Friday, March 25, 2011
Beast + Angel = Mensch
I hope you'll forgive my mania for diagrams lately. I'm just practicing for stuff I have to do for work. But a couple of years ago I put up a reflection piece on Steinbeck's East of Eden entitled "Shrewd as Serpents, Guileless as Doves." About a year before I reread the Brothers Karamazov. I don't know the secondary literature well enough, but I'm sure others have made the connection between the two books. This diagram shows how the two map onto one another I think pretty neatly, and it gives me a chance to riff on a theme I've been thinking a lot about lately.
I don't want to make too much of it; it's just an opportunity for me to make a diagram, but the diagram summarizes a basic Kierkegaardian idea that I doubt either was aware of, and it is in the background of my piece Metaxis--to be human is to be pulled in two opposite directions at the same time--toward the eternal and ideal on the right, and toward the particular and finite on the left-- and the people who reach what I think of as "Menschhood" are those who live in the space between these opposing forces, hold them together, and over time marry or integrate the two.
Those who don't hold it together tend toward either Hell West--which is the conventional idea of Hell--the realm of the seven deadly sins, the human life driven by instinct unmixed with grace. It's where Papa Karamazov and Smerdyakov are situated in The Brothers K, and Cathy, the sociopath madame of the local brothel and mother to the two brothers, Aron and Cal, in East of Eden. But Kierkegaard, Dostoyevski, and Steinbeck point out that's only the western wing of hell; the east wing is occupied by those who are seduced by angelism. Both Ivan and Aron live there, and Adam, the brothers' father, spends a lot of time there as well.
People who are in angelism hell are generally more socially acceptable than the transgression prone people on the other side. Adam is a "good" person in the common sense of the word, but he's in deep despair in the Kierkegaardian sense of the word. He's the polar opposite of Papa K. and his wife Cathy, but is in just as much trouble. His hell is a different kind than the one inhabited by Papa K. and Cathy, but it's a hell nevertheless. It's also inhabited by everyone who thinks that some kind of discarnate purity is the goal, and while religious and ideological fanatics inhabit this hell in the greatest numbers, it's inhabited by fussy control freaks of any stripe--judgmental types in general who demand that the world conforms to their ideal template for it, whatever that template might be. Katarina, like Ivan, fits this description. So does Ferapont the monk. The longing for purity and control is the longing to live in the east wing of hell.
I think that both books in the final analysis are asking the same question: In The Brother's K: how do you become someone like Zossima; in East of Eden: how do you become someone like Sam Hamilton? People often complain how difficult it is to write an interesting "good" character, and so our fiction and movies abound with interesting villains. Goodness is thought of as being boringly, predictably well behaved, but real goodness is not like that. Both Zossima and Sam are interesting, and they are so not because they're well socialized, but because they're mensches. The Yiddish word best captures what they are and what the goal is--to be a fully realized, grounded, radiant, particular human being. They're wise and generous and and free, and there isn't an alienated cell in their bodies.
Mensch-hood is the goal, and it's realized in the course of a life well lived. It's not achieved in a snap of the finger or in a satori moment, but in the slow cooking of the instinctual life by the heat of grace, and the grounding of spiritual life in a particular, finite, mortal life. The main task is to hold both sides together long enough so they can work on one another. You fail in this regard if you are, like Alyosha or Abra, temperamentally inclined toward the angelic side and you reject the instinctual side. And the same is true if you are like Dmitri or Cal, which is to be more temperamentally inclined to the bestial side.
The failure lies in rejecting the other side. Zossima and Sam are images of what it looks like to have achieved this kind of integration. Lise and Alyosha, and Cal and Abra are at the beginning of the process. I think that both books are interested in people who are attempting to make this beginning--on the instinct-driven side, Dmitri and Cal; and on the angelic side Alyosha and Abra. Dmitri and Grushenka are both on the instinct-driven side, and my guess is that it's harder for people so much alike to make it work, Cal is better for Abra than Aron, Abra needs someone like Cal to ground her; Aron would take her with him to the east wing of despair and hell.
It's interesting that the monk Zossima tells Alyosha that he has to leave the monastery and marry. Is this D's indictment of monastic life? I don't think so, but I'd say D. thinks that someone like Zossima, who in his younger life was a lot like the instinct-driven Dmitri, could benefit by becoming a monk because he starts on the left side of the diagram and needed to reach toward the right. A life as monk is legitimate path for someone like him. Alyosha, temperamentally angelic, would not do well as a monk, because he needs to reach toward the left side; he needs to be grounded. And marrying Lise will almost certainly be grounding for him. Abra in East of Eden, a figure a lot like Alyosha, was on a track to marry the angelic Aron, but she realizes that he's not grounded and cannot give her the grounding she needs. Cal needs her, and she needs Cal.
But the point is that for both Sam and Zossima, mensch-hood is an achievement, but not a project like body sculpting or other narcissistic self-improvement projects are. It's a different order of achievement because it comes from submitting oneself to an authority that transcends one's narcissistic tendencies. For Zossima it was his life-defining commitment as a monk. For most people it's their life defining commitment to another human being in marriage, and this kind of commitment almost always requires a certain amount of constraint, some times suffering, of going where we would not otherwise go. "Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing," says Zossima, "compared to love in dreams."
I think there are innumerable ways that people have the opportunity to discover this in their lives--and these choices present themselves in so many different ways--but the challenge is to avoid commitment phobia, to live a life in which the key is to keep one's options open, because in the end it doesn't matter how many options we have, but whether we have chosen to become something real, concrete, particular. But I'm convinced that it's this kind of life-defining commitment that is for most of us the main way available for us to hold together the angel and beast in us. It's the work that both grounds and uplifts at the same time and heals the riven soul.
More on this theme when I have more time.
Read more at afterthefuture.typepad.com
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