Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 7.

“Let’s begin very simply,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich. “Do you like the spring? Do you like to see the flowers and the new growth? Do you enjoy the birdsong?”

            “Yes, of course—everybody does.”

            “Do you love these things?”

            “I suppose so, but …”


            “Not in the way I love Laura. Of course, in a general sort of way I could say that I love nature and I love going out to walk in the hills, but that’s different from loving someone. And if it’s Christian love we’re talking about, isn’t that about loving people. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’?”

            “It is. Of course it is. But can you really separate the two?”

            “Surely you have to? I suppose that the landowner that Ivan Karamazov talked about, the one who had a boy killed for startling his horse with a stone, I suppose he loved his horses and dogs well enough. And Ivan Karamazov himself, didn’t he say he loved the sticky buds, that he loved life—but it didn’t help him believe in God, did it?”     

            Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded.

            “Yes, yes, yes. But just what did he love? Or should I say, how did he love? As he himself put it, he loved it even though he couldn’t see any meaning in it. But that was a very different kind of love from Markel’s, wasn’t it?”

            I nodded, recalling the description of Zosima’s brother Markel, a teenager dying of consumption who, in his last days, delights in the birds, trees, meadows and skies he can see through his window. In The Idiot too, another teenager, the angry and nihilistic Ippolit, is taken out to the country, where, someone says, it’s easier to die amongst trees.

            “Yes, I can see that—but I’m not sure why?”

            “For Ivan … it’s a feeling for the life-force flowing in his own veins that he sees mirrored in the sticky buds and it’s his own will-to-life that he experiences in nature. Markel, of course, is dying, his life-force is fading, but he delights in nature for its own sake—perhaps that’s why he asks the birds to forgive him, for not having loved them for their own sakes before. But I think I’m not explaining this very well. Vladimir Sergeyevich, you’re the philosopher. Can you explain?”

            “Of course.” He looked at me inquiringly. “May I?”


            “I think this is best approached in a philosophical way—but don’t worry, the sort of philosophy I mean is not for specialists. You don’t have to follow long and complex logical arguments. It’s more a way of looking at the world as a whole, a ‘world-view’ as they used to call it. 

            “Now you see, as Ivan Karamazov himself insisted, he was only prepared to look at the world in the perspective of Euclidean geometry. Although he wrote that notorious about church affairs (as we’ve been discussing), he was trained as a natural scientist and that means being trained in the way that a natural scientist was trained in his time, our time. I think science in your time has become somewhat less Euclidean and more alert to the manifold dimensions that encompass our life in the world, but for Ivan and his contemporaries science was limited to the facts of sense-experience, to whatever could be measured and numbered and classified. It was materialism, in a very narrow and limited sense; abstracting matter from the whole organic and dynamic movement of which it was a part. So when Ivan says he loves life, it is only this materialistic love of life that he is talking about, the will-to-life as Schopenhauer put it, a blind, purposeless, material urge. As he says to Alyosha, it doesn’t even involve seeing any meaning in life. But that is not life—or it is only a half of life or even less than half. Don’t mistake me. This materialism too had its justification, its rightful place in the overall development of history. You could even say it was a fruit of Christianity, because Christianity taught men to turn to the earth and not lose themselves in contemplating other-worldly ideas, as Plato and the Platonists had done. All things are growing together into a divine unity and that includes matter. But just as it was a mistake to see truth only in ideas, it is also erroneous to see truth only in matter. The truth is the whole.

            “Let me put this another way. What Ivan sees when he sees the sticky buds of spring is the power of life, the animal vitality of the Karamazov blood that all three brothers feel coursing within them, especially in the sex-drive and the will-to-power. But what Zosima’s brother Markel sees when he looks out from his window is the beauty of life, a beauty that’s quite independent of him, a beauty one can only marvel at without regard to whether it’s any use to ourselves. That’s ‘Platonic’ you might say, and, in a way, you’d be right. Plotinus saw it, certainly, but he still thought that, in the end, we had to turn away from the world to see it as it truly is. Which is because he didn’t know of God as creator, a creator who loves the wisdom that pervades and orders the world as a whole. 

            “You and Fyodor Mikhailovich have talked about Christ’s incarnation and everything Fyodor Mikhailovich said was true, and I would only add that incarnation is the supreme moment of a movement that runs from the beginning of creation to its end. It’s a process that we too are part of, not only bringing humanity together in universal fellowship but bringing the whole of creation, the whole cosmos, back to God in praise. 

            “All of this is to say that you cannot love human beings unless you also love the world that has brought them forth in the material dimension of their lives and, equally, that, unlike those friends you talked about, you cannot really love the world of nature if this does not lead you to love your fellow human beings. The sympathy that brings us close to each other is a universal sympathy, it’s the divine love that moves all things.”

            He stopped.

            It was a lot to take in. Fyodor Mikhailovich was looking up, smiling, his eyes twitching. I looked down, nodding gently. I think I’d followed it all.

            “So you see,” began Fyodor Mikhailovich, turning to look at me, “you see why Markel asks the birds to forgive him and why Zosima tells his disciples to kiss the earth, to kiss it and water it with their tears—remember what he said: ‘Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything and you will see the divine mystery in all things.’ We are not lords of creation any more than we are lords over each other. On the contrary, we are all too often busy destroying all that God has made well and wishes to make even better. Yes, we must ask the earth and all that lives on earth for forgiveness.”

            “My friend, Tamsin, then … she’s right to say we should be tuning in to the vibrations of the cosmos …?”

            “If she means it with love, if ‘tuning in’, as she puts it, increases love and enlarges your sympathy—of course!”
            “That poor crazy woman Maria Lebyatkina—she too talked of watering the earth with her tears: so was she right when she also said that the earth was the mother of God?”

            “Not quite,” replied Fyodor Mikhailovich and paused, momentarily absorbed in a melancholy thought. “She too—like, but also very unlike Ivan Fyodorovich—she too had only half the truth, she too loved the earth but without seeing its truth, its truth in God. Not that she was a materialist like Ivan. She wasn’t an intellectual at all but lived entirely in her feelings. She was, you could say, lost in her feelings. Literally, lost. And yet she also realized in her strange intuitive way that she needed something more, which is why she dreamed of a prince who would come to her like a falcon and lift her up into the air, taking her to the heaven that would help her see the earth in its true perspective. But, of course, it was a fantasy, a feeling that could never find true expression—and, as she said, her prince turned out to be only an owl. Perhaps you like owls, but the peasants used to think that when an owl visits your house it’s a sign of death.”

            “Whereas Alyosha experiences heaven—the Milky Way—sinking down into the earth that he kisses and waters with his tears. He experiences the unity of both.” This was half a statement and half a question.

            “And why his experience is inseparable from the need to forgive, to be forgiven, and the realization that others are praying for him.” Fyodor Mikhailovich finished my thought for me. 

            “Maria sees only the earth, only tears, only death; she cannot see beyond the part to the whole of which it is a part and into which it is constantly growing,” added Vladimir Sergeyevich. “And yet it is true that the earth and all that is in it manifests the divine wisdom, mother of all things—but this is not the earth’s own wisdom; it is not the earth that brings forth wisdom or is wisdom but it is wisdom, divine wisdom, that brings forth the earth. This is the wisdom that God loves, cherishes, and makes infinitely fruitful in all the infinite variety of life. In nature and in humanity, both.”

            As I’d felt a couple of times before in our conversation, Solovyov’s ideas were somehow elusive. I sensed a meaning in them, a flash of light that, for an instant, irradiated his words, but I couldn’t quite get a clear grip on what exactly he was saying. I thought of a passage I’d always remembered from the Bible where wisdom is described as God’s beloved daughter, playing before him in creation and wondered how far Solovyov wanted to push the idea of wisdom as a female divine principle. I also wondered how far Fyodor Mikhailovich agreed. I knew of his veneration for the image of the Madonna, which we’d discussed before, but this seemed rather different.

            Probably Fyodor Mikhailovich could see my uncertainty, as he patted me on the knee.

            “Vladimir Sergeyevich thinks about these things as a philosopher thinks. I was only a novelist, a teller of stories. But I think that what Zosima said was true, that ‘all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending’, and what we think or feel or do may have effects in worlds we never know and what is done in those other worlds may have effects on us, a passing thought, a glance of recognition, a moment of love. Naturally, the materialists, whether they are scientists, philosophers, or just lovers of champagne and oysters think that both philosophers and novelists are foolish and maybe even just a bit mad. And maybe they’re right. But if there is no such unity, if there is no such higher world for our world to aspire to, then, indeed, it is as we discussed in our first conversation and we are no more than insects crawling over the face of an empty and meaningless earth that has no light other than the light of a dead sun. But it is not so!”

            He spoke these last words with unusual force. Then, quite suddenly, he seemed to relax.

            “But, my goodness, look at the time! Shouldn’t you be getting back to work?”

            I looked at my watch. It was nearly three o’clock. I had a student coming at three and a class at four. I could forget about fitting in a quick trip to the library but if I left now I’d be back in my room by five past and, probably, the student wouldn’t turn up until ten past. In any case, she’d wait for at least ten minutes. But it seemed a waste of an opportunity to leave them both just as I was starting to feel—however uncertainly and confusedly—how our conversations were starting to connect up.

            “Um … er … I do have a student coming to see me,” I said, in a tone suggesting I’d be happy to be contradicted.

            “Then you must go,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, slapping his hands on his thighs and starting to get up. As he did so, he touched Vladimir Sergeyevich on the arm. “Come on, my friend, we too have others to see, many others.”

            We were all three standing now.

            “I go this way,” I said, gesturing towards the university.

            “And we go that way,” replied Fyodor Mikhailovich. They each gave a slight bow in my direction, turned, and walked off. Again, I had the impression that they’d slipped into talking in Russian as, I suppose, they would, no longer having to make themselves intelligible to me. After I’d walked a couple of hundred metres, my head full of our conversation, I turned to see if they had vanished. At first I thought they had, but, then I saw that they’d gone down to the lower level and were standing looking at the Stewart Memorial Fountain. Fyodor Mikhailovich pointed up at it and, remembering his admiration for Sir Walter Scott, I wondered whether he was telling Vladimir Sergeyevich about Scott’s poem of the Lady of the Lake whose statue topped the fountain’s Gothic pinnacle. I felt a drop of rain and, plunging my hands into my pockets, resumed my way back to the university.

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