For what do we live? 17

Two giants of our civilization, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, prescribed Christianity – specifically Russian Orthodox Christianity – as The Solution to the moral maladies of the human race.

The moral malady Dostoyevsky wrote against in his novel The Possessed (also translated as The Devils or The Demons) was the mood of anarchist rebellion, underlain by nihilist despair, that was spreading through Russia in his time. His last novel The Brothers Karamazov implicitly prescribes Orthodox Christianity as the great alternative to existential despair and universal moral turpitude.

Russia ignored Dostoyevsky’s prescription – the Orthodox Christian way to national salvation – so it was not tested (yet again). Rather, the rebellious mood, infecting Russian society high and low, fomented vicious acts of terrorism, harbingers of the revolution that would condemn the country to seventy-three years of Communism.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the millions of victims of the Communist regime.

He wrote this at the end of his story Matryona’s House, indicating what moral failings he most despises and implicitly prescribing his preferred alternative:

She [Matryona] made no effort to get things round her. She didn’t struggle and strain to buy things and then care for them more than life itself.

She didn’t go all out after fine clothes. Clothes, that beautify what is ugly and evil.

She was misunderstood and abandoned even by her husband. She had lost her husband, but not her sociable ways. She was a stranger to her sisters and sisters-in-law, a ridiculous creature who stupidly worked for others without pay. She didn’t accumulate property against the day she died. [Only] a dirty-white goat, a gammy-legged cat, some rubber plants. …

We had all lived  side by side with her and never understood that she was that righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand.

Nor any city.

Nor our whole land.

Solzhenitsyn is praising Matryona, a poor, humble, kind, cheerful, self-sacrificing person, as an exemplar of the most virtuous, most praiseworthy person possible or imaginable. An indispensable type who justifies the existence of the human species. Rare, but a model for all of us. That is, “in the eyes of God” – he intimates. The “proverb” he mentions is an obvious euphemism for the Christian message. Repeatedly in his works he blames the wretchedness of Russia on Russians “forgetting God”.

And all his works excoriate Socialism and Russia’s Socialist regime. “Socialist” or “Communist” – the regime used the terms interchangeably.

He does not seem to notice that the type he holds up as a model and the virtues he praises, are the very type and the very virtues that Communism holds to be the highest and the best, and that Communist regimes require and demand. 

The Matryonas of our world are the models of both the perfect Christian and the perfect Communist.

Such people are valued by their fellows wherever they occur. Who would not value, who does not want someone in their family, or their neighborhood, or at least on their speed-dial, who will always help, always give whatever she’s asked for, even all that she has, including her life? Such people are useful among us. But are they models for us? Should all human beings be Matryonas? Would such a race build monuments of thought and skill and beauty, discover what the universe is made of, provide the drama and the laughter that we cannot do without? Is the Dostoyevsky-Solzehnitsyn-Christian-Communist way the best way to go or not?

Another Russian, Ayn Rand, protests most emphatically that the Matryona virtues are not virtuous at all. Her model is the man or woman who says (in Atlas Shrugged):

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Ayn Rand had no children. Parents can feel that their child is worth living for; can love the child’s life more than their own. And others too can hold another life more precious than their own. But in general, Ayn Rand’s anti-Christian anti-Communist message – that living first for ourselves and only in that condition contributing to our society – is a triumphant affirmation of the individual’s moral right to self-esteem and all the choices of freedom.

 

Jillian Becker   June 17, 2021

Posted under Christianity, communism, liberty by Jillian Becker on Thursday, June 17, 2021

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In the light of a setting sun 3

We continue the series of short essays by Jillian Becker posted on our Pages section under the general title of The Darkness of This World.

Here, in full, is the tenth essay, starting Part Two of the series.

It focuses on Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the nihilistic mood that prevailed there among discontented intellectuals; the decadence of the monarchy and the Orthodox Church; and it outlines the astonishing story of the mesmerizing, disgusting, scandalous mystic and lecher Rasputin, a peasant who rose to wield imperial power –  the enormous autocratic power that history had reposed in the weak hands of the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

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Romanticism – which grew in opposition to Reason from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, their common parent – is a kind of religion.

In certain essential ways it most closely resembles the Gnostic creeds of early and medieval Christianity. Both Romantics and Gnostics depend on feeling and intuition for their “truth”, which stands in both cases in opposition to their culture’s norms. To rebel against conventional morality, they choose evil. Both rationalize their perversity as the means to a higher good. For the Gnostics good lies in the heavens after life on earth is over; for the Romantics it lies in this life on this earth, just over the horizon, beyond the next revolution. Whether up there, or over there, both promise paradise.

In actuality, Romanticism led the way not to an earthly paradise but to earthly hells.

If Romanticism could be said to have a deity, it was “the Devil”. The Romantic imagination clung to him long after “God” had faded away. Germany “sold its soul” to him. Entranced by a Wagnerian fantasy of brutality, violence, war, conquest, “blood and beauty”, Nazi Germany chose evil, rode the storm triumphantly for a time, fulfilled its romantic dream in atrocity, and ended in flames and irreparable moral degradation.

Karl Marx prayed in romantic poetry to be empowered by the Devil, and metaphorically speaking his prayer was granted when Marxists took power after his death and tormented and destroyed millions of hapless victims. The Russian Bolsheviks were the first tyrants to govern in the name of the creed that bears his name. But they were not the first (or last) tyrants to govern Russia, nor the first Russians to choose evil.

The Enlightenment did not penetrate far into Russia. Even by the late nineteenth century, the Russian people were still deeply religious and the church was still immensely powerful. But a weariness with the old order, a romantic pessimism was spreading through the vast anachronism that was Tsarist Russia.

Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed (or The Devils or Demons), was published in 1872, eleven years before Karl Marx’s died. It has a cast of intellectual nihilist terrorists who typify the Romantic rebel in late nineteenth century Russia. They are against everything. Patronized, courted, and encouraged for the thrill of their scandalous philosophy of existential despair and malicious criminality by a stupid Governor’s wife – another type of civilization’s decline – they transgress all moral and conventional boundaries and eventually murder for the sake of murdering, and literally set the town on fire. One of them commits suicide and allows the others to blame him for their crimes, leaving an untrue note that he is the culprit. Why? Because nothing matters. Nothing. The man they look to as their leader, Nicolai Stavrogin, is the son of a wealthy landowner, an eccentric widow. She enjoys a protracted and chaste love affair of the mind with a once-daring but now perfectly tame intellectual rebel who has long since outlived his small fame. Young Stavrogin – handsome, rich, and privileged – is the rebel du jour, reckless and unpredictable. At his mildest, we learn when we meet him, he has publicly indulged his evil impulses by making defiant gestures against polite custom, saying and doing irrational things – such as biting a distinguished gentleman’s ear – deliberately to outrage society. In secret he has done far worse. He has committed a terrible crime that we learn about eventually: he raped a child, and the girl killed herself. Then, secretly again, he married a poor despised ill-used madwoman. Why? In penance? Out of compassion? Is he a saint as well as a sinner? Or is it a bizarre joke? Dostoyevsky perfectly describes what Stavrogin is doing: he is “living sarcastically”.

Dostoyevsky believed Russia was sick with nihilism and despair, and could be saved only by a return to Orthodox Christianity. But the sun was going down on “Holy Russia”. The Orthodox Church was no longer capable – if ever it had been – of distinguishing between its saints and its sinners.

In Orthodox eyes, which of the two – saint or sinner – was Grigori Rasputin, the man who more than any other single individual hastened Tsarist Russia into extinction?

Rasputin was a peasant monk who the royal family of Russia needed to believe was a mystic healer. They put all their hopes in him to cure the Tsarevich of hemophilia, the bleeding disease that threatened the life of the young heir to the throne, the only son of the Tsar. The peasant monk might also have been (it was both alleged and denied) a member of the Khlysty, a Gnostic sect that had arisen in the 17th century and lasted into the 20th century, to be ended along with everything else by the Communist revolution. The Khlysty believed in direct (“intuitive”) knowledge of the divine and redemption through sin.

Whether or not as a member of the Khlysty, Rasputin convinced numerous highborn ladies that they could be redeemed through sin. Their lust being sanctioned by so exciting a promise, they stripped naked for him, begged for his sexual attentions, and – according to some colorful accounts – would even lick his greasy fingers clean after he had been eating with his hands at the table of the Tsar. What is well attested is that the occult was in vogue in high society, and some of its luminaries seriously expected – because they deeply longed for – miracles. Rasputin was their master; to them he was the Devil himself, laughing among them.

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His own motive in performing his part may only have been the simple one of enjoying himself. By many accounts he fed gluttonously, drank copiously, and copulated promiscuously.

The Tsarina could not live without him. She did as he told her. And as she depended too much on her “holy healer”, the Tsar depended too much on her. By her insistence, the Tsar took into his own hands the direction of his country’s forces in the Great War, and he did not do it well. Persons in high places became concerned that Russia was being governed and misgoverned by the “mad monk” – and it was not too much of an exaggeration. He apparently had power even over the Holy Synod, though he had never been ordained a priest. It seemed that a lascivious peasant was working his will over church and state. The Tsar refused to send him away. Nothing could dislodge him.

Plots were hatched to kill him. And finally four would-be assassins – the Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov and Prince Felix Yusupov, along with a member of the Duma and an army officer – set about murdering him in the basement of the Yusupov palace on December 17, 1916; first with poison – but he stayed alive; then with a gun, shooting him many times – but still he did not die; then stabbing him and beating him on the head with a truncheon. Finally they dropped him, probably dead but by some accounts still alive, over a bridge and down through the ice of the River Niva. So ended his real-life performance as a “holy sinner”, or magus.

It had been a magnificent mockery – of religion, power, aristocracy, and morals – born of a brilliant, if instinctive, perception that the stupidity of the great laid them open to exploitation by bold native cunning. Had the Romanovs, in particular the Tsarina, and her noble ladies avid for sin, not been mystics themselves, not believed in miracles, they would not have fallen under Rasputin’s spell. The Orthodox Church itself – or part of it – romanticized mystic charlatans of his kind. Both the institutions of monarchy and church had become rotten stumps ready to be kicked over.

And kicked over they soon were. The downfall of Tsarist Russia began on April 16, 1917, just four months after Rasputin’s death, when Lenin returned from exile and began the process that brought the Russians under Marxian Communism.

 

Jillian Becker   September 20, 2014