No holy fool

On Hope by Tara Isabella Burton in the Hedgehog Review:

In order to accept our lives as a comedy, we must accept that none of us are the heroes we imagine ourselves to be.

This is the truth understood by Dostoevsky’s Alyosha and by the wider Russian tradition of the “holy fool”: the innocent whose faith in God causes him to appear stupid, if not mad, in the eyes of the world. To hope is a kind of foolishness. It is, too, a kind of refusal of the aesthetic, at least of the sophisticated aesthetic stance that rejects such populist kitsch as Hollywood happy endings.

I believe I’m getting this message right. It makes me think, among other things, of T. S. Eliot’s dislike of tragicomedy in favor of pure, unadulterated, streamlined tragedy.

This said, the “holy fool” business is completely out of place here. Russian holy fools – yurodivye – often acted transgressively, inviting opprobrium or ridicule. There’s none of that in Alyosha’s conduct: he is a well-mannered young man.

Nor is he a Parsifal type – a reiner Tor: although sexually inexperienced, Alyosha does not lack in intelligence. “He was always one of the best in the class but was never first.” Also, “…no one ever looked on him as a simpleton or naïve person.”

I don’t always trust this narrator’s judgment but don’t doubt his facts. To quote Constance Garnett‘s translation:

Some of my readers may imagine that my young man was a sickly, ecstatic, poorly developed creature, a pale, consumptive dreamer. On the contrary, Alyosha was at this time a well‐grown, red‐cheeked, clear‐eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health.

He was 19 when he entered the convent as a novice, about a year before the action starts in the novel. Almost improbably, everyone who meets him takes a liking to the young man. As for his attaining holiness, we’ll never know because Dostoevsky died and left his work unfinished.

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