I continue now with the amazing and disturbing chapter “Rebellion” from the Brothers Karamazov, which significantly affected my view of suffering. If you did not read yesterday’s post, you will probably want to do so before launching into this one.
Ivan’s stories are not just about wartime atrocities. They involve the everyday. And what is frightening is that they ring true to real life experiences. He is obsessed with the torture of young children, even among well educated “civilized” people living in Europe:
They have a great love of torturing children, they even love children in that sense. It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to – that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer.
He tells then the story of a five-year-old girl who was tormented by her parents and severely punished for wetting her bed (this is a story that Dostoevsky based on an actual court case):
“These educated parents subjected the poor five-year-old girl to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesse: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up and go in the middle of the nights (as if a five-year-old child sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age) – for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her!” (P. 242)
Ivan notes that some people have claimed that evil is necessary, so that we as humans can recognize what is good. With the five-year-old girl with excrement on her face in mind, he rejects this view. With some verve he asks Alyosha: “Can you understand such nonsense [i.e., such evil acts], my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price?” (P. 242).
For Ivan, the price is too high. He rejects the idea that…
This is an incredibly thought-provoking passage in one of the great pieces of literature in the world. Want to read more about it, and its implications? Joining the blog is easy and inexpensive, and gives you access to five posts a week on important topics. Why not give it a try?