Giving definitions and Grushenka’s spring onion


I do not eat meat. As one may imagine, whenever I arrive at this topic in a conversation, I always get this reply: “So you are a vegetarian.” This is a fairly safe conclusion. People who do not eat meat are vegetarians (taken in general, without the various definitions depending on peculiar traits); Tavi does not eat meat, so Tavi is a vegetarian. However, I always reply with “no, I am not a vegetarian.”

Needless to say, my interlocutors are always confused and look at me with mistrust. Answers vary from “so you do eat meat” to “you’re funny…” The conversation may get into details, and I explain that I claim that I am not a vegetarian because the term “vegetarian” carries a lot of baggage (including political baggage) and that I prefer to avoid being placed into a category. For me, I am a human being who happens not to eat meat.

I have written about our temptation of justice, and this temptation to give definitions to people is much related to it (I just called a good friend a “moralism hunter”). We usually know by defining things, by placing them on the map of our understanding, so we give them names which presumably would describe their nature. In this process, we use the verb to be in various ways, so that, departing from what may be the nature of things, we move at times to their qualities or to their actions. Without much thought, we move on to considering the nature of these things as the nature of these qualities or of these actions. So I would be a vegetarian. But what does a vegetarian mean other than a human being who engages in certain actions–in this case, that of getting his nourishment from things other than meat?

It is Dostoevsky who always reminds me that all of us, during this life,  have moments that lead us into one direction or another. Nevertheless, any event is not the final experience and does not define fully our lives. What really defines us is love, expressed in gestures of kindness that we have hopefully received in our childhood (as Mitya Karamazov) and which, when we are thrown in situations from which we may fall into despair, bring us back to light, as a string of hope that there is some good in this world. Or the string of a spring onion which raises us up from the hell of solitude. (Here is a summary of the spring onion parable from The Brothers Karamazov).

“But bad people are bad people,” I seem to be hearing. What if we say that bad actions are bad actions, and that the actions do not define us fully? Suppose we consider someone of whom we would say that he has always acted righteously, and we define that person as a good human being. Perhaps someone like Alyosha, who seems to be a living saint at the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov, always ready to give himself to others without any second thought.  But Alyosha himself could have become a bad person; he goes to Grushenka ready to fall. He says, and I cite from memory, “I came to her because I wanted to be with a wicked person.” And this wicked person “heals” him: she throws him an “onion.” In the absence of this encounter in which a presumably wicked person does something that reminds Alyosha of who he really is, Alyosha could “have become bad” as well. So perhaps we may not be able to call him completely good.

But in this case, if we cannot define people who do good actions as good human beings, why would we define people who engage in bad actions as bad human beings? Maybe they were dealt with very difficult lives; maybe they were dealt with situations that may cause us huge problems, even place us in the impossibility to see the light.

I guess it is always good to throw a spring onion; it’s always good to throw a spring onion even to someone who may seem rotten, because that spring onion may help in curing his or her rottenness. And, one day, the love manifested in giving that spring onion may just be the hand which holds our hand, the hand by which we come out of the sea of oblivion.



About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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