Book Notes: On Russian Literature, and Western Minds

Editor’s NoteSometimes Brendan and I randomly get interesting ideas when writing a good book. These observations will now be published in the category of Book Notes. Let me know what you think about this!

Russian Literature is both fascinating and daunting to the Western reader. Even Westerners who read and enjoy Russian literature tend to find themselves somewhat confounded by its contents. The whole of a Russian novels feels like a mystical experience, and often leaves reviewers rambling and raving about it in much the same way that the characters in Russian novels rant about their life experiences.

To explain why, one must first explain something about Russian characters that makes them qualitatively different from Western ones; especially what makes Russian heroes different from Western heroes. If one thinks of a Western Hero like Batman, the Doctor or King Arthur, almost all of them are fettered by some deep code that drives all of their actions. Even allegedly chaotic Western heroes, such as Iron Man, Robin Hood, or Brer Fox are always driven by some deep internal set of laws that they will never violate.

Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call, everybody lives.

Riversong, on the Doctor

Moral complexity in Western characters is almost always driven by conflicts in their ethical code. Legal thinking is a deep part of the Western Mind, with lengthy, tangled roots in the Roman legal system. But that’s a subject for another time.

On the other hand: heroes in Russian literature are almost entirely lead by emotion. Think Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Chichikov in Dead Souls, and Anna Karenina in the book of the same name. All are deeply flawed characters who follow their heart throughout chaotic circumstances, for better or for worse.

The most jarring idea in Russian literature is that the conflict between heart and head is rarely given any attention. Almost all Russian characters struggle between giving into one emotion or another. Raskolnikov is divided between the raw desire for power and love for his family.

Anna Karenina is divided between her erotic passion for a handsome officer and her respect for her husband. The bustling number of side characters almost always have their own set of passions. In Crime and Punishment for instance, Lebayastikov’s erstwhile desire for a socialist utopia; in Anna Karenina, Levin’s desire for a simple life. Characters with a Western-style legal mind are fairly rare, and never treated sympathetically.

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Alyosha Karamazov

Ivan in Brother’s Karamazov is a slamming indictment of the Western mind. It is treated as a morbid, death-obsessed madness that occasionally infects the souls of well-meaning people. Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Western Nation State, Western Lawyers, Atheism, and Communism are treated as manifestations of a power hungry disease of the mind rather than ideals to be followed.

By contrast, the real struggle for Russian heroes often has to do with two conflicting desires. One is usually a higher desire – the desire for God, love of family, love of the Russian Church, joy in a simple life. The alternative is almost always nihilism, emptiness, intellectual morbidity, power, or hedonism.

Either way, both good and evil are treated as obsessions. What divides the heroes from the villains is not whether or not one is obsessed but what one is obsessed about. The heroes are obsessed with the good things in life, and the villains are obsessed with insanity. By contrast, in Western literature, obsession is almost always a strictly negative trait.