The “Eternal Question”: Reading Dostoyevsky in a Time of Pandemic

I have not written for this blog lately. Yet I have recently immersed myself again in Dostoyevsky, especially in his greatest work The Brothers Karamazov. Many of his ideas seem pertinent for our present crisis. Here I attempt to note several of them.

1. I first read “The Bros K” at the suggestion of a high school mentor. Most of it was far beyond my ken, but I nonetheless really felt the book’s great passions. And that first experience led me back to a number of re-readings along with some study – almost always with a fresh sense of those deep human passions which move us towards both evil and good.

2. What most attracted me from the first was the figure of Aloysha, youngest of the brothers, whom Dostoyevsky on his first page tells us is the hero of his tale. We meet him as a young novice in the local monastery, obedient to the holy elder Zosima, who before dying commands Aloysha to leave the monastery and seek holiness in the world. In the crazy world of greed, lust, and so many unruly passions. In a world of crime and punishment. Yet also a world of so much good, so many passions for good, perhaps especially in “ordinary worldly heroes” like Aloysha.

I still remember the surge of emotion I felt on first reading the great scene when Aloysha – in terrible grief at the death of his elder — stands alone under the star-filled sky and throws himself down to kiss the earth — thereby embracing his calling to work with the town’s youth.

Re-reading Dostoyevsky during this time of pandemic, I think of the many, many “Aloysha like” heroes we increasingly take notice of – front line workers, to be sure, but also those maintaining the food chain, those continuing to educate the young at home and online, mail and sanitation workers…. Perhaps try to imagine those you’ve most noticed and appreciated.

3. I once tried to use “The Bros K” with college students in an “Intro to Religious Studies” course. They were mostly good students (with the inevitable mix of tired and bored). But it didn’t work. Because of the book’s length, the complexity of its characters, the density of its prose and imagery, and the challenge of its conflicting ideas and themes. I never tried it again. Yet who knows? Seeds may have been planted, even in the bored.

I did not challenge them to read the entire book. Since it was a religious studies course, I focused above all on those chapters focused explicitly on the “eternal question” (Dostoyevsky’s term) about evil and God – how can one possibly believe in a good God or the goodness of God’s creation when the world is so filled with evils.

The question arises for all of us – or perhaps is already settled for many – because real evils are so inescapable in our lives and our world. Indeed, this pandemic is clearly an experience of evil, both the “physical evil” of a natural disaster, and the “moral or culpable evils” involved in its spread. I think, for instance, of the ways human hope is crushed through unemployment and poverty, through greed and intolerance (now so clearly visible), and through the violence which will inevitably ensue.

4. As many know, it is the middle brother, Ivan (the intellectual) who provides one the greatest articulations of the problem of evil and one of the most powerful accusations against God (Christ) for silence in the face of that problem. Yet Ivan is not simply a “rebel” against traditional belief. Despite his immensely powerful argument for nihilism — that there is no good or evil; nothing is immoral — he too suffers great internal torment about this question, to the point of succumbing for a time to deep depression and despair.

5. And then there is Dimitri, the oldest brother – a military man of action and often violent passion, convicted in the end of the crime of killing his depraved and wealthy father Fyodor Karamazov. It’s a crime he did not commit, though he openly admits to many other crimes of passion, blaming the curse of the “Karamazov lust for life.”

I recommend the 1958 English language film version of “the Bros K”  which gives a very good depiction of Dimitri, played with great skill by Yul Brenner. Unfortunately the film displaces the centrality of Aloysha and Ivan, thus giving very little sense of the political-theological concerns which were so central for Dostoyevsky.  The other brothers are simply supporting actors in Dimitri’s story. Yet the film does give a good sense the depth of human passion for both good and evil. (I just saw it again and was surprised to see that a young William Shatner had played Aloysha.)

5. So why write about this “during a time of pandemic”?

In part because, as I’ve already suggested, the pandemic itself and the political and economic effects we are already experiencing pose for all of us (at least at some intuitive or implicit level) the deeply troubling problem of evil.

But perhaps more, because, as a believer, I want agree with the dying elder, Fr. Zosima. After Ivan’s intellectual “rebellion,” subsequent chapters  give Dostoyevsky’s account of the elder’s life and teachings. They too, like Ivan’s words, are compelling and not easily summarized. Suffice here to say that Zosima’s wrestling with good and evil is grounded in his understanding of the Christian Gospel – his focus on God’s mercy and forgiveness, on love of neighbor as the essence of human life, and on the fact that love in reality, not just in words and dreams, is so often “a harsh and dreadful thing” whose exemplar is the suffering Jesus.

Many think that Zosima’s teachings are Dostoyevsky’s attempt to refute Ivan and the atheism which he represents. Yet I think it is far more accurate to suggest that, as a novelist, Dostoyevsky writes less to provide answers than to challenge his readers to face “the eternal question” for themselves.

And as I’ve suggested, this pandemic – this plague – may have raised that challenge again, at least for many of us.

6. So let me end on a perhaps provocative note.

As I see it, we are today witnessing a great (if mostly implicit) affirmation of Zosima’s gospel proclamation about real and costly love of neighbor. By “front-line” women and men, but also right on the street where we live, in the places where we shop, in the many good people whose stories are now carried in our media. Also in what seems a growing awareness of the needy, the ill and unemployed and homeless among us. I clearly know that these many folks are a mix of humanists and believers, of Jews and Muslims and others as much as Christians. Yet I firmly believe that they have, by their active love of neighbor, joined Zossima against Ivan.

Just as I fear that Ivan’s side of the story will continue to play itself out in the actions of those among us who are fundamentally motivated (whatever their pious professions) by rapacious greed and power lust. Our many second-rate nihilists.

In the end, like all of Dostoyevsky’s major characters, like most of our heroes and neighbors and perhaps even some of our nihilists, we too live between good and evil — in the tension of opposing passions. And the challenge (for a time of pandemic isolation) may be that of discerning their movements in our lives (and our world) and then seeking to shift in ourselves (and in our world) the “balance” between them.

____

Ps. I regret I have not commented on the complex passions for good and evil found in the book’s two central women, Katya and Grushenka.

3 thoughts on “The “Eternal Question”: Reading Dostoyevsky in a Time of Pandemic

  1. John’s message brings to mind the question of whether good and evil are relative terms. I point you to two articles in the April 17-30,2020, issue of NCR: Winters’ column on “How partisan should Catholics be?” and the editorial entitled “Catholics and Trump: a reckoning.” Then compare them to Bishop Aquila’s Palm Sunday homily where he seems to paraphrase Fox News’ rhetoric.
    The US Bishops’ pronouncement that abortion is their preeminent issue drives many (too many?) Catholics toward Trump. A recent “America” magazine issue reports that point is used to support Trump. Maybe we can invoke “the lesser of two evils” idea to justify a position on the political spectrum.
    I have no conclusion on my thoughts but they give me fodder while I am doing the decidedly nonintellectual task of dandelion removal from my lawn.

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  2. I’ve recently completed a rereading of “The Brothers” myself and so your insights strike home.

    D makes clear the morally neutral but relative quality of physical evil in Smerdyakov’s epilepsy on the one hand and the boy Ilyusha’s sickness on the other. Smerdyakov uses his disease to get away with murder; Ilyusha’s sickness and death leads to Dmitri’s repentance and, through Alyosha’s efforts, Ilyusha’s mean spirited class mates conversion too.

    Has the physical evil of COV-19 been morally abused? You underscore rightly the greed that has ensued, in my judgment in price gauging and in those who would use the pandemic for political advantage. In addition the greater impact of the pandemic on the poor and some minority groups highlights the irresponsible use of our Country’s wealth.

    I see in Dmitri’s grand gesture towards Katya, paying for her father’s debts, Dostoevsky’s insight on the surprising nobility of certain people rising to the occasion. This is very evident in the front line workers in the pandemic .

    Regarding the “eternal question” of evil in the face of God’s goodness and power: I think we would have to go to the “Grand Inquisitor” for a response. There God’s infinite affirmation of human freedom is made clear. To this,should be added that a kind of “hound of heaven” commitment to human betterment which is found in D’s hero, the pure one, Alyosha. And such goodness is also found in the giving of so many in confronting the virus.

    Of course, we’re dealing with the mystery of evil and freedom and God’s love so.we can only give a more or less adequate response, not an answer. There is a story of a man praying to God in the face of an evil: “God why don’t you do something about this?” To which God replies, “I have. I’ve sent you.”

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