Texts, even texts of the abyss, can be important witnesses and transform us into “individuals of insatiable compassion.”
I received the invitation to speak at the 2018 August Convocation just a few minutes after my family and I arrived in Independence, Missouri, this past July, and that setting has clearly shaped my thoughts. Our first stop the next morning was the Liberty Jail site, where Joseph Smith and several companions spent the winter of 1838–1839. That damp, depressingly dreary dungeon is representative of one of the darkest and most trying periods in the history of the Church. However, the revelations recorded in sections 121 through 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants also show how darkness can be infused by glorious light that illuminates vast spiritual vistas. Those sections in the Doctrine and Covenants are excerpted from an inspired epistle that the Prophet Joseph Smith and his companions wrote in March 1839. In my very first Russian literature class, one of the most influential teachers in my life, Dr. Gary Browning, shared with us an additional statement from that epistle that I find to be particularly poignant given the trying circumstances of imprisonment.
The Prophet wrote:
Thy mind, O man! If thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God.1
I have reflected on that statement a multitude of times in the ensuing years, and I share it every semester with all of my literature students. While the need to stretch our minds as high as the utmost heavens may seem self-evident, the Prophet’s admonition to contemplate the darkest abyss may seem less clear, and I invite you to reflect on possible reasons for that exhortation.
When people first learn that I teach Russian literature, some of them express condolences as they assume that I spend a lot of time with gloomy and depressing texts that plunge us as readers into a frightening chasm of human misery and degradation. Many of the texts indeed are dark, but I have often found that, against the backdrop of the darkest abyss, of tragedy and unfathomable human suffering, the divine potentials of the human spirit are at times etched perhaps even more clearly. For me, such texts often reveal the capacity of integrity, hope, and compassion to illumine even the darkest corners of human existence.
I appreciate the Russian word for “education,” obrazovanie. It is formed from a root meaning “shape” or “form.” I am deeply grateful for the way in which texts, even texts of the abyss, shape and form who I am and at times even transform me. I would like very briefly to share with you three of those transformative texts and the questions with which they invite me to grapple. As I do so, I invite you to reflect on the ideas, the texts, and works of art you cherish and the questions they have raised that have inspired, challenged, and helped to shape and form you.
Varlam Shalamov spent approximately seventeen years in prison labor camps with extremely harsh weather and working conditions, and he witnessed almost unimaginable cruelty. His experiences inspired a remarkable collection of short stories. A central theme in several of the stories is the importance of personal integrity as a survival tool. In his story “Prosthetic Appliances,” a number of prisoners in camp are forced into isolation cells, but they first are compelled to undress and hand over any prostheses. All the prisoners except for the narrator have some kind of device, whether it be an artificial limb, back brace, a porcelain eye, and so on. When only the narrator has yet to be locked up, the chief guard, giggling uncontrollably, turns to him with this taunt.
“That one, then, gives us an arm, that one a leg, another an ear, another a back, and that one an eye. We’ll collect all the parts of the body. And what about you?” He carefully looked me over standing there naked. “What will you give up? Will you give up your soul?”
“No,” I said. “I won’t give up my soul.”2
The authorities could deprive Shalamov and the other prisoners of virtually everything, but not of their souls. For me personally, this passage is unforgettable. It poses the question as to what intellectual and spiritual resources we possess that no one can take from us. What is uniquely ours? How can these resources sustain us through the trials and challenges of our own lives? This story of the abyss has inspired deep reflection as to how I can acquire the determination and the strength, regardless of circumstances, to retain my integrity and never to surrender my soul.
Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s greatest poets of the twentieth century, was not arrested herself during the era of the purges in the Soviet Union, but her only son was arrested four times. After his arrest in 1938, she frequently stood in lines outside the prison trying to get packages to him, and she did this for a period of seventeen months. She dedicated her poem “Requiem” to all the women who stood in those lines and agonized over their loved ones. The opening passage of the poem is a brief segment in prose describing an incident while she stood in line.
Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered: “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.3
For all the pain and heartache she described, Akhmatova was grateful that she could stand as a witness of the agony of these suffering women and serve as a voice for her people. I am intrigued by the number of twentieth-century Russian writers who on occasion refer to themselves as witnesses. Akhmatova’s boldness and eloquence prompt me to pose questions as to how I can more articulately raise my voice in the face of injustice and suffering. They inspire me as well to speak of truth and virtue and ultimately to stand as a witness “of God at all times and in all things and in all places.”4
The nineteenth-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky unflinchingly examines the difficulties and tragedies of the human condition. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he plunges us into a world in which nearly unfathomable cruelty and evil are perpetrated against children. One of the Karamazov brothers, Ivan, experiences such dismay and despair over this innocent suffering that he wonders if the only solution may be to curtail moral freedom and responsibility so individuals can no longer inflict pain on each other. In contrast, another leading character, Father Zosima, embraces an incredibly expansive view of moral responsibility. He counsels, “Take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. . . . Make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone.”5 That idea has perplexed and troubled numerous readers. In what way, after all, could we bear responsibility for another’s sins? Father Zosima elaborates by suggesting that angry words that we speak could plant a bad seed in another person, and our lack of restraint could, therefore, lead to another’s sin. He further teaches that if we fail to let our light shine or to set the proper example, we bear some guilt for others’ failings. “If you had shone, your light would have lighted the way for others, and the one who did wickedness would perhaps not have done so in your light.”6 In his novels, Dostoevsky espouses the idea that we cannot retreat into an insular world of individual righteousness, for we bear responsibility for emanating light through our compassion and lovingkindness toward others. He advocates that we humbly strive though “active love” to alleviate the suffering that surrounds us. In my mind, the essence of a Christian life for Dostoevsky is to strive continually to be individuals of insatiable compassion, to bear one another’s burdens in humility and meekness, and to view ourselves as being responsible for the salvation of all people by preserving within us, as Father Zosima suggests, “the image of Christ, that it may shine forth like a precious diamond to the whole world.”7 I will ever be grateful for the ways in which Dostoevsky, while exploring the darkest abyss, helps me to expand my vision of my moral responsibility toward others and compels me to consider what it truly means to love my neighbor and to demonstrate genuine compassion.
To sum up these ideas on integrity, the importance of standing as a witness, and compassion, I would like to cite the concluding remarks of our great American writer William Faulkner in his acceptance speech for the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature. He said:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.8
As you embark on your various family, spiritual, community, and professional pursuits, my hope is that, through your ongoing engagement with the humanities, the ideas, texts, and works of art that already have become or will yet become transformative for you—including those that explore the darkest abyss—will help you throughout your lives to endure and prevail with integrity, honor, courage, and a soul you refuse to surrender, that your inexhaustible voice will serve as a witness that will help others to prevail, and that your lives will be constant reminders to those with whom you interact of the power of insatiable compassion and sacrifice so you truly can be instruments in the hands of God in helping to lead His children to salvation.
Michael Kelly is an associate professor of German & Russian and delivered this speech at the College of Humanities August 2018 Convocation.
1. History of the Church 3:295
2. Varlam Shalamov, «Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh», tom 1 [Mockva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1998], 592; the translation is mine.
3. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer, ed. Roberta Reeder [Boston: Zephyr Press, 1997], 384.
4. Mosiah 18:9
5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002], 320.