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Discerning of Spirits

book cover imageFurnace of Doubt: Dostoevsky and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
by Arther Trace.
Sherwood Sugden and Company, 1988; Open Court 1999, 178 pp. $6.95 paper.

George A. Panichas

The religious essences of F. M. Dostoevsky’s vision defy full and final evaluation, for there is always something new to discover in his fiction, or at least something in it that calls for further meditation. As such his art evades a secularized dead end, which characterizes so much of modern art. Dostoevsky’s fiction, in this respect, discloses a pattern of spiritual ascent and speaks to the souls of those who remain open to the parabolic powers of his art—above all, to the idea of the holy. He is an artist who eludes not only pragmatic esthetics but also formalist techniques. Those readers who belong to these camps find his religious thought particularly antipathetic. Dostoevsky, in effect, will always remain foreign to the moderns, precisely because his was a biblical faith that emerged “from a huge furnace of doubt.”

That very faith is in our own day in a stage of deconstruction, as is inevitable at a time when secular religion gains in acceptance. To be sure, Dostoevsky’s novels continue to be read and discussed, but not for the reasons they should be. No less than other great sapiential artists, Dostoevsky is the object of radical reconceptualizations rooted in the relativism of the times. Most criticism today lacks first principles, a condition marked by the loss of the idea of value. Clearly, those who in any way resist the spiritual consequences of this loss must enact the virtue of fortitude.

In this small book on Dostoevsky’s religious significance Professor Arther Trace displays unusual courage and, in effect, takes his stand among those who do not give in to the dictates of our reigning neoterists and nominalists. Admittedly, Furnace of Doubt is not an original critical study, even as the absence of notes citing sources—the critics he has undoubtedly read and learned most from—is perturbing. His interpretations, indeed, instance no new critical breakthrough. Then why, it will be asked, is this book praiseworthy despite its bibliographical and critical limitations? An answer to this question should not be difficult to formulate. So powerful and pervasive is the secular attitude that the appearance of any thoughtful book that celebrates the religious dimensions of art is always something to commend. The antireligious and nonreligious critical perspective, which is now accepted and certified in the intellectual community, needs to be challenged. The “enlightened” cannot be allowed to think that their impieties are absolute. But as long as a book like Trace’s exists, one can safely believe that the permanent things have defenders.

Basically this book is a long critical essay on The Brothers Karamazov, which for Trace marks the culmination of Dostoevsky’s art. The preambular chapter, in which Trace speaks of the novels preceding The Brothers Karamazov, is sketchy at best. One has the suspicion that the critic wants to focus immediately on Dostoevsky’s last novel but perhaps feels it is his duty to place that novel in relation to the earlier novels. The abbreviated critical quality of the preambular chapter fails, however, to contribute substantively to the discussion of The Brothers Karamazov and even accents a faulty critical strategy. For the student of Dostoevsky’s novels this aspect of Trace’s book can only lead to vague understanding and generalization. Clearly the pattern and the development of Dostoevsky’s major novels are far too subtly interrelated and interdependent to be slighted by a reliance on random and even perfunctory observations. Thus, the first chapter of the book, “Dostoevsky before The Brothers Karamazov,” though it seeks to open doors of thought, fails to achieve its purposes. The critical unity of the book falters at the very beginning, even weakening the flow of the book as a whole. “Only connect,” as E. M. Forster wrote, is a need that no critic should thwart. Unfortunately, there are some missed connections in the opening part of Trace’s book.

Dostoevsky’s novels, in style and vision, have always bothered both readers and other writers. Henry James, for instance, was critical of Dostoevsky for his failures of composition, his defiance of economy and architecture, and, in short, his lack of form, or as James wrote: “Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance—saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding, and that makes one ashamed of an art capable of such degradations.” James’s feelings have been frequently (though often less responsibly) echoed and reflect a common inability among Western readers to penetrate to the core of Dostoevsky’s eschatological dimensions. Any survey of Dostoevsky criticism in the twentieth century will underline the kind of hesitations and divagations that characterize the evaluation of the Russian’s achievement by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals alike. His astonishing Christian mythopoetic explorations pose a danger to the secular mind, even as they arouse hostility and incomprehension. The fact remains that Dostoevsky leaps over the canons of form precisely because he was a visionary, who rendered in fiction explosions of religious consciousness. Religious genius is not easily understood or appreciated by pragmatic and mechanistic critiques that are the product of a de-Christianized Western world. Only when we are truly aware of this modern phenomenon will we begin to see why Dostoevsky presents us with such extraordinary difficulties.

Furnace of Doubt discloses critical acumen in tackling the ultimate questions that Dostoevsky confronted in his art. Trace does not allow his critical perception of religious problems, as these are rendered in art, to be blocked by the thick walls that present-day literary criticism, as an offshoot of a quantitative reductionism, erects. He unequivocally sums up what lies at the very heart of The Brothers Karamazov: “Basically what Dostoevsky wanted to demonstrate is that bad ideas are vastly more destructive than bad passions, not only to individuals but to society generally and indeed to civilization.” In this single, mighty sentence Trace underscores his critical stance in all of its moral capacity. When, then, he goes on to assert, “Atheism not only threatens lives, Dostoevsky is saying; it also threatens civilizations because it denies the sacredness of life,” Trace also shows his awareness of an implicit religious orientation that inheres in Dostoevsky’s burden of vision. His commentaries are illuminating precisely because they arise from an apprehension of a metaphysics of art, and not from the warped dialectics of contemporary ideologies. That is to say, Trace recognizes the quintessentially religious and prophetic distinction of Dostoevsky’s art that other critics habitually scorn.

Especially helpful are Trace’s elucidations of Dmitri as “the sinning believer” and of Ivan as “the uncomfortable atheist,” in contrast to the Old Karamazov, who is a “logical atheist.” The long chapter “Ivan Agonistes” examines significant aspects of his character, never simplifying or reducing them in relation to the eternal struggle between belief and unbelief. Trace’s insights in this part of his book exemplify, as Saint Paul phrases it, the “discerning of spirits.” In focusing on the “moral choices” made by some of the significant figures in the novel—e.g., Father Zossima, Captain Snegiryov, the “mysterious visitor,” Smerdyakov, as well as Ivan and Dmitri—Trace helps to clarify “the spiritual spectrum” of The Brothers Karamazov.

Trace’s appraisal of the worth of religious love, as opposed to humanitarian love, in The Brothers Karamazov, is trenchantly delineated: “In short, Dostoevsky is saying that what the world needs is religious faith if the Truth is to be served and, incidentally, civilization is to be preserved.” That a modern critic can utter words like this further magnifies the value of Furnace of Doubt. Indeed, the fateful struggle between believers and unbelievers in Dostoevsky’s novel is a struggle that now goes on even more furiously. The atheism that afflicted the Russian of the nineteenth century and has continued into the twentieth century has been summed up in Lenin’s statement that “every idea of God” is “unutterable vileness.” Doubtlessly, too, the deeply. religious cast of Dostoevsky’s art becomes for the modern imperial self the “problem of Dostoevsky,” which is also a universal problem. No matter how extensively and deeply gnostic critics examine Dostoevsky’s art, the effect is one of neutralizing its Christian ethos. In stressing that for Dostoevsky “the Bible is the ultimate of truth,” Trace rejects the expositors of “contemporary unbelief” in the Western world. As Trace reminds us in a concluding chapter, “Dostoevsky and the Contemporary World,” there are new Lenins to be confronted who categorically deny that morality depends upon religion.

Recently, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh had this to say about the need for moral and spiritual values in the realm of education: “I think it is highly dangerous, speaking of values, to teach young American minds the superiority of the Bible . . . [or] the superiority of anything.” Here, in a nutshell, we hear the voice of titanism, the voice of the world. And the world, as T. S. Eliot declared, “insists upon being right. It insists upon being virtuous. It is right, it is virtuous, it is damned.” For readers concerned with the meaning of Dostoevsky’s spiritual art, it is a privilege to have a book like Arther Trace’s Furnace of Doubt, which boldly abjures the antinomian impulses running amok in the academy.  

George A. Panichas (1930–2010), author of several books including The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art (1985) and The Reverent Discipline: Essays in Literary Criticism and Culture (1974), was at the time of this essay, professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park and the editor of the quarterly Modern Age.

Posted: April 24, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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