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!”

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?”


            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.

Restarting the conversation

Weekly episodes of ‘Conversations with Dostoevsky’ will resume next week, on Friday 13th of August with the first episode of ‘A Dinner Party’.

In the meanwhile, readers may be interested in a two-part interview about the blog posted on the website ‘Dostoevsky Now’ (at The interviewer was Sarah Hudspith, Associate Professor of Russian at Leeds University, who also runs the ‘Dostoevsky Now’ website. Thanks, Sarah, for doing this!

Conversation 3: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 7

            “Sorry,” I said, “can we go back a step?” (Fyodor Mikhailovich nodded.) “Right. I kind of half get this. I mean, I do realize that you sometimes have to approach a person or a subject with a certain sympathy or even love before you can fully understand them. No one’s ever going to tell their secrets to someone who’s consistently hostile or indifferent to them. A good counseller is going to get more out of you than a torturer. So, if I’m completely closed to the idea of Christ, that’s it, end of story. Nada. I have to be open and willing to learn, I accept that, but—and it’s a big ‘but’—I must have some idea of who he is before I can even begin to think about whether I love him or not. Where am I going to get this idea from?”

            “There are the gospels—if you actually had a copy of the Bible on your shelves.”


            “Point taken—and I should say that I did actually pick up a copy of the Bible to keep at home after our last conversation!” (I’d ‘picked it up’ from a charity bookshop round the corner.) He smiled. “But will that be enough?” I continued. “As I said then, I’ve known the main gospel stories, the parables, the sermon on the Mount, the Passion nearly all of my life. All the same, as of now, that doesn’t make the earth move for me. After all, it’s just a book and, who knows, maybe it’s all just a collection of myths and legends built around someone who maybe wasn’t really like that at all. I don’t know if any of it is even true. What I need is something more immediate, something that would show me the kind of difference it would make if someone like that had really existed: if someone like that really did exist, now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

            “You mean—perhaps—meeting someone who was Christ-like in actual life?”


            “I understand. For me too, Christ was also just an idea in a book, a dream of a better world, a utopia, until I saw the living quality of Christian love amongst the poor, oppressed slaves with whom I lived in prison. Of course, many of them were not good men, I’ve never pretended otherwise. But they reminded me of the truly Christian love, the gentleness, the readiness to forgive that one encountered in some of our people, no matter how materially impoverished or brutally treated by their masters. And then, as one of the venerable Church Fathers said, a King is never without his army, meaning that Christ’s love continues to be manifest in the saints in all the very different circumstances in which the saints found themselves living. Perhaps, then, that’s the first thing to do: to think about those people and those occasions who have shown you what self-giving love really is like—and their love will point you to Christ.”

            I thought for a moment. Again, I ‘half’ got it, but the problem was that although I’d probably met many people in my life who you could describe as ‘loving’, I’m not sure that any of them really showed anything you could call Christ-like. Nicer than average, perhaps—but scarcely divine. As for the saints, I don’t think I’d met any of them and the ones I’d read about all seemed too long ago and faraway to connect with my middle-class life in the early twenty-first century.

            “Saints,” I said vaguely, “but who are the saints? How do you get to meet them?”

            “I don’t think Christ is ever without his witnesses,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said calmly, “but you may have to make an effort to find them. Perhaps you need to become a pilgrim?”

            I had, of course, already thought about that.

            “That’s a nice idea,” I said, “but my job doesn’t give me time for that kind of luxury! In any case, it’s not just about me. I’m just one example, me and thousands—millions—of others. We just don’t live in a world of saints—and most of those who do set themselves up as gurus or teachers turn out to be fake! Where can I even start looking?”

            “I’m not sure that you’re right,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said gently, “but let’s assume that you are. So where is it you get your ideas of good and evil from? How have you learned what it means to love? If you have any ideal over and above earning your salary and enjoying ‘oysters and champagne’, where did you get it from?”

            “I suppose from my parents and family, in the first instance—my teachers and, yes, maybe what I learned at church. But I’m not sure that what I learned amounted to much more than trying to be a reasonably good citizen and neighbour and fit in with what was expected from me. Nothing saint-like—that would be much too extreme for middle England!”

            “So why are we even having this conversation? If that was all there was to it, wouldn’t you now be contentedly getting on with your life instead of worrying over the eternal questions like a nineteenth-century Russian boy?”

            “We’re having this conversation because you turned up in my life!” I couldn’t help saying, hopefully with humour. Fortunately, he got it and chuckled.

            “I suppose I did. But I wouldn’t have turned up (as you put it) if you hadn’t wanted me to. So, why did you want me to?”

            Had I really wanted him to turn up? I wondered. His being here certainly wasn’t making anything easier. But, then again, what reader of Dostoevsky (or Dickens, or Flaubert, or whoever else) wouldn’t want the chance to speak with the man himself?

            I shrugged.

            “Because I’d read your books … because they stirred something in me that I wouldn’t otherwise have had words for … ”

            “Which was? What you call your existential despair?”

            “Yes, that  … but not just that. Also …” I was struggling to find the right words here. “also that there’s a way through that to something else … something more than just settling down and conforming to what society expects …  In terms of what we’ve been talking about, I suppose you could just say it’s Christ. Yes, Christ.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, though sympathetically.

            “But if you want to find Christ, you must find him for yourself—though I’ve made some suggestions,” he said gently.

            “I know, I know!” I exclaimed. “But how would I even recognize him! The people of Seville in the time of the Grand Inquisitor and your Russian peasants lived in religious societies, so perhaps they were tuned in to the right wavelength by upbringing. But how would you even begin to recognize Christ if he came again urban, industrial, capitalist, modern—postmodern—world?”

            “Again, I can’t answer that question,” Fyodor Mikhailovich said, nodding. “What Christ means in your time is up to you who live in it. But I understand the question. In a way, it was the same question I tried to address in my time. And for all the differences between my time and yours, I see a lot of similarities, some of which we’ve already spoken about: the mad pursuit of wealth and the ruthless competition it engenders, the constant shaking-up of social relations that follows, and the desperate attempt to make ourselves into our own gods and believing that science can tell us how to be better human beings—not to mention the ruination of our environment for short-term financial gain. How one can recognize Christ when one is under the spell of all this—that’s a difficult question. Perhaps he would be unrecognizable, absurd or even pathetic—at least in the eyes of those who are wedded to the values of the present age.”

            I thought for a moment. What Fyodor Mikhailovich had just said reminded me of a seminar in which the famous philosopher who was speaking said that the only form in which God could appear in our world today would be like Shakespeare’s ‘Poor Tom’ or Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’. In other words, he’d be someone who couldn’t make himself understood to his contemporaries.  Incomprehensible. A madman or an idiot. And it wouldn’t end any better than last time, even though our world has supposedly been modelled on his teachings.

            “Like your idiot, then?”

            He half-smiled.

            “But if that’s right, then we come back to the same problem as with the Christ in ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Myshkin only half fits the bill. He offers unconditional love, granted, especially to fallen or falsely accused women, but he doesn’t seem capable of action. He just stands there while everything around him falls apart. No one gets saved and, if anything, his behaviour just makes it worse. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s an amazing character. He’s always appealed to me in a special way. I think you also spoke of him as a ‘beautiful’ personality and I get that—but it’s a beauty ‘not of this world’. And, I should add, I’m not ‘against’ your—Ivan’s—Christ either. In fact, it appeals more to me than the kind of Christ you sometimes hear about in church. But that’s my point: it’s not the same Christ as we read about in the gospels. So you’ll tell me: go back to the gospels, then—to which I say that this is the problem: they don’t belong to our world, they don’t tell me what it would mean to encounter Christ today, in the world as it really is.”

            As he listened he continued quietly smiling, but I felt there was something sad about that smile.

            “Again, I have to say that I don’t entirely agree,” he began. “As regards my ‘Idiot’ he was never meant to be Christ nor is he an allegory. I know that people often say that he was my attempt to create a ‘Christ figure’, as you call it, but that I failed—for the kind of reasons you spell out very clearly—not to say brutally. But I do wish people would stick to the books I actually did write rather than criticize me for not having written the books they think I wanted to write. Myshkin was doomed to fail from the outset—and precisely because he was never sufficiently grounded in our Russian reality. Doesn’t Christianity say that Christ had to become fully man if he was to save us? But what does that mean if not to belong fully and identify fully with a particular time and place. In that regard Sonia Marmeladova is more Christ-like, but perhaps we’ll speak more of her another time. In any case, neither she nor Myshkin are meant to ‘be’ Christ, but they each reveal a single ray of his light, so to speak. No character in a novel could ever be the full Christ. It’s interesting that you don’t mention Zosima or Alyosha, whom some people also talk about as Christ-like, but neither of them were weak or helpless. Zosima helped many, didn’t he? And Alyosha—well, we don’t know yet what Alyosha’s capable of, but even in the novel I managed to write, he brings people together, helps enemies become friends, humbles the proud, and reconciles the resentful.”

            “I suppose he does—and his speech at the end, where he talks about using our good memories from childhood to be the basis for a better life is as good a sermon as I’ve ever read. But it doesn’t really require any kind of belief in God, let alone miracles—you could almost call it is a secular sermon, as far as I can see. And, anyway, I don’t personally see Alyosha as a Christ-figure. To put it at its simplest, he’s just a really nice guy, a thoroughly decent young man, who has a good effect on others.” I sighed. “Your novels, Fyodor Mikhailovich, help. And I’m not saying there are other novels that do better. Most of the twentieth century novelists who tried to produce Christ-figures (and several of them, I think, were in any case influenced by you) also ended up with ‘Christs’ who were too weak, sick, or mad to save anyone else. Novelists can re-imagine or re-invent old stories—like we were saying last time—but perhaps there’s a limit to what any novelist—even you—can do.”

            He laughed and even seemed rather pleased by my little speech.

            “Of course,” he said, “yes, yes, yes—of course, there’s a limit to what any novelist can do. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. And, as we also said last time, the novelist can only confront you with the truth when the story he’s telling or, if you like, retelling—no matter how fantastical it might seem—is itself the truth.”

            “But there we are again! The truth! I suppose the Grand Inquisitor and your ‘idiot’ make us think about how Christ might be if he were to come again and that’s an extraordinary idea to play with. But what I want is someone who can really persuade me that Christ’s ‘love’ isn’t just a nice ideal: it’s a universal law, someone, that is, who really can say ‘Love one another’ and say it convincingly.”

            “You’re thinking about the ending of A Gentle Spirit again?”

            “Exactly. It seems to me that if the world is to be more than the infinite succession of cause and effect—‘beneath a dead sun’—then we need to hear something more than a fragment of ancient history, something more than what the church has been repeating for generation after generation, and even something more than anything a novel can tell us. Where do we find it? Where am I going to hear that voice? When—how—do I get to see the truth?”

            Our conversation was at a crux. From time to time it had been in danger of slipping into the mode of a fairly detached academic conversation. A question-and-answer session with a great writer. The stuff of book festivals. And sometimes I’d been in danger of forgetting that this wasn’t just a matter of finding out what Fyodor Mikhailovich really thought but of getting an answer to my original question as to how to go on living if the world really was a moral desert or, to be a little less melodramatic, how to live with purpose, strength, and joy in a world that was essentially indifferent to our humanity. But was the world like that or was there someone capable of commanding us to love one another? Someone like Christ? No, not ‘like Christ’—Christ. So why beat about the bush? Why go on with my more or less (mostly less) clever cross-examination? There was an obvious shortcut that was staring me in the face or, at least, sitting opposite and waiting for me to speak. The question seemed impertinent, even to me. But I had to ask.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich … excuse me, this may seem a completely stupid question but you—now—do you see Him?”

            Dostoevsky pursed his lips and breathed deeply. He was not angry, as I’d feared he might be. The light that I’d once glimpsed deep in his eyes seemed suddenly to shine out in with almost tangible brightness and his face became somehow radiant, even though his expression had scarcely changed. It was as if his whole energy was becoming manifest in his face, which seemed to grow larger in relation to his body. It was almost frightening and I scarcely dared look at him. Some seconds passed and the phenomenon grew even more intense. Abashed, I looked down.

            Suddenly, the atmosphere eased. Raising my head, I almost expected him to have gone, but he was still there, looking more like he normally did (if ‘normally’ is the right word to describe a visitor from another world), but, as it were, refreshed.

            “What can I say?” he said gently. Taking a deep breath, he added, “I think it’s time to go.”

            I wanted to shout out ‘Stay!’ We were so near, and I needed to make sense both of what he’d been saying and what I’d seen. At the same time, I knew that arguing would be pointless. There was a firmness in his voice that would not be contradicted.

            “You must?”

            “It’s best.”

            “Will I see you again?”

            “When the time is right.”

            I wanted to press him as to when that would be—all the while knowing that such a question would remain unanswered. I remained silent.

            I didn’t really know what to expect next. Would he dematerialize in some kind of way, like someone in a science-fiction movie being teleported? Would he gradually fade, leaving only an outline that would slowly disappear? None of the above.

            “Now I’ll go,” he said, standing up. “Thank you for the beer. I have enjoyed our conversation. I hope you have.”

            Politely, I stood up. “Thank you,” I said, not quite sure what I was thanking him for exactly.

            “No, stay,” he said, “I’ll let myself out.”

            I watched him walk to the door and go out into the hall. He was gone.

            I sat back down and breathed out, long and slow. Something extraordinary had happened. But what?

Conversation Three: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 6

Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to solve the problem. The world we inhabit is this world, here and now, ‘on this bank and shoal of time’, as the eponymous hero of the Scottish play put it. Even if there is an alternative view, a ‘heavenly’ view, so to speak, how is that going to make a difference? I was sure Fyodor Mikhailovich had more to say and pressed him further.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, “that’s powerful stuff, but if the only Christ we’re able to know here on earth is the suffering Christ, this not only makes Christianity into a tragic view of life, it also makes it ineffective. I mean, this isn’t a Christ who can help us, it’s a Christ who needs our help—just to stay alive. He’s become too weak, which, I have to say, is what a lot of critics have complained about in relation to your story of the Grand Inquisitor …”

            “Not my story—Ivan Karamazov’s story.”

            “Very well. Ivan Karamazov’s story, but, either way, the Christ who appears in that story and comes back to Seville in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition seems very weak, almost bloodless. Jesus denounced the Pharisees and tax-collectors and drove the profiteers out of the Temple with a whip, but your Christ—Ivan Karamazov’s Christ—just stands silently in front of the Inquisitor and listens without saying anything to his long, rambling, self-justifying speech. He doesn’t say or do anything.”

            “Yet we are told that Christ himself remained silent before his accusers.”

            “But he did break his silence in the end. He told Pilate that his Kingdom wasn’t of this world.”

            “And mine kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. Isn’t that ‘doing’ something?”

            “I suppose that it shows that he loves and accepts the Inquisitor despite the fact that he’s busy destroying the whole idea that Christ represented on earth. But that’s part of the problem: shouldn’t he be confronting him with his betrayal, speaking truth to power, rather than just standing there, silently?  That’s why your critics say he’s too weak:  a suffering Christ who loves—but doesn’t save. Maybe even can’t save. But if Christ is to be any use to us, doesn’t he have to be ‘strong to save’ as one of our hymns puts it?”

            I knew that the figure of Christ was very precious to Dostoevsky and, reading these words now, I’m rather appalled that I could have so brutally attacked the idea of Christ that appears in his novels. Probably what I actually said was not quite so sharp as I’ve put it here, but the point was, I think, unambiguous. Nevertheless, Fyodor Mikhailovich appeared unperturbed, though he grew increasingly thoughtful as I spoke.

            “Come,” he said, “let’s sit down and finish that beer. This needs careful consideration”

            We sat down as he suggested and I was relieved to take another mouthful of beer, losing myself for a moment in the bitter-sweet taste and getting a respite from big issues that were in danger of getting a little too big.

            “Now, think carefully,” Fyodor Mikhailovich began, after putting his glass back down. “We agreed that what connects us to Christ is and can only be love. Christ isn’t the answer to our problems—not the problems of politics, not the problems of psychology. He is love. But the only way you can communicate love is: love. I don’t see any other way. Yes, he could have turned stones into bread and made himself universally popular; he could have performed spectacular miracles and made himself an object of worship; and he could have called upon his legions of angels and taken control of the nations of the world. But if he’d done those things, if he’d compelled people’s love or tricked them into loving him, then it wouldn’t have been love. The Roman Emperors used bread and circuses to keep the loyalty of the crowd, but they never even pretended to rule through love—let alone freedom. And, just to be clear, although I shocked you by saying that love was even more important and even more basic than freedom, it has to be freely given and freely received. There can’t be any compulsion or deceit.”

            I thought for a moment.

            “I like all this,” I said. “I can understand … OK, not ‘understand’ … and I’m drawn to the kind of Christ you’re talking about, but it seems to me that this is not only a very human but even a humanistic Christ. In other words, I don’t see why we should regard him as essentially different from any of the other great reformers or teachers of humanity. Perhaps the way in which his life embodied his teaching and the fact that love is ultimately more attractive than knowledge or duty might make us rank him above some of the others, but that doesn’t make him God. Yet that’s the point, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, yes, yes, that’s the point. That’s why Renan and none of the others who’ve tried to portray him as simply a historical figure never get close to understanding him.”

            “But what does it mean to say that he’s God?”

            As so often, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed not to answer my question directly but to start off on a new subject.

            “Have you ever met, have you ever read about, anyone who could really unconditionally love another person?”

            “I don’t know. I’ve certainly met people who were capable of loving deeply.”

            “But unconditionally?”

            “I’m not sure that I even know what that would mean.”

            “I’m not surprised. It’s impossible.”

            “Impossible? But why?”

            “Because everyone of us is an ‘I’ and being an ‘I’ necessarily limits us in relation to others. Overcoming that limitation is more than the work of a lifetime and it is only in the perspective of eternity that we really see ourselves for what we are in our infinite connection to the whole and, in the whole, to all those other ‘I’s. Only at that point can we give up our identification with just this little ‘I’ and rejoice equally in every possible manifestation of the whole. Only at that point does egoism cease.”

            “And Christ?”

            “Precisely because he is Christ from all eternity means that even in the limitations of human flesh he is not limited by his own ‘I’ and can be equally loving to all. The rest of us can only shed this ‘I’ through a long, slow, process … perhaps even an eternal process lasting until the end of time or even beyond time. This life is only a beginning, but Christ opened the way and showed us the end, the goal that is set before us. And, again, that’s why historians can never grasp him because they are always bound to think of him as some kind of ego-centred personality, whether that’s the Strauss’s mythical Christ, Renan’s noble sentimentalist, Lev Nikolaevich’s moral teacher, or the revolutionary insurgent who became popular in the twentieth century. All of these maybe grasped part of the truth—that Christ put the good of humanity before his own individual ego—but none of them show how he was able to do this. There’s the miracle.”

            “But why’s it a miracle? Isn’t it possible to become enlightened through meditation, without any miracles, like the Buddha?”

            “That’s a comfortable modern Western view of the Buddha, to be sure,” smiled Fyodor Mikhailovich, “but don’t the Buddhists themselves say that he could only achieve that because of all he’d learned and what he’d become through his previous incarnations. He didn’t start his last incarnation as a tabula rasa. But this is not a competition between religions. This is about how you find love, how you become capable of love, and you become capable of love through experiencing it—and if you’re to become capable of unconditional love then it’s only by experiencing unconditional love.”

            “I see.” I saw (I think). But maybe I wasn’t yet persuaded. As if sensing my doubts, Fyodor Mikhailovich held up an admonitory finger.

            “Do you? I wonder. In any case, let me just say that although you described ‘my’ Christ as weak and powerless, he is neither weak nor powerless in the eyes of those who recognize Him for who He is. Even in the story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, the common people immediately recognize and love Him when He first appears in Seville—and because they recognize and love Him he is able to heal them and raise their dead. The Inquisitor himself recognizes Him but he doesn’t love Him. For him, therefore, Christ becomes just one more helpless prisoner to feed the flames of his magnificent Auto da Fé.”

            “So I must love Him before I can know Him and see Him for who He is?”

            “Exactly so.” Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled and folded his hands together in his lap, as if he had finished saying what he had to say and was waiting for me to make the next move.  As if he was expecting something from me. Surely not a confession of faith? If that was what he wanted, the most I’d manage would be like the person in the gospels who called out ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’ But my unbelief needed a lot more help before I could even begin to talk about belief.

Conversation 3: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 5.

Silence fell. Outside the traffic was still quite busy and there were occasional bursts of talking and laughter from groups of people going up and down the road. But, in a strange way, that just made the silence in the room all the more intense. Fyodor Mikhailovich twitched the curtain again and peered out.

            “You have a good view into other people’s apartments from here,” he remarked.

            I laughed. “I suppose we do, though I try to avoid looking if I can help it—no one seems to bother too much with curtains, not above the first floor, anyway!”

            “No, but it’s nice to see all the Christmas trees, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, I suppose it is.”

            “But you don’t have one?”

            “No. We did when James was young, but we stopped a couple of years ago. I think of it as something for the children.”

            “That’s a shame. I like a Christmas tree.”

            “Really? Excuse my ignorance, but did they have Christmas trees in Russia in your time? I always think of them as more German.”

            “Maybe they started in Germany but, yes, they were quite popular, at least in Petersburg. In fact, I even wrote a story about one.”

            “You did? Really? I don’t know it.”

            “That’s because you haven’t read my Diary of a Writer,” he responded, smiling broadly and, I thought, rather wickedly. “Though it’s also in one of those collections of stories you have on your shelves. But perhaps you haven’t read them either?”

            “I’ve dipped in,” I said weakly.

            “It’s a good story,” he said, “and, I think, rather important. It’s about a little boy. His mother has brought him to the city, but they have no money to buy food and, as always happens, she dies of cold and hunger in the basement where they’d lived. The boy, who maybe doesn’t even know she’s dead, goes out into the streets and, as he wanders about, he sees the brightly lit windows of the wealthy houses with their Christmas trees and parties. He even tries to go in to one of them but is quickly shown the door, as you can imagine. How he’d love to be amongst the girls and boys gathered round the tree, receiving their gifts. Then, he falls asleep behind a woodpile. In his dreams he finds himself flying up to heaven and there is Christ with a Christmas tree he has prepared for all the orphaned children, where they can be reunited with their poor sinful mothers. In the morning, they find him—dead. Naturally, the way I wrote it is more detailed, quite a tear-jerker, if I may say so, though it’s just a story, a made-up story—but one that’s happened many times.”

            Even in that brief summary, the story about the dying boy and the Christmas tree jogged a distant memory of having once heard it read in a Christmas service on television. But it was a long time ago.

            “I can imagine that you tell it very powerfully,” I said, adding that I promised to read it this Christmas. However, I did want to know a bit more than what Fyodor Mikhailovich had told me. “But look,” I continued, “on the basis of what you’ve said, it sounds almost like an anti-Christmas story, as if all the stuff about Christ’s Christmas tree is just a fantasy and powerless against the reality of suffering?”

            We were now standing quite close together, looking out at the apartments opposite, about half-a-dozen of which had brightly lit Christmas trees in their windows. Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke very quietly, very deliberately.

            “As I say at the end of that story and as I said to you during our first meeting, I’m only a writer. I make things up—though I have to admit that I got the idea for this from a German poet, but then (of course) I made some changes over and above transferring the story to Petersburg.”

            “Say more.”

            “In the German’s version—a bit like Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Match Girl’—the child dies and goes to heaven. That, you see, is sentimentality, as you’d call it. Unearned emotional gratification. But writers can’t tell you anything about the next life and they shouldn’t try to make us forget the terrible suffering that life on earth is for many, many, far too many people. What they can and should do is to show another possibility, to show that there’s more to life than the sum of facts about the world. There are also dreams and—who knows?—maybe dreams are a conduit for connections to other worlds? But the writer can’t say that is so. He can only suggest, only sow a seed of hope—and then it’s up to you, the reader, to do with it as you will.”

            “It still sounds to me like a rather tragic story.”

            “Think of it as an icon.”

            “An icon? I don’t get it. How?”

            Turning back to the room, Fyodor Mikhailovich pointed to a card at the near end of the mantelpiece, which showed the Orthodox icon of the Nativity. I walked over and examined it more closely. In the middle was Mary, lying down with her infant son, in a cave in a mountain, behind which appeared the angels. I could also identify shepherds and a very modestly dressed trio of wise men (no jewels or retinues!), as well as someone who was presumably a midwife, washing the new-born baby.

            “It’s an interesting image—but I don’t see the connection to your story. Can you explain?”

            “Hmm. As I just said, I should really be leaving it to you, the reader, to work it out—but these are, I suppose, rather unusual circumstances! So … the mother lying in the cave becomes the mother lying in the basement; the child in his mother’s arms becomes the child abandoned and alone; the child to whom wise men offer gifts becomes the child who isn’t allowed to have any presents from the Christmas tree; the child who is the Word of life becomes the child who dies behind the woodpile …”

            “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich, that makes your story a complete inversion of the icon, some might even say blasphemous!”

            “They might—but they should also remember what He said of the hungry, the naked, and the prisoners: ‘in as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me’. This means it is not the lovely well-fed children dancing round the Christmas tree who are the image of Christ, angelic as they are, but the children abandoned by the world, they and their ‘sinful mothers’. The icon shows us how history looks when it is, so to speak, seen from heaven—but if you want to see Christ in the world, that’s where you have to look. Behind the woodpile.”

            This was thought-provoking. Somewhere I’d heard icons described as windows onto heaven, but the way Fyodor Mikhailovich put it would be better described as an inverse image of earth that was also, somehow, at the same time, connected with earth, a possibility, a vision of what earth could, perhaps, become …

Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 4

Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t answer my last question, but ran his finger slowly along the shelf, as if checking the titles, stopping next to a rather thick paperback. It was a book that was rather popular at that time, Homo Deus. Picking it out, he scrutinized the back-cover, emitting a kind of ‘Hrrumph’. Returning it to its place, he began pacing slowly up and down, several times pausing rather jerkily, as if to try to catch a wayward thought.

            “Homo Deus. They still believe that, do they? Yes, yes, yes. They can’t say I didn’t warn them, though! Oh yes, it would be wonderful if we were indeed brothers, if we knew true solidarity—and then perhaps we could become as gods and do so in the way that God meant for us. But that’s not how the world is, is it? There are always some people who imagine that they’re closer to being gods than the rest or even that they already are gods or, at least, demi-gods. As for the rest, they don’t know what’s best for them, and so it happens as it has to happen. Either the superior ones have to leave them behind or else they try to drag them along. So far so good. The problem is that because the inferior ones don’t know what’s best for them (or so the superior ones think) they will either have to be compelled or lied to. Usually, there’s bloodshed. It’s not a new story, of course, but the funny thing is that every generation since the tower of Babel thinks it’s new.”

            “But don’t you think it really is different now? Even compared to your time, science can do things that then seemed impossible. We have gone into space, we have split the atom, we can even the shape the basic structures of life. There are so many new powers at our fingertips that perhaps we will at least be able to become supermen, if not gods. All things really are possible now.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at me with some surprise. Very probably, he hadn’t expected me to be quite such a scientific utopian. I was, I admit, playing devil’s advocate. All the same, it really does seem (and in a way that no one in the nineteenth century could have anticipated) that science was in the process of changing not just what we can do but what we are.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich turned his back, lifted the curtain aside and peered out. After a minute or so he let it drop back into place, and, still with his back to me, resumed his speech, only gradually turning to face me.

            “If you really believe that,” he began, “I won’t be able to persuade you otherwise. And, please, don’t think that I was ever against science. I was, after all, an engineer. But whatever new powers science may be able to give to humankind, everything depends on how we—or you—want to use them. You’ve maybe never heard of Nikolai Fedorov’s idea that science would one day be able to help raise the ancestors. Of course, it was a crazy idea, but it seemed to me that there was real humanity in it, the feeling that history’s victims and the ancestors to whom we owe so much should not be left behind. Whatever progress is, it’s only human progress if it embraces all. All. Just wanting to march off to conquer new planets in the same way that you conquered America, Africa, India and the Pacific islands or extending your lifespan until you rival the patriarchs, excluding new generations from coming forth and living their lives of passion and joy—this is not human progress, it’s just the refining of a machine, and a rather lethal machine, if I may say so. It’s the machine that gives you bread today and war tomorrow. It’s power for power’s sake, not for the sake of living, not for the sake of life. And that’s before we even begin to look at how human beings have been dealing with the living world around them, the forest, the rivers, the oceans, the teeming creatures given to us as companions in life. You race into the future and all the while the creatures around you are dying. Just think of the birdsong … how could we ever be happy without that wonderful music to accompany us?”

            “So not onward and upward, then?”

            “Not onward and upward. Let’s go back to your question: what is Christmas?” Not waiting for my answer, he continued: “Christmas is honouring one who was equal to God but emptied himself and appeared in the form of a servant, ready to give up all that divine knowledge, all that divine power, and all that divine glory so as to be with the sufferers in their suffering, to humble himself and be obedient unto death, even death on the cross. I think we touched on that last time. But, I ask you, has the world ever seen such an extraordinary act of renunciation? If you really want to be as gods, that’s the kind of god you have to be—the self-renouncing God, suffering and dying with us. God born in a cave.”

            I supposed this referred to the Orthodox Church’s icon of the Nativity that shows Mary and her infant in a cave rather than the thatched annex typical of Western art. I didn’t really know much about icons, but a couple of our cards that year had used this image. I couldn’t help the odd thought, probably irrelevant, that once, on a holiday in Crete, I’d been shown the cave where, supposedly, Zeus was born. Yes, that was, probably, irrelevant. Interesting, though. Perhaps gods really should be born in caves, out of the depths of the earth … ?

            In any case, as I’d told Fyodor Mikhailovich, I did try to go to Church at Christmas most years. Perhaps it was something in this story of an infinite, almighty, all-knowing God coming down (so to say) and giving all that God-ness up so as to become the most helpless thing in the world, a new-born baby, that touched me. With or without the cave. Whether or not it was true. Whatever truth meant in a case like this. At the same time, I had baulked, as I always do, when he got round to the ‘obedient unto death on the cross’ part.

            “I understand that, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, but was immediately interrupted.

            “You understand it! Congratulations! I wish I did! I don’t understand it, but I rejoice in it!”

            He was right, of course. I didn’t ‘understand’ it, if you want to be strict about the meaning of ‘understand’.

            “I stand corrected. What can I say? I’m moved by it, it speaks to me the way a poem speaks to me. Or something like that.”

            He nodded. Placated. I continued.

            “You see, it’s not Christmas that bothers me. It’s Good Friday. Why does he have to be obedient unto death, why the death on the cross? A few years ago, I almost came back to Christianity at the time when the Alpha course was big. A friend of mine had been very in to it. It seemed warmer, more approachable than the kind of moralistic preaching that I’d heard as a teenager. But when it came to the crunch, they had the same complicated and frankly unbelievable theory about how Jesus had to die on the cross because God had been offended by human sin and the devil had to be paid a ransom to let us go, so Jesus had to die instead of us because he was sinless and only the voluntary death of a sinless human being was enough to placate God and pay off the devil. I mean, I’m probably not putting it quite correctly, but it was along those lines. A weird God, too much sin, too much of the devil, and too much suffering to my mind. It just didn’t make sense. It almost made me want to be a Muslim: ‘Allah says’ and it’s done and that’s all there is to it. And if God is Almighty—why not? It’s a lot simpler, anyway.”

            Apart from a gruff “Hmmm”, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed almost to ignore this tirade, confession, call it what you will. Once more he looked out of the window, perhaps for even longer than before. When he did speak, there was a tenderness in his voice but also a kind of rigour, you could almost say severity, that I hadn’t noticed before.

            “Yes, yes, yes. I agree. That is, I agree about placating God and paying the devil a ransom. These are the kinds of theories that some of the clergy like to invent so as to keep the flock in their place. But God doesn’t need to be placated. God is love. And the devil has no power over human souls that cannot be broken by love. Do you remember how Zosima defined hell?”

            “The inability to love.” (This was one line from The Brothers Karamazov that had remained with me since the first time I read it.)

            “Exactly so! The moment we begin to love—even when your love is no bigger than an onion—in that same moment the devil has lost all his power over you. But” (he began to sound almost school-masterly) “I can’t entirely agree with you about suffering. Of course, He has to suffer, not because He had to placate God or pay off the devil but because the people He came to, the people He accepted and loved as his brothers (and, of course, sisters) were sufferers. Even the ones who thought they were superior, the supermen who wanted to lead humanity into a new era, even they, behind all their big words, were sufferers, afraid to love life as it was and trying to hide their fears by dreaming up imaginary utopias.” He suddenly stopped and gave a little laugh. “Imagine, I’d never really thought of this before, but the way you put it just now made me think that those theories you described weren’t so very different from Kirillov’s.”

            “Kirillov? The nihilist who thought he could become God by committing suicide and freeing humanity from the fear of death?”

            “The same.”

            “Where’s the similarity?”

            “Don’t you see?  Both believe that what matters most is that salvation is only possible if death can be made into an act of complete and sovereign freedom. I don’t say Christ didn’t freely consent to the cross, but it wasn’t only about freedom. It was about love, and freedom doesn’t mean anything unless it’s directed by love—indeed, freedom without love: that, quite simply, is nihilism. And remember, even on the cross he was love. ‘Father, forgive them’ for those who crucified him, and, to the thief who hung there with him—quite probably a murderer into the bargain—‘Tonight you will be with me in paradise’. And if the other thief had just for a moment stopped shouting and swearing maybe he too would have joined them in paradise.”

            “So all the stuff about paying the price of sin is just superfluous to requirements?”

            “You could put it like that, I suppose. Yes.”

            “And the cross isn’t there to make us feel like guilty sinners but simply a sign of God’s love?”

            “In a way, yes—but …” He shook his head solemnly.


            “I see you’re back on your theme of guilt again! Please note, I didn’t bring it up!”

            “Noted—but it was you who made it central in the words you gave to Markel and Zosima.”

            “And it is central. Just not in the way you think. Yes, we should feel guilty before the cross. We do feel guilty before the cross, ifwhen—we love. It’s not as if the cross washes away your guilt so that you’re then free to love, which, I think, is the view you’re objecting to?” I nodded. “We’re agreed. then. But if you love, if you love Christ, then seeing him nailed to the cross will pierce you to the heart. Then, maybe for the first time, you’ll really know what it is to be guilty.”

            “That doesn’t seem like a good outcome, though. Wouldn’t it be better for love to do away with guilt rather than creating it? I don’t get it.”

            “It’s quite easy, really. It’s just a matter of psychology. Imagine that your house caught fire. Your brother is also in the house at the time. You escape, but he doesn’t. Everyone who’s been in that kind of situation, whether as a result of war, persecution, plague or just some accident, they all feel guilt, as if it they were the ones who should have died—even if it wasn’t their fault and they did all they could to rescue the ones who perished. That’s how it is when you love someone. A part of you always belongs to them and, in such cases, that part remains bound to their terrible fate. It’s a kind of debt you owe them, and that debt is guilt. It has been said that grief is the price we pay for love, but so too is guilt.”

            “OK. I admit that a lot of people do experience that. But isn’t it something they need to get over and leave behind? Isn’t it what people go to their therapist for?”

            “Ha! More psychology again! Of course—I admit—you can use psychology for just about anything and I also admit that there may be cases where people have the most fantastic and mistaken views about being to blame for their brother’s or friend’s death. And, of course, people like that need help. But don’t you see that there is a very fundamental level at which we all need to acknowledge that we are each of us part of the whole network of causes and relationships that are involved in bringing about whatever comes to pass in history and society—including all that goes wrong in it. That doesn’t demean us. It brings us closer.”

            “But that sounds more like a tragic view of life than Christianity?”

            “Does it have to be one or the other? Are you saying that tragedy and Christianity are incompatible? I think I’d turn the argument round and say that Christianity presupposes a tragic view of life. And then—‘tonight you will be with me in paradise’.”

Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 3

Birth and death. The parameters of human existence. Binding us to the earth, irrespective of our wants and wishes. Fyodor Mikhailovich was right: if you held onto that, you’d probably have no difficulty in practicing humility. But there was a problem.

            “Humility,” I said, “isn’t a very fashionable virtue. In fact, you could say that most people today actually regard it as a failing. Working in a university I’m actively encouraged, you could even say compelled, to be the opposite of humble. It’s no longer enough to teach and keep up with developments in your field, you have to keep telling the world how world-beating and world-changing your teaching and research is. It’s not good enough to be good enough—it has to be better than anything else that’s going on, which it obviously isn’t because everybody else is having to say the same about their work.” I saw him looking rather quizzically at me. “No, really, this is what we actually have to do, every time we apply for a grant or just when we have our work reviewed every year. And it’s not just universities, it’s the same in business, sport, politics … everywhere. I suppose politics always has been about ambition and self-promotion, but these days it often looks more like a celebrity gameshow.”     I getting a bit carried away, but realized that he might not have a clue as to what I was talking about—especially the celebrity gameshow part.

            “Sorry,” I broke off, “that was probably all a bit irrelevant. I don’t suppose you want to waste your time here listening to me banging on about my work troubles!”

            “Not at all, not all,” he replied, as politely as ever. “But, I assure you, it was much the same in my time, even if we didn’t have ‘celebrity gameshows’, whatever they are. And, of course, I have to admit that there was a lot of self-promotion and vanity in the world of literature—and I can’t claim that I was immune. When you’re desperate for recognition, even a little success can make you lose your head.” He shook his head and smiled wryly. He took another small sip of his beer. “But that’s as may be. What is certainly true is that humility is and always has been the basis of any truly Christian life—just look at the teaching of any of the Church Fathers or the lives of any of the saints. Some people have thought my portrait of Zosima was exaggerated, but it wasn’t at all. There are many Zosimas amongst the saints and I myself met people—and not only Elders and monks—who showed that kind of humility. Of course, there have always been Church leaders and spiritual teachers who like to dress in fine robes and find their pleasure in honorific titles; Princes of the Church, as they say, who talk down to those in their care as if they were God himself on his heavenly throne when, really, they’re no better than lackeys, desperately anxious to let you know how familiar they are with the great men of this world, dropping the names of princes, generals, and millionaires. But none of the true teachers of the Church has ever been like that. The true Elder makes no distinction between great and small. All he ever sees before him is a child of God, a suffering being crying out for fulness of life—in other words, someone who is no different from himself. What, then, can he do for them if he is in the same predicament, you might ask? What can he do? He can pray with them, pray for them, and ask them to pray for him. Perhaps the only difference, if difference there is, is that he believes God hears, though he doesn’t know any more than they do how God will act. But the prayers themselves, the prayers have already sowed a little seed of love.”

            “I see all that,” I said, “and Zosima is a beautiful model of that kind of humility. But the fact is that most charismatic religious leaders seem to end up being like those Princes of the Church you described, with their TV shows and Mega-Churches. But even if a Zosima-like saint were to appear in our time, how would that work out in everyday life? I mean, we’re not likely to start going around prostrating to each other, like he did to Dmitri. That sort of thing doesn’t mean anything in our society. It just doesn’t happen. People would say it was religious mania—and even in your novel many of those who encountered him saw pride rather than holiness.”

            “Yes, yes, yes—of course, you’re correct, entirely correct. “But remember, Zosima himself insisted that his disciple Alyosha was going to have to leave the monastery and live in the world. That’s what Zosima himself wanted. He knew that we can’t copy how things were in the past. We—or rather, you—have to find our own path. This beer is good by the way, I like it. Now …” he stretched himself and stood up. Was he about to go? 

            “Now, I think I’d be more comfortable standing. Do you mind?”

            “Of course not.” I made to stand up too, but he waved me back.

            “No, no, do carry on sitting, I just need to move about a little.”

            He took a couple of steps, turned, and bending forward looked me full on, leaning his hands against the edge of the sofa that was at right angles to our chairs.

            “You see, humility does not come from the head but from the heart. It’s not an idea that you have to put into practice: it’s a whole way of life.  It’s rather like the Frenchman’s libertéégalité, and fraternité. Leaving liberté and égalité to one side (though we may come back to them), it always seemed to me that their vaunted fraternité was for the most part an empty word. Do you really think the rich bourgeois sipping his Château Lafitte actually feels any fraternitéwith the street cleaner out there in the rain and snow or with the old woman in the poorhouse—let alone with his African ‘brother’? Of course, you’ll say that it’s different now, that is, in your time. Now you have democracy. Everybody is on first name terms, everyone’s as good as anyone else. Well, I don’t—I can’t—follow every detail of how the world has changed since my lifetime, but it seems to me that those who are rich in this world’s goods are no more fraternal in their dealings with the underpaid, the unemployed, the homeless, the blacks and all the rest who can’t afford Château Lafitte and cigars than they were in my lifetime.”

            “You don’t have to persuade me,” I replied. “I’m sure you’re right. Even in this country, this wealthy country, they’re talking about the new slavery and the poor are having to use food banks, which certainly don’t stock Château Lafitte! But ‘what is to be done?’ Socialism? That wasn’t a good word in your vocabulary, was it?”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked sharply at me and stepped over to the bookcase where he tapped the spine of a well-worn and rather thick paperback. I recognized it straight away as Marx’s Capital (though I should admit that its being well-worn is more down to the fact that it was a second-hand copy rather than to intensive study on my part).

            “Socialism,” he said solemnly. “No, that’s not a bad word. Bad things have been done in its name, of course. As I just said, I don’t follow what has been happening in your world in any detail, but I know what my country, my Russia, suffered for seventy years. Alas, that was how it had to be because the socialists had forgotten or denied that before you can have socialism you have to have brotherhood and brotherhood is not an ideal: it is an immediate conviction of the heart. You don’t have to worry about whether your brother really is your brother or not, he just is your brother. And you don’t first have to persuade yourself that every other human being is your brother or sister before you start treating them that way. You just have to see that that’s how it is and that you owe everyone everything you owe to a brother. It’s who we are. The moment you start asking yourself ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ you’ve already forgotten what the words mean. Instead of ‘I’m just as good as the next man’, which was what people were saying in my time (and what to my mind is what the French égalité mostly comes down to), it’s ‘every man is as good as me’.”

            He breathed deeply and smiled what seemed to me to be a rather melancholy smile. 

            “And this,” he continued, “is what our uneducated and coarse peasants knew by instinct, even the convicts, and it’s what we educated men and city-dwellers forgot, corrupted as we were by …” he paused again and tapped the spine of Capital again. Rather meaningfully. 

            “Capitalism,” I suggested.

            “Capitalism. Money. The most universal and insidious form of the lie, especially the lie that money can make you free. That’s what the convicts in the camp believed, and every time it let them down. If they got money, they spent it on vodka and then—extra punishment followed as sure as night follows day.  Money doesn’t make you free, it just binds you all the more surely to a world of lies. So it’s no wonder that you find yourself having to shout louder than the others and make all sorts of ridiculous claims about your work if you want to sell your wares. That’s the market and, to put it frankly, capitalism and humility are quite simply incompatible.”

            “So socialism without fraternity isn’t socialism and Christianity without humility isn’t Christianity. But if humility is incompatible with capitalism, that also implies that capitalism and Christianity are incompatible, doesn’t it?”

            He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips but said nothing.

            “And yet,” I continued, talking so myself as much as to him, “many of our politicians today still spout the rational egoism you already denounced so long ago, always telling us that economic self-interest is the real motive power of social change and improvement. They say that society improves by calculating what makes each of us individually better off. It’s all economics. By the way, do you know that it’s now well-known that public policy is decided by the application of algorithms—just like you predicted.”

            “I’m delighted you noticed—I don’t think all translations pick up on that. And, indeed, brothers don’t need algorithms to tell them that they belong together.”

            “And where does this leave Christmas,” I wondered aloud, “where’s the humility, where’s the Christianity, in a month-long fest of capitalist values?”

Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 2

Fyodor Mikhailovich was watching me closely and, after a full half-a-minute, remarked that the picture had been very important to him when he was living in Florence. “Indeed,” he said, “I spent many hours in front of it. It needs a lot of time to take in and, fortunately, Anna Grigorievna and I were living only a few minutes from where it was on show.”

            “Where was that?”

            “The Pitti Palace,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied.

            I’d been to the Pitti Palace myself but couldn’t remember seeing this particular painting amongst the many hundreds of religious paintings that covered its walls, mostly in the mannerist style that I don’t like much. I didn’t mention this, however.

            “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, in some puzzlement, “I’d have thought this was just the sort of religious art you wouldn’t like—isn’t it too, Western, too humanistic, and, dare I say, too Catholic?” (I was hesitant about bringing Catholicism into it as I knew he’d been strongly, even violently anti-Catholic in his lifetime.)

            “That’s all true,” he said, smiling thoughtfully and nodding. “It is very Western, very humanist, very Catholic—but why should that mean I can’t like it? Remember last time, when we talked about Dickens? Dickens was very Western, very humanist, and very Protestant—and, as you can imagine, I didn’t have a very high opinion of Protestantism either. But if I can enjoy Dickens and even borrow a little from him in my own writing, why not Raphael? Didn’t I even say that I thought Raphael and Shakespeare were worth more than the entire output of the modern industrial world and its ‘culture industry’—even if I did put the words in the mouth of that feeble and inveterate liar Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky?”

            “Yes, of course I remember what we were saying about Dickens. But isn’t there a difference? Dickens wrote about human situations, even if he is sometimes a bit pious. But this is meant to be a religious picture, a picture of the Saviour. However, it seems to me to turn the mystery of salvation into something all-too human. Isn’t it in fact a prime example of art serving a secular agenda, art for the Renaissance Popes in all their worldly splendour—a long way from the stable at Bethlehem.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, rather like a parent who’s been asked to read a story for the hundredth time.

            “May I …?” he asked, indicating that he’d quite like to sit.

            “Of course, of course.”

            I followed his example and we were back, face to face, in the same seats as on that first night. The next thing he said really surprised me, perhaps more than just about anything else he’d said up to this point in our meetings. Yet it was really the most ordinary remark in the world—which is why, in the circumstances, it was so astonishing.

            “That beer looks good—please, carry on. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a glass myself!”

            On the evening of his first visit he’d declined a drink and I’d assumed that whatever kind of body he now possessed couldn’t deal with actual food or drink, that it was, perhaps, only a ‘body’ for my benefit, a kind of appearance. Perhaps he really was in some kind of semi-body. After all, he’d just taken a Christmas card off the mantelpiece. Pure spirits don’t do that kind of thing. Of course, I jumped up and quickly got him a glass and poured his drink. He held it to the light and smiled appreciatively. 

            “That looks very good,” he said, taking a sip and putting the glass down. Settling himself in the chair, he pressed his hands on his legs, just above the knee, and, arms akimbo, launched into a short speech.

            “You see,” he began, “people have always misunderstood me on this subject. As I thought about it then (and I don’t think I was entirely wrong: just look at what a good Catholic like Dante had to say about the Church of his time) … as I thought about it then, yes, the Pope had turned the seat of Peter into an earthly throne and was even prepared to use the sword against his enemies, fighting for territory like any earthly monarch. And the Jesuits … the Inquisition … I didn’t make those things up. But I never thought that every Catholic was wicked. In fact, I had no doubt that there were many good Christians amongst them. Take Francis of Assisi—our people would have loved him and understood him as they love and understand their own saints, Seraphim, for example. He and Francis were surely brothers in God’s light. And amongst the common people, especially in Italy, you find the same kindness, the same faith that you find amongst our own. I have never believed that any Church, any institution, can entirely obscure Christ’s call to love. As I just said, I never had any great esteem for Protestantism, but I admired those pious Protestant doctors who worked amongst the poor in Russia, living on next to nothing and taking nothing except what the peasants could freely afford—that is true Christianity, isn’t it?” 

            “You mean like that old doctor who gave a bag of nuts to Dmitri Karamazov when he was a little boy?”

            “Exactly. Dr. Herzenstube I called him, because his faith was from the heart and he could find happiness in a small act of kindness to a young lad who’d been abandoned by his father—and who can ever calculate what goodness comes from such small acts?” He paused and, picking the card up from the table where I’d put it down, looked at it thoughtfully.

            “So you see, yes—she is very human. A beautiful young mother and child. There is nothing more human—and there is nothing closer to the mystery of Christ.”

            Can spirits be emotional? Even if this too was a performance for my benefit, his voice seemed almost to tremble.

            “You know we went to Florence soon after we lost our dear little Sonia; I suppose that this picture had a special meaning at such a time—if only I could have seen my Anna like that, nestling our beloved child on her knee.” He paused and sighed. “As I would see her the next year with Liuba. This is life’s most beautiful moment, don’t you think? Perhaps the smile a mother gives to her child contains the whole secret of faith.”

            When Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke of Sonia, he seemed suddenly to become strangely insubstantial, as if he was almost about to fade away but then, at the mention of the mother’s smile, it was almost as if the blood rushed back into his face. Only, of course, it didn’t and couldn’t (I suppose), as he didn’t have any blood. All the same, I wasn’t sure that I agreed.  If that was all there was to faith, then maybe all my questions were much ado about nothing. But I nodded, anyway.

            Silence fell. An angel flying overhead as my parents used to say.

            “I may add,” he continued, almost defiantly, “that I even asked a Catholic priest to say Mass for Sonia when we were in Florence. We are all human beings, after all.”  He grimaced. “Of course, he had to refuse.” Gesturing towards the other cards, he continued “But these pictures, where you see the little Mother dressed like a Queen, adored by processions of Kings in velvets, satins, and pearls, with their chests of gold, jewels, and spices, accompanied by their magnificent retinues—what did the gospels say about all that? Forget the gold, the jewels, the velvets, the satins—even the camels (though I admit they might stir the imagination of a child). That’s what Raphael did. He left the gold and showed us a human beauty, the kind of beauty you could probably see in any town or village”.

            I have to admit, to my shame, that, as Fyodor Mikhailovich was speaking, I had some rather inappropriate thoughts about Raphael’s amorous liaisons with his models and wondered whether that had happened in this case. Not very Madonna-like, if so. As if reading my thoughts (I hoped he hadn’t), Fyodor Mikhailovich asked if I knew the legend about her.

            “No … I have to admit that I’ve never even really looked at the painting very closely.”

            “So I guessed,” he smiled, consolingly. “But it’s a good story—the kind of story that the common people used to like back in those days, ours too. I was told it by the attendant, a kind old man with a smiling, wrinkled face and I’m sure he believed every word of it. She was, they say, a peasant girl herself and exceptionally beautiful—as we can see. And she was also known for being exceptionally kind and charitable. One day, it’s said, she helped a poor mendicant who was passing by the village where she lived. In return, he promised her that she would be remembered as the Mother of God, a promise that didn’t make much sense to her, since, like every devout peasant, she knew there was only one Mother of God to whom prayers could be offered and she had no ambition to usurp her place! Nevertheless, some years later, after she’d married and had two small sons, Raphael happened to see her playing with the children in her garden and immediately knew that he must paint her as the Madonna.” (My cynical thoughts about the artist and his models briefly flared up again, but I did my best to suppress them.) “Of course,” Fyodor Mikahilovich continued, “I don’t know whether the story is true—it probably isn’t, but it’s the sort of thing that happened in those magical days when the partition between this world—that is, your world—and the next were not so solid as they are now, more like mist than stone walls. In any case, it’s the sort of story that poor folk like to tell and hear. It reminds me of the story that Flaubert told about John the Hospitaller, who welcomed a leprous beggar, fed him, and warmed him with his body—only for the beggar to reveal himself as Christ. Do you know it?”

            I did. It’s one of the Three Tales, though (to my mind) Flaubert used them to play an essentially sceptical game of hide-and-seek between literature and religion in which literature ultimately won out. In some ways (or so it seemed to me) his ideological agenda was almost the exact opposite of Dostoevsky’s.

            “Wasn’t Flaubert a bit too much of a modern rationalist for you?”

            “Well, maybe—but he was a great writer, wasn’t he? You really do seem convinced that I only ever judged my contemporaries in the light of their religious belief!”

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …”

            “No, no, no—don’t worry. Don’t worry. But let’s go back to the point I was making.” 

            “Which was?”

            “That if you want to find God don’t try to look outside the world. It’s in the world, amongst the peasants, the poor folk, the beggars, the sick, the outcast, and those who care for them out of simple kindness—that’s where you have to start looking. Christ didn’t take an earthly throne, but, as it says in another legend, he wandered through the Russian land in the guise of a peasant …”

            “Yes—there are legends like that in England too: ‘And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s pleasant mountains green?’”

            Immediately I regretted (once again) jumping in, but Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t seem to mind. He just nodded away, looking thoughtful.

            “Yes, yes, yes … perhaps in every country. Remember the onion! You have to look in the right places. So don’t be surprised if the Mother of God looks just like a pretty Italian peasant-girl. That’s much more likely than her looking like some pale lady-in-waiting. Humility. No great choruses of angels, no fireworks or spectacles, just the most basic human reality—that’s where we have to start. Birth. In fact, it’s also where we have to finish. Death.”