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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Where Christ is concerned. I’m with the “heretic” Dostoevsky – a thought for Easter

Dostoevsky (Nov. 1821 – Feb. 1881) - man cannot live by reason alone

The great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that if it were proven beyond doubt that Jesus of Nazareth had simply been an ordinary mortal, he would still opt for Christ and his message of love, humility and forgiveness. His message that not even the most base and foul human being is beyond redemption. That only love and faith in humanity and not rational argument can drive out our demons.

Likewise, I have no idea whether the miraculous resurrection of Christ’s dead body, which Christians celebrate at this time of year, actually took place. My upbringing and faith tells me it did and my human powers of reason tell me that this is simply impossible. But I’m still with Dostoevsky where Christ is concerned. More than anything, the reason why I find such resonance in Dostoevsky’s fierce commitment to Jesus’s life and legacy is because of three novels written by him – Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and Demons.

Demons - political conspiracy as an end in itself

Demons in particular (also called The Possessed or The Devils in previous translations*) is a devastating exploration of human power relations and the corruption of the soul. The Turkish writer Orphan Pamuk has called Demons “the greatest political novel of all time”. I would agree, but go further and say that it is one of the greatest philosophical and spiritual novels ever written.

In Demons, the heroes appear at the end of the book - the wise, generous and poverty stricken Muzhiks or Russian peasants for whom empathy is a natural disposition devoid of any sense of a payment being expected in return. Whilst Dostoevsky doesn’t romanticise the peasantry (they too are capable of deception and deceit and with more excuse), overall, the big idea of each individual’s human dignity and spiritual Grace informs their whole outlook on life because they know that our survival is impossible without it. It also makes you feel good - irrationally more human. This is a very strong current in Irish culture as well – “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” – we are all in each others shadow, meaning that we all depend on each other. Nobody is perfect and we cannot be right all of the time, so help me when you can. In pure animal terms, this makes no sense at all. It is the opposite of dog eat dog.

Just like Jesus of Nazareth, Dostoevsky’s message was that it was not the poor and destitute that would destroy humanity and corrupt the soul, but the political, religious and upper classes with their lack of Grace, their cruel cynicism and naked ambition and so it has proved.


What makes this searing exploration of the human soul so terrifying is that it also lays bare the apparent need of many people to be manipulated and controlled by an oligarchy that has opted for evil and revels in this choice. The very opposite of independent thinking and human liberation. This maelstrom of unbelief in human empathy is gathered together in the dark figure of "Stavrogin" who as a literary and philosophical invention easily surpasses the deranged figure of "Kurtz" in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and eerily prefigures the rise of Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, General Franco and Pol Pot.

Stavrogin is anything but deranged. He consciously uses his charisma to exploit the faux liberality and dithering incertitude of the middle classes and deliberately uses his power in the cause of evil. For all that, Dostoevsky is saying that we all have a Stavrogin within us and that this has to be recognised for the demon that it is rather than encouraged and exalted.

Demons tells the story of a secret revolutionary sect which, amongst many other things, carries out the gruesome pursuit and assassination of a man who no longer wishes to be part of Stavrogin’s twisted conspiracy and personality cult and is therefore declared an informer; then there is the horrific pre-arranged and manipulated suicide of a group member to satisfy the wider goals of the sect; and finally in a section that was once banned and still sickens and shocks, we learn of Stavrogin’s admission of child rape and other dissolute acts.

Aside from the personality cult around the by turns demure then dazzling then ultimately profane and degenerate Stavrogin, the thing that binds these alleged freedom fighters is there lust for power at any price. The end justifies the means and the end goal is their own personal glorification, even if this means the mass subjugation of others – necessary of course because the God fearing masses are “inferior” to them. In my view, there is no greater and more harrowing portrayal in all literature of demonic political depravity and subterfuge with the dark joys of conspiracy as an end in itself being its macabre raison d'être.

I read Demons for a third time in the 1990s whilst working for the BBC in Belfast during a grim period when people were feared to leave their homes at night. In fact, they did not even feel safe in those homes. A period that carries resonances today. In the 1990s, we had splinter Irish republican groups becoming entangled with drug gangs and the British intelligence services as they launched feud after feud at each other and periodically “cleansed” their ranks of alleged spies so that they could declare that they were once more pure of constitution and intent. Then, of course, the whole sordid murderous cycle would begin again.

It was as if, with Demons, Dostoevsky had presaged the very DNA of groups like the IPLO and the clearly heavily state infiltrated dissident republican groups of today.

Any Dostoevsky book requires a reading commitment that makes a Roddy Doyle or Anne Enright book seem like Mills and Boon fluff by comparison. But Cic Saor readers should not take from all the above that Demons is without humour or entertainment. Dostoevsky paints brilliant portraits of types from all social classes, with their foibles, weaknesses and hidden strengths. But the political and philosophical trajectory of Demons is unmistakeable. It is a warning to all of us about the dangers of putting arrogance before humility, of a failure to examine one’s own faults, a failure to imagine beyond the bounds of human reason.

Russian prisoners in Siberia

Dostoevsky himself had been a member of a revolutionary group and in 1849 was almost executed for his activities, right to the point of being lined up (in his underclothes in the middle of a Russian winter) in front of the firing squad before a pardon from the Tsar arrived – even as it was, he was exiled to Siberia for four years, with another four years of enforced conscription. Dostoevsky served time in prison camps that were a byword for privation and harsh, not to say disgusting, conditions. Whilst in prison, Dostoevsky changed his mind about secret revolutionary sects but cruel incarceration did not diminish his commitment to the poor and the wretched of the earth. In fact, as is made clear in his jail diary, The House of the Dead, prison made this commitment stronger and it is here where the Christ narrative comes in.

Part of the scandal of Christ was that in a pre feudal, slave and servant based society like ancient Palestine, this wandering teacher fraternised with the lowest strata of life and asserted their value and divine dignity. It is perhaps difficult for us now to grasp the shock factor in the notion that rough fishermen or prostitutes could be receptacles of the Holy Spirit. In a similar way, Dostoevsky discovered whilst in prison that he preferred the poor, destitute and gangs of sinners to the wheedling and conniving culture that was to be found in so called respectable and rational society.

The Inquisition - medieval thought police

So why do I describe Dostoevsky as a “heretic”? The answer is that I believe Dostoevsky not only correctly foreshadowed the rise of ruthless and sadistic political sects but also prophesied with uncanny precision that the Catholic Church (in particular the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy) would turn its back on the “irrational” and dangerous Jesus of Nazareth with his elevation of the poor and individual free will. To my mind, this is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the figure of “The Grand Inquisitor" in The Brothers Karamazov.

See here -

There is not space here to investigate the parable of "The Grand Inquisitor", but in essence Dostoevsky accuses the Church of accepting Satan’s argument of humankind’s immutable sinfulness so that, for the greater good, it could bring all humans together under the influence and protection of the hierarchy.

Christ reappears on earth in the Spanish city of Seville and begins performing miracles but the Inquisition, in the guise of the “Grand Inquisitor” tells him that his presence is interfering with the Church’s “mission”. Isn’t that exactly what we have witnessed throughout the 20th Century and the beginnings of the new millennium? In both secular and “religious" guises: a process of dehumanisation, a dumbing down of the human spirit? Or to put this in purely political terms - the survival of the revolutionary party or church becomes more important than the ideals and integrity of the revolution for which that party or church is supposed to exist.

Honouring the 1916 Easter Proclamation

Like thousands of Irish people (possibly hundreds of thousands worldwide) I attended one of the Easter ceremonies to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising. Here, once again, the Proclamation issued by Padraig Pearse and signed by the other leaders was read out to the assembled crowd on a bitterly cold day. What struck me about this proclamation is its simplicity and purity of spirit. It speaks of justice, equality and an end to governance by undemocratic powers. But, just as importantly, it calls on Irish people to avoid acts of cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine and stresses the idea of a “common good”. It is because of these very principles that Dostoevsky said that he would follow Christ regardless of any arguments about the veracity or otherwise of the life led by Jesus of Nazareth. Simplicity and Grace are Dostoevsky’s bottom lines. In his works he examined the very dregs of humanity and showed in the most graphic ways imaginable how they were weighed down by poverty, degradation and falsehoods to a point where a whole city, a whole country, could be stricken with what he called “civic grief”.

I wrestle everyday with the question of the Resurrection, but it struck me listening to the words of the Proclamation on Sunday that I also wrestle with the impossible miracle, in which I must believe, called the Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of Man. It is impossible but at the same time is almost a tangible reality for me. How can that be?

At the very end of Demons, a dying and previously pampered Stepan Trofimovich (a bourgeois dilettante who effectively encouraged the secret sect) finds comfort amongst the Muzhiks and realises that faith and charity are the basis of everything. On his death bed, he shows no fear and shortly before his spirit passes on says this:

“The immeasurable and infinite are just as necessary to man as is this small planet on which he lives.”

My own terror is of a world devoid of that higher vision where a self chosen and self perpetuating (and therefore anti democratic) sect of “rational” experts dominate our culture. They can tell us nothing about the most important things in life, like love, grace or empathy. They know the cost of everything down to the tiniest computation but know nothing about the price of our souls. Give me therefore the "mistaken", the merciful, the irrational passion of Jesus and the conviction that it is warm human love that binds us and not cold reason.

@Paul Larkin
Carrick, Gaoth Dobhair
An Cháisc/Easter 2013

*The quote from, and references to, Demons come from - (Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (2008-03-27). Demons (Penguin Classics) (p. 734). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition), which I find is the best translation, though I do not have Russian, so I am not offering my opinion as a professional translator.
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Title: Where Christ is concerned. I’m with the “heretic” Dostoevsky – a thought for Easter
Date posted: 04 Apr '13 - 14:31
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