Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky

I've just finished the first chapter of Rowan Williams' book on Dostoevsky. I'm elated with the vigor of Williams' writing. He cuts right to the bone, tracing out a theological-critical approach that promises to show more of what drove the great novelist than any previous critic, including Bakhtin. I can see Williams is building on Bakhtin in a more direct and existential way. A quote on the Enlightenment sense of truth Dostoevsky refused to settle for:

To settle for "the truth" in the sense of that ensemble of finished propositions we can securely defend is one of the ways of removing ourselves from the narrative continuum of our lives; to opt for Christ in the face of this is to accept that we shall not arrive within history at a stage where there are no choices and no commitments to be made. The truth of defensible propositions, a truth demanding assent as if belief were caused by facts, generates a diminished view of what is human; it educates us in ignoring aspects of human narrative that we disapprove of or find impenetrable. Meaning comes by the exercise of freedom--but not any sort of exercise of freedom. By taking the step of loving attention in the mundane requirements of life together, something is disclosed. But that step is itself enabled by a prior disclosure, the presence of gratuity in and behind the phenomena of the world: of some unconditional love. The narrative of Christ sets that before us, and the concrete historical reality of Christ is what has communicated to human nature a capacity for reflecting or echoing love.
Williams is keenly aware that Enlightenment truth--or "scientific," factual truth about human beings--once it is accepted as definitive or cutting edge, tends to lead eventually to the violent purging of that which does not fit the theory. The last century amply demonstrated this potential in an overvalued or wrongly valued science, whether we look at Leninist communism or fascism. What Williams shows is how Dostoevsky developed a narrative strategy that subverts this even as it puts in narrative action the struggle of faith--a struggle that, by definition, is never finished.

The book is Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction.

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