Dostoevsky has a way of invoking emotion. His scenes are so carefully built up, and his characters often so heavy and burdened and emotional that you the reader can’t help but feel them.
The Way Of Atheism To Christianity
In a previous post, I commented on a scene from Dostoevsky’s hagiography of the Elder Zossima, namely the conversion of his brother Markel from atheism to Christianity–a conversion so deep and transformative that the once hardened atheist was now weeping for the birds and asking for their forgiveness! Dostoevsky is so beautiful in these scenes, taking the rational to the crazy and showing that the crazy is actually the rational–he takes human life and turns it upside down revealing truth itself. That what the Greeks thought foolishness is actually the real, the true, the good. To some, the elder’s brother is a madman–this kind of reader would fall into the character of the doctor who diagnoses Markel with a kind of madness resulting from his illness and proximity to death. But for others, those who believe that a love for God and creation is an important kind of crazy, a humanizing foolishness, this is an expression, indeed a revelation, of truth itself.
The Way From Erotic To Agape Love
There is another crazy scene in the Brothers Karamazov that I couldn’t believe when I read it. It is the scene when Alyosha, the young monk and symbol of faith in the book, has a crisis of faith after the death of Elder Zossima, and flees the monastery and goes directly to Grushenka’s house. Grushenka is known as a prostitute, a shrewd business woman, and a mesmerizing one at that. In his heart, Alyosha seems to know that Grushenka is waiting for him–at least there has been some encounter with her that if he wanted to, he could have relations with her and vice versa. So off he goes, and he’s joined by fellow monk Rakitin who is a victim of his own spiritual crisis from which he has not been able to recover.
They enter Grushenka’s house, and Rakitin mocks Alyosha who is gloomy and reticent. Grushenka can’t make sense of it all, and finds her moment to possibly seduce Alyosha. Here’s the scene:
“Will you let me sit on your knee, Alyosha, like this?” She suddenly skipped forward and jumped, laughing, on his knee, like a nestling kitten, placing her right arm tenderly around his neck. “I’ll cheer you up, my pious boy. Yes, really, will you let me sit on your knee, you won’t be angry? If you tell me, I’ll hop off.”
Grushenka confesses that she loves Alyosha with all her soul, but “in a different way” than the others, including her suitor Mitya who is another brother Karamazov. She claims that in the past she has “had sly designs on you before. For I am a horrid and violent creature. But at other times I’ve looked at you as my conscience. I’ve kept thinking, ‘how any one like that must despise a nasty thing like me’.”
But here’s where the scene shifts and the magic begins. The tensions been set: the voluptuous Grushenka is seated on the young monk’s lap. Alyosha is in a spiritual conflict: on the one hand he feels protected by God from temptation, but on the other he is feeling attracted to Grushenka (indeed a normal emotion given every other male character’s response to her). But now the shift:
Rakitin breaks to Grushenka that the Elder Zossima had died that day and had crushed Alyosha in sorrow. To this Grushenka reacts in a surprising way:
“So Father Zossima is dead,” cried Grushenka. “Good God, I did not know!” She crossed herself devoutly. “Goodness, what have I been doing, sitting on his knee like this at such a time!” She started up as though in dismay, instantly slipped off his knee and sat down on the sofa. Alyosha bent a long wondering look upon her and a light seemed to dawn in his face.”
And now the arrow of love that pierces the darkness!
Alyosha to Rakitin and Grushenka:
“Rakitin,” he said suddenly, in a firm and loud voice, “don’t taunt me me with having rebelled against God. I don’t want to feel angry with you, so you must be kinder, too. I’ve lost a treasure [Elder Zossima] such as you have never had, and you cannot judge me now. You had much better look at her–do you see how she spared me? I came here to find a wicked soul–I felt drawn to evil because I was base and evil myself, and I’ve found a true sister, I have found a treasure–a loving heart. She spared me just now . . . . Agrafena Alexandrovna [Grushenka], I am speaking of you. You’ve restored my soul just now.” Alyosha’s lips were quivering and he caught his breath.
Rakitin takes it all in with a mocking vituperation:
“She has saved you, it seems,” laughed Rakitin spitefully. “And she meant to swallow you, do you realize that?”
The Way of Crazy Repentance
And now the moment of Grushenka’s repentance:
“Stay, Rakitin.” Grushenka jumped up. “Hush, both of you. Now I’ll tell you all about it. Hush, Alyosha, your words make me ashamed, for I am bad and not good–that’s what I am. And you hush, Rakitin, because you are telling lies. I had the low idea of trying to swallow him, but now you are lying, now it’s all different . . . .” All this Grushenka said with extreme emotion. “They are both crazy,” said Rakitin, looking at them with amazement. ” I feel as though I were in a madhouse. They’re both weakening so that they’ll begin crying in a minute.” “I shall begin to cry, I shall,” repeated Grushenka. “He called me his sister and I shall never forget that.”
The crazy scene continues leading to Grushenka sobbing on the couch repenting of her sins and Alyosha having nothing but love and forgiveness in his heart for her.
But what happened here? What is Dostoevsky revealing to us?
He is revealing to us none other than a simple truth, a truth that if we all lived it–according to Markel in the Elder Zossima scene–we would bring heaven down to earth: That all of us, no matter how dark or sinful or distorted or broken, all of us are made in the image of God. And if you look closely enough at a person–any person!–you will see that image born out of their eyes. And when we see one another as created in the image of God, then objectivity becomes subjectivity–we cease seeing one another as objects, and instead engage as subjects, as icons of God Himself. This is the beauty, the broken distorted beauty, of Dostoevsky. This is truth unfolded. And this truth is a beautiful truth, for it turns the world upside down to where a “nasty thing” like Grushenka becomes a sister of light, a sister of truth. Further down you will read that in fact Grushenka had paid Rakitin to deliver the young monk to her for the purpose of swallowing him. And this is part of her confession and repentance. But Alyosha is full of the transforming love of God. He cannot see her as anything but a saint.
Cynical Rationality vs Transformational Love
And what of Rakitin?
He is the voice of reason. He is the cynic in all of us who don’t want to believe such stories, who don’t want to go to the place of crazy radical love, who think it’s all too messy and crazy and messed up. His is the voice of reason; the place of reason that the love of Christ overturns like the money tables in the temple. There’s no place for the rational, the careful, the risk-free in this crazy love that is the Kingdom of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that we all must drive the Rakitin out of our hearts if we are to enter this crazy love that is the Way of truth and light and love.
What power. What vision. What radical beauty!
What My Elder Told Me About Lent
It’s Lent. If there’s one time of year that causes fear and rejoicing at the same time, it’s Lent. Last year was my first time. I asked my friend who has been my spiritual elder for many years what I should do for Lent–how I should approach it. I went over to his house in the first week of Lent, and we shared pita bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and chased it down with Arabic coffee sweetened with maple syrup (east meats west–I’ll leave the typo as a pun!).
“So, how do I approach this time of fasting?” I asked, dipping a torn off piece of flatbread into my speckled puddle of olive oil and vinegar.
“How do you fast?” He asked, rolling up his sleeve and adjusting the black wool prayer rope that dangled from his wrist.
“How do I fast?”
“Ya, how do you fast?”
“Um . . .” I had to think about this one. My mind raced to the various Wednesdays and Fridays when I tried desperately to fast during the day, only to binge on snack foods at night. “Well, in actuality I’m probably the worst faster in the world. Is it a good thing to have indigestion before bed on a fast day?” He laughed.
“Ok, so first of all, no one is a worse faster then me,” he qualified. “I know exactly how you feel. And to be honest, Lent is really hard for me. What you need to try to do is just not eat–to go hungry.”
“Not eat . . . At all?”
“That’s right. You need to really feel the hunger. Christ says to hunger and thirst for Him. He is the Bread of Life; He is the Living Water–right?”
“Ok . . . I thought it was just vegan . . .”
“It is, but the whole point of it is to go hungry; to make hunger your friend; to fend it off for as long as possible, and ultimately to make room in your heart for Christ, and prepare for His death and resurrection.”
I dipped another piece of bread into the puddle, and took a swig of my coffee feeling the fine grounds like chalk across my teeth. “Befriend hunger . . .” I thought.
The Pitfall Of Comfort
I think it was Solzhenitsyn who said that there is nothing worse for a writer than comfort. A writer who is comfortable has to conjure up scenarios to write, which typically leads to prose that is shallow or bourgeois. This is the case in all areas of life–we like to engage those who are the work-horses; we love to cheer for the gritty underdog who gets knocked down but gets back up again. It’s like the story in the Bridge of Spies of the Jewish man who in the concentration camp was beaten down; but each time he was beaten down, he stood back up again.
For a writer, we need to have that steely-eyed tenacity; we need to have the hunger, the eye of the tiger, whatever it is. Without it, we’re done! Maybe this is what happened to Philip Roth. Why else would you walk off stage, retire as a writer in your seventies? He lost the hunger, the will to fight, the steely eye of the tiger. It’s a sad thing. It makes me wonder if he had the eye of the tiger in the first place (though his prose would answer in the affirmative). Incidentally, before hanging up his hat, he read all of his books, then those by his favourite authors, one of whom is Dostoevsky.
To Be An Artist Is To Hunger
To be an artist is to hunger. To befriend hunger–same as the spiritual life in pursuit of God. See how these things are so intertwined?
This is where writing is an ascetic practice–an ascesis. To practice asceticism is to deny yourself (your will, your agenda, your ‘style’, your past, your present, your future), and cleave to God–to give Him everything. It is to hunger and thirst for Christ. It is to befriend hunger and allow room in your heart for Christ to pray and fast through you. To write, then, becomes a way for the Lord to speak through you to your readers; to convey a message, to open a window, to create an opportunity for the Lord to speak through your words to the reader. And so your life as a writer and your life as a seeker after God, after Truth, are one and the same. I will write more about this because it is something I have only recently caught a glimpse of. It informs everything. And it is here that we are more than just writers–we are human beings; we are icons of God, for we bare his image.
The pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.
The friend who gave me advice last year, whom I was able to spend a day or two of Lent with, is spending this year in a monastery in Alexandria Egypt. He was ordained this past week as a Coptic priest. It’s amazing to me how the grace of God can radiate from one person to others even thousands of kilometres away. He will spend 40 days and 40 nights there, fasting, praying, performing liturgy. He rises at 4am. There is only one meal a day–the same meal every day. My imagination says it’s bread, water, and salt, but who knows. I’ll have to ask him. His name is Father Joseph.
He wrote me a text the other day that I can’t stop thinking about.
Everything I’ve Read About The Saints Is True!
“Look–” he said, “You won’t believe it. Everything I’ve read about saints and monks and these monasteries is real! If only you could be here and take part in liturgy and see the monks whose faces literally radiate! You would weep for hours, then write like never before!”
He gets it.
Art, the pursuit of Beauty and Truth, and the desperate, hungry pursuit of God are one and the same.
So tomorrow I wake up to my prayers, and then I scribble out my lines for 30 minutes. The rest of the day, I try, desperately try in this consumptive over-abundant western world, to go hungry. I will fail. I will eat. I will fall. But in the falling, I will remember that the point is not to fall, but after having fallen, to get back up. By the grace of God to fall forward.
May the Lord grant us all a desire, a hunger, for Him, and the courage and strength to get back up.
Didn’t write this morning–woke up a bit later than usual (being up in the night with small children can mess with sleep patterns), and had to be out of the house early. I’m not going to worry about it, but simply pick it up again tomorrow morning.
But how will I stay in the momentum of the book having missed this morning’s writing session?
To do this, I utilize a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way over the years of false starts, slothfulness, and self-doubt. Here they are:
The first is daily pages, which I got from the wonderful book by Julia Cameron entitled The Artist’s Way. If you’re a writer and haven’t read this book, you must. Her book is a kind of program for blocked artists; and one of the ways you unblock is by writing again–through daily pages. This took years for me to learn. I have been an avid note-taker and have innumerable journals throughout the house, but did not develop the discipline of daily writing (hence the name jour-nal).
In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. I ask you to do this by an apparently pointless process I call the morning pages . . . . What are morning pages? Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream of consciousness . . . .
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, 9-10.
Cameron really awakened me to the importance of this discipline, and I’ve been diligently doing my morning pages now for several years. I don’t write in them everyday, I must confess, but most days. Daily pages are particularly useful for working through the book I’m writing, or jotting down ideas from the books I’m reading, or just flickers of insight. So when I miss a day of book writing, I can rely on my daily pages to both keep the ink flowing as well as keep me in the momentum of the book.
The second tool is just carrying around a notebook, a small one. Again, I don’t rely on mobile devices because a) I can be a Luddite, in spite of working professionally with technology, and b) I don’t want my intimate ideas being beamed up to a cloud somewhere on a google-barge off the California coast. My notebooks are small. The best kind are slim softcover notebooks. I particularly like ones that Rhodia puts out: they’re very slim and the paper is very kind to fountain pens. These notebooks can fit seamlessly in my denim or blazer pockets. And when an idea hits, I jot them down immediately, being sure to date the pages. I will go later into my system of notebooks and note taking, but am just mentioning it broadly here.
One of my mentors–though he doesn’t know it, for I’ve never (yet) met him–is Steven Pressfield. In his book The War of Art, Preston pinpoints the most destructive force that every artist faces: Resistance. There are many ways we fall prey to resistance, but only one way to beat it: work–plain and simply. Just sit down and write. The hardest thing for any writer is simply sit down. The hardest part for me is the moment my alarm goes off at some crude hour of the morning and I am left with the fateful decision: get up and go downstairs to write, or drift back to sleep. If (a) I will be successful for the day; but if I choose (b) Resistance has defeated me.
[Joseph] Conrad, who could spend days looking at a blank page, didn’t start writing fiction until his thirties. Nevertheless, he averaged a book or play a year until his death at age sixty-six . . . . Only a few of Conrad’s pieces are masterpieces, but the ones that are didn’t come from a mere few years’ inspiration; they came from Conrad’s ability and willingness to dedicate nearly his whole existence to his creative activity.
– John Briggs, Fire in the Crucible pg. 204.
So this third trick of mine has a bit of a crude name: Sitzfleisch, which is German for ‘sitting down flesh’. The trick is to commit to sitting down everyday to write, unless another commitment takes you away. Some writers write 7 days a week. I write 5-6 days a week, taking Sunday off (but still keeping my active note taking). When I am committed to writing everyday, it doesn’t matter if I miss one, because I know that tomorrow morning my alarm will go off, and I’ll stagger downstairs, set up my workspace, and get down to business continuing where I left off and using my notebook(s) as a bridge.
Prefaces are about beginnings–and I have had, and continue to have, many of them. In the Christian life, our Way is made up of many false starts, detours, crash landings and stalled engines, all of which require some kind of re-entry into Life through the Grace of Christ, and some of which lead to the telling of one’s story–a way of prefacing the new life or beginning: “Well, things have been getting better these last couple of months, but you should’ve seen me a year ago at this time–man was my life a mess!”
For new books, I always read the Preface–it’s the best way to get inside the author’s head, or heart, and have a good thumbnail print of the work itself. One of my favourite prefaces is Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation in which he suggests to the reader that if he or she doesn’t like the book, then it can be easily set upon a coffee table and used to hold a cup of tea (or something to that extent–the book’s not with me). So this blog is about prefaces, new beginnings, and the narratives that accompany and often precede them. Sometimes the ‘old life’ is simply one’s absence from church for a period of time spent gorging oneself on too many episodes of House MD in a row; however, there are other ‘old lives’ that are full of the rawness and grittiness of life itself–and those tend to be the stories I am interested in, both writing and reading about.
Are there Christians who seek out literature that draw the bow tautly between, as it were, the sacred and profane? Or, has fiction been bifurcated into a Christian stream that simply draws neat little parallels to scripture and blithely answers all of life’s questions, and, conversely, that of ‘secular’ fiction that enters into the funk of life, but with little in the way of redemption?
What does it mean to be a Christian artist anyway? I resonate with Tolstoy’s What is Art? in which he designates art as that which involves a struggle with the divine, with one or more transcendent topics that one must toil to get out; and it is in the toiling, the existential struggle, the dance with the Divine, that the product can be considered art. With this as my operative definition, I feel comfortable actually scrapping the ‘Christian’ and simply call such experiences ‘art’. Indeed, Merton talks about this as some kind of creative process: that as we give God our gifts (our writing, oration, visual art, etc) that He gives them back to us, and it is in this dance with God that we create. This creative process, this art, then, is the artist’s struggle with life, existence, despair, anxiety, guilt, and the redemption he or she finds in Christ.
What I want to know is if there are Christians out there who want to read such literature, and thus are not shaken or driven away by prose that is steeped in the funk of life; art that draws out the tension between the profanity of life and the redemption found in Christ.
If you are interested in this, please post me some feedback, whether you agree or think I’m way off.