There’s a passage in the acclaimed novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky that has resonated and haunted me for decades. I read the novel in a graduate seminar on political philosophy in 1993. My reaction to this passage fundamentally shifted the way that I viewed God and my own calling, moving away from academia toward social justice work. To put it quaintly, the book spoke to me.
It is not the Grand Inquisitor section although it does connect to it. Rather it is the passage immediately preceding that famed narrative. Ivan Karamazov who is a self-professed atheist is discussing religion with his pious younger brother, Alyosha. He relates a tale that reinforces his refusal to believe in the Christian God
“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones! I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself. I’ll leave off if you like.”
The two brothers continue to discuss the role of suffering, forgiveness and sin in the mortal world. Alyosha offers counterpoint outlining how God can forgive these types of evil and comfort the victims. Ivan rejects the value of forgiveness.
But what about the little girl? I thought then and still do. Ivan was a nobleman who had the capacity to do more than pontificate on how the story of the little girl impacted or reinforced his worldview. It doesn’t matter if he was fabricating a story, the reality is that there were certainly many children experiencing such cruel abuse.
I think he was asking the wrong questions – rather than ask how God can ignore suffering, perhaps he should question how he can ignore suffering? How does he contribute to the institutions that permit the suffering? How does he reconcile his rejection of the concept of God in light of the very real lived experiences of the little girl?
Ivan has lost hope, but unlike Dostoevsky – I do not think he needs to accept God to reclaim his hope. I think the power to do so lies within his own self and his willingness to help the little girl. He has some money, the capacity to attract other money, resources, privilege, power, etc. He could not save all the little girls, but he could save some of them.
It is a literary device to portray Ivan as a brooding intellectual nihilist representing the worst of Russian (and European) ideals of the late 19th century (published in1880.) While I certainly know some brooding intellectuals, MOST of them are also very invested in fundamental acts of intervention – they work at food banks, they form collectives with their peers to share resources and provide support, they take from the rich to give to the poor, they fix bikes for low-income kids, etc.
That’s as far as I’ll go in a literary analysis. I haven’t read the book since 1993 precisely because this passage pierced my heart and no one ever saved the little girl. I realize she was a literary device, but her story stayed with me. I turned to the Church for a while, hoping that the social justice Gospel could alleviate my conflicting thoughts. Then I turned back to the practical, secular world to pursue an MSW so I could be an informed activist. Both helped, but ultimately failed me until I realized that one must do both – random acts of kindness (per se) and systemic change. It is the micro and macro acts that help the little girls and help us, there is no distinction between them.
Ivan goes mad. Other characters often succumb to addiction (think Haymitch in The Hunger Games.) The suggestion that one must either give in to existential grief until it numbs you or embrace God as the only Salvation is IMHO untrue. There are plenty of people whose lives prove otherwise.
What does any of this have to do with blogging?
First, there is the fact that this passage in this great work of literature fundamentally changed my worldview. Art gave rise to my determination to not be Ivan or Alyosha.
Second, blogging is both an act of micro and macro defiance. I defy a reality that proscribes the role of white middle class lesbians in the United States. I defy conventions of what I should keep private and what I should promote. I gather blankets for the little girls and I call out those who pollute her water and deny her access to education. I’m not giving into the despair (which is a genuine feeling) because I blog about that, too.
Third, the art of blogging is that it often has no conclusion, no summary, no post-script. In my blog, Jesus kisses the Grand Inquisitor and then continues to go among the people and do his thing. The little girl has a name (Teaira Whitehead?) and then there is another little girl. Elections are won and lost, but the world continues and we must respond. If a personal relationship with God brings you comfort and strength to respond, fine. But we must insist that you do not impose this on others.
The Brothers Karamazov is a work of sweeping political importance as well as a personal examination of individual actions. I certainly don’t claim to be a Dostoevsky, but I do owe quite a bit of my own art to his influence. Maybe I should consider rereading the book in 2015.
Here in Pittsburgh, a 16 year old girl was found murdered and covered in bleach in a local park. There’s been no coverage of her backstory, her family, her hopes and dreams. No coverage of her funeral. No photos of her friends gathering to mourn her. No coverage of the women of color on Facebook who post her name every day. Nothing. The media shrugs and says “there are no updates in the investigation” as if her death is the only thing worth reporting. Teaira Whitehead was a 16-year-old kid, a young woman of color. She is the modern incarnation of the girl locked in the closet, but this time – it is us who ignore her pleas.
What works of art have changed your worldview?
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