13 February, 2005

Dostoevsky vs Hugo on bread

This post was stimulated by this morning's Gospel reading.

If you open to a random page of Hugo's Les Misérables, you're likely to happen upon some harangue about how peaceful the world would be if only we would give people an education and enough bread to eat. Hugo liked religion so long as it provided the bread of man; he disliked it the moment it started talking about the bread of life.

Hugo had a point; a great deal of misery and civil disorder has its roots in hunger and ignorance. However, the notion that this was some kind of cure-all (a romantic fantasy that continues to plague great swaths of the intellectual and not-so-intellectual elite) has been disproved quite effectively by the 20th century and, so far, the 21st. Nazi Germany was a nation by and large well-educated and well-fed (unless perhaps you were a Jew, or some other poor soul condemned to a concentration camp). The Arabs who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a grassy Pennsylvania hillside were not poor and ignorant; they were middle-class and educated. A substantial number of suicide bombers and most of the world's thugs are quite well-educated and come from wealthy families.

How does Dostoevsky's attitude compare? Dostoevsky doesn't ever prognosticate the future, as far as I know. However, if we consider The Grand Inquisitor (the famous "poem" appearing in The Brothers Karamazov) it becomes clear that Dostoevsky's view on misery is completely different: misery is caused by evil. If I recall correctly (I don't yet have a copy of the book) Ivan tells Alyosha about nobles who hunted children with hounds for sport. Then he recounts his tale of the grand inquisitor, who lived in Inquisition Spain and meets by Christ. Rather than welcoming Him and repenting, the inquisitor berates Him for giving to the poor bread that would satisfy their souls, and not their belly. Which is more important? Their bellies, of course. You can treat people with all the oppression you want; you can dehumanize and brutalize them — and the people will love you and bless you, so long as you keep their bellies full. Tyranny begins when someone provides you a full stomach.

Rather gives new meaning to the discipline of fasting at Lent: fasting, by promoting detachment from food, can help us keep our freedom. :-) (With me, unfortunately, fasting tends to promote attachment to food.)

I've also found another quote online, which appears to come from one of his letters. I am translating it from an Italian website named, appropriately enough, Karamazov:

The present socialism, both in Europe and here, wants to eliminate Christ completely. It labors first of all for bread; it entrusts itself to science, and it insists that the cause of all human calamity is only one: misery, the struggle for existence, "the environment that devours man."

But Christ has replied to this: "Man does not live on bread alone." In this way he proclaims the truth on man's origin, which is also spiritual. The devil's idea could succeed only on the animalistic human, but Christ knew that man cannot live on bread alone. [...]

If this were only a matter of satisfying Christ's hunger, why should the conversation have turned to the generally spiritual nature of man? It would have been useless, seeing as how he could have availed himself of bread if he wanted, even without the devil's advice. Which reminds me: I am sure that you have before you the theories of Darwin and others on man's descent from the monkey. Very well, without formulating one single theory, Christ explicitly declares that in man there is a spiritual dimension beyond the animal dimension. Thus, whatever the origin of man may be (the Bible does not in fact explain the manner in which God formed him from the mud, took him from the earth) it is a fact that God breathed into him the breath of life. (But it is terrifying that man, through sin, can transform himself anew into an animal.)

Now, I will not disguise the fact that I like what Dostoevsky writes in this second passage. The final observation particularly appeals to me: man, through sin, can transform himself anew into an animal.

Yet when reading this, and when reading the story of the grand inquisitor... it's hard not to wonder if Dostoevsky really understood what it is like for those who hungered for bread — his country, like many others of the time, including mine I think, had hunger in abundance. From what I've read, Dostoevsky led a rather comfortable life, and suffered poverty only insofar as his gambling habits drove him into poverty.

Doubtless I am being a little severe with ol' Фёдор (Fyodor), but since I've been so severe on Hugo, and so unabashedly admiring of Dostoevsky, and since today's gospel reminded me of the quote above, and since today's religion seems to have lost sight of the bread of heaven, and tries to inspire us to fasting only by talking about how others lack the bread of man, rather than how we lack the bread of heaven... a splash of cold water seemed appropriate.

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