Second Conversation: ‘Good Books’. Episode 4

Perhaps I should have expected that answer, but I didn’t.

            “The Bible?” I echoed.

            “Yes, yes, yes. And, by the way, not only do you not have any Walter Scott, I couldn’t see a Bible on your shelves, either.”

            “Really? I’m sure I’ve got one … I’ve certainly got one in my office … there must be one at home.” This was definitely more embarrassing than not having any Scott. But I really was sure that I did have a copy somewhere. Of course, I might have anticipated his answer. I knew that several of his novels used the Bible, as in the scene from Crime and Punishment when Sonia reads the story of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov or when the passage about Christ turning water into wine is read over Zosima’s dead body in The Brothers Karamazov. But apart from dithering over whether I actually had a copy or not, I couldn’t immediately think of anything to add or ask. It wasn’t something I’d thought a lot about. Fortunately, Fyodor Mikhailovich came to my rescue.

            Leaning forward, one leg folded over the other and with his hands clasped over his right knee, he seemed almost to be talking to himself. “Could I have written any of my novels without having the Bible in my heart? I don’t think so. And not just because of those passages where my characters quote it. It’s the pattern from which the whole is cut. It is, to borrow what you were saying before, the word in the word, and that word is the power that can make our endlessly recycled words truly ‘new’.”

            He nodded to himself, thoughtfully.

            “But you,” he asked, “Do you know your Bible?”

            I was a bit taken aback but also rather relieved to be able to give a positive answer at last.

            “Actually, I do, quite well. I mean, I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know the main stories. Which is unusual for someone of my generation. The thing is, I went to a Church school where we had Bible stories every day, at least in primary school; we also had several different collections of Bible stories for children at home. So, yes, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, David … and, of course, the New Testament as well. I suppose I forgot a lot of it later, but it’s all there, somewhere in my mind, so I can recognize when it’s being alluded to. Which,” I added (not that he would necessarily be interested) “is very different from my students. I recently taught a class of literature and philosophy students and not one of them knew who Job was. Only two or three knew anything about Abraham apart from the fact that he was in the Bible—even though some of them, I’m sure, thought of themselves as Christians”.

            “That’s good,” he nodded encouragingly; “not what you say about your students, but about hearing and reading the stories as a child. I had a book of ‘A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament’—in fact it’s that book I learned to read from. Scarcely anything since has made a deeper impression on me. Those stories already taught me—in a childlike way, of course, not in the way I understand them now—about our human desires, our weaknesses, our lies, and our salvation. Those stories you mentioned just now—think what they contain! They teach us about the power of the lie and, looking many centuries into the future, spell out the lie of our own time, the lie that knowledge is more valuable than life; they teach us how envy engenders murderous intentions, making us forget our duty to be each other’s keepers; it was from these same stories that I not only learned about the titanic pride that claims power over others but also about the wanderers who followed the call of God and whose struggles with God sanctified the land where they finally made their home; about the boy who was sold into slavery by his brothers but, as God had planned, became rich and powerful and was able to rescue them from famine; about a people who cried out for freedom from slavery; and about the King who wasn’t ashamed to dance through the streets in honour of God and who wept humbly and without shame for the death of his treacherous son … all of that and much, much more. Who could have invented such things? Such words unmask the lies with which we are wont to console ourselves but, more than that, they show the world of truth to which we should aspire. Everything is there. But is that true about your students not knowing Job?”

            “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

            “They don’t know Job! I am sorry for them. Leaving aside what that means for how they understand literature, what will they think, how will they be able to hope when they too lose everything—as he did, as most human beings, sooner or later, lose the best that they have? Will they be able to bless God, to bless the life God has given them, in their suffering? Will they be able to endure and to delight in happiness when it returns?”

            I didn’t really have an answer to Fyodor Mikhailovich’s questions but went back to what he’d said about the Bible being the pattern from which the whole of his writing was cut and “everything is there”.

            “What you’re saying reminds me of the argument that the Bible is what one critic called the Great Code, an archetypal collection of stories out of which the entirety of Western literature has grown, a kind of collective imaginary?”

            “Maybe … but these stories (like all true folk stories) are not just stories; they matter because of the reality they show us. The Bible is not just a collection of stories that the Hebrews told around the campfire or a history of what happened once upon a time: it’s a revelation of who we are. It’s not ancient history: it’s about powers at work in our lives now, powers that we can never contain or manage. It’s an ‘irregular comet’, portending the disturbance of everything comfortable, everything that reeks of self-satisfaction, everything that makes us think we are above reproach. In the end, it is a judgment on us, on us all, and on our literature.”

            I thought for a moment. There seemed to be several different issues here and I was having difficulty untangling them. Fyodor Mikhailovich was also starting to sound a bit like the evangelical preachers I’d heard when I was growing up, the ones who used to go on about how we were all going to be judged by the Word of God (by which they meant the Bible) and how, if we didn’t believe this Word, then, to put in bluntly, we were headed for damnation. I hoped this wasn’t what he was wanting to say. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear. A pattern seemed to be emerging here. Last time it was guilt. This time it was judgement. 

            “Judgement, Fyodor Mikhailovich? Are you saying that if we don’t believe the Bible then we’re damned or something like that?”

            He sighed and looked at me with an expression of tolerant frustration.

            “Please. Listen to what I’m saying. It’s not the Scriptures that judge us. It’s the reality they reveal. And what is that reality? Did I ever say or write that it was anything other than love, the love that reaches out and embraces even the most wretched—especially the most wretched—of all the insulted and injured on earth? I’ve heard of the kind of preachers you’re thinking about and our Church had them too, preachers for whom belief in Satan is even more important than belief in God. But does Scripture itself ever speak of judgement without also speaking of infinite compassion and tenderness for every ‘unfortunate’? Yes, the voice of judgement is terrifying, especially to those who know just what they deserve, but, as I had that drunkard Marmeladov say, ‘He’ will surely forgive, and He will forgive even those who feel themselves to be swine, ‘made in the image of the Beast and with his mark’. When the arms of love reach out in welcome, what could make us feel our unworthiness more intensely, what judgement could be more unendurable—if those same arms did not also embrace us?” 

            This was reassuring—though I couldn’t help recalling the passage from ‘A Gentle Spirit’ that spoke so eloquently about the impossibility of love in a world like ours and that had been the starting-point of our conversations. What could make us—make me—believe that the kind of love Fyodor Mikhailovich was talking about was a reality and not just wishful thinking? I wasn’t ready—at four in the afternoon—to push that question further, not yet. But there was another question that interested me and that seemed a bit easier to start with.

            “Thank you,” I said. “That’s helpful. But what do you mean when you say that the Bible is a judgement on literature? That’s not exactly an idea I’ve come across before.”

            “No? It’s not so very difficult. Think of the words I took as a motto for The Brothers Karamazov: ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’.”

            “I’m sorry. I don’t see the connection.”

            “How can I explain? You see, it’s not a matter of holding up a big black book and saying: ‘Believe in this book?’ You need to open the book and shake it so that its words scatter in all directions, like a sower scattering seed. What happens then? The words, you could say, disappear, go underground: they break up and dissolve in the processes of life, but then, when they re-emerge, maybe unrecognizably, they do so in a way that is fruitful and nourishing for those who hear them and make them their own, who love them, no matter what form they take.”

            “But how is that a judgement on literature?”

            “Look at all these books on your shelves, in your university and public libraries, all your newspapers, all the words written, printed and distributed you’ve ever read. What are they all about? Do they bear fruit? What are they good for? Do they increase love? Do they help the writer’s fellow human beings? Are they even meant to? Or are they exercises in egoism and will to power? Let me be clear, it’s not a matter of quoting the Scriptures, but of expressing the life thy express. Grand Inquisitors and Devils know how to quote the Scriptures, but although Dmitri Karamazov only ever quotes Goethe and Schiller—badly—his misquoted literary words nevertheless lead him towards salvation. The reality of which the Scriptures speak is alive and active in him, as it was alive in Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller. Wherever our words become words of life it’s a sign that they’ve sprung from that original seed.”

            “So what you’re saying is that even if a literary text never ever mentions or quotes from the Bible, it can still express the spirit of the Bible—and the other way round: that even a text that quotes the Bible may be quite opposed to its spirit?”

            “Exactly so. But if a person is moved by the spirit of love that inspired the Scriptures, then they will recognize that spirit in the words they hear, whoever speaks them. And they will also recognize that it is of them that the words are speaking, as Sonia loved the story of Lazarus—because she could see that it was her story.”

            “Because she saw it as a promise that she too could be rescued from the dreadful life she was living?” I interrupted. Like many readers of Dostoevsky, the scene in which the prostitute Sonia reads aloud the story of the raising of Lazarus to the murderer Raskolnikov, who is busy going mad in a hell of his own making, had made an indelible impression on me when I first read it (although, I have to admit, I’d more recently come to see it as perhaps a bit too melodramatic).

            “No. Because it showed her how a sister’s love could move even the Saviour to do what was impossible for men and bring his friend, her brother, back from death. How you read, shows who you are—and Sonia was probably thinking of her own salvation least of all.”

            After a brief pause, Fyodor Mikhailovich continued.

            “Don’t think you can keep the Scriptures in the past; once you open them, you will—you must—see the present in a new way, and you will begin to understand just what is at stake in your questions. This is why it was important for me to have my characters read the Scriptures aloud and quote from it in their conversations. The Bible is not a set of proof-texts for convincing waverers of the Church’s dogmas, the way your Western Protestants uses it. They are the words of a living voice, speaking in and to the continuing unfolding of life.” He paused and smiled a little shame-facedly. “I should, of course, say ‘some’ Protestants—you see I’m developing a rather more tolerant view of these things from my present point of view, though even here nothing happens in a flash, just like that. Learning still takes time, even though it’s a different kind of time. ‘Quadrillions of years’ in an instant, you could say. And remember, I’m not for a moment denying what you would call the Bible’s ‘literary’ value, but what’s really miraculous about it is that these words and all they show us about life are written in ways that can arouse the imagination of a child, just as my imagination was aroused by the mention of camels in the story of Job. A child will not understand if you speak of divine infinity, but if you talk of nomads and their camels wandering in an empty desert and seeking a land to call their own, it will understand—and it will remember until the time is right. You don’t need to make every story into a ‘lesson’. Maybe that’s the worst thing you can do.”

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich, I can see how all of this makes sense if we’re speaking about the Old Testament and the stories of the Patriarchs and so on. But how does it work for the New Testament? I grant you that the parables of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, and so one, and all the stories about Jesus offering forgiveness to sinners or healing the blind, the lame and the lepers have that same story-like quality that you get in the stories about Joseph and his brothers …”

            “Yes, these are essential,” he interjected.

            “Yes,” I insisted, “I can see that but when we get on to Paul and some of the other parts of the New Testament, doesn’t it all become, how can I say, too ‘theological’, doesn’t it turn the stories into doctrines?”

            “Really?” He looked genuinely surprised.

            “A lot of people think that. And they’d add that Paul is largely responsible for Christianity’s hatred of the body and, especially, sexuality.”

            “Sexuality? I’m not quite sure what that means. I’ve been told that Sigmund Freud read me (rather irresponsibly, from what I hear), but (of course) I never read Freud. But I can’t see how you can be talking about the same Paul who wrote that great hymn to love, explaining how love is greater than knowledge, greater even than faith or hope; the same Paul, who wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced, who was happy to be poor if he could make others rich, content to be weak and to find strength in weakness; the same Paul, who endured beating, stoning, shipwreck, cold, and nakedness for Christ’s sake; Paul, who warned fathers not to provoke their children and urged us to see that we are all members of one another? Is all of this ‘theological’ as you put it? ‘Every creature of God is good and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving.’ What did Plato, or Kant, or Hegel ever say that was more human, more life-affirming than that? How does that lead to hating the body?”

            I have to admit that I’d been playing Devil’s advocate to some extent. I was aware of the passages to which Fyodor Mikhailovich referred, at least in a general sort of way and I was aware that even some philosophers were starting to find Paul a rather interesting figure again, although the popular view was still that everything that was wrong with Christianity was to be laid at his door. 

            “Nevertheless,” I persisted, “wasn’t it Paul who made Christianity into a matter of obedience to authority rather than relying on the spontaneity of love?”

            “Authority? Yes:  but what kind of authority? The only authority Paul ever speaks of is the authority of one who emptied himself of all his divine glory and was content to be found in the form of a servant. A servant’s authority is, I think you’ll agree, very different from an Emperor’s. Christ, Christ in his humility, in the form of a servant—did Paul ever speak or write of anything else? And Christ—isn’t Christ the one theme of the Scriptures from start to finish? If you can show me anything in Scripture that is not pointing to Christ then I’m happy to let it go. We are judged by Scripture, but Scripture is judged by Christ. You could even say that he is the Word in the word in the word.”

            “Like a Russian doll …” I began, but at that moment we were interrupted by the sound of the outer door being unlocked. Laura was home. What would happen next? Would Fyodor Mikhailovich stay? What would I say? “Laura, I’d like you to meet … Fyodor Mikhailovich, this is my wife Laura … “What on earth would she think? Or was he, after all, a hallucination? What would happen when these two realities met? 

            “Hi,” Laura called out, as she opened the inner door. “It’s only me.”

            I looked back to Fyodor Mikhailovich. But he wasn’t there. It wasn’t that he’d vanished. There hadn’t been the kind ‘whoosh’ you get in a film, when ghosts vanish. He just wasn’t there. I was alone. The only sign of his having been was The Old Curiosity Shop lying on the table. I definitely hadn’t got that out. I felt stunned. There was nothing to be done, though. I just had to act normal. As normal as I could be.

            “Hi,” I answered, going into the hall to meet her. “How was your day?”

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