If you read the blogs and the criticism, the Grand Inquisitor section we reviewed last time is considered the book’s signature moment. For my money (and of course, I haven’t finished the book), the next book is far more entertaining, intellectually stimulating and enlightening.
The story is a biography (of sorts) of the Starets we have come to know and love in the early sections of the book. The framing tale is that the biography was written by Alyosha, based on (sort of) a long talk the Starets gave shortly before his long-anticipated death.
The story is a fascinating account of how the Starets came to be a monk, with all the expected elements, from living a materialistic life to the visit of a mysterious and mystical stranger.
There were a couple of things that I found interesting about this section.
The first thing goes back to the reason for picking the book in the first place, which is Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that everything you need to know in life you could learn reading The Brothers Karamazov.
I’m not sure I have been able to completely see that in my reading of the book yet, but I did feel that this section spoke to our present times.
By interpreting freedom as the propagation and immediate gratification of needs, people distort their own nature, for they engender in themselves a multitude of pointless and foolish desires, habits, and incongruous stratagems. Their lives are motivated only by mutual envy, sensuality, and ostentation.
Is it me or does that feel like we’re looking in the mirror at ourselves. More so than prescience, Doestovesky is latching onto a long-held theory of societal collapse: see Rome.
Of course, it is an essential question. Even David Foster Wallace more or less made this point in This is Water when he let the graduates of Kenyon College know that if they decided to worship something in the material world it would “eat them alive.”
Tying it back to the Inquisitor…who told Christ that he erred by giving people freedom. In this section, we see the same question with a different answer. The Inquisitor says Jesus should have sent them false miracles to essentially enslave them and to get them to ignore their baser desires.
In this section, we find the opposite answer, provided by the mysterious visitor. The path to real “freedom” is to renounce materialism…the Starets asks who is freer, “the rich man in his isolation or the man liberated from the tyranny of material things and habits?”
I’m not very religious, but this is a compelling idea. You don’t have to look around you very long to see the seeds of self-destruction in the way our defaults are set (h/t DFW).
The difference is that I don’t think you need to believe in a religion to get that freedom.
Of course, as time goes on we seem to make little progress toward this goal–or possibly we merely tread water. The mysterious visitor makes this point to the Starets–brotherhood “grows ever weaker in the world.”
Now, the book of Revelation has its answer to how this will end up. The Starets has this idea:
And how many ideas have there been on this earth, in the history of mankind, which, seemingly unthinkable even ten years previously, nevertheless when their mysterious time was ripe suddenly emerged and swept over the whole earth?
How many? Not many. But work with me here. As unlikely as it might seem…and I’m with you…open yourself up to think the unthinkable. What if we slide ever deeper in the direction where we appear to be sliding…could there not be a shift in consciousness that would take the energy of the descent and use it to funnel in the other direction? And, given with how deeply-seated our flaws are, could it happen any other way? Species only advance through extinction, not comfort.
Do you believe in religion? Or do you believe in evolution? Either way, it’s interesting.
One other little paradox. It goes to Pascal’s Wager, which is the thing you hear all the time…if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in God and he does. Which, in my mind doesn’t count as true mystical fate and I think the Starets would agree.
Yet, he describes the idea of being good to your brother and as a stated reason says that when you come before God:
God too will look upon you all with more kindness, for if you have shown such mercy to them, how much more mercy will He show to you
Isn’t that just another Pascal’s Wager? It doesn’t seem worthy of the Starets. Anyway, I thought that was an interesting paradox.
On we go.