Interpreting Prince Myshkin Through Williams and Bonheoffer

The perennial question of the relationship between Christian theology and culture has one of its magnifying points in the supposed Christ-figures that pepper our popular and not-so-popular cultural artefacts. Debates inevitably emerge regarding the degree to which various products of the imagination, particularly literary characters, do or do not reflect Christ, and whether it is even possible for any product of the imagination to represent Christ.

This last question, however, seems to me to be somewhat misguided. For surely didactic doctrines regarding Christ are just as much products of the imagination such that the question should not be whether “more imaginative” depictions of Christ can be faithful to the person of Jesus, but what it is that literature can contribute to our imaginative engagement with Christ in general.

It is from this perspective that I here want to consider Rowan Williams’ reading of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.  Prince Myshkin is portrayed at the beginning of the novel as a person of simplicity and naivety who nevertheless radiates such goodness that others cannot help but be drawn to him despite his strangeness. Williams argues that Dostoevsky does in fact intend to set up a sort of messianic expectation regarding Myshkin, suggested for example by the association of his appearance with popular Russian depictions of Christ at the time, and more pointedly by Dostoevsky’s own letters at the time of writing The Idiot. However, while some (Dallas Willard is one example who comes to mind) argue that Myshkin is a straightforward representation of Christ, Williams points out that things are more complicated than this.

Williams argues that Dostoevsky frustrates the messianic hopes that we have of Myshkin as we find that rather than bringing peace or redemption, his lack of self-awareness has disastrous consequences both for himself and for those around him. Thus, while Dostoevsky may have set out to create a Christ-figure, he found that he could not or that Christ was better shown by that which is not Christ-like.

This interpretation turns particularly around Williams’ “hard” reading of the exchange of the crosses. In Dostoevsky’s novels, the exchange of crucifixes represents the taking on of the burdens of the other. It is a making one’s self responsible for the other, a Christ-like, self-sacrificial act. Thus, while the exchange of crucifixes between Myshkin and Rogozhin, a dangerous and tormented character, ought to have been the climax of Myshkin’s messianic activity, it in fact becomes a dark parody in which Myshkin has become bound to Rogozhin but unable to save him. The two drag each other down into the abyss. He says “…it is as though he has indeed taken on Rogozhin’s burden, but cannot bear it in a way that changes things or that makes responsibility possible.” (Williams, Dostoevsky,156). For Williams, this is demonstrated particularly by the fact that directly after the exchange of the crosses Myshkin breaks his word and goes to visit Nastasya (which he told Rogozhin he would not do) provoking Rogozhin to an attempted murder.

I had the opportunity to ask Williams about this recently. Because it seems to me that the fact that the exchange of the crucifixes, that the taking on of the burden of the other, does not “work”, does not save anyone, is important. It is not a formula. There are no guarantees. This in itself is a Christological truth – that Christ’s incarnation and the death to which it led were not a magic formula for salvation. Jesus was vulnerable in a real way. The incarnation involved real risk. It could have failed. So Dostoevsky is showing us something about Christ. Williams agreed.

However, I want to push it further: Myshkin, precisely in his failure, here reveals Christ. Certainly, this is not the kind of revelation-of-correspondence in which we enumerate the qualities of Christ and match them to a literary character. Instead, it is a realization about a certain dimension of Christ that happens through an (imagined) event. Gavin Hopps argues that this is precisely how “Christ-figures” are supposed to work, not simply by their correspondence, but through their difference. The image presents Christ and simultaneously recognizes its own inadequacy. So, I think it is possible to read the events after the exchange of the crosses in a different way, a more Bonheoffer-ian sort of way, perhaps. If Myshkin took on responsibility for Rogozhin by exchanging crucifixes with him, then this was an act in which he has taken on Rhogozin’s sin, literally. He becomes culpable for Rogozhin’s sin. The possibility that it is crushing to Myshkin is real. I think that Bonheoffer would say that, while Myshkin is not a Christ-figure, not a messiah, this is nevertheless where Christ happens. If we simply look at the effects of Myshkin’s taking responsibility for Rogozhin and conclude that Christ is not in this event of taking responsibility, we inevitably end up looking for the flaws in Myshkin that lead to this failure. This is a dangerous path because every human taking on of responsibility, every human happening of Christ, will include such flaws. We cannot judge one taking on of responsibility against another by comparing flaws, and we cannot simply judge the happening of Christ by the outcome.

All of this changes the question from whether or not Prince Myshkin is a Christ-figure to how it is that we make sense of Christ happening where taking responsibility for the other doesn’t “work.”

Online Reading Group – Daniel Barber’s Deleuze and the Naming of God

Cross-posted at AUFS

Hello friends!

A very brief history
Since taking a year off school, and not having any classes to attend and no one to hold me accountable to my perpetual reading list, I came to the realization that reading with others is a lot more fun (and productive) than reading on my own. So, I started an online reading group that has met twice (once last summer and once last fall). This is the first time it is being advertised on this blog and I’m hoping it will reach a wider audience this way.

What you need to know
On February 1 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s most recent book Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence will be released on paperback (making it more affordable – thank you EUP!).  The reading group will meet starting the week of the 9th or the 16th (depending on our schedules – that should give everyone enough time to order the book).  Those who are interested in participating can send me a note at mtkampenATgmailDOTcom. I will then send out a doodle with a few potential meeting times and will try to coordinate schedules as best I can (most likely a weekday evening CST).  Then we will read through the book together, meeting once a week on Google hangouts for about an hour to discuss one chapter of the book (so it’s about a 7 week commitment).

What former participants have to say!
“The reading group allowed me to engage a text in an environment that was safe with like minded persons. But also was a relaxed way to step away from my normal school work and enjoy the company of people smarter than me and learn.” - Jonas, Michigan

“The diverse interests of the group members tend to bring out unexpected facets of the material. Also, I’m looking forward to discussing the extent to which Dan’s hair resembles Jim Reid of Jesus and Mary Chain c. 1985.” -Sean, California

When She Reclines Her Head Is Lifted

” I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?” – Fred Moten

If phenomenology is going to be ‘put to use,’ as Sara Ahmed would have us do, how are we to go about understanding the force of suffering? Phenomenology, situated as a post-Kantian enterprise, has wanted in its various guises to return to ‘the things themselves.” In Husserl at least, it has wanted to describe universal aspects of a transcendental consciousness in a scientific and universal matter, or the essences of the structure of consciousness. Here is where I think phenomenology actually offers a way out of essentializing experiences when trying to understand experience, especially of suffering. Continue reading

The Impossible possibility of Belief: Advent and the question of (dis)belief outside the limits of whiteness alone

I believe you when you say that you’ve lost all faith/but you must believe in Something.

In a matter of hours Advent will come to an end and Christmastide will begin. Advent is supposed to be a season of waiting , anticipation and hope. At this point in time , I’m lacking in all three areas; after a year like 2014 I feel as though there is little to hope for and nothing good to anticipate.  Continue reading

Let it Go down : Grand Imaginations and breaking with the present

Oh, we said our dreams will carry us
And if they don’t fly we will run – Santigold

For those of us called to be theologians, sinking deep roots into “the terrain of
spirituality and practice” is indispensable. We do theology because we want to
collaborate fundamentally in bringing about a different kind of world in the here and-
– M.Shawn Copeland

Our thoughts take a particular form in the world , and once they take form , they settle into our lives and become part of our imagination. Some people have thin imaginations and others have thick imaginations. I would like to focus on thick imaginations , or what one could call a grand imagination. The term ‘grand imagination’ is more relevant to theology , especially at this time. So much of what is thrown around in the academy has to do with recovering the grand imagination of the christian tradition , committing oneself to its preservation , translating the works of the great architects of this imagination. After all , theology is the queen of the sciences right?!?! The Queen must sit upon the finest of thrones! Nothing less than the Summa Theologiae can sustain the weight of her gold & silver. She can only be served by the most “serious” of thinkers (preferably men with no desire for other men…and a lack of Melanin would be nice too).

What I am interested in , is how a ‘grand imagination’ might shape our present world and determine our place in it. Or to put things more clearly , how this grand imagination seeks to explain the conditions that made its existence possible. It does this by not naming these conditions. The grand imagination was brought into existence by the transcendent. It has no points of contact in the world. None of the common marks of humanity (race , disability ,gender , class & sexuality) play any role in its existence. The grand imagination is able to admit that there is an order to things that precedes it , and that it has played a role in creating and sustaining the current order and is even capable of admitting that the current order of things is troubling. The solution? More of itself. It has classical texts , art , music , architecture , morality , Goodness , Truth and Beauty to offer us. The present order has got to go! As long as it is making room for the grand imagination to take over. Continue reading