Sunday, September 21, 2008

Drunks, Derelicts and Dostoevsky

Coming from a family of sensualists and having a dad who is a walking example of buffoonery is perhaps helpful for a deeper appreciation of literature. Case in point: Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov". I read the first 200 pages or so of the novel over the weekend and found it a very refreshing experience. Expertly-crafted characters with comically profound (or profoundly comical) dialogue that reads more like expositions. Pages after pages of laugh-out-loud dialogue and irreverent buffoonery. Russian novelists are especially adept at writing about buffoons. Well-known characters like Marmeladov ("Crime and Punishment") and Fyodor Pavlovich here are examples of the art of "buffoonery". I found Fyodor Pavlovich an especially colourful character. Furthermore, he gets the best lines. He can be profound one minute and blasphemous the next. But the reader gets the impression that it is Dostoevsky himself who is having all the fun writing all sorts of nonsensical declarations from the mouths of this fool, this buffoon.

Interestingly, outside of Irish literature, the drunken Russian buffoon is possibly one of the most familiar caricatures of an entire nation. Even Garth Ennis included this in "Mother Russia" with that drunken sob in the pub declaring the demise of Glorious Mother Russia (because of the lousy vodka that he was served). The drunken Russian buffoon doesn't just walk around puking on everyone's shoes. He makes a scene by delivering a long-winded speech on nationalism, church-state separation, the afterlife, forgiveness, the existence of God, the foulness of his own sins, etc. That is what makes the drunken Russian buffoon such an interesting character. It is the dregs of society as philosopher and priest. Drunken mutterings and exclamations as sermons and vodka as the Communion Wine. Dostoevsky, as the prophet of society's refuse, writes best when he gives us polemical speeches by these drunken sods.

Some "authorities" used to entertain the opinion that Dostoevsky wrote his dialogues haphazardly, according to his whims and fancy. Thankfully, this "authoritative" theory was disproved by the discovery of Dostoevsky's diaries; in which was found pages-after-pages of experimental dialogues that he never used. Dostoevsky is such a great novelist because he was a great observer of life. He hung around drinking holes listening to drunks, gamblers and derelicts. Everything that he observed went into that diary of his. That was the seriousness in which he took his craft. Nothing was haphazard or happenstance. He worked long and hard to perfect his abilities writing "buffoonery" dialogues. This was Dostoevsky's art and with it, he bequeaths us a most precious gift - a picture of Russia (or humanity, for that matter) as seen through the eyes of its lowlifes and derelicts.

This is possibly the reason why Dostoevsky's novels endear themselves so much to me. He does not write for the nobles who belong to the higher echelons of society. Nor does he write for scholars and priests. Dostoevsky wrote for the common-man who followed his novels as they were published part-by-part in the local papers. Like Dickens, he wrote as a commoner to other commoners. He did not consider himself so "pure" that he will not "eat and drink with sinners and publicans". More than any other novelist, Dostoevsky's works are meditations on our Lord's declaration that He did not come to save the healthy but the sick who needed the Divine Physician. Reading Dostoevsky, one gets a glimpse of the truth behind the parables that many derelicts and lowlifes will come from the East and the West on that Day and sit in the seats that have been prepared for them but the so-called "sons" of Abraham, the self-declared "righteous" (because of his affiliations to a race, a sect, a university, a church-group, a denomination, etc.) will be cast out.

"Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything. There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God's boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God's love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing, and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men - that was said long ago. Go, then, and do not be afraid. Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you; be reconciled with him truly. If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God... With love everything is bought, everything is saved. If even I, a sinful man, just like you, was moved to tenderness and pity for you, how much more will God be. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people's sins. Go, and do not be afraid." - the Elder Zosima assures a repentant widow who murdered her old husband because he constantly beat her. (BK 1.2.4)

Dostoevsky's Lord is the One who, with his last breath on the cross, forgave the penitent thief. Dostoevsky's God has inexhaustible mercy even for the most damning sinner who truly repents. The Elder Zosima's words encapsulates the beliefs of Dostoevsky and we can see this same element reappearing throughout all his works. Dostoevsky's God loves the unlovable, the prodigal, the publican, the drunkard, the prostitute, the adulteress, the blasphemer, the unlovely.

Lofty religionists have, throughout the ages, made it a display of their felicity by proclaiming their love for mankind. These same lofty religionists also do not spare their anathemas when the smallest member of that same "mankind" they claimed to love irritate them in the smallest measure. Their attitude is best explained in the following excerpt:

"I love mankind, ... but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, ... I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me... On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole."– BK 1.2.4.

It is such a joy reading Dostoevsky because of his piercing honesty in his examination of man's deepest motives. Perhaps it is only one who has searched the hearts of man so much who understands man's need for redemption. Perhaps that is why it is so comforting that such a one, who has observed the ugly pretensions of man so acutely, also speaks so much about the availability of grace, of divine forgiveness and tearful penitence. It is no wonder that Russian students confess to being able to retain their Christian faith through the years of Communist rule because of the availability of these novels. Reading Dostoevsky is a deeply spiritual experience.

I'll be 32 years old this Wednesday. Among the things that one picks up as one ages is this loathsome cynicism that is displayed in one's words and attitudes. I look at the underlining, the margin notes, the highlights in this old copy of "The Brothers Karamazov" and I find it hard to identify with the simplistic and naïve "ME" when I first read it when I was 20. Do I really know better 12 years later? Have I really grown any wiser 12 years later? More cynical - definitely. A loathsome cynicism, like I mentioned. Maybe rereading this old novel will help to wipe away some of that loathsomeness - I certainly hope so.

Sitting quietly before Mother Mary does "something" for Pltypus. I have no doubt about that. Pltypus wrote some beautiful entries (when he's not making silly jokes about "fat people" that is - it was only funny for the first 2,384th times he did it!) some weeks back after reading Jurgen Moltmann. He wrote about the crucifixion as the central theme, event, "crisis" (crux) of Christian thought. I think that I'm beginning to see some glimpses of that.

Next stop - Cameron Highlands. Hopefully Gerard is still alive. And Glyn. And Stephen from whichever alternate timelines.

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