In the NY Times Book Review this morning there is an interesting review of a book on Russia’s complicated relationship with modern Western ideas, which has various resonances for Friends and religious people generally, I believe. Excerpts:
There is a joke about the Russians, sometimes told by Russians. A young man from the provinces, inspired by a local doctor, travels to St. Petersburg because he wants to study “life.” He reads, he writes and eventually he enters medical school. On the first day of class the professor enters the hushed auditorium and announces, “Gentlemen, today we will discuss the pancreas.” The young man leaps from his seat, enraged. “The pancreas? How dare you mention the pancreas! We are not here to study the pancreas, we are here to study … LIFE!”
The most interesting minds, though, were the Slavophiles, who loathed the growing influence of Western philosophical ideas and romanticized the Slavic mind. Dostoyevsky was sympathetic to them and believed that modern Western thought was breeding a new kind of fanatic — cold, materialistic, indifferent to suffering. The traditional Russian virtues of compassion and spontaneity were disappearing in the face of utilitarianism, nihilism, anarchism and all the other isms spewed out by the West. Understanding the pancreas is all well and good, but when rationalists wearing square hats deny the demands of the soul they turn us into beasts.
Now, understanding the soul is also well and good. But what happens when soulfulness stands in the way of rational philosophy and science? Isn’t there a price to be paid?
Chamberlain’s account sheds light on the complex cultural reaction set off when modern Western ideas wash up on the shores of cultures simultaneously ashamed of their social and scientific backwardness and convinced of their moral superiority. In the 19th century Russia was the small theater in which this drama played out; today, the theater is the entire world. The value of this book is that it offers a small window into the mental universe of underground men everywhere.