‘The Long Prologue to Transfiguration’; Dostoyevsky and the Aesthetics of Liturgical Performance

George Steiner asks us in his essay ‘Absolute Tragedy’, “What are we meant to make of the Father’s descent into or absence from time during Christ’s agony?”  For Steiner, this is the “enacted testing of theodicy”[1]. The central question is  the presence of God in moments of tragedy within world-history. In the same essay Steiner presents the concept of the ‘crime of being’. That is, how is the existence of the tragic figure justified? The tragic is the questioning of existence at its core, and the ‘absolute tragedy’ is that which has no answer to the perplexing question, but rather understands existence itself as absurdity. “Absolute tragedy is the performative mode of despair.”[2] Ultimately Steiner sees this tragic vision of life as heresy when placed within a Judeo-Christian theology; either succumbing to a making of evil as basic as the good, or a vision of a cold, unforgiving Deity. However, the question of seeming divine absence is still present for any community. In the moment of tragedy the inevitable question is, where is God?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s experiment in Christology in The Idiot through his character Prince Myshkin is something of an attempt to answer similar questions. Often times Dostoyevsky’s art has been compared to the Orthodox practice of iconography; the employment of images in liturgical practice as windows into the theological. Yet, as we read the novel we see Myshkin fail, he finds himself impotent to bring life to the people with whom he encounters, in fact often the opposite is the case. Why is Myshkin’s figure such a failure? While there are no simple answers here, perhaps I can offer a thought.

In Myshkin standing before Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” states, echoing Dostoyevsky himself, that he could lose his faith in this painting. Holbein’s image is starkly realistic in its portrayal of Christ’s dead body – there really is no life remaining in this body, Christ is dead. This begs a question for Dostoyevsky, what does it mean to say that Christ is alive? Could it be that the experiment in The Idiot then is Dostoyevsky’s attempt to articulate what it might mean to see Christ in the very conditions of the ordinary?

Throughout the novel, Myshkin displays an incapacity to engage others genuinely. He can never really enter into genuine encounter with the other, and he is consistently acting in ways which display an incapacity to read life well. This may be because Myshkin arrives as if from nowhere. We know very little about his history. In rather more crude Christological terms, it is as if Myshkin embraces a human flesh without the history of pain which has constituted its memory, and therefore its being. This is why he fails; because he has not, and cannot, engage in the messiness, the pain, and the memory of human being. He cannot enter into, in Bakhtinian terms, a genuine dialogical encounter.

Coming back to Holbein, Dostoyevsky might also have said of Myshkin that he could lose his faith in this image. Any image of Christ devoid of life, history, pain, memory, cannot be a Christ with  real potential to transform us in dialogical encounter. That is, in order for Christ to redeem human being he must embrace it in its finitude and in its very fallenness. In the words of Steiner: “Suffering, waste, the frustration of love are the long prologue to transfiguration.”[3] It is the irreconcilability of the world with which we are concerned as theologians. The more we see God, the more we see the discontinuity in the world. But in that discontinuity we see more of the God who was crucified. It is in the face of the broken world that we do theology and we live; to tell the story again in a new way, to offer to the world the possibility of presence and hope, urging the community on to hopeful performance.[4]


[1] George Steiner, ‘Absolute Tragedy’, in No Passion Spent, Essays 1978-1996, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 137.

[2] Steiner, ‘Absolute Tragedy’, 140. Emphasis added.

[3] Steiner, ‘Absolute Tragedy’, 138-139

[4] Hans Holbein the Younger, ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’. 1520-22.


Scott A. Kirkland is a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Newcastle. His thesis is on Karl Barth’s theology of judgement as a reconstruction of post-Enlightenment subjectivity, in conversation with the novels of F. M. Dostoyevsky. He lives by the beach in Newcastle with his wife and two Guinea Pigs. 


  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for this post, Scott, which I think does an excellent job of charting us through the ‘woundedly embroiled’ nature of our existence, and how Christ (and figures of Christ) can guide us through this existence toward a future of hope. I wrote a post awhile back reflecting on the book Christian Theology and Tragedy, and I would be interested if you think the perspective encouraged in this book fits with Dostoyevsky’s vision and performance of ‘the long prologue to transfiguration.’ Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  • Scott Kirkland says:

    Thanks Wesley. My own work has had a lot to do with Donald MacKinnon (I was fortunate enough to have my supervisor introduce me to him in my first year), so my reading of Dostoyevsky (and Barth) is often coloured by the kind of hesitation over systematic closure inherent to the tragic. Obviously Dostoyevsky fits broadly within the tragic genre. But, I do think we have to be careful. Redemption functions often from within those very tragic conditions – hence the performative language functions not simply eschatologically. Incarnation allows Dostoyevsky to think redemption all the more radically, in that it is not escape, but transformation of the very fragile conditions which inherently carry the capacity for the tragic. Bakhtin’s reading is theologically quite potent at that point I think. Dialogical encounter always entails risk, the potential for tragic consequence, and so never allows for a system as such. There is much more to be said, but the short answer to your question is, yes!

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