Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 1

Christmas came and went. I did go to midnight mass. James surprised me by saying that he would like to come too, but at the last minute he went off to the pub with his friends. Laura stayed at home, saying she needed some quiet and that it was a good opportunity to call her brother in America.

            St Laurence’s was quite high church and prided itself on its beautiful liturgy but in the event I found myself constantly juggling a small pile of leaflets and books. It was all a bit chaotic and all very different from how I imagined the deep solemnity of the Orthodox ritual that Dostoevsky would have known. But I shouldn’t quibble. It was well meant. The sermon was about the shepherds and reminded me vaguely of what Fyodor Mikhailovich had said about the mystery of Christ’s birth belonging to the reality of humble, common people. And there was something rather moving, quite profound even, about this very mixed congregation shuffling out of their seats and standing in line, heads bowed, waiting to receive communion. I didn’t go up myself. You might think that having now been visited (twice) by someone—a spirit?—from  the other world (or, as he put it, ‘the great synthesis’), I would be ready to make this act of faith. The fact is, though, that I was very unsure as to what these conversations really meant and, at moments, wondered whether I wasn’t having some kind of mental breakdown. But even if they were real, they hadn’t yet answered the questions about God or some ultimate meaning in life with which we started. Maybe that ‘great synthesis’ that Dostoevsky talked about was just more of the same, literally ad infinitum. But was that something worth hoping for? Perhaps the uncanny change that seemed to come over Fyodor Mikhailovich at the end of our last conversation signalled the possibility of a very different kind of existence, a higher existence maybe. But what exactly? He had hinted at a further meeting. Would he then say more or even show more about that higher existence? So many questions. In the event, our next conversation would be rather different from those that gone before, but not at all in a way I could have expected. Before I tell you about it, though, I need to set the scene.

            Towards the end of the Christmas vacation, we had a couple of colleagues round for dinner. We’d known Martin and his wife Tamsin since he and I were graduate students and we’d overlapped for a couple of years at Cambridge before I got the job at Glasgow. Martin had followed a few years later, though in his case this was to take up a full professorship (I was merely a senior lecturer). He had changed rather a lot since we first met. Back then he was always dressed in black and his straggly shoulder-length hair always looked unwashed—though more beatnik than Goth. He more or less chain-smoked especially noxious French cigarettes and ostentatiously spurned anything of Anglo-American provenance. Unsurprisingly, he had tobacco stains running up the index and middle finger of his right hand.

            His thesis had been on the existentialist film director Robert Bresson, which rather fitted the image he projected at the time. I suppose we both had an ‘interest’ in existential despair, though mine never found quite such stylized expression. By the time we met up again in Glasgow he’d undergone quite a change. He still smoked, though not as much, and, more importantly, had converted to Catholicism. I don’t really have any inside knowledge on Catholic Church politics, but I suspected he was probably what the media would call ‘conservative’, maybe even very conservative. His clothes had also changed and his invariably rather grubby and sometimes torn rollneck jumpers had been replaced by neatly pressed shirts and even, occasionally, a tie—though his ties always had quite unusual hand-designed abstract patterns. This was, probably, down to Tamsin, whom people always described as ‘artistic’, although she had never had any formal art training. She had only been in paid employment for a few years after their marriage and since then had been largely occupied with their four children, all of whom seemed to have incredibly active social, cultural, and sporting lives that required massive parental input. When we first met, she had been very New-Agey. I think at one point she had an aromatherapy practice and maybe still did. She too now attended church with Martin and they both went off on mysterious-sounding retreats somewhere in the Highlands.

            Our third guest was Carl, a new colleague who’d only been in Glasgow about a year. In his early 40s, he was a bit younger than the rest of us. He was a philosopher and worked on things like critical theory and postmodern philosophy—hard core.  I’d met him at a seminar he gave on Derrida and literature. I hadn’t really followed what he’d said, but afterwards we had a good talk in the pub and he seemed sympathetic. I’d thought it would be good for him and Martin to meet, as Martin ran a course on film and philosophy and they both had what you could call a French connection. My hunch was that Carl was a fairly secular leftist and he and Martin might have some serious intellectual differences, but that could be interesting too. I also thought it would be good for him to meet Laura, since he was working on a big grant application that would have to pass through her office at some point.

            The conversation that had ranged fairly haphazardly over the normal kind of professional issues we had in common (marketization of higher education, semi-literate students, time-consuming form-filling, etc.), the eccentricities of our predecessors, a new exhibition at the Edinburgh modern art museum, and a hilarious discussion (or so it seemed at the time) of bad religious films, during which I commented (as I always did) that The Life of Brian was completely unnecessary, since the kind of Hollywood Jesus films it spoofed were so bad that they sent themselves up anyway. We’d touched on the independence issue, but while those of us who’d been in Glasgow for several years were all sympathetic, we picked up that Carl was rather opposed, so we quickly skirted away from that one. It’s a subject on which passions can get a bit out of hand.

            We were starting dessert (a rather extravagant fruit tart that we’d brought in from a patisserie on Byers Road) and, as I was cutting into my first slice, Martin asked what I was reading.

            “Apart from what I’ve got to read for work?”

            “Naturally.”

            That was an easy one.

            “Dostoevsky, mostly.”

            “Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky,” intervened Laura from the far end of the table. “I even think he talks to him when I’ve gone to bed.” This last was a bit of a shock. Did she know something?

            “Still, he’s got me reading him again” she added. I’d noticed that she’d been working through Crime and Punishment and The Idiot at bedtime, though, strange as it may seem, we hadn’t really discussed them much, apart from the kind of brief exchanges that can be summed up in words like ‘interesting’, ‘OK’, ‘amazing’, ‘aaargh’, etc.

            “Really?” said Martin, rather portentously, stretching out the first syllable to unnatural length. It sounded like he was going to say more, but he then paused and rather ceremoniously took a bit of the flan, followed by a sip of the dessert wine.

            “This is quite delicious,” he said. “Congratulations.”

            “No congratulations needed,” laughed Laura, “I’ve had so many desserts go wrong that we decided to rely on the professionals.”

            “Very French,” commented Martin. “But … Dostoevsky, that’s interesting. You know a chapter of my thesis was about Dostoevsky.”

            I had read his thesis years ago after he’d turned it into his first book. I’d forgotten the Dostoevsky chapter, though I vaguely recalled something about Bresson having used one of his novels as inspiration.

            “Didn’t Bresson adapt one of the novels …” I ventured.

            “Not one but four,” Martin answered.

            “Which are?”

            “Pickpocket—that’s Crime and Punishment, Au hasard BalthasarThe Idiot, Une femme Douce (I think that’s A Gentle Spirit in English), and Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is White Nights.”

            I didn’t really know any of these. I remembered having seen The Diary of a Country Priest several times, a decidedly miserabilist story about a priest who is alienated from his parish, loses his faith, and dies but—somehow—ends by saying ‘All is grace’. I had to admit my ignorance.

            “No,” said Laura, “we watched Au hasard Balthasar last year … you remember, the one about the donkey.”

            “The donkey? Oh, right … it gets beaten … stolen … abused … and shot … is that it?”

            Martin smiled magnanimously.

            “A perfect plot summary,” he commented.

            “But I can’t see a connection to Dostoevsky.”

            “You said it was The Idiot?” asked Laura.

            “Not exactly,” said Martin. “The others are more or less straight adaptations, but this is more of a variation on a theme than an adaptation.”

            “Ah yes!” I suddenly remembered. “Isn’t there a moment when Prince Myshkin is explaining about how he was in a virtually comatose condition and is only brought back to life by the sound of a donkey? I suppose he’s a bit of a donkey himself,” I added rather feebly, without really thinking it through (we’d had a fair bit to drink by then).

            “Like Christ,” said Tamsin, quietly. We all looked.

            “Yes,” she explained, “the oldest known picture of Christ shows him on the cross—with the head of a donkey. We saw it in the catacombs last year, didn’t we, Martin?”

            Martin nodded.

            Well, yes, I thought to myself. That made a kind of sense of Myshkin’s own story, not least if one thought of him as a Christ-figure (though I now knew that Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t like that expression and I seemed to hear his voice reminding me that he didn’t write allegories). Nevertheless, I had a momentary image of Myshkin as the ‘man of sorrows’ of Christian art and the words of Dylan’s ‘I am a man of constant sorrow’ also flashed through my mind, as did Eliot’s line about an ‘infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’.

            The conversation had stalled, so I thought I could get a bit more information out of Martin, who never objected to the chance to hold forth.

            “That’s really interesting,” I said appreciatively. “What about the others? Une Femme Douce, for example.” (This, of course, had a special meaning for me, as it had been the starting-point of my conversations with Fyodor Mikhailovich.)

            “That’s a fairly straightforward adaptation, as far as I know,” Martin replied, “though he updates it to 1960s Paris. Very existentialist. It even features Les Deux Magots!” Sensing all-round incomprehension, he explained. “You know, the place where Sartre and de Beauvoir used to sit and write. The same goes for Four Nights of a Dreamer. Pickpocket is a bit looser—whereas Raskolnikov kills the old pawnbroker with an axe to prove his Übermensch status, the pickpocket picks pockets, but he too is saved by love. No one actually gets killed.”

            “That makes a change, then,” said Laura, rather firmly.

            “How so?” asked Martin, with a kind of anticipatory amusement, obviously feeling on safe ground and, as I knew, he and Laura always seemed to enjoy arguing.

            “As I remember the Bresson films I’ve seen … well, there’s Joan of Arc—that doesn’t end well … the country priest loses his faith and dies … Mouchette has an utterly wretched life of poverty and abuse and drowns herself … and we’ve already mentioned poor little Balthasar … it’s all pretty dismal.”

            “What do you expect?” Martin replied. “He’s a Catholic director who understands that self-sacrifice is the highest expression of faith. Yes, the priest loses his faith and dies but he also learns that it’s not his will or what happens to him that matters, but God’s will. That’s why he can say ‘All is grace’. It’s triumphant—not ‘dismal’, as you put it. Now,” (I could see him gathering himself for a speech) “I’m not saying you’re guilty of this, but Catholicism isn’t the kind of ‘how-to-make-friends-and-influence-people’ feelgood religion that everyone seems to want nowadays, even if Pope Francis seems a bit that way inclined. Catholicism is a religion of suffering and that’s why it can speak for sufferers and to sufferers; that’s why the priest prays over the chalice that he might have the grace to be immolated together with Christ. And Bresson is great because he’s the one who comes closest to showing that in film. Tarkovsky, perhaps—but it’s all a bit too overdone and sententious, don’t you think? Bresson keeps to the bareness of reality. And Dostoevsky? I think he too understands this inner connection between faith and suffering. So—Prince Myshkin suffers and dies. Isn’t that what Christ did?”

            Of course, he was misremembering slightly, since Myshkin doesn’t die at the end of the novel but relapses into a comatose state. More importantly, perhaps, I wasn’t sure that he was right to identify Dostoevsky with the idea that a self-sacrificial death was a goal in itself. There was suffering at the heart of every one of his novels, but it wasn’t something to be sought. We had to change the human condition through love—not more suffering. The characters in the novels who go in for extreme penances, like wearing chains or feats of prodigious fasting aren’t always—hardly ever—models of love. Really, there’s not much to distinguish them from the nihilists and both ascetics and nihilists seem more interested in demonstrating their own will-power than they are in caring for other people.

            “I’m not sure that that’s right … about Dostoevsky …” I began, but Carl had already jumped in. I’d noticed that he’d had a long and quite involved talk with Laura earlier on, but he hadn’t taken much part in the general conversation, apart from a brief comment about nationalism being the curse of contemporary Europe when we were talking Scottish politics.

            “But this is exactly the problem with existentialism as a whole,” he announced. “I don’t know Bresson’s work, so I can’t comment on that and I dare say that from a literary point of view Dostoevsky is a very important writer, but this ideology of self-sacrifice and this obsession with negative emotions is not the answer to anything. It’s no surprise that the existentialists picked up on Dostoevsky because, like him, they offer a very clear depiction of the self-contradictions of modern bourgeois society but precisely because they (like him) discount rationality they are unable to offer any constructive way forward out of these contradictions. Communism also failed but at least Communism was in principle committed to applying reason to the problems of society. Lukacs was, I think, right to label it ‘parasitic subjectivism’, even if he ended up as an apologist for Stalin. OK, I don’t go that far, but there’s all the difference between a cry for help and actually trying to find a solution.”

            I suppose that I had myself been inclined to associate Dostoevsky with existentialism and, clearly, he was important for figures like Sartre and Camus (especially Camus, who’d turned one of the novels into a play). Our conversations had started with my own existentialist-style questions about the meaninglessness of life, but I was beginning to see that Dostoevsky didn’t quite fit the existentialist frame. At least, he wasn’t a writer who just plunged into the abyss for the sake of it. Whatever Carl said, he was concerned with finding a way out of the crisis of his time—the crisis of capitalism, if you like—but (and I was increasingly thinking he was right) you couldn’t find a reliable way if you didn’t start with the human heart itself. I don’t know if Dostoevsky had ever read Pascal, but he’d have understood Pascal’s line that the heart has its reasons.

            Carl, I suspected, had been unaware of Martin’s Catholicism, though he knew now—and obviously wasn’t finding it very congenial. In any case, both of them seemed to be falling into a rather unnuanced view of Dostoevsky that I didn’t want to let pass.

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