Part three: an intolerably brief history of Russian Orthodoxy.
Book one, chapter 5.
When we last left our intrepid heroes, they were still in the process of being introduced. This week, the introduction is extended with regard to the youngest of Karamazov’s three sons; the dreamy-eyed Alyosha. But before we delve deeper into the young man’s character, first a few notes on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
When Dostoevsky was writing his magnum opus, the Christian tradition of the East was already centuries old and centuries separated from the body of Western (Roman) Catholicism. After the Great Schism over, among other things, papal primacy in the 11th century, it had evolved its own peculiar rites, institutions and theological interpretations.
The definition of peculiar depends, so post-modernism tells us, on where one draws the boundaries of normalcy. Now that that’s out of our system, let’s just say that people in 17th century Russia could get pretty worked up over what form religious worship should take. Aside from the Great Schism mentioned earlier, there erupted a bloody debate between the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church over, among other things, how many times to say hallelujah in response to certain prayers and how many fingers one should use to give blessings. The answer to both these thorny theological issues, according to the Greek interpretation, was three. Some Russians did not agree, and were willing to die in defence of correct finger waving. The schism, known as the Raskol, was just one of many reasons why the Russian Orthodox Church developed like it did. It was also the reason why the nihilistic protagonist of Dostoevsky’s other well-known work Crime and Punishment is called Raskolnikov.
Among the theological differences that developed later was the belief that Hell and Heaven were not so much physical places but manifestations of the absence or presence of the Divine. This is a roundabout way of saying that Hell was sometimes thought to be the absence of God to a believer, or the presence of God to a non-believer, and vice-versa. To Dostoevsky, the absence or presence of God posed a terrible dilemma. The question of God’s existence, Dostoevsky wrote “[…] tormented me consciously and unconsciously all my life […]”1
In another of his works, entitled The Devils (alt: The Possessed,) he explored what he saw as the ramifications of atheism, socialism and anarchism. All of these -isms are all partly characterized by a refutation of the divine, or rebellion against God and order. The end-result of this rebellion is usually negatively portrayed. It inevitably leads to increased suffering, mindless hedonism, cruelty, crime, insanity and suicide. Influenced by the teachings of the Orthodox Church at a young age, Dostoevsky seems to have longed for a time when religious fervour and feeling was immediate and attainable. But, once having gone through “a great furnace of doubt,” this goal remained elusive.2
The theological quirks that influenced Dostoevsky’s thoughts on the subject of religion find expression in the character of the youngest Karamazov. In a search for “escape for his soul from darkness to light,” Alyosha becomes fascinated by father Zossima. (The Brothers, p. 26) This kindly old man holds the position of elder in the local monastery, while appearing to him like a human conduit for the divine. One of the peculiar institutions of 19th century Russian Orthodoxy was the revived tradition of elders (Starets). The tradition was somewhat analogous to the veneration bestowed upon saints in the western tradition, with the exception that the elders were usually still alive and kicking.
The elders were respected older monks to whom lowly novices would pledge their undying obedience. Grief-stricken peasants and guilty aristocrats would travel far and wide to visit the wise old men when in need of advice, absolution or some good ole faith healing. The young Alyosha is pledged to the local elder Zossima. This pledge entails that “having chosen you elder, you must renounce your will and yield it to him in complete submission and complete self-abnegation.”(p. 28) Far from being the elder’s slave, however, the relationship between the two is more like a bond of devotion. In the book, this bond is reciprocal, genuine and loving.
The character of the elder Zossima serves several functions. Firstly, his presence illuminates the interior thoughts and feelings of Alyosha. For the young man, whom Dostoevsky somewhat incongruously describes as “a realist,” Zossima is a beacon of Christian virtue, an example of God’s loving presence on a sinful earth. (p.25) The young man imagines “[the elder] is holy, his heart contains the secret of a renewal for all, the power which will finally establish truth on earth, and all will be holy, and will love each other, and there will be no more rich nor poor, exalted nor humbled, but all men will be as the children of God and the real kingdom of Christ will come.”(p. 32) Thus we are shown the ardor with which the young Alyosha believes. In the extravagance of youthful feeling and desire, he has chosen the object of dreams.
To Alyosha, the elder is the embodiment of both revolutionary and transcendent desire. The overturning of the world is the revolutionary desire common to youth, its replacement by the realized kingdom of God is transcendent. The elder serves as the channel for the desire of Alyosha to seek truth, and “believing in it, demanding to serve it with all the strength of his soul, yearning an immediate act of heroism and wishing to sacrifice everything, even life itself, for that act of heroism.”(p. 26) Frankly, and let’s be Freudian about this, this is most certainly a channelling of the death urge common to adolescents…
The second important role the elder has to play is the way in which he is used to embody, not just for Alyosha, but for Dostoevsky as well, a current of Christianity that seems more pure and aware of its tenuous position in a world of sin and suffering. While to impressionable youths like Alyosha and the uneducated peasants of Russia, Zossima might glow like a holy light bulb, the man is never portrayed as an otherworldly saint in word and deed. As we shall see in later chapters, Dostoevsky takes care to have the narrator cast doubt on the more overtly supernatural elements, like faith healing, in favor of having the old man dispensing words of kindness, admonishment and fatherly advice to all who will listen. But the elder, like the author, is not devoid of doubt, aware of the injustices meted out to the poor, and, most important of all, not without sin himself. It will take a clown, a disreputable drunk old clown, to point out that pride resides in overt humility…
Next week: Karamazov takes to the stage.
Image: “Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (on a Bible subject) – Плач пророка Иеремии на развалинах Иерусалимаʺ by Ilya Repin. Licensed under public domain via WikiArt.
Doesn’t always refer to himself in the third person.
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