Friday, December 5, 2014

Eight minutes in Paradise

I lack the time to write somewhat thoughtful texts. But I try to find short moments of spiritual "breath" through music.
Here is one, found in Schubert (which will not surprise those who know me).
It is a fragment of an unfinished piano sonata (in F sharp minor, No. 8, D 571). Schubert would have written it in 1817 (he was then 20 years).
All the art and the genius of Schubert are there. This is the "wanderer" dreamily walking in the countryside. It is nostalgic without being sad, full of energy and restraint at the same time, with an extraordinary thematic richness...
I find particularly beautiful a passage that starts at 3’20 and lasts about a minute. It’s like thoughts that rise and come back, then leave in another direction, unfinished and as unsettled…
Such music can reconcile you with yourself and with the world.
I have said enough: now just listen


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Music leads to God

A few days ago, I finished reading an important book of which I shall have to speak again: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel(*).

Passing over the principal topic of the book, which addresses the history and future of the State of Israel, I would like to draw attention to a passage without direct link to this theme. It concerns music and what it produces in the heart and soul of people. The experience which the author evokes touches upon one I have made repeatedly: finding peace and joy, and even the desire for God, while listening to a musical work. “Good” music can stir up a sense of God’s mystery. No image can depict it; it is nothing attainable by reasoning. It is a beauty that pierces the heart and the soul. 
The beginnings of Ein Harod kibbutz
In this passage, Ari Shavit harks back to Ein Harod’s kibbutz, in the time of the pioneers, in 1926. The kibbutzim are almost all young men and women from Europe, uprooted and having put aside their religious tradition. One day, the great violinist Jascha Heifetz comes to give a concert. Here is how Shavit reports the event.

From day one, the rough Labor Brigade pioneers of Ein Harod have had a soft spot for all things musical. One of them has an explanation. “The playing of classical music fills the void in our lives”, he writes.
The time of music is the only time that our communal dining room resembles a place of worship. There is a reason for that. Leaving God behind caused a terrible shock to us all. It destroyed the basis of our lives as Jews. This became the tragic contradiction or our new life. We had to start from scratch and build a civilization from the very foundation. Yet we had no foundation to build on. We had no Ultimate. Above us there were blue skies and a radiant sun, but no God. That’s the truth we couldn’t ignore and cannot ignore for a moment. That is the void. And music for us is an attempt to fill the void. When the sounds of violins fill our dining hall, they reacquaint us with life’s other dimension. They raise the deepest, forgotten feelings buried in all of us. Our eyes close, turn inward, and an aura almost of sanctity enwraps us all.

This "aura of sanctity" recalls the cloud that marked the divine presence, the Shekinah, during the exodus of the People of God (cf. Exodus 40: 34-38): a tangible sign which manifests an invisible presence, just as the sound of music striking our ears and opening up a window on the infinite.

To put theory into practice, here is Mendelssohn’s violin concerto played by Jascha Heifetz, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. The recording is old (1949) and the style is a bit old-fashioned according to current tastes, but just let yourself be moved by the music



(*) Ari SHAVIT, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, New York, Spiegel & Grau, 2013, 450 p.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The one kills, the other one heals…

Even from this torn Middle East, some comforting information has arrived.
A few days ago, we heard a representative of the moderate Syrian opposition, Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, thank Israel for the medical care provided to Syrians wounded in the fighting which rage in this country: "This moving humanitarian gesture is an opening for rapprochement between the two peoples and hope for peace on quieter days".

And then a few days ago, a friend drew my attention to the moving testimony of an Israeli Arab physician, Dr. Ahmed Eid. Professor Eid who evokes how he did surgery on a young Jewish soldier shot at close range by an Arab. This testimony was published by the Times of Israel.

I particularly underline a sentence of Professor Ahmed Eid: "I feel part of this state, and I get irritated with those who doubt it (…) I am Israeli and I don’t need to prove it. It’s presented as a dilemma: We’re Arabs, how do we feel? My loyalty to the state is in no doubt.”


Thursday, September 25, 2014

A long silence

For several months, I didn’t publish anything in the English version of my blog. To tell the truth, I was hardly mobilized by the situation in the Middle East, with the war against Hamas in Gaza. Most articles which I published in July and August on the French blog were devoted to this topic, mainly in relation to the way the events were presented in Europe; that is why I did not feel useful to translate them for a predominantly non-European audience.

In September, I published three texts consisting, essentially, in long quotations from books published in French... For them too, I sensed it difficult to translate into English without betraying the authors nor lose the flavor of the original.
I hope not to wait too long before feeding again "a heedful idiot". Meanwhile, I notice a very curious thing: For several months, the number of visits to the French version of the blog coming from the United States is steadily increasing and reaches almost half of the total...


Friday, July 4, 2014

Dostoevsky anti-Semitic?

Dostoevsky in 1876

I just finished reading a remarkable book about Dostoevsky’s philosophy(1). One chapter of the book particularly caught my attention. The author demonstrates that the charge of anti-Semitism leveled against the writer is unfounded. It reminded me of an article that I published here in September 2012: “A spot on the beautiful garment”. It was about a so-called anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky. When that article was published, Pierre Lamblé sent me a comment in which he strongly disagreed with this assertion. He wrote: “The anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky is a myth based on nonsense, on a misunderstanding on the nature of his work, of his conditions of work and production, and on anachronisms. We cannot comment on what D. wrote about the Jews in his time with our current criteria of reading; in reality, he consistently expressed feelings of sympathy for the Jews in general, and especially in his works of fiction”. And he invited me to read a chapter he devoted to this issue in his book. I followed his advice and found convincing answers in the ten pages he dedicates to the question, in a section entitled “The Politics of Dostoevsky”. In these pages, Lamblé criticizes a book published in 1976 by David Goldstein, under the title “Dostoïevski et les Juifs” (Dostoevsky and the Jews).

However, before I address a few arguments developed by Lamblé, one must remember that Dostoevsky is dependent on the prevailing mentality of the Orthodox society of his time and that he adopts many common anti-Jewish stereotypes: taste for money, rootlessness, subservience, etc. But, as Lamblé explains it, by having some of his characters take on these traits, the writer joins his readers in their prejudice so as eventually to better underscore their vanity. We find a similar “strategy” in the French writer Léon Bloy, friend of Jews and slayer of anti-Judaism. In Le Salut vient des Juifs (Salvation comes from the Jews), Bloy, too, highlights several typical clichés of Christian anti-Judaïsm, but it is from this apparent attribution made of the average anti-Semite that he operates a shift and asserts that “the Jewish people stop the History of nations as a dam bars the course of a river, to raise its level”. Following a recent attempt to censor Le Salut vient des Juifs, Alexis Galperin, the great-grandson of Léon Bloy wrote: “The book explicitly adopts the method of St. Thomas, which consists in exhausting every objection, that is, in letting the opponent spit his venom ad nauseam. So, after the first pages, in which Drumont, trampling the holy image of Moses, is lambasted as ‘turlupin sacrilege’, the writer opens the window to the great medieval rush of anti-Jewish violence, plunging, without hiding from it, into an abyss of feelings from which he himself was not exempt. This is what he calls ‘the premises of calculated violence’. In a perfectly planned ‘mise en abyme’(hall of mirrors effect) the crescendo of hatred stops suddenly, abruptly, so that a rise in the glory of Israel can eventually be realized, with an incomparable power”.

Impossible to summarize here all the argumentation of Pierre Lamblé. Let us look, with him, at two characters explicitly identified as Jews by Dostoevsky: Isaiah Fomitch in Notes from the House of the Dead and Lyamshin in Demons. Of course, both characters have somewhat ridiculous, and even rude, personal aspects. But, observes Lamblé, “far from attracting to him the violence of those who surround him, [Fomitch], on the contrary, attracts general sympathy (...) Dostoevsky has taken up the caricatured figure of the Jew, but it is in order to reverse fully the meaning it had...” As for Lyamshin, Lamblé notes that in the group of conspirators who instigated the assassination of Chatov “Lyamshin the Jew is the only one to react humanely to the terror that seizes him in front of the monstrousness of the murder”. And when Dostoevsky writes that, under the influence of this terror, “Lyamshin shouted with a voice that was no longer human but animal”, he suggests that the man expels these “demons” who took possession of the conspirators (and that the novel's title evokes). “While all the others, ethnic Russians, are from now on possessed by the devil, by the ritual murder committed in common, only Lyamshin, the Jew, is able to resist and expel him (...) as he is protected by his religion and by his God, whom the Russians had lost. We find, in this privilege granted by Dostoevsky to his Jewish character, a mark of the utmost respect, and even, on the part of a Christian, a quite extraordinary respect to the Hebrew religion and the sons of Israel”.
Notes for The Brothers Karamazov
On the other hand, about the article in the Writer’s Diary entitled “The Jewish Question” Pierre Lamblé refutes once again, in a very clear way, the charge of anti-Semitism. As he wrote in the comment he sent me in 2013, Dostoevsky published work in newspapers only for financial reasons and “he admitted himself that these articles were only commercial products without real meaning”.

Besides that, since his conviction for participating in Petrashevsky’s socialist circle in 1849, the writer was the object of closely scrutiny by imperial censorship, especially in his articles, and was careful to appear loyal to the regime which, as we know, was hardly favorable to the Jews. Finally, as I remarked in “A spot on the beautiful garment”, the article on “The Jewish Question” is immediately followed by another which shows a real sympathy for the Jews and places them in the perspective rather of a “brotherhood”.

Finally, in underlining the lack of seriousness of the criticism developed by David Goldstein, Pierre Lamblé points out that even the author of Dostoïevski et les Juifs is compelled not to withhold the fact that, in several of his writings, Dostoevsky systematically takes to heart “the defense of the Jews in terms that do not contain any ambiguity”. But, notes Lamblé with humor, the only way for Goldstein to explain this attitude, which completely contradicts his thesis, is to describe it as the result of a “momentary aberration”!

Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887) Insulted Jewish boy
With his extensive knowledge of Dostoevsky's work and his penetrating analysis of the writer’s thought, Lamblé does not hesitate to assert that “there is probably no other Christian author who has brought respect for the Jewish tradition to this level”. And he adds: “Let us compare what Dostoevsky, in his Diary, writes elsewhere about French people (vomiting), Englishmen, Germans, Poles, Catholics and the Pope, and finally Protestants (without speaking of Russians themselves!) and we shall be forced to recognize objectively that, far from mistreating Jews in particular, Dostoevsky shows them a quite amazing benevolence”. Is this not heartening?


(1) Pierre LAMBLÉ, La métaphysique de l’histoire de Dostoïevski. La philosophie de Dostoïevski, tome 2. Essai de Littérature et Philosophie Comparée, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

25 times Dostoevsky

Since 2010, I have published 25 articles dedicated to Dostoevsky and his works on the original French version of my blog. It seemed useful for me to list them. Please remember that I have no "scientific" claim on the subject. My purpose is mainly to share my enthusiasm about works that rank among the most important of world literature and to make it known and loved. If I have made a few spiritual, anthropological or philosophic comments, they are the work of a artless dilettante, not a doctor’s.

Only a few of these texts have been translated into English. Anyway, here is the entire list, in chronological order of publication. Each title has a link: simply click to be directed to the relevant article.

1. Une insulte faite à l'âme About capital punishment, from the story of an execution told by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.
2. Pourquoi j'aime L'idiot? The title reveals the content.
3. La plus belle prière The prayer of the drunkard Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment.
4. Les humiliés II About Nastassia Filippovna (The Idiot) and about some characters who find pleasure in humiliating others, like Stavrogin (Demons) or Svridigaylov (Crime and Punishment).
5. Beauty will save the world This is the most read article of the blog (about 10 000 times in the French version): a reflection on this sentence of Dostoevsky indiscriminately quoted...
6. Si vous ne devenez comme des enfants… The child, image of original goodness. Here in The Idiot, with the children and poor Mary, and also the young Kolya Ivolgin.
7. La honte de l’enfant An evocation of childhood memories of Arkady (The Adolescent).
8. N’ayez pas peur de la vie About Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov, “Boys”, with young Kolia Krassotkin and Alyosha.
9. Ilioucha. Si je t’oublie, Jérusalem In the same book, Alyosha and Kolia trying to soothe the last moments of young Ilyousha Snegiriov.
10. Éternellement, main dans la main The funeral of Ilyousha and the sublime words that Alyosha addresses to the children.
11. Dostoevsky peering into hearts The marginalized, the sick, the humiliated, the rejected, especially Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment.
12. Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 2 – Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin A man of standing, fallen, pitiful, but touching, in The Idiot
13. A spot on the beautiful garment Dostoevsky’s antisemtism?
14. Dostoevsky peering into hearts # 3 – The light shineth in the darkness… Some moving women figures: Sofia Ivanovna “possessed by devils” (“La Hurleuse”) and “stinking” Lizaveta (The Brothers Karamazov), Olia Onissimovna (The Adolescent) and Maria Timofeyevna Lebiadkina “the Cripple” (Demons).
15. The divided man Versilov, Arkadi’s father, (The Adolescent).
16. Seemliness Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, the putative father of Arkadi, (The Adolescent).
17. Gentle and compassionate Sonia Humble Sonia, prostitute and saint, in Crime and Punishment.
18. The tenderness of a peasant The simplicity and the wisdom of the mujik Marey (Writer’s Diary).
19. Beauty will save the world, but how? Dmitri Karamazov: «The devil and God fighting each other».
20. Alyosha Karamazov Beaming character of The Brothers Karamazov.
21. The Elder Zossima The death of a spiritual master, in The Brothers Karamazov.
22. «You cannot be a judge of anyone». The Elder Zossima continued The Elder evokes the disorders of his youth.
23. The mysterious visitor. The Elder Zossima again… Another recollection from the youth of the Elder, the story of a conversion.
24. Dostoïevski, un authentique penseur A reading of Pierre Lamblé's remarkable work on the philosophy of Dostoevsky.
25. The teachings of the Elder Zossima Some beautiful pages from the spiritual teachings of the Elder (The Brothers Karamazov).

Fiodor (the other one)

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945) - Russian children

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pope John XXIII's humor

Blessed John XXIII pictured in the Vatican Gardens while he was pope.
(CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

Here's a look at some of this new saint's funny quips:

1. Visiting a hospital he asked a boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy said either a policeman or a pope. "I would go in for the police if I were you," the Holy Father said. "Anyone can become a pope, look at me!"

2. "It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about the serious problems afflicting the world and I tell myself, I must talk to the pope about it. Then the next day when I wake up I remember that I am the pope."

3. In reply to a reporter who asked, "How many people work in the Vatican?", he reportedly said: "About half of them."

4. When a cardinal complained that a rise in Vatican salaries meant a particular usher earned as much as the cardinal, the pope remarked: "That usher has 10 children; I hope the cardinal doesn't."

5. When he went to visit a friend at the nearby Hospital of the Holy Spirit in the evening, the nun answering the door said: "Holy Father, I'm the mother superior of the Holy Spirit." He replied: "Lucky you! What a job! I'm just the 'servant of the servants of God.'"

6. Not long after he was elected pope, Blessed John was walking in the streets of Rome. A woman passed him and said to her friend, "My God, he's so fat!" Overhearing what she said, he turned around and replied, "Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest."

7. He once wrote: "There are three ways to face ruin: women, gambling and farming. My father chose the most boring one."

8. When he was cardinal and patriarch of Venice, the future pope was talking with a wealthy city resident and told him, "You and I have one thing in common: money. You have a lot and I have nothing at all. The difference is I don't care about it."

9. When a journalist asked the then-patriarch of Venice what he would be if he could live his life all over again, the future pope said, "Journalist." Then he said with a smile, "Now let us see if you have the courage to tell me that, if you could do it all over again, you'd be the patriarch!"

10. A Vatican official told the pope it would be "absolutely impossible" to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. "Fine, we'll open it in 1962," he answered. And he did.

Fiodor via John

Friday, April 25, 2014

Christians in Israel

Jerusalem - The Holy Sepulchre

Two or three weeks before Easter, I received an e-mail from Aid to the Church in Need (CAN), an organization which was especially known by its support of Christians living under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the actions of which I generally appreciate.
The message included a call to sign a petition entitled “40 days of solidarity with the Holy Land” (40 jours de solidarité avec la Terre Sainte). The purpose of the petition was to facilitate the coming of Palestinian Christians to Jerusalem for the Easter celebrations. But it laid the full responsibility of their difficulties to make the pilgrimage from the Territories at Israel’s door. I sent the following answer to CAN: “I do not intend to sign the petition for the Christians of Palestine. Why? Because it gives the impression that all the difficulties of the Christians in the Holy Land must be ascribed to Israel. But you and I know that they suffer as much as or more rejection and marginalization from their Palestinians Muslim “brothers”. We can discuss Israel's security policy, but it must be put in context. And restrictions for access to the Holy Sepulchre, even if they are regrettable, are not to be put on the same level as the persecution that Christians suffer in the Muslim world, including Palestine.”

Nazareth - In front of the Church of the Annunciation, a mosque with a large poster
threatening non Muslims withf damnation...

A few days later, a friend of mine sent me an article published on the Italian website Informazione Corretta, which tries to counterbalance the misinformation that Israel suffers in the media. This article (here is the English version) describes the situation of Christian minorities in the Jewish state and in other countries in the Middle East, and presents the interview of two Christians living in Israel. We could summarize it in a few words: "Everywhere in the Middle-East, the Christians are discriminated against, persecuted and even killed, except... in Israel, where they live in peace and security and where their number continues to increase". The article is worth reading entirely.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

The teachings of the Elder Zossima

Church in Suzdal - Picture Véronique Hallereau

I have already dedicated three articles to the Elder Zossima. A "Secondary" character in The Brothers Karamazov, the old man is however a key to understanding Dostoevsky’s masterpiece. He reached a high degree of holiness and spiritual wisdom, but before entering the monastery, as a young officer, he was, according to his own words, "a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature". Savagery, cruelty and absurdity are to be found, in varying degrees, in the Karamazov’s, father and sons. Only the young Alyosha escapes, for the most part, this onerous inheritance. As for his brothers, Ivan and Dmitri, they do lack neither goodness nor ideal, but these are often thwarted by their passions. The Elder Zossima carries within him as well these human contradictions and contemplates them appeased, in the light of faith.

The sixth book of The Brothers Karamazov, entirely dedicated to the old monk, contains beautiful pages where his teachings and thoughts are exposed. I will quote here some significant passages. They are very representative of the Russian spirituality, and, in my opinion, we may also find there the human and religious ideal of Dostoevsky himself. We must remember that he was deeply impressed by figures such as the elder Tikhon of Zadonsk and Ambrose of Optina.

It took Zossima a long and patient spiritual fight before he acquired the peace of heart and the radiant sweetness that emanates from him. Once he did, everything in him was blessing and thanksgiving. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my heart 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! My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how my earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, that approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy(1).

Vassiliy Polenov (1844-1927) - Landscape
Filled with this gentle wisdom, the Elder is capable of giving a word of life to those who visit him. Doing so, he is part of the ancient tradition of the Desert Fathers, who were asked by visitors: "Abba, give me a word." He knows the power that a word of life welcomed in a humble heart can deploy: Only a little tiny seed is needed – drop it into the heart of the peasant and it won’t die, it will live in his soul all his life, it will be hidden in the midst of his darkness and sin, like a bright spot, like a great reminder. And there’s no need of much teaching or explanation, he will understand it all simply.

We know to what extent Dostoevsky was concerned by the historical development of Russia, plagued by unpredictable upheavals. For him, materialism, the matrix of capitalism as well as revolutionary socialism, paves the way for atheism and hastens the collapse of the Russian culture, that only God will be able to put right. Undoubtedly, the Elder Zossima expresses the vision of the writer when he says: God will save Russia, for though the peasants are corrupted and cannot renounce their filthy sin, yet they know it is cursed by God and that they do wrong in sinning. So that our people still believe in righteousness, have faith in God and weep tears of devotion. It is different with the upper classes. They, following science, want to base justice on reason alone, but not with Christ, as before, and they have already proclaimed that there is no crime, that there is no sin. And that’s consistent, for if you have no God what is the meaning of crime?

Only a new fraternity, based in God’s love, will save Russia and all mankind. To illustrate this conviction, the Elder recounts how he once met his former orderly Afanasy(2): He chanced to see me in the market-place, recognized me, ran up to me, and how delighted he was! (…) He took me home with him. (…) He and his wife earned their living as costermongers in the market-place. His room was poor, but bright and clean (…) The man kept gazing at me and could not believe that I, his former master, an officer, was now before him in such a guise and position; it made him shed tears (…) He did not say much, but kept sighing and shaking his head over me tenderly. After tea I began saying good-by, and suddenly he brought out half a rouble as an offering to the monastery, and another half-rouble I saw him thrusting hurriedly into my hand: “That’s for you in your wanderings, it may be of use to you, Father.” I took his half-rouble, bowed to him and his wife, and went out rejoicing. And on my way I thought: “Here we are both now, he at home and I on the road, sighing and shaking our heads, no doubt, and yet smiling joyfully in the gladness of our hearts, remembering how God brought about our meeting.” I have never seen him again since then. I had been his master and he my servant, but now when we exchanged a loving kiss with softened hearts, there was a great human bond between us. I have thought a great deal about that, and now what I think is this: Is it so inconceivable that that grand and simple-hearted unity might in due time become universal among the Russian people? I believe that it will come to pass and that the time is at hand.”

By putting these words on the lips of the Elder, Dostoevsky is not naïve. He senses, with an acuteness that few of his contemporaries have had, the unrest that will occur in the beginning of the 20th century. In Demons, thirty-five years beforehand, he "describes with incredible accuracy all the historical mechanics that will inevitably lead to the revolution"(3). But, just as Jesus invites his hearers to discern the already present Kingdom of God in a world still plagued by violence, injustice and chaos, Dostoevsky understands the march of history in a metaphysical, spiritual and eschatological perspective.
Nikolaï Bogdanov-Belsky (1868-1945) - Children at the window
Ultimately, every gesture, every word, every relationship, affects the future of all of mankind. Here's how the Elder Zossima expresses this conviction: Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it. Every day and every hour, every minute, walk round yourself and watch yourself, and see that your image is a seemly one. You pass by a little child, you pass by, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image, unseemly and ignoble, may remain in his defenseless heart. You don’t know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love.”

One thinks of the mathematical theory of chaos, called "the butterfly effect"(4). And the Elder tells how his older brother asked the birds to forgive him… That sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side – a little happier, anyway – and children and all animals, if you were nobler than you are now.” Another sentence that helps us to understand the famous “Beauty will save the world”(5).

And the old man completes his teaching on a note of profound wisdom, illuminated by the vision of a reconciled world: Fear not the great nor the mighty, but be wise and ever serene. Know the measure, know the times, study that. When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one.”

Are we still capable of hearing such words? Yet they are the epitome of the Judeo-Christian heritage, freed from any dogmatic rigidity. It is the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs as well as the Sermon on the Mount. Solzhenitsyn would evoke this spiritual attitude in terms of "self-restraint". Listening to and meditating on the teachings of Elder Zossima is a powerful antidote to the frenzied individualism and the immoderation in which we are immersed.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project
(2) See a previous article: « You cannot be a judge of anyone »
(3) Pierre LAMBLÉ, La métaphysique de l’Histoire de Dostoïevski, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001, p. 76.
(4) The flapping of a butterfly's wings can cause a storm on the other side of the world... In other words, the infinitesimal variation of a parameter in a complex system can ultimately lead to significant effects.
(5) See the article on that topic.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The mysterious visitor. The Elder Zossima again…

Ivan Kramskoï (1837-1887) - Selfportrait

In a recent article, I started talking about the Elder Zossima. I mentioned his meeting with a "mysterious visitor". Dostoevsky dedicates twenty pages to the account of this meeting. They are a section of the "Notes of the Life or the deceased Priest and Monk, the Elder Zossima, taken from his own words by Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov".

A brief reminder of the background. As a young officer who had become, according to his own words, “a cruel, absurd, almost savage creature”, the future elder(1) became aware of his degradation after provoking a rival to a duel, and then, in his anger, violently hitting his assistant. Overwhelmed by the darkness he discovers in himself, he humbly apologizes to the soldier whom he had struck, and when he meets his opponent in the duel, instead of taking advantage of the first, missed, shot of his rival, he throws away his gun and asks for forgiveness. Finally, he announces his decision to enter a monastery. The rumor of these events spread rapidly, and it is in this context that he meets the mysterious visitor.

If I consider it useful to mention this episode, it is because it illustrates an important spiritual reality, namely that any true experience of God is rooted in a human experience. In other words, the Spirit by whom God speaks to our hearts expresses himself through mediations.
These mediations are numerous and extremely varied. They may come as a powerful word – a word of the Scripture, for example – that pierces the heart. But they may come as well as a tiny event, like the smile of a child or, as I once heard said, a glance that pauses on a small flower pot on a window sill, chasing away in a moment the darkness of despair. In the case aformentioned, it is the story of the uncompleted duel and the accompanying forgiveness that overwhelms the “mysterious visitor” and leads him to conversion.

Here is the storyline of The Mysterious Visitor. At first, he is described as an important man, “in a prominent position, respected by all, rich (…) he was very charitable, too, in secret, a fact which only became known after his death. He explains why he is coming to visit the young officer: “–‘You are, I see, a man of great strength of character’, he said; ‘as you have dared to serve the truth, even when by doing so you risked incurring the contempt of all’.” And he adds: “–‘Tell me, please (…) what were your exact sensations, if you can recall them, at the moment when you made up your mind to ask forgiveness at the duel’?” And the young Zynovy goes on to tell – what he had still never told to anybody –, how he prostrated himself before his assistant to ask forgiveness, and concludes: “–‘When once I had started on that road, to go farther along it was far from being difficult, but became a source of joy and happiness’.”

In his turn, the visitor shares his deep convictions: –‘Heaven lies hidden within all of us – here it lies hidden in me now, and if I will it, it will be revealed to me tomorrow and for all time (…) And that we are all responsible to all for all (…) in very truth, so soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality’.”

Even if it is not expressed in a very nuanced manner, this last assertion, typical of Russian spirituality, is a very important aspect in the thinking of Dostoevsky: every human heart shelters a part of evil, and so participates in what darkens the world. Solzhenitsyn expresses the same thing when he writes, in The Gulag Archipelago, that “the battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man”.

But let us come back to our mysterious visitor. During their frequent discussions, the young officer began to perceive that his visitor “was brooding over some plan in his heart, and was preparing himself perhaps for a great deed (…) Sometimes an extraordinary agitation would come over him, and almost always on such occasions he would get up and go away.” And, one day, “quite unexpectedly indeed, after he had been talking with great fervor a long time, I saw him suddenly turn pale, and his face worked convulsively, while he stared persistently at me. –‘What’s the matter?’ I said; ‘do you feel ill?’ He had just been complaining of headache. –‘I... do you know... I murdered someone’. He said this and smiled with a face as white as chalk. –‘What are you saying?’ I cried. –‘You see’, he said, with a pale smile, ‘how much it has cost me to say the first word. Now I have said it, I feel I’ve taken the first step and shall go on’.”
Ivan Kramskoï (1837-1887) - Portrait of a man
The narrator then describes the circumstances of the murder for which the visitor blamed himself. Mad with passion after having been betrayed by the woman he loved, he made his way to her home one night, and taking advantage of the absence of the servants, he entered her room and planted a dagger in her heart. Then, by an infernal calculation, he arranged it that a servant be accused, arrested and put in prison, where he died in the early days of the trial...

It took time before remorse assailed him, but once it arrived, it was terrible: “He had begun to have awful dreams. But, being a man of fortitude, he bore his suffering a long time, thinking: ‘I shall expiate everything by this secret agony’. But that hope, too, was vain; the longer it went on, the more intense was his suffering”. Then, he began to be pursued by a thought: “He dreamed of rising up, going out and confessing in the face of all men that he had committed murder”. This thought obsessed him for three years, and when he heard of this story of duel and forgiveness he made the decision to accept blame. The visitor then evokes the disaster that his confession would be for his wife and his children… “–‘Go!’ said I, ‘confess. Everything passes, only the truth remains. Your children will understand, when they grow up, the nobility of your resolution’.

But doubts and hesitations continued for weeks. The visitor came every night, often bitter and showing at times a kind of hatred: –‘Every time I come to you, you look at me so inquisitively as though to say, ‘He has still not confessed!’ Wait a bit, don’t despise me too much. It’s not such an easy thing to do, as you would think. Perhaps I shall not do it at all. You won’t go and inform against me then, will you?’ (…) –‘I have just come from my wife’, he went on. ‘Do you understand what the word ‘wife’ means? When I went out, the children called to me, ‘Good-by, father, make haste back to read The Children’s Magazine with us’. No, you don’t understand that! No one is wise from another man’s woe’.”

The description of the extraordinary spiritual struggle continues over several pages. One day, Zynovy reads him a verse of the Epistle to the Hebrews: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The man takes the book and flings it down. “He was trembling all over. –‘An awful text, he said’ (…) He rose from the chair. –‘Well!’ he said, ‘good-by, perhaps I shan’t come again... we shall meet in heaven. So I have been for fourteen years ‘in the hands of the living God’, that’s how one must think of those fourteen years. Tomorrow I will beseech those hands to let me go’.The visitor goes away, while his host starts praying. In the middle of the night, the man returns, claiming to have forgotten something... a handkerchief... or anything whatever... He sat down. I stood over him. –‘You sit down, too’, said he. I sat down. We sat still for two minutes; he looked intently at me and suddenly smiled – I remembered that – then he got up, embraced me warmly and kissed me. –‘Remember’, he said, ‘how I came to you a second time. Do you hear, remember it!’ And he went out. ‘Tomorrow’, I thought.”

Indeed, the next day, in front of the numerous guests gathered to celebrate his birthday, the visitor confesses his crime and gives various proofs that incriminate him. All believe that he had become crazy. Actually, a few days later, he falls ill. His wife, together with many others, accuses Zynovy of being responsible for his ‘madness’. But, eventually, she allows him to see her husband.

–‘It is done!’ he said. ‘I’ve long been yearning to see you, why didn’t you come?’ I did not tell him that they would not let me see him. –‘God has had pity on me and is calling me to Himself. I know I am dying, but I feel joy and peace for the first time after so many years (…) Neither my wife nor the judges, nor any one has believed it. My children will never believe it either. I see in that God’s mercy to them. I shall die, and my name will be without a stain for them’.” Then, he adds: “–‘Do you remember how I came back to you that second time, at midnight? I told you to remember it. You know what I came back for? I came to kill you! (…) I went out from you then into the darkness, I wandered about the streets, struggling with myself. And suddenly I hated you so that I could hardly bear it (…) I hated you as though you were the cause, as though you were to blame for everything (…) The Lord vanquished the devil in my heart. But let me tell you, you were never nearer death’.”

A week later, the visitor dies. After some time, Zynovy is bothered by people who came “and questioned me with great interest and eagerness, for man loves to see the downfall and disgrace of the righteous. But I held my tongue, and very shortly after, I left the town”. Five months later, he entered the monastery where he took the name Zossima. “But I remember in my prayer to this day, the servant of God, Mihail [it is only at the end of the story that we learn the name of the mysterious visitor], who suffered so greatly”.

Besides its intensity, this story makes us, once more, plumb the depths of human consciousness and, if we have faith, contemplate the invisible but powerful action of God who, according to Paul Claudel, “writes straight with crooked lines”.

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) In the Russian original as well as in the French translation, we learn that his name is Zynovy. This name does not appear in the English translation quoted here.
(2) All quotations are from The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, on Gutenberg project

Church in Suzdal - Picture Véronique Hallereau