Longer Rowan Williams

(run through a scanner, darkly: particularly horribly phrases highlighted. Page references lost in translation. )

Dialogue goes on because of a trust that recognition will be possible. And acknowledging that misrecognition happens is part of the fuel of continuing the process; acknowledging that I misspeak myself prompts me to allow time for the probing of another’s misspeaking. To assume that the words I am confronted with represent systematic coherence is to treat the words of another as if they were indeed the mathematical formulae of the world outside of which freedom and discourse stand.

Dear Rowan, I promise never to assume that your words represent systematic coherence.

One of the most serious mistakes we could possibly make in reading Dostoevsky is to suppose that his fundamental position is individualistic, simply because of his passionate opposition to determinism. Freedom is formally the capacity of the will to locate and define itself, and, as we have repeatedly seen, it can be used arbitrarily, reactively self-defensively and oppressively. But what all these uses have in common is that they lead to one or another kind of death. They all forget the basic insight that freedom is most clearly seen in language, in the capacity of human agents to go beyond either mere reaction to or reproduction of the world of material stimuli; and if this is the case, freedom is inevitably bound to time and exchange, since language is unthinkable without these. So in stressing equally the central human significance of both freedom and dialogue, Dostoevsky’s fiction steadily pushes back against a view of freedom which considers the arbitrary as the essential—and also against a view of dialogue which sees it as an adjunct to the dramatic encounters of fixed characters. The other—the speaking other—becomes the condition of any freedom that is more than an exercise of the will for its own sake. That kind of exercise, Dostoevsky implies, is fatal to freedom itself in the long run, as it confines freedom to a self-limited world which ultimately collapses upon itself. Freedom as detachment or freedom as self-assertion will equally lead away from language, toward the silence of nonrecognition.

God forbid that it should be expressed in action.

Aaargh. I can’t go on. There is something horrible about such wilful opacity: it’s not as if he is trying to be boring; nor even that he has nothing to say. But he dare not say it. There are two important points being made in this book: the first is that everyone should read Dostoevsky, and the second that religion is about the stories we live inside. Neither is original, but it would have done some good if the Archbishop of Canterbury had come out and made them clearly, as he might have done. Instead he wraps them in a book about the importance of dialogue which takes no account whatever of the presence of a reader.

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3 Responses to Longer Rowan Williams

  1. Simple Country Vicar says:

    I didn’t have trouble understanding either of those examples. Though I admit that I tend to be a tenacious Rowanista.
    Your point that his points deserve to be more popularly articulated is an important one, particularly the latter.

  2. acb says:

    Oh, I think I can understand them, and when I do I disagree with them. But can you supply a translation?

  3. Rupert says:

    Can I have a go?

    i: We’re not going to get anywhere if you keep insisting you’re right.

    ii: Yet anywhere is not somewhere we want to get. To that end, I will not do anything, except not shut up. Go and (not) do thou likewise.

    In these matters at least, he’s consistent. And entirely Anglican. And illustrating quite nicely the existential concept of bad faith, at least as far as I understand it.

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