I’m reading the Brothers Karamazov.
There are almost a thousand pages, and I haven’t made it to 300 yet. But I love it.
I checked it out primarily because of Madeleine L’Engle (why else, right?); in the book of her quotations that I have, she talks (frequently throughout the selection) about her admiration for Dostoyevsky, and how he revised his work extensively, to the point where he threw out thousands of pages because they didn’t work.
I haven’t made it to 300 yet, but I can already tell it was worth it.
It’s very comforting to know that even Dostoyevsky wrote things he didn’t like well enough to publish, though it’s disconcerting to know that perhaps you’ll end up throwing away pages you actually liked because they aren’t what you’re trying to say. Funny how that works. But the point of this is actually something else.
I like writing in my books, and I may have made some light pencil marks in the library copy, but I just discovered some that I definitely did not make (the slashes are going the wrong way).
The first thing I underlined was when the character of Lise says, “I am absurd and small,” because I often feel so, but it hadn’t occurred to me to use the word ‘absurd’ before and I like it. Plus, describing myself with a Dostoyevsky reference makes me feel awfully learned and nerdy and cool. Well, coolish.
Then came a scene in which Ivan and Alyosha are discussing God in a tavern. Ivan said something which caught me a bit by surprise.
“There was an old sinner in the eighteenth century who declared that, if there were no God, he would have to be invented…and man has actually invented God. And what’s strange, what would be marvelous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.”
Which sort of pertains to some of what I’ve thought about God being beyond our comprehension. Understanding him and the terms of his existence is really not the point. The point is that he is there, and that in whatever way, whether by his allowance or our capability, we are able to at least somewhat understand that he could be.
Ivan goes on like this: “And so I omit all the hypotheses. For what are we aiming at now? I am trying to explain as quickly as possible my essential nature, that is what manner of man I am, what I believe in, and for what I hope, that’s it, isn’t it? And therefore I tell you that I accept God simply. But you must note this: if God exists and if He really did create the world, then, as we all know, He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind with the conception of only three dimensions in space. Yet there have been and still are geometricians and philosophers, and even some of the most distinguished, who doubt whether the whole universe, or to speak more widely the whole of being, was only created in Euclid’s geometry; they even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have cone to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God. I acknowledge humbly that I have no faculty for settling such questions, I have a Euclidian earthly mind, and how could I solve problems that are not of this world? And I advise you never to think about it either, my dear Alyosha, especially about God, whether He exists or not. All such questions are utterly inappropriate for a mind created with an idea of only three dimensions. And so I accept God and am glad to, and what’s more I accept His wisdom, His purpose – which are utterly beyond our ken; I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony in which they say we will one day be blended. I believe in the Word to Which the universe is striving, and Which Itself was ‘with God,’ and Which Itself is God and so on, and so on, to infinity. There are all sorts of phrases for it. I seem to be on the right path, don’t I? Yet would you believe it, in the final result I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept. Let me make it plain. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men – but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it. Even if parallel lines do meet and I see it myself, I shall see it and say that they’ve met, but still I won’t accept it. That’s what’s at the root of me, Alyosha; that’s my creed. I am in earnest in what I say. I began our talk as stupidly as I could on purpose, but I’ve led up to my confession, for that’s all you want. You didn’t want to hear about God, but only to know what the brother you love lives by. And so I’ve told you.”
If there is anything to make a good little blondie college girl challenge her perception of the entire universe, Dostoyevsky is it.
There’s more, in which he talks about how he doesn’t think that man can even attempt to imitate divine love and why it’s unfair that little children are abused and how that relates to the existence of God, and it’s all very unsettling and turbulent and beautiful.
But taking that introductory passage into account, it reminds me, of course, of something I’ve encountered already.
One of the most resonant lines in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is when Augustus says to Hazel that “I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
Not all of that was relevant, but I like it so much that I wanted to include it in its entirety.
Love is just a shout into the void.
Because I like things which are words, I’m thinking now of St. Paul explaining to the Corinthians that “Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love.”
Does that mean that shouts into the void can last forever?
(that’d be awesome)
Love is just a shout into the void. BUT! But it lasts forever.
I’d call hope a shout into the void, wouldn’t you? Faith, as well. It’s a gamble, a shot in the dark.
Maybe that’s why they last forever, because they are shouted into voids. Maybe there’s no point unless it’s pointless. PARADOXES. I LIKE THAT.
Seriously! No wonder those three things all go together like that. Faith is only worth having if there doesn’t seem to be anything to have faith in. Hope is only worth having if there doesn’t seem to be anything to hope for. If you knew there would be something, you wouldn’t need to have faith or to hope for anything. So does it follow that love is only worth having (or giving) if there doesn’t seem to be anything to love?
Or any reason to love? (Same thing.)
I really like that, because I remember saying to Patterson a long, long time ago that it confused me why anyone wouldn’t want to love while they could, that any subsequent pain would be, in my eyes, completely worth it, and he reminded me that not everyone is wired like that.
At least this way I can say that St. Paul and John Green are wired like that.
There is no point in loving unless it is pointless.
Madeleine L’Engle talks about that in The Love Letters. “You must love…for no reason,” she says. “You must love…simply because you do.” (I might be paraphrasing slightly.)
But I’m tangenting, majorly, and to go back to the Dostoyevsky.
Setting aside the fact that I don’t quite know what Ivan means when he says he can see something and say that it has happened without accepting it, it’s just really, really cool.
As far as Ivan is concerned, it is impossible to try to understand God. If he were understandable, we wouldn’t need to try, in the same way that if he were believable we wouldn’t need to have faith. His problem is understanding the world God created, because he feels that because his mind is “a Euclidian earthly” one, he should be able to, and yet he cannot. So that’s why he’s stuck. But, because I am literarily merciless, I’m going to leave him there, grab the other idea, and run with it.
I’ve said this before. WE DON’T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND GOD, and it is almost arrogant to think we can try. To accept him is much more important.
And that’s love.
You don’t have to understand someone to try to love them. In L’Engle’s Camilla Jacques Nissen cites a French saying that “to understand everything is to forgive everything.” I doubt humans can understand everything; that would explain (a) why we suck at forgiving each other and (b) why God is so much better at it. Our job is not to understand, ours only to accept. Not that you shouldn’t try to forgive people. But there’s a difference between forgiving something because you accept the actions as having become part of reality now, and forgiving something because you understand it. And there probably lies the difference between rickety, mistake-fraught, selfish human love, and divine love.
Side note: I made it past 300 and it just gets better. More people should read Dostoyevsky.