Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Gentle and compassionate Sonia

Alexei Alexeievitch Harlamoff (1840-1925) – Girl with a red scarf

At the end of last year – with the figure of Makar Dolgoruky – I opened what could be a gallery of characters from Dostoevsky evoking the deified humanity. It's time to continue, because there is work to be done...

Today, I would like to evoke Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov, or Sonia, the young woman who is going to lead Raskolnikov, the murderer of Crime and Punishment, on the path of redemption.

Sonia is a young girl with a childish aspect. She had a thin, very thin, pale little face, rather irregular and angular, with a sharp little nose and chin. She could not have been called pretty, but her blue eyes were so clear, and when they lighted up, there was such a kindliness and simplicity in her expression that one could not help being attracted. Her face, and her whole figure indeed, had another peculiar characteristic. In spite of her eighteen years, she looked almost a little girl, almost a child. And in some of her gestures, this childishness seemed almost absurd” (III, iv) (1).

Her father, Semyon Zakharytch Marmeladov, a former state employee, inveterate alcoholic fallen into the worst of decays, wastes the scarce resources of his family: his second wife, Katerina Ivanovna and the three children born of this marriage, Polya, Kolya and Lyda. It is to bring to them some money that Sonia is engaged in prostitution. But beyond her sordid everyday life, she preserves a pure heart and she is livened up by a simple but profound Christian faith. Raskolnikov does not manage to understand how she can bear that situation: What held her up? surely not depravity? All that infamy had obviously only touched her mechanically, not one drop of real depravity had penetrated to her heart…” (IV, iv).

But what impresses most is her strength of mind and her self-abnegation. She gives herself entirely for her loved ones. After the murder, in a bout of fever and frenzy, Raskolnikov mumbles: “Sonia! Poor gentle things, with gentle eyes… Dear women! Why don’t they weep? Why don’t they moan? They give up everything… their eyes are soft and gentle… Sonia, Sonia! Gentle Sonia!” (III, vi).

Sonia cannot imagine that the depreciation on which she agrees for herself can impose upon others. When Rodia Raskolnikov comes to speak about the girl Polya, Sonia’s half-sister, suggesting that she too will be forced into prostitution, she reacts strongly: “– It will be the same with Polenka, no doubt, he said suddenly. – No, no! It can’t be, no! Sonia cried aloud in desperation, as though she had been stabbed. God would not allow anything so awful!” As he does it on several occasions, Dostoevsky introduces – here briefly – doubt and temptation against faith. Rodia answers indeed: “– He lets others come to it. – No, no! God will protect her, God! She repeated beside herself. – But, perhaps, there is no God at all, Raskolnikov answered with a sort of malignance, laughed and looked at her. Sonia’s face suddenly changed; a tremor passed over it. She looked at him with unutterable reproach, tried to say something, but could not speak…” (IV, iv).

Actually, it is faith that allows Sonia to stand firm. Rodia is still unable to understand it, and he looks at her in a condescending and mocking way: “– So you pray God a great deal, Sonia? he asked her. Sonia did not speak; he stood beside her waiting for an answer. – What should I be without God? she whispered rapidly, forcibly, glancing at him with suddenly flashing eyes, and squeezing his hand. ‘Ah, so that is it!’ he thought. – And what does God do for you? he asked, probing her further. Sonia was silent a long while, as though she could not answer. Her weak chest kept heaving with emotion. – Be silent! Don’t ask! You don’t deserve! she cried suddenly, looking sternly and wrathfully at him. ‘That’s it, that’s it’ he repeated to himself. – He does everything, she whispered quickly, looking down again” (IV, iv).

Later, Rodia notices a book lying on the table, a New Testament. Despite Sonia’s reluctance: “– What for? You don’t believe?...”, Raskolnikov insists so that she reads the passage of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John.  With excitement, but inwardly convinced that she had to read: “– He, too, will hear, he, too, will believe, yes, yes! At once, now”, Sonia runs and reads the whole passage. Then: “– That is all about the raising of Lazarus, she whispered severely and abruptly, and turning away she stood motionless, not daring to raise her eyes to him. She still trembled feverishly. The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book” (IV, iv). In a footnote, the translator of the French version rightly points out that, by saying “That is all about the raising of Lazarus”, Sonia means that this chapter of the Gospel story is completed, but also that everything (that is the entire novel, the entire life) is only about one thing: resurrection.

It is indeed to a resurrection that Sonia is going to lead Raskolnikov. It is to her that he will first confess his crime. The reaction of the girl is amazing: What have you done, what have you done to yourself? she said in despair, and, jumping up, she flung herself on his neck, threw her arms round him, and held him tightly (...) There is no one, no one in the whole world now so unhappy as you!, she cried…” The path of the redemption opens for Rodia: “A feeling long unfamiliar to him flooded his heart and softened it at once. He did not struggle against it. Two tears started into his eyes and hung on his eyelashes.” (V, iv).

Raskolnikov is still reluctant to surrender to the police, but Sonia has these powerful words: Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.” After much hesitation and questions Rodia is finally ready to give up himself. “Will you come and see me in prison when I am there? Oh, I will, I will (...) Have you a cross on you?, she asked, as though suddenly thinking of it. He did not at first understand the question. No, of course not. Here, take this one (…) Take it... it's mine! It's mine, you know, she begged him. We will go to suffer together, and together we will bear our cross! (…) Not now, Sonia. Better later, he added to comfort her. Yes, yes, better, she repeated with conviction, when you go to meet your suffering, then put it on. You will come to me, I'll put it on you, we will pray and go together.” (V, iv).

This dialogue is like a prelude to the genuinely Christlike attitude of Sonia accompanying Rodia in the penal colony, in Siberia. Very concretely, she bears his cross to lead him up to the end of salvation. And remarkably, this attitude produces a saving effect on other convicts: And when she visited Raskolnikov at work, or met a party of the prisoners on the road, they all took off their hats to her. ‘Little mother Sofya Semyonovna, you are our dear, good little mother’, coarse branded criminals said to that frail little creature. She would smile and bow to them and everyone was delighted when she smiled. (Epilogue, ii).

Rodia himself, who had withdrawn into himself for a long time, is eventually touched by Sonia's love. The last lines of the novel evoke this transformation: “… that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.” (Epilogue, ii). Sonia, the wretched girl, degraded but inhabited by a divine love, has been the instrument of a resurrection. That is all about the raising of Raskolnikov…

Fiodor (the other one…)

(1) All the quotations from Crime and Punishment are from the English translation by Constance Garnett on
The numbers in brackets refer to Part and chapter.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Three stones…

This text was sent to me by "someone whom I know well"... A man already in his "third age". He evokes some striking moments of the trip he has done in Israel, together with a younger colleague.

This journey was for me a pilgrimage, for a double motive, given my roots: Jewish and Christian. As for the first, four or five years ago I discovered some cousins on my father's side living in Israel, of whom I had never heard, until then. Here is not the place to talk about the moving meeting with them and their offspring.

There is no way, either, to describe all the moments of an incredibly rich and diverse journey. The Old City of Jerusalem, Mount of Olives, Yad Vashem, Masada and Qumran, Bethlehem, Galilee, etc., leave intense memories in the mind and heart of the one who, like me, visits this country "flowing with milk and honey" for the first time. But if I had to remember the moments that marked me the most, the most symbolic moments, I would retain three stones.

The first stone is one of these massive blocks that constitute the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple. When we went there, on a Thursday morning, the atmosphere was very joyful; it was the day when many young people celebrate their "Bar Mitzvah". I approached the wall and, like many others, I put my forehead on the stone. A powerful emotion invaded me. It was like a pent up piece of my family history coming back to the surface: my paternal grandparents and their children, all of them annihilated one day in1942. And then, all the generations that preceded them, who had turned – one way or another – towards that place, dreaming: "Next year in Jerusalem"...

wo days later, I put my forehead on another stone, that of the Holy Sepulchre. Despite the onrush of the crowd, the long wait before entering the narrow sanctuary, the pressure of the guards asking the pilgrims to proceed, I was able to fill the tomb left empty by the Risen One with all the situations and all the people that had been referred to me or that I carried in my heart. The human pettiness of this place, where the various Christian denominations barely tolerate each other and jealously guard their territory, could not darken the burning memory of the One who "emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave ..." (Phil 2, 7).

The third stone, with sharp angles, had the size of an apple. I did not put my forehead on it, but my forehead indeed was its target ... With my companion, we walked quietly along the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem between the Damascus Gate and New Gate. It was 4:30 pm. A hundred yards away, I saw four or five boys throwing stones to the ground with great force. Jokingly, I said to my companion: "They are preparing stones to snipe at people." I did not suspect that, a few seconds later, they would, indeed, begin to throw them at us, shouting "Allahu akbar! "... Still, we wore neither kippa nor black hat nor curls, nor pectoral cross ... The  rocks of these fellows were thrown powerfully and accurately. We found our salvation in flight.

He who has sent me this testimony did not draw a conclusion. He simply leaves us with a question, something that is never comfortable ...
Anyway, I wish you a Happy Easter. Hag Pessah Sameah.


As if he saw Him who is invisible…

Life of Pi was a bestseller. I did not read it. But I recently saw the film adapted from the novel by Ang Lee, the Taiwanese American director. This film won the 2013 Oscar for the best director. It is a wonderful movie. Breath-taking images: a feast for "optical gluttons" of my kind. A beautiful story, more complex than it seems at first sight: an enigma rather than a "message".

What is the plot of the movie? Pi Patel – his full first name, suggested by his uncle, crazy admirer of Parisian swimming pools, is Piscine Molitor… Pi, thus, is the son of the manager of a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The situation in the country forces the family into exile in Canada. They board a cargo ship, with a lot of the animals from the zoo. During a violent storm, the boat sinks. Pi finds himself in the middle of the ocean in a lifeboat, together with the ship's cook, a brute – played, with all the necessary vulgarity, by Depardieu – who had offended his father who asked for a vegetarian meal. Also in the boat are a young Japanese Buddhist injured during the wreck, who had tried to calm things down during the quarrel, and the mother of Pi. The cook terrorizes them and eventually kills the young Japanese and Pi's mom. Pi tries to protect her, without success, but he manages to kill the murderer.

But the film does not show all this. We learn it only at the end, while Pi Patel, years later, tells his story to a reporter who came to interview him. What the film shows us is what lies behind the scenes: what happens in the mind and heart of Pi. And this terrible experience is represented by animals, supposed to have boarded the boat during the wreck. There is a wounded zebra, who represents the young Buddhist, and a sweet female orangutan, who is the mother of Pi, and then a disgusting laughing hyena: the killer cook. And what about Pi? He is present under his usual appearance of a young athletic Indian, but also – and this is probably the key of the riddle – under that of a beautiful Bengal tiger. Pi, as a child, was fascinated by this tiger called Richard Parker.

It is only at the end of the movie that the mystery gets clearer. Pi, of whom the first moments of the film highlight the sweetness and spiritual thirst, had to find within himself the strength and cruelty of a tiger to kill the hyena, the disgusting killer cook. We witness, moreover, a slow process of domestication – or rather taming – of the tiger by the young Pi Patel. Stranded on a Mexican beach, exhausted, Pi sees the tiger Richard Parker, exhausted and emaciated too, disappear into the foliage of the forest bordering the seaside. He has now overcome the violent side of himself, which saved his life...

Beyond the beautiful entertainment of the movie, it is possible to discern a very profound and important teaching: by choosing not to stress the "outside" events, the film gives evidence that the most important realities are invisible. If the filmmaker, as the novelist, had merely decided to show the killings that took place on the boat, we would have witnessed a cruel, but rather trite, news item. By showing us – in the form of a parable – the storm that rages inside Pi, he reveals to us the mysteries of the human heart.

This is a lesson to be learned: if we want to understand the truth of the world, the truth of the events, the truth of our own lives, we have to cross the boundaries of the visible. So many people today – and this is probably often my case – have our noses "stuck in the mud." They see world events as an absurd and cruel drama, and their lives as a painful test. Nevertheless, as Christian Bobin writes: "A few seconds, isn’t it, are enough to live forever. ‘We feel and know that we are eternal’: this thought of Spinoza has the sweetness of a child sleeping in the back of a car. You and me, we have a ‘Roi Soleil’ (Sun King) sitting on his red throne in the large room of our heart. And sometimes, for a few seconds, this king, this joy-man, comes down from his throne and takes a few steps into the street. It's as simple as that." (Christian Bobin, L’homme-joie, Ed. L’Iconoclaste, 2012, p. 16-17).