Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rozanov, Dostoevsky and the matter of belief

V.V. Rozanov was a somewhat unusual writer and philosopher from Russia at the turn of the last century (1856-1919). Well known, particularly later in life for his peculiar, aphoristic and multi-voiced writing style and tendency to take contradictory stances, sometimes simultaneously, his legacy has probably been damaged by the more extreme views he professed on nationalism and anti-semitism, and his ideas on ‘God-in-sex’ and ancient Egyptian-inspired notions on spirituality and sexuality. Mikhailovsky, for example dubbed his work ‘philosophical pornography’ and his Uedinennoe (translated into English as Solitaria) was eventually banned because of its perceived pornographic content.

It would be wrong to dismiss him, however, because he was a fascinating, if deeply complex man. He was inconsistent, to say the least, and seemed unable to prevent himself from establishing the counter argument to any argument he himself made, or to decide which was superior. He seemed to enjoy the complexity of the argument, but not the finality of a conclusion. As Stammler notes, ‘His thought moved in antitheses, but one feels that he was not very interested in the sublation of thesis and antithesis in the final synthesis.’ Thus, trying to establish his stance can be a frustrating experience.

It is Rozanov’s views on morality that are most interesting. They are, of course, confusing, seemingly contradictory. He was an immoralist who rejected Kantian or Tolstoyian moralising, but was equally scathing, for example, of Nietzsche’s brand of immoralism. As Dimitry Khanin notes, ‘While acknowledging that he himself, regrettably, does not have a deeply entrenched moral instinct, Rozanov expresses admiration for those people who do.’ Khanin ultimately describes him as amoral, rather than immoral. This delineation allows for the contradictions in Rozanov’s thought. It also, perhaps, explains why he was more interested in the personal, the concrete, than the abstract. As Stammler explains:

Rozanov was never interested in mankind but exclusively in man as an individual with his own peculiar fate and destiny, his own peculiar problems and tribulations, with his own death and his desperate hope for a life beyond the grave.

This, in turn, also begins to explain the apparent contradictions in his thinking on religion. Rozanov was a deeply religious individual who detested Christianity. Again, his thinking is not at the abstract level, but rooted in the experience of the individual. Stammler quotes from his Izbrannoe (Selected Works) to reveal his advocacy of the individual over the collective:

"People, would you like me to tell you a stupendous truth which not a single one of the prophets told you?"
"What! What!"
"It is that private life is above everything."
"Ha-ha-ha! He-he-he! Ha-ha-ha ... !"

"I swear to you: this is more universal than even religion.... All religions will pass, but this will remain: Simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance."

Thus, his views on Christianity are complex. He said of himself, "Even though I am a piglet, God still loves me.” Behind this contradictory statement, according to Lev Shestov, is the hidden truth that Rozanov himself loved God’. And yet, he saw Christianity as ‘the enemy’. It was Christianity, Rozanov felt, that had killed God, and yet God’s love remained, and his love for God remained. Through this antithetical set of beliefs, Rozanov came to the conclusion that ‘to be a Christian means to renounce God.’ Like Kierkegaard, then, he recognised that the institutions of established religion were alien to the transcendence of the religious experience. But, unlike Nietzsche, he did not see this as evidence of the death of God. Nor did he, like Dostoevsky try to reconcile the transcendent and the human institutionalising of religion: he accepted this was impossible. Dostoevsky remained convinced that Russian Orthodoxy could best represent the universal spirit. Rozanov knew enough to realise this was not only impossible, but contradictory. Thus, the contradictory man rises above this particular contradiction. Nonetheless, as Banerjee notes:

In spite of his many attacks on Christianity and even on Christ himself (whose coming, he asserted, had made the world taste bitter), he also confessed that he needed religion and Russian Orthodoxy in particular above knowledge and above literature.

Berdiaev explains the apparent contradiction best:

Essentially, he has always loved an Orthodoxy without Christ and has always remained faithful to such a pagan Orthodoxy, which indeed is much dearer and closer, than the austhere [sic] and tragic spirit of Christ.

One can admire such dedicated freethinking. One can appreciate the consideration that has gone into the development of his stance. And yet there remains something highly dangerous about someone who is at once able to perceive the impossibility of a God and unable to accept the logical consequence of that position. It is as the na├»ve but decent man who gives alms to a beggar ‘because no-one else would’ without appreciating the self-fulfilling contradiction that obtains in his actions. For my part, the one thing more dangerous than a religious fundamentalist is the person who does not believe in God but simultaneously refuses to deny him. This is how we enter the charnel fields of a blood meridian, this is how we lose the humanity of humanity.

This pertains also to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was a considerable, perhaps malign influence on Rozanov. Indeed, Maxim Gorky wrote to Rozanov, suggesting: ‘At times it seems to me that you were sired by a perverted and malicious man, Fedor Dostoevsky, and that you are fighting your own Daddy within yourself." One of Rozanov’s best known works is his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor (1891), in which he draws on the famous Christ-and-the-Inquisition interlude in The Brothers Karamazov and also on Notes from Underground, which Rozanov considered to be a key work in understanding Dostoevsky’s philisophical outlook. Rozanov’s analysis of this work suggested that its themes included a refutation of the notion that reason alone can create a natural society and thereby abolish suffering; and that suffering, rather, derives from the flaws in irrational humanity which mean we may perform, seemingly inexplicably, good or evil acts.

I would not at all argue with the irrationality of man. Human history clearly presents evidence of our good and bad deeds. It is hard, too, to deny the truth of the first point, but it is the degree to which Dostoevsky attacks these themes that it troubling. As Chamberlin pointed out, ‘Dostoevsky derived a philosophy of apocalyptic God-seeking, of impatience with lukewarmness either in good or in evil, of mystical exaltation of the Russian spirit.’ In the Underground Man he creates an essentially ridiculous character, an impossible caricature, and uses this to promulgate a message that is relentlessly negative. There is an anti-humanity to Dostoevsky, particularly in this work, that is unpleasant. It is hard to escape the idea that, in his heart, he felt contempt for mankind. This, it seems to me, is borne of his inability to renounce God. Given the choice between Hegelian reason – the ‘impossibility of a stone wall’ – and refusing to resign to natural law becauses the ideas ‘disgusts’ him, he chooses the latter. This is the way of blind faith. Absurdity. Rozanov tried to escape from such supernaturalism, but in the end his mysticism overpowered him and, although he recognised the impossibility of organised religion, he could not, quite, renounce it.

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