Dostoevsky and today’s world: the value of humanities

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Dostoevsky publishes the Demons in 1871-1872. The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21th century, with all their craziness, have not yet come to pass. There is no terrorism in his world as we understand it nowadays. Nevertheless, this is how he describes why a group of people bring havoc in a society. To the question of why there were so many murders, scandals, and outrages committed, a character of his novel answers:

“It was to promote the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse–sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation–suddenly to gain control of it, raising the banner of rebellion and relying on a whole network of groups…”

Some say that there is no value in humanities, that they are no longer relevant in today’s world. But if we really want to understand this world, we may need to read the great books of humanity. And for sure, Dostoevsky.

We are all to blame…

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

These words are uttered by another character in Dostoevsky’s Devils, Shatov. If you are familiar with other works, such as Crime and Punishment or Brothers Karamazov, the idea that we are all responsible for the sins of others is not a novelty. Let me mention only Zosima here, or even Mitya, the eldest or the Karamazov brothers, who says, “We are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people… but… I’m worse than anyone.”

You may also be familiar with one of the prayers before the Eucharist, which is said by all people participating in the sacrament together, at the same time: “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

All of these words, including Shatov’s, bring forth the same idea, that we all have responsibility for the suffering of the others. However, if Zosima’s and Mitya’s words seem to emphasize the responsibility that one accepts–a responsibility that precedes him–Shatov’s expression has a different flavor: “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

Shatov utters these words after he finds out that his wife, whom he hasn’t seen in three years, is pregnant and is about to deliver a baby. With no questions, no judgments, no .accusations, he runs to find a midwife. In a moment in which he could feel that he has been wronged, he says, “We’re all to blame, all of us…” It is, I take it, a description of the human condition: we are born into this world, we participate into it, and so we must acknowledge that its scars are manifestations of our own behaviors.

Still, in the midst of this pure feeling, Shatov says, “if only everyone could be convinced of that…”

This is such a human reaction, and, at the same time, the seed of our judgment for our brethren… The desire to have the others see that they are just like you, responsible for their and your suffering, is one of the most understandable desires one could have, be it in interpersonal relations or in society.

Consider a married couple as an example for the former. You feel your spouse has harmed you, and your suffering may blind you first. But then you may still realize that you are to be blamed, for in this world of sinners “I am the first.” You see her absence or her blow as manifestations of your own lack of presence, of your own inadequacy, and so your perceived suffering is transformed in love. Still, a thought creeps into your heart, “if only she could be convinced that she also is to blame…” And this is not because you consider that she has any guilt, but rather because we are all made out of the same mud, we live in the same world, and thus we are touched by all of its impurities. And just this little thought brings your defeat… For you no longer say, “I am the first sinner, I am first responsible for all,” but rather that she is the first one, even if you don’t realize it.

Societies… When the third comes in, and so the political, Shatov’s words become even more dangerous. “If only everyone could see how they are responsible for the lives of the others…” Of course, I am responsible as well, but they must see it, too. They must see that this world depends on them. There is one step from the beauty of Shatov’s words to ugliness and death. These words are the creed of any totalitarian communist society, which comes to claim that we are all responsible and equal in that responsibility. And those who do not see it are “enemies of the people,” individuals who must be eliminated, sent to Siberia or executed in dungeons.

“We’re all to blame, all of us… if only everyone could be convinced of that…” Of course, if everyone could be convinced of that, then there would be no suffering. Shatov may not have to face a group of people dedicated to causes. Still, even so, Shatov’s words invite us to vigilance against our own hearts: the demons never leave us alone, even in moments of beauty.

Dostoevsky and various solar systems

Yulia Mikhailovna is not a central character in Dostoevsky’s Devils. Nevertheless, she is someone who becomes the center in a different sense: she becomes the sun of her world. In just one page of a particular psychological finesse, Dostoevsky describes a character who loses her humanity by wanting to become more than she is.

“But whether as a result of excessive poetic feeling or the sad and repeated failures of her youth, suddenly, with the change in her fortune, she felt specially selected, almost anointed, one of those ‘upon whom a tongue of flame had descended.'”

What does such a person do when she perceives she has been chosen? She transforms herself into the world’s savior:

“She dreamt of bestowing happiness and reconciling the irreconcilable…”

Beautiful and noble desires for which someone may feel to be called and imagine that they cannot come to be in the absence of her work, her determination to change the world in such a way as to experience happiness. For everyone is obligated to be happy; everyone must live in this world as perfectly as possible, and she is called to bring it about.

But this dream of bestowing happiness upon all can only be done in one way: “She dreamt of bestowing happiness and reconciling the irreconcilable, or, to be more precise, unifying everything and everyone in adoration of her own person.”

This is the feature of all self-proclaimed saviors, be them family members or politicians: they perceive the world must be in a certain way, according to their own criteria of beauty, and they don’t understand your “inability” to live in it. Just like everyone else, they also perceive the world as a solar system, but inevitably fall into the temptation of judging life, perhaps even without realizing, from the position of the sun.

Perhaps there is no higher suffering than that of the one who believes that she dedicates her life to you in her attempt to create a beautiful world in which you have to live. In her focus on the beauty that she imagines, she forgets about you, and so she remains alone, creating everything around her in a mirror, in a splendid life that clones everyone of her cells. The suffering is multiplied by the ungratefulness she perceives in you: “I dedicated my life to you, and you throw it in the trash by not accepting it.” It is the hell that all tyrants who perceive themselves as their nations’ saviors must live in. But it is also the hell that we, in our daily, small lives, can live in if we ever believe we can “fix” other human beings.

What Dostoevsky does here, in just a few lines, is a description of the corrupted meaning of love: it always starts with the self and it returns to the self.

I always run away from saying anything about a possible solution. Still, since it is Dostoevsky, I will say one thing: perhaps the solution is still the solar system. I am not talking about another solar system than the one in which the self-proclaimed saviors live. The difference is that the solar system of the pseudo-saviors is interpreted through their understanding of love, that which begins from the self and ends in the self. Hell is not outside this reality; it is inside it and is the manifestation of our inability to leave the self behind (and so in our inability to love). The “other” solar system (but again, it is the same solar system) is the one which Alyosha describes at the end of Brothers Karamazov, the one of brotherhood and sisterhood with the others just as they are. It is one in which I see my role as that of a star in a constellation, having responsibility for the beauty of the constellation that was already given to me, and so for the stars that were already given to me, for whose lights I am responsible but whose lights I cannot repair or fix through my power, because the light does not originate in me. And so I have to deny myself to the point in which the light of the true Sun illuminates through me and, hopefully, would help the others rekindle their candles.

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

This text was written while experiencing the wonderful performance of Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo!” by Bradley Community Chorus, conducted by Cory Ganschow.

“Those that I love are dying… My world is shattered… You talk about some meaning, some happiness… how so? What is the point of asking for things when death surrounds you? What is the point of singing, of dancing… when… Joy? I find no more.”

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth”

*

“My child no longer speaks to me, and I’ve no strength to call him. My days drag on, no light in sight… my candle quenches… Some children on the street sing on, today, when people carol. And You, my God, so far away… Can’t you appease my sorrow?”

“Jubilate Deo!”

*

“Who is the old man who looks back at me from that mirror? Whose face is it, with those cold eyes, and wrinkles, and no hope? No wonder he is lonely, betrayed, and left by all, with nothing but a mirror for company… no door that he could open… no window… joy no more…”

“Worship the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyful songs”

*

“And how can harmony exist if hell exists too? I want forgiveness, I want to embrace everyone, I want an end to suffering. And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. And above all, I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer whose dogs tore her son apart! […] Tell me honestly, [Alyosha], I challenge you–answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same child beating her breast with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions?” (Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov).

Omnis terra, jubilate, omnis terra, laudate, Omnis terra, jubilate Deo! (Adapted from Psalm 100, LatinVulgate)

(from Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo, see one performance below)

“But come to me, O Lord, descend from mighty heavens, behold your own creation: some flesh and bones together, ravished by pains and sorrows, by passions and desires… Betrayed, abandoned… by death surrounded and far away from childhood. No place to rest my heart, no arms I can respond to…”

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

Moments of travel with Dostoevsky and Elder Cleopa

I left home to go home.

*

There are so many cemeteries on the way from Fagaras to the airport. In the speed of the car, I think I see one with soldiers fallen during WWI. So many young people who could not be mourned by their unborn children… Still, they are my “parents.” I can mourn them. Or I can rejoice in them. I carry them with me, whether I want it or not. And I am most aware of it when I see the cross from my own tomb before my eyes. “The highest wisdom of human beings?” asked Elder Cleopa. He answered, “Death! Death! Death!”

*

“Only in the light of Dostoevsky’s fundamental artistic task […] can one begin to understand the profound organic cohesion, consistency and wholeness of Dostoevsky’s poetics.” Bakhtin is correct: there is consistency and wholeness in Dostoevsky’s work. Perhaps because of his dialogism as well, but for sure for one other reason: death is the one that gives consistency to his world. Everything in Dostoevsky’s writings can be understood as long as we begin with the end, the inevitable end of all of his characters; the inevitable end of all human beings. Dostoevsky’s world is cohesive inasmuch as it is governed by death. Paradoxically, some may say, but most naturally, I would say, it is this death that gives light, brilliance, to all human beings.

*

I got on the plane. There’s a lady next to me. She has two toddlers. “She will cry,” she says, pointing to her daughter. She’s probably one year old, and she’s so full of life. She has no inhibitions and makes sure that everyone around her is aware of her presence. Two seats in front of me, a young adult is playing on his phone. His earbuds in his ears, he’s completely closed to everyone around him. How many prayers does he carry with him? Do his parents’ thoughts embrace him on his journey?

*

A few years ago, I went to Fr. Roman Braga’s funeral. The day before the entombment, the church at the Dormition Monastery was full: clergy and people, all brought together by their love for Fr. Roman. His corps was laying in the middle of the church, facing the altar, and we were all singing: “Christ is Risen from the death, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

*

The little girl fell asleep, and so my seat neighbor enjoys some peace and quiet. We all do.

We can be so separated, and still so united. Flying together to various “homes,” flying together to personal deaths. Still, each one of us is embraced by so many angels. Just like this girl, whose mother keeps her in her arms, without complaining for one moment, although she could not move for an hour. She only smiles, looking at her girl. Blessed are those whose arms are other people’s seatbelts. And blessed are those who have their seatbelts on for the moment of landing.

Immigrant on this earth

A few years ago, we were moving from one town to another in the US. We were a young family with a 10 years old child. That Sunday, we were driving home from church. It was our last Sunday in that town. We had found in the community of St. Alexis in Lafayette a home far from home. I think it was mainly because our priest’s mode of being was the embrace. We were embraced and accepted for who we were.

I noticed my son was sad, sitting silently in the back seat. “I wonder,” he said, “how it will feel when we come back here. Now, it is home, but it will no longer feel like home.”

My heart was aching, but I tried to be a good father and give him some comfort. “It will still be our home, just like Romania is our home and the place we’re going will be our home.” My son didn’t say anything for a minute, but then, in a quiet voice: “In fact, we only have one home, and that is in Heaven.”

This is my temporary home,

It’s not where I belong

This song by Carrie Underwood has the same idea. We are immigrants on this earth. We come into a country that does not belong to us, and we are supposed to return.

Some may say that immigrants do not have responsibility because they do not “belong” to the country they live in. “Windows and rooms that I’m passing through,” as the song says. But the condition of immigrant cannot be understood unless we also see that immigrants still have to fulfill another call, that of shepherds. This is my temporary home, but it has been offered to me as a gift, a gift which I am called to return in Thanksgiving. Father Alexander Schmemann says,

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God […]. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

It is the condition of a traveler, to take that which he receives and offer it back in an all-embracing eucharist.

But there are so many situations in which we are immigrants. We travel to other people’s souls, and we are immigrants in their hearts. In a way, we belong to them, just like a good Dostoevsky book, that dwells into your heart and germinates ideas and even new characters. In a different way, we already have a home. This allows us to never be owned, but it also says that we do not own other people’s souls either. We only come and visit. And they come to us. Love taking place in a freedom in which we are fully connected, but we never possess one another.

In fact, the condition of immigrant on earth is living on a cross: as shepherds of that which has been gifted to us (the horizontal one) and as beings who are in love and yearn eternally for the home where we know we’d return.

I’m not afraid because I know

This is my temporary home

P.S. Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s Idiot is an immigrant. He is Russian, but he comes from outside of Russia. In a sense, he is a foreigner. But, just like Christ, he is a foreigner who returns to his own people with a better understanding than their own understanding of Orthodoxy. He is an immigrant, an “idiot” perhaps in the sense that he does not speak the “language” of high society people, but an immigrant who knows better than all the others who they really are—promises of divine beings. Myshkin, like Christ, comes from the outside (from Switzerland), but also from the inside (he is a Russian). And, just like Christ, he acts and disappears in anonymity. Does that make his life meaningless?

A tree on a country road

tree, summer, road, nature, blue sky

A country road. A tree.

The setting of Waiting for Godot matches the condition of travelers that we have on this earth. We are on a road. We don’t remember where it began, and we are not responsible for starting it. The only thing we can do as long as we live is to continue traveling on it. We don’t know what will take place while walking, but we are given the certainty of a tree.

“Two Travellers, walking in the noonday sun, sought the shade of a widespreading tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a Plane Tree.

“‘How useless is the Plane!’ said one of them. ‘It bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.’

“‘Ungrateful creatures!’ said a voice from the Plane Tree. ‘You lie here in my cooling shade, and yet you say I am useless! Thus ungratefully, O Jupiter, do men receive their blessings!'”

Should Aesop’s fable be considered the key to Beckett’s play? We are on a road, traveling toward Godot, waiting for Godot to make his apparition, while a tree is next to us and we don’t even pay attention to it.

The country road is the road to Emmaus. We explain to the Plane Tree everything that has happened in our terms . We explain to It our story about Its life, and we are amazed that It is the only one who doesn’t know the story, who doesn’t know that it’s not sufficient to stand and litter the ground with leaves. It must bring forward fruit. And we tell It what the fruit should be. All of this while walking toward the “end” of the path, an end that we “know.” But there is no end of the path if we remain in the cooling shade of the broken bread.

Verweile doch, du bist so schön!

“I’ve been here all this time, and I will not run away,” the plane tree would say. For the tree is a beautiful idiot, just as Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. An “idiot” who makes no sense, who cannot justify his existence. And we want to feast on his body, just as we want to feast on the fruit of the plane tree. Still, an “idiot”does not run away and offers himself to others in spite of the evidence that this offering brings about no positive result, in spite of the fact that our eyes are still not open. And we feast on his body. Some do it in thanksgiving. Others, like the travelers from Aesop’s fable and even Estragon and Vladimir from Beckett’s play, do it without even acknowledging it.

Can we become plane trees that offer shade on the road to Emmaus? Can we become trees which, instead of offering fruit to others, offer themselves? There’s such a long way from an ungrateful traveler under a plane tree to a plane tree. It is the way from obliviousness to thankfulness.

O, moment, you are indeed so beautiful. Open my eyes and let me not run away.

Self-imposed isolation of man

The problem of “today’s” world for one of Dostoevsky’s characters in Brothers Karamazov is the self-imposed isolation of man, which “is prevalent everywhere now, especially in our age, and which has not yet come to an end, has not yet run its course. For everyone nowadays strives to dissociate himself as much as possible from others, everyone wants to savour the fullness of life for himself, but all his best efforts lead not to fullness of life but to total self-destruction, and instead of ending with a comprehensive evaluation of his being, he rushes headlong into complete isolation. For everyone has dissociated himself from everyone else in our age, everyone has disappeared into his own burrow, distanced himself from the next man, hidden himself and his possessions, the result being that he has abandoned people and has, in his turn, been abandoned” (p. 379-380 in the Oxford edition).

Self-imposed isolation is an epistemic problem. In knowledge, a human is alone, for he must detach himself from all things around him so that he can know them. Isolation disappears when knowledge is replaced by knowledge as love. I cannot love from the outside, but only from within the world, and this love (embrace) is experienced as knowledge of the other who is already part of my world, prior to me knowing it.

Zosima’s perspective embraces all people, including Ivan. Zosima does not reject the problem of evil: he embraces it. And, what may sound outrageous, it also embraces the general who murdered the child before his mother’s eyes. Just as in the unilateral contradiction that Constantin Noica theorizes, evil may reject the good, but the good embraces it.

Perhaps the only one responsible for bringing heaven on earth is “me,” because I am the one who is called to offer love as gift. Offering love is equivalent with regaining that which already is part of me and, at the same time, precedes me. Loving the world, I regain the world as it was meant to be because I cancel isolation. And so the presence of love, regardless of external circumstances, transforms any reality into heaven.

The spring of love

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return to the earth. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Forgive me, my brothers, for crying when I say these words, Fr. Zosima says in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, but they take me back to my childhood.

And I remember the small church in the cemetery, in Fagaras… the great Lent, and many children sitting down in the church, listening to Fr. Aurel… And incense.

But Job is naked, his children died and he lost all things.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”

“Only evil contradicts good, but not the other way around,” Constantin Noica says in his Becoming Within Being.

“One can love a man only when he’s out of sight; as soon as he shows his face, that’s the end of love.” How can we love a naked face from the “dressed” perspective of our being? The face troubles us, takes us out of our comfort; it tells us to do things we don’t want to do. And we don’t want to do them because we are not naked, but dressed in the “clothing” that we have made for ourselves.

She passes by me and I smile to her. She smiles back. We’re in an airport. Our eyes lock for a moment, they dwell within each other, and I feel so alive. An old woman, with fragile steps, but so much present in the void of these full airports.

She reminds me of the Lady in No. 6; I have no idea about her life, but she lives in me and I in her. The Kingdom is at hand.

Only when we are so old, only, we are aware of the beauty of life.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will return to the earth.” Blessed be this nakedness, out of which streams love.

Our images in other people’s worlds

Photo by Min An from Pexels

There is something touching about the idea that people live in their own world, in which I belong as a constituent, a world different than mine (I am not a character in my own world, but I am a character in their worlds): the responsibility I have for all because I belong to their worlds (you can read here some musings on this issue). What I mean here is that I don’t have to listen to Tavi, to wait behind him in line at a supermarket, or to deal with him as my spouse or as a driver on the highway. All the other people with whom I interact (and I would claim that all other people in the world, but this is a discussion for another time) somehow need to “deal” with me, depending on the relations that are established between us. So I am responsible for their worlds. At the same time, it is not really “me” who belongs to their world, and this is due to the way in which people see their own lives; or to the way in which people take a bite of their own lives.

There is one more level, though, and I sometimes wonder about the responsibility I have for that level: how responsible am I for the image of Tavi that is created in the discourses other people have about me or about what I say? Consider this situation: Mary and Johnny have a discussion, and Johnny describes something I said, but this description is filtered by Johnny’s own emotions and interests. The result is that Mary is hurt by “my” comments. Am I responsible for Mary’s feelings?

The first response–and this is the response that the majority of my students would give–is that Johnny has responsibility for what he says. I have done nothing. First, the description of my words is out of context. Second, I have not intended to say something that could have harmed Mary. Thus, Johnny is exclusively responsible for any harm Mary may have suffered.

However, the reality is that the event involves me, regardless of whether I contribute to it voluntarily or not. My problem is not whether Johnny is responsible or not for what Johnny does; my problem is how I contribute to his life and, by consequence, to Mary’s life. The paradox is that I am responsible even if I have no control over it.

The prayer before communion

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.

Of course, people hear “responsibility” and believe that this is a “moralist” approach. But the beauty of it is that it is not a moral responsibility, but rather the acknowledgement that I leave a trace in this life, for the good and for the bad. Regardless of my intentions, what I say or do can be interpreted, used, truncated. The point is, though, that I am an ingredient in this wonderful soup that is life (actually, this blog truly started with a text about this; you can read it here: the story about the death of a rabbit). And I cannot complain about its taste. As I was saying before, belonging to it makes me part of its beauty and of its ugliness; it makes me part of its taste. And since I participate in ugliness most of the time, regardless of whether I want it or not, I need forgiveness. It is not the moral or juridical forgiveness, but rather the curative one. If the world suffers and I am part of it, then the world and I need to be cured. 

Perhaps everything that happens to us is, if we read it well, another call to humility–one may say that this is the genuine condition of theosis. I cannot say it better than Anthony Bloom:

To me, humility is not what we often make of it: the sheepish way of trying to imagine that we are the worst of all and trying to convince others that our artificial ways of behaving show that we are aware of that. Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.[1]

And Mitya Karamazov comes to mind: “Gentlemen, we are all cruel, we are all monsters, we all cause suffering to people–to mothers and their infants–but, have it your way, I’m worse than anyone.”

Another paradox: this is an occasion for joy!


[1]Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. Paulist Press, 1970, p. 35.