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A Tale of Rowan Williams, Dostoyevsky, Franzen and Freedom

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

One of the great privileges of living in Oxford is the richness of the cultural life that is going on all around you on a daily basis: concerts, talks, theatre, and exhibitions at world class museums and libraries. I recently took advantage of the opportunity to listen to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, speaking on one of his favourite subjects, the writing of Fyodor Dostoyevsky*.

Williams started off with a brief introduction of Dostoyevsky and his work before going to explore in greater detail some of the themes running through his most important works of fiction. Amongst the biographical details - of a life that would have been of great interest even without the great literary output – was that in 1849 he was arrested for his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle, a secret society of liberal utopians that also functioned as a literary discussion group. He and other members were condemned to death, but at the last moment, a note from Tsar Nicholas I was delivered to the scene of the firing squad, commuting the sentence to four years' hard labour in Siberia. Quite what an effect this would have on a young man it is almost impossible to comprehend, but we do know that during his exile Dostoyevsky returned to the practise of the Christian faith and that he would read and re-read the Fourth Gospel in particular.

Williams said that all his main works are essentially murder stories. However, whilst they are very simple on one level  - we’re left in no doubt as to who committed the murder – on another level much more complex and profound questions are raised than in your average murder novel. We are asked to reflect upon questions such as: “why stay alive?” . . . “why should anyone else be allowed to stay alive?” . . . and “why not kill?” You would have to shut your eyes to the reality of modern life to pretend that these are issues are not every bit as alive today as they were in the grimness and confusion of Dostoyevsky’s novels; it’s only the manifestations that change as we see ourselves surrounded by abortion, arguments for euthanasia and under threat from terrorism.

Many view Dostoyevsky’s novels as being characterised by a chaotic range of characters and situations with many possible views presented, but no predominant viewpoint. Williams, however, disagrees with this and he is almost uniquely well-placed in the English-speaking world to do so, being an outstanding theologian, fluent in Russian, and familiar with Russian Orthodox Christianity. He suggests that we view the differing voices in the novels as a kind of polyphony, there is a structure, and he contends that amongst the voices Dostoyevsky provides us with one which shines through brighter than the others. Often this voice will not be the one we had expected, it will not necessarily be the raised voice of powerful character, but it will carry a certain spiritual authority, guiding us as to how we should act in the seeming moral confusion.

Such spiritual authority, Lord Williams suggests is found in Sonya in Crime and Punishment, the elderly monk Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov, and Bishop Tikhon in The Devils. What these characters help to make us realise is that we only truly free when we take on responsibility for another, when we cease to be motivated solely by our own desires.

In Sonya, we see a character whose every action is oriented to others; she will not run away from those to whom she feels responsible, even though it is at great personal cost to her. She is meek, and viewed as weak, even by some of those who her self-giving benefits.  Yet the reality is that she stronger than all the ‘powerful’ figures in the book. It is her personal example sanctity, her capacity for selfless love that persuades Raskolnikov to take responsibility for the murder he has perpetrated and to confess. Sonya gives Raskolnikov a cross when he goes to turn himself in and this symbolises the burden he must bear. Sonya tells him they will bear the cross together. Sonya and Lizaveta (an unintended murder victim) had exchanged crosses, so originally the cross had been Lizaveta's. This adds an even greater poignancy to the Cross as symbol of redemption and the burden which we must carry for others.

In reflecting on how throughout the books there are these certain characters who give us a perspective, Williams suggests that the presence of holiness carries with it a certain authority and helps us to understand a way through the chaos that would otherwise subsume all. Williams argues that Dostoyevsky doesn’t force you to accept their perspective, he just presents it. In this way he thinks that they are like icons hanging on the wall, they won’t coerce us (though, of course, truth does have its own force), but they can teach us. They are shafts of light, illuminating in what true freedom consists, if only we will open our eyes to it. Their seeming passivity is in fact a part of the strength of their witness; they stand as serene counterpoints to the frenetic activity around them.

Finally, Williams notes how the proper exercise of our freedom in accepting responsibility for others is not characterised as a burden, but rather as a source of joy. By acting in this way, we more close unite ourselves with Christ, the source of all true joy, whether recognised for it or not.

It was a magnificent lecture and his reflections on the theme of freedom prompted some reflections of my own on freedom more generally and then more particularly on what I think is one of the most profound social commentaries of recent times, Freedom, a novel by Jonathan Franzen.

Freedom seems to be one of the most multivalent words in the English language today. There are so many ways in which it is used which I think do a grievous injustice to its fullest realisation as put forward by Williams as being the major theme running through Dostoyevsky’s work. Franzen is an agnostic, which perhaps only goes to make his perceptive diagnosis, of the exercise of freedom in contemporary American society, even more noteworth. In Freedom, he skilfully brings out how the misuse of freedom makes us so much less than what we’re meant to be, and how fleeting the pleasure is in its hedonistic exercise when compared to the sustained loss of joy which often results.

The paradigm of freedom for Patti Bergman, one of the lead characters, seems to be the ability to do whatever she wants when she wants. She’s not intentionally a bad person. She has a certain pride in her liberal values, which she believes correct, but they’re not held firmly enough to be convictions which would demand anything of her in a genuine time of trial.

She finds herself falling for her husband’s best friend, Richard, an accomplished musician who is on the cusp of hitting the big time. She knows what she feels herself to be inevitably spiralling towards is wrong and a betrayal of herself as well as her husband. Yet on one immediate level she desires its realisation and so she fights to suppress her conscience. In one passage, Franzen describes superbly the mindset of the one putting immediate gratification first and suppressing their better selves, not allowing the icon to shed its light on the situation and to let God’s grace rescue us from our folly:

“How she felt: as if a ruthless and well-organized party of resistance fighters had assembled under cover of the darkness of her mind, and so it was imperative not to let the spotlight of her conscience shine anywhere near them, not even for one second. Her love of Walter and her loyalty to him, her wish to be a good person, her understanding of Walter’s lifelong competition with Richard, her sober appraisal of Richard’s character, and just the all-around [nastiness] of sleeping with your spouse’s best friend: these superior considerations stood ready to annihilate the resistance fighters. And so she had to keep the forces of conscience fully diverted. She couldn’t even allow herself to consider how she was dressing—she had to instantly deflect the thought of putting on a particular flattering sleeveless item before taking midmorning coffee and cookies out to Richard, she had to flick that thought right away from her—because the tiniest hint of ordinary flirting would attract the searchlight, and the spectacle it illuminated would be just too revolting and shameful and pathetic.”

Richard suffers in a similar way. His newfound success has put the world at his feet, drugs, women, money and fame are all there for him . . . yet none of it satisfies. Freedom to do anything without committing to something leaves him feeling so empty that we are told: “He was at once freer than he’d been since puberty and yet closer than he’d ever been to suicide.”

Patti in a moment of clarity knows what she has to do to get her life back on track:

“What she should have done then was find a job or go back to school or become a volunteer. But there always seemed to be something in the way. There was the possibility that Joey would relent and move back home for his senior year. There was the house and garden she’d neglected in her year of drunkenness and depression. There was her cherished freedom to go up to Nameless Lake for weeks at a time whenever she felt like it. There was a more general freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.”

She can’t bear the idea of closing off any future possibilities. Her obsession with being continually free to take advantage of what might happen is in fact a form of paralysis. We are fully human when we freely commit to something, and our freedom is realised in the continued exercise of the virtuous option, not in keeping one’s options open. This is the problem with culture of perpetual discernment in so many walks of life, and one that I have most definitely been guilty of earlier in my life. Taking religious vows has actually freed me in a way that I never imagined possible. There is a profound difference between a permanent choice and a life of perpetual response.

As we continue through Lent, we have a chance to exercise our freedom. We should not think of our Lenten penances in negative terms and therefore things that if we do bother with, we’ll do begrudgingly. Rather in anything we give up, as well as showing solidarity with those who have not, and with Christ who gave His very life for us, we also exercise our freedom. In giving up, we show how we are free to make a commitment to something. We show how we are more than the immediate satisfaction of our desires. We are creatures made in the image of God, who with the grace of God can commit ourselves to living on a more profound level of reality than the immediate satisfaction of cravings; we know that the alcoholic swigging his beer is not really free. No doubt in Lent we’ll also learn more about our weakness too; we’ll learn that the theory is often easier than the practise, and that when we fall we often fall hard. However, we should remember that when we rise, we are exercising our freedom in recommitting to our penances not giving them up. We learn that willpower alone is not enough, but we also learn that with the grace of God we might train ourselves for greatness.

Dostoyevsky understood human nature well and commented:

“It seems, in fact, as though the second half of a man's life is made up of nothing but the habits he has accumulated during the first half.”

During Lent, we can show that this need not always be the case, new habits can be formed and old habits broken. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the best way to do this. Not allowing our futures to be dictated by our pasts is one significant way we can start to our exercise our freedom from tomorrow.

*The event was organised by Dr James Orr, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology at Christchurch, and was the inaugural Oxford event of The Trinity Forum which aims to bring together Christians and others to consider big questions relating to faith, culture and public policy in a convivial atmosphere.

Image: Portrait of Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov (1872)

Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


Paul Padley commented on 25-Feb-2015 06:51 AM
Dear Br Lees,

I read this article before breakfast today, Wednesday Feb 25th. It helped to set me up for the day. Thank you.
Mark Hart commented on 26-Feb-2015 08:34 AM
Many thanks for this. When was the event? Was it recorded? I can't find it on the Trinity Forum website with the other videos.
Br Toby commented on 02-Mar-2015 11:39 AM
Dear Paul and Mark - thank you for your kind comments.

Mark, the event was on 13th February. Unfortunately it was not recorded, and I don't think there was a transcript of the talk either.

All the best,

Br Toby

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