Friday Meditation: Andrew Griffin
“Off you go, right now, this minute, stand at the crossroads and bow down; kiss the earth you have polluted, then bow down to the whole world, to all four corners, and tell everyone aloud: “I have killed! Then God will send you life once more.”
I want to follow these instructions given to Raskolnikov, a murderer, by Sonya, a prostitute. Doing so, I might just get to the point, instead of breaking the silence with as many words as I am now going to speak.
In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov finds no silence. The crime makes so much noise. Raskolnikov’s crime is a cry for life. He wants to usher in a new truth by his own force of will, with one creative act done by strong will that will redefine human morality. But he wasn’t strong enough.
Following the crime, Dostoevsky writes,
“The conviction that everything was deserting him--even his memory, even the ability to put two and two together--was becoming an unbearable torment: ‘What, is this it already, my punishment?”
There is no silence in a disordered soul. “‘What, is this it already, my punishment?”
Led by another, Raskolnikov is brought back to life, little by little, slowly and unsteadily. There is no moment to isolate and label ‘repentance’. By no means does he go willingly and he never secures himself in any intention to admit his crime, or return to life. Just like the instant of committing the crime itself, Raskolnikov’s confession, first to Sonya and then to the officials, takes place at a moment of indecision, without thought and without reason.
In ancient mythology the hero--Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus--descends into the underworld for the sake of knowledge, assistance, or to recover a lost love. He returns with understanding.
In North America that metaphor is past, we go to war, we give’em hell, and leave progress in our wake. There is no need to go through hell or tragedy to realize life’s comic resolution.
But in parts of the world the ancient myths still resonates, perhaps King’s is one of them. Aiming for the underworld, we knock on its door. Nietzsche tells us to forget the door and embrace life. Sartre says that the door is a mirror. Heidegger tells us to keep knocking because we’ll learn something about ourselves. Derrida tells us that the hollow door is not real-ly there. Our modern city, our modern words, bar access to hell.
Let me tell you about my descent: unsteady, unapologetic, slow. I began recoiling from truth that I did not think was secure. I wanted something unequivocally true; a truth against which no one can level a reasonable contradiction. At no point was I looking for hell.
I liked the comfort of Christianity but it couldn’t stand up to my questioning. There was some unseen manoeuvre made by Christians which no one was able to address. I was faced with a decision: partition my life, hold tightly to the fact that I “believe”, and for the sake of those good, secure feelings, subject my ‘real’ life--out in the world--to a list of rules that ensure that the good ‘feels’ continue. I did try hard but the pain of failure was too much, because I could not keep up my side of the bargain. I began to recoil. I didn’t want to utter a new word like Raskolnikov, I still wanted THE word, any real word, but it wasn’t there.
I recoiled and rested, and recoiled, and then again, until, every so often, I faced the nothing, nihil. I knew that there was further to go when I found myself facing a decision that I had to make. If I have to insist that something is the case in the face of an equally reasonable alternative, then I have not yet found what I am looking for. If it is true, then I ought not to have to make it so.
If the reason for which I live my life can be contradicted by an equally sound reason grounded in the same dirt, then true and unequivocal meaning must not be possible! This may be good news, but, like Raskolnikov, I am no Napoleon. If ‘all is relative,’ then every truth effaces itself the moment it is spoken. Only the loudest and most tormenting silence remains. (PAUSE) And with language went reason, my remaining stronghold. In the words of Nietzsche: “Truth is error.” “The conviction that everything was deserting him--even his memory, even the ability to put two and two together--was becoming an unbearable torment”
But that’s just silly, relativism is only a problem because I have been brought up to expect immutable meaning. Using that same unseen maneuver, Plato made truth timeless and for the proceeding two millennia humans learnt to secure themselves in an immutable truth. I need to simply stop seeing time-bound truth as a problem, and start celebrating the freedom to make my own meaning. Look around, reason works, let’s just use it. I didn’t see myself in hell. The search was over, the non-existence of truth was pinned down and put to the test. It was time to learn to cope. I look back: Was I in Hell?
I decided on existentialism, which told me that it could be a humanism. I wasn’t convinced, but allowances had to be made. I can’t really “owe” anyone anything, but in other people was the only place I found distraction. I have to admit, people are the best meaning-makers out there, perhaps I can fall back on them, and maybe even they on me. Together we might bide our time enjoyably. Don’t think this is a story of progress, I have not rejected existentialism.
I decided that I had to discipline myself for the sake of securing my happiness--I wanted to avoid emotional ups and downs. At times I thought that I was keeping up appearances “in the meantime,” even though I had already ‘conclusively learnt’ that meaning did not exist. I read the Nichomachean ethics. Through habits, by force of will, I grounded my the new meaning that I decided upon. Why this meaning? No reason.
I became very good at coping. I found love, and a more or less workable ability to keep my life in order. It still took a lot of distraction, and the corollary, concentration. Very quickly, all I did became for the sake of my love. I returned to reading seriously. My philosophy changed: essence may not be immutable, but I cannot make light of how firmly it has cemented in time. As I was drawn by my love into the Chapel, I resolved to attend because this tradition spoke to my soul. I have to choose something.
Raskolnikov’s return to life happened simultaneously with his return to community. The first sign of life took place when, after taunting and torturing Sonya with his words, he spoke cryptically about his crime, and Sonya understood his meaning. “Oh what have you done to yourself?’ She said in despair and, leaping to her feet, threw herself on his neck, hugged him and squeezed him tightly-tightly in her arms… A long unfamiliar feeling burst over his soul like a wave and softened it at once.”
The return to community is the return to life. “This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another into the mystery of Love.” Nothing of hell ought to be lost in the return to life. My journey into the underworld, the tragedy of humanity, is not complete. But reason is now given meaning by understanding, and I am not the measure of things. What a burden that was. But now I see anew--a divine comedy.
Remain in hell. Pursue truth. Hold ‘tightly-tightly’ to one another. And do not despair.