Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book 11 of 2016: "Underground Man" by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a chilling portrait of cowardice.

When I first believed in Christianity, I was in the Army in Germany in the 70s.  The only Church was the Army Chapel system.  So I read widely and listened to sermons to figure out what exactly being a Christian meant.  Among the many cassettes I listened to were sermons by southern revival preachers.  After hearing dozens of these sermons I began sense the rhythms and themes that these stirring speeches shared. 

The best sermons began in sin, descended almost to Hell, then rose up on the wings of God’s Grace.  After a while, it became clear that, although every preacher was a terrible sinner, they only committed sins that a conservative southern audience considered manly.  All were fornicators, but they were fornicators with lovely, willing women.  Many told stories of drug use, but more told stories of being drug dealers.  If they drank, they could hold their liquor.  If they fought, they won or were beaten to the point of death by several attackers.  If they stole, they robbed banks and stores and drug dealers.  In other words, they sinned boldly, bravely and in ways that their audiences could admire.  They could repent proudly after a sin well done.

But all real thieves begin their crime careers by stealing from their mother or their sisters and brothers.  Many boys dream of having a half-dozen beautiful devoted lovers, but their reality is looking at lewd pictures in their bed or the bathroom.  None of these confessions included rape, gay sex, theft from loved ones, drunkenly wetting the bed, or getting bitch slapped by a bully. 

In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis says “Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—
·      horrible to anticipate,
·      horrible to feel,
·      horrible to remember.” 
Lewis said we can be made to feel proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. 

So the Texas preachers avoided any whiff of cowardice in their confessions.  But in the book Notes from Underground  by Fyodor Dostoevsky the main character is in a downward spiral of cowardice that ends with him tormenting a prostitute he has just had sex with. 

Unlike the Revival Preachers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, shows his readers sin in the full flower of corruption.  The Underground Man boils with rage, but shrinks back from direct confrontation.  He imagines slights where there are none, and simmers with resentment.  He betrays every kindness and finally locks himself in a basement, unable to work or talk to anyone except himself. 

The Underground Man is shabby and filthy, yet vain about his appearance.  He thinks endlessly about how to repay perceived slights, and cannot respond to any kindness except with spite and rejection. 

In every coward who is bullied there is a bully inside him ready to turn mercilessly against someone weaker than himself.  The Underground Man bullies the prostitute because he can.   

My first Russian Literature professor said “Tolstoy shows us God the Father; Dostoevsky shows us Christ loving the least of us.”  The Underground man is weak, a coward and a wretched bully: an actual picture of sin, not the shiny, glossy ready-for-Prime-Time picture of sin I was hearing from the preachers. 

For sin as it really is, Underground Man is painfully good as are Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and all of the wrenching stories and novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky.


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