The National Catholic Review

In the last three years or so, Rowan Williams has not only continued to lead the worldwide Anglican Communion through challenging times, but has published seven books, including two substantial contributions to the field of religion and literature. The first, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (2005) illuminates the work of three Catholic writers—Jacques Maritain, David Jones and Flannery O’Connor. With Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Williams has written one of the very best studies of the greatest Christian novelist. In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, A. N. Wilson called it the “best book of 2008.”

Summoning a wide-ranging understanding of theology, especially of the Orthodox tradition, Williams clarifies what I call Dostoevsky’s “incarnational realism.” Human persons are dependent upon the sheer “givenness” of a physical, temporal reality imbued by divine presence. Thus, Dostoevsky “is repeatedly directing us toward a pattern of divine action that is outside our heads or hearts.” This pattern is “most decisively expressed in the complete indwelling of God in human flesh in the person of Christ.” Dostoevsky’s realism stands opposed to voluntarism, which claims that arbitrary assertions of the human will construct the source of all values.

This is hardly to say that Dostoevsky’s realism ignores the gift and burden of free choice. His narratives present characters that pass through the human, risk-laden realities of flesh, finitude and relation—the very realities Christ embraced in his incarnation—and are called to make choices and to be lovingly attentive to others, within that reality. Thus, the ordinary, the prosaic—not the dramatic or dreamy—proves the graced locus of the Christian life. To skirt or reject willfully this reality is to tear the imago Dei each of us bears; in the worst cases, it is to court the demonic.

Williams’s analysis of the demonic in Dostoevsky—especially in The Devils—illuminates the murky motivations of his characters. The diabolic “seeks to end history and speech.” Pyotor Verkhovensky, for example, the leader of the revolutionary cell, offers nothing to the others who look to him because his “stream of empty words that seek nothing except power.” Stavrogin, his mirror-image, “cease[s] to choose” and thus becomes “the ideal vehicle for the campaign against self-aware freedom” and an emblem of self-enclosed annihilation. Williams’s discussion of The Idiot will unsettle yet edify any reader who may see Prince Myshkin as a Christ-figure. In fact, Myshkin’s own inability to make concrete choices, or to recognize the responsibility of others in making their own, aligns him with the destructive and demonic.

Dostoevsky knew the terrain of evil but struggled with the novelist’s perennial challenge: How do you make goodness interesting? Through a decades-long process of trial and error, he succeeded most capaciously in The Brothers Karamazov, his “mature essay in imaging the holy” (and the novel from which at least one contemporary saint, Dorothy Day, drew so much of her inspiration, especially in Father Zosima’s words about active love being “a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams”). Central to Dostoevsky’s conception of goodness is the acceptance of our creaturely responsibility for one another, within the limited contours of time, space and our particular gifts. Father Zosima, Alyosha, Mitya and Grushenka emerge as iconic—but as narrative icons, imaged over time, through all the temporal indeterminacies and disruptions that narrative represents.

In their best moments with each other, such characters reflect the narrative practice of their author. In a pattern analogous to Christ’s kenosis, as described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:5-11), Dostoevsky does not loom above his characters like a puppet master. The author empties himself of any controlling omniscience, descends, and stands, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s word—“alongside” his creations. He respects their freedom and gives them the open, indeterminate “space” to exercise that freedom over time. The author’s kenotic position in relation to others is reflected in Dostoevsky’s most saintly characters; their lives present a “structure of moral life authoritatively shaped by the central icon that is the narrative and presence of Christ.” (Williams’s recurring insistence that goodness and holiness entail “an immersion in the matter and interrelation that is the finite world” recalls the remarkable Christ and Apollo by William F. Lynch, S.J., recently returned to print and ripe for rediscovery.)

Williams is an attentive and responsible scholar. He considers almost all of the major Dostoevsky criticism (although I wish he had considered just a few more, especially Robert Jackson and Robin Miller), and deftly weaves his research into clear and cogent prose. The ordinary reader of Dostoevsky—and there are many (if only Oprah Winfrey would grant her imprimatur to The Brothers as she did to Anna Karenina!)—will find Williams’s book to be deeply thoughtful, subtle yet accessible, and quite relevant to contemporary debates on the viability of faith (especially in the prophetic tones of his conclusion). The book is well edited—although, in a rare lapse, Caryl Emerson’s eloquent reflections on “the assumption of plenitude” are misattributed to Gary Saul Morrison. Of course (invoking Bakhtin once more), all of our words rely upon the presence and help of others. Readers of America will be pleased to know that during this book’s writing, such help, in the form of hospitality, was extended to Archbishop Williams by the Georgetown Jesuit Community, to whom he has dedicated his splendid work.

Paul Contino is Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif.