The Two Abysses of the Soul


Costica Bradatan in LA Review of Books:

Toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov, as the prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich makes his case for Dmitri Karamazov’s condemnation, he brings up the image of two abysses between which the defendant, in his view, is caught. One is the “abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation,” while the other is “the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals.” “Two abysses, gentlemen,” says the prosecutor, “in one and the same moment — without that […] our existence is incomplete.”

This image of the two intertwined abysses can be said to be a picture of Russia itself. The basest and the highest, the most despicable and the noblest, profanity and sainthood, total cynicism and winged idealism, all meet here. Andrei Tarkovsky has an uncanny ability to articulate this synthesis of opposites into a mystical vision of sorts — most of his films take the viewer from the depths of a dark, corrupted world all the way up to a realm of splendors and a vision of beatitude. In Andrei Rublev that happens literally as, at the end of the film, you are led from a black-and-white “vale of tears,” all mud and blood, to the serene contemplation of Rublev’s divine images, all in full color now. Outsiders may find this hard to take, but for a Russian sensibility such a transition is a natural movement. There is no break here, just the normal traffic between the two abysses of the soul.

Since the two abysses cannot be disjointed, along with the abyss of Katyn and of the Ukrainian famine, East Europeans get to know intimately the other one as well: the abyss of “lofty ideals” — of Russian literature, music, cinema, philosophy, and religious thought. Stalin has marked Eastern Europe forever, but so have Dostoevsky, Shostakovich, Tarkovsky, and Shestov. Historically, Russia has caused much suffering in the region, but it has also shaped people’s minds and affected their sense of being in the world. Russia’s cultural proximity has translated for East Europeans into an expanded repertoire of feelings, sensibilities, and states of being. In the long run, the situation has no doubt enriched — philosophically and existentially — the East European cultures.

This may be history’s ironic payback, some perpetual war reparation program.

More here.