Conversations with Dostoevsky

by George Pattison

Imagine that you were sitting up one evening, drinking a glass of whisky, reading Dostoevsky. Perhaps you have been reading A Gentle Spirit and find yourself stunned by the bleak vision of a loveless world with which the story ends. If that is what the world is like, how might anything even remotely resembling Christian faith be possible? But then, out of nowhere, Dostoevsky himself is there. What would you say? And, more importantly, what would he say?

This is the starting-point of my new blog â€˜Conversations with Dostoevsky’ which offers a series of conversations around such topics as faith, the Bible, Christ, Russia, Judaism, God and immortality, with occasional forays into literature and even film. The blog is being produced with the bi-centenary of Dostoevsky’s birth in mind and will run through Spring and Summer 2021. Blogs will be published weekly, though readers may wish to save them up for a fuller monthly read. Although the blog is intended to be accessible to the kind of general reader who has perhaps not read more than one of the main novels or even just seen one of the better film or television adaptations, it will also engage with scholarly literature in a variety of ways.

Critical opinion has gradually become more open to reading Dostoevsky as a religious and even Christian writer, but there remain significant and even heated questions relating to just about every aspect of this. For example, if he was a religious writer, was his religion authentically Orthodox? Was it even Christian? Or was it some kind of post-Christian Neo-Gnosticism? Or were Dostoevsky’s existentialist readers right in seeing him as, after all, a protest atheist, repeatedly giving all his best tunes to the Devil? Saint or sadist? Inevitably, then, the views ascribed to Dostoevsky will sometimes seem controversial—over-interpreting, under-interpreting, or mis-interpreting. At the same time, many elements in the conversations will require further contextualization for the non-specialist reader. Alongside the blog, therefore, I am compiling extensive accompanying notes, indicating the sources of the views ascribed to Dostoevsky and, where relevant, references to secondary literature. However, this is primarily a work of fiction and although it is supported by scholarship and engages questions that are of interest to scholars, it is to be read in the way we might read any work of fiction, where (as Cervantes said) whatever instruction the work may offer is to be accompanied by an element of entertainment. Along the way it will also hopefully encourage those just beginning to read Dostoevsky to explore areas of his writing that may not be visible on a first visit. Ultimately, the intention is to develop a work offering an interpretation of Dostoevsky’s religious thought that is fully defensible with regard to the available sources and, at the same time, relates to what Hegelians might call the need of the present. As such—reader beware!—it is intended to make a constructive contribution to the possibility of a re-imagined Christian faith serving contemporary human beings.

The blog is intended to develop in a dialogical fashion and readers are encouraged to offer any critical comments, whether these relate to style or content. In this way, the blog will, I hope, set in motion a kind of conversation, alongside all the other amazing conversations about Dostoevsky that are happening in reality, in print, and online (not least in this bi-centenary year). This is work in progress and the author hopes not only to entertain and instruct but also, even more importantly, to learn.

A final thought is that although Dostoevsky himself did not write a blog, there is something blog-like in his Diary of a Writer, a self-published opinion piece that ranged freely over the most apparently disparate issues. To those who fear that blogging and other forms of information technology are inherently antagonistic to the values of great literature, it is surely not a medium of which he would have been afraid. Perhaps even one he would have relished.

George Pattison has held academic posts in Cambridge, Aarhus (Denmark), Oxford, and Glasgow universities. He has published extensively in philosophy of religion, with special emphasis on nineteenth and twentieth century existential thought. With Diane O. Thompson he co-edited Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and with Caryl Emerson and Randall Poole has recently co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought (Oxford University Press, 2019).

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