"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.
"Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature...would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."
"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the turbulent lives of a dysfunctional family: a "wicked," "baboon" of a father and the three sons that he neglected. The main characters of the novel struggle to come to grips with their inner demons and the darkness they find within them and in world. To be a Karamazov is to have a thirst and a lust for life; it is to have a fantastic capacity for both good and evil.
The three brothers are united at their father's residence after being separated for most of their lives. They have been completely neglected and ignored by their father and have had to exist on the charity of relatives and benefactors.
For the purposes of my current posts, we are picking up at Book Five chapter 3 and 4, which is somewhere in the middle of the book, right before the crucial twist in the plot--the murder of the old man Karamazov. The title of chapter 4 is "Rebellion."
We find two of the brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, engaged in a discussion. They have met in part through chance and partly by intention. They are both young men; Ivan is 23 and four years older than Alyosha. Ivan is a philosopher and an atheist; Alyosha has been living at the local monastery under the tutelage and care of the very popular and pious Elder Zosima.
Ivan and Alyosha have been curious about each other, but this is the first time they have sat down for a discussion. Ivan is the intellectual; Alyosha is the naive monk-to-be. They quickly settle into a conversation about Ivan's "essence," says Ivan, "that is, what sort of man I am, what I believe in, and what I hope for." (p. 235 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).
The first thing Ivan asserts is that he has a desire to live, at least for the time being, even if life is a "devilish chaos,"
"If I did not believe in life, if I were to lose faith in the woman I love, if I were to lose faith in the order of things, even if I were to become convinced, on the contrary, that everything is a disorderly, damned, and perhaps devilish chaos, if I were struck even by all the horrors of human disillusionment--still I would want to live, and as long as I have bent to this cup, I will not tear myself from it until I've drunk it all! However, by the age of thirty, I will probably drop the cup, even if I haven't emptied it, and walk away...." (p. 230)
Ivan does not believe "in the order of things," and yet he expresses his love for that which is simple in life: "the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me." (p. 230)
Alyosha says, "I think that everyone should love life before everything else in the world."
"Love life more than its meaning?"
"Half your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you need only apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved."
"You're already saving me, though maybe I wasn't perishing. And what does this second half consist of?"
"Resurrecting your dead, who may never have died. Now give me some tea. I'm glad we're talking, Ivan." (p. 231)
Over fish soup and tea, the brothers begin attending to "everlasting" and "universal" questions: "Some people need one thing, but we green youths need another, we need first of all to resolve the everlasting questions, that is what concerns us." (p. 233)
What are such questions?
"Is there a God, is there immortality? And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it's the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end." (p. 234)
So, the discussion turns to belief in God.
Ivan says, "I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man." (p. 235)
Interestingly enough, for Ivan the atheist, the existence of God is a lofty, heavenly matter. The answer to the question could go either way, it seems. And the answer is irrelevant, anyway. Ivan is a human being; he is of this world, and as such, the question seems to lack significance. And yet throughout his dialog with Alyosha, Ivan invests a good deal of passion and energy into the discussion of such "eternal" questions. It is one of several existential contradictions that Ivan displays: he feels strongly about something, then disavows its importance; or he suggests that something is irrelevant and then later the same matter becomes crucial. I will return to this later. For now, I simply note that it seems to be a part of Ivan's argument strategy, but more than this, it is also a part of the struggle to existentially reconcile features of the world, itself, that conflict.
Ivan is of "an earthly mind," but he then goes on to suggest that we might as well grant that God exists. Whether God exists or not doesn't matter in terms of what occurs in this world.
Ivan has nothing against God, per se, he just rejects God's world.
"I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world. And I advise you never to think about it, Alyosha my friend, and most especially about whether God exists or not. All such questions are completely unsuitable to a mind created with a concept of only three dimensions. And so, I accept God, not only willingly, but moreover I also accept his wisdom and his purpose, which are completely unknown to us; I believe in order, in the meaning of life, I believe in eternal harmony, in which we are all supposed to merge, I believe in the Word for whom the universe is yearning, and who himself was 'with God,' who himself is God, and so on, and so on and so forth, to infinity....And now imagine that in the final outcome I do not accept this world of God's, I do not admit it at all, though I know it exists. It's not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God's created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept. With one reservation: I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man's Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world's finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men--let this, let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. That is my essence Alyosha, that is my thesis." (p. 235)
Chapter 3 concludes with Alyosha asking Ivan to explain why he does not accept the world.
Chapter 4, "Rebellion," opens with a discussion of love: we could love, Ivan says, if not for the face of a person. The love of Christ, for example, is impossible on earth, for "we are not gods":
"Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It's still possible to love one's neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close." (p. 237)
I found the above particularly humorous, especially in light of the tendency for Americans to give to abstract organizations (or churches) so as to be able to give to the needy without the hassle of having to engage the needy face to face.
"But enough of that," says Ivan. He means to speak of the suffering of humanity, and more specifically, of the suffering of children. This is the point in the text where things become quite intense. Ivan speaks in detail of the suffering of the children.
"People speak sometimes about the 'animal' cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as man, so artfully, so artistically cruel."
Ivan goes on to describe several forms and instances of cruelty to children, he then makes some rather bizarre (but telling) observations:
"I know for certain that there are floggers who get more excited with every stroke, to the point of sensuality, literal sensuality, more and more, progressively, with each new stroke. They flog for one minute, they flog for five minutes, they flog for ten minutes--longer, harder, faster, sharper. The child is crying, the child finally cannot cry, she has no breath left....You see, once again I positively maintain that this peculiar quality exists in much of mankind--this love of torturing children, but only children....It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child....There is, of course, a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability at the cries of the tormented victim, an unrestrained beast let off the chain, a beast of diseases acquired in debauchery." (p. 241, cf. 584)
Ivan's description of the sadist is telling, not so much for its universal implications but more for what it tells us about Ivan himself. How does Ivan know about the feelings of those who enjoy torturing children? His knowledge seems too precise to have been extracted third-hand. Further, there is other evidence in the novel to suggest that Ivan has sadistic impulses and desires. Now, I don't think this takes away from Ivan's current argument and complaint. On the contrary, it seems to intensify his struggle, because Ivan is sincere about the absurdity of the suffering of children. Ivan becomes representative of the essence of our human-ness: he is both disturbed and stimulated by his depravity.
Ivan turns to a tale of parents who abused their little girl, even forcing their little child to eat her own excrement: "Can you understand such nonsense, my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to 'dear God.' I'm not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!" (p. 242)
Ivan then tells a little servant boy whose master had him attacked and ripped up by dogs because the boy had injured the paw of one of his master's favorite hounds. Ivan's response to this is a very important part of his commentary on the world:
"I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen." (p. 243)
The above might just be the most fundamental element to Ivan's existential complaint: In an absurd world, who knows how to respond? Or to feel? Or to think? The underlying absurdity of the world resists a uniform or systematic approach.
Ivan discusses how the idea of freedom and responsibility ties in to his discussion:
"I can understand nothing of why it's all arranged as it is. So people themselves are to blame: they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, knowing that they would become unhappy--so why pity them....What do I care that none are to blame and that I know it--I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself. And retribution not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth, so that I see it myself....I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for. All religions of the world are based on this desire, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I going to do with them? That is the question I cannot resolve....Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it?....Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone's future harmony with themselves?" (p. 244)
Clearly the lack of harmony disturbs Ivan, and wants to be there "when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for"; but there is something in Ivan that also resists any talk of harmony. The existence of the suffering of children resists harmonization: we long for harmony and yet our sense of justice and harmony also cringes at the idea that any future "resolution" will in fact resolve such absurdity. Is the suffering of the children merely manure for "someone's future harmony?" So, the absurdity of the world stirs up contradictory feelings and approaches to the world: we want harmony (as Ivan clearly does) and we do not want harmony, as Ivan states:
"I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! She dare not forgive him!....she has no right to forgive the suffering of her child...
"I don't want harmony, for love of mankind I don't want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I'd rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live."
It is at this point that Ivan asks Alyosha if he would agree to be the architect of a plan to make everyone in the world happy at the expense of torturing only one child. Would he agree? "No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.
Thus concludes Ivan's "rebellion."
Concluding Thoughts and Comments
Living in Absurdity and Contradiction
As promised, more thoughts on Ivan's wavering. Ivan's comment about the absurdity in the world is important: "I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen." (p. 243)
In a world that "stands on absurdities," our responses to the world can be equally absurd and even contradictory, as in Ivan's case: he wants harmony because he loves harmony; but he does not want harmony for the sake of those who have suffered. Yearning for harmony and forcing harmony on an absurd world risks trivializng the suffering and injustice of the world. At one point, Ivan tells a story of Richard, a poor sap who was born into poverty and stole. "The savage began earning money as a day laborer in Geneva, spent his earnings on drink, lived like a monster, and ended by killing some old man and robbing him." Richard was arrested and put to death for his crimes. Yet before his death he was surrounded by the religious and the philanthropic. They convinced him he was a wretch and converted him. "And so, covered with the kisses of his brothers, brother Richard is dragged up onto the scaffold, laid down on the guillotine, and his head is whacked off in brotherly fashion, forasmuch as grace has descended upon him, too." (p. 240)
On the other hand, Ivan does not want harmony. Does killing Brother Richard, for example, restore harmony and justice? Will any future damnation "redeem" the suffering of the children? Throughout this narrative, Ivan is existentially divided: he wants vengeance but he does not want more suffering. He says he needs "retribution" (p. 244) and yet questions, "can they be redeemed by being avenged" (p. 245)
For Ivan, as for all of humanity, there is are existential dilemmas and even contradictions when faced with suffering and injustice, and this is particularly true of those who make appeals to God or some ultimate resolution/harmony....which leads to my next query.
Suffering and Evil: Is God the Point?
I think that this text (these two chapters, in particular) takes a fascinating approach to the issues of existence, meaning, and a higher Being (or purpose). For one thing, I take away the idea that reference to an Ultimate Being (God) or to an ultimate purpose seem to only complicate things. If there is no God, then there is merely an absurd world. If there is merely an absurd, godless world, then we human beings are free to pursue the betterment of humanity without worry about resolving the infamous Problem of Evil; namely, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil (the suffering children) with a God who is (allegedly) all-loving, all-good, and all-powerful.
So, if I understand Ivan's "argument" correctly, then I agree: reference to the ultimate, "eternal" questions can sometimes only muddy the waters and make things more complicated than they need be. I say, that those who feel the urgency to create a better world and alleviate the suffering in the world should do so, ultimate questions be damned (so to speak). Those whose tender hearts break over evil already live in the light of transformation. Why do they need to ask the Ultimate Questions? In fact, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha fits the description of just such a person: he simply lives to change and transform the lives of others by his love for them and his sincere and sacrificial goodness.
The transformation of Ivan, on the other hand, are questionable. Ivan is the philosopher, the one who plunges into the depths of eternal query. Now, I do believe that Ivan has a sincere existential and emotional pain when he thinks of suffering. How could he not? He was abandoned by his father. Ivan has lived through a childhood of neglect and abuse. But for all of Ivan's philosophical queries and emotional concerns, what does he actually do to alleviate the suffering of the world? Ivan's love for life consists primarily of enjoying the "sticky little leaves" and the blue sky. He states at the beginning his belief in the impossibility of looking into the face of others and truly loving them. Ivan is complaining as a spectator of life, not as someone passionate about bringing an end to suffering.
In spite of the immense weight of these questions, Ivan displays strikingly little true change. I do not think this is an attack by Dostoevsky on Ivan's atheism.....perhaps it was meant to be, but that's not necessarily how I take it; rather, I find it as an attack on anyone who presumes that a particular worldview can effect true transformative change. The Elder Zosima (Alyosha's mentor), for example, is revered by all but at the end of his life questions his decision to live a life cloistered in the monastery, and he actually sends Alyosha out into the world for transformative change. Hence, in my opinion, the novel does not seem particularly hostile to atheism or overly generous to religion: it is philosophical reflection that seems to take the hit.
Now, I for one, do not discourage pondering more deeply into the deeper questions of life. But philosophical reflection is not transformation, and the two are not necessarily connected. Having a "correct view" of truth (or doctrine) does not bring one closer to love; conversely, having an "incorrect view" (or even no view at all) does not mean that a person does not understand love "in the inner parts."
Eternal questions for the philosopher and theologian can, in fact, turn out to be substitutes for actual change and distractions from the task of transformation. The Rebellion text leaves me questioning whether there is ever a place for raising such questions. Have arguments for and against the existence of God merely distracted humanity from the real work of transformation?
Returning the Ticket and being there
Ivan's language is intriguing and quite telling: he wants to "return the ticket." It is as though life for Ivan is a theatrical performance that he can choose to watch or choose to not watch. The point that I think is implied in the Rebellion narrative and in the whole of The Brothers novel is profound: we cannot choose to be mere spectator's. As human beings we are born always and already embedded in the world. What makes us human is our interconnectedness with the earth and with each other. As such, "returning the ticket" does not really seem to be an option. The questions we face concern how we will choose to engage our interconnectedness.
References and Further Reading
1) There is a good set of mp3 lectures by Hubert Dreyfus from U of C Berkeley called Existentialism in Literature. There are several good lectures on The Brothers Karamazov. It is from these Dreyfus lectures that several of my conjectures spun off of; particularly, Dreyfus makes the convincing case for Ivan's latent sadistic tendencies.
2) The Problem of Evil from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
3) For those interested in existentialism, in general, there is a good article on Existentialism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Sunday, September 07, 2008
"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."