Umberto Eco, Meet Fyodor Dostoevsky

With a hat tip to Tancred at the The Eponymous Flower, I bring your attention to Umberto Eco‘s op-ed piece in the New York Times, The Lost Wisdom of the Three Wise Men. Eco is a secularized Italian who was reared and educated as a Catholic, taught, in fact, by the Salesians of Don Bosco. He is a skeptic of a sort, but places great value on Western culture (any culture, apparently, judging from his editorial), and thinks it lamentable that children are ignorant of the Bible, the saints, and their contribution to art.

The whole first part of Eco’s piece is a lament of what’s become of education and culture. The youngsters, whose ignorance of religion he observed first-hand, are so typical of the youth of the West, robbed as they have been of their historical culture and its Christian basis. Good so far.

But Eco is not a believer, and seems to consider religion something of cultural value only. There’s the rub.

As Flannery O’Connor famously remarked to a liberal Catholic friend of hers in a discussion about the Holy Eucharist: “If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it!” My memory tells me this was at a dinner party, where O’Connor’s liberal friend waxed eloquently on what a beautiful symbol the Blessed Sacrament is. The story shows the faith of the Hillbilly Thomist, as well as her capacity for transcending social conventions at dinner parties in the name of it — a virtue otherwise known as fortitude.

Concerning Eco’s piece, Tancred observes:

It demonstrates something that is painfully apparent [to Eco] — that religious faith might be an important part of history and worthwhile in order to understand the great souls who were forced for need of bread to depict those scenes on canvas, but believing in it, that’s another story.

Advocating for the kinds of things one of the post-religious heroes his novels might have advocated, a kind of areligious, religious humanism, [Eco] really shouldn’t lament it too much; it’s a situation men like him have encouraged and helped to create.

Spot on.

The giant of Russian Literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky, paints a picture of such a man as Eco in his book Demons. Mind you, the character Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky is not as accomplished as the real-life Eco, being an overindulgent layabout who depends on a wealthy benefactress for a living. That aside, Verkhovensky’s intellectual frame — being that of a more moderate liberal, who bemoans the “situation men like him have encouraged and helped to create” — is virtually identical to Eco’s. Verkhovensky’s own son becomes an horrific radical, a socialist, a nihilist, a philistine, and a murderer. This was only one of the ways that Dostoevsky unfolded the theme of his novel: that the 1840’s fashionable liberals of Russia (intellegentia inspired by Western European liberalism) were morally and intellectually culpable for the generation of the 1860’s, which was God-hating, Russia-hating, beauty-hating, revolutionary, murderous, conspiratorial, and collectivist in its dreams.

Verkhovensky, whose artistic tastes reflect Dostoevsky’s own, loves Raphael and considers his Sistine Madonna the hight of artistic accomplishment. But Verkhovensky, like Eco, is a non-believer. He loathes the younger generation’s disdainful disregard for his beautiful Madonna, but he does not believe in the God of which she is the mother. This is a sort of reverse iconoclasm: keep the images, but drain them of actual meaning; let them stand, not on what they mean, but their beauty alone. Such an aesthetic cannot survive, because it has no metaphysic to stand on. It’s more wobbly than Baba Yaga‘s hut. A younger generation will conclude that it’s all a lie, so …  in the prosaic phrase of the mistress of the Southern Gothic … “to hell with it.”

And so it was in Dostoevsky’s Russia. And so it is in Eco’s Italy. To hell with it.

Verkhovensky has a wake-up call in Demons, which I’ll not spoil for you. Let’s hope Eco wakes up, too.