In contemplating the creation of the novel The Idiot, Dostoyevsky wrote in a letter to A.N. Maikov that he hoped to focus the work around a question “with which I have been tormented, consciously or unconsciously all my life–that is, the existence of God.”1 Dostoyevsky’s personal struggle with the question of faith, and also his own experience with trying doubts as a believer, are manifested in the characters he writes. A large number of Dostoyevsky’s books are written within the framework of a Christian doctrine, juxtaposing characterizations of believers and non-believers, enforcing the ultimate good and reason that follow from possessing a faith. Dostoyevsky also describes however, the mental suffering and questioning inherent in the step of realizing the “truth” of Jesus Christ. Berdyaev, in a discussion on Dostoyevsky’s mission, states that “he did not have to solve the divine problem as does the pagan, but the problem of mankind,which is the problem of the spiritual man, the Christian.”2
Indeed, Dostoyevsky was raised in a religious home, “I descended from a pious Russian family . . . We, in our family, have known the gospel almost ever since our earliest childhood . . . Every visit to the Kremlin and the Moscow cathedral was, to me, something solemn.” 3 He was certainly well acquainted with the contents of the Bible, as his devoted mother used only the Old and New Testament to teach her children to read and write. Dostoyevsky also recalled his favorite nurse in the context of the prayer she taught him, “I place all my hope in Thee, Mother of God preserve me under Thy protection.” 4 Such a strong female association in his early childhood perhaps influe…
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… than his freedom of conscience. But nothing is a greater cause of suffering.”
The Brothers Karamazov, 1880.
A. Primary Sources:
Dostoyevky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Constance Garnett. Edited and revised by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: W.W. Norton
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – Knight’s Tale
Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale: Now you See it, Now you Don’t
In the Matthean discourse on sin and the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matt.19.9). Yet this homily is perhaps better known through the compressed poetry of the King James translation. “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Grahically and even grotesquely materialized, the “eye” is that which offends, that which slides, with terrible corporeality, from the body to the table. In this proverb of the visual, “it” or that which requires excision in the offense, is the self, in an erasure of exteriority. There is no object, no objective “it” that offends. The gaze and its object are coterminous: the eye becomes the screen, the site of truth–both agent and vehicle of retributive justice. Vision never leaves the body, but sits at its margins–or only leaves it when the eye is thrown away, and the world becomes encapsulated in a broader metaphoric range: myself, the hole where my eye was, and the eye lying across the room.
I begin with this embodied proverb, in part because it troubles, and has always troubled me, rising in the dark with its self-reflexive and impossible logic. It also haunts the margins of all discourse on vision, informing the point of slippage between self and object we look on, the trap, as Lacan writes, of the gaze (93). In his moving seminaires on the eye and the gaze, Lacan speaks of the all-seeing spectacle of the world, the inside-out structure of the gaze that fixes us in front of what we see (75): “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside.” (106) Unlike the it of the Matthean proverb, Lacan’s eye stands apart from the interplay between subject and object, the ocelli as distinct from the gaze; yet both texts seem to describe the act of vision in terms of a radical discontinuity between what we see and the self that perceives it: both have us fixed before a world–and in Matthew we respond like Oedipus, with self-castration.
In Chaucer’s Knigtht’s Tale, a tale rich in overlays of visual narratives, one of the first accounts of the operations of the gaze effects a similar kind of inversion, one fully authorized by medieval amatory metaphysics.