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.
For Yuri, a prelude (whose scope and sprawling messiness was massively underestimated when I began work on it) to other pieces, already underway.
The Prompt for This Post
Or, How I Ended Up Down This Rabbit Hole
This bizarre and metastasizing tumor of a post was initially prompted by a number of passages in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, one in particular that comes towards the beginning of the book. The figure in this passage, Alexei (Alyosha) Fyodorovich Karamazov, is left motherless at the age of four. The narrator tells us that “though it is strange, I know that he remembered his mother all his life — as if through sleep, of course.” We soon hear this repeated:
although he lost his mother in his fourth year, he remembered her afterwards all his life, her face, her caresses, “as if she were standing alive before me.” Such memories can be remembered (everyone knows this) even from an earlier age, even from the age of two, but they only emerge throughout one’s life as specks of light, as it were, against the darkness, as a corner torn from a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except for that little corner. That is exactly how it was with him: he remembered a quiet summer evening, an open window, the slanting rays of the setting sun (these slanting rays he remembered most of all), an icon in the corner of the room, a lighted oil-lamp in front of it, and before the icon, on her knees, his mother, sobbing as if in hysterics, with shrieks and cries, seizing him in her arms, hugging him so tightly that it hurt, and pleading for him to the Mother of God, holding him out from her embrace with both arms towards the icon, as if under the protection of the Mother of God…and suddenly a nurse rushes in and snatches him from her in fear. [A1]
The sequence of the narrative seems to suggest a connection between this memory and Alyosha being gathered to the Elder Zosima.
The imagery in the excerpt above seemed to have familiar symbolic elements in the background, and so called my mind back to a passage I read about fifteen years ago in a book by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, Theology of Wonder. There Bp. Seraphim wrote about a certain myth, where
[t]he story is told, (we will use a Jewish narration which comes from a deep meditation of Genesis), Adam was clothed in light, yet somehow, whereas children grow out of their clothes, he diminished, and his clothes were shattered and the shards of light became the worlds. And Adam himself was somehow shattered. It is said that the Shekinah, the Presence of God, wanders the world in search of the shreds of light, to gather them. And Adam also, in his exile, seeks to find himself, the way back to himself. It is the story of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, isn’t it? 
Given the way that the characters in Brothers Karamazov are themselves fractured bits in search of wholeness, and of integration beyond the clamor of interpretations, it seemed like digging up this tradition might be profitable for exploring some of the themes of that novel.
I reached out to Bp. Seraphim for the sources that this passage was drawing upon, but he wrote it long ago, and could not confidently recall them, as he has been occupied with other reading and writing, and with pastoral-episcopal obligations. Therefore, I couldn’t let go until I had gotten to the bottom of things; it took me down a rabbit hole, and here is what I found, Yuri.
It turns out that his telling is an accidental fusion of two traditions.
The first is the very old tradition –earliest evidence in the first century B.C. or A.D., though I have a hard time imagining it is not older– of Adam’s primordial garments of light, lost through the transgression, to be reunited at the end of time, or to reappear in and on the Messiah. Sometimes the garments are clearly garments of light, sometimes Adam is covered with “light”, sometimes “glory” or canopies of cloud. (It is not clear that second temple Jewish authors made a very strong distinction between light and glory.) This theme of “the glory of Adam” is found in late second temple Jewish, Rabbinic, Samaritan, and Christian contexts. The Syriac tradition is the one that carried this tradition the longest, with the most explicit language. Probably through East Roman (vi&., Greek) readings and incorporations of the hymnody of Ephrem the Syrian, a variant of this tradition ends up in the Byzantine Liturgy, and so would have been familiar to Dostoyevsky through its recitation at the beginning of each Lent with the chanting of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the hagiographer of St. Mary of Egypt. (This, in addition to any detection Dostoyevsky may have made of this theme in the New Testament.) In the Greek, Roman, and Syriac traditions, there is a strong internal element to these garments, even if they appear ritually in the baptismal robes — the heart can be “clothed in light” or “clothed in darkness”, and the soul can become, especially in the writings of Pseudo-Macarius, the chariot or tabernacle or temple of God himself.
The second is a late medieval Kabbalistic tradition about the “shattering of the vessels” coming from Adam Kadmon (something like the primordial man, the first emanation of Ein Sof in Lurianic Kabbalah, not to be confused with “the human, humus from the soil” as Robert Alter translates Genesis 2:7). This tradition is associated with Isaac Luria. The distinction between the primordial archetype of humanity and the original human being goes back at least to Philo of Alexandria, who, as I recall, upon reading the distinctive stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, interpreted Genesis 1 in a Platonic fashion. (There is an analog of this theme of gathering in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of the second temple period, and in the New Testament [1γ]. Fair warning: I won’t be exploring the themes in this parenthetical note in what follows.)
Time constraints prevent me from being exhaustive in exploring these myths — I do not have time to look at the Lurianic one here, though I recommend Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism if you’d like to pursue it, Yuri (there is a whole section on this myth there), and several have recommended this book by Luria’s disciple, apparently summarizing the Lurianic system. (I cannot chase that stream right now.) Further, I shall be uneven in the degree to which I examine the several themes pulled out, below, but I would like to look at some of their elements (of responsibility, of autonomy, of alienation, of interiority, of clothing, &c.). I am told that the Zoharic tradition contains nothing in it about the Shekinah gathering anything to do with Adam, as (again, so I’m told by the several scholars I touched base with) the advent of the Torah coincides with the return of the Shekinah to heaven in the Jewish mystical tradition.
The list I have just mentioned is itself, of course, not exhaustive of the texts under consideration, but relative to imminent projects, and many bear upon themes and passages in The Brothers Karamazov. I leave them here, mostly in isolation from those projects, so that other interested readers may examine this tradition without referring to the concerns that brought me to research and write this for you in the first place.
In an earlier post, we looked at the Greek word “χάρις“, namely, the way that the historical sense of this word is bound up in a very stratified social setting, and how translating it almost always ends up becoming a proxy war for different confessional agendas (I should add that it is difficult it is to think past these agendas, because they are rooted in a history of interpretation generated by reflection on the original word through various cultural contexts and historical epochs).
Perhaps I should also add: ignoring this history-of-interpretation ignores some of the latter fallout of this word, ignores at least part of the history of its effects, and so neglects to treat properly the word itself.
Here we shall look at another Greek word: “πειρασμός”, nearly ubiquitously mistranslated as “temptation”. Continue reading
As they work their way through the seminal figures of Western history, introductory courses on Philosophy continue to include Augustine of Hippo, sandwiching him between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who each lived from seven-to-eight-hundred years from him in either chronological direction. One of the principal difficulties in engaging with Augustine on some of the classical loci of philosophy, however, is that he does not always have works dedicated to these topics. On these matters, one must glean his position from other works. Augustine’s position on political philosophy is one such subject. Thankfully, Robert A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) goes a long way towards filling this vacuum.