29 April 2010

Scholarly Coincidence

Having just read a terrible edition of the Maude translation of Tolstoy’s Confession, a few weeks ago I was on Amazon looking for a better one. One of the first that came up was that published by Norton, translated by one David Patterson. Curious about the translator, I looked at the close-up view of the back cover and saw:

David Patterson is professor of English at Oklahoma State University and translator of Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon, also published by Norton. He has provided an introduction, notes, and bibliography for this edition.

Intrigued to find him in my home state, I Googled Patterson’s name to learn more. I found a faculty page, and it turned out that he is now at the University of Memphis (home of the Ochlophobist), where he currently holds the Bornblum Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies. At that point, noting the conjunction of the name ‘Patterson’ (not terribly Jewish-sounding), the former residence in Oklahoma, and the man’s picture, a bizarre coincidence suggested itself to me, and a quick e-mail to Patterson himself confirmed my suspicions—I had dated his daughter briefly in high school! I recalled that she had told me her father had converted to Judaism (the daughter was Roman Catholic), and that he taught or did some kind of scholarly work somewhere. Plus, I could see the likeness between them in his picture.

Astonished at the coincidence, I ordered his translation of Tolstoy, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. I haven't yet read and cannot comment on the translation per se, but I had expected more from a Norton publication—a longer introduction, more and longer notes, and maybe a longer or even annotated bibliography. In light of what I’d been reading in Leonard Stanton and Fr Georges Florovsky, not to mention the Confession itself, I thought the conclusion of the introduction a bit weak:

Finally, it may be asked whether Tolstoy ever actually found the meaning of life or the truth he sought. Whatever is said in this regard, it is clear the he continued his search until his death in 1910: his was a life characterized as much by seeking as by finding. Indeed, the meaning he was striving for reveals itself more in the search than in the discovery, and asking the question of life is more vital than answering it. For it is by raising the question that the spirit engages in its struggle for voice, a struggle that finds its expression in works such as the Confession. [1]

Finally, I was astonished to see the following wildly inaccurate note on Tolstoy’s reference to St John Chrysostom: ‘John Chrysostom (1594-1646) was a Franciscan spiritual leader and writer from France.’ [2] St Chrysostom a Franciscan? In 17th-c. France?!

Well, since then, Patterson has reared his head two further times. Earlier this week when I was working on my apparently little-read Bakhtin posts, I reread for the first time in probably at least ten years the introduction to Ruth Coates’s Christianity in Bakhtin and discovered the following:

There is one monograph, Patterson’s Literature & Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin & his Contemporaries (1988), which, as its title suggests, takes Bakhtin’s spiritual dimension seriously. But the book is a comparative, not an expository, study; thus Bakhtin’s spirituality is assumed rather than laid bare, irrtating the reader (such as David Shepherd . . .) who is not sympathetic to a religious reading of Bakhtin. Patterson proceeds from the, regrettably, unexamined assumption that ‘operating from a generally religious and distinctively Christian viewpoint, Bakhtin embraces the Johannine concept of the word [3] and regards the dialogical dimensions of literature as a revelation of spirit’ . . . . He goes on to draw Bakhtin’s ideas into a ‘dialogue’ with those of Foucault, Berdyaev, Gide, Lacan, Levinas and Heidegger. Various concepts from these thinkers come together in Patterson’s imagination to suggest rich possibilities for interaction. His book is more a meditation than a scholarly work, as the flyleaf suggests, but even as a meditation it is imperilled by Patterson’s difficult, one feels bound to say contorted, style, which is unfortunate, since the comparisons he undertakes surely bear much promise and because, it seems to me, there really is a spiritual core to Bakhtin which deserves to be taken seriously and to gain wider recognition among his readership. At least in the West this ground has not been broken, but a different kind of study to Patterson’s is needed before his book can even begin to be, if not accepted, then at least meaningfully criticised. [4]

As if this was not enough, while doing some research with my pupil for periodical literature on Tolstoy yesterday, one search yielded an old article from the Harvard Theological Review entitled, ‘The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoy’s Confession’, written by, yes, David Patterson. The article is something of a religious-philosophical analysis of the Confession. I found Patterson’s interpretation of Tolstoy’s encounter with death in terms of Kierkegaard’s ‘sickness unto death’ very enlightening and helpful, and I thought he had some very good, insightful comments about Tolstoy’s references to the relationship between the finite and the infinite.

But the article is written from a rather ambiguous perspective. For the most part Patterson seems to accept the accuracy and perhaps even the inevitability of Tolstoy’s spiritual struggles—both the renunciations and affirmations. I was pleased to see that he questioned Tolstoy’s interpretation and consequent dismissal of Ecclesiastes and Buddhism (while strangely leaving the same treatment of Socrates and Schopenhauer unquestioned). I was even more delighted to read Patterson’s statement, ‘Unlike a character in a novel who in the end is no longer troubled by the aim of life, since he now has a ready answer fixed in his soul, Tolstoi continued to attempt to clarify that aim after he had been converted, if indeed one may speak of conversion in this connection at all.’ [5]

But when commenting on Tolstoy’s rejection of Orthodoxy, Patterson seems to be well out of his area of expertise, and entirely gives up questioning Tolstoy’s own judgements about the matter (indeed, Patterson calls in Jung and Jaspers in an ineffectual attempt to support the Russian novelist). But he says nothing that has not been dealt with to one degree or another by nearly every Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century. Take this passage for instance:

Like the sculptor who tried to capture a god in stone, the doctrine [of ‘the Church’] tries to take hold of the passion [i.e., ‘faith’] in traps that are not of its essence. In passing itself off as a statement of eternal truth the doctrine falls prey to a contented complacency, and the Church becomes more concerned with the external affairs of the world and the world’s acceptance of doctrine than with the internal life of the single individual. [6]

I do not see how a scholar with any acquaintance with Orthodox theology could say this with a straight face. A study of the Optina Elders, of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)—whose Moral Idea of the Main Dogmas of the Faith is explicitly addressed to Tolstoy’s followers—, or of Fr Georges Florovsky (see the excerpt I posted here, for instance, or his astute comments on Tolstoy himself) would, I believe, have made him think twice about these statements. Even the Paris émigrés and the old-school St Vladimir’s theologians could have set him straight here. [7]

The conclusion to the article struck me as a fancier, expanded version of the final paragraph of the introduction to Confession, one where Patterson asserts more strongly what was simply weak in the introduction. He writes:

Again, truth found is no truth, and an answer formulated to the question of life, be it yes or no, reflects a misunderstanding of the question. The life that reveals itself in the seeking is more vital than the finding, and the asking of the question in all its passion is more vital than the answering of it; the lamentation weighs heavier than the understanding. [8]

It seems to me that this is a cop-out. For the modern man who does not wish to commit himself to a particular path, it is nothing more than a self-justifying temptation to glorify the refusal to commit. The adventure of Orthodoxy is indeed ‘the dynamic of becoming’, and not ‘the stasis of outcome’. [9] As St Gregory of Nyssa has written, ‘Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless.’ [10]

[1] David Patterson, ‘Introduction’, Confession, by Leo Tolstoy (NY: Norton, 1996), pp. 8-9.

[2] Tolstoy, p. 83.

[3] It is interesting to note that Alexandar Mihailovic, who deals with Bakhtin’s concept of the word at length and is particularly concerned with its connections to the fourth Gospel never even mentions Patterson. See Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997).

[4] Ruth Coates, Christianity in Bakhtin: God & the Exiled Author, (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1998), p. 12.

[5] David Patterson, ‘The Movement of Faith as Revealed in Tolstoi’s Confession’, Harvard Theological Review 71.3-4 (1978), p. 242.

[6] Ibid., pp. 239-40.

[7] He would have benefitted too, from the first chapter of Leonard Stanton’s book, even with its problems, but the latter was published two decades after Patterson’s article. See especially The Optina Pustyn Monastery in the Russian Literary Imagination: Iconic Vision in Works by Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, & Others (NY: Peter Lang, 1995), pp. 7-19.

[8] Patterson, ‘Movement’, p. 243.

[9] Ibid., p. 232.

[10] St Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, tr. Abraham J. Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (NY: Paulist, 1978), p. 31.


Matthew said...

FYI: I read your Bakhtin posts, with great interest, and I plan to re-read them again. There was a lot in there to digest.

By the way, have you seen the book/essay on the internet by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich called 'The Religious Spirit of the Slavs'? In the introduction (I haven't read the whole thing), there is a very interesting bit about Tolstoy.

Becoming said...

Wasn't there a modern day prophet who said that "life's a journey, not a destination?" Perhaps that was Patterson's influence:)

Matthew II (not Matthew Reed :) )

aaronandbrighid said...

Matthew I> Thanks! I keep hoping for a few comments on those posts!

I seem to recall seeing the piece by St Nicholas that you mention, but I don't believe I read it. I shall have to do so. Do you recall if it says anything about Njegos?

Matthew II> Yes, it's a common platitude which, I hope I have suggested, can be taken in an Orthodox way or in a relativising way. It seems to me that most, including Dr Patterson, intend it to be relativising.

JLB said...


You can find 'The Religious Spirit of the Slavs' as an online text here:


aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Jonathan. I followed your link and read it. Very fascinating! I'd love to find some of St Nicholas's writing on Njegos.