28 December 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury Reading Dostoevsky

We had Christmas yesterday with my non-Orthodox in-laws, having been prevented doing so on Friday by the insane blizzard that swept Oklahoma. Anyway, amid the gift cards, checks, and cash typical of the gifts given to notorious bibliophiles, I did get one actual book, and I must say, it is impressive: Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2008). I just happened to have skimmed a review in Touchstone a couple of months ago by Ralph Wood, Baylor University Professor of Theology & Literature and a man with whom I’d still like to work someday, so Williams’s book had already caught my interest. [1] Here is the description from the dust jacket:

Rowan Williams explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of one of literature’s most complex, and most misunderstood, authors. Williams’ investigation focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity (Crime & Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov). He argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments. Any reader who enters the rich and insightful world of Williams’ Dostoevsky will emerge a more thoughtful and appreciative reader for it.

In case that’s not enough, Michael Holquist, Professor Emeritus of Comparative & Slavic Literature at Yale, and the coauthor with Katerina Clark of a terrific intellectual biography of the famous Dostoevsky critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, [2] has an interesting line in his blurb on the back of the dust jacket: ‘This is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation—and that most unacademic virtue, wisdom.’ (This last remark reminds of me of the passage from Screwtape I discussed here!)

I’m generally a little suspicious of the first bearded Archbishop of Canterbury since William Laud (1573-1645), not least because of his liberal views on gay clergy. [3] But I tend to think that Dostoevsky may be one area where we can basically agree. Poking just a bit into the Introduction, I already see one important observation. Williams comments on the tremendous effect on Dostoevsky criticism in the West of Bakhtin’s work [4], concluding, ‘From the mid-seventies onward, critical work in English on Dostoevsky became in general far more sophisticated, and part of that welcome development was a new seriousness of engagement with the religious aspect of the fiction.’ [5] This may seem obvious, but it was something I had not really thought about. The necessity of reading Bakhtin in Dostoevsky studies really has generally made critics of the latter far more sophisticated. Even in other areas of literary criticism, I often find those who do not seem to be familiar with Bakhtin or his ideas to be ridiculously naïve or simplistic. I must also give Williams some serious kudos on one other account: according to a certain reference site, citing this Russian article on the book, Williams learned Russian in order to read Dostoevsky.

My only real criticism after a first glance is an unfortunate lacuna in Williams’s bibliography: Joe E. Barnhart, ed., Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005)—seemingly a natural resource for a study of Dostoevsky published by Baylor since it is a collection mostly of papers that were presented at a conference on Dostoevsky held at Baylor in 1999. [6]

I am pleased to note that this book also appears to be the first volume of a promising new series from Baylor under the editorship of Stephen Prickett [7] entitled, ‘The Making of the Christian Imagination’. Williams has penned a tantalising ‘Series Introduction’ included at the beginning of the Dostoevsky book. He concludes:

Because we are in danger of succumbing to a damaging cultural amnesia about what religious commitment looks like in practice, these books seek to show that belief ‘in practice’ is a great deal more than following out abstract imperatives or general commitments. They look at creative minds that have a good claim to represent some of the most decisive and innovative cultural currents of the history of the West (and not only the West), in order to track the ways in which a distinctively Christian imagination makes possible their imaginative achievement. And in doing so, they offer a challenge to what one great thinker called the ‘cultured despisers’ of Christian faith: in dismissing this faith, can an intellectually serious person accept confidently the simultaneous dismissal of the shifts, enlargements, and resources it has afforded the individual and collective imagination? What, finally, would a human world be like if it convinced itself that it had shaken off the legacy of the Christian imagination? The hope of the authors of these volumes is that the answer to that question will be constructively worrying—sufficiently so, perhaps, to make possible a more literary debate about faith and contemporary culture. [8]

Clearly this is an aim very much in keeping with my personal interest in theology and literature. I am very excited about the future volumes in this series!

[1] Ralph C. Wood, ‘Russia’s Gospel Writer Dostoevsky & the Affirmation of Life by Predrag Cicovacki Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction by Rowan Williams’, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, July/August 2009, 22.6.

[2] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1984).

[3] It is largely on the basis of these views (evident here) that I can’t help but think that his upcoming recognition by St Vladimir’s Seminary is ill-advised. It is ironic that he is to speak on the Philokalia, where St Symeon the New Theologian tells us that a priest ‘should be chaste, not only in body but also in soul’ (The Philokalia, Vol. 4, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 62).

To be fair, I was pleased to see Williams’s response (from this source) to some remarks by the heresiarch, John Shelby Spong:

I am genuinely a lot more conservative than he would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don't. I don't know how to persuade him, but I really don't.

So hey, at least he believes in the bodily Resurrection of Christ!

[4] Especially, Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. & trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1994).

[5] Williams, p. 4.

[6] This book includes a paper by Williams’s Touchstone reviewer, Ralph Wood, two by the great Victor Terras of Brown University (whose work I have drawn on here), as well as one poorly written and unwise paper prone to hyperbole by a certain young Orthodox convert who was, strangely, asked to say the blessing at a dinner for the presenters at Baylor.

[7] Pricket was lately Margaret Root Brown Professor for Browning Studies and Victorian Poetry and Director of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor. The Armstrong Browning Library is housed in the most beautiful building on the Baylor campus, and it was here that the Dostoevsky conference dinner was held.

[8] Williams, p. ix.


St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

As you delve in more deeply, let us know what you make of the book - it's on my list, but a bit far down.

And I hadn't realized that this was part of a series being edited by Stephen Prickett. His Words and the Word is a fascinating study of biblical and literary language. For some reason, I thought he'd left Baylor.

In the meantime, I'll have to look into Ralph Wood's review. Thanks for the link!

-Fr Mark

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry, Father! The Ralph Wood link is to his Baylor homepage. The review of Williams does not appear to be available online. Nor do I have a print copy, or else I would have quoted from and referred to it. I'll have to borrow it from someone!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Alas! I have a parishioner who frequently passes his old Touchstones on to me - the pile has grown beyond my ability to keep up with all the articles. I'll have to check to see if he's given me that one.

Baylor has had a number of gifted teachers of literature who are both scholars and Christian gentlemen - Ralph Wood, Stephen Prickett, and David Lyle Jeffrey, to name a few. Most interesting!

The Ochlophobist said...


Another excellent post!

I yesterday ordered on Amazon Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Talent when I read this and saw one used copy for 7 and change whilst all the rest were 30+ bucks.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I'm pleased that you liked it!

I am rather trepidatious about your reading DPT. Terras & Wood (oh, and I almost forgot, McLachlan & Souris!) are very much worthwhile. The Orthodox convert I mentioned makes a poor showing. It is that more than anything else that has prevented my mentioning this book before.

orrologion said...

...one poorly written and unwise paper prone to hyperbole by a certain young Orthodox convert who was, strangely, asked to say the blessing at a dinner for the presenters at Baylor.

Well, there are converts and then there are converts, and we are all our own most critical of critics. I'm sure it's very interesting. I had no idea a certain convert had already been published.

Steve said...

Bringing to mind the distinctive and plaintive voice ringing down the halls of Baylor Student Union: "Have you even read Dostoevsky's Letters??"

orrologion said...

For a preview of Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Talent see:


protov said...

It is a great relief that Dostoevsky is finally perceived as a rationalist and a humorist. This fact was always quite of naturally absorbed in the Romanian translations.

aaronandbrighid said...

Okay guys, just promise me that no attention will be called to this outside of my own enigmatic references and what has already been said in this combox.

Dad> Actually, just to be a bit pedantic, it was the Writer's Diary I accused him of not having read. It was perhaps an unlikely tack to pursue, but his reaction--he was at a loss for words--suggested to me that maybe I'd struck a nerve. Fortunately, McLachlan was there to bail me out.

Protov> I'm not entirely certain what you mean by 'rationalist', though if it is perhaps that he was plagued by the doubts and rationalism of his age, then I certainly agree. Humorist is quite certain, and it is indeed a happy development in the reading of D here in the West.

Anonymous said...

Fr Mark is correct; Dr. Prickett is no longer at Baylor.

aaronandbrighid said...

Anon.> Thank you for confirming this. I have adjusted the statement in the post accordingly. Might I ask: was this a recent development? And what is he doing now? A Google search turns up Baylor and Glasgow (apparently an even older position).

Anonymous said...

I only met him once, several years ago, when I was visiting at Baylor.

Apparently, he left in 2008, and not of his own choosing.


I don't know where he is now.

aaronandbrighid said...

Wow, that's terrible! I can't help but wonder how all of this affects Dr Wood's department, or for that matter the future of this 'Christian Imagination' series. If Prickett is no longer at Baylor, presumably he is also no longer editing a series for their publishing arm. Will someone replace him (and if so, who?), or will the series be scrapped?

I'm going to try to get to the bottom of this!

aaronandbrighid said...

Good news, my friends! I have just heard back from Dr Wood, who informs me that Dr Prickett 'is doing very well at the University of Kent, and the Makers of
the Christian Imagination series is very much alive and well, even if my Chesterton volume [!] is delayed, alas'! He did not mention who is editing it now, but at least it is still proceeding, and with such an exciting upcoming volume to boot!

Gabriel said...


Have you read Neahaus's slapping around of old Rowan?


After reading it, I never had much interest in pursuing the actual book. I'd be interested to read your thoughts.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sorry I never responded to your link here, Gabriel. I suppose I thought I'd come back to it but then forgot. Neuhaus's seemed like a relatively gentle slapping around. Although I might have lost interest had I been given the impression that those two quotes illustrating Williams's 'voice' were exhaustively representative of the book as a whole, I yet hold out hope that there will be more interest in the actual citations of D's novels and of Bakhtin, if nothing else. I shall post more one day, when I've actually been able to read the book!

Anna M Blanch said...

I had the privilege of working with all three (Professor's Wood, Jeffrey and Prickett) at Baylor.

Dr Prickett (also Emeritus Regius Professor of English Literature at Glasgow University) is now based at the University of Kent in Canterbury for those intersted.