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mе́ньше зна́ешь – кре́пче спишь
The less you know, the more soundly you sleep
-Russian saying

Hours ago, tears have washed away the last of my faith.

With my head leaning hard against this cold airplane window, wicking grief from the darkest corners of heaven, I fly from New Orleans to a vague city in South Dakota.

A copy, my brother’s copy, of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (badly dog-eared, swollen from humidity, decaying pages, showing years of neglect that only a cherished paperback can bear with humility) is tucked into the seat, forcing me again to admit that sometimes the rough edges—the scars and imperfections, the mistakes—can make a thing more cherished. I run my fingers along its pages, the feel reminding me, faintly, of a life shelved so long ago.

The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate and deeply philosophical novel that unfolds against the backdrop of a modernizing Russia. The story is a dense and sometimes difficult exposition on God, free will, faith, doubt, morality, reason, justice, and—perhaps centrally—sin. But the novel is also a simple book about brothers, about how they deal with each other, how they fit within their family, how they interact with the world, how they deal with man’s nature (spiritual and base), their views on right and wrong, and (ultimately) death. For several decades this novel also was my youngest brother’s favorite book—or at least the one he most obsessed about.

But I get ahead of myself. This story begins so much earlier.

Fyodor Karamazov’s eldest son, by his first wife, is Dimitri, a sensualist (like his father) whose life is filled with quests for money and women. Fyodor’s second wife bore two sons, Ivan and Alyosha. Ivan is intelligent, a non-believer, and particularly disturbed by the apparently senseless suffering in the world. Alyosha, the youngest, is devout, immensely likable, and—if you believe the narrator—the hero of this story. Also there is Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s rumored illegitimate son, raised as a servant in his household. The first few books of the novel introduce us to the father, the brothers, the religious order of The Elders, and the reason for the Karamazov reunion: Dimitri’s quest for his inheritance from his father.

Dimitri's quest for money and casual treatment of love eventually lead him to be falsely accused of his father's murder. Privately, Smerdyakov admits to Ivan to having killed Fyodor and accuses Ivan of being partly responsible for the crime because of his (Ivan's) insistence that in a world without God evil is an impossibility. Alyosha, all the while, tends the sick, strengthens his faith, and reveals to others the path to redemption.  

I myself am one of four brothers, sprinkled judiciously among seven sisters. Given the breadth of personalities and abilities, my family hits a majority of the points on any graph of abnormality. While I may have been the most studious, it was my younger brother, Chas, who was by far the brightest—and given the intellectual prowess in my family, that was no small feat.

He was also, to be truthful, the most disturbed: what a kindly, gray-haired psychiatrist once described as a wandering paranoiac. This tale of a book and the life of brothers is his, not mine. For reasons beyond my comprehension, he cherished the book, argued with me about it on countless occasions, changed his opinion of its meanings over time, and consistently admired the author’s heart if not his intellectual rigor.

The idea of causation fascinated my brother, particularly in the realm of moral responsibility. Like the bastard Smerdyakov, he sometimes argued that we are not morally responsibility for harm we do not directly cause; like The Elder Zosima, he sometimes argued that we are responsible for all harm, no matter how tenuous our relationship to its cause; and like Ivan, the very discussion of the issue sometimes sent him into a deep and isolating depression.

Gentle and shy his entire life, my brother was an itinerant worker, gravitating towards slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants around the country.  Essentially homeless by choice, he would appear on my doorstep every few years to stay for a month or two, dropping off a box of books and odds and ends, filling it up again from my shelves. These visits were too short and too seldom, but we used them to argue and laugh and share long periods of silence. His exits were just as abrupt, as if he sensed that I was close to a full understanding of his mental state—something he would not abide.

A paramount theme in this story is one which pits faith against doubt and is presented in parable form in Ivan's recitation to Alyosha of "The Grand Inquisitor." This play within a play, so to speak, asks us whether man might not be better off without free will, whether we can divorce ourselves from sin entirely and thus insure eternal reward. Jesus, having returned to earth in response to the prayers of his flock, is confronted by the head of the church (the Grand Inquisitor) who accuses Christ of having placed an intolerable burden on humanity by giving it free will and the ability to choose whether to believe in God.

In a previous diary, Brecht smartly sums up the Grand Inquisitor's argument:

The Inquisitor says that Jesus made three mistakes, and that each of Satan's temptations was better than what Jesus finally gave his followers, and what he asked of them. Jesus denied his flock the easy and comforting answers, which were all most of them could bear. He left them with freedom, with all the pain and uncertainty of striving to be good by their own lights. He asked too much.

The Inquisitor believes...that only a tiny fraction of humanity are brave and wise enough to handle the knowledge of good and evil responsibly. Most of humanity is a shapeless mass, waiting to be told what to do. Those who can handle the truth, who can face up to the hard decisions, have become the leaders of the Catholic Church. They are continuing Jesus' work, taking the sins of the masses upon themselves. They know they are lying to their flock, but by pretending they have perfect faith and understanding, they allow the masses to sleep easy at night. So the leaders of the Church carry the moral burden of all humanity.

But there is Zosima; he, I can almost understand. The Russian Monk, an Elder, Zosima spends the last of his time here relating the history of a religious sect and explains how he found his faith in his rebellious youth, in the middle of a duel. He preaches that we must forgive others by acknowledging our own sins and guilt before others. No sin, he says, is isolated; we all are responsible for our neighbor's sins. Zosima, moreso than Alyosha for me, is the counter-balance to Ivan. Zosima's faith is one forged in the crucible of doubt and darkness; Alyosha's faith is more one born of inncence. As Zosima explains:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side...and children and all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you...Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.

And while not paramount, another thesis of the book is whether we are, truly, our brother's keepers. How responsible are we for our brothers? What faith do we owe them?

There is that instant when a phone's ring shatters a life, when time is tilted askew and we die just a little: that time outside time when you discover you are responsible for a decision that must inevitably result in death.

After confirming my relationship to my brother, a woman’s voice explains that she is calling from a hospital in South Dakota and that my brother was beyond saving—I have somehow been identified as a relative. With heartbreakingly officious patience, a hospital administrator explains that I am needed—there was a heart attack or a stroke, but in any event there are decisions that need to be made, forms to be signed, life-sustaining cords to be unplugged. The hospital can't discontinue life-support without my permission. Can I come and sign some papers?

On a plane to what seems like nowhere. It is difficult to describe how I feel; my heart is empty, it is without feeling, the emptiness furrowed with anger and conflict and sadness. I have been transformed into that obsequious courtier, enthroned below a dangling sword; I have been invested with the terribleness of raw and ultimate power—where life is measured in so many pieces of sliver.

My head leaning hard against this cold airplane window, I fly North, each nautical mile a reminder of my inadequacy as a brother.

Death ends both stories. Toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov, there is the murder of Fyodor (the father) and the unraveling of a family. But to be sure, death demands an act, not just an idea or wish.

Fyodor suffered from life; my brother suffered from chronic sleep apnea, among so many other complications. His heart gave out. He died not so much in his sleep, as in spite of it. But in truth, his life ended with a single stroke of a pen, held with a firmness and sureness that belied the broken person wielding it, a single gray hair tangled unseen around its nib.

Herein, in these stories, lies the mystery of a family adrift in spiritual confusion. The concept of death is so important to who we are, but speaking of death is also almost beyond the capacity of our language. Infused in the words we use is a fear and a knowledge and a discomfort that infects each of us in different degrees; in these words burns the flame that attracts us and repels us in that spiritual space between expectation and awareness; and in these words is the moral recognition that we are all—like Ahab—Persians, worshiping the speechless, spaceless power that we must, to our last breath, strive against.

For Chas, 1964-2013. I love you still.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri May 09, 2014 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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