Great Books and Love: Taking an Axe to the Frozen Sea Inside Us
What Fyodor Dostoevsky Can Teach Us About Love
Franz Kafka once said that the experience of reading great books should be like taking an axe to the frozen sea inside us. The Brothers Karamazov did that for me. Several times, actually.
In fact, I was so strongly taken by one particular passage from Dostoevsky’s classic book on free will and morality that I started writing under the name Matt Karamazov.
It’s a different passage that I want to bring to your attention today, but my life was never the same after reaching Book VI, Chapter 2, when Father Zossima’s brother, Merkel, tells their mother:
“…do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over.”
Of course, life also involves an unbelievable amount of suffering and hardship, and it doesn’t always seem like a paradise to me. One of my best friends, Mike, just died a few weeks ago (26 years old, didn’t know that he had diabetes, slipped into a diabetic coma), and I know that eventually, either I am going to lose everyone I’ve ever cared about, or I’m going to be lost to them. Some paradise. What kind of world forces you into tradeoffs like that?
But I keep the name Karamazov because I never want to forget that “life is paradise,” or rather, can be paradise, and that collective human action against some of the greatest threats to our happiness and security can achieve a great deal. If we want to know it, this life can be paradise.
But there’s another passage in The Brothers Karamazov that I have to tell you about, because it so beautifully expresses what I believe about the nature of love and hell.
Father Zossima again! In his last speech to the other Fathers before his death, he asks rhetorically:
“What is Hell? I maintain it is the suffering of not being able to love — and for that, you do not need Eternity; a day will do, or even a moment.”
I’m feeling that axe to the frozen sea inside me again!
I mean, imagine not being able to love. That would be a hell all its own. The disconnection, the alienation, the existential despair of not being able to love would make the world into a darkened cavern of loneliness and grief.
John Milton says himself in Paradise Lost (another formative book from my past) that:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
This kind of ties in with what Father Zossima says too about us “not wanting to know it.” The ability to love makes life into a paradise, transforms hell into heaven, and makes the problem of human existence worth struggling against.
I think that one of the most important things we can ever do is to guard against losing the ability to love, and to cultivate as much unconditional love as we possibly can in the brief span of time that’s allotted to us.
Because heaven and hell aren’t necessarily places that we can “go to;” they are mutually co-extensive. They can exist in our minds, in our lives, in our world, if we make space for them. It’s all a question of whether or not we want to know it.
All the best,
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