Fyodor Dostoevsky is among the pioneers of modern literature. However, like so many of the pioneers—particularly T.S. Eliot—he is acknowledged with ambivalence and even reluctance. Like The Waste Land, Dostoevsky’s works are prized for their subtle exploration of modern despair and alienation. Like Eliot, Dostoevsky is celebrated as a daring technical innovator and a superb craftsman. But as with Eliot (as well as Yeats, Faulkner, and Claudel), there remains the embarrassing problem of a modern artist whose investigation of the human condition leads him into the realms of the spirit. When most contemporary critics see a religious meaning striding toward them down the dark and narrow corridors of Dostoevsky’s fiction, they frantically look about for escape into some side door opening onto formalism, psychology, or sociology. Some critics solve the dilemma by conceding the label “Christian existentialist” to the Russian master but then quietly employing an exclusively existentialist commentary to leach away the bitter faith.
In George A. Panichas, Dostoevsky has found a critic who accepts him on his own metaphysical terms. Emphasizing Dostoevsky’s religious commitment hardly means discovering a cheerfully pious “message” in his daunting and profoundly disturbing books. As he traces the torturous path through the major novels—Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov—Panichas shows us a writer whose artistic confrontation with modern disintegration and doubt is filled with anguish and perplexity. The creator of the Satanic Nikolay Stavrogin and the skeptical Ivan Karamazov never muffled the frightening “rhythm of breakdown, of disconnection and separation, of cynicism and lostness” in his fiction. Yet the reader who descends with Dostoevsky into hell also ascends with him to ecstatic vision within a “radical view of absolutes” that is “religious but not necessarily orthodox.” From Raskolnikov’s proud broodings in his dingy St. Petersburg apartment to Alyosha’s last “Hurrah!” after Ilusha’s funeral, Dostoevsky guides the reader along a “road to faith . . . filled with treachery.”
A work of “meditative criticism,” The Burden of Vision brings into focus the religious convictions informing Dostoevsky’s art, convictions now generally obscured by critics busy with semiotic analyses and Marxist critique. By insisting upon the fundamentally religious character of the novels, Panichas takes a stand against “the increasing attempts to make Dostoevsky into just another commodity for the consumption of Western readers and more grist for Western critics.” And unlike the dryly Baconian exegeses that fill the professional journals, the deep erudition in these pages is alive with a sympathy and a sensitivity—at times even a passion—that bespeak a real sharing in the author’s prophetic vision. As few works of criticism do, this is a book that deserves its place on the same shelf with the inspired fiction it examines.
[The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art, by George A. Panichas; Chicago: Gateway Editions]