Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings

An Elder with Birds (Fr Mikhail Maleyev, 2003)

An Elder with Birds (Fr Mikhail Maleyev, 2003)

When I posted, on Saturday morning, my blog entry for Sunday, I little realized that I would be turning for help later in the day to the work I was discussing. Doestoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is guiding my response to the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Ball, and 16 others, including a child.

It is all about holding one’s center when confronted with evil. Here’s what Zosima, the spiritual elder in the novel, has to say in a passage I quoted on Sunday:

If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun above all things that feeling.  Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong.  Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them.  If you had been a light, you would have lightened the path for others too and the evil-doer might perhaps have been saved by your light from his sin.  And even though your light was shining, yet you see men were not saved by it, hold firm and doubt not the power of the heavenly light.  Believe that if they were not saved, they will be saved hereafter.  And if they are not saved hereafter, then their sons will be saved, for your light will not die even when you are dead.  The righteous man departs, but his light remains.

Does this advice sound impossibly naive given our inflamed political rhetoric?  After all, Giffords herself wasn’t able to get people to be reasonable last spring when she warned of such a “consequence” after being put in the metaphorical “cross hairs” of Sarah Palin’s target list (for her support of the Democrats’ health care plan).  How can we speak past people’s fears when so many hucksters and organizations are making a booming business out of exploiting fear, whether to sell things, to attract audiences, to raise money, to achieve votes. How can we have a sensible conversation about guns when the claim that Obama “would take my guns away” has proved a boon for gun sales and the National Rifle Association.

I would argue that Dostoevsky does not underestimate the challenge. He is well aware of how bad people can be, and his novel depicts evil in graphic ways, including the evil that can be done to children. (The author had to fight against the censor to keep descriptions of child brutalization in the book–and of course, 9-year-old Christina Green was gunned down in this incident.) The inhumanity that people are capable of all but unhinges Ivan, the intellectual brother. The more I reflect on Dostoevsky’s novel, the more I am convinced it is indispensable for our time. It presents us with as hard a case as there is and still comes down on the side of love.

Here’s a glimmer of hope. Sunday’s New York Times reported the story of two organizations that, in removing intemperate langue from their websites, could be seen as tacitly admitting that such language is dangerous. Or at least, admitting that violent imagery could be seen as a political liability instead of advantage:

Within minutes of the first reports Saturday that Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and a score of people with her had been shot in Tucson, pages began disappearing from the Web. One was Sarah Palin’s infamous “cross hairs” map from last year, which showed a series of contested Congressional districts, including Ms. Giffords’s, with gun targets trained on them. Another was from Daily Kos, the liberal blog, where one of the congresswoman’s apparently liberal constituents declared her “dead to me” after Ms. Giffords voted against Nancy Pelosi in House leadership elections last week.

I know some on the left will accuse the New York Times of false equivalency here: Palin’s map was seen and approved of by millions whereas most people haven’t even heard of Kos. But that false equivalence makes Zosima’s point even clearer: it doesn’t matter what the other side is doing, whether those people are guiltier than you. The fact is that we all have it within ourselves to demonize others, and we must work against that if the world is to become a better place.

One person who appears to be taking Zosima’s advice is MSNBC talk show host Keith Olbermann. According to a Washington Post article Olbermann, a self righteous angry voice of the left, has “acknowledged and apologized for his role in the acrimonious political climate.”   Good for him for doing so, especially since one might have expected him to point fingers elsewhere given that the victims were Democrats or people associated with liberal stances.

An Emily Bronte poem that I am teaching at the moment would approve:

‘Twas grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere;
But worse to trust to my own mind
And find the same corruption there.

We’ll see if Olbermann remains humble—will he continue to draw viewers if he becomes less judgmental?—but at least in this statement he appears to have taken a real step towards maturity. Even if that maturity doesn’t transfer to the opposition—Zosima, remember, gives no guarantees– it’s still the right thing to do.

We can all respond similarly.  Last March I drew on Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko (who lives in Arizona) to figure out how to respond to the rage that was fueling the Tea Party movement. (You can read the entire post here.) The situation, appearing in her novel Ceremony, involves a young Indian war veteran (Tayo) choosing not to give into his anger against a vicious fellow Indian.  He has just witnessed a horrendous act of violence where fellow war veterans, failing to capture and kill him, turn on each other instead.  He resists the dark pull of their anger and instead steps backs and allows what Silko calls “the witchery” to consume itself:

The moon was lost in a cloud bank.  He moved back into the boulders.  It had been a close call.  The witchery had almost ended the story according go its plan; Tayo had almost jammed the screwdriver into Emo’s skull the way the witchery had wanted, savoring the yielding bone and membrane as the steel ruptured the brain. Their deadly ritual for the autumn solstice would have been completed by him.  He would have been another victim, a drunk Indian war veteran settling an old feud.

As the scene ends, Tayo reconnects with what is eternal and pure:

He crouched between the boulders and laid his head against the rock to look up at the sky.  Big clouds covered the moon, but he could still see the stars.  He had arrived at a convergence of patterns; he could see them clearly now.  The stars had always been with them, existing beyond memory, and they were all held together there.  Under these same stars the people had come down from White House in the north.  They had seen mountains shift and rivers change course and even disappear back into the earth; but always there were these stars.  Accordingly, the story goes on with these stars of the old war shield; they go on, lasting until the fifth world ends, then maybe beyond.  The only thing is: it has never been easy.

What I wrote last March applies even more today:

The stars for Tayo are what Jahweh’s covenant is for the Jews and Christ’s promise of love is for Christians.  Perhaps it is the deep faith that humanists have that people can step into their best selves. When confronted with Tea Party rage, in other words, do not respond in kind.  Obama must be strong, leaders of different political persuasions must be strong, we must all be strong.  Find your center and resist the urge to lash out in return.

One final note.  Over and over in our country’s history we have been faced with this challenge.  Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish posted the following very interesting quote from William Manchester’s account of the state of the country before John F. Kennedy’s assassination:

“In that third year of the Kennedy Presidency a kind of fever lay over Dallas County. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed “Impeach Earl Warren.” Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas. Fanatical young matrons swayed in public to the chant, “Stevenson’s going to die–his heart will stop, stop, stop and he will burn, burn burn!” Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy’s name was booed in classrooms; junior executives were required to attend radical seminars. Dallas had become the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies . . .

In Dallas a retired major general flew the American flag upside down in front of his house, and when, on Labor Day of 1963, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted right side up outside his own home by County Treasurer Warren G. Harding–named by Democratic parents for a Republican President in an era when all Texas children were taught to respect the Presidency, regardless of party–Harding was accosted by a physician’s son, who remarked bitterly, “That’s the Democrat flag. Why not just run up the hammer and sickle while you’re at it?” – William Manchester, Death of a President.

The times we’re living in are not unique.  There has always been an angry, anarchical streak in America (and in humankind in general) and sometimes it has resulted in killing.  As Silko says, the struggle has “never been easy.”  But at least we have something to hold on to.  Hang in there.

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  1. farida
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    But Men Loved Darkness Rather Than Light
    By Richard Crashaw

    The world’s light shines, shine as it will,
    The world will love its darkness still.
    I doubt though when the world’s in hell,
    It will not love its darkness half so well.
    Thank you Robin, for reminding us and encouraging us to move a little more towards the light. Our prayers, not just for the people in Arizona but everywhere people are violating each others humanity, not just in their actions but in their words as well. (myself included).

    I also just wanted to add a quote I found by Katherine Paterson:

    “Words are humanity’s greatest natural resource, but most of us have trouble figuring out how to put them together. Words aren’t cheap. They are very precious. They are like water, which gives life and growth and refreshment, but because it has always been abundant, we treat it cheaply. We waste it; we pollute it, and doctor it. Later we blame the quality of the water because we have misused it.”
    Katherine Paterson

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    How did you find this great poem, Farida. I’m embarrassed to say that, even though I teach the period, I barely know Crashaw and don’t know this poem at all. And the Paterson passage is a gem as well. These people know us so well! In large part because they knew themselves so well.

  3. Francisco
    Posted January 13, 2011 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    I for one will be saying yes to the light.

    Thank you Robin and Farida.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By What Would Alyosha Karamazov Do? on January 12, 2011 at 8:13 am

    […] Better Living through Beowulf How great literature can change your life Skip to content BlogBook discussion groupsAbout « Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings […]

  2. By The Killer Always Comes Back on September 19, 2013 at 1:01 am

    […] Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings […]


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