Conversation 4: ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 2

(with apologies for the late posting)

            “Existentialism … I do half get what you’re saying, at least insofar as it gave a kind of free pass for self-indulgent waffle about the meaninglessness of life” (was I talking about myself?) “… though surely the real philosophers amongst them were more rigorous … but Dostoevsky wasn’t really an existentialist … not in the sense you’re talking about, was he?”

            Carl began to come back to me, but Martin talked over him.

            “You misunderstand me,” he said, addressing himself to Carl. “Catholicism culminates in the will to self-sacrifice. But it does not reject reason. On the contrary, the Church has a very high view of the office of reason. Reason enables us to understand the necessity of God’s existence, it enables us to live moral and socially useful lives. It affirms the principles of social order, the family, the economy, the state. It’s not irrationalism, as you seem to be thinking.”

            Carl smiled.

            “Dostoevsky? Catholicism? Where should I begin. Look, I don’t know a lot about religion, but it does seem to me that in our secular society the development and articulation of moral norms doesn’t require any kind of religious underpinning, whether that’s institutional, as in Catholicism, or individual and emotional, as in existentialism and Dostoevsky. I mean, art is always going to be emotional and expressive, so I don’t criticize a writer for that. But it’s like going to the theatre: you enjoy the play, but then you come out into the real world.”

            “But it’s surely more complex than that,” I began. “Isn’t literature a part—a crucial part—of society’s attempt to work out the kind of world we live in and the kind of world we want to live in? Just look at the whole history of the relationship between literature and social reform in the nineteenth century or literature and political action in the twentieth.”

            “Yes, to a degree. But as for literature and political action, I don’t think that’s an entirely happy story. Just think of the writers who endorsed fascism or Stalinism. Social reason is something very different from literature.”

            “The needs of the soul,” declared Martin.

            Carl and I both looked at him in some surprise, as he’d doubtless hoped.

            “The needs of the soul—I just do not see how you are ever going to develop a programme for improving society unless you understand the needs of the soul. Human beings cannot be reduced to algorithms and, surely, social reason (as you call it) has to take that into account?”

            “Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m fine with writers and artists expressing what you call the needs of the soul but how we feel about things isn’t enough to determine the norms we should collectively live by. These are different kinds of discourses and we need to be able to keep them apart.” Carl paused, before adding (rather provocatively) “And the same goes for religion.”

            “I’m intrigued …” said Martin, but didn’t immediately continue. Carl clearly thought this was an invitation to develop his point further.

            “Religion, any religion, is always social and so has to have some scope for adjusting relations between individuals and the larger community. To that extent it has a positive relation to reason, like you say about Catholicism. Even when religious norms don’t really bear any relation to the real world, believers invariably try to give reasons for them, which is a kind of admission of the real power of reason. Art and literature, of course, don’t have to do that. Where’s the ‘reason’ in an abstract painting, for example? Literature is more complex, but a writer like Dostoevsky is perfectly justified in exploring emotional crises without ever having to explain them. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember it’s just art.”

            Again, I didn’t think this was right. Apart from the fact that he clearly didn’t know about the importance of Dostoevsky’s views on politics, I was—I am—sure that literature in general (and Dostoevsky in particular) had real things to say about the real world. When wasn’t literature ‘engaged’? However, before I could say anything, Martin had taken up the challenge.

            “I don’t have a view on what you call ‘literature’ in general,” he said, “but even though Dostoevsky was wrong about many things (including, as far as I can see, Catholicism), he was a very social thinker, a great proponent of Russian nationalism, and a defender of the Czar, so he’d have been very disappointed if someone restricted him to writing about emotional crises and nothing more.”

            I could see that Carl was trying to formulate a response but before he could do so Martin cut across him.

            “Of course, I suspect you wouldn’t like his nationalism very much and I don’t either, though his social teaching was part of what attracted some of the Catholic thinkers of the interwar years, I believe. But you might like the marvellous 1932 version of The House of the Dead with a very intelligent script by Viktor Shklovsky—it’s on YouTube. You know who I mean?” he added, looking at me for support.

            “Yes, of course, ‘defamiliarization’. I’ve read some of his critical works, but I didn’t know he worked in film.”

            “Well, he did. It was probably safer than writing literary criticism in Russia in the 1930s. So, the film starts out with Dostoevsky giving a tremendously successful lecture to crowds of middle-class admirers—lots of women—and then, afterwards, a government minister takes him aside and praises his powers of persuasion. ‘You should work for us,’ he says, ‘we need you to help prevent Revolution’. But, while he’s talking, Dostoevsky starts to look ill. Finally, he gasps out ‘You remind me of the Grand Inquisitor’ and goes into a fit—then we get The House of the Dead as a kind of flashback to his own early days of revolutionary purity. It’s very smart.”

            Carl nodded, slightly mollified.

            “Yes, I see that. And I suppose it was a way of making it palatable for Soviet authorities?”

            “Something like that,” agreed Martin. “But there you are, you can’t get round the fact that like all art it has a social context and a social … what can we say? … ‘impact’ to use that hideous word.”

            We all groaned. It was at that time a favourite word with academic bureaucracies.

            “OK,” resumed Carl. “But your example just underlines my point really. Things like Dostoevsky’s nationalism and the way the Soviets distorted art to use their ideological aims just shows that we need a separation of powers. It might have been better if Dostoevsky had stuck to psychological dramas and the Soviets had let artists do what they liked with their material instead of forcing them to toe the party line. It’s a simple category mistake.”

            I could see Martin, who was toying with the final crumbs of his tart, planning a further response, but before he could say anything, Laura jumped in. As I said before, we hadn’t really discussed Dostoevsky all that much, despite both being rather immersed in reading him (though we hadn’t been reading the same novels at the same time). She’d liked him a lot when we first read him as students, especially The Idiot, but I had got the impression she wasn’t quite so carried away this time.

            “It’s not his politics I object to,” she said. “It’s how he treats women.”

            We all looked at her.

            “How so?” asked Martin.

            “I’ll tell you in a minute,” she replied, “but first my lovely husband is going to make us tea or coffee, aren’t you?”

            “Of course,” I said, “but don’t start before I get back—I want to hear it!”

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