Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit
(epigraph of Brothers Karamazov from John 12:24)ˆ
Early in Brothers Karamazov, we meet a mother who has journeyed a long way to visit Zosima, a monk of wisdom and holiness. She is consumed by grief, having lost her little boy.
As she tells her story, she picks at this wound, reliving her loss by continually keeping the piquancy of her sorrow alive. When at home, she tells us, she would lay out her little boy’s clothing before her; she would recall the pit-pat of his little feet; she would recollect the sound of his voice calling her name.
There is a queer mingling of loss and presence in this intensification of her grief. Her loss has itself become a kind of possession of her little one, who has become bound up, inextricably in her soul, with sorrow, a sorrow which has itself become dear to her.˜ She finds a perverse pleasure in her pain, even though it cuts her off from all that is still her life.¤
She is as the corn of wheat which abideth alone.
Our Tears are Salty. Yet, We Find them Sweet
Encased in a husk, a corn of wheat can preserve its life through a long winter; the husk protects it from the environment by encasing it within itself.
We too can persevere in bitterness and sorrow an incalculably long time. We can continue on in such pain because it forms a husk around our lives, though it protect us in the manner of a tomb.
Grief, self-pity, and pride can form a malignant, self-inflicted wound which seals the soul within herself. In doing so, such a wound comes to seem as if it is our very life. Dostoevsky describes this as “laceration,” and he depicts it through a number of the characters in Brothers Karamazov.
The Iconography of Suffering
Laceration has a structure similar to iconography. It forms a frozen narrative image of an individual.
The mother who has lost her little child, the rejected lover, the unappreciated great man eventually come to see the whole world in light of their own suffering. They come to be enclosed in their own little world which has the structure of a narrative or image.
There is an irony here because sorrow is generally that which penetrates, which pierces our existence from the outside.º Suffering is normally the result of contact with an outside reality, but in such cases, suffering has somehow come to be disconnected from reality.
Suffering pierces and transfigured one’s world, but here it does so as in the manner of a “shock [which] causes water that has remained liquid below freezing point to solidify.”¹
One fashions an icon for oneself out of pain, and the perverse beauty of this image gives a sort of frozen comfort.
A New Iconography
From the beginning of the novel, in which Alyosha’s mother holds him up before an image of the Holy Mother, to its closing pages, in which Alyosha extorts us to believe in the redemptive power of memory, Brothers Karamazov deals with the significance and indispensability of iconography.
In some sense, the novel is itself an icon, and depicts in its pages a contest between two images of suffering.
One image shows the universe as bleak, violent, unjust, and ultimately meaningless. This is the icon of the grieving mother, of Ivan’s disputation, and of the Spirit of the Age which finds beauty in bitter irony. It is ultimately an image of pride and despair.
But there is another icon in the pages of Brothers Karamazov.
This other image is more mysteriously structured. It is the image of Zosima’s active love, of Alyosha’s faithfulness, and of the child in Dmitri’s dream. It is an image of repentance and brotherhood.
This other icon takes for its material the narrative as a whole, as well as the goodness of God’s creation. For its subject, it takes the active love of God, present but hidden within the earth–a power ready to burst forth, just as the life of a seedling may so burst forth after it has fallen to the ground and died. Such power, it promises, has been sown secretly within the human soul since before the foundations of the world (Rev. 13:8).
This other icon, like the first, is itself full of suffering and injustice, for it is in some sense the same icon. For this reason, the two images are not presented side by side in the manner of competing arguments. Rather, this second icon has been presented to us within the development of the story as a whole. This new icon stands not precisely in juxtaposition to old the icon of sorrow, but as if around it, and more remarkably, within it.
Rachel Weeping: A Deeper Suffering
In this light, Zosima’s response to the grieving mother can be understood.
He does not scold her, but instead directs her to see that which she has difficulty seeing. He turns her face to a more perfect icon of sorrow and suffering by turning her attention to that which already stands within her own heart.˜˜ Her suffering, he teaches her, if rightly understood, already touches upon the joyful presence of God.
He does not tell her to cease her sorrows, but directs her attention to the image of God which is not other than, but inside her own image. He tells her, “weep then, but also rejoice.” Indeed, this new iconography demands a deeper suffering, a deeper vulnerability to sorrow in which the suffering be truly pierced and transfigured by loss and sadness. This new kinds of suffering carries the soul deeper, but more truly into its loss.ª
This is the lot that befalls you, mothers, on earth. And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep. Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember that your little son is one of God’s angels, that he looks down at you from there and sees you, and rejoices in your tears and points them out to the Lord God. And you will be filled with this great mother’s weeping for a long time, but in the end it will turn into quiet joy for you, and your bitter tears will become tears of quiet tenderness and the heart’s purification, which saves from sin.²
Zosima does not need to penetrate the husk of her grief, but rather discovers to her that already within it is a more perfect icon which itself possess the power of redemption and joy.
The mystery of this new iconography is just this, that it is somehow already present within the old, and that if it truly is there, within the reality of our suffering and laceration, then there is already a power at work in us which will renew the face of the earth in the joyful knowledge of the image of God its creator (Col. 3:10).³
a corollary: our true self-denial and cross may often take the form of walking in humble joy, particularly when tempted by self-pity and bitterness.
When the corn of wheat dies, when it is cracks open, its old mode of existence comes to an end, and life begins in a frightful new vulnerability. The seedling, the plant, the new creature is far more vulnerable to the world and to sorrow now. But this new creature will also now be vulnerable to joy. This new life, more capable of true sorrow and loss than the former, is yet a stronger, truer life, because its roots penetrate into the soil and even unto that which is the true Life of this world. In this Life, we discover a Love which is stronger than death.
Hidden in this new iconography, which itself is a renewed image of our suffering, is the reality of God’s presence and all that such promises.
ˆDostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 1.
˜Absence and presence meet in a striking manner in sorrow and loss. The passion and death of Christ are perhaps the preeminent reality of this mystery. Christ entered into the depth of human suffering, loss, and abandonment, so that however deep we might now go, our suffering can never over reach the reality of his presence.
cf. Benedict. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004, 301.
¤It is as if she is haunted by him, or as if she haunts herself with his memory. This ghostly or false reality harmonizes with the theme of ‘the Spirit of the Age’ which dominates people in the novel. People are tyrannized by ideas and aesthetics which are not true or truly their own, producing a kind of play acting, buffoonery, and falseness in their lives.
Such is depicted by the young woman who commits suicide in the first pages of the story, by Fyodor, and by the “Strain [laceration] in the Drawing room.”
Dostoevsky also develops this theme in tangent with the theme of the breadth of the human soul, in which he wrestles with the good and evil of which man is capable. Sin becomes a kind of shame or falseness which tells us we must continue on in its way, ever going further.
It is as when one begins an argument and realizes the position is false or the need to fight is not there, but then continues simply because it has been begun.
There is a suffering before this breadth of soul which the incontinent man forgoes, which he would rather be headless before, plunging deeper into sin. The philosophy of this Spirit of the age cruelly misunderstands the meaning of Christs statement proclamation (you have heard it said…but I say…).
This proclamation of Christ teaches us of mankind’s unity in our calling to perfection and our unity in sin. It does not teach us that because we have had wicked thoughts or temptations, we may as well continue in or act upon them.
Alyosha captures this in “Heels Up,” when he tells Dmitri he can understand his lust because he too has a foot upon the ladder of sensuality, even if he has not climbed to the same rung. It is shame, a demonic spirit of the age, which tells us that because our foot is upon the ladder, we may as well climb higher.
º “What is base and what is superficial are on the same level. ‘His love is violent but base’: a possible sentence. ‘His love is deep but base’: an impossible one.”
Weil, Simone, Emma Crawford, Mario Von Der Ruhr, and Gustave Thibon. Gravity and Grace. London: Routledge, 2008, 2.
Even though there may be great feeling, exquisite feeling in such lacerations, there is not yet depth. Such emotion is debased, and does not truly pierce or crucify the soul. Rather such piquancy serves more like an irritant to that which is inflamed.
¹ Weil, Simone, and Joseph Marie Perrin. Waiting for God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009, 88.
˜˜It would be a dreadful mistake to think this means we should focus harder on our sorrow and suffering, but rather this should free us to look elsewhere. While engaged in the work of active love and service, we must take an attitude toward our sorrow and bitterness such as this:
…[to] our thought [we] should [be]…as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them a great many forests and plains.
Weil, Simone, and Joseph Marie Perrin. Waiting for God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009.
ª The Brothers Karamazov, 49.
When Dostoevsky wrote this novel, he had lost his own son of the same name. Perhaps Zosima was speaking to the author as much as to this fictional mother.
The Brothers Karamazov, xi-xii.
² Brothers Karamazov. Pg. 50
³ It is a terrible thing to consider that hidden in all true sorrow is joy. But true sorrow is outgoing love, and all true love has its source in One who is forever happy. The mother who has lost her child, though her grief break her; yet, what is true in her grief, touches or reaches out to that Love which is stronger than death.
For this reason, the iconography of the cross is yet more terrible and more dangerous than that image we fashion for ourselves in our sorrow. This is because the iconography of the cross points to a sorrow which cannot help but one day break open to joy.
It is no easy exchange, that of the old icon for the new. The old icon has provides a familiar, domesticated comfort. The old icon whispers sweet things in our ear and promises forever. But this new icon does not permit us to remain forever in the mode of self-laceration. The iconography of the cross presents us with the face of Christ, and in his face is a new freedom and joy which abolishes all self-pity.
For this reason, we often prefer our wounds to his, our own husk of a life to this new, more terrible way.