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philosophizing at 6am

June 27, 2011

Walking home this morning, I found myself reluctantly agreeing with Ivan Karamazov (from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov) that it’s more difficult to love another human being face-to-face than in the abstract: that our immediate perceptions and prejudices make any kind of truly ‘Christlike’ love difficult, if not impossible; whereas it’s easier to idealize humanity and love them from a distance, in the abstract, because people can be so annoying, brutish, cruel, stupid, ugly, etc. And any expression of this so-called Christlike love is more likely just a type of ‘self-laceration’ we inflict upon ourselves as a form of charity imposed by duty as penance. (If so, penance for what?) This then reminded me of something I recently read about the dilemma faced by the Freudian socialists who wondered (and perhaps still do) whether the aggressive instinct, which Freud thought rooted in/part of the death drive or Thanatos, was part of our nature. Eros, love, libido, or whatever you want to call it, was seen by Freud as a constructive and binding force (an idealized form being Ivan’s conception of Christlike love); and building on this innate drive, a socialist society (or, in an idealized form, the kingdom of God on earth) can, at least theoretically, arise. But throw the death drive into the mix, with its aggressive and self-destructive tendencies, and now you have a contradictory force that opposes and even undermines this constructive and binding force (which is like the torturous cruelty that Ivan uses to question the reality of truly Christlike love). A Hegelian or Marxist might see these two conflicting forces in the context of a dialectical relationship, which can be seen as a mechanism for change and progression in both the individual as well as society (and even a socialist society would have contradictions that’d be resolved), neither giving either force an absolute existence nor denying them completely; but Ivan seems to take the existence of the latter to refute the possibility of the former. Of course, since he’s dealing with Christlike love and not Freud’s libido, it’s easily to see why he’d do this since it’s the love of an immortal God, which is something that lies far beyond the range of his Euclidean (i.e., earthly) mind, he’s juxtaposing to the material reality (and suffering) he’s experiencing. From one point of view, this isn’t unlike a literary/psychoanalytic version of the theoretical conflict between utopian and scientific socialism being played out in the form of an abstract, internal dialogue. Then again, I’m not sure any of this makes any sense since I’ve been awake for 24 hrs and I don’t know a damn thing about Freudian psychoanalysis.

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3 Comments
  1. I reread this post just now after spending the early afternoon with you. You wrote, '…it's more difficult to love another human being face-to-face than in the abstract: that our immediate perceptions and prejudices make any kind of truly 'Christlike' love difficult, if not impossible; whereas it's easier to idealize humanity and love them from a distance, in the abstract, because people can be so annoying, brutish, cruel, stupid, ugly, etc. And any expression of this so-called Christlike love is more likely just a type of 'self-laceration' we inflict upon ourselves as a form of charity imposed by duty as penance.”

    I haven't read any writings of Dostoevsky except for extracts, and so I do not know if you were quoting verbatim from something the character Ivan Karamazov said, or if the words you wrote were your perception of what he said. And, though I understand completely what these words mean and can agree that this can be the mindset of the 'religious' Christian, what I find in my own life is that the exact opposite is true: For me it is impossible to love people in the abstract, and very difficult to love them en masse, but very easy, even irresistible to love them when they are standing right in front of me. Now, I am not saying that automatically I love everyone who is put in my path; in fact I am often initially repelled by many of them. But if they remain in my path more than 5 minutes, and I have the opportunity to engage them, immediately a sympathy springs up at the minimum, and sometimes an instant feeling of recognition and love at the maximum.

    When I pause and let my self take the back seat, the charioteer of my soul drives my car between the two armies, love and hate, and tells me, don't be a coward, don't give up, perform your dharma. Then I awake to my purpose, and slaying the army of hate, I vanguard the army of love, and carry the battle forward to whatever conclusion the Lord of my soul decrees. Everything is in His hands, and He preserves me from all harm while I follow His lead, though in reality my car may be an illusion built of ashes, it remains a chariot while I love, and love till hate is no more.

  2. It's my perception/paraphrase of something Ivan, who's essentially an atheist, is saying to his brother, Aloysha, who's a novice at a nearby monastery, particularly this passage, which is part of a rather long dialogue between the two:

    “I must make one confession,” Ivan began. “I could never understand how one can love one's neighbor. It's just one's neighbor, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance. I once read somewhere of John the Merciful, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from 'self-laceration,' from self-laceration of falsity, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty, as penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”
    “Father Zosima has talked of that more than once,” observed Alyosha; “he, too, said that the face of a man often hinders many people not yet practiced in love, from loving him. But yet there's a great deal of love in mankind, and almost Christlike live. I know that myself, Ivan.”
    “Well, I know nothing of it so far, and can't understand it, and the innumerable mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether that's due to men's bad qualities or whether it's inherent in there nature. To my thinking, Christlike love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods. Suppose I, for instance, suffer intensely. Another can never know how much I suffer, because he is another and not I. And what's more, a man is rarely ready to admit another's suffering (as though it were a distinction). Why won't he admit to it, do you think? Because I smell unpleasant, because I have a stupid face, because I once trod on his foot.”

    One of the things I admire about Dostoyevsky is that he was able to delve into the depths of the human psyche — both the beautiful and the ugly — and didn't shy away from what he saw; and his writings so often mirror how I feel inside. In exploring his works, I feel as if I'm exploring myself.

    For instance, this very dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha is exactly the same that's going on in my own heart right now, and has been for quite some time.

  3. ” I once read somewhere of John the Merciful, a saint, that when a hungry, frozen beggar came to him, he took him into his bed, held him in his arms, and began breathing into his mouth, which was putrid and loathsome from some awful disease. I am convinced that he did that from 'self-laceration,' from self-laceration of falsity, for the sake of the charity imposed by duty, as penance laid on him. For anyone to love a man, he must be hidden, for as soon as he shows his face, love is gone.”

    I don't usually bother to tell anyone I disagree with them or with someone else, because it doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree. But for some reason, I have to say that I disagree with this character's evaluation of the actions of John the Merciful. Why? Because I have done very similar things, making room in my own life for people whom God sends, and taking care of them in ways just as untypical as what John the Merciful did for the frozen beggar. I am not bragging. This is just how I am. I am not this way consistently, because I don't follow an ideal and have no agenda or program. But I do these things, as they happen, and it would never cross my mind to do them as a way of atoning for my sins or self-laceration or whatever. That never even enters my mind. And if this is true of me, at least sometimes, it can be true of others. I have in fact met others of whom it is true.

    This line reminded me of something, “To my thinking, Christlike love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods.”

    Tonight I was watching a favorite movie of mine, Agora, which is about the murder of the female philosopher Hypatia by a mob of fanatic monks, and in general, a dramatic reconstruction of how Christianity was imposed on the pagan world after the ascent of the 'Christian' Roman emperors.

    One of the characters in the film, Hypatia's former servant Davus (a fictional person, not historical), after joining the fanatic monks, the paravolani, and having murdered non-Christians, specifically Jews, in a calculated massacre, questions his mentor, the cagey and persuasive monk Ammonius (he actually reminds me of myself!), whether he is absolutely certain that what they are doing is right. Davus says that he was forgiven for his sins, so why don't the Xtians forgive them (the Jews) their sins instead of retaliating against them, since Christ forgave them from the cross. Ammonius patiently but cagily explains, 'Christ was God, that's why He could forgive them, but we're just humans, and sinners at that, so that's why we cannot forgive them. That would be super-human. Only God can do that!” Immediately, one of the anonymous monk zealots standing nearby verbally lashes out at Davus, saying, “How dare you compare yourself to God!” and continues to stare him into the pavement. Davus doesn't even notice this other guy, but looks unconvinced and troubled as Ammonius enfolds him physically with his arms and tries to nurse him back to confidence in what they are doing, somehow blinding himself and trying to blind Davus, to the voice of conscience. That quote from Dostoevsky reminds me of this scene.

    If I didn't know for sure that real disciples of Jesus lived in every age and every place, my awareness of the historical crimes of Christianity might have prevented me from joining and remaining within the Orthodox Church. But knowing Jesus' words and warnings that the Church, though His earthly body, would still harbor agents of evil, taught me fairly early in my Christian life that what the Church appears to be and what it is are two different things, and that Christ knows at every moment who receives Him, regardless of where they are standing or what they call themselves.

    Sweet brother, thanks for spending some time with me today. The Lord is with us.

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