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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Unbalanced consideration

Pope Francis and Rabbi Bergman - march 2013

Those who honour me with reading me regularly know my concern for the situation in the Middle East, especially for the peace and security of Israel and, more widely, the importance that the Jewish people has for me.

On several occasions, alone or with friends, I was prompted to react about unfair or deceptive statements toward Israel, especially when they came from people referring to the church or to Christian organizations. The awareness of the heavy burden that weighs on the Church because of injustices, humiliations and persecutions carried out against Jews in her name for centuries, was a decisive reason for my commitment – modest but determined – on this topic.

I am convinced that, today, this heavy historical responsibility must awaken Christians to vigilance against anything that could lead to anti-Judaism and, a fortiori, of anti-Semitism. Since, for half a century, the Church is firmly committed to ending what Jules Isaac called the "teaching of contempt", Christians can and must do so with renewed determination.

Since Vatican II, many documents, pronouncements, symbolic gestures, on behalf of Church leaders, have clearly shown that the two main grievances which maintained the Christian anti-Judaism, namely the theory of "deicide" and the "theology of the substitution" are unfounded. Furthermore, authorized voices in the Church recognized that Judaism retains its own mission, as a testimony of God's faithfulness to His promise and His alliance. If these major advances seem irreversible, they have not, so far, been fully assumed by all Christians, and the exploitation of the Arab-Israeli conflict offers to those who have not cleared their anti-Judaism a "comfortable" alibi. That is why vigilance remains essential.

Of course, we can expect the Jewish side to welcome these decisive changes in the attitude of the Church and, indeed, many Jewish voices hailed this opening. There is still some way to go however. Once bitten, twice shy, says popular wisdom, and such a recent shift of the Church towards the Jews is not likely to instantly erase the disastrous image she has built up in their memory through the centuries. I just experienced it painfully, here's how.

A few weeks ago, reading a blog, I had the attention drawn by a polemical text. It questioned the sincerity of Christians who show a willingness to dialogue with Jews. I posted a comment regretting this suspicious attitude. The moderator of the blog, a Jew, obviously very educated and intelligent, replied by advancing some relevant arguments. A lively but respectful dialogue was then formed, through the Internet. But, after a few exchanges, the mood began to change. I had just answered favourably to the proposal of my correspondent to be associated with an initiative that he wanted to undertake towards a bishop and, the next day, he published an article in which, to my surprise, he invoked a sentence quoted from an encyclical of Pius XII to affirm that the church had not given up the theology of substitution. Indeed, according to my opinion, Pius XII had used inappropriate words when he spoke of "abolition of the Old Law". I replied that this encyclical and this sentence, secondary with regard to the overall document, were not "infallible" as my opponent asserted it. It was of no use, he came there to accuse me of lying, what, for me, ended the debate.

On the content, I can only maintain my position. I had moreover answered my interlocutor by stating what a friend, a professor of theology, had written to me confirming my statements: the encyclical in question is by no means a text boasting about "infallibility" as it was defined by Council Vatican I. Besides that, a few days ago, I made the effort to question another theologian, without referring to the controversy. I got the same answer. He wrote: "Infallibility defined by Vatican I applies only on very strict conditions, and the pope has never used this power, except to define the Assumption in 1950. An encyclical belongs to the ordinary Magisterium of the Church (even not extraordinary!, So certainly not in the infallible Magisterium)."

But if I have nothing to regret on the content, it is not the case for the form. With hindsight, it seems to me that I did not take enough account of the heightened sensitivity of my interlocutor and of the distrust, fuelled by negative experiences, that asseverations of friendship from Christians arouse in him. I allowed myself to use of a polemic tone that could hurt him, and I regretted it ...

What is the lesson of all this? In the same way that there is no symmetry between the situation of Christianity in relation to Judaism (the first one being entirely "dependent" of the second), there is also no symmetry between the attitude of openness and respect that Jews are entitled to expect from the Christians and the one that Christians hope to meet with the Jews towards them. Let us accept to show patience to them. In any case, it will be without proportion with that which they had, against their will, to demonstrate to us.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When a book hides another one

I once read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, but I would probably never have thought of reading his Typhoon, if Christian Bobin, in one of his last books, “L’homme-joie”, had not given an arresting echo of it.

Bobin is a compulsive reader. Fortunately for us, he is also a prolific writer. Because, for him, the world as we experience it – overwhelmed, hyper-connected, stressed – is unbearable. He desires – he even needs – the invisible world, that books, music, love, prayer… allow us to approach. “To write, says Bobin, is like drawing a door on an impassable wall, and then opening it”.

“L’homme-joie” is enchanting. At one point, it makes reference to Typhoon in a chapter entitled “La gueule du lion” (The Lion’s Mouth). Bobin first lays his cards on the table: “My idea of life is a book, and my idea of a book is a draught of ice-cold water like the one coming out of the mouth of a lion fountain on a mountain road in the Juras, one summer. I was in one of these joyful penal colonies that one calls ‘summer camp’. I was left there for centuries, integrated into a small troop of singing killers, my peers, when in the middle of a forced march under a broiling sun there appeared the fountain belching out its foam of light. I rushed under the lion's mouth, opened my own and swallowed an ocean of cold water. The water rushed into my body right up to the heart where it extinguished the fire of abandonment that ravaged it. Decades later, I still remember the mystical comfort given by that icy water. Whenever I open a book, I look for the lion's mouth.

Then, almost without transition, off he goes. “Three days and three nights aboard this old tub tortured by the storm (...) Three days and three nights on this boat, to feel my heart sinking into my chest, to slide into the abyss of a fear with black eyes…” And we, readers, we are embarked as he is, feeling “Tons of black water exploding in the hold of the brain, the end of plans and dreams…” The chapter then ends then abruptly: “ – What’s wrong with you? – Nothing, I just finished reading Conrad’s Typhoon. It took me three days and three nights to read it. – Is it good? – I cannot answer your question. A book is light or it is nothing at all. It’s task is to switch on some light in the palaces of our desert brains. Writing knows more than death, I'm sure. I paid the price to learn this, three days, three nights”.

So, what about Typhoon? There is, of course, the masterful writing of an author who, for nearly twenty years was at first a sailor. The descriptions of the raging nature of the China Sea, are breathtaking, realistic and poetic at the same time. “The wind had thrown its weight on the ship, trying to pin her down amongst the seas. They made a clean breach over her, as over a deep-swimming log; and the gathered weight of crashes menaced monstrously from afar. The breakers flung out of the night with a ghostly light on their crests – the light of sea-foam that in a ferocious, boiling-up pale flash showed upon the slender body of the ship the toppling rush, the downfall, and the seething mad scurry of each wave...”

But the most impressive aspect is elsewhere, in the heart, the body and the soul of some of the characters in the story. It is there that the storm brings out the very depths of their personality, their humanity. There is Jukes, the chief mate, a quibbler, reluctantly obeying what seems to him unreasonable. And Mr. Rout, the chief engineer, experienced, unwavering in his duty. “He moved, climbing high up, disappearing low down, with a restless, purposeful industry, and when he stood still, holding the guard-rail in front of the starting-gear, he would keep glancing to the right at the steam-gauge, at the water-gauge, fixed upon the white wall in the light of a swaying lamp.” And, finally, Captain MacWhirr, in whom some critics have seen Conrad’s self-portrait. A taciturn, placid, apparently insignificant man: “Captain MacWhirr, of the steamer Nan-Shan, had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled…

But this man, strong-minded and unresponsive to the arguments of his chief mate – who suggested avoiding the typhoon by modifying the ship's course – shows a quiet courage and remarkable determination. When he gives Jukes the order to face up to the wind, whatever happens, because “They may say what they like, but the heaviest seas run with the wind”, the mate, for a long time puzzled and irritated by what he took to be unconsciousness on the part of the Captain, rediscovers, at the height of the storm, the self-assurance that he had lost: “Yes, sir, said Jukes, with a flutter of the heart (…) For some reason Jukes experienced an access of confidence, a sensation that came from outside like a warm breath, and made him feel equal to every demand. The distant muttering of the darkness stole into his ears. He noted it unmoved, out of that sudden belief in himself, as a man safe in a shirt of mail would watch a point”.

Besides his composure and his tenacity, which eventually save the ship, MacWhirr shows his humanity and his sense of justice. Coolies housed in the steerage during the crossing, fought, at the height of the storm, to recover a few dollars that had escaped from their trunks, shaken loose and broken open by the waves' battering. The Captain had sent the crew to seize all the money and to lock up the coolies. When calm was restored, it was time to gather them and to return their money to them. In a letter sent to a friend after the events, Jukes writes: “– I wish, said I, you would let us throw the whole lot of these dollars down to them and leave them to fight it out amongst themselves, while we get a rest. – Now you talk wild, Jukes, says he, looking up in his slow way that makes you ache all over, somehow. We must plan out something that would be fair to all parties”. And MacWhirr unimpressed by the danger, moves forward bare hands to the coolies and, with quiet authority, distributes to them what they deserve. Jukes explains: “It seems that after he had done his thinking he made that Bun Hin's fellow go down and explain to them the only way they could get their money back. He told me afterwards that, all the coolies having worked in the same place and for the same length of time, he reckoned he would be doing the fair thing by them as near as possible if he shared all the cash we had picked up equally among the lot…”

By his courage, his determination and his sense of justice, this apparently “ordinary and irresponsive” Captain held on to the light of hope throughout the storm. Christian Bobin writes: “Nothing more than a ring of black water around the ship on which I had embarked without knowing why (...) And inside the black mass, in its gaping maw, the yellow dot of trust (…) So we had to embrace the fear with furious eyes, to love it like good bread, to continue crossing, to lose ground, to lose heart and to continue anyway, to see the iron filings sky, to see the stars fall like dirty gold dust, and hear then, at this very moment, at the height of the disaster, we needed to hear the sweet, peaceful and confident voice, the light yellow voice that promised to bring the ship to port”. That “light yellow of trust” certainly evokes captain MacWhirr, according to the description made by Conrad: “His hair was fair and extremely fine (…) The hair of his face, on the contrary, carroty and flaming, resembled a growth of copper wire clipped short to the line of the lip; while, no matter how close he shaved, fiery metallic gleams passed, when he moved his head, over the surface of his cheeks”.

Blessed is he who discovers, in the dark moments of his life, this “yellow dot of trust”. Isn’t it true that a good man can change the course of history?