Tat'jana Kasatkina. Via Flickr

The Open Sky

Meeting week in Rimini will kick off on August 19. These pages contain a preview, as well as a dialogue with Tat'jana Kasatkina, one of the leading Dostoevsky scholars and protagonists of the gathering.
Suzanne Tanzi

Tat’jana Kasatkina is the Director of the Department of Literary Theory and the President of the Commission on Dostoevsky Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. But the formality of these two titles doesn’t communicate her passion for Dostoevsky, the man who led her to discover, at age 11, that “the sky was not a lid, but the sky.” “When I read The Idiot, the lid was blown off: I understood that the sky was open, because neither the world nor man finishes here; neither the world nor man can be reduced to what one can touch.” Recently, we asked her to comment on the title of the next Rimini Meeting, “By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite.” An interview with her is a struggle against the commonplace use of words; she doesn’t chit-chat, she digs deep into the question and into experience, she asks for an explanation of the verb tense used, she does not settle for impressions, and she measures herself against the truth. Here is what she had to say.

“By Nature, Man is Relation to the Infinite.” This phrase of Fr. Giussani says, first of all, that man has a “nature” of his own; he is not an indistinct being in the vast reality of nature. In your classes on Dostoevsky, you say that man’s task is to give a name to things, and that the name that is chosen cannot be a convention. Where does one begin in order to give the “right” name to man?
Is the infinite something that doesn’t end, that lasts forever, or is it eternity? Here is the enigma in what Giussani says. One could take “relation to the infinite” to mean that the nature of man needs continuous, uninterrupted movement, which cannot be limited, because as soon as it is, man finds that he is detached from himself. A man who lives inside of the established limits starts to feel nostalgia very early on, a nostalgia that indicates everything that is taken away from his nature in living like this, because his nature is made of this continuous movement.

And if we take “infinite” to mean “eternity”?
Then the discussion about the nature of man takes on another meaning: not a race forward, but a potential that is effectuated on different levels. This aspect of the infinite is also tied to the nature of man. Man cannot subsist only at the level conceded by positivism. As soon as he tries to live like this, he realizes that he has something more, that he has organs that he is not using. Indeed, in order to remain within the confines of positivism, it would be better to amputate them.

The two meanings don’t seem contradictory.
The two aspects that I described belong to a single nature. The restlessness of man is a continual attempt to stay at another level of being. So, in order to give the “right name” to man, we have to take this continual tension into account, this continual need to be and to live beyond the space in which positivism makes man a prisoner.

The positivist mentality leads us to consider men to be what they do, good or–more often–bad. What follows is a suffocating moralism. In talking about Crime and Punishment, you explain that man is never only what he does, and at a certain point you say that “a murderer can be more adequate–more ‘the hand of God’–than a servant of the Church.” How can one look into the eyes of a man who has killed and see an “Other”?
This question reminds me of another one: can there still be poetry and theology, can we still talk about God, after Auschwitz? All of the objections to God are founded on the idea that God is a murderer because He doesn’t protect people from misfortune. If this is what we think about God, then how can we see a man in someone who has committed a terrible act? This question cannot supersede the other. The gaze that allows me to see God is the same one that makes it possible to justify man. It is not by chance that to comprehend means to forgive. If we think about ourselves, we understand well that we are not our actions. On the contrary, what we do is often the opposite of what we are; it is a crime we commit against ourselves. When, immediately after a wicked action, we express ourselves with actions that have the opposite meaning, we cannot negate the good actions because there has been a bad one. Nor can we say that man does not have a face just because that face is covered with mud.

Fr. Giussani once said, in a dialogue with some friends, that the hand can kill, but the heart cannot be murderous...
Murder seems like a grave sin to us because we think that we don’t commit it. That’s not true. With any repulsion of ours toward our neighbor, or even with our desires toward him, we start to kill him. It is a sin that absolutely all of us commit. You cannot say of anyone that he “is” a murderer. Murder is not a part of that person, it is not a manifestation of his being, but a moment in which his nature was obscured.

So, how can a man who has killed be “the hand of God”?
A person who is capable of grand actions in evil can be just as grand in the other direction. But anyone could be “the hand of God,” anyone who gives God the possibility to work through him. People who are this broad, this vast, are those with whom God can do more. God does not choose people by asking for their résumé, nor by looking at how they dress; God acts in everyone in the measure in which that person allows Him to act. There is no such thing as a Christian by profession.

The great temptation of contemporary culture is nihilism, the idea that things–and the “I”–are nothing. In your opinion, how is it that the judgment of the inconsistency of reality and of man goes hand in hand with the affirmation of the total autonomy of reality and of man?
The man who is trapped in a positivist reality finds himself in a situation that is inconsistent, suspended, deprived of its roots and its branches. The idea of autonomy leads to a situation in which the origin and purpose of man are to be found outside of what man can perceive; he has no access to them, and they remain mythical entities.

How do we go from the autonomy of man to the pride of science?
Science operates from within these closed confines, and everything that is not part of it, it keeps outside. In this way, however, there are few things left. Man realizes that he has desires and organs that, in this restricted life, are unnecessary, but given that he continues to tend toward the infinite, technology comes to his aid with a whole system of prostheses that take the place of man in a coarse way.

Is there a relationship between the restriction of reality and the proliferation of technology?
They are two sides of the same coin. In this situation of autonomy, we no longer attempt to enter into relationships with others, but we want to control the relationships. Thus, we feel entitled to manipulate everything that, for us, is an inanimate object. We start with the earth and we end with man. We are no longer capable of a relationship between two subjects.

Paraphrasing Pushkin, you say that reason searches, and the heart attests to what reason has found. Benedict XVI speaks of the profound unity between reason and the heart; and Fr. Giussani says that religiosity is the apex of reason and that this heart expresses its relation to the infinite in certain inescapable questions. Are all three of you saying the same thing?
We are talking about different aspects of one thing. The unity between heart and reason is a unity that one attains; it’s not given, it’s the unity of different things that often conflict with one another. I think that Benedict XVI speaks of unity as a dynamic process and not as a static reality. Fr. Giussani talks about the fact that the heart continually poses real questions. The heart cannot cease to ask questions, and it allows reason to seize upon those real questions that only exist at a certain level of reality. The heart is the organ that opens reason to other possibilities with respect to the questions of the positivist dimension of reality. In this sense, it is the apex of reason. I say something else: in the moment in which reason starts to try to answer the questions of the heart, it cannot confirm the conclusions that it reaches on its own; reason searches, but the one who confirms is the heart. These three aspects go together: the profound unity between heart and reason expresses itself in the fact that the heart places those questions in front of reason. Reason does its research, but the final decision is up to the heart.

There is a risk that the Rimini Meeting could be a great “alternative cultural discourse” to contemporary positivism and nihilism. You invite readers to approach literature not as something irrelevant to life. How, then, can we not “talk about” the infinite, but “experience” the infinite?
In man, as in all religions, there is always the temptation to consider cultural tradition as something that is acquired once and for all. Man is afraid to lose his luggage, and he is tempted to give value to all of the things that he has accumulated in themselves, and not to the experience that they carry.

Can you give an example?
We give value to the Ark of the Covenant and not to the Tables of the Law that it contains, forgetting the experience of the relationship with God that those tables express, because they spring from the instant of the relationship between Moses and God. Faced with this difficulty, we cling to what we are certain of possessing: the ark and the tables. In order to learn to experience, we have to abandon the certainty that we already have what we are looking for. To experience, we need a certain knowledge of the fact that everything that is given to us is nothing more than the testimony of something that must always happen anew.

You are Orthodox; I am Catholic. In Rimini, there will be many people who profess other religions, and many so-called “seculars.” How can we encounter and respect the diversity of the other and, at the same time, be together?
We are all so different, and we all live in one world. It is the tremendous challenge that every man faces. The problem is that we can’t bear it, and we start to reject this or that part of the world, accusing it of being unjust... a hysterical reaction in front of the richness that is proposed to us. Unfortunately, this hysterical reaction can be had by one man or by an entire nation. As Dmitri Karamazov says, “Man is too broad, I’d have him narrower.” This desire makes us poorer, because it rejects one or another aspect of a world that the Lord, instead, wanted just like this. This is an enormous argument for rejoicing at diversity as our wealth. But it has to be “ours,” because we consider something foreign only when we haven’t recognized it as ours. In this recognition lies the possibility to encounter one another, to open ourselves, and to discover within us something unexpected and new.

Young people are drawn to Dostoevsky because he is one of them (I am simplifying a beautiful discourse of yours about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy). He is their contemporary, as the Gospel is contemporary in Dostoevsky’s writing. Would you say the same thing about the infinite–that men of all ages are drawn to it, and therefore young people, too, because it is one of them, because it is contemporary with their hearts?
The infinite as eternity is always contemporary; it is another plane behind the contingent one. There is only one way to access eternity: the instant, the only thing that is real. We find ourselves in the extremely brief instant; we no longer possess the past, nor do we yet possess the future. There is only the instant in which being consists, and this makes it the passageway to eternity. What is more contemporary than this? Indeed, the only thing that we really have is eternity.

What, then, is the role of culture?
Culture was created in order for us to continually make present its mission, that is, making present something that was at one time. When it is not like this, it takes us away from the present to a time in which we can no longer act. The same thing happens when we project our desires onto the future. It is a temptation to project ourselves into the past or the future, but it is also the experience through which we can learn what man’s true nature is: the capacity to live in the instant that is accessible to us and, through this, to link ourselves to all eternity without giving in to that which takes us away from that true and unique real moment. All of the inadequacy of man derives from this going out of the present instant.