Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 5

For Yuri. Continued from parts one, two, three, and four. Largely a preface to part six. 


Memory and remembering are more primordial and principal than texts in The Brothers Karamazov (TBK), and are an essential part of one’s relating to one’s own past, and in becoming ethically and spiritually whole, as we see when Elder Zosima states that

From my parental home I brought only precious memories, for no memories are more precious to a man than those of his earliest childhood in his parental home, and that is almost always so, as long as there is even a little bit of love and unity in the family. But from a very bad family, too, one can keep precious memories, if only one’s soul knows how to seek out what is precious. [Book VI, chapter 2, section (b); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 290]

One must know how to gather good memories from bad childhoods, as though extracting some sweet fruit from cutting and tough rinds. There is something transformative about how one remembers, or whether one remembers at all. Fyodor Karamazov’s forgetting of even the place of the grave of his wife, as well as the existence and presence of his child Dimitri at the beginning of TBK, are both instances of this in the negative, examples of how not to remember; the scene towards the beginning of the where Fyodor’s third son Alyosha recounts a memory of his mother (we cited it near the beginning of this post) is a prime example of how to remember, as is the epilogue passage where Alyosha exhorts the schoolboys to remember their bonds of affection and practices of care for their schoolfellow Ilyusha. Elder Zosima offers plentiful examples of a good way of gathering one’s memories in book six. In all cases, remembering the right things can bring health and even salvation, forgetting brings destruction and chaos.

There are multiple folds in history that mark ‘before’ and ‘after’. Gutenberg is one such fold, and the print media and newspaper culture that arose in the 17th and 18th centuries following it changed the ways that people would relate to one another. Dostoyevsky stands on our side of history, even on this side against the early Modern period; he stands on our side of history for a number of reasons, but, with regard to memory, he is very much a man of the newspapers as the harbinger of modern media noise (yes, even TV), and the way that its chatter disrupts the capacity and cultivation of memory further than the advent of some degree of literacy in a culture removes the imperative need for this cultivation, for media noise (including newspaper noise) uproots the habits of memories’ cultivation. Yet in a significant way, his emphasis on memory is a retrieval of something that is decidedly pre-modern, even pre-medieval, even pre-classical (see also here). There is something almost Homeric about the pitch of the faculty of memory that Alyosha exhorts the brethren to, even if Alyosha is very Christian about memory’s function; the late antiques and medievals cultivated the art of memory in ways we never will, but here it asserts itself with what I’d like to describe as ferocity, were it not that it were in the service of a kind and meek repair of the world.


In the next passage of TBK, Zosima reports his earliest experience with something like a Bible, which is not a Bible, but a book of Biblical excerpts for children:

With my memories of home I count also my memories of sacred history, which I, though only a child in my parental home, was very curious to know. I had a book of sacred history then, with [291] beautiful pictures, entitled One Hundred and Four Sacred Stories from the Old and New Testaments, and I was learning to read with it. It is still lying here on my shelf, I keep it as a precious reminder.  [Book VI, chapter 2, section (b); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 290-291]

I was at a hotel two (two?) months ago for my brother’s wedding, Yuri, and there was a Gideon Bible in my room, and a stack of Gideon Bibles at the receptionist’s desk the night I checked in. We take for granted that the many books and stories arrive to us under one cover, and there is some help (but very little of it) that can come to us by being reminded that ‘the Bible is a library’ or some equivalent phrase one sometimes hears — for this is what “the Bible” is, and how people would have experienced it for most of history before Gutenberg — if they experienced it as a book, and not as words spoken in the air, or as images telling a story on a church wall.

There are so many characters in TBK, and they do not hold together coherently, each is a whole world, and their visions are not finally rectified with some horizon that the narrator confirms for the reader as “the truth”. There are, however, characters in TBK who are something like north stars, points of reference among the welter of perspectives and lives that clash and commingle and devour one another, points that gather bits of the ocean of the world into a harmony, and which are themselves harmonious, and which point to a horizon beyond themselves: God.

In a comparable fashion –not an identical one– there are numerous books in the Bible. Zosima’s interlocutor suggests, at one point, that the books of the Bible contain

all sorts of terrible things. It is easy to shove them under someone’s nose. Who wrote them, were they human beings? [Book VI, chapter 2, section (d); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 309]

When Zosima answers that they were written by “the Holy Spirit”, the interlocutor –a pious man, though with a dark secret– says “It’s easy for you to babble”. There is no obvious reference point in the welter of the world, and no obvious unity in the welter of the scriptures — depending on the heart of the one travelling through the world, and the heart of the one hearing the words of the Bible.

Even the ostensibly biographical information about Elder Zosima in book six of TBK is incomplete, and the homiletic material contains things “that had apparently been said at different times and for various reasons [were] brought together, as if into a single whole.” [Book VI, chapter 2, section (i); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 323] Even Zosima’s final words were “not all precisely outlined”, for “only a notion is given of the spirit and nature of that conversation as compared with what Alexei Fyodorovich’s manuscript contains from earlier homilies.” [Book VI, chapter 2, section (i); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 324]

What is the one in the many? In the memories about Elder Zosima, in the many instances of hearing the same scriptural passage, in the collection of many scrolls/books into one “Book/Bible”, in the bundling of lives in a knotted twist at one stretch of history — in all of these, the many are made one, but how? It is not something empirical that unites them, or which discovers their unity; science will not give anyone the unifying key to a person. In all cases, the many are made one through memory — but not any ordinary memory, but a memory that moves towards the light, a memory that is, in the end, modeled after the Eucharist, gathering up the fragments of light, and offering to God what God has given.


It is interesting that the key ingredient for this transformed engagement with memory and people and the Bible doesn’t even require reading, for texts in the ancient world are meant to be heard, not seen:

But I remember how, even before I learned to read, a certain spiritual perception visited me for the first time when I was just eight years old. Mother took me to church by myself (I do not remember where my brother was then), during Holy Week, to the Monday liturgy. It was a clear day, and, remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer, and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the word of God in my soul. A young man walked out into the middle of the church with a big book, so big that it seemed to me he even had difficulty carrying it, and he placed it on the analogion, opened it, and began to read, and suddenly, then, for the first time I understood something, for the first time in my life I understood what was read in God’s church. [Book VI, chapter 2, section (b); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 291]

The story of Job follows. (Parenthetical note: the “heart” and the “soul” are not very clearly differentiated, if they are at all different; the same blurriness of terminology can be seen in many of the New Testament writings, and the Christian writings from the second century.) In this passage, the non-deadness of at least some history is here affirmed by Zosima, its ability to reiterate and echo itself is asserted: Zosima’s past and present selves are one in the hearing of this story, are even a single event, somehow (“it is as if my whole childhood were rising again before me, and I am breathing now as I breathed then with my eight-year-old little breast, and feel, as I did then” [291]). The unity of the many stories is reiterated not as some propositional truth, but in dramatic terms, as simply the inherence of the dramatic persons somehow in God as inflections of something eternal:

Since then –even just yesterday I turned to it– I cannot read this most holy story without tears. […] the passing earthly image and eternal truth here touched each other. In the face of earthly truth, the enacting of eternal truth is accomplished. […] Lord, what a book, what lessons! What a book is the Holy Scripture, what miracle, what power are given to man with it! Like a carven image of the world, and of man, and of human characters, and everything is named and set forth unto ages of ages. [Book VI, chapter 2, section (b); Pevear & Volokhonsky, 292]

I’d say something about Lessing’s “broad and ugly ditch”, but this is long enough, Yuri.


I should add one final thing on divine words, as words spoken, words heard, and not bounded by a book, in TBK: Alyosha’s word to Ivan after Mitya’s trial, that the guilt for the murder was not Ivan’s:

“Brother,” Alyosha began again, in a trembling voice, “I’ve said this to you because you will believe my word, I know it. I’ve spoken this word to you for the whole of your life: it was not you! Do you hear? For the whole of your life. And it is God who has put it into my heart to say this to you, even if you were to hate me forever after…”

But Ivan Fyodorovich had now apparently managed to regain control of himself.

“Alexei Fyodorovich,” he spoke with a cold smile, “I cannot bear prophets and epileptics, messengers from God especially, you know that only too well.” [Book XI, chapter 5; Pevear & Volokhonsky, 602]

“God […] has put it into my heart to say this to you”, so that the spoken word is from God, from the heart of Alyosha, sourced from God — it is a divine word. It is not the Biblical text. Throughout TBK, people speak to Alyosha honestly, even if their honesty involves honest dissembling, an honest execution of games played in life; the same is done to Elder Zosima. Alyosha can see through them; he is a point of light in the murk of muddied personalities. This divine word shines, as a potential anchoring point for Ivan in his turmoil. It is not bidden; it comes without having been asked for consciously, as are the words spoken to those who come to consult with Elder Zosima. I repeat: it is spoken, and not a word from the Bible, yet it is divine.


There are other texts and events that gather other than the Biblical text, and which gather other kinds of peoples into other kinds of unities than that which the Elder Zosima is gathered into by reading and hearing the passages he read and heard; one such is in Book VIII, Chapter 3 (“Gold Mines”), where Madame Khokhlakova genuinely thinks that she speaks some prescient word to Dimitri out of foresight (“I was expecting you […] all morning I felt certain you would come today” [Pev. & Vol., 383], and “I know everything […] I know everything beforehand. I took your fate into consideration long ago” [Pev. & Vol., 384], “I know it all beforehand” [Pev. & Vol., 385]), though she rejects that it is “presentiment” or miraculous (“no retrograde pretense to miracles” [384]), and states that she is a “realist” [385], and that “this is mathematics […] it’s mathematics” [Pev. & Vol., 384]. She says that she will “save” Mitya [385], and that he must do as she says, that she will “tell [Mitya] [his] idea” [385] regarding gold mines that will put him in a leading position in society; she even takes the role of a priestess of sorts and puts an icon associated with the relics of St. Barbara (“Varvara”) around his neck, to “bless [him] for a new life and new deeds” [Pev. & Vol., 386]. Just as priests are seated when their work is done, so she “solemnly resum[es] her seat” [386] when she finishes with this.

Oracular speech is, it seems, judged by its effects; there is something about the person that must be pure for the words to be pure. Mystical feeling is not enough; the person must be whole. Madame Khokhlakova, when we meet her, is pouring out her meandering thoughts, not quite symmetrical, to Elder Zosima — and her confession itself is not motivated by pure intentions. “You speak, and it seems to pierce one right through” [55] she says, and “You’ve brought me back to myself, you’ve caught me out and explained me to myself!” [58]. Alyosha does this when speaking a divine word to Ivan; Khokhlakova seems to wish to be this through some delirium or fancy or Renaissance-fair mysticism-without-religion-and-all-in-for-science when she speaks with Mitya.

Khokhlakova cannot gather anyone into anything but the fancies and the gossip and the spectacle that she imbibes from the newspapers. Her hero, the hero she spurs Mitya on to be in Book VIII, is a worldly railway builder, a man of industry and enlightenment, and a number of other rather incongruous aspirations besides.

9 thoughts on “Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 5

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