A Critique of Dostoevsky’s Incarnate Realism



“What is the last book you read that you remember reading and enjoying? I ask students on the first day of the introductory literature course I teach at a vocational college. Class is a requirement of general education, and few of my students read for pleasure. If I’m lucky, some might respond with a recent favorite; others have to search their memories as far back as Dr. Seuss. I then ask another question: “Do you believe that stories can make us better people?

For educators in the ancient and medieval worlds, the answer to that question was a resounding yes. Later, perhaps alongside a decline in the authority of religion, the answer became “not necessarily”. Since 2017, when the #MeToo movement exposed the prevalence of sexual abuse among influencers, including writers, the answer for many remains no. Nevertheless, recent scientific studies have suggested that reading novels can indeed increase our compassion and generosity.

For Paul Contino, literary reading is an integral part of a spiritual journey towards greater plenitude and, if associated with humility, towards holiness. Drawing on the theology of his own Catholic faith as well as ecumenical Christian perspectives, he offers a hopeful reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1879 classic, The Karamazov brothers.

With its detailed analyzes of plot points and character development, Contino’s book assumes knowledge of the main text. But if reading Dostoevsky is an intellectual milestone you haven’t reached yet, Contino might serve as a helpful guide. And if Dostoyevsky’s long-cherished novel is the one you remember loving in your youth but haven’t dusted off in decades, Contino’s critical analysis just might inspire you to pick it up again.

A commonly noted flaw of many literary critics is opacity and inaccessibility; it is so often written by scholars for scholars. Fortunately, Contino’s analysis does not suffer from this weakness. Written with lucidity and great beauty, this study is suitable for a popular audience. What makes it particularly relevant to Christian readers is the theological emphasis on Dostoevsky’s “embodied realism”, which Contino defines as the “philosophical/theological belief that the human mind is capable of apprehending the world as it is ontologically, even with our epistemological limits and the heritage of “social constructions”. To achieve this knowledge of reality, we must cultivate virtues such as humility and prudence. “Rather than egocentrically projecting a predetermined pattern onto reality”, such a virtue “remains receptively open to reality”.

The main character who embodies this embodied realism is Father Zosima, the spiritual mentor of the youngest brother Karamazov, Alyosha. It is he who makes the statement that Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day found so resonant: “Love in practice is a hard and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” The Christian ideal of active love—practiced slowly and steadily over long periods of time, without validation from real or imagined audiences—is the defining characteristic of the wise elder. However, Contino carefully notes that Zosima must take a long journey before she attains the wisdom needed to mentor others. In his youth, he “willfully constructs a drama of projected love, insult, and potential violence”. Growing in holiness does not imply being faultless.

Contino also explores the character development of the three Karamazov brothers. Most of the focus is on Alyosha, who indeed continues to embody active Christlike love. However, his analyzes of Alyosha’s two older brothers are even more compelling. The middle child, Ivan, remains trapped by pride and Nadryv, or the bitterness that comes when you feel torn apart by internal conflict. The firstborn, Dmitri, manages to overcome pride and find redemption through humility. Again and again, Contino notes, a major stumbling block for Dostoyevsky’s characters is excessive concern for the opinions of others. On the one hand, “as social creatures, we will always be seen by others”. On the other, “the demoniac is harnessed to the fear of being seen as ‘ridiculous’.”

All works of criticism are essentially limited in scope; it is never possible to discuss everything. Contino only scratches the surface of some issues that I would like to see fleshed out more fully. One concerns the peculiarities of Orthodox theology. While embodied realism is important to all branches of Christianity, Contino readily admits that his reading is heavily influenced by his own tradition of Roman Catholicism – a tradition that, as he notes, Dostoyevsky held in low regard. Although I very much appreciate Contino’s focus on the Catholic imagination, especially the moments when he compares Alyosha’s spiritual journey to that of Dante in the divine comedyI would like to explore a little more the specifically orthodox implications of Dostoyevsky’s work.

A continuing criticism that Dostoyevsky has faced is his propensity for anti-Semitism, which in 19th century Russia was the social water in which he swam. Contino does well to acknowledge and name this issue, but in my opinion he does it too briefly and apologetically. He speculates that Dostoevsky’s faith “would have given him the courage to renounce his sins of anti-Semitism and chauvinistic nationalism” if he had lived later. Considering the resurgence of these two trends across the world in recent years, I’m not so confident about it. I believe Contino could have devoted a little more space in the book to exploring the complexities of Dostoyevsky’s anti-Semitism.

One last aspect of this book that disappointed me is that nowhere does Contino mention the fact that his reading is that of a book in translation. As an English-speaking reader who has never studied Russian, I can only access Dostoevsky’s masterpiece through the thoughtful art of literary translators. Lawrence Venuti and others have criticized readers’ tendency to make translation and translators invisible. Discussing the importance of translation—and perhaps even devoting a few pages to comparing the strengths and weaknesses of different English versions of this classic text—would add a necessary element to the study of Contino that is currently missing.

Yet this study is a pleasure to read and a reminder that literary criticism is an art that can breathe new life into old texts and transform them into a lens through which to contemplate the challenges of our time. In our time of crisis, Contino finds an answer in Dostoyevsky’s vision: “Active Christlike love, rooted in God’s grace”. Contino reminds us that we are all called to respond with love in this fallen world.

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