Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Would Dostoevsky Need to Cuss?

2 Timothy 2:15-16 (King James Version)

15 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
16But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.”

Yesterday morning I read a short post from Eric Rodgers at Boar’s Head Tavern. A friend of his is writing a series of books with Christian themes. Based on what I read in the post I’m assuming that the characters developed in the works are full, real, and believable. Eric described the series this way:

“It is somewhat “other-worldly” and mystical and that could be a problem with some of the fringe Fundamentalist groups out there. But the real problem is in the fact that these books show Christians living in a real world. Many of the characters are tarnished and speak with offensive language and even speak derisively about matters of faith. To most fundys out there, this is the devil incarnate. Many conservatives will consider it to be an unnecessary use of vulgarity to no end. To me, it is the reality of living in this world.”

He then followed up with a series of questions that got my attention:

“My question is this: Where do you think there would be a market for it? Who would read it, and who would publish it? Would it have to be largely underground, or would there be a niche for it? Would any of you read it?”

I think I understand his concerns and questions. Good literature should present humanity as it really is. Christians, of all people, should understand this. There is much in this world that is profane, and it needs to be exposed to the light if we are to bring redemptive purpose to bear in our world.

Great literature has always done that. I trust that’s what Eric’s friend has in mind, and I wish him success in his endeavor

As I thought of Eric’s questions, though, another came to mind for me. Would Dostoevsky, if he were living today, need to cuss to get his point across?

In his great masterpiece “Crime and Punishment” the great author explored great themes. One of the centerpiece characters, Raskolnikov, is a nihilist, or so he believes himself to be. He doesn’t seem to have any conscience; he doesn’t seem to have a soul. Early on in the story he commits a heinous crime, a brutal murder. The evil deed seems in keeping with such a vile man. But Dostoevsky sees something few of us see in such a person. He sees in the aftermath of the evil deed the faint glimmer of a conscience. Read the following description and you will see, quietly yet vividly, the portrait of a tortured man with a troubled soul emerging:

“The truth was that he had not counted on there being any things of that kind, he had only thought of money, and therefore had not prepared any place to hide things in. ‘But now, why on earth am I so pleased now?’ he thought. ‘Is that the way to hide anything? I really must be losing my reason.’ He sat down exhausted on the sofa, and at once an unbearably violent shivering shook him again. Mechanically he took up from where it lay on the chair beside him the old winter overcoat he had worn as a student, which was warm even if ragged, covered himself with it and surrendered himself once more to mingled sleep and delirium.”

Would base and profane language have added anything at all to your knowledge, as a reader, of Raskolnikov that a ragged overcoat and tortured sleep couldn’t? The answer, of course, is no. We see more of Raskolnikov in this brief description than we ever could if he were described with vulgar language. The overcoat is a metaphor, I believe, for his nihilism. It’s ragged, but gives him enough warmth to continue deluding himself. The violent shivering is his conscience. Dostoevsky has done a masterful job of using something very common to express a very profound truth. Profanity would have done it all a great disservice.

It’s the themes presented in metaphors for the reader to sift through, not the language of this classic that are overpowering. And that’s the heart of great literature.

Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” is a criminal at the outset of this masterwork. He has broken into a bishop’s house and stolen a basket of silver plates. It’s a profane act. The morning after the crime he is caught and brought back to the bishop’s house. He’s guilty. We, the readers, all know it. Yet, in an incredible act of mercy the bishop looks at the thief caught in the act and says:

“Ah, there you are!” said he, looking towards Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with the plates?”

Now we all know, along with the gendarmes, that Jean Valjean is guilty. But the bishop insists on giving the criminal more than he came looking for in the dark of night. He offers him grace, forgiveness, and the opportunity for a new start in life. The gendarmes reluctantly release him. Then we become witnesses to the impact and meaning of grace on the human soul. The gendarmes have gone and only Valjean and the bishop are left:

“Jean Valjean felt like a man who is just about to faint.”

“The bishop approached him, and said, in a low voice: “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.”

“Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop had laid much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued solemnly: “Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”


What would profanity have added to this lofty discourse on grace and mercy and redemption? The answer, of course is nothing. Would a few spicy words from the gendarmes have added anything? No! Would a glimpse of a thief’s coarse language? No!

Madame Defarge, one of the most despicable characters in all of literature, does little more than knit and we are able to see the depths of depravity to which the human soul can sink. She’s constantly knitting, knitting revenge against her enemies. She even knits as the heads of her enemies are lopped off on the guillotine. This woman represents the profane depths to which humanity will stoop in order to create liberty, equality, fraternity. The symbolism is powerful. Would profanity have given us a better glimpse of the evil manifested in her? The answer, of course, is no! Would Charles Dickens have been better served if he had spiced up the language of his classic a bit? The answer, of course, is no!

Sometime in late 1991 or 1992 Nancy and I saw the movie adaptation of the novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” It’s the story of the dramatic tension between a group of fundamentalist missionaries, the tribe of South American Indians they are trying to convert, and an American Indian who “seems” to be the only clear thinking person in the story.

In true Hollywood fashion the missionaries are stereotyped and pilloried. They’re one dimensional, concerned more with the natives’ nudity than their eternal souls. But in the end the American Indian comes to the rescue. He sheds his western ways, paints his face, and wears a loincloth. In a “profound” piece of dialogue he explains to the fundamentalists that they have erred. “Jesus, Buddha, it’s all the same thing,” he declares. In an instant, the missionaries, who have given their lives for a cause bigger than themselves, see the light. Their thinking miraculously changes in an instant. All it takes is a one-liner from a man in a loincloth.

That, I submit to you, is profanity. It does absolutely no justice to any theme. Nothing’s affirmed. Nothing’s really validated. Nothing’s challenged. It’s all as empty as the nihilism that Raskolnikov professes.

I don’t believe that most Christians, including fundamentalists, would spurn Eric’s friend’s writing solely on the basis of “real” language. There are some who would, but I think far fewer than we’ve been led to believe. But I think that, sadly, a lot of us Christians have been duped by Hollywood and the culture. We’ve been led to believe that coarseness is one of the keys to success in art. That’s why we feel compelled to ask the question and why the answer to the question is important. But the truth is this - we need less of the leadership of the current profane culture and more from really gifted artists, men like Dostoevsky, Hugo, and Dickens. These are men who shed light on the human soul, not debase it. That should be the aim of any literature, particularly Christian literature. If Christian writers do that I’m confident they will find the right markets for their work.

3 comments:

Pastor Mike said...

A masterpiece of logic and reason.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I remember reading somewhere that a mediocre writer will tell you things, a good writer will show you things that help you draw your own conclusions.

A mediocre writer would say, "John was a daydreamer." A good writer would describe incidents where John is daydreaming.

I wonder if some Christian writers who use profanity are trying to be good writers and show their readers that a character is a profane man rather than just telling them.

Clearly, as you explain so well in your post, *great* writers can lead their readers to that conclusion through their writing skills without actually falling into profanity themselves.

Erik Grendahl said...

An intriguing point made so richly. Thank You.