Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 1

For Yuri. Something somewhat speculative & savagely sloppy, regarding acts of writing in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and possible anticipations, in the Christian tradition, of what seems to be Dostoyevsky’s attitude about writing there.

I am trying to work this thought out as I write about it. By way of framing, at the outset, what I’m getting at, I should note that, in part four of this little series (broken up because of length), I have written that

the literary activity of [the earliest Christians] is not, however, undertaken in order to be a virtuoso or contribute to a body of literature for a culture or civilization, or as an abstract expression of creativity merely to be appreciated, or as a form of play, or as a product to entertain, but in order to change the hearts of hearers, urgently, immediately, and to build up the hearts of Christians who have received these words within a network of communities.

There are a number of motives that bring one to write in The Brothers Karamazov, but this intention to enliven and to change and to enlarge hearts seems to separate good from bad writing there; writing there does not seem to be a unified activity, seems only superficially connected across its occurrences, and the meaning and value it is represented as having is, I suggest, better categorized by the character of the writer, the impulse flowing from the heart of the writer, and the purpose bringing that one to write, than by any category of literary activity.

This may seem odd to note, but Dostoyevksy seems to be making this point himself, and, occasionally, to emphasize it. 

Looking at early Christian practices regarding writing, antecedents within Jewish writings, and templates within the early Christian patristic ascetical corpus, are helpful at framing this distinction.


An acquaintance of mine is currently preparing to become a monk, and trying to incubate a monastery here with a handful of others. While visiting another monastery out-of-state, he (and some fellow souls) heard some words of counsel from that monastery’s abbot. My acquaintance found them “so inspiring”, and thus started turning his head all around, looking for some paper (he had a pen). “What are you looking for?” the abbot curiously remarked. “Forgive me,” the acquaintance replied, “do you have some paper?” The abbot’s rejoinder: “Do you have a heart?”

There is an idea about the relative value of writing here, and perhaps a hierarchical idea about different kinds of words and the media through which they are best transferred (and upon which they are best inscribed). The idea that the heart is a superior medium to transmit spiritual words has a long history within Christianity. I don’t know of any treatises that deal with this thematically, for it is an attitude laced through so many Biblical, ascetical, and monastic texts. We may perhaps, however, if we wanted, create a lens that might be helpful for collecting together elements of some strands within the Christian tradition on this topic. What would this lens look like? As with the abbot’s words above, the relative poverty of written words on a dead page, remaining external to the person’s heart (–and for what purpose would one wish for such an arrangement, assuming this portrait names a true possibility?), would be implicitly, if not explicitly, contrasted with live, God-filled words on the living tablets of human hearts. At best, were we to adopt this lens, writing would be a concession, a proxy for living counsel, the simulacrum of a person.

The early Christian tradition produced many writings, but a very strong strand within those –perhaps the majority tradition at first– prioritizes spoken words over writings (or writings in the place of spoken words, even writings as a technology to be spoken aloud by readers within assemblies of hearers). Christianity was born into a medium of high rhetorical and literary cultures in its Greco-Roman context, which left its mark on everything from the letters of St. Paul to the canonical Gospels, and further influenced the positive literary branches of Christianity in later second- and especially third- and fourth-century Latin and Greek contexts (to say nothing about Syrian contexts, or others still). It is possible that the imminent eschatological expectations of the earliest followers of Jesus is in large part responsible for the tardiness of the arrival of the earliest Gospels as well as the strong preference, among the earliest communities, for preaching over writing, or writing as a means of preaching to a community that is distant.

Scrolls, which as you know, Yuri, were rolled up, and less convenient, were the way that serious books were written down in the first century; the Jewish scriptures were written down on scrolls by the Jewish communities of the time. The codex –the ancestor to our modern book– was the Roman format for conveniently threading-together loose documents, a format mostly used for the profane contexts of schoolrooms and accounting and business, &c. That Christians gathered the Jewish scriptures, and a smattering of other texts like the letters of the apostle Paul and some Gospels, &c., into a codex — that was likely seen, by contemporary Jews, as a profanation of sorts, almost approaching some sort of blasphemy. Letters would not be scrolls. Letters could be copied, and tossed into a codex — practical, but showing no particular reverence for what is written as something written (the format is shared with accountants, after all).

The Jewish scriptures were referred to by early Christian communities, though the esteem for them ran a range. There was confidence that the proclamations (vi&., “gospels”) of the various apostles (Paul talks about “my gospel”, which he preaches) were the fulfillment of the promises found in the Jewish scriptures, which, they asserted, were fulfilled in Jesus (thus, in Acts 17:11, the Bereans are spoken well of for the “eagerness” with which they received the apostolic “word”, and “searched the scriptures” to confirm it), but this scriptural tapestry is only valuable to the apostles insofar as it takes a certain shape in their oral teaching, namely, the shape of Jesus. This is why there are also passages such as those in John 5:39-40, where John’s Jesus says “you search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify of me; [yet] you are unwilling to come to me to have life”, which is the other pole, seeming to relativize the written text.

Certainly it was only Marcion’s (A.D. 85–A.D. 160) theology and attendant canon (ten of the letters attributed to St. Paul, including two not in the current Biblical canon; only an edited version of the Gospel according to St. Luke) that forced the churches to address the question of a canon of scripture explicitly (rather than de facto according to various local practices, where written gospels and apostolic letters were copied and read). Similarly, it was Gnosticism which forced the churches to examine the relationship between elite interior wisdom and both (a) the written deposits of public apostolic teaching and (b) the public teaching offices of the bishops who transmitted what they’d received, further textually anchoring the churches (granted, the Gnostic appeal to an elite interior wisdom seems to have some anticipation in the pattern of oral-instruction practices of the apostles [1 Cor 2:6ff], even if the content of Paul’s instruction of the “mature” and the various Gnostic teachings were not the same). Nonetheless, the Gnostic impulse was not eliminated, but merely anchored within the boundary of the textual tradition. Further, the oral dimension of both apostolic proclamation on the one hand, and the personal nature of early episcopal catechesis on the other, is not eliminated in the translation of these into textual deposits, for the ideal of these texts is still to transform hearts by their activation in preaching and individual and group instruction (and later, individual meditation on these texts and the sayings of wise elders).

I strongly suspect that isolating this strand of Christian tradition –the priority of living words over written words, the corresponding priority of the heart, of interior illumination and transformation– is very helpful in order to throw light on the practices of writing and the attitudes to writing within Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (or, TBK).

I do not mean to say that there is no analogue to this in the pagan Greco-Roman tradition regarding the reading of the Iliad by philosophers, for example –who sought to interpret the literal meaning of the text in a way that would foster good morals when gods behave badly by allegorizing the text– but it may be that the Christian attitude here is not merely the best, but rather the background for tracing what is occurring in TBK, and by direct influence through Dostoyevsky’s reading of, say, St. John’s Gospel and St. Isaac the Syrian.

There are positive acts of writing in TBK (a confession of love from a girl to a boy; the disciples of Elder Zosima collecting memories of him and his sayings, though admittedly without precision in sequence and often stitching similar things together — all for the sake of prolonging contact with a person they knew by gathering memories — such writing is a form of gathering), and quite a few negative acts (lawyers write things down with precision as positive evidence of guilt, in a parody of the aforementioned gathering; writing is often a means of control, of herding others (so the name of the town TBK occurs in, revealed in book 11, is no surprise), of positioning oneself to have dignity and honor, or as a means for revenge, of an attempt at mastery, or as armor against responsibility for oneself –or the foisting off of responsibility onto another– &c.). Any attempt at gaining knowledge about another through writing is usually overshadowed by this modal-emotional disposition that seeks to take advantage of possibilities that writing, as a technology for conquering time and space, opens up. Any such alleged knowledge seemingly gained about another through writing, after all, occurs without direct contact with the heart of that person (such as with knowledge acquired through newspapers). What is worse, “knowledge” so acquired can foreclose such contact, can even be a proxy for it, can be a screen or a veil cutting off, one one hand, what is actually occurring in the heart of the one allegedly known from the knower, and, on the other, can cut off what is occurring in the heart of the one writing or seeking knowledge in and through writing from him- or her-self.

In Dostoyevsky’s TBK, what differentiates instances of good writing from instances of bad writing? I strongly suspect, Yuri, that looking at precedents within Christian tradition can be helpful.


Header image is handwritten by Dostoyevsky himself regarding The Brothers Karamazov, and can be found here. Dostoyevsky, from what I can tell, doodled a lot in his manuscripts. 

7 thoughts on “Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 2 | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 3 | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 4 | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 5 | Into the Clarities

  5. Pingback: Papias of Hierapolis on Writings vs. a Living Voice (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6a) | Into the Clarities

  6. Pingback: The Shepherd of Hermas Concerning Orality, Writing, and the Role of the Heart (“Some Baseless Speculations about…”, Part 6b) | Into the Clarities

  7. Pingback: Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Introduction | Into the Clarities

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