Having Exited the Tube, the Proverbial Toothpaste Brushes Us Off

Reading Moby Dick made me want to write. Reading does that to me quite a bit. Reading The Brothers Karamazov is not having that effect. The dialogue is hard to take seriously because it’s full of what feel like unnatural idioms and ticks. I know it’s 19th century Russia, and translated to boot, but even so, you get the sense that nobody actually talked that way. Maybe especially because they all seem to talk the same way. Every character has the same speech quirks – they share phrases and patterns that should be unique to specific individuals.

No matter. I’m managing to get through it. I even think it’s pretty good, and it might become one of those “classics” one day. I’m really pulling for this Dostoevsky guy – he seems like a good sort.

Whatever. He gets around the problem of dialogue, at one point, by having a single character simply do all the talking. For a very long time. Ivan Fyodorovich goes on quite a tirade, in the form of what he calls a “poem,” but in fact is about 17 pages consisting of nearly a single paragraph. It’s his (Ivan’s) own creation, a story about Jesus having come back and been imprisoned by some earthly authority in 16th century Spain, during The Inquisition. You can imagine. It really goes on. Ultimately it focuses on Jesus’ temptation at the hands of the the devil in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, when he refuses to prove his divinity through miracles. The Grand Inquisitor’s all “WTF (my words)? You had your chance right there. The world would have believed in and worshiped you forever.” But Ivan’s point is that had Jesus turned the stones to loaves, he would have enslaved mankind forever, because “man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it” (Part II, book 5, chapter 5, The Grand Inquisitor). Jesus, it seems to be Ivan’s point, understands the irony of a divinely gifted free will that would vanish in the presence of God. That if God ever proved Himself to man, man would never think for himself again.

It’s an amazing exposition on the subtleties of freedom, humanity, and divinity. A mix of heresy and piety. Of course it’s packed with passages and quotes that fit perfectly today; for instance:

“…so terrible will it become for them in the end to be free!”

In an essay a little while ago I wrote “How oppressed they would feel if someone took their oppressors away!”

Also from Ivan:

“Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission.”

There’s also an inroad to Le Guin’s Omelas, when Ivan asks his brother Alexei:

“And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”

I studied “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” twice in college, and nobody mentioned Dostoevsky. Nor did anyone say what Alexei says in his answer to Ivan, which is that he cannot admit it – cannot allow happiness to stand on the torture of innocence – though he knows that the tortured child is Jesus. It speaks a lot towards Alexei’s inability to remain either in the monastery or in the world outside of it for very long. It also opens up Le Guin’s story in an entirely new way for me.

But here we are, struggling mightily with our own freedom – its sources, its meanings, how other people function in our own coveted portion of it. Plagues, lockdowns, systemic injustices. And what we are willing to fight, torture, kill, or ignore in order to conjure up and support the illusion. Equality as a secondary goal, in service to our primary mission of finding someone to enforce it upon us.

We keep thinking someone can give us our freedom, and Jesus texts the group a Braveheart GIF with the message, “Brother, don’t go there.”

In the end of Ivan’s “poem,” Jesus, who had not said a single word to 15 pages worth of his 90 year-old Inquisitor’s soliloquizing, simply stands up and kisses the old man on the lips. The old man trembles, opens the gates, and begs Jesus to “Go and do not come again…do not come at all…never, never!”

Jesus leaves.

As if that’s possible.

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