“Where to begin?” he mused. Then, falling silent, he seemed transfixed by a tree to our right that was just coming into leaf. “Look at that!” he said, “How can anyone look at that and not be filled with joy?” His voice fell to a confidential whisper. “Perhaps all those books weren’t necessary after all!” He smiled and touched me lightly on the shoulder. Then, “Let’s carry on,” he added, and we resumed our climb.
“So. Raskolnikov. Sonia Marmeladova. Myshkin. Aglaya. Stavrogin. Old man Karamazov and his sons. The blessed Elder Zosima. It’s true, none of them ever existed, not in the way a living flesh-and-blood human being existed—and, by the way, you won’t get anywhere if you try to understand them by discovering the so-called real-life characters that some people think they were based on, whatever that means. That’s not how writing works. But it doesn’t follow that they’re not real. Maybe they’re even more real in a certain sense. As I’ve said before, being true to life isn’t the same as just holding up a camera to everyday reality. Genuine realism means looking beyond the external appearance and seeing what it is that makes those appearances appear as they do, seeing what makes reality tick, as I think your contemporaries might put it. It’s what I call a higher realism.”
“So it’s a bit like what you were saying when we talked about the Bible; that these characters are rather like archetypes.”
“Yes—but archetypes as they appear in life. As I wrote somewhere, you’ve maybe never ever met anyone who’s exactly like one of my characters but once you’ve become acquainted with them through my novels you suddenly realize that this is a true portrait of someone you really do know—and maybe you understand them for the very first time.”
“The play’s the thing …”
“Exactly. Shakespeare understood this very well. You’ve probably never known a would-be terrorist who’s just like Raskolnikov, for example, but you’ve probably known many a disillusioned and angry young man who is a Raskolnikov at heart—even though he’d never hurt a fly, let alone murder two defenceless women. And, equally, you’ve probably never met a saint like Zosima, but through Zosima you see the saintliness in all the people you have met who are at least on their way to saintliness.”
“The mirror of art,” I murmured. Thinking through what he’d been saying it struck me that this wasn’t only true of the characters in his novels, it was also true of the situations in them. “At first, I’d found many of the scandal scenes he describes very extreme, very melodramatic, very Russian. But more recently I’d come to realize that, actually, they’re fairly accurate descriptions of some of the rows that have happened in my own family life. Of course, all the details are entirely different, but what he described is just what we experience. I said this to him, adding that this was true despite us all being very English.
“Yes, you don’t need axes or pistols for human passions to reveal their destructiveness, just as it’s not necessary for hell to be fitted out with hooks or pits of fire. Sometimes just a quiet word can condemn a person to endless torment. As I say, it’s not the struggle against physical entropy that matters: it’s the effort to achieve and maintain spiritual remembrance. The mirror of art, as you called it, points in two directions: towards the everyday world (my nineteenth century world, your twenty-first century world), but also towards … well, what I’d call the true world.”
“A kind of magic mirror, then,” I said.
“You think you’re looking at one thing—St Petersburg in 1866, for example—and you’re actually looking at something different, something spiritual, metaphysical maybe?”
“Yes, yes, yes. That’s very interesting. Yes, I think so.”
I thought for a moment or two. When we’d been talking with Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov we’d touched on Platonism and Plato’s idea of reality being defined by eternal ideas or archetypes.
“So are you a Platonist?” I asked Fyodor Mikhailovich.
“A Platonist? Would that be a bad thing?”
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing, exactly, but it does seem to devalue the world, the everyday world, what most people call the real world, in favour of what you call spiritual truths—ideas—archetypes … As if our life in this world is just a kind of stepping-stone to something else … Surely this life earthly matters in its own right … and surely it mattered to you, otherwise you couldn’t have described it or recreated it in such detail, so, well, realistically?”
“Thank you, thank you,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied. “And you’re right, obviously. This world—your world—matters. We’ve discussed this several times. It’s where we begin to learn what love is and how to love. If we don’t start there, we won’t start anywhere. Remember what we said before about the earth and being true to the earth. Heaven is not unconnected to earth but heaven and earth are inseparably and eternally bound up together. What you call Platonism isn’t turning away from earth: it’s seeing earth in the light of eternity.”
I wasn’t too sure about this. I wasn’t a philosopher and certainly not a Plato specialist, but from everything I’d read it did seem to me that Plato wanted us to forget about the material world for the sake of the eternal ideas. When I’d raised this with Vladimir Sergeyevich he seemed to half-concede the point.
“I see what you’re saying, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, cautiously, “but I’m not sure if that’s really what Plato was saying. I think he really did want us to turn away from earth and everything sensual.”
He stopped and shook his head.
“No. You’re probably right—and since neither of us is a philosopher perhaps we’d better leave it there. But even if it’s not what Plato taught, it’s how Christianity—how the blessed apostle John—applied Plato. Not just the idea—that is, the Word—but the Word incarnate. Made flesh. Not turning away from the world but showing what the world could be; that is, what we, each of us, could be—the ideas, the words, the truths we could make our own and live by. The idea becoming true by becoming life! Yes,” he paused and thought for a moment, “You’ll find this all in John’s gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the word became flesh, in him was life and the life was the light of men.”
I felt myself being carried along by his words, but my critical habits couldn’t be so easily overcome.
“I’m not disagreeing with you, but a lot of people—a lot of people I know—would say that it was precisely John who turned the gospel of Jesus into a kind of popular version of Greek philosophy. Platonism for the people, as Nietzsche said.”
“A lot of people say all sort of things,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich rather dismissively. “But John didn’t forget—in fact, he insisted—that the Word must become incarnate. To put it in terms we’ve talked about, the Christ who passed through Russia dressed like a Russian peasant and enduring all the indignities that the Russian peasant endured is just as truly Christ as the Christ whose light lit up the heavenly banquet of Cana of Galilee, a light no human can ever directly see. Whatever people—and whatever poor dear Nietzsche said—John understood that perfectly.”