Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same bookthat had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

To Be Too Conscious

 “I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real thorough-going illness.” –The Underground Man, Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man; over-consciousness can drive us to despair, to depression, to step heavily through each day to the beat of Ecclesiastes’ moans of meaninglessness and futility.

There is truth in the words of the Underground Man, but they stop short of acknowledging that this “sickness” has the power to shake us from a zombie-like going through the motions, to push us to fix our eyes on God and eternity.

There are days that I am tempted to give in to the negative side of this “sickness,” when thoughts of life’s futility beckon me to despair. These are the days when I am content with blindness, choosing to scorn hope, not having faith that my immortal inclination in the face of death, death, death is the most human of states because it points to the truest truth.

I bite my lip as I examine the broad order of things, people scurrying to and fro like ants, building houses and advancing careers and endlessly consuming, unconscious that one misplaced step, one turn of the steering wheel could propel them into eternity. I see them distracting themselves from over-consciousness,

knowing that it will pierce them,

knowing it will kill them,

not realizing that the death of the meaningless will birth a life of meaning.

I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness- a real thorough-going illness.

I am told that I think too much, that life must be lived, that the order of things is the order of things. I am over-conscious, morbid, in constant awareness of my own mortality, of the mortality of others, of the insignificance of striving and ambition and trying to make one’s mark.

I long for meaning in a place where people seem set on ignoring meaning, where people seem content in pretending, in trying to force meaning into promotions and white picket fences.

I almost give into despair, then real meaning calls: his name is Christ, and I reach out in feeble faith.  Real meaning calls, and for now, no one on earth can squeeze my hand in understanding.  But the time that we hoard and coerce and try to stop is insignificant; I will blink and be seventy and blink again; the dream will have lived its life and I will wake up, rub my eyes, and finally see.

If over-consciousness is a sickness, then I wish this disease upon everyone, confident that its ache might direct them to the deeper cancer that needs to be purged to save their lives. Death and history chug along, and the unconscious walk off cliffs into hell with smiles on their faces. I know intimately that over-consciousness can lead to depression when it turns inward, when it narrows itself into the claustrophobia of self-consciousness.

But I know that an over-consciousness that looks outward to the infinite Creator is a vivid gift, filled with joy. Its sharpness tells me that mortality is a distortion of the original plan. Its depth tells me that we are not a mistake, but crafted in the image of God, each of us one of his poems. And its constant pulse tells me that there is purpose, and that purpose is to pursue a life that joyfully sings “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”