Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Responsible for Everything and All Men": Mysticism in the Brothers Karamazov

On Wednesday, I finished what is yet another contender for my favorite book of all time: the Brothers Karamazov. It attained that status for two reasons. The first is that the characters in the book are, quite simply, alive. When I read, the author's successful attempt to delve into each player's motives, along with a good dose of "stream-of-consciousness-esque" dialogue, made me empathize with them more than I do with most people, let alone characters in a book. However, more relevantly, the second reason I like it is this: the Brothers Karamazov contains many spiritual insights, more profound than those in almost anything else I've read. This post will attempt to share some of these flashes of religious genius with you, in hope that I can at least convey a small fraction of the spiritual journey I went through while reading.

First, however, we need some context. The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1880, the last and greatest work of the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, pictured here.

It tells the story of three brothers (plus an illegitimate one, to make four), who are the sons of a certain Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov. This father is a boorish buffoon, with almost no concern for morality or the raising of his children. His oldest son is Dmitri (or Mitya), a troubled soul prone to gambling, drinking, and women. The next is Ivan, the intellectual one of the bunch. The third son (and my favorite) is Alexey (or Alyosha), a sincere and kind monk who is extremely devoted to his religion. The last, illegitimate, son is named Smerdyakov, the product of Fyodor Pavlovitch's rape of a mentally disabled woman. He is as sadistic as Alyosha is kind, once prompting a boy to feed a pin to a dog. Suffice it to say that he has almost no redeeming qualities. 

But, before we get into the spiritual stuff, we need a disclaimer. The Brothers Karamazov, while having spirituality as one of its main themes, is not exclusively about it. There are several characters (Ivan is the most prominent) who refuse to believe in God, and offer lengthy arguments to that effect. So, don't think that I am projecting my own views on this piece of literature; I am only exploring one of its aspects.

Now, my exploration of the Brothers Karamazov's spiritual components will be drawn from a relatively narrow section of the book, specifically Father Zossima's last speech and the immediate aftermath. Father Zossima is Alyohsha's role model and an Elder at the monastery where he resides. I took the following quotations from his lengthy deathbed discourse, which is to me one of the best parts of the novel.

"'You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.' That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants." 

I admit that I am guilty of this sin, as, I think, are many people. Lives under the influence of unending desire will ultimately be miserable, as they will always look for something to entertain themselves with, to eat, or to generally make themselves feel better. The only way out of this endless cycle, as Father Zossima later says, is "obedience, fasting, and prayer". Though this solution seems laughable to some, I can testify of its effectiveness personally, as it has made my life indescribably better.

"Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in all things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love."

This is a fantastic promise, and thus deserves our attention. Too often, I think, do we ignore things in our pursuit to love others. We love our family, our friends, or even our neighbors, but do we love animals? Do we love plants? Do we love inanimate objects? These questions (especially the last) may seem a bit silly, but I believe that if we do love all things, we will improve our life. For it's really a question of attitude: if you have an impulse to dismiss things as unimportant, or even to hate things, you will have an attitude of contempt. It is only by extending our love to the entire universe that we can eliminate hate from our souls entirely, and get that much closer to being like God.

"Much on earth is hidden form us, but to make up for that we have been given a precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. [...] God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew up and everything came up that could come up, but what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds."

It is a fact of existence that we do not know everything, and that many things are "hidden from us". This, to me, is incredibly depressing, and so I welcome any solution to such a problem. This quotation is such a solution. Here, Father Zossima says that our thoughts and feelings (and, by extension, our being) do not originate on Earth, but in heaven. If we are to believe him, it becomes apparent that everything going on in my head is a seed which comes from a heavenly plant, and perhaps that such a seed will grow into something like its parent. 

"Fathers and teachers, I ponder, 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

This short passage, although very "photogenic", (it is the #1 quote for the Brothers Karamazov on Goodreads, by far) is extremely profound. Considering that Jesus' two great commandments both involve love, this makes a lot of sense, for if we don't love God or our neighbor, nearly every Christian church will admit that we've cooked our metaphorical goose. But the brilliance of Zossima's statement is that, instead of saying that this punishment is administered from above, he believes that it is a direct result of not loving. For what is happiness but love? Without it, we are completely alone. It is only by showing love that we can connect with anyone or anything else, and thus avoid being cut-off from everything else.

"There is only one means of salvation, [to] take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men's sins, that is the truth, you know friends, for as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and all men, you  will see at once that it is really so, and that you are to blame for everyone and all things. But throwing your indolence and impotence on others you will end by sharing the pride of Satan and murmuring against God."

This quotation, which I have saved for last, is admittedly hard to defend. It may even seem directly opposed to everything you've been taught. But it is profound, and moreover, it is true. You see, we are all connected by an intricate web of responsibility. We can do nothing without it affecting something else, and thus (at least in a sense) we are indirectly responsible for every action and every sin. 

This idea is also a very clever way of expressing two religious ideas at once. The first is that we cannot avoid sinning, for none of us are perfect. The second is that I share my fundamental being with all things, meaning that I am connected to everything else, and thus "act" the entire universe vicariously. If we put these two together, it avoids the tendency toward cosmic egoism in the second, and the depressing nature of the first. But more than its metaphysical connotations, it gives a person a vast sense of universal love, as it gets rid of the idea that we are "separate and single" individuals, making our own ways through the world.

And finally, I will share with you my absolute favorite part of the Brothers Karamazov. It happens after Father Zossima dies, and is Alyosha's personal experience of the things his Elder had described (many of which we have discussed). It depicts a religious/mystical experience so profound that it leaps off of the page and shares some of its power with the reader.

"He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden  domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the bed round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars....

Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever. 'water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears,' echoed in his soul. 

What was he weeping over?

Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and 'he was not ashamed of that ecstasy.' There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over 'in contact with other worlds.' he was longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all men, for all and for everything. 'And others are praying for me too,' echoed again in his soul. But with every instant he felt clearly and, as it were, tangibly, that something firm and unshakable as that vault of heaven had entered into his soul. It was as though some idea had seized the sovereignty of his mind - and it was for all his life and for ever and ever. He had fallen on the earth a weak boy, but he rose up a resolute champion, and he knew and felt it suddenly at the very moment of his ecstasy And never, never, his life long, could Alyosha forget that moment."

In conclusion, I encourage you to read the book for yourselves. It is amazing.

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