Brisbane: A Novel, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Brisbane has to be Vodolazkin’s most ambitious work so far (at least for those of us who have to use translations). It centers on an artist, a musician who plays the guitar. As the story opens, the two themes Vodolazkin wants to think about are presented: life and art. We encounter them as problems, and this creates the novel’s tension. The artist is developing physical problems that take the edge off his art. We begin with life’s problem: old age. And we see that the end of art as the beginning of the end of life.

The problem of life is, of course, how to live it–art being one of the more important aspects of the solution. We make art because we want to live. Art exists for the sake of life, and not the other way around. Right from the start Vodolazkin gives us a stark statement of his theme in the mouth of Gleb, the protagonist, who as he meets his biographer, complains of former biographers that: “There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human.” In other words, the problem of art, the theme of all art, the purpose of art is fundamentally the quest of life. Life is anterior to art.

In order to twine his two themes, Vodolazkin raises two questions: who is this guy and, what will he do? And so the story is interleaved, leaping back in time to the fortuitous development of the artist while interspersing the deliberative approach to the problem of the present. As we get to know Gleb, he deals with the greatest intersection of life and art: the way one faces death.

Vodolazkin shows that just as life must surrender to God’s providence, art must surrender to life, and be of it and in it. He builds a pyramid that way, an integrated hierarchy at the top of which is that worship which in Soviet Ukraine Gleb acquired from his grandfather. Vodolazkin knows how to put God into a book rightly, rather than in a forced or propagandistic way. He knows how to dramatize the quiet transmission of tradition; it is one of his greatest strengths. I think Vodolazkin has always succeeded most at neither avoiding nor exaggerating the inevitable presence of the incomprehensible in life. In a way, divine incomprehensibility manifested in creation is a fundamental theme for Vodolazkin. Divine incomprehensibility integrates all the mysteries that make life mysterious and without which it would not be life or, as he desires to point out particularly, have art.

Brisbane is a great novel, perhaps eclipsing Laurus. Even the title of the book contains the mystery, artfully played to great effect, the way he did with The Aviator. I have no doubt that Vodolazkin belongs with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in the pantheon of great Russian literature.

Scottish Calvinism: A Dark, Repressive Force?

Donald MacLeod has an article to answer the question raised in his title “Scottish Calvinism: A Dark, Repressive Force?” What is not surprising is the answer, which is no, but the admission he makes in order to achieve it.

The three main literary detractors are Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Edwin Muir. Scott went after the Covenanters, after all. What MacLeod does brilliantly is to demonstrate how the Covenanters are treated much as modern day Israel is. They were subject to horrors and persecutions and subsequently developed with that nightmare haunting their dreams. He argues that a fair historical consideration would greatly amend common prevailing notions of the Scottish Covenanters. And in this he shows how little Scott was a historian, and how much he was a historical novelist. It is a good argument MacLeod makes, for historiography, but it is not convincing in terms of literature. It is not the business of literature to correct our ideas of history.

This is the main thing his article gets wrong. Art lives in its effects. In order to achieve these effects, an artist takes from a common stock. If the common perception of a Calvinist, as the common perception of the Puritan, lends itself to certain symbolic associations, then that is what the artist will do with it. Can other things be done? Certainly, but why should the writer be blamed if one and not another suggests itself to him? It is for historians to set the record straight, it is for the Calvinist writer to use his literary imagination to other purposes than those Scott did.

Ah, but what Calvinist writer? Pilgrim’s Progress is the only successfully Calvinist work of literature that springs to mind, and that is accepted all around—there is a way of saying that for all its Calvinist author and background, it isn’t explicitly Calvinist. Is this what saves it? I think it is rather that it is a successful series of continuous Calvinist sermon illustrations that makes it Calvinistic, and that we ought not to deny it is a Calvinist work of literature. It may be argued that the peculiarities of Bunyan’s education, or the lack of higher education, saves it.

This is the argument MacLeod does make: Calvinism doesn’t idolatrously value art above theology, and yes, MacLeod equates theology and truth. Rather than making theology answerable to truth, as art is, he makes art answerable to theology which itself is true. He himself states that Calvinism holds this, and that is where he makes his fatal argument. Both theology and literature are human artifacts, and what you get by exalting theology above all other human artifacts artificially is the resulting denigration, the lower and wrong valuation of art. No wonder Calvinism does not produce anything better. And no wonder it does theology so well!

I do think MacLeod makes a good case, however badly he botches the conclusion, for rethinking the idea that Calvinism in itself is a dark oppressive force. There is nothing in Calvinism that requires that theology be placed above other human endeavors, it has simply been construed that way by both detractors and, in MacLeod’s case, defenders. Thomas Boston did not take it that way, and his more humane approach influenced at least one writer to come from the same parish, James Hogg. Hogg avails himself of a popular notion of Calvinist antinomianism in his Memoirs and Confessions, but he obviously distinguishes it from normal Calvinism.

Here, however, is where I really think the issue lies, and this is something I’m still exploring. There is a scholarly argument still ongoing as to whether Calvinism is just late-medieval Scotist Voluntarism deliberately (a Dutch view) or eclectically (Muller/Trueman). Voluntarism is the idea that good and evil are so because of God’s decree, independent of God’s mysterious being, arbitrarily decreed though not arbitrarily enforced, as opposed to early medieval and ancient Intellectualism where God is by his nature good. It is a system that emphasizes legal categories and makes power fundamental. The Reformation owes much to it, because those legal categories are how we see the doctrine of justification come into focus. But that does not mean that we need to endorse Voluntarism.

The problem with Calvinists, my experience at Westminster and in Reformed circles in general and also what I’m reading leads me to observe, is that for them the issue of Voluntarism is not deliberated one way or another. Their system and emphases eclipse consideration of the issue. They can live with metaphysical inconsistency, and shrug, and do. The result is that they do not think carefully about it, but rather mangle around in the effects, choosing among those rather than settling the issue at the real level of determining debate. The further result is a smuggled in Voluntarism which is a dark oppressive force, unexamined sympathies for its tendencies, misgivings, misjudgings, and a general flailing around that will never yield the kind of Calvinism that might aspire to add to Pilgrim’s Progress the odd tome, other than the Barthian Updike.

Were it to be faced, addressed, and allowed to shape a distinguishable section of Calvinism the result might be otherwise. At least, that is what I think.


Some people are bothered by magic. Magic in stories, that is. I’ve never been of that opinion, and while I’ve lived close to it, it has never been the sort of scruple I’ve allowed to stand between me and a good story. But there are people who do. I wonder sometimes if it is that they do not want stories hard enough, and I think there is a refusal of wonder (like Thomas who did not want to believe) at least implied–if not involved–in this. But, like I said, I’m not much in sympathy with that point of view.

Why not? Because I think it is based on ignorance, and we all have too much of that to be able to afford a great deal of patience with any discernible manifestation. Still, if there is something to be done about it, then let us attempt it. So that’s what I want to do: take on the whole magic thing and reason about it, distinguish, point out things, let light shine a bit into the darkness (out of me, into you:-). Let me argue that it is an unreasonable attitude to shun magic in literature.

Because at the least we have to talk about it. Ignoring it and responding without careful thought is neither wise nor prudent. The only thing that leads to is the unexamined life, and if you prefer that, you deserve it. But the unexamined life with all its false security is in the end a dull life and worse: a life that is not worth living. And magic, in my view, is a rather promising alternative.

The Bible warns against visiting spiritists, mediums, necromancers and such. Do you know why it so warns? If the answer is so that no literature about them might be produced you will be mistaken. Saul, for instance, determined to rid the land of Israel of all such influences, to his praise. But, you know, there were a lot of strange events in Saul’s life. Twice he was reduced by ecstatic prophecy, at one point often tormented by an evil spirit, and in the end, to his shame, he consulted a medium. That’s an awful lot of mention and writing about strange weird magic.

With the question of why the Bible warns about consulting the wicked magicians still over us, let us deal with the fallacy of concluding we should not write about them. The Bible has quite a bit of it. Human writers wrote about magic and God inspired their writings. Now some will be tempted to claim that they had special sanction to do what we cannot. This sort of thinking does not make for good hermeneutics, let me tell you. If you think they wrote under special circumstances you are conflating two things about the Bible which are true but distinct. This conflation results in a false understanding of Scripture.

Scripture is always two things: it is inspired by God and it is written by human beings. God did not write the Bible (except for the ten commandments). Jesus Christ did not pen a word of it, though he well could have. Human beings with no divine nature penned the Bible. Were they divinely superintended? Of course. But to say that is only to speak of the final product–the what of it, not the how of it. Surely the Spirit used extraordinary means to move them along, but it is just as sure that he used ordinary means to do so. What ordinary means? Study, research, interviewing witnesses (all in the case of Luke), Egyptian learning (Moses, Solomon), literary talent (Isaiah! and Amos, to name just two), reflection on life’s experiences (surely Jonah and definitely the psalmists) and on and on. If you don’t take these things into consideration when you interpret Scripture, you will not handle it responsibly. You cannot treat the Bible as if it were a book handed down from heaven from God for the simple reason that it isn’t what it is and you will not get it right if you do. You can’t ignore the original languages it was written in, the literary conventions it uses, the times and circumstances under which the writers wrote. If you ignore that, you will get it wrong. None of which is all that controversial.

What does seem to cause some people difficulty is the corresponding inference that the writers were not sanctioned to do things we must not, or, to put it plainly, that we can do what they did, inspiration excepted. The topics they deal with, they do in exemplary fashion and are, by inference, guides to us. Guides in the use of the Scriptures themselves, and guides in terms of writing properly about the things they write about. Just as we cannot say the writer of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament is somehow bizarre and done “under inspiration” (deplorable expression), we cannot say that the writer of the sad circumstances of the life of Saul was committing a holy impropriety in so doing. He writes to inform our moral imagination. So does literature dealing with magic.

Our ideas of inspiration ought not to be uncomfortable with all this. The Bible is not less than a book written by human beings. Even the part that God directly wrote, the ten commandments, is rewritten into the Bible by Moses as part of his great chronicle and only at that point enjoys inspiration in the sense of the term Paul means. Scripture is not less than a book written by human beings although it is certainly more than that: it is God’s inspired word. So we must at least afford it the reverence of integrity in handling it, and not use it conveniently to excuse our unexamined prejudices against things that disturb us.

Let us consider, then, one of the passages. Leviticus 20.27: A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them. Here is a plain commandment: put people who are mediums or necromancers to death. Why? Because it’s all rot and hogwash and since I don’t want you wasting your time on them, just ruthlessly kill them out of hand.

Hardly. When Saul went to the medium and she conjured up Samuel, I think she really conjured up Samuel. There are things human beings can do which they ought not to do, hidden things, occult things, and things which are so harmful to God’s people’s welfare that they deserve the death penalty. I think we have to take them seriously. I think what they do is real and dangerous, and we should be aware of that. Whether they succeed or not you may perhaps debate if you wish, but what is not up for debate is that something awful must be going on. In some way their magic is real, because their harm is real, because their guilt is real, because God really meant for these people to be stoned. I don’t think there are sins that cannot be committed overtly that still hypothetically exist to be committed in the heart. I may be wrong about that–let me know–but I don’t think I am. And so I conclude that there is real dark magic, and Scripture condemns it.

Do you find that creepy? I do. I find it creepy and thrilling both. It seems to open up something in the universe that in a way I hope I never run into, but in another way I’m glad exists. You see, if the universe is all tame and explained, it is a very limited universe. If it is not, then perhaps it also holds corresponding wonders; wonders that correspond in gladness to the horror of the dark stuff. And that is what I desire, and I think that is what is behind our desire in literature for greater wonder, greater mystery, and why we love to read about it, why it makes for a good story. A depth which is horrible argues a corresponding wonder that is greater and more wonderful than all the terror below it. Evil is, after all, the privation of good.

And God who is not tame is still in charge. We do not get to determine the boundaries of experience. Terrors are present in it, the greatest being that great being who is wholly other. There is a terror of holiness and an awfulness in mystery. It should awe us and fascinate us more than any other thing, and I think that is what God was after with his people. I think that’s the tragedy of the pettiness of Saul, and the tragic irony of his story. He had to go to mediums because the Lord left off speaking to him because he despised, profaned and himself turned away from the greater wonder. The greater magic was gone, and so he went among the shadows and shades, with those who peep and mutter and do not speak with clarity or certainty.

And as long as the evil magic is portrayed honestly as powerful but undesirable, as corrupt and self-defeating, self-consuming, obsessive and degrading, then it OUGHT to be a part of literature somewhere–the better literature, that is. And let us not be afraid of supernaturalism–for that is what it is, that greatest of the greater magic–with all of its rigors. We do not live in a merely natural universe, but one under the aegis of the supernatural. We ourselves are supernatural beings with indestructible eternal souls, let us not forget. If we forget that, are we not less than Christian? God with his deep magic maintains and runs the world, intervenes when he wants and gives supernatural powers to his messengers when he chooses. One day he will raise the dead. Let us not reduce the world to make it comfortable and satisfy our timidities. Nor let us restrict the portrayal of the imaginative possibilities to something dry and dishonest, devoid of real conflict because there is no terror before the greater backdrop of wonder.