Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction
Williams (Rowan)
This Page provides (where held) the Abstract of the above Book and those of all the Papers contained in it.
Colour-ConventionsDisclaimerPapers in this BookNotes Citing this Book

Amazon Product Description

  1. An extraordinary book, which enables us to consider the nature of God in the 21st Century through the lens of Dostoevsky's novels. The current rash of books hostile to religious faith will one day be an interesting subject for some sociological analysis. But to counter such work, is a book of the profoundest kind about the nature and purpose of religious belief. Terrorism, child abuse, absent fathers and the fragmentation of the family, the secularisation and the sexualisation of culture, the future of liberal democracy, the clash of cultures and the nature of national identity - so many of the anxieties that we think of as being quintessentially features of the early twenty first century and on, are present in the work of Dostoevsky - in his letters, his journalism and above all in his fiction.
  2. The world we inhabit as readers of his novels is one in which the question of what human beings owe to each other is left painfully and shockingly open and there is no place to stand from which we can construct a clear moral landscape. But the novels of Dostoevsky continually press home what else might be possible if we - characters and readers - saw the world in another light, the light provided by faith.
  3. In order to respond to such a challenge the novels invite us to imagine precisely those extremes of failure, suffering and desolation. There is an unresolved tension in Dostoevsky's novels - a tension between believing and not believing in the existence of God. In "The Brothers Karamazov", we can all receive Ivan with a terrible kind of delight. Ivan's picture of himself we immediately recognise as self-portrait. The god that is dead for him is dead for us. This Karamazov God of tension and terror is often the only one we are able to find.
  4. This extraordinary book will speak to our generation like few others.

Amazon Customer Review
  1. Focusing on the four major novels of Dostoevsky: 'The Idiot', 'Crime and Punishment', 'The Devils' and (above all) 'The Brothers Karamazov', Rowan Williams here in this subtle and sophisticated 100,000-word essay argues for Dostoevsky as a religious writer whose works are best understood through the lens of faith. In so doing he challenges and refutes the views of 20th century interpreters of Dostoevsky such as William Hamilton who viewed the narrative indeterminacy and "dialogist" strategies of the great Russian writer’s art as the expression of an "anguished agnosticism".
  2. Williams however interprets these narrative strategies as Dostoevsky's disinterest in presenting the dry abstract philosophical questions of faith; of arguments for or against the existence of God, for the exploration of ,and interest in, the reality of a life of faith lived in the presence and knowledge of the Divine by real historically and culturally conditioned individuals and also, conversely, the exploration of what it is like to live, again: "by real historically and culturally conditioned individuals" ,with the full ramifications of an absolute denial of that Reality and the questioning of the legitimacy of God and the experience of Him by people of faith in the face of the most grotesque and degrading forms of human suffering. As Dostoevsky famously wrote: "If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth".
  3. This essay is evidence of a close reading of the primary texts and of a familiarity with the novels born of decades of study, both in translation and the original Russian. And it is not hard to see how both the "dialogism" and narrative indeterminacy of the Russians novels would prove intellectually seductive to a liberal Anglican of Dr Williams stripe. As the cultural critic Terry Eagleton dryly observed: "one could construct a far more unpleasant Dostoevsky than this one". And this is very much a liberal Anglican reading of the Russian author but a fascinating and deeply learned one that is both insightful and wonderfully persuasive. This study is at the end of the day a meditation on the nature of language, the beautiful articulation of a profound love of the written word and ultimately a moving testimony to the enduring transformative power of the novel.
  4. This is the work of a brilliant mind at the height of its powers and anyone who reads it will find themselves elevated and enriched by it.

    Preface – ix
    Introduction – 1
  1. Christ against the Truth? – 15
  2. Devils: Being toward Death – 63
  3. The Last Word? Dialogue and Recognition – 111
  4. Exchanging Crosses: Responsibility for All – 151
  5. Sacrilege and Revelation: The Broken Image – 189
    Conclusion – 227
    Notes – 245
    Bibliography – 269
    Index – 279

Book Comment

Continuum Publishing Corporation (29 Oct 2009). Dostoyevsky

"Williams (Rowan) - Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction"

Source: Williams (Rowan) - Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction

Preface (Full Text)
  1. The current rash of books hostile to religious faith will one day be an interesting subject for some sociological analysis. They consistently suggest a view of religion which, if taken seriously, would also evacuate a number of other human systems of meaning, including quite a lot of what we unreflectively think of as science. That is, they treat religious belief almost as a solitary aberration in a field of human rationality; a set of groundless beliefs about matters of fact, resting on — at best — faulty and weak argumentation. What they normally fail to do is to attend to what it is that religious people actually do and say — and also to attend to the general question of how systems of meaning, or "world-views," work.
  2. Systems of meaning — philosophies of life, if you must, though the term sounds immediately rather stale — seem to operate by allowing us to see phenomena in connected instead of arbitrary ways. But this means the capacity to see things in terms of other things: it means abandoning the idea that there is one basic and obvious way of seeing the world which any fool can get hold of (and which some people then insist on dressing up with unnecessary complications), and grasping that seeing the world and being able to talk about what it is that we encounter, is something we have to learn, a set of skills that allows us to connect and to see one event or phenomenon through the lens of another. At the most severely pragmatic level, this leads to observational generalizations about laws; at a quite different but no less important level, it leads us into the world of metaphor. And in case anyone should think that these are radically separate, consider that "Law" itself is a metaphor in the context of natural process...
  3. Metaphor is omnipresent, certainly in scientific discourse (selfish genes, computer modelings of brain processes, not to mention the magnificent extravagances of theoretical physics), and its omnipresence ought to warn us against the fiction that there is a language that is untainted and obvious for any discipline. We are bound to use words that have histories and associations; to see things in terms of more than their immediate appearance means that we are constantly using a language we do not fully control to respond to an environment in which things demand that we see more in them than any one set of perceptions can catch.
  4. All of which is to say that no system of perceiving and receiving the world can fail to depend upon imagination, the capacity to see and speak into and out of a world that defies any final settlement as to how it shall be described. The most would-be reductive account of reality still reaches for metaphor, still depends on words that have been learned and that have been used elsewhere. So it should not be too difficult to see that a map that presents the intellectual world as a struggle between rival pictures, well-founded and ill-founded ways of describing things, literal and fanciful perspectives, or even natural and supernatural vision, is a poor one and one that threatens to devour itself in the long run, if the search is for the unadorned absolute. How shall we move the cultural discussion on from a situation in which religious perspectives are assumed to be bad descriptions of what can be better talked about in simpler terms?
  5. This will involve the discipline of following through exactly what it is that the language of a particular religious tradition allows its believers to see — that is, what its imaginative resources are. When believers are engaged (as they routinely are, despite what may be assumed by the critics of faith) in society and politics and the arts in ways that are recognizable to nonbelievers, how are their perceptions actually and specifically molded by the resources of their tradition? This is not — pace any number of journalistic commentators — a matter of the imperatives supposedly derived from their religion. It is about what they see things and persons in terms of, what the metaphors are that propose further dimensions to the world they inhabit in common with nonbelievers.
  6. Characteristically this repertoire of resources — in any religious tradition — is chaotically varied, not just a matter of a few leading ideas or doctrines. It includes the visual and the aural — what is sung and seen as well as said. It includes formative practices, rites, which leave their semantic traces in unexpected settings. And it includes the legacy of others who have engaged the world in the same ways, at various levels of sophistication. The forming of a corporate imagination is something that continues to be the more or less daily business of religious believers, and it needs to be acknowledged that this is a process immeasurably more sophisticated than the repetitive dogmatism so widely assumed to be the sole concern of those who employ religious language.
  7. The way to demonstrate this is to lay out what it means in the practice of specific people; this series is an attempt to exhibit a common imagination at work—and in the process of further refinement and development — in the labors of a variety of creative minds. Because we are in danger of succumbing to a damaging cultural amnesia about what religious commitment looks like in practice, these books seek to show that belief "in practice" is a great deal more than following out abstract imperatives or general commitments. They look at creative minds that have a good claim to represent some of the most decisive and innovative cultural currents of the history of the West (and not only the West), in order to track the ways in which a distinctively Christian imagination makes possible their imaginative achievement. And in doing so, they offer a challenge to what one great thinker called the "cultured despisers" of Christian faith: in dismissing this faith, can an intellectually serious person accept confidently the simultaneous dismissal of the shifts, enlargements, and resources it has afforded the individual and collective imagination? What, finally, would a human world be like if it convinced itself that it had shaken off the legacy of the Christian imagination? The hope of the authors of these volumes is that the answer to that question will be constructively worrying — sufficiently so, perhaps, to make possible a more literate debate about faith and contemporary culture.
  8. It seems to be customary for anyone writing a book about Dostoevsky to apologize for adding to the vast library that already exists, but if some of the ideas expressed in the following pages — especially those most indebted to Mikhail Bakhtin — are correct, there is never likely to be a completely superfluous book on the subject, given Dostoevsky's own assumption that the continuing of dialogue is what writing most intends. So no apologies; and indeed, the writing of this book has been so much of a stimulus and a delight that I would feel it both ungracious and untruthful to say sorry for it.
  9. Instead, I am very happy to record public thanks to all who have made this book such a pleasure to work on. Stephen Prickett first planted the idea in my mind, and I hope he will not regret it. Background work has accumulated steadily over a couple of years, but the Church Commissioners, in agreeing that an Archbishop might be entitled to the occasional period of study leave, gave me the chance to do some sustained writing in the summer of 2007. Without this opportunity, the final composition of the book would have taken a great deal longer. Part of that leave was spent in the pleasant environment of Georgetown University, where the President, John De Gioia, and the members of the Georgetown Jesuit community, especially John Langan, SJ, Rector of the Jesuit Residence, made me abundantly welcome. The dedication of this book expresses my gratitude to all who so kindly made me part of their community life for several weeks in June 2007.
  10. I am not by any standards a professional scholar of Russian literature and have gratefully relied on various friends to help me with suggestions for reading and reflection. [… snip …]
  11. I have not assumed a knowledge of Russian in readers of this book (though I have included some Russian references in the bibliography) and so have not referred quotations to the standard Russian edition of Dostoevsky's works. This creates something of a dilemma: there is no "standard" English translation, and the advantages and disadvantages of the various versions on the market are not easy to assess comparatively. I have decided to make reference to what are probably the most widely available translations, those currently in print in the Penguin Classics, with the exception of The Adolescent (Podrostok, sometimes translated as A Raw Youth), where I have used the recent version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Page references to these editions are included in the text in square brackets. Very occasionally, I have modified published translations where I am unhappy with them or noted an ambiguity not captured in the version used. The transliteration of Russian words and names poses similar difficulties, given the different conventions followed by various translators; I have simply aimed to give a reasonably satisfactory phonetic equivalent.
    … Rowan Williams, Canterbury, August 2007

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2023
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

© Theo Todman, June 2007 - Sept 2023. Please address any comments on this page to File output:
Website Maintenance Dashboard
Return to Top of this Page Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page Return to Theo Todman's Home Page