Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1989

December 1989

Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev

By Frederick C. Copleston

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 445

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

The best thing about the publication of a paperback edi­tion of Fr. Copleston’s Philoso­phy in Russia is that more people may discover Vladimir Solovyev, the subject of a chapter in the book, and, according to Copleston, “Rus­sia’s greatest religious philoso­pher.” Solovyev was a friend of Dostoevsky; he could have stepped from the pages of one of Dostoevsky’s novels. An­guished truth-seeker, mystic sage, flirter with the gnostic quest for esoteric secrets of the cosmos, prophet of social jus­tice, Solovyev would have provided an apt model for any number of Dostoevsky’s characters. A passionate lover of Mother Russia, he at one time envisioned his homeland as a theocratic polity that would lead the nations to the true Christ. Russia must exemplify Christian charity, he believed, and toward that end, he urged Tsar Alexander III to pardon the assassins of the Tsar’s father.

Throughout his life Solo­vyev labored for the reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, though he believed their mystic oneness had never been broken. To heal the breach, he urged the tsar to journey to Rome and embrace the pope. He toyed with conversion to Rome, but died in the Orthodox communion he loved so irrevocably. His writings sparked a revival of “religious metaphysics” in Russia after his death in 1900. Sadly, that revival never reached fruition; Russia embraced a new faith. Solovyev was a strange figure, but in that very strangeness he embodied a powerful witness for the Faith.

What Is to Be Done?

By Niko­lai Chernyshevsky

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 449

Price: $12.95

Review Author:

Russian writers of the 19th century produced a number of books that rank with the most distinguished creations of modern literature. What Is to Be Done? is not one of those works, and Chernyshevsky is small potatoes in comparison with Gogol, Turgenev, Dosto­evsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. As art, What Is to Be Done? is a mess. Though not excessively long by Russian standards, its abundance of arid and dreary passages makes it seem twice the length of War and Peace. As Leszek Kolakowski snaps in his Main Currents of Marxism: “It is a work of small literary value, didactic, boring, and pe­dantic….” Even Cherny­shevsky’s narrator is forced to admit: “What uninteresting people!”

Yet it is arguable that What Is to Be Done? was the most influential novel published under the Old Regime of the tsars. Michael Katz and Wil­liam Wagner (the translator and annotator, respectively, of this first full and adequate English rendering of the novebpcall it “the most subversive and revolutionary work of nineteenth-century Russian literature.” In a passage quoted by Katz and Wagner in their perceptive and informative In­troduction, Joseph Frank, the definitive biographer of Dos­toevsky, claims that “no work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history.” Lenin put it succinctly: “He [Chernyshev­sky] plowed me up more profoundly than anyone else.”

Chernyshevsky champion­ed the radicals of the 1860s in their war against the estab­lished order. His novel is a stew of ideas and ideologies that nourished the revolution­ary firebrands of the era: feminism, sexual liberation, utilitarianism, positivism, phil­osophical materialism, scientific rationalism, co-operative social­ism. Over it all hovers the Utopian vision of a “radiant and beautiful” future of free­dom, equality, and material abundance. Kirsanov, one of Chernyshevsky’s “New Men,” exclaims: “The Golden Age will dawn….”

But the seed of a less glorious future is buried within the book. Amidst the paeans, to the bliss and brotherhood that lie ahead, one finds Rakhmetov, the quintessential New Man, rebuking a comrade in chilling words: “What do fifty people matter? You could have harmed the cause of all mankind and betrayed the idea of progress! That, Vera Pavlovna, in ecclesiastical lan­guage is called a sin against the Holy Spirit.” That — not its radicalism or materialism — is the crucial (and murderous) flaw of the program adumbrat­ed by Chernyshevsky in his famous novel.

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination

By Robert Coles

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Pages: 212

Price: $18.95

Review Author:

The education industry has accomplished the seeming­ly impossible: it has degraded the study of literature into an arid and bootless exercise. A disgruntled English major confided his frustration and disappointment to Robert Coles: “But I never liked the way the professors used the books — zeroing in on the ‘text,’ raking and raking, sift­ing and sifting it through nar­rower and narrower filters. I’m not against learning about symbols and images and met­aphors, but there was some­thing missing….” Something? Yes, life. Coles urges the teacher of literature “to engage a student’s growing intelli­gence and any number of tempestuous emotions with the line of a story in such a way that the reader’s imagination gets absorbed into the novel­ist’s.” Coles is one of those rare professors who appre­hends something often ignored in the academy: the study of literature is not about symbol-mongering, metaphor-scroung­ing, or the concoction of outré theories — it is about life.

Coles’s belief that literature can be used to aid stu­dents in shaping their “moral conduct” harbors its own potential dangers. It can de­generate into a philistine utili­tarianism in which art becomes the handmaid of moral exhor­tation or the servant of the merely practical. Coles avoids this enfeebling concept of liter­ature. “The whole point of stories is not ‘solutions’ or ‘resolutions,'” he asserts, “but a broadening and even height­ening of our struggles — with protagonists and antagonists introduced, with new sources of concern or apprehension or hope, as one’s mental life ac­commodates itself to a series of arrivals: guests who have a way of staying, but not necessarily staying put.”

The poetry-writing doctor William Carlos Williams once told a young Robert Coles that “we all carry [stories] with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” As both physician and teacher of literature, Coles has followed Williams’s advice ever since.

Liberalism Ancient and Modern

By Leo Strauss

Publisher: Cornell University Press

Pages: 276

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

The controversy provoked by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind occasioned many dark mutterings (and a few frantic shrieks) about the perniciousness of something called “Straussianism.” Most people who tuned into the rumpus over Bloom’s book must have been puzzled by the term. Was it some new disease, a recently discovered syndrome that caused those infected to exhibit outlandish behavior? What a letdown to learn that it referred to nothing more exotic than the teach­ings propagated by disciples of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, a refugee from Nazi Germany who found asylum in the United States, where he lived and taught (mostly at the University of Chicago) until his death in 1973.

For those confused by talk about “Straussianism,” the best solution is to read Strauss himself, a task rendered easier by the reprinting of Liberalism Ancient and Modern, a collection of essays published first in 1968, and perhaps the best introduction to Strauss’s writ­ings. The volume evidences two qualities of Strauss’s fertile mind: his ability to sweep his vision across the full vista of Western civilization, a talent displayed in two essays on liberal education; and second, his enthusiasm for painstaking explication of a text, a trait demonstrated in his analyses of Plato’s Minos, Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, and Maimonides’s The Guide of the Per­plexed.

All the essays — no matter how abstruse the sub­ject — reveal Strauss’s lucid prose and his knack for turning a phrase, neither of which generally characterizes the writings of political phi­losophers. One example suf­fices: “It is as absurd,” he muses in “What Is Liberal Education?,” “to expect mem­bers of philosophy depart­ments to be philosophers as it is to expect members of art departments to be artists.”

Religion and Politics

By Fred E. Baumann and Kenneth M. Jensen

Publisher: University Press of Virginia

Pages: 114

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

Despite an unimaginative title, this is an engaging collec­tion of essays by Fr. Robert F. Drinan, Ernest L. Fortin, and others. The most fetching one is by Cornell University’s Werner J. Dannhauser, if only because it raises a rarely discussed issue, the affinity of political conservatives for reli­gion, and does so in a self-scrutinizing way (Dannhauser is a card-carrying conservative of the Straussian schoob~

Dannhauser tells us that the mockers of conservatism “have a good point when they define a conservative as one who is against anything being done for the first time.” The trouble, moreover, is that “it is much easier to tell what is old than what is good.” It is also vastly easier to tell what is old than what is true.

Dannhauser scolds his fel­low conservatives for not ade­quately distinguishing between religion’s utility in maintaining social order and religion’s truth. He notes that the Founding Fathers, so revered by conservatives, were chil­dren of the Enlightenment who were more interested in religion’s social usefulness than its veracity. He finds the same flaw in Tocqueville, one of the patron saints of our neoconservatives. Nor is Dannhauser impressed with our recent religious revivals, which he finds “quite shallow.” In America today, he says, “unbelief sets the tone.” These are surely uncomfortable words for today’s pious celebrators of America the Beauti­ful.

With annoyance, Dann­hauser, a religious Jew, states that “too many conservatives whose own belief is weak or nonexistent, who admit pri­vately that religion is ‘for the troops,’ continue to try to teach catechism to those troops….” To his fellow conservatives he says, “We must eschew the tendency to pay mere lip service to reli­gion; we must…grapple with its truth.” Amen.

Curiously, Dannhauser notes that religion is no longer the monopoly of the Right. Religion now flowers on the political Left, and so, if only for practical reasons, the Right can ill afford to continue patronizing believers.

But, although Dannhauser doesn’t say it, he would no doubt agree that the religious Left also needs to be much more attentive to its own inclinations to value religion’s utility (for social change) over its truth. As Dannhauser says, “the city of man can never equal the city of God.”

Stigmata: An Investigation into the Mysterious Appearance of Christ's Wounds in Hundreds of People from Medieval Italy to Modern America

By Ian Wilson

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 164

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

For Catholics who depend upon such phenomena as stig­mata to vindicate the claims of Christianity, Ian Wilson’s book is an ambiguous blessing. The good news is that he confirms the authenticity of the sponta­neously bleeding wounds. His analysis of stigmatics, from St. Francis to so recent a figure as the Anglican Englishwoman, Jane Hunt, absolves all but a tiny handful of trickery or duplicity. The bad news is that Wilson concludes that “a change in form can be willed upon the flesh by something beyond the normal conscious­ness of the stigmatic, without there being any justification for regarding that something as divine.” Wilson argues that stigmaticism involves an ex­treme example of the power of mind over body, in this in­stance, taking the form of self-hypnosis and post-hypnotic suggestion.

Does this discredit or weaken the Christian religion? Some might see this as Wil­son’s purpose — another scoffing unbeliever determined to expose superstition and mock credulity. Nothing could be further from the author’s mind. Far from attacking the Catholic Church, he praises it for evincing a healthy skep­ticism over the centuries to­ward the claims of stigmatics. In this, the Church has acted wisely, generally neither con­demning nor approving the stigmatics’ evidence of divine intervention. The Church has canonized some stigmatics — one thinks of St. Francis and the two Catherines, of Siena and Genoa — but it has done so because these people bodied forth the holiness God adjures us to practice, not because they bore (for whatever rea­son) physical wounds akin to those inflicted upon Christ.

The Book of Masks

By Hwang Sun-won

Publisher: Readers International

Pages: 175

Price: $9.95

Review Author:

The opening piece — the spare, elliptical “Masks” — establishes the tone of irony, understatement, and poignancy that prevails throughout this volume of stories by one of South Korea’s most illustri­ous writers. “His blood soaked into the earth and became earth. The dead soldier had been a farmer and for him soil was life itself.” War and social turmoil — the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the student protests that helped topple Syngman Rhee’s government in 1960 — form the backdrop to many of these stories. In “Conversation in June About Mothers,” a woman drowns her wailing infant to save the lives of a group of refugees fleeing from North Kore an soldiers. A prostitute aids a wounded student demonstrator in “For Dear Life,” and anoth­er story features an old man dubbed “Uncle Medal” because of his penchant for recounting tales of his dead son’s war exploits.

Yet Hwang Sun-won is no social realist or composer of journalism in the guise of fic­tion. Mostly his stories capture small moments in seemingly insignificant lives. But as the author reveals repeatedly — with Song’il, the crippled bell-ringer in “Shadows of a Sound,” with the child in “Blood,” and with the devoted nurse in “Winter Forsythias” — no life is insignificant. Hwang Sun-won reminds one too of the universality of lone­liness, heartache, compassion, and pity, and of the terrible briefness of joy.

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