Conversation 3: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 7

            “Sorry,” I said, “can we go back a step?” (Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded.) “Right. I kind of half get this. I mean, I do realize that you sometimes have to approach a person or a subject with a certain sympathy or even love before you can fully understand them. No one’s ever going to tell their secrets to someone who’s consistently hostile or indifferent to them. A good counseller is going to get more out of you than a torturer. So, if I’m completely closed to the idea of Christ, that’s it, end of story. Nada. I have to be open and willing to learn, I accept that, but—and it’s a big ‘but’—I must have some idea of who he is before I can even begin to think about whether I love him or not. Where am I going to get this idea from?”

            “There are the gospels—if you actually had a copy of the Bible on your shelves.”

            Ouch.

            “Point taken—and I should say that I did actually pick up a copy of the Bible to keep at home after our last conversation!” (I’d ‘picked it up’ from a charity bookshop round the corner.) He smiled. “But will that be enough?” I continued. “As I said then, I’ve known the main gospel stories, the parables, the sermon on the Mount, the Passion nearly all of my life. All the same, as of now, that doesn’t make the earth move for me. After all, it’s just a book and, who knows, maybe it’s all just a collection of myths and legends built around someone who maybe wasn’t really like that at all. I don’t know if any of it is even true. What I need is something more immediate, something that would show me the kind of difference it would make if someone like that had really existed: if someone like that really did exist, now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

            “You mean—perhaps—meeting someone who was Christ-like in actual life?”

            “Exactly!”

            “I understand. For me too, Christ was also just an idea in a book, a dream of a better world, a utopia, until I saw the living quality of Christian love amongst the poor, oppressed slaves with whom I lived in prison. Of course, many of them were not good men, I’ve never pretended otherwise. But they reminded me of the truly Christian love, the gentleness, the readiness to forgive that one encountered in some of our people, no matter how materially impoverished or brutally treated by their masters. And then, as one of the venerable Church Fathers said, a King is never without his army, meaning that Christ’s love continues to be manifest in the saints in all the very different circumstances in which the saints found themselves living. Perhaps, then, that’s the first thing to do: to think about those people and those occasions who have shown you what self-giving love really is like—and their love will point you to Christ.”

            I thought for a moment. Again, I ‘half’ got it, but the problem was that although I’d probably met many people in my life who you could describe as ‘loving’, I’m not sure that any of them really showed anything you could call Christ-like. Nicer than average, perhaps—but scarcely divine. As for the saints, I don’t think I’d met any of them and the ones I’d read about all seemed too long ago and faraway to connect with my middle-class life in the early twenty-first century.

            “Saints,” I said vaguely, “but who are the saints? How do you get to meet them?”

            “I don’t think Christ is ever without his witnesses,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said calmly, “but you may have to make an effort to find them. Perhaps you need to become a pilgrim?”

            I had, of course, already thought about that.

            “That’s a nice idea,” I said, “but my job doesn’t give me time for that kind of luxury! In any case, it’s not just about me. I’m just one example, me and thousands—millions—of others. We just don’t live in a world of saints—and most of those who do set themselves up as gurus or teachers turn out to be fake! Where can I even start looking?”

            “I’m not sure that you’re right,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said gently, “but let’s assume that you are. So where is it you get your ideas of good and evil from? How have you learned what it means to love? If you have any ideal over and above earning your salary and enjoying ‘oysters and champagne’, where did you get it from?”

            “I suppose from my parents and family, in the first instance—my teachers and, yes, maybe what I learned at church. But I’m not sure that what I learned amounted to much more than trying to be a reasonably good citizen and neighbour and fit in with what was expected from me. Nothing saint-like—that would be much too extreme for middle England!”

            “So why are we even having this conversation? If that was all there was to it, wouldn’t you now be contentedly getting on with your life instead of worrying over the eternal questions like a nineteenth-century Russian boy?”

            “We’re having this conversation because you turned up in my life!” I couldn’t help saying, hopefully with humour. Fortunately, he got it and chuckled.

            “I suppose I did. But I wouldn’t have turned up (as you put it) if you hadn’t wanted me to. So, why did you want me to?”

            Had I really wanted him to turn up? I wondered. His being here certainly wasn’t making anything easier. But, then again, what reader of Dostoevsky (or Dickens, or Flaubert, or whoever else) wouldn’t want the chance to speak with the man himself?

            I shrugged.

            “Because I’d read your books … because they stirred something in me that I wouldn’t otherwise have had words for … ”

            “Which was? What you call your existential despair?”

            “Yes, that  … but not just that. Also …” I was struggling to find the right words here. “also that there’s a way through that to something else … something more than just settling down and conforming to what society expects …  In terms of what we’ve been talking about, I suppose you could just say it’s Christ. Yes, Christ.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, though sympathetically.

            “But if you want to find Christ, you must find him for yourself—though I’ve made some suggestions,” he said gently.

            “I know, I know!” I exclaimed. “But how would I even recognize him! The people of Seville in the time of the Grand Inquisitor and your Russian peasants lived in religious societies, so perhaps they were tuned in to the right wavelength by upbringing. But how would you even begin to recognize Christ if he came again urban, industrial, capitalist, modern—postmodern—world?”

            “Again, I can’t answer that question,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said, nodding. “What Christ means in your time is up to you who live in it. But I understand the question. In a way, it was the same question I tried to address in my time. And for all the differences between my time and yours, I see a lot of similarities, some of which we’ve already spoken about: the mad pursuit of wealth and the ruthless competition it engenders, the constant shaking-up of social relations that follows, and the desperate attempt to make ourselves into our own gods and believing that science can tell us how to be better human beings—not to mention the ruination of our environment for short-term financial gain. How one can recognize Christ when one is under the spell of all this—that’s a difficult question. Perhaps he would be unrecognizable, absurd or even pathetic—at least in the eyes of those who are wedded to the values of the present age.”

            I thought for a moment. What Fyodor Mikhailovich had just said reminded me of a seminar in which the famous philosopher who was speaking said that the only form in which God could appear in our world today would be like Shakespeare’s ‘Poor Tom’ or Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’. In other words, he’d be someone who couldn’t make himself understood to his contemporaries.  Incomprehensible. A madman or an idiot. And it wouldn’t end any better than last time, even though our world has supposedly been modelled on his teachings.

            “Like your idiot, then?”

            He half-smiled.

            “But if that’s right, then we come back to the same problem as with the Christ in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Myshkin only half fits the bill. He offers unconditional love, granted, especially to fallen or falsely accused women, but he doesn’t seem capable of action. He just stands there while everything around him falls apart. No one gets saved and, if anything, his behaviour just makes it worse. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s an amazing character. He’s always appealed to me in a special way. I think you also spoke of him as a ‘beautiful’ personality and I get that—but it’s a beauty ‘not of this world’. And, I should add, I’m not ‘against’ your—Ivan’s—Christ either. In fact, it appeals more to me than the kind of Christ you sometimes hear about in church. But that’s my point: it’s not the same Christ as we read about in the gospels. So you’ll tell me: go back to the gospels, then—to which I say that this is the problem: they don’t belong to our world, they don’t tell me what it would mean to encounter Christ today, in the world as it really is.”

            As he listened he continued quietly smiling, but I felt there was something sad about that smile.

            “Again, I have to say that I don’t entirely agree,” he began. “As regards my ‘Idiot’ he was never meant to be Christ nor is he an allegory. I know that people often say that he was my attempt to create a ‘Christ figure’, as you call it, but that I failed—for the kind of reasons you spell out very clearly—not to say brutally. But I do wish people would stick to the books I actually did write rather than criticize me for not having written the books they think I wanted to write. Myshkin was doomed to fail from the outset—and precisely because he was never sufficiently grounded in our Russian reality. Doesn’t Christianity say that Christ had to become fully man if he was to save us? But what does that mean if not to belong fully and identify fully with a particular time and place. In that regard Sonia Marmeladova is more Christ-like, but perhaps we’ll speak more of her another time. In any case, neither she nor Myshkin are meant to ‘be’ Christ, but they each reveal a single ray of his light, so to speak. No character in a novel could ever be the full Christ. It’s interesting that you don’t mention Zosima or Alyosha, whom some people also talk about as Christ-like, but neither of them were weak or helpless. Zosima helped many, didn’t he? And Alyosha—well, we don’t know yet what Alyosha’s capable of, but even in the novel I managed to write, he brings people together, helps enemies become friends, humbles the proud, and reconciles the resentful.”

            “I suppose he does—and his speech at the end, where he talks about using our good memories from childhood to be the basis for a better life is as good a sermon as I’ve ever read. But it doesn’t really require any kind of belief in God, let alone miracles—you could almost call it is a secular sermon, as far as I can see. And, anyway, I don’t personally see Alyosha as a Christ-figure. To put it at its simplest, he’s just a really nice guy, a thoroughly decent young man, who has a good effect on others.” I sighed. “Your novels, Fyodor Mikhailovich, help. And I’m not saying there are other novels that do better. Most of the twentieth century novelists who tried to produce Christ-figures (and several of them, I think, were in any case influenced by you) also ended up with ‘Christs’ who were too weak, sick, or mad to save anyone else. Novelists can re-imagine or re-invent old stories—like we were saying last time—but perhaps there’s a limit to what any novelist—even you—can do.”

            He laughed and even seemed rather pleased by my little speech.

            “Of course,” he said, “yes, yes, yes—of course, there’s a limit to what any novelist can do. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. And, as we also said last time, the novelist can only confront you with the truth when the story he’s telling or, if you like, retelling—no matter how fantastical it might seem—is itself the truth.”

            “But there we are again! The truth! I suppose the Grand Inquisitor and your ‘idiot’ make us think about how Christ might be if he were to come again and that’s an extraordinary idea to play with. But what I want is someone who can really persuade me that Christ’s ‘love’ isn’t just a nice ideal: it’s a universal law, someone, that is, who really can say ‘Love one another’ and say it convincingly.”

            “You’re thinking about the ending of A Gentle Spirit again?”

            “Exactly. It seems to me that if the world is to be more than the infinite succession of cause and effect—‘beneath a dead sun’—then we need to hear something more than a fragment of ancient history, something more than what the church has been repeating for generation after generation, and even something more than anything a novel can tell us. Where do we find it? Where am I going to hear that voice? When—how—do I get to see the truth?”

            Our conversation was at a crux. From time to time it had been in danger of slipping into the mode of a fairly detached academic conversation. A question-and-answer session with a great writer. The stuff of book festivals. And sometimes I’d been in danger of forgetting that this wasn’t just a matter of finding out what Fyodor Mikhailovich really thought but of getting an answer to my original question as to how to go on living if the world really was a moral desert or, to be a little less melodramatic, how to live with purpose, strength, and joy in a world that was essentially indifferent to our humanity. But was the world like that or was there someone capable of commanding us to love one another? Someone like Christ? No, not ‘like Christ’—Christ. So why beat about the bush? Why go on with my more or less (mostly less) clever cross-examination? There was an obvious shortcut that was staring me in the face or, at least, sitting opposite and waiting for me to speak. The question seemed impertinent, even to me. But I had to ask.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich … excuse me, this may seem a completely stupid question but you—now—do you see Him?”

            Dostoevsky pursed his lips and breathed deeply. He was not angry, as I’d feared he might be. The light that I’d once glimpsed deep in his eyes seemed suddenly to shine out in with almost tangible brightness and his face became somehow radiant, even though his expression had scarcely changed. It was as if his whole energy was becoming manifest in his face, which seemed to grow larger in relation to his body. It was almost frightening and I scarcely dared look at him. Some seconds passed and the phenomenon grew even more intense. Abashed, I looked down.

            Suddenly, the atmosphere eased. Raising my head, I almost expected him to have gone, but he was still there, looking more like he normally did (if ‘normally’ is the right word to describe a visitor from another world), but, as it were, refreshed.

            “What can I say?” he said gently. Taking a deep breath, he added, “I think it’s time to go.”

            I wanted to shout out ‘Stay!’ We were so near, and I needed to make sense both of what he’d been saying and what I’d seen. At the same time, I knew that arguing would be pointless. There was a firmness in his voice that would not be contradicted.

            “You must?”

            “It’s best.”

            “Will I see you again?”

            “When the time is right.”

            I wanted to press him as to when that would be—all the while knowing that such a question would remain unanswered. I remained silent.

            I didn’t really know what to expect next. Would he dematerialize in some kind of way, like someone in a science-fiction movie being teleported? Would he gradually fade, leaving only an outline that would slowly disappear? None of the above.

            “Now I’ll go,” he said, standing up. “Thank you for the beer. I have enjoyed our conversation. I hope you have.”

            Politely, I stood up. “Thank you,” I said, not quite sure what I was thanking him for exactly.

            “No, stay,” he said, “I’ll let myself out.”

            I watched him walk to the door and go out into the hall. He was gone.

            I sat back down and breathed out, long and slow. Something extraordinary had happened. But what?

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