Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Dosteyevsky's Demons

I was inspired by A N Wilson’s critique[1] a few weeks ago of the new translation of Dostoyevsky’s book ‘The Demons’, published by Penguin, and I have bought a copy.

I had read the book in an earlier translation when was entitled ‘The Devils’ and was struck by its relevance to our times.

Dostoyevsky tells the story of how people with ‘advanced liberal views’ in an unnamed town in Russia are enchanted by a group of nihilists, and pander to them. In the end the nihilists embark on an orgy of mayhem including murder.

A. N. Wilson gives the synopsis much better than I can, but what struck me in my first reading (and other readings from Dosteyevsky and other authors) was how Russian society at that time was not as repressive as has since been painted by the communists in justification for their revolution of 1917.

Yes, the serfs had only just been freed; yes, parliamentary democracy was not yet in place; yes there were the secret police. But things were moving. By the early 1900s there was a parliament, the Duma, and after the humiliation of the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, the Tsar had to defer to it more and more. The First World War was the watershed, but even then, the Germans had to transport Lenin from his exile in Switzerland in a sealed carriage (in Winston Churchill’s words – like a plague bacillus) to Russia before it was possible for the Bolsheviks to take over.

I have only just started to read the new translation and it gives an opportunity to revisit some of the points I had missed first time round.

For example in chapter 1, we are introduced to Ivan Pavlovich Shatov, the son of a serf. He is described as sullen but intelligent, outwardly coarse, but inside very sensitive.

In this introductory chapter Stepan Verkhovensky, a pseudo intellectual, who is sustained by Varvara Stavrogin the local baroness as a sort of pet, Stepan extols the great thinkers of the time ‘who knew how to love their people, they also knew how to suffer for them and at the same time they knew how, when necessary to maintain a distance from them, knew how to avoid pandering to them when it came to certain ideas. Belinsky (one of his heroes) after all could not possibly have sought salvation in Lenten oil or in radishes with peas.’

Shatov says:

‘These men of yours never did love the people, didn’t suffer for them, and sacrificed nothing for them, no matter how they themselves might have imagined they did to make themselves feel good’

‘Are you saying that they did not love the people’ Stepan begins to shriek, ‘Oh, how they loved Russia?’

‘Neither Russia nor the people’ Shatov shrieks. ‘It is impossible to love what you don’t know, and they had no understanding of the Russian people! All of them including you have turned a blind eye to the Russian people… It’s not enough that you overlooked the people; you treated them with sickening contempt. All those who cease to understand their own people and lose their ties with them, immediately and to the same extent lose the faith of their fathers and become either atheists or indifferent…. And that’s why all of you and all of us now are either vile atheists or indifferent rubbish and nothing more’.

This passage strikes a chord. I recall reading an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I admired for his novel ‘The roads to Freedom’. But in the interview, I was irritated by his constant reference to ‘the masses’. Even then I wondered what he knew about the masses. It seemed that he suffered from a certain intellectual arrogance. Had he ever been one of the ‘masses’? Never! He falls neatly into the bucket that Shatov has created for the likes of him.

Even today, Dosteyevsky’s novel is a salutary parable for our times. Nihilists seem to be always with us. There is always a cadre who wish to destroy everything, to create a new Eden because they can’t live in present times. And those who don’t conform to the new Eden, well then they can be liquidated, in the most painless way possible, by guillotine or by bullet in the back of the neck.

The only regret that I have in reading Dostoyevsky’s novel is that I did not read it 40 years ago.

‘Demons’ should be required reading for schoolchildren. It would also make an excellent drama for BBC television.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/08/18/do1805.xml

Monday, 28 January 2008


The first thing to explain is what is all this ultramontanity? Ultramontane is 'beyond the (alpine) mountains' and describes someone whose stance is favourable to the authority of the Pope in matters of faith and discipline.

It is based on respect for tradition and is more than an emotional attachment. As an example, we have all seen how this government (I can't award it a capital letter) is in the process of traducing all the traditions of this country (the United Kingdom) and we all see how society is reaping the whirlwind. Tradition demands that changes are carried out gradually - evolution not revolution. There is a so called law of unexpected consequences which comes into play when zestful and trendy decisions are made, for the applause of some pressure group, to receive the transient accolades of the BBC (you see that my slip is already beginning to show!), or the bien pensants in Hampstead or Islington.

The deleterious effects may not be felt for some time down the line, when the perpetrators have been promoted to the Lords, have become elder statesmen, so called 'National Treasures' . And it's left to society to pick up the pieces.

One particular change which I to my shame cheered on when it was happening in the 1960's was Vatican II. When John XXIII died, we were relieved when Montini became Pope and as Paul VI vowed to continue V2. I distinctly remember reading with shock horror about a certain Cardinal Guiseppe Siri (the bogeyman of the right) who had (apparently) said that it would take 100 years to heal the wounds to the church made by John. Cardinal Siri was a strong candidate in the conclave of 1963, and again in the two conclaves of 1978.

We thought it was a very good idea to have the Mass in the local languages, yet the first time I attended the new Mass, I remember coming out of Church wondering what had we done. It all sounded so banal. And this was before the more radical changes had taken place.

I lapsed in the 70's and 80's came back in the late 80's early 90's, lapsed again and returned again, this time for good I trust about 3 years ago.

The Church I have come back to is so much depleted from the one I left. In the sixties, on Ascension Day and other Holy Days of Obligation, so many Catholics attended Mass, that it was usually mentioned at 6 o'clock as a BBC news item. But no chance today.

Was there a cause and effect? Did the falling away of attendances at Mass, have anything to do with V2 or would it have happened anyway? It is hard to say. We note that other Christian churches have had falling attendances with the prevalence of secularism. As a scientist, it would be interesting to view the yearly statistics of Church attendance for the various denominations in England since WW2. I would look for changes in the slope of the curve after Vatican 2, or the pill controversy, or the scandal of paedophile priests. We could compare the graph with similar statistics from other Churches who have not had the same traumas.

I believe that post V2, Roman Catholic services became too trendy. There is no rigour, no sense of the Eternal. Cardinal Arinze, was told by a Moslem friend that if he believed that God himself came down on the Altar in the form of the Bread and Wine, he would be approaching the Altar in fear and on his knees'. Quite so. There used to be pin-drop silence during the canon of the Mass. But not today.

The pre-Vatican 2 liturgy was like a Swiss watch, beautifully balanced, fulfilling all its functions completely satisfactorily, the culmination of centuries of watch making. The liturgists thought that they should simplify this Swiss watch, taking it apart so that the faithful can relate more to the process. Unfortunately, once they took the watch apart they found it didn't work so well. But instead of putting it back together, (which could be done) they try to put it back in a different way, and cobble on extra parts. The kindest thing that can be said is that the new liturgy is still work in progress and will be so for a few more centuries. Perhaps Cardinal Siri was right.

And what did they do with Gregorian chant? They threw that away too. Sure it's still around in Monasteries and a few other places, but rarely is it heard on yer local Sunday mass. If you want to hear Gregorian chant go to Classic FM or Radio 3. Just as the Church ditched this pearl of great price, the secular world found it and cherishes it.

Also, to all intents and purposes the Church ditched Latin in services (OK Pope Benedict quite rightly says Latin Masses were never abolished but the Bishops went enthusiastically into the full monty of the trendy mass in English in this country, and similarly around the world. So at the stroke the Church has lost its universality of worship. Now we have Poles working in this country (and very welcome they are too). But they have to have their own Polish mass. In London, its a veritable tower of babel.

But there people in the Church who regret the changes and pray and work for a renaissance. We all welcomed the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI and we pray that God preserves him long enough to turn around the barque of Peter before she is driven onto the rocks.

So Viva Benedict XVI. Ad multos annos, Sancte Papa!