The Renaissance was a spectacular time for literature, arts, and anatomy. The sheer wealth of geographical expansion reinvigorated Europe and invited it to explore, research, and discover. This period was crucial for the conflict between religion and knowledge, a subject thoroughly explored in Doctor Faustus. The Italian Renaissance especially brought forward many crucial questions about life and death, religion, exploration and other issues.
But this is no longer at the forefront of Renaissance studies. The calls for decolonisation have been sounding for quite a while and it’s slowly becoming a subject mainly discussed by right-wing self-proclaimed pseudo-intellectual political commentators. Is it still worth talking about? It might be.
Many students join the English departments armed with an entire collection of Shakespeare’s works and a copy of Doctor Faustus, anticipating learning all there is to know about Renaissance in literature.
Well, those students would be sorely disappointed. The loudest calls for decolonisation have been coming from The Globe, the first Shakespearian theatre. On the very front of their website, we can see ‘Anti-Racist Shakespeare’ in big red letters. When looking at their blog entry from August 2020, a completely innocuous and not totally coincidental date, the quote from Professor Farah Karim-Cooper sheds a lot of light on what’s happening with Shakespeare:
As the custodians of Shakespeare’s most iconic theatres, we have a responsibility to talk honestly about the period from which he emerged and challenge the racist structures that remain by providing greater access to the works and demonstrating how Shakespeare speaks powerfully to our moment.
This is fascinating, as this then led to many movements to decolonise the literary genius. Universities advise students to listen to a podcast about the importance of ‘decolonising Shakespeare’ and the first lecture is basically a lesson on why Shakespeare is not universal and must be redefined.
The lecture material encourages students to look out for ‘colonial oppression’ and invites students to not only decolonise Shakespeare but also the Renaissance. Put your Marlowe in the rubbish, the reading list is now filled with race-related, women-related plays, geared not at looking into the genuine literary wealth of Shakespeare, but at intersectionality. The anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice is barely visible under the colossal shadow of the potential ‘queerness’ within the novel. The patriarchy and the search for something that isn’t there take precedence over trying to uncover important truths.
The lecturers may find it laughable that some people oppose decolonisation. They seem to be engaging in strawman ‘oh does that mean that we’re not going to teach Shakespeare? Of course not!’ But that’s not the point.
I think that if we’re tearing down statues in Bristol and across the US, Shakespeare is potentially one of the cultural statues that could come down
Professor Ayanna Thompson, ‘Shakespeare Teachers’ Conversation’
If universities endorse the above message, what signal are they sending to their students? Of course, they may laugh trying to explain that it doesn’t mean literally tearing down Shakespeare, but the point stands. What they are trying to do is to reconstruct the existing understanding of Shakespeare and re-create it in order to accommodate people who hate them.
Shakespeare was a white Anglo male and lived during the beautiful age of colonial expansion. No one should be worried about saying this one way or another. There’s nothing wrong with it either. I personally believe that Doctor Faustus is a far more important novel than ‘The Masque of Blackness’ by Ben Jonson who wrote quite a dull play about black people searching for the land where they can become white and beautiful.
I understand that this is supposed to make the students uncomfortable and convince them to engage critically with the racism in the past; but don’t we all already know this? Isn’t it much more productive to focus on the plays that could relate better to contemporary issues? Apparently not.
Midsummer Night’s Dream is apparently about patriarchy and The Merchant of Venice is gay. The problem with academia these days is not that there are modules that are ideological; no, the ideology very easily just seeps into everything. There is no way out anymore – most academics are left-wing so naturally their modules will be geared in that direction also. This wouldn’t be an issue as this has been happening for aeons. The problem is that this then creates a whole army of impressionable young people whose main focus will be the discussion on intersectionality and race when there is so much more that Shakespeare can offer. The only way to circumvent it is to rediscover the truths that Renaissance literature has to offer. Reject intersectionality and race and embrace tradition.
You Might also like
By Ryan Anderson — 8 months ago
One of the rare consolations of the Empire of Lies we’ve found ourselves in is occasionally encountering a sphere of truth. Such an event reassures us we’re not alone and that kindred spirits are still out there, patiently pushing back against the insanities of the age. One such spirit is the American Catholic author and editor of First Things magazine R.R Reno and his 2019 work Return of the Strong Gods.
Like contemporary efforts by Patrick Deneen and the Polish philosopher Ryzsard Legutko, Reno’s is a book which illuminates the errors of the age. It’s a work which neither succumbs to the easy evasions of the left nor to the vulgarity found on farther reaches of the right. Ultimately, it’s a book that rejects the notion that the post-war era has been the best of all Panglossian worlds.
Divided into five sections and written in simple yet succinct prose, the overarching theme is that the West has lost its way in an abyss of openness: that sine qua non of the present day. Opening at the Second World War and surveying the post-war era, Reno traces our failings back to Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the promise that ‘never again’ would we bear witness to such horrors.
In light of such an overwhelming imperative, a rhetorical and practical pursuit of openness was initiated in what Reno dubs the “postwar consensus”. A stance which involved the marginalisation at best – and outright illegality at worst – of the noxious -isms that led us to 1914-1945. Nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism were what caused our horrors, they were thus to be expunged from the public square.
Put simply, such ‘strong gods’ were too dangerous: they had to be banished from the realm. Yet precisely who these deities are, and what they mean in practice, is rendered by Reno deliberately vague. In essence, they’re the deeper – and often darker – parts of the soul such as pride, envy and a ‘love of one’s own’.
Yet Reno does provide us with a rough definition. As he states, the strong gods “are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unites societies” – ”Truth is a strong god” as are “King and country.” Not all strong gods are malignant, however: they can just as well “be beneficent.” Still, the chief lesson of the twentieth century was that the strong gods of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism” overwhelmingly “brought ruin.”
To this end, the Western post-war consensus, led by the United States, was to prioritise cultural weakening in the form of a near-unlimited openness. Out were truth, certainty and exclusivity; in were relativism, doubt and diversity. If these trends were ever queried, one only needed reminding of 1945 and was soon brought to heel. The post-war consensus – and its Manichean framing: either ‘openness or Auschwitz’ – was thus brought into being.
A stance that Reno then proceeds to illuminate, beginning with ‘the open society’. A notion coined by the author of the movement’s most emblematic and eponymous work, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and his two-volume Open Society and Its Enemies. A book which was written in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War and in which Popper attacks Plato, Hegel and other giants of the tradition before coming down on the side of openness.
As Reno remarks, for Popper ‘our civilisation faces a choice.’ We “can live in a tribal or ‘closed society’… or we can break free from this ‘collectivist’ impulse and build an ‘open society’”, one that ‘sets free the critical powers of man.’ And as Popper argued at the time, our future depended on choosing the latter: something we’ve dutifully done and which has set in train the decline that’s since followed.
The rest of the book is then an exploration of this one key theme; with Popper’s socio-cultural openness soon echoed on the economic plane by compatriot Friedrich Hayek: he of Road to Serfdom fame. Thus in a strange symmetry, the West ends up with two Austrian emigres erecting the twin pillars of its post-war world: the Popperian commitment to cultural openness and the Hayekian imperative of free markets.
As Reno remarks, these two men were “united by a commitment to individual freedom and a desire to prevent the return of authoritarianism.” A notion that encapsulates the last eighty-odd years as well as any other and that’s been reinforced through organisations like the Mont Pelerin Society, which Popper and Hayek were founding members, and through Popper’s most famous student, and current bete noir of the right, George Soros: he of his own Open Society fame.
Once established, then, the open-society framework of free markets, multiculturalism and the neutering of metaphysics – “The open society must be anti-metaphysical” – comes to characterise the West. A stance Reno then explores in an impressive overview of the major philosophical figures of the era. After Popper and Hayek, come the Americans Milton Friedman and William F Buckley; followed by a return to the German-speaking giants of earlier in the century, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber; before ending with the Francophone philosophers of the latter part of our era, namely: Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Yet it’s Weber and his notion of the disenchantment of the world – i.e. the scientific erasure of the supernatural – that helps further explain our malaise. As Reno observes, Popper, following Weber, wants to rid us of the metaphysical. For as Reno adds, it’s been imperative to eliminate “the vestiges of sacred authority that blinker men’s reason”. A stance that many of us have come to believe is benign, yet it’s a trend which Reno intimates is ultimately suicidal as it “drains away the substance of Western Civilization’s beliefs in robust metaphysical truths.” That is, it erodes the religious substrate that has enabled us to flourish.
A posture that has been implemented practically by what Reno dubs our ‘therapies of disenchantment’. As although erasing the sacred is ultimately futile quest, our need for metaphysics can be tamped down by the political order. Something that has been done by “relativizing” such notions, by “putting them in their historical contexts” and “critiquing their xenophobic, patriarchal, cisgender, and racist legacies”.
From this, the cultural imperatives then follow: we must “celebrate diversity”, “cultivate transgression” and “problematize” our traditional ties. A stance accomplished by our elite as they “drive old loyalties to the margins of respectability, and otherwise advance the cause of an open society and open minds.”
This metaphysical poverty, allied with the imperative of openness and the eviscerating force of the free-market, have led us to the current impasse. One witnessed in the apparently inchoate actions of voters in their support for non-establishment actors like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. That is, in their clamouring for figures brave enough to enunciate the failures of the liberal order and able to address them.
Something evident in what Reno calls the Homeless Society. One which is a natural reaction to the “embattled postwar consensus” and a “rebellion against the dogmas of openness”. As in opposition to the issues of 1945, we no longer face the same problems. Indeed, what ails us now is the direct opposite of that time.
Our issues revolve around an all-pervasive anomie. We are a culture that’s “imperilled by a spiritual vacuum and the apathy it brings”. A society that’s “politically inert, winnowed down to technocratic management of private utilities and personal freedoms”. Our main danger is thus one of “a dissolving society; not a closed one; the therapeutic society, not the authoritarian one.”
A stance Reno expands upon as he notes the economic, cultural and demographic disasters that have arisen under the aegis of openness. A failure that has been overseen by what can only be described as an utterly inept and unpatriotic elite – or as Reno puts it, our Leaders without Loyalty. Indeed, the book can be read as one of the best indictments of our elites yet seen.
Simply put, our elites are hypocrites. They insist on ‘openness for thee, but not for me’ as they insulate themselves from the baleful effects of their dogma. As Reno notes: “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect [themselves and] their children”. “They…choose homes in neighborhoods with goods schools” and condemn “traditional norms as authoritarian, but… keep their [own] marriages together.” Ultimately, “they shelter themselves and those whom they love” from the destructive effects of openness as they praise its putative virtues publicly.
Given this hypocrisy, and the other failings of the liberal order, the post-war consensus is straining under the weight of its contradictions. It’s a case of ‘what can’t go on, won’t go on’ – and the current settings can’t go on much longer. Indeed, the anti-naturalness of the post-war project was inherent from the outset, but only now are the fissures impossible to ignore.
As such, we move back to the beginning: to the ‘return of the strong gods’. A notion that is not only the book’s title, but which was also an inevitable result of the liberal order. As despite the well-intentioned commitment to openness and the promise of ‘never again’, the post-war concord was always doomed to fail.
This is so as it doesn’t accord with underlying nature. For as many have come to realise, the liberal order is one big affect. Although largely peaceful and prosperous, the post-war consensus fails to fulfil a multitude of human needs. Socially, it’s a regime that doesn’t recognise the darker elements of the soul, like parochialism and ‘a love of one’s own’; not does it address the practicalities of life in a political community: such as a sense of belonging, a common culture and the stability we innately seek. While economically, the Hayekian imperative of unencumbered markets has left us as financially precarious as we are socially: afflicted by the dilemmas of the ‘double-dose’ liberalism to which many now allude, and that writers like Christopher Lasch and John Gray explicitly warned.
Which is why Reno finishes the book seeking an end to the ‘long twentieth century’ and a return to the politics of ‘shared love’. Our order failed as it rendered us homeless: lost in a sea of apathy with no place to call our own. As in spite of the left-liberals who treat our crisis “as an illusion” – with Trump and Farage mere manifestations of an aberrant electorate – Reno treats their rise as the logical result of the errors innate to the liberal order.
The mere fact of ‘populism’, then, is not an epiphenomenon of short-term economic or social angst; but of deeper and entirely legitimate “questions about national identity, immigration and foreign policy, all of which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the established leadership class in the West.”
As in advancing openness, our elite has eroded the solidarity we seek. As under our technocratic ethos, vast swathes of the human experience is marked verboten and placed outside the frame of debate. As Reno remarks, our elite “is so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus” it neglects “the actual problems we face – atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.”
We thus need to return to the strong gods: of love, solidarity and genuine community. It requires our leaders “to ask question they have been trained to supress”. It needs them to realise that, as the philosopher Leo Strauss observed – in direct opposition to Popper – that ‘the society by nature is the closed society’. A notion to which Reno alludes when he references that well-known saw about human nature: that “blood is thicker than water.”
Which in essence is all that is wrong with the post-war order and why it’s now falling apart. As although the initial desire to prevent future holocausts, gulags and atomic explosions was clearly laudable, these events did not to change human nature. That is, a nature which still seeks solidarity and a sense of the sacred; one that sees our “private interest as part of a larger whole”; one with a “love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and heroes”. Simply put, we need a renewed patriotism: we need ‘to renew the “we”’.
There is thus very little to critique in Reno’s work. Being an avowed Catholic, his remedies tend towards the Christian, which may rankle the less religious, yet he wears his religion lightly and the book is never in danger of dogmatism. There is an argument to be made, however, that by anchoring the book to the motif of socio-cultural openness, other factors, like the importance of economics – and the centrality of economic growth to the post-war era- are not given the import they deserve. There is also an incongruous attempt to smuggle in some American-style civic nationalism that is understandable even though it’s completely contradictory to the spirit of the work.Nevertheless, this is a highly commendable work. Like Deenen’s and Legutko’s, it’s one of few recent books that drives to the heart of our malaise and that honestly elucidates the errors of our age.
Post Views: 385
By Juanita Galea — 7 months ago
As much as I have gotten tired of talking about this virus, it is important to address the following; Covid-19 has had disastrous impacts on Generation Z. Whether we like to admit it or not, Gen Z is based on a culture of avoiding social interaction, virtual relationships and a general pessimistic outview of life.
The confinements we found ourselves in due to the pandemic, led us to migrate from real human life, to the material world of virtual interaction. Although this might not have seemed to be such a problem for a generation which shows great aversion to in-person interaction, however this was anything but the case.
The best way one could analyse and scrutinise the essence which makes up a millennial, one wouldn’t have to look further than from the structureless abyss which we know as the internet.
This period of lockdown has in a weird way reversed some of the progressive stirrings taking place within the subconscious of a Gen-z individual. This overload of isolation– encompassed by a general lack of social gatherings, in-person learning and cultural legacy has led this generation to ever so slightly and in a gradual manner, become more sensitive to the present late-civilisational decay which is surrounding them.
This can be seen through the different aesthetic styles promoted online. Such aesthetic styles include retrowave, post-modern, steampunk, fantasy ect. The obsession with such aesthetics does not necessarily stem from visual pleasure. Rather, it offers an escapist utopia for those stuck in a dull and grey world– from a world characterised by social media expectations, lockdowns and a general nihilism which cakes like dust any aspirations present.
An aesthetic which quickly rose to popularity during the last two years was Cottage Core. In essence, as an aesthetic it is composed of greenery and flowers surrounding a traditional cottage, with women dressed in a white modest dress taking care of the house, the plants, the washing up, the children. It truly is a return to a life which Gen Zers never experienced– and given the way in which our economic structure is heading, will never have the inherent right nor pleasure to experience.
This traditionalist aesthetic takes us back to the roots of what once was the foundation of the state (the family actually has existed long before the concept of the State, I would argue it is the foundation for building communities)– a nuclear family based on distinctive parental roles, a time when marriage was based on or rather seen desirable / the main goal of a marriage was to bare children and create a legacy– offspring to whom you can pass down your faith, beliefs and nation. It brings with it a breath of neo-romanticism.
Such a fact carries with it a certain level of irony of course. The fact that the internet and technology are used to make and spread such images, is rather ironic given the fact that it is this very internet and technology which stripped this idyllic life away from us. Virtual citizens who have bloodshot eyes, social anxiety and an all around lack of will to persevere, find an escape in such aesthetics. This aesthetic comes part and parcel with an affinity for historical period dramas, a subconscious desire to leave the city and a longing for a family to nurture and raise.
As T. Howard interestingly noted, “the aesthetic is self-consciously escapist and Cottage Core can be thought of as one of many expressive forms of post-Sexual Revolution trauma in the West.”.
The Covid-19 lockdowns led many Gen Zers to realise that with the leisure of open bars, theatres and clubs being taken away from the equation, the only thing which is left is the skeletal facade of a city– one which highlights so perfectly the metamorphosis of our decaying civilisation. What was left once such establishments were shut down? A reminder of the lives Gen Z were robbed off.
The seed of cultural Marxism has undoubtedly been sowed within the hem of the 21st century. This can be witnessed through the manifestation of Cancel Culture. Being a member of Gen Z automatically prevents you from being able to criticise the western social revolution of the 20th century (in the same way a black man or woman cannot criticise the BLM movement).
No matter how far Gen Z idealogues strive to stray away from what is natural, normal and traditional, in reality human nature and desires do not change. They are constant within the subconscious– no matter how hard the fight to push against them is. This is why the number of Gen Z anti-feminists is growing. Young women across the globe are realising what they lost– or rather, what has been taken from them.
Feminism might have not been merely an organic movement which hoped to foster equality for all, but rather an orchestrated ploy by powerful men in order to reduce women’s prospects of domestic fulfilment. Going to work and building a career is now seen as the ultimate form of self-liberation. Tell me, how can feminist groups look women in the eye and tell them they are better off as wage slaves, rather than as homemakers?
For the sake of clarification, I am in no way slandering women who work. If anything, they do not have a choice as our economy does not support such roles. However, I am criticising the fact that women can no longer stay at home and raise children– a reality which only came about once women entered the workforce. Late capitalism delights as this; more labour, more production, more money.
Furthermore, women are thought to feel empowered by showing off their bodies in the quest to acquire more money. Is that really all we have to offer our young daughters? Real empowerment comes from perseverance, faith and modesty. Women have been stripped of their dignity and identity, to be replaced by gender theory which promotes the idea that any individual can be a woman– regardless of anatomy.
This idea is further fuelled by the growing number of men who appropriate womanhood in their quest to “transition” providing the world with a very sexist and misogynistic view of what womanhood really is– reducing us to shopaholic hair obsessed women who care more about their clothes and nails than the future of their societies. How incredibly offensive it is to be a woman and be told that a biological man is just as much as a woman as you are.
With a growing interest in the traditional– even within the local context you see a revival of interest in Maltese traditional architecture, in folklore music and in cuisine, one is left to wonder whether or not this will manifest in a full fledged shift within the ideological attachments of Gen Z. The harvest is indeed plentiful, yet the labourers remain few.
Post Views: 317
By Dustin Lovell — 6 months ago
Having tackled the growing hydra of socialist radicalism through his previous major novels, Fyodor Dostoevsky set out in The Brothers Karamazov to address what he saw as the fountainhead of the mid-century Russian ideological shifts: the loss of faith in the the gospel and in the Orthodox Church as the means established by Christ to display that gospel to the nations.
To be sure, Dostoevsky saw this loss of faith primarily in the upper-class intelligentsia and the later populist youth. The former, the Westernizers of the 1940s-60s whom Dostoevsky pilloried in everything from Notes from Underground to The Devils, had intended to enlighten the peasant class—part of which involved relieving them of their superstitious belief in Christ’s divinity and Christian morality. The latter generation of 1870s Populists broke from the amoral nihilism of that generation (in no small part due to Crime and Punishment and The Devils) and instead venerated the peasants’ simple way of life and native morality; however, refusing to acknowledge their source in Christ and the Russian Orthodox Church, the populists still maintaining secular aims.
Dostoevsky’s response to both groups was to advocate a return to the fullness of the faith in Orthodoxy, which could satisfy all needs of the human individual, both physical and transcendent. However, having previously been a radical himself, Dostoevsky was ever willing to pursue this goal through a conciliatory approach, especially if he might thereby rescue some readers from the contradictions and potential disasters of radicalism. He does this in The Brothers Karamazov by taking seriously a primary objection to Christianity: the problem of evil.
Ivan Karamazov: The Problem of Evil
He articulates the problem of evil through Ivan Karamazov. In Book Five, Chapter V, “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan follows up his description in the previous chapter of the senseless abuse of children (all gathered by Dostoevsky from real-life newspaper stories) to his little brother Alyosha, a would-be priest, with the one of the most famous stories-within-a-story in world literature. These chapters, according to Dostoevsky’s letters, are among the most important in the novel. They lay out the problem of evil and its refutation—through a parallel story-within-a-story: Book VI, The Russian Monk, which presents the life and sayings of the local monastery elder Fr. Zosima, compiled by Alyosha long after the novel’s events.
Acknowledging himself as no philosopher—to say nothing of his being an Eastern Orthodox Christian, who generally eschew Western theory-forward approaches in favor of ascetical practice and theosis as proof of the faith—Dostoevsky does not merely present logical arguments for or against Ivan’s atheism. (Indeed, one of the greatest aspects of this self-proclaimed atheist is that it is debatable whether Ivan believes his own professed atheism. He often waffles in, and at times regrets, his stance and, like Dostoevsky’s previous protagonists, is horrified upon seeing his stated beliefs actually lived out by Smerdyakov. Furthermore, Ivan often fits less the title of Enlightenment philosophe and more that of Romantic hero in protest against an unjust God whom he nonetheless believes in.) Rather, Dostoevsky addresses Ivan’s problem with evil not with a matching argument and polemical story, but with the life of a saint.
Fr. Zosima: A Holy Life
In Book VI, The Russian Monk, Dostoevsky breaks from the novelistic form and uses, instead, the mystical, timeless mode of hagiography. Because it is ordered by a moral message rather than causal events or their concomitant psychological elements, such a mode has struck many critics as dismissable, being unrealistic or simply jinned up. Dostoevsky acknowledges this in a letter to Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in the Tsar’s cabinet: “Something completely opposite to the world view expressed earlier appears in this part, but again it appears not point by point but so to speak in artistic form. And that is what worries me, that is, will I be understood and will I achieve anything of my aim?”
Nonetheless, by answering the problem of evil with a holy life lived in spite of evil, he tells his assistant editor, Dostoevsky intends to show “that a pure, ideal Christian is not something abstract, but graphically real, possible, standing before our eyes, and that Christianity is the only refuge from all its ills for the Russian land,” and, presumably, for those of the rest. In short, Dostoevsky answers the world’s evil with holiness—with the saints alive in every generation of Orthodoxy that allow the Church to call itself “Holy” in the Nicene Creed and by whose theotic prayers and actions it redeems a fallen world.
The Russian Monk, however, goes beyond merely presenting one exception to evil. Contrary to the atheist-materialist-socialist arguments (then and now) that people and their actions are merely effects of environment, Dostoevsky maintains that part of the image of God in man is an inalienable individual moral agency. Thus, the redemption shown in Fr. Zosima’s story is available to all. Far from presenting merely one anecdote, The Russian Monk transforms all characters in The Brothers Karamazov into potential likenesses of Christ and His redemption of the world.
As Nathan Rosen argues, this opposite pole of “The Grand Inquisitor” defends the faith not through rational argument but through aesthetic fullness—by presenting a man who embodies in his own life the story and truth of Job. According to Rosen and other sympathetic critics, Zosima’s story, “is the literary equivalent of a precious hallowed old church icon,” and as such it renders the rest of the novel, broadly, and Alyosha’s path, specifically, into the realm of iconography—the tradition that, following Christ’s being the first Icon of God the Father, reveals the truth of the gospel through aesthetic incarnation.
Grushenka: Dostoevsky’s Magdalene
And, yet, at the time of the novel’s events, Alyosha is not as sanguine as the later Alyosha who recorded Fr. Zosima’s life. Indeed, between his conversation with Ivan (and the discovery of his own unsuspected resentment of God it revealed) and Fr. Zosima’s non-miraculous death*, his faith is quite shaken. He is, thus, primed for either a full loss of faith or a restoration in the chapters preceding “Cana of Galilee,” which Dostoevsky describes to his assistant editor as “the most significant [chapter] in the whole book.”
Having felt his faith shaken by Ivan’s “poem” and the circumstances of Fr. Zosima’s death, Alyosha reverts to the way of life he knows to be native to himself as a Karamazov: sensual degradation. Agreeing to go with the atheist student Rakitin (who’s just been wishing to trip up Alyosha so he might gloat) to the home of his father and eldest brother’s paramour, Agrafena “Grushenka” Svetlova, Alyosha intends to…do whatever Dostoevsky’s readers might infer from the author’s 19th-century understatement.
Grushenka immediately catches the mood and starts to flirt with the boy. Any other time she would have been more than willing to get her claws in yet another Karamazov male—especially the one who, by his purity, represents the moral opposite of her supposed fallenness. Although she conceals some secret joy altogether different from her vengeful persona of seduction, Grushenka begins to play the harlot she knows Alyosha considers her to be. “She suddenly skipped forward and jumped, laughing, on his knee, like a nestling kitten, with her right arm around his neck. ‘I’ll cheer you up, my pious boy.’”
And, yet, far from falling to her ways, Alyosha discovers that Fr. Zosima’s teaching was not altogether without fruit. “This woman, this ‘dreadful’ woman, had no terror for him now, none of that terror that had stirred in his soul at any passing thought of woman.” Furthermore, he soon learns that the joy hidden beneath her flirtation springs from the recent discovery that the man who had seduced and abandoned her as a teenager is returning, and that she is willing to forgive him.
This turn of events has emptied her impulse to reduce Alyosha to her fallen position. “It’s true, Alyosha, I had sly designs on you before, for I am horrid, violent, but at other times I’ve looked upon you, Alyosha, as my conscience…I sometimes look at you and feel ashamed, utterly ashamed of myself.” No doubt this shame had driven her late desire to cause Alyosha’s fall.
However, just as Ivan’s description of the suffering of children primed the way for the denial of Christ in “The Grand Inquisitor,” Grushenka’s act of forgiveness for being seduced as a young girl is the prelude to her—and Alyosha’s—redemption. For, after overthrowing nearly a decade of resentment in the name of forgiveness and reconciliation, Grushenka finally learns of the death of Fr. Zosima. “She crossed herself devoutly. ‘Goodness, what have I been doing, sitting on his knee like this at such a moment!’ She started up as though in dismay, instantly slipped off his knee and sat down on the sofa.”
Witnessing such an immediate response of reverence begins the restoration of Alyosha’s faith. To Rakitin, who is still proud of having delivered Alyosha to Grushenka, Judas-like, for 25 rubles, Alyosha says, “look at her—do you see how she has pity on me? I came here to find a wicked soul—I felt drawn to evil because I was base and evil myself, and I’ve found a true sister, I have found a treasure—a loving heart. She had pity on me just now…Agrafena Alexandrovna, I am speaking of you. You’ve raised my soul from the depths.”
The paired forgiveness and reverence of Grushenka, the person Alyosha least expected to show such things, provides the miracle he was waiting for: the manifestation of Fr. Zosima after death. For, besides her forgiveness of the officer, in fearing what effect her own seductiveness might have had on Alyosha Grushenka displays Zosima’s core message. Assuming one’s own moral responsibility—not merely for one’s actions, but, according to Fr. Zosima, for all men’s actions—is the whole means of acquiring the likeness of Christ, and Alyosha sees Grushenka, of all people, practice it.
From the Orthodox perspective, in thus fulfilling her innate human image of God with behavior according with His likeness, Grushenka has become a living icon, as Christ, the first Icon, had been. Grushenka’s is the miracle of a Magdalene conversion, manifested before Alyosha’s eyes, and it primes him for his own symbolic incarnation of Fr. Zosima’s—and the unnamed Christ’s—message, spirit, and way of life in the climactic next chapter.
Alyosha: A Living Icon
Ultimately, each reader must decide for him or herself whether Dostoevsky’s answer to the problem of evil, indeed, answers it. Many critics have considered Ivan’s objection to Christianity insurmountable. Leaving aside possible confirmation bias in such academic interpretation, things are, admittedly, not helped by the response’s seeming so obscure—even arguably interrupting—especially to Western audiences that have generally foregone monasticism, iconography, and veneration of saints since the Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment.
However, the true answer to evil, according to The Brothers Karamazov, is not a simple one-and-done response provoking a change of mind (though Alyosha’s realization in “Cana of Galilee” of the Orthodox sacramental view of creation involves just that). Rather, it is a disposition and way of life depicted first through Fr. Zosima, then the redeemed Grushenka, and finally through a not much older but very much wiser Alyosha, who through the rest of the book follows his Elder’s direction in living out the gospel in the real world, amidst but not stifled by its temptations and evils.
And, indeed, when Alyosha meets the fourteen-year-old self-described radical, Kolya, who both parodies Ivan and represents a serious ideological influence on his younger friends, he is unperturbed. Doing what Dostoevsky hoped, himself, to do with The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha redirects the good-hearted youth’s radicalism into a simple and more impactful Christlike love of the least of these—specifically, the smallest, Ilyusha—and he manifests the humble confidence and tranquility not merely of his former elder, but of Christ and His sacramental life.
*It was considered a proof of a holy man’s life that his body did not decompose post mortem; the lack of such incorruptibility in Fr. Zosima leads Alyosha to doubt whether, as Ivan has lately denied, a God of justice exists. Ironically, by expecting a grandiose miracle to meet his spiritual crisis, Alyosha discovers that he is little better than those described by Ivan in “The Grand Inquisitor” who are too weak for the moral freedom (and responsibility) inherent in Christianity. It also reveals Alyosha’s desire to defer his moral responsibility (an antiChristian impulse in Dostoevsky) to the holy man’s direction.
Post Views: 331