What an 11-year-old can learn from the Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, how art could inspire or ruin a person, what Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have in common, the importance of re-reading literary works – all these and many other issues were brought up by Tatyana Kasatkina, a PhD in Philology, and Vladimir Legoyda in Parsunа programme.
Hello my dear friends. We are going to draw a portrait, or Parsuna, of another contemporary of ours. Today we welcome Tatyana Aleksandrovna Kasatkina. Hello, Ms. Kasatkina.
Tatiana Alexandrovna, I have a lot of questions to ask you. But before we start let me remind you that we have five blocks, five topics: faith, hope, patience, forgiveness, and love. This structure is borrowed from the ending of the Optina old men’s prayer. In addition, you have a chance to ask me a question, we call it “a question from the guest to the host”. I mean to say, if you feel bored with my questions at some point, you can…
Turn the tables
Yes, that’s right. But only once.
Well, that’s it. The only thing I would like to ask you, in line with our underlying idea and tradition, can you please say at the beginning what you would consider most important to say about yourself in the present moment. How do you answer the question: Who are you?
I see. Thank you. Well, in terms of my occupation, and perhaps even beyond my occupation, I would reply that I’m a philologist. That is, I deal with the topics studied by philosophers or theologians but I do my research as a philologist. In other words, I retrieve implicit meanings conveyed in an indirect manner.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “My faith was bemired by doubts”. What about you? Has your faith ever been bemired by doubts?
Maybe it is, but my doubts have nothing to do with who I believe in. I have some doubts in the ones who pray with me. But eventually Dostoyevsky was my savior because, as you may also remember, there was no gospel in the Soviet Union.
No, there wasn’t.
Well it felt like, especially if you grew up in a non-religious family or in a family where the grandmothers were still believers, but they tried to conceal it to some extent, you found yourself in a situation where you just had a roof over your head instead of heaven and like there was no way out. But I always had one. Since I was a child, I've known that reality is far more than that... what you can knock on, what you can encounter, I’ve felt that there is much more beyond that, that there is He who is looking at me. And there was no confirmation of that. Until I read the novel The Idiot when I was 11 years old, coincidentally.
11 years old?!
Yes. I was the naughty girl who picked books from the shelf (laughter) that were not meant for…
It's just that my elder daughter is 11 years old… Greetings to Lisa.
I see. It can happen to a person. I finally found someone with the same attitude. It was an amazing sensation. I stopped feeling, so to speak, inferior because the people around me had one attitude, and I had a different attitude. I would say, that was the end of my faith issues.
Ms Kasatkina, you mentioned it very much to the point that there is He who looks at you. Could you please explain, how does He look at you?
He looks at me with great love and trust. You see, we usually say that we trust in God.
It’s no less important that God trusts in us… He trusts in each of us. I was amazed to discover that a human being is capable of something… We are used to asking Him for help, we do it very often, but from time to time we could as well suggest Him our help. We could say ‘How can I help You, Lord?’ In the end, we are His hands on the earth, the only instrument at His disposal.
Well, this is a very scripture-like reply to the scripture ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me’.
Oh, I totally agree.
Is this what you mean? Or is it a particular case of something else?
It is rather a particular case. I mean to say, all that God does on the earth, He does with people’s hands. In other words, we participate in His deeds, no matter if we want to or not. When we don’t want to, we are made to – it is passive attitude. However, we can participate in the same events demonstrating an active attitude. Some of us have such experience and it looks fabulous! Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of these people. I aspire to be one of them, too. It’s a matter of attitude, ‘How can I help You?’
Tatyana Aleksandrovna, what do you think about the interaction between a believer and a non-believer? To be more precise, as there are many religions in the world, between a Christian and a non-believer? What ideas and values do they share? Let me explain what I’m trying to say. There is an American author Rod Dreher who converted from Catholicism to Orthodoxy. His books are available and appreciated. He has been reflecting on the causes of the cultural defeat of Christianity. In particular, he points to a lack of dialogue between believers and non-believers on a series of topics. For instance, it is not possible to find common ground on the topic of abortions, he says. What is your opinion of this issue?
I don’t quite understand why they fail to find common ground, even when it comes to abortions. To begin with, I’m convinced that thoughtful people will find or create space for dialogue, will create or acknowledge common values, no matter what they discuss. In addition, I know many non-believers who are firmly opposed to abortions. As for me, I’m pro-life as a believer, but at the same time I‘m against any legal prohibition on abortions. I am certain that people are able to find common ground if they communicate and listen carefully to each other. I don’t agree with the wording describing people as either believers or non-believers. Believers differ. Non-believers differ, too. The real question is, who is having a conversation.
I see what you mean when you talk about people and their views. On the other hand, there is the Absolute Spirit and the ultimate good and evil. What do you think, the fact that the modern people lack the Absolute, is it an obstacle?
I think what you are saying is a bit of an excessive generalization.
Indeed, what does the Absolute imply? Is it relevant in everyday life? It is not always clear what is actually comes down to. Let me give you an example. Imagine that you witness a street fight – 3 people are beating 1 man. It’s only natural that you would try to protect this man. But are you sure you will join the right side? Do you have enough information? Maybe they are beating him because they just caught him…
Yes, I see…
…caught him molesting a little girl. Well, anyway you’d better interfere and stop the fight. However, they do not deserve to be shot dead for it. We, believers, tend to take sides without getting a full scope of information, without questioning what is actually going on. And maybe, in this sense, the absolute good or evil will backfire. What I mean is, let's say we are sure that fighting is not good and we must interfere. Then what methods will we use to stop the fight? Can we use napalm? To my mind, we should avoid generalization or platitudes to create space for a sincere conversation.
Can we look at an example from my university practice. I read a course to graduate students, it’s called Political Communications in Modern Church. We were once discussing bioethics and among other things I expressed my opinion of surrogacy. It caused a lot of questions among people who believe in God. Surrogacy is a highly complicated issue, nevertheless I expected a certain reaction from the audience in the given context. I told them, ‘It is commercial use of a woman by another woman or a family who cannot or for some reason does not want to carry a baby, and this is not acceptable. To make things worse, it implies that the rich take advantage of the poor.’ One of the students, a young woman, retorted with confidence, ‘What moral problem? The woman has no money but she can carry a baby for another woman. The latter has money and she cannot or does not want to carry a baby herself. If I am a surrogacy agency, I charge 5 per cent of the total amount for my services. What kind of moral problem do you see here?’ You know, she caught me unawares, I didn’t know what to say straight away.
I could add to it. (laughter)
Sure, if you want to finish me off.
Let’s suppose that a person is so poor that she has nothing to eat. She has no skills, the only thing she can do is to lease her reproductive function to make a living. You and me, do we have the right to judge her? We are Christians but we did not give her a helping hand, we did nothing to support her in dire straits and she must make a very tough choice. She must take a very tough decision. Reverting to the issue of abortion, it is a similar decision. If we don’t want a woman to make an abortion, we have to…
Support her. I agree.
… take care of the baby, take up the responsibility.
We tell her, it is a bad thing to do, she will have a lot of psychological issues, which is true. In this case we have to feed her or help her handle the psychological issues. I’m convinced that Christianity is all about helping others, about empathy and compassion.
Yes, I see. But it doesn’t make the issue ethically tolerable. My question is a bit different, though. I mean, it is a lack of understanding. My student’s reply is totally different from yours. You told me, ‘What did you do to help?’, while she asked, ‘What is the problem?’
She does not perceive it as a problem at the moment.
No. How can we find a way to hear each other then?
We probably have to admit that some people do not regard abortion or surrogacy as a moral problem. These people are adults and we interact with them.
We should admit that they don’t treat it as a problem whatsoever. It sounds like a complaint, to be honest. You know, since I was a child, I was convinced that Christians should only complain about their own self or actions. We should not impose the moral grounds as a legal framework.
This is not possible.
No, definitely not. Not any more.
No, and thank God, because Christianity imposed with violence, or even the moral rule of Christianity imposed with violence, is a complete perversion of Christianity.
Sure. But I didn’t mean to complain about my student. My question is, what can we do to understand each other? What do you think?
Perhaps, we just need to converse. Maybe we need to make our voices heard by the society. It is time we started talking about our faith, about love, about the life of a Christian in the Christian community and in the secular world. I’m convinced that a good sermon results from confession. The best we can do is to demonstrate the life in Christ. If we fail to support it with our own example, it all makes no sense!
It reminds me of the basic pedagogical approach. Like a smoking father who would puff a cigarette and say to his son, ‘Smoking is bad for you’.
Yes, smoking kills. Don’t smoke.
There is a famous English quote saying ‘Don’t teach your children, they will still be like you. Nurture yourself.’
Dante believed that an artist should lead a person from hell to heaven through the purgatory, as Catholics believe, so to speak. To me, the purgatory has to do with hope. Do you think that hope is a hallmark of the authenticity of art?
I think that the hallmark of the authenticity of art is its expressive power. That is, art is a craft. And it is far more important what it expresses. Good art has a high ability to express. Moreover, Christian art or philosophical art will last for centuries because people will always need it. Surely, this is the art that gives hope. This being said, we need to expand on the notion of hope. It seems to me, Christians know best what it is, as they know for sure that they are not hoping for something that doesn't exist...
…but they are hoping for something that does exist.
Then, hope appears to be something that makes people confident in being even before being manifests itself. It could be just starting to develop. In particular, we all hope to see the Divine image in a person. We know for sure that it exists but it may be buried inside, behind multiple layers. Therefore, hope is confidence in the presence [of God] within a person, even if there is no visible sign of it, even if it will take long to be uncovered.
Can art do the same?
Yes, of course.
I would like to give an example, not the best example maybe… Anyway, let’s imagine I’ve watched a film and feel like killing myself after watching it. Can we call it art? Or is something wrong with my perception of the film?
Let’s try to figure it out.
Let’s talk about it.
On the one hand, the film could be designed to evoke such feelings. On the other hand, it could incidentally trigger a very unexpected response in you. When you are triggered, you cannot see things clearly. Your perception of the situation is distorted by the trigger. You will commit suicide as a result, but the artist has nothing to do with it.
No, nothing. Although, if it hadn’t been for the film, the trigger …
Wouldn’t have been pulled. However, you might hear triggering news on the radio or come across a triggering scene in a café for example. Your own psychological issue is like a built-in fuse that can be burnt by the trigger, making the powder keg explode.
There is more than one fuse inside, if we expand on the metaphor. The artist can burn other fuses instead, causing a totally different reaction.
So we cannot neglect the artist in the end.
Well, as I mentioned, there are films which are meant to destroy a person. In that case, no trigger is required.
It depends on the impact then.
Yes it does. On the other hand, the artist could have intended to express an idea that would take you in one direction but instead you were triggered to move in a different direction, then…
It’s my personal reaction.
You once said this great line, ‘Every time we involve them (students) in reading a work of fiction, we involve them in an adventure with a totally unpredictable outcome."
It sound to me like a threat and hope at the same time. I have a question. Does it imply hope?
When it comes to hope, it makes me think that art can change a person.
You are right.
It is highly debatable what it can change. Saying this I don’t even refer to the idea that art is refining, for anyone who has read the great classical literature would have become much better than they are in fact. We brought up this topic with Andrey Sergeevich Konchalovsky here, in the same studio. He advocates that art doesn’t change anyone.
He is an artist, maybe it is true for him.
We discussed it and concurred that art changes a person, but for a little while. He said that a film is considered a success if two people who go out of the cinema don’t say straight away ‘What a nice film! Let’s have something to eat.’ So, returning to hope and threats, what kind of hope and what kind of threats do you mean?
As for threats, you already brought it up. One of the functions of art is to create a safe space where a person can survive the feelings and emotions evoked by triggers. However, something can resonate with a person so profoundly, that instead of a healing effect it will cause a catastrophe. To me, this is actually a side effect of art, to be honest. While its main function is to help a person to change or maybe even abandon the routine predetermined by society, making his or her life a never-ending Groundhog Day. In other words, to help them change the cultural tracks which have been shaped for generations and have replaced their instincts to some extent. A relentless cycle – was born, was brought up, got married, raised children and went to grave.
There are larger and smaller cycles. Art is meant to help us overcome the pitfalls of everyday life.
Is it what you mean by unpredictable outcomes?
Something that makes them think big, think in different categories. Dostoevsky wrote at a very young age that his engagement in literature and poetry is maybe aimed to rescue one’s misguided soul from the darkness.
As a writer, he was well aware of this main function. Dante wrote a very similar thing in one of his letters. He wrote, I will pass this way, because my soul does not accept the prison in which it has languished. Maybe I will pave this way. And maybe another soul will follow.
This is about change, of course.
Sure. Moreover, he is very sincere about the reason why he is writing. He said, if it hadn’t been for a new way, a new track, he would have given it up. He was hoping to pave the way. Of course, this is about change. Since the 18th century, maybe late 18th century, the esthetic component of art is no longer a piece of beauty, and the esthetic object is no more isolated from reality.
Art becomes purposeful without any feasible aim. Art then presents a separate domain that people enter to be transformed and enriched to go back to life.
It reminds me of Bachtin’s small article, The Art of Responsibility.
It turns out, artists have reflected on it in all times. If you remember, there are two trends. The first trend is pure art, it flourished in the 20th century. Pure artists declared, they did not mean to educate or change the audience. Well, we can see that there is a number of artists whose intentions and ways of creating are completely different. Apparently, there is pure art, it involves self-representation, which flourished in the 20th century. Art is very different, it can be used in different ways, because, again, art is simply a technique. If one wants to reveal oneself to the world in every work, one can do this as well. But such texts don't stay for long.
Look, there is another very important point that ‘art was created for the purpose of communicating religious experience’, right? In general, culture arises for this purpose...
First and foremost – art does.
Well, I won't argue with it. But science also arises internally. What is the beginnings of science then…
Science communicates knowledge. It is a different purpose.
It does if we talk about a separate discipline.
Separate of course.
I was just wondering. We have begun to talk about the onset of autonomous art. Following the criteria you have outlined and maybe other criteria. But it makes me think of this example of Leonardo's Last Supper.
As far as I remember, he is one of the first artists, at least that's what they say, since everyone knows Leonardo, they pay attention to it, who changes the subject. That is, The Last Supper is always a depiction of the episode when Christ says, this is My Body, this is My Blood. Leonardo however depicts the episode ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’, much more psychologically intense, much less, so to speak, ontologically important. In this painting Leonardo abandons the traditional vertical composition of an icon and arranges the 12 characters horizontally - ‘Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?’, which of us is the traitor, which one of the 12? This is extremely important. This is where the horizontal composition appears. This change here may refer to the fact that it is still, of course, religious art, but maybe it is becoming more autonomous?
I could rephrase it, shift the focus.
Because there is a shift from what we call ontological quite rightly, from the establishment of the presence of God and his immortality
…to man. The focus is shifted to man. It has been drawn thousands of times how He does it. What are you doing at the time?
Are you the traitor, perhaps?
Exactly. You see what I mean. It is no less important for us, people. Thus, at some point we must think about something else.
You were once talking about schooling issues. You said that the most acute problem is, students believe that they are not getting but they are giving, spending. It is stunningly accurate in my opinion, I would even say that they think that they are wasting it with no objective. Well, the objective is evident – to get a diploma, it seems to be the only objective.
So they are pestered...
Yes, they are.
…so they have to study just to please their parents.
Yes, I see. Is there any hope that such attitude will change? And what can we do about it?
I think there is only one hope for us. First, the teacher should be given maximum freedom to communicate with the student. Nowadays the teacher is extremely oppressed, and most of the time they fill in forms and blanks that are checked by officials. This is terrible, because our best teachers even in this situation are trying and continuing to do amazing things, but solely at the expense of their health, time for sleep, and so on. If at some point they break down or quit school or go on about the officials, they will lose whatever contact with the students. So, it's crucial, first of all, to establish maximum confidence with the teacher. Second, once the confidence is in place, the teacher should treat the student with respect and recognize their right to ask, ‘Why do I need it?’ If we can't explain why we're giving it to a person, we shouldn't give it, you know. Because we still... as if we continue to resent them when they ask this question. How come? Because we never got an answer to this question. This is, in a sense, vestiges of the Soviet morality. What is non-religious morality? It's morality that doesn't answer the question "why should I?"
As if it were an indecent question.
The usual answer, you are supposed to.
Yes, you are supposed to, if you are a decent person, and so on. That's what we tell our students all the time. If you... well, how do you... you have to... and so on. These are not answers. If we can't explain why it's necessary, it means, first of all, that we don't understand why it's necessary, we don't understand why we need it. And we have no right to insist that they do it.
I think that's the only way out of a situation that has grown highly critical.