Human politics driven by our ideals puts us at war with the cosmos itself. It means that the ideal of human politics is to demand a better world than the universe is able to give you – if I can’t find it in the world as it is, I’ll build it.
It’s the demand to God herself – I won’t submit to your theodicy; I won’t justify the raw deal of human suffering. My ideal is a world where everyone lives in peace and happiness. Where a single crying child is too much pain to be right, to be justified.
|For a Dostoyevsky fan, I've never been that into Crime|
and Punishment, though I do love it. It's a beautiful
book and a fantastically intense character. But I
found the characters themselves tended to become
ciphers for ideas a little too easily. The Wikipedia
page gives a pretty good sign of how irritatingly
up-front the book is about this breakdown.
Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?
This week’s posts have become a very unexpected series. They aren’t even really a series, as I’ve typically presented these things. Just picking up from the end of one post, moving in a tangent that it suggests, and then repeating the same from another tangent. Today is more of the same. And I hope it’s a little illuminating.
I’ve talked about my love of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels on the blog before, and how much he’s influenced my political thinking. Today, I want to tease out how it makes sense for a strict Russian Orthodox Christian monarchist to have influenced views and ideas like mine.
Begin with the beginning. Dostoyevsky was a radical anti-monarchist revolutionary and atheist. And he got caught. He expected to be executed, because this was 1840s Russia, of course. But the Czar played kind of a cruel trick on him and his co-conspirators.
Dostoyevsky was led out to a firing squad field, and the execution was proceeding entirely according to protocol. Then as the guns were about to fire, the squad put down their weapons and the drill sergeant announced that their death sentences were commuted by royal decree to several years in Siberia. This isn’t a myth – it was a real event that happened.
That moment of facing the certainty of his own death, seemingly within minutes and seconds, rekindled Dostoyevsky’s faith in God. And he was a dedicated Orthodox Christian and grumpy royalist for the rest of his life. A life he spent tortured by alcoholism and gambling addiction, as well as building one of humanity’s most legendary writing careers.
|Akira Kurosawa made one of the few attempts to adapt|
Dostoyevsky's sprawling epic of our interior lives, the
novel of his that first hit my soul, The Idiot.
Because Dostoyevsky didn’t become one of those unfortunate religious converts whose works become an excuse to spout dogma. This isn’t Kirk Cameron we’re talking about here.
What was most important to Dostoyevsky were the crises themselves – depicting in his art narrative and mental moments of the same terrifying intensity as he experienced up against that wall as a young man. Characters with the singular uniqueness as he felt in that moment when he knew he was going to die – there was never going to be another like him.
The list of Dostoyevsky characters that affected me over the years began with Prince Lev Myshkin in The Idiot, and Parfyon Rogozhin as well. One was the most beautiful vulnerability I had ever seen in a fictional character, and the other was a remarkable, malevolence that would make a heart burn with blackened flame.
After I read The Idiot, I thought that if I could ever create a character in fiction or film with the same intensity and singularity of Myshkin, even if only once, it would be worth all the work to devote at least a part of my life to make art.
I actually read Ivan Karamazov’s monologue about why he’s an atheist before I read the entire book. It was one of the readings from an undergrad course I took on philosophy of religion, presented as a straightforward argument for atheism.
|A poster for the 1969 Russian film|
adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov.
It was co-directed by the actors who
played Dmitri and Ivan after the death of
original director Ivan Pyryev, Mikhail
Ulyanov and Kirill Lavrov.
It’s probably the best argument for atheism that exists – it certainly blows away anything Hitchens or Dawkins may have written. It justifies and contributed to my belief that only someone with a deep and complex relationship with the divine can actually explain the deepest philosophical and ethical meaning of atheism.
Essentially, I hold that atheism. It’s an atheism that still believes in God. If you believe that’s contradictory, then you’ve been reading too much Dawkins and you think all you need to do to be a thorough atheist is not go to church and act like scientific knowledge is absolutely perfect.*
* Let’s not get into the contingency of scientific knowledge existing simultaneously with its systematic reliability, or we’ll be here for a whole damn book. And if you want me to write that book, you can subsidize it directly now.
Simply not believing in God because scientific knowledge can’t prove God’s existence is a kind of alienation from the divine. You’re alienated because you may once have expected something to be there that isn’t and never will be.
Ivan Karamazov’s is the atheism that embodies the most robust alienation from God – the ethical. It refuses to accept the legitimacy of the world’s ultimate goodness in the fact of suffering and destruction.
Theodicy, traditionally speaking, is the moral justification of God’s existence and goodness. Speaking very simply and quickly, it justifies the order and history of the universe as the overall product of God’s plan. All the suffering, cruelty, and destruction of the world is a function of God’s love.
It’s a refusal that the world could be better than it is. The human dedication to political ideals is a profound engagement with reality – a refusal of reality as it exists and an overwhelming desire to rewrite reality. That reality is the reality of God – Reality is the material expression of God. If you have a problem with reality as it is, then you have a problem with God.
Ivan Karamazov is Dostoyevsky the revolutionary. Learning who really murdered his father is Dostoyevsky’s moment in front of the firing squad. The desire to change the world for the better is real. The rage at the world is real. That rage has to build a new world.