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    Dostoyevsky Stricken

    A God-possessed man reacts to suffering.

    By Malcolm Muggeridge

    November 9, 2021
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    From the foreword to The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works, this week’s free ebook.

    Like so many of my generation, I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, when I was very young. I read it like a thriller, with mounting excitement. Later, when I came to read Dostoyevsky’s other works, especially his great masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, I realized that he was not just a writer with a superlative gift for storytelling, but that he had a special insight into what life is about, into man’s relationship with his Creator, making him a prophetic voice looking into and illumining the future. I came to see that the essential theme of all his writing is good and evil, the two points round which the drama of our mortal existence is enacted.

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky

    Vasily Perov, Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

    Dostoyevsky was a God-possessed man if ever there was one, as is clear in everything he wrote and in every character he created. All his life he was questing for God, and found him only at the end of his days after passing through what he called “the hell-fire of doubt.” Freedom to choose between good and evil he saw as the very essence of earthly existence. “Accept suffering and be redeemed by it” – this was Dostoyevsky’s message to a world hurrying frenziedly in the opposite direction, seeking to abolish suffering and find happiness. Since Dostoyevsky’s time, the world has known much trouble and found little happiness, and so may be the better disposed to heed his words.

    Dostoyevsky, who normally stayed as far away as possible from museums and art galleries, paid a special visit to the Museum of Art in Basel to see a painting, Christ Taken Down from the Cross, by Hans Holbein the Younger. He had heard about this picture, and what he had heard had greatly impressed him. His wife Anna in her diary described Dostoyevsky’s reaction to seeing the original:

    The painting overwhelmed Fyodor Mikhailovich, and he stopped in front of it as if stricken. … On his agitated face was the sort of frightened expression I had often noted during the first moments of an epileptic seizure. I quietly took my husband’s arm, led him to another room and made him sit down on a bench, expecting him to have a seizure any minute. Fortunately, it didn’t come. Little by little Fyodor Mikhailovich calmed down, and when we were leaving he insisted on going to take another look at the painting that had made such an impression on him.

    Anna’s own reaction was one of revulsion. She writes of the painting that, contrary to tradition, Christ is depicted “with an emaciated body, the bones and ribs showing, the hands and feet pierced by wounds, swollen and very blue, as in a corpse that is beginning to rot. The face is agonized, and the eyes are half open, but unseeing and expressionless. The nose, mouth, and chin have turned blue.”

    The reason that Anna was so horrified was that Holbein’s picture shows the body of Christ in a state of decomposition. On the other hand, as far as Dostoyevsky was concerned, the picture’s fascination was precisely that it did show Christ’s body decomposing. If his body was not subject to decay like other bodies, then the sacrifice on the cross was quite meaningless; Christ had to be a man like other men in order to die for men. In other words, at the incarnation, God did truly become a man.

    Dostoyevsky was a truly prophetic figure, plunging down frenziedly into his kingdom of hell on earth and arriving at Golgotha.

    Dostoyevsky was a truly prophetic figure, plunging down frenziedly into his kingdom of hell on earth and arriving at Golgotha. He had a tremendous insight into the future and foresaw the world we have today. He also proclaimed the coming of a universal brotherhood brought about, not by socialism and revolution, but by the full and perfect realization of Christian enlightenment.

    In the serener circumstances of his last years, Dostoyevsky’s essential love of life and joy in all God’s creation found a surer expression than ever before. “Beauty,” he makes Dmitri Karamazov say, “is not only a terrible thing, it is also a mysterious thing. There God and the devil strive for mastery, and the battleground is the heart of men.”

    I continue to marvel at the chance – if chance it was – whereby the works of one of the greatest Christian writers of modern times should have continued to circulate in the world’s first avowedly atheistic state – Dostoyevsky’s devastatingly penetrating exposition of sin and suffering and redemption. Supposing one were asked to name a book calculated to give an unbeliever today a clear notion of what Christianity is about, could one hope to do much better than The Brothers Karamazov?

    Contributed By Malcolm Muggeridge Malcolm Muggeridge

    Malcolm Muggeridge was a prominent English journalist and author of his times.

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