But I was trembling all over, and still kept tight hold of his smock frock, and I must have been quite pale. He looked at me with an uneasy smile, evidently anxious and troubled over me.
"Why, you have had a fright, aïe, aïe!" He shook his head. "There, dear.... Come, little one, aïe!"
He stretched out his hand, and all at once stroked my cheek.
"Come, come, there; Christ be with you! Cross yourself!"
But I did not cross myself. The corners of my mouth were twitching, and I think that struck him particularly. He put out his thick, black-nailed, earth-stained finger and softly touched my twitching lips.
"Aïe, there, there," he said to me with a slow, almost motherly smile. "Dear, dear, what is the matter? There; come, come!"
I grasped at last that there was no wolf, and that the shout that I had heard was my fancy. Yet that shout had been so clear and distinct, but such shouts (not only about wolves) I had imagined once or twice before, and I was aware of that. (These hallucinations passed away later as I grew older.)
"Well, I will go then," I said, looking at him timidly and inquiringly.
"Well, do, and I'll keep watch on you as you go. I won't let the wolf get at you," he added, still smiling at me with the same motherly expression. "Well, Christ be with you! Come, run along then," and he made the sign of the cross over me and then over himself. I walked away, looking back almost at every tenth step. Marey stood still with his mare as I walked away, and looked after me and nodded to me every time I looked round. I must own I felt a little ashamed at having let him see me so frightened, but I was still very much afraid of the wolf as I walked away, until I reached the first barn half-way up the slope of the ravine; there my fright vanished completely, and all at once our yard-dog Voltchok flew to meet me. With Voltchok I felt quite safe, and I turned round to Marey for the last time; I could not see his face distinctly, but I felt that he was still nodding and smiling affectionately to me. I waved to him; he waved back to me and started his little mare.

In a few lines, the writer outlines for us a simple and peaceful man. This hard illiterate peasant is in fact a wise person, a real "Christophoros", a bearer of Christ. It is in the name of Christ that he soothes the terrified boy, and it is with Christ that he sends him back home: "... Christ be with you! Come, run along then..." Such is indeed, for Dostoevsky, the deified man: filled with the divine-humanity of the Saviour.

The narrative is inserted into the writer's reflection on the Russian people, of which he tends to give a somewhat idealized picture. As he writes it, he has just read an article by Constantine Aksakov (1817-1860), one of the intellectual guides of the Slavophiles. Dostoevsky is particularly struck by a sentence of this article. Aksakov writes that "the Russian people have been enlightened and have reached a ‘high degree of culture’ for a long time." Dostoevsky then tells how the memory of the good peasant Marey came to mind when he was deported to Siberia for having attended a revolutionary group(2).

But I think that all these professions de foi are very boring to read, so I am going to tell a story, or rather not, it's not a story, say, just a distant memory that, I do not know why, I just want to report here and now, in conclusion of my essay on the people. I was only nine then... but no, I'm going to start when I was twenty-nine years old. He recalls then an evening in the penal colony, when, exasperated by brawlers and drunken convicts, he lies on his bunk, sullen: Gradually I sank into forgetfulness and by degrees was lost in memories.

Then comes the story of the encounter between the child and the peasant Marey. Finally, at the conclusion of the story, the writer returns to the meaning of the event, and especially of this man who left his mark on his memory.

(…) and all at once now, twenty years afterwards in Siberia, I remembered this meeting with such distinctness to the smallest detail. So it must have lain hidden in my soul, though I knew nothing of it, and rose suddenly to my memory when it was wanted; I remembered the soft motherly smile of the poor serf, the way he signed me with the cross and shook his head. "There, there, you have had a fright, little one!" And I remembered particularly the thick earth-stained finger with which he softly and with timid tenderness touched my quivering lips. Of course any one would have reassured a child, but something quite different seemed to have happened in that solitary meeting; and if I had been his own son, he could not have looked at me with eyes shining with greater love. And what made him like that? He was our serf(3) and I was his little master, after all. No one would know that he had been kind to me and reward him for it. Was he, perhaps, very fond of little children? Some people are. It was a solitary meeting in the deserted fields, and only God, perhaps, may have seen from above with what deep and humane civilized feeling, and with what delicate, almost feminine tenderness, the heart of a coarse, brutally ignorant Russian serf, who had as yet no expectation, no idea even of his freedom, may be filled.

And Dostoevsky concludes his meditation on the people: Was not this, perhaps, what Konstantin Aksakov meant when he spoke of the high degree of culture of our peasantry? And when I got down off the bed and looked around me, I remember I suddenly felt that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished utterly from my heart. I walked about, looking into the faces that I met. That shaven peasant, branded on his face as a criminal, bawling his hoarse, drunken song, may be that very Marey; I cannot look into his heart.

May we always find, not too far from us, in a clearing, a good peasant Marey to comfort us in difficult times: the wolf, real or imaginary, is never far away.

Fiodor (the other one)

(2) In 1849, members of the Petrashevsky group, that Dostoevsky attends, were arrested and sentenced to death. After a mock execution, the condemned were pardoned and deported to Siberia. Dostoevsky remained there until 1854. He recounts this experience in Memories of the house of the dead.
(3) The story is set in 1830 (Dostoevsky is nine years old) and serfdom will be abolished only in 1861.