|The presence of another in one’s life: the chance of remaining a “good man” even when harmed. Photo taken at the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Muzeul National al Taranului Roman)|
Socrates often says that a good man cannot be harmed. Here is a good human being: Alyosha Karamazov, who spends his life running from one to another brother, to his dad, or to various other people who need to be fed by his presence. But at one moment in the life of the hero of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is harmed. Father Zosima, his spiritual father, just died, and people began speaking badly about him. His corpse stinks, instead of giving the sweet fragrance of myrrh. People are ready to say that he was not a saint, because there was no material proof that could have given them the certainty they desired.
Alyosha hurts; “it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that be believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded” (p. 427 in the Oxford edition). I think this is the first time when Alyosha is harmed in the novel; and Dostoevsky gives us the reason why: he was expecting some supreme justice.
One may say that Alyosha changed here from love to justice. So far, he has given himself to others without any second thoughts, without expecting anything in return. Now, because of the love he has for Fr. Zosima (so, at least on first sight, not because of self-love), he wanted justice for his spiritual father. The memory of his mentor was tarnished, and Alyosha wanted justice for him.
It is in this moment, when justice becomes his focus, that Alyosha can change to Ivan, a person who judges whether the world is just the way it is and who rejects it if it does not fulfill his own requirements for beauty. Alyosha does the same thing here: because of his love, which is quite interesting, he thinks first of justice, and he wants justice for Fr. Zosima.
The first effect of this is shown when Rakitin approaches Alyosha (429); the latter replies in a quite surprising manner: “go away!” Rakitin, who’s not among the most gracious characters of the novel, immediately rejoices in a fallen Alyosha: “My word! So we’re capable of raising our voice just like any other mortal.” In other words, Alyosha has descended to our level; he’s mud, just like us, Rakitin thinks, someone who has no moral superiority. And Rakitin is right, even if not in how he understands this; he thinks of morality applying merit and justice. Alyosha’s outburst shows that he has no merit, Rakitin may believe, so he further tempts him immediately, to bring him even lower. He gives him sausage during lent and invites him to Grushenka, who, so far in the novel, does not have a good reputation.
Alyosha is so upset with God that he goes to Grushenka precisely to get some sort of revenge against Him. “I’m not rebelling agains my God, I merely ‘refuse to accept His world,'” Alyosha says, using Ivan’s words, the one who treats the problem of evil from the perspective of justice. A world in which a holy man like Fr. Zosima is mocked by people without love and understanding is not just; why should we take a ticket for it? In his own rebellion, Alyosha goes to Grushenka–and he does not go just to pay her a visit.
But it is Grushenka, the one with no morals, who saves him. As I may have said with other occasions, there are no saints in Dostoevsky’s world; all characters are just that, human beings who travel this world, having an infinite numbers of moments in which they can lose or recover themselves. Alyosha is a human being who falls, who loves, who sometimes forgets to love, but who has the fortune to encounter someone who, at his lowest point, does not push him further into the abyss, but acknowledges his suffering and rediscovers for her and for himself his personhood. Through Grushenka, Alyosha recovers himself and recovers love; he comes back from justice to love when someone like Grushenka, instead of treating him “justly,” so instead of giving him wickedness because he came for it, has pity on him.
At the beginning, Grushenka is her usual self, sitting on Alyosha’s lap–on the lap of someone who is dressed like a monk, in a cassock. But then she finds out that Fr. Zosima has died, and the pain of Alyosha becomes visible to her. She crosses herself devoutly: “My God, and here am I sitting on his knees!”
At that moment, Grushenka no longer sees in Alyosha an object with which she can have fun or of which she can take advantage, but she perceives in him a suffering soul. She thus considers him a person in suffering. someone who is just like herself–because she has had her share of suffering in life. She makes him a favor; she escapes him from the abyss in which he is about to fall.
Alyosha comes back to himself:
“Rakitin, don’t mock me for rebelling against my God. I don’t want to bear a grudge against you, so try to understand how I feel. I’ve lost a treasure such as you’ve never had, so you’ve no right to judge me now. Look at her! Did you notice how she spared my feelings? When I came here I expected to find a wicked person–I was attracted to her because I am mean and wicked myself, but instead I found a true sister, a treasure–a loving soul… She spared me… I’m talking about you, Agrafena Aleksandrovna. You’ve uplifted my soul” (442).
So Alyosha comes to Grushenka not to be uplifted, but because he is low, he feels wicked, he is upset, and he wants to indulge into wickedness. He wants to be connected with someone else not as a person to person, but rather to lose himself in her wickedness; he goes to her to take advantage of her. He would use Grushenka, just as she would use him, but Grushenka, the wicked one, the one who seems to tempt anyone, the one who enjoys being desired by both a father and a son, is at that moment the human being who perceives in him a suffering soul and gives him a hand.
There are two ways to be with another in hell. At the beginning of their encounter, Grushenka and Alyosha are ready to consume the other for his or her own benefit. They are ready to devour the other. Later, though, after Grushenka’s pity, they are still in hell, but only externally. The world is still in suffering; people still mock Fr. Zosima unjustly. Grushenka herself still lives in a world in which she was abandoned by others. Their own suffering and the suffering of the other people create an external hell, but the care one has for the other by “sparing him,” by giving him a loving hand, transforms hell in an internal heaven. Even the darkest dungeons have light when someone else loves you.
P.S. I previously wrote about a song, Rachel Platten’s “Stand by you.” Here is the text: A Song on the morning commute.
And here is the song: