Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Makar Ivanovitch, drawing by Dostoevsky
(Manuscript of The Adolescent)

Those of you who have the patience to read me regularly have already met with Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, the putative father of Arkadi, the hero of The Adolescent. I have, here and there, briefly evoked this bright figure, a humble servant whose master, the aristocrat Versilov abducted (he prefers to say “acquired”) the wife a few days after his marriage.

Arkadi has practically never seen the one whose name he bears. After years of wandering, the man, old and sick, is now hosted in the house of Versilov, his former master, where also live Arkadi and his mother. After several days of high fever, during which he even lost consciousness, Arkadi’s attention is attracted by a discreet noise coming from next room.
On the fourth day of consciousness I was lying in my bed at three o’clock in the afternoon, and there was no one with me. (…) Suddenly, in the midst of the profound stillness, I clearly distinguished the words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us’. The words were pronounced in a half-whisper, and were followed by a deep-drawn sigh, and then everything was still again.” (1)

This is the voice of the old Makar. Sofia Andreevna the wife who was abducted of him, accommodated him in her room, akin to that of Arkadi. The words heard by Arkadi are those of the “Jesus Prayer”, a short and repetitive prayer which, in the spiritual tradition of the East, is as popular as the rosary in the West. The famous Stories of a Russian Pilgrim, an anonymous work from the mid-19th century, helped to make it known.

Intrigued, Arkadi goes to the nearby room, opens the door and remains motionless on the threshold. “There was sitting there a very grey-headed old man, with a big and very white beard, and it was clear that he had been sitting there for a long time. He was not sitting on the bed but on mother’s little bench, resting his back against the bed. He held himself so upright, however, that he hardly seemed to need a support for his back, though he was evidently ill (…) He did not stir on seeing me, he looked intently at me in silence, just as I did at him, the only difference being that I stared at him with the greatest astonishment, and he looked at me without the slightest. Scrutinizing me, on the contrary, from head to foot during those five or ten seconds of silence, he suddenly smiled and even laughed a gentle noiseless laugh, and though the laugh was soon over, traces of its serene gaiety remained upon his face and above all in his eyes, which were very blue, luminous and large, though they were surrounded by innumerable wrinkles, and the eyelids were swollen and drooping. This laugh of his was what had most effect on me”.

After a long digression on laughter, which is “as a rule something vulgar, something as it were degrading”, Arkadi concludes: “… a laughing child (…) is a sunbeam from paradise, it is a revelation from the future, when man will become at last as pure and simple-hearted as a child. And, indeed, there was something childlike and incredibly attractive in the momentary laughter of this old man.”

In fact, the old Makar is one of those “absolute children” described by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. The next part of the meeting with Arkady makes it clear. The teenager is sitting near the old man: “I know you, you are Makar Ivanovitch. – Yes, darling. It’s very good that you are up. You are young, it is good for you. The old monk looks towards the grave, but the young must live (…) Ach, it’s bad for a sick monk, he sighed; the soul hangs by a thread it seems, yet it still holds on, and still is glad of the light; and it seems, if all life were to begin over again the soul would not shrink even from that (…) the old monk should take leave with blissful resignation (...)A monk must be content at all times, and ought to die in the full light of his understanding, in holy peace and blessedness, filled full with days, yearning for his last hour, and rejoicing when he is gathered as the ear of wheat to the sheaf, and has fulfilled his mystery.”

With his unpolished language – that the writer tries hard to restore – the old Makar expresses a disproportionate wisdom compared to the learned verbosity of many philosophers or theologians.

The young Arkadi, down from his bookish education and with the fashionable scepticism of the youth, gently mocks the piety of the old man Makar who questions him: “– Do you pray at night? – No, I regard it as an empty ceremony (…) – You’re wrong, my dear, not to pray; it is a good thing, it cheers the heart before sleep, and rising up from sleep and awakening in the night...” Makar tells then Arkadi an experience of plenitude which he lived during a pilgrimage. “ I waked up early in the morning when all was still sleeping and the dear sun had not yet peeped out from behind the forest. I lifted up my head, dear, I gazed about me and sighed. Everywhere beauty passing all utterance! All was still, the air was light; the grass grows – Grow, grass of God, the bird sings – Sing, bird of God, the babe cries in the woman’s arms – God be with you, little man; grow and be happy, little babe! And it seemed that only then for the first time in my life I took it all in… I lay down again, I slept so sweetly. Life is sweet, dear! If I were better, I should like to go out again in the spring. And that it’s a mystery makes it only the better; it fills the heart with awe and wonder and that awe maketh glad the heart (…) Do not repine, young man; it is even more beautiful because it is a mystery, he added fervently”.

Boy playing balalayka. Anonymous Russian painting
Makar is a deified man. He is ripe for the Kingdom about which we are told that we shall not enter if we do not “become like children” (cf. Mat 18, 3). He has this cleansed and restored glance, which sees people and things in their original goodness and beauty. Arkadi understands it, when thoughtfully taking back the last words of Makar: “ ’It’s the more beautiful for being a mystery…’ I will remember those words. You express yourself very inaccurately, but I understand you... It strikes me that you understand and know a great deal more than you can express.

The meeting of the old man Makar will deeply impress and transform Arkadi. He who thought of having a “soul of spider”, aspires from now on to the “seemliness” – clarity of soul – about which the old man spoke to him. “The longing for ‘seemliness’ was still there, of course, and very intense, but how it could be linked with other longings of a very different sort is a mystery to me. It always has been a mystery, and I have marvelled a thousand times at that faculty in man (and in the Russian, I believe, more especially) of cherishing in his soul his loftiest ideal side by side with the most abject baseness, and all quite sincerely.” With this last reflection, Arkadi expresses one of the fundamental themes of Dostoevsky's thought, to whom no character is ever completely good or completely bad. Is it not also the case for each of us? Let us have the lucidity to recognize it...

For us who, so often, flounder through the gloom, shall we find a pressing call, in the words of the old man Makar? As Arkadi, let us be attracted by him: “What attracted one first of all, as I have observed already, was his extraordinary pure-heartedness and his freedom from amour-propre; one felt instinctively that he had an almost sinless heart. He had ‘gaiety’ of heart, and therefore ‘seemliness’.” Why not to aspire, us too, to this clarity of soul which transfigures the old man Makar?

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Quotations are from an English translation by Constance Garnett: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dostoyevsky/d72r/index.html

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