Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 1

My third conversation with Dostoevsky took place about a week before Christmas. Laura was out at her team’s Christmas dinner and I wasn’t expecting her back till late. I had finished my marking and only had one more paper to finish off for a conference in January plus a short review to write. Usually I might have worked on these in the evening, but it had been a long term and, frankly, I was exhausted. I could take a night off. Thinking about nothing. Or nothing much. I hadn’t been thinking about Dostoevsky. The nearest thing to a prompt was a piece about Russian policy in the Middle East in the early evening news. Once again, it seemed, Russia had become our official enemy. Almost unbelievable. Something had gone wrong, and it wasn’t just Putin. After the news I channel-hopped, checked my streaming channels, and skimmed our DVDs, but nothing appealed. Maybe I should just listen to some music. These days, I rarely had the mental space to listen to anything serious in a sustained way unless we actually went out to a concert. What though? Bach? Shostakovich? Pärt? Jazz? Jazz, maybe.

            With such deep questions on my mind I went through to the kitchen to get a beer. When I came back he was there.

            He was standing in front of the mantelpiece, hands clasped behind his back, bending forward and shaking his head appreciatively, his shoulders bobbing up and down as if in excitement. The cause of his enthusiasm seemed to be one of the Christmas cards (which we’d put up the night before), but I couldn’t immediately see which.

            Without turning towards me and almost as if speaking to himself, he said, very quietly, “I like this card. It’s good to see it here.”

            “Er … yes … which one?” I lamely replied.

            He took the card and opened it.

            “It says ‘From Fran and Jack. Maybe next year! Lots of love.’ Old friends?”

            “Er … yes …” (I wasn’t doing very well.) “Laura’s friend’s—that is, my wife’s—really … though I know them too, of course. But what’s the picture?”

            He handed it to me. Rather awkwardly, I put down my bottle and took a closer look. It was one of those Italian Renaissance Madonna-and-Childs that come in endless variations on the sort of cards sold by big national charities. I have to admit I never look at them all that closely. A bit sentimental for my taste. I still didn’t see anything special about it. Who was the artist? 

            “Raphael. ‘Madonna della Seggiola’,” I read out from the back of the card.

            “Yes,” he said. “Do you like it?”

            I had to be honest.

            “Er … not especially. I mean, I can see that it’s very finely executed, but if I was going to be blunt, I’d say that it was probably just an excuse for painting a pretty young mother and child. I certainly don’t see anything particularly religious about it, eve if she does have a halo. It’s a very thin one, though.”

            “So you’re not sure if you believe in God, you haven’t really read the Bible since childhood, but you like your Christmas cards to be religious?” he asked, teasingly.

            “Point taken. But I actually do go to Church—usually—at Christmas. Midnight Mass—even if I don’t take communion. Sometimes I do, if I’m moved.” (Actually, it must have been at least half-a-dozen years since I had.) “Just occasionally you get that sense of wonder you had as a child. It’s a world away from what they now call ‘the holiday season’. I mean, just look at these cards.” I waved my arm, taking in the array of winter landscapes, Christmas trees, blazing fires, tables laden with rich foods, choirboys, and just a few a Nativity scenes that Laura had intentionally grouped together on the mantelpiece. A couple of cards even had images of the senders with their smiling children rather than the traditional ‘Holy Family’—this is the age of the selfie after all!

            “And you don’t think this picture is religious—just a pretty mother and child, as you put it?”

            “Well, I can see that it’s meant to be Mary and Jesus with John the Baptist, but there’s nothing to tell you that the baby has come to save the World. He’s just a rather big baby. Or maybe a three-year old. As I say, it’s hard to see anything more than a nice young mother and child. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a beautiful thing to see. An archetypal human image, you could say. But it doesn’t speak to me of God.”

            “But I don’t imagine you want an old man in the sky either?”
            “No, of course not.”

            “Your God can’t be an old man or a young woman, then. He (if he’s a ‘he’) has to be outside the world altogether, quite out of sight—in another world, perhaps?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich had started off almost playfully, but his tone was starting to modulate into something more serious and I began to feel his eyes boring into my thoughts.

            I realized that this wasn’t a trick question, but it felt like I was caught in a double-bind. The problem—my problem—was precisely that I couldn’t see any place for God in a world like ours. It wasn’t that I was some kind of misanthrope or fancied myself as a latter-day Schopenhauer. I could see that there was a lot of good in the world, a lot of good in people, but it wasn’t at all evident to me that the goodness was stronger than … well, to use a word I don’t really like using very much: evil. I couldn’t see any law of love directing the course of things and, that being so, there was very little to protect us—to protect me—from the kind of bleak vision with which Dostoevsky had concluded his story A Gentle Spirit. That you’ll remember, was where this all started, and a bleak vision it was—a world without meaning or love, motionless beneath a dead sun. And yet, and yet, and yet! Didn’t there have to be something more? But old-fashioned religiosity with all its talk of miracles and prophecies just seemed naïve and even if someone could prove that there must be some kind of creator, that alone wasn’t going to do the job. I could imagine a beautiful divine mind creating a perfect mathematical universe that would be intellectually satisfying for those who could do the equations, but there would be no reason why such a God would care about human beings and their suffering. Probably even bacteria or viruses have a mathematical beauty. So I suppose that’s why I still had a lingering affection for the Christmas story of a God who could appear on earth in human form, ‘born as one of us’ as one hymn had it, a God you could see and touch but who was still, in some sense, ‘God’. Not that I believed this—but I liked the idea. All the same, this picture was just too ordinary. Why had he singled just this picture out? Why not the Fra Angelico Annunciation that was next to it and that, to my mind, was a much more spiritual?

            I looked again. The painting was in roundel form. The Madonna was shown sitting in a chair, with a green embroidered shawl draped over her shoulders and a kind of loose striped turban round her head. I remembered the detail of the green shawl in Crime and Punishment and wondered whether that was why Fyodor Mikhailovich liked it so much. She had the kind of soft regular features you see in a lot of Renaissance paintings and actually still see today in Italy. It wasn’t the kind of contemporary face that’s always ready to smile to camera—the kind of face our children have now learned to put on by the time they go to school. Instead, it was the sort of face you see in photographs from the nineteenth century,  a face that wasn’t used to being looked at, a reticent face, not giving everything away at first glance. Her large observant eyes gazed steadily back at me as if to say, “You may look, but keep your distance; no-one can come near my baby unless I invite them.” The baby itself (as I had said) looked more like a three-year old than a new-born infant and did in fact appear rather apprehensive, as if seeking assurance from it mother as to whether I was to be trusted or not. An infant John the Baptist was leaning against the mother’s knee, looking up at what legend supposed to be his cousin. The whole thing was beautifully balanced, very tender, winsome, you could say, but was it anything more than that?

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