Thursday, 17 July 2008

Russian Etymology.

Market day.

An Eastern European street scene.

Russian Wanderings.

The best books are all about words. No, don't switch off yet, they are. The action is incidental and in my opinion, what separates a rollocking good yarn like Arnold Bennetts 'Riceyman Steps' or 'The Grand Babylon Hotel' or Chesterton's 'The Man Who Was Thursday' from 'King Lear' or 'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is the movement of the action to the relation of words to each other, the sinology or, more broadly, etymology of the book. This style of writing reaches it's apotheosis (I love the visual apotheosis in the Banqueting House of King James and it's proximity to Villiers Street, that back alley off the Strand, which makes History with a capital H of fallen humanity) in the great work by Elias Canetti called 'Auto Da Fe'. Auto Da Fe grabs the Anglican Wanderings book of the year prize every time I am in charge of the giving of the gongs, wonderfully based on the juxtaposition of words in the head of a sinologist called Peter who is incapable of dealing with women, children, hunchbacks, tapsters or, indeed, any of the vast number of grotesques he encounters when his life is turned upside down by marriage.

Crime and Punishment is another such novel and everyone who reads it finds the story to be slightly different depending on which characters you sympathise with. For me, the action centres around Rodion Rashkolnikov, the student in St Petersburg who, short of money, pawns an item with a deliberately hideous pawnbroker, who is characterised as a grasping old woman in a flat, brutally dealing with her clients and her maid while sitting, dragon like, on the box of treasure she is holding. He kills her, of course, and the reader is left unsure as to whether to award him a medal or hound him to prison.

Raskolnikov becomes paranoid, believing that everyone is aware of his crime. He starts hallucinating and family and friends come and comfort him, in that uniquely Russian way, of becoming more and more hysterical and acting for all the world as though they are in a Russian tragedy. Which, of course, they are. This is irrelevant for us. What is relevant is that Raskol(nikov) , in Russian, means 'schismatic' or 'dissentor' and indeed even in his fevered moments, if Raskolnikov had not been a schismatic, breaking away from the society he was in to become a student, then breaking from his student society to pawn and then and then breaking from his protecting friends to confess, he would have, at all three moments, been all right. Or would he?

The most interesting character in the book is Porfiry Petrovich, the Detective assigned to the murder case. He meets Raskolnikov by chance at a party and becomes immediately sure of his guilt, even though there is no way of connecting the two. He allows Raskolnikov time to confess, over many, many meetings, both socially and apparantly by chance and of course, in the end he does. Porfiry (and for a time, Porfirical became common parlance for a kind, redemptive justice) acts as salvation broker and way of redemption for the schismatic Raskolnikov, for he would never have been truly 'all right' at any of his three chances, for he needed to be purged not of guilt alone, but of his nature towards his fellow people. Porfiry brokers that for him, guiding him into the way of peace, which he finds at the end of a long stretch of hard labour in the Gorbals, much like King Lear, his salvation comes through suffering and his redemption through a change in his nature.

So, once again, why am I telling you all this? John 10:10 may give a hint.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

And what a vast life it is! With so many different ways of living and so many different choices to choose from and so many choices already hard wired into one's body. This is how, I think, the Christian Faith has lasted from a few men being called by Christ to follow him for two thousand years into the largest organisation on earth. Even if it were not true, even if we were all deluded, it offers the best way of life for any human being as of course it would, as we are created by the same being who revealed himself in the Christ, who sets us free.

For Christ came that we may learn to have life and to choose life. That we may follow his way of life and become like Him and, ultimately, like the men by the lakeside, like the women at the tomb, see Him face to face. We see Christ though, in Porfiry. He who was sure of one man's guilt but left him to redeem himself by being true to himself, finally, by embracing his own nature and purifying himself in the labour camp before being redeemed and seeing things as they truly are. The labour camp is optional, of course (!), but the process of redemption and salvation is all around us, in our world. Do we choose life in Christ or do we walk by the wounded woman or the starving man? Do we live up to being given the chance to have life in it's fullness or do we stay stealing, killing and destroying as Raskolnikov could have done? Having life to the full does not mean throwing Bacardi Breezers down us as fast as we can because we might die tomorrow, or racking up debt for the same reason, but truly living in God. Maybe we all need a Porfiry to let us do that, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Christ, by his teachings, asks that we be made anew, that we purify ourselves in His Church, of which there are many examples and in his love. It may reveal our inner nature, it may loose us friends, it may gain us enemies, it may mean overturning a few tables and kissing a few lepers, but in the end, we will have nothing to be afraid of, not even death. Rashkolnikov dies, like King Lear, after seeing his salvation and overcoming those parts of his previous nature which were sinful and murderous, to be redeemed.

This is not to say that we have to fight against our nature, of course not, we are made in God's image and beloved of Him. What it does mean is that we sometimes have to change the way we see the world and what we see as important to have this life and live it to the full. Don't be afraid of change!