A Chat with Paul J. Contino about Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism

Brian Armstrong sits down with Paul J. Contino to talk about his new book, Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs, published this summer.

BA: Let’s start with the obvious question: what is ‘incarnational realism’? You’ve presented on this before, which is I how I know the term, and it’s a striking formulation, as, to a modern ear, it sounds oxymoronic. However, I can now see that this is likely by design, as modern notions of the real are defined in such a way that the phenomena involved in the incarnational aspects of existence are defined out of existence. What, then, does a realism informed by these phenomena look like?

PJC: Incarnational realism is a theologically-informed way of life in which a person apprehends reality in the light of Christ’s incarnation, and freely acts upon that apprehension. In my reading of Dostoevsky’s final novel – a polyphonic “hosanna” that passed through his purgatorial crucible of doubt – its hero, Alyosha Fyodorovich Karamazov, exemplifies incarnational realism. He shows it in his loving attentiveness to the real persons with whom he is in relation: his elder, his father, his brothers and their lovers, and the young people he befriends and mentors. Incarnational realism also embraces a variety of other concepts, which I develop in the first part of my book: in particular, there’s an analogical imagination at work in the novel, a capacious both/and approach that, for example, recognizes both the open and closed dimensions of human experience.  

You’re right, Brian: It may sound strange, even oxymoronic to a modern ear, but I would say that the emphasis of incarnational realism is more ontological than epistemological; it’s receptively open to “the givenness of things” (Marilynne Robinson) and resists the inevitable yet never determinative subjective projections we impose upon the real. In the book, I acknowledge that I write from a Catholic perspective, but I accentuate the etymological meaning of katholikos: “through the whole.” The vision of incarnational realism resists totalizing; it’s attentive to the partial and particular; it resists any reified either/or response to reality; it attends to both/and complexities and ironies. Incarnational realism is hospitable to believers, unbelievers, skeptics, seekers – to all the readers that Dostoevsky hoped to reach in his final, capacious novel. The novel’s thematic refrain, “for all,” is vital. On the very first page,  Dostoevsky observes that “everyone is trying to put the particulars together and to find some sort of common meaning in the general confusion.” His hero, Alyosha may be “eccentric,” but he “carries within himself the very heart of the whole” (7).  And people respond to Alyosha with love.  Of course, incarnational realism also describes Dostoevsky’s narrative aesthetic: it’s found in the author’s willingness to descend among his characters and, as Bakhtin emphasized, to respect their real, embodied, varied voices. I’ve been using the phrase in my work since at least 2006, and it’s certainly akin to the “Christian realism” emphasized by Russian critics such as Vladimir N. Zhakharov and Vladimir Kantor and others. And I’m grateful to you, Brian, for alerting me to Travis Ables’s 2014 study of trinitarian theology, focused on Augustine and Barth, titled Incarnational Realism. Reading it, I note affinities between our uses of this phrase, and especially appreciate Ables’s emphasis upon the role of the Holy Spirit or pneumatology. If my book emphasizes the Christological dimension of Dostoevsky’s work, I’ve now been thinking more about the pneumatological. For example, when Zosima counsels Madame Khokhlakova that the “harsh and dreadful” work of active love is only possible through “the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you,” he seems to be pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit.

BA: To continue this pneumatological thread, let’s turn to the image of birds in the novel. You offer Zosima’s imperative “Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven” as an epigraph and then, in context, early in the monograph (13). This imperative is intensively allusive, as it refers to Markel’s experience of birds, but it also resonates with Jesus’s statement on living without worry (Matt. 6.25-33 and Luke 12.22-32, both of which follow an account of the perils of material treasure), the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13.31-32 and Luke 13.18-19), and the Baptism of Christ (recorded in all four Gospels, in which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove). One might take the birds in these passages as metaphorical. However, Augustine notes (with respect to the preaching on living without worry) that this is not parable: rather, these are actual birds – the birds around us here on earth. It’s a very grounded image, in that it’s grounded in the earth, from which the trees come and on which the earth lives. This seems highly relevant to the pneumatology and kenoticism that are central to your reading. For instance, you describe kenoticism as a kind of descent, and the context is incarnational: it’s “an incarnational descent into finitude” that God, in the person of Jesus, makes when He becomes human. You also note that there is a humility here as He draws near to the humus, the earth or soil. And this humble going down in order to be near is “analogous to the kenosis or self-emptying of Christ” (24). This has implications for our understanding of both the divine and the narrator: both could relate to others from ‘on high,’ but instead they choose to occupy a “an open position beside” the other person. I have lots of questions here. It is, of course, one of the most exciting aspects of your approach. But I wonder: if those birds of heaven are actual birds, is there a danger in using the language of ascent and descent? For instance, there’s Ferapont’s birds? What of them?

PJC: I’m glad you’ve brought up the birds. Honestly, I added the Zosima epigraph at the very end, once I knew I’d be using Yaroshenko’s “Life is Everywhere” (1888) for the cover of my book (below).

Yaroshenko, Nikolai. Всюду жизнь (Life is Everywhere). Третьяковская галерея (Tretyakov Gallery), Moscow, oil on canvas, 1888.

I first saw this painting in December 2018 at the Vatican, of all places. In a  remarkable exhibition, the Tretyakov Gallery curators juxtaposed modern paintings like this to medieval icons, with the effect of highlighting surprising analogies. The painting radiates Zosima’s spirit, don’t you think?

The poor people are in a prison railcar, but the little one reaches her hand out the window, feeding the descending birds with joy, and the others participate. She is held by her mother, whose veiled, sorrowful face recalls the Theotokos of Tikhvin (below).

Theotokos of Tikhvin

I’ve always imagined that this is the icon to which little Alyosha’s mother holds him in that frenzied memory from his childhood. But Yaroshenko’s tiny child could also be little Mitya, for whom later, Dr. Herzenstube’s gift of nuts opens up the mystery of the Trinity.  Yes, these are indeed real birds. I agree with the sermon of Augustine that you reference, and will add another patristic voice: Tertullian defended the reality of Christ’s flesh against the Docetists, and insisted that a real dove was present at the baptism of Jesus “Though he was spirit he was no less truly dove than spirit […]” (see here). You’re quite right to emphasize the earthiness of these birds, which also recalls that most earthy of Western saints, Francis of Assisi: as the late Robert Bird puts it in his beautiful study of Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky’s vision of the St. Francis-like Zosima” has Zosima “chatting with the birds and other small creatures, patiently accepting all manner of humiliation” (181) — including, of course, that of Ferapont.

Yes, Ferapont has his birds too, but his discourse on the “Holispirit” (P/V 169) contorts both Christology and pneumatology, much as his own asceticism – which may have been spiritually motivated in his earlier monastic life — becomes de-formed by resentment and theatrical outburst. To briefly return to Yaroshenko’s painting: I wonder if Dostoevsky may have inspired its title? The other day I was re-reading Robert Bird’s book, and he quotes an 1849 letter of Dostoevsky written to his brother Mikhail as he set off for prison: “Brother! I have not been grieving and I have not lost spirit. Life everywhere is life […]” (47).

BA: Birds also play a key role in Markel’s conversion. You allude to this in a footnote to Chapter 7 (nt 338 at pg 284). And this leads to my next question about birds: if Markel has an authentic conversion – if the Spirit is made real in his person – then would we expect to find a descent here? I think that the answer is no, but I worry that I’ve misunderstood, in part because of the dangers of the katabastic imagery.

PJC: Yes, Markel does “descend”: he had stood above others, asserting his autonomy (like Ivan), but by descending into moral illness, he is reminded of his dependent reality. I love the way Zosima remembers the embodied, liturgical details of Markel’s conversion: Markel goes to church during Holy Week – the week that liturgically descends into Christ’s passion, death, and descent into hell – and he does so just to please his mother. He shows up, goes through the motions, and, in his way, freely cooperates with grace, that which is given and ever-available. Something happens: on Easter, all see a “wonderful transformation” (Norton, 249). Markel descends and ascends. 

Of course the birds return in another scene of premature death: when the boys return from the funeral liturgy in tears, Smurov hurls a piece of red brick at the sparrows who are flying by, perhaps to visit Ilyusha’s new grave. Smurov’s gesture, born of that lacerating grief – which Zosima has affirmed as fully human, fully necessary – resists any too-sentimental reading of the birds. Smurov’s gesture reprises Ivan’s (and Zosima’s) protests against the suffering of innocents.

BA: You speak of freedom cooperating with grace: I want to quote two passages from your book, which, on the surface, don’t seem to entirely fit together. My question then is, can you explain how they fit?

”Dostoevsky’s conception of faith cannot be reduced to an act of emotional will, a voluntaristic “leap.” Voluntarism exalts the human will, and in Dostoevsky’s world the unfettered, irrational will leads to demonic violence and un-freedom.  (18)

“Perhaps [the Grand Inquisitor] seeks to flee the agony of his own freedom and find solace in the authority of Christ—even if that “solace” be more monomaniacal rebellion against whatever Christ’s “bitter and terrible” word may be. / Christ offers love and respect for freedom, the very gifts the Inquisitor has furiously rejected. Christ’s “severe mercy” cuts him like a sword. Christ relinquishes any power to impose his will, including the power of speech […].” (99)

I suspect that the tension I experience here centers on the word “respect.” What is it to respect a person, and to respect them as free? In particular, if to “exalt the human will” is bad, insofar as it leads to demonic violence and un-freedom … well, isn’t that what Ivan’s Christ allows, as the Grand Inquisitor will, most likely, go forward with his demonic violence and restriction of freedom? Granted, this is Ivan’s picture of Christ, but everyone seems to accept it. I think Ivan finds such an acceptance to be perverse: to ‘respect freedom’ just is to ‘exalt the human will,’ and so such respect, valued theoretically, leads us to implicitly condone demonic violence in practice.

PJC: Respect for the freedom of the other person is vital to Dostoevsky’s vision – but such respect can never condone demonic violence. Willful coercion – such as that imposed by the totalitarian Inquisitor – is anathema to Dostoevsky. So too is nadryv, the perverse assertion of will that leads to unfreedom.  In Dostoevsky, true freedom comprises a willing receptivity to reality and to others. Yes, Ivan’s Christ respects even the perverse freedom of the Inquisitor. One might ask, as you do: why not stop him? We look back at the blood lands of the last hundred years and ask “where was God?”  Theodicy might say: “God allows such evil, but never wills it.” But those who suffer from the perverse violence of others can naturally feel abandoned.  And Alyosha does, at times.  Seeing the de-formations of his family, he asks Lise: “Does the Spirit of God move above that force?” The question is perennial: where do we find God in the midst of horrific suffering? In large part, in this novel, God’s presence is incarnated in personal acts of active love, which themselves participate in God’s love. Christ’s kiss exemplifies such love, and Alyosha imitates it. Both Inquisitor and Ivan are changed by the kiss. But a silent kiss is not always the prudent response – in the deeper sense in which I discuss prudence or phronesis in the novel.  You put it very well, Brian: “If one cannot properly see, then one cannot properly act.” In fact, Alyosha often apprehends that the situation calls for him to speak and act emphatically: see, for example, his words to Ivan (549), but also to Mitya (103), his father (122), Kolya (472), and Katya (634). But in each example, he continues to respect the other’s personhood and freedom.

BA: That leads directly to my next question on theodicy. And here the conflicts between theology and pastoral care come into sharper focus. As you note:

Terrence Tilley has argued that “engaging in the discourse practice of theodicy creates evils, not the least of which is the radical disjunction of ‘academic’ philosophical theology from ‘pastoral’ counsel” (Theodicy 3). Throughout the novel, Zosima and Alyosha offer such counsel and care. Ivan never does.

Part of me wonders this: “Isn’t Ivan’s writing a form of possible counsel and care?” Ivan is, after all, closer to Dostoevsky, who is like Plato to Socrates. One might object and say that Socrates was real, whereas Dostoevsky makes up his Zosima, but we know that Plato’s Socrates was increasingly a fictional creation, and we know that Zosima is grounded in Dostoevsky’s encounters with actual people. I thus worry that there’s a problematic ‘either/or’ here in the framing of Ivan’s theorizing with Alyosha’s caring – one that goes against the general aim of incarnational realism (as it tries to reconcile theoretical reasoning with practical reasoning). And counsel and care can often, in spite of good intentions, cause problems (think of the gold mines).

PJC: I read Ivan’s theorizing – especially in “Rebellion” – as motivated less by a benevolent Socratic impulse as by a malevolent desire to twist the knife – both in himself and his little brother. Alyosha responds with the image of Christ: “the Being [who] can forgive everything, all and for all” (213). As I develop in my book, Alyosha’s grace-dispensing “for all” here unites with Zosima’s dictum that we are responsible “for all.” The synthesis suggests the way in which such a call to care for suffering others becomes possible. Alyosha’s kiss, in imitation of Ivan’s Christ, is an embodied (and good-humored!) form of care for his suffering older brother. But in its comical self-absorption, Madame Khokhlakova’s counsel to Mitya represents a travesty of pastoral care.

BA: Let’s end by looking back at the origin and exigence of your monograph: your own experience, which you describe in your Preface – your first baffled encounter with the novel at age nineteen and your deepening understanding of it over the course of many conversations. On the basis of the experience, what would you say to a young reader to whom you hand the novel for the first time – and do you feel a moment of kenosis as you do so?

PJC: Yes, as I mention in the Preface, I first read the novel when I was nineteen, but it’s only been through many re-readings since then, and, vitally, conversations about the novel (like this one!) that have deepened my understanding. After thirty years of teaching the novel, I’m still discovering new things. Dialogue is vital: both within the novel and about the novel.  If my book gets more people to read The Brothers Karamazov, it will have done its job.

If readers have excellent questions like yours, I welcome their getting in touch via email: Paul.Contino@pepperdine.edu  Thanks so much, Brian. And thanks to all who have conversed with me about The Brothers Karamazov over the years.

Giotto, “Il Battesimo di Cristo” (“The Baptism of Christ”). Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua, fresco, c. 1305.

Dostoevsky’s Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs was published in summer 2020 by Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint. The book features an Afterword by Caryl Emerson.


Paul J. Contino is Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University where he and his wife Maire Mullins have co-edited the journal Christianity and Literature. He co-edited and introduced the book Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith (Northwestern UP, 2001) and has published essays on classic authors such as Zhuangzi, Dante Alighieri, and Jane Austen, and on contemporary writers such as Tobias Wolff, Andre Dubus, Alice McDermott, and Geoffrey Hill. He admits that it is very hard for him to resist citing The Brothers Karamazov in almost any conversation.

Brian Armstrong is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augusta University. He works on the intersection of philosophy and literature, and his current project focuses on the philosophical implications of Dostoevsky’s fiction. He is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board.

All of the images that appear in this post are in the public domain. The header image is: Nesterov, Mikhail. Святая Русь (Holy Rus). Русский музей (The Russian Museum), St. Petersburg, oil on canvas, 1905.

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