May 16, 2015


Why Secular Liberalism Isn't Liberal : John Gray, René Girard, and the return of tribal religion (FORFARE DAVIS, Spring 2015, University Bookman)

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky reconfigures the ideological themes of his The Possessed into the microcosm of the dysfunctional Karamazov family fathered by the flamboyantly cruel Fyodor Karamazov. The novel's plot centers upon an act of parricide, the murder of the father by one of his sons, but its symbolism is about the nature and cost of deicide, the murder of God by ideology. The instigator of murder and middle son Ivan Karamazov is an atheist intellectual whose reasons for his crime, the cruelty of the father, are echoes of his arguments for his ideological commitment to atheism. As if to foreshadow what Ivan Karamazov's generation would inflict upon Russia, what follows in the aftermath of the revelation of Ivan's culpability is the surreal but revelatory episode of Ivan arguing with a vision of the Devil.

According to Girard, mimetic rivalry at its most extreme manifestation is a game the Devil, figuratively speaking, plays upon those who work to displace God. In The Brothers Karamazov the reader is introduced to many such figures, some in religious robes such as the Grand Inquisitor, others revolutionaries like Ivan. The game is that in the end, all the aspiration to transform the world by coercion or violence is really but the expression of unbounded vanity that feeds the mind full of visions of paradise while bringing only hell to the world.

When Ivan shares his reasons for his atheism to his younger brother Alexi, a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastic order, the younger brother is stunned by the emotional force of Ivan's argument: children are suffering and God is nowhere to be seen. But what Ivan uses to rationalize his metaphysical revolt drives Alexi to seek out and to help in his community just those children who exemplify Ivan's argument. Alexi takes to heart, even mimics, the legitimate concern expressed by his brother, but chooses to respond by healing, not ideology. Thus does Dostoyevsky show how imitation is not necessarily exclusively diabolical, but alternatively can direct the better angels of our nature.

In what is perhaps one of the more revealingly misunderstood endings to a novel, the reader, after being drawn into this melodramatic storyline is left with a seemingly anti-climactic final scene: Alexi among his ragamuffins and street urchins celebrating one of their number who had just passed away. Typically viewed as a false note to an otherwise epic storyline, the Russian is really revealing something about the modern reader. The epic, it turns out, is really in the seemingly mundane: love your neighbor as yourself. In contrast, the revolutionary is revealed as a vain banality: a vanity that claims to love mankind while displaying indifference toward individual human beings who are obstacles to his vision--or, as Lenin would refer to them, "broken eggs." What distinguishes the Ivans from the Alexis is the dramatic difference in the scope of their ambitions, reflecting respectively the magnitude of their self-importance and humility.

Posted by at May 16, 2015 9:40 AM

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