Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 3.

            “We seem to have come a long way from your novels,” I ventured. “But perhaps not …”

            “Certainly not! But it wasn’t up to me to say again what John had said and that could only be said in the way he had said it. As I’ve insisted all along, I was only ever a writer of novels and a teller of tales. But for my time—and maybe still for some people in your time—my words were able to remind them of his word, John’s word and His, a word they had for the most part forgotten or were constantly on the edge of forgetting. So, you never knew Raskolnikov, you never knew Zosima—but they and all the rest of them, my whole human comedy, could nevertheless remind you of what was most important in your own life.”

            “And yet, Fyodor Mikhailovich, till you actually appeared in my life last November, I think your novels raised more questions than answered … When you first came, what I was reading reminded me more of my despair than of anything to do with Christ or eternal life. And not every reader is going to have the benefit of you coming to help explain it all,” I added, doubtfully.

            He laughed quietly, as if to himself. 

            “Well, perhaps it’s important that, before anything else, we remember to ask the right questions! It seems to me that when it comes to faith the whole discussion gets skewed by the fact that it’s usually the wrong questions people insist on—like when they want to know about the historical facts behind the gospels. That might be an interesting historical question, but it’s not a question that’s ever going to help anyone find faith.”

            “So what sort of questions should we be asking?”

            “The questions we should be asking—the questions we might just need reminding about—are questions about ourselves, about what we’re looking for, and about what we really want.”

            “But that’s my problem—when I ask those sorts of questions, I don’t get any answers.”

            He looked quizzically at me and I realized that what I’d just said could seem rather churlish, not only in the light of his constant willingness to respond to my often rather crass and even impertinent questions but also because his novels already provided many positive images of faith. There was Raskolnikov—but then there was Sonia; there was Ivan—but then there was Alyosha (and, of course, Zosima). And everything in between.

            “OK,” I conceded. “I suppose I can’t really claim to be drowning in existential despair any more. Maybe I don’t have any answers but, like the police say, you’ve opened up some interesting lines of enquiry and I think I do understand at least some of the things I’ve got to do … things I can only do for myself, like taking responsibility—becoming guilty, as you put it. But still, even if I do manage to become a more responsible and a more loving person, even if I try to live by the ideal of Christ or even just to be true to the best and most inspiring memories from my previous life, the question that we started with still remains.”

            “And that was?”

            “Whether … whether the universe really cares … whether the best we can do isn’t, in the end, Quixotic, like your Prince Myshkin.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich’s bowed his head and looked thoughtful. We continued walking silently for a few paces. Then he stopped, putting his hands on his hips and seeming to breathe deeply (I don’t know if he could ‘breathe’ but, as he could definitely talk, why not).

            “Well, at least we’ve solved one problem,” he declared.

            “Really? What’s that?”

            “We’re not talking about Platonism any more?”

            “We’re not?”

            “No—or not in the sense you meant. The questions we’re talking about now—the kinds of questions I wanted to remind my readers of—they’re not about ideals that have nothing at all to do with life. They’re what people in the twentieth century would call existential questions, questions about how to live, or, even better, about the sort of person you want to be.”

            “Not metaphysical questions, then?”

            “On the contrary, very much ‘metaphysical’—but only to the extent that they’re first and foremost existential.”

            I thought for a moment. I wasn’t sure if we weren’t just playing with words, but I think I saw what he was getting at.

            “OK, I can accept that,” I said, hesitantly. “But can we come back to what I just said about the universe … about the universe not caring. To put it bluntly is there a God? And—although it seems absurd to ask someone like you … in your state … is there immortality?”

            He turned to me and put one hand on my elbow. His touch was very gentle, but there was a definite, discernible pressure. What absorbed my attention though was the expression of his eyes. I don’t really know how to describe it.  It was like looking into the darkest of night skies and, like a dark night sky, it glistened with points of warm, radiant light. But it wasn’t even as if I was looking … it was more like I was being looked at although, at the same time, I couldn’t exactly say that he was focussing on me; it was more like I was on the edge of vanishing into his gaze, into this great encompassing pool of luminous darkness. 

            Over the last few months I had, I suppose, almost got used to his presence but now, suddenly, I felt unnerved, anxious even, like feeling out of one’s depth in the sea, realizing in a flash just how great the gulf between us really was.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I blurted out, almost panicking, “what do you see there? What kind of life is it? Did you see Masha again? Did you—do you? And Anna Grigoryevna? And do you, there, remember us, as we remember you?”

            He didn’t immediately withdraw his gaze but, ever so slowly, it seemed to come back into focus. He moved his hand, as if brushing something off my shoulder and turned further round, so as to look back at the city. I followed his cue.

            “Now that’s a lot of questions,” he said. “Did I see Masha again? And Anna Grigoryevna?”

            Masha, I should say, had been his first wife and he’d written an eloquent private note about his thoughts while standing over her dead body, asking himself whether he’d ever see her again. These notes had a special connection to the story I’d been reading when he first visited me, A Gentle Spirit. Although Dostoevsky’s wife didn’t kill herself, as the woman in A Gentle Spirit does, both texts reproduce the thoughts of a man standing by the body of a wife he had wronged. Anna Grigoryevna was his second wife, with whom, by all accounts, he’d found happiness at last.

            I waited for him to say more.

            He looked at me slyly.

            “You’re not trying to catch me out, are you?” he asked.

            “Catch you out? How?”

            “Your question reminds me of how the Sadducees tried to catch Christ out.” 

            “Sorry … I don’t follow …”

            “Surely, you remember—when they asked Him a trick question about whose wife a woman who had been predeceased by seven husbands would be … at the resurrection?”

            I suspect I went bright red. I certainly felt very embarrassed. “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” It was a text I ought to have known. And I hadn’t intended it as a trick question. But, unlike the Sadducees, my question was serious and he hadn’t really answered it—any more than Jesus really answered the Sadducees.

            “You know,” he continued, in a more easy-going voice, “I once said that three-quarters of the happiness to be found in life is to be found in marriage. Of course, I also knew that forgiveness is never more needed than when things go wrong between man and wife. I experienced that too. We are all guilty. But there is also happiness.”

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