Wednesday 3 October 2012

Dostoevsky’s Prophetic Voice

By Artur Suski, S.J. 


At one point in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin declares in a heated discussion: "Beauty will save the world!" Judging from Dostoevsky’s own personal letters and other writings, it is no secret that Prince Myshkin represents all the qualities Dostoevsky deemed the best aspects of a human being. Therefore, one may safely assume that this short yet powerful statement in The Idiot is truly of Dostoevsky himself. After all, as one reads his writings, one is able to appreciate the beauty with which he wrote. Nevertheless, this statement is somewhat ambiguous and unclear. What does Dostoevsky really mean by this? The Russian author Vladimir Soloviev states that Dostoevsky understood beauty to be inseparable from the other two transcendentals of goodness and truth. In fact, Soloviev says it so well that I dare not paraphrase it:

“In his [Dostoevsky’s] convictions he never separated truth from goodness and beauty; in his artistic creativity he never placed beauty apart from the good and the true. And he was right, because these three live only in their unity. The good, taken separately from truth and beauty, is only an indistinct feeling, a powerless upwelling; truth taken abstractly is an empty word; and beauty without truth and the good is an idol. For Dostoevsky, these were three inseparable forms of one absolute Idea. The infinity of the human soul – having been revealed in Christ and capable of fitting into itself all the boundlessness of divinity – is at one and the same time both the greatest good, the highest truth, and the most perfect beauty. Truth is good, perceived by the human mind; beauty is the same good and the same truth, corporeally embodied in solid living form. And its full embodiment – the end, the goal, and the perfection – already exists in everything, and this is why Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world.” (Vladimir Soloviev, The Heart of Reality)

I shall leave you with a true story that puts flesh to Dostoevsky’s words, with the usage of a pseudonym:

Nadia’s parents grew up in a post-Revolution Soviet Union; they were brought up in an atheistic and totalitarian society. Neither did their parents pass their faith onto them, nor did they learn it in school. Nadia’s parents therefore did the same with Nadia. What else did they know but an atheistic upbringing? Hence Nadia was brought up with no sense of God, of her culture’s rich cultural and religious traditions.

When she was seventeen years old around 1975, she went with her school to the museum in Moscow one day. That day would change her life forever. She was strolling through the world’s masterpieces when she came face-to-face with a sacred icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. What was it in this encounter that grabbed a hold of her? What was it in the icon that pierced the innermost part of her soul, which in turn moved her to tears?

She did not understand what was happening to her. She had a vague idea of who Jesus and Mary were; they were just characters in a fable. Nevertheless, by coming face-to-face with an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, she was brought far beyond the icon itself to some mysterious reality that was yet unbeknownst to her. She would later recall that the beauty of the icon captured her like no other work of art.  

That initial movement of being captured by the beauty of the icon led her even deeper into the truth of the icon: how the Virgin tenderly caresses the Child; how the Virgin’s eyes weep for her and for the fallen humanity. This fateful encounter inspired her to seek out the truth about Jesus, and the rest is history. Today Nadia is a devout Christian and an accomplished iconographer, as someone who "writes" icons. This is to give witness to Dostoevsky's words, that beauty will save the world.

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