Mon 26 Nov 2007
There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher. He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life. He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and he found a future life before him. He was astounded and indignant. ‘This is against my principles!’ he said. . . . And he was punished for that… that is, . . . he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometres in the dark . . . Well, this man, who was condemned to the quadrillion kilometres, stood still, looked round and lay down across the road. ‘I won’t go, I refuse on principle!’ . . . “Well, is he lying there now?” “That’s the point, that he isn’t. He lay there almost a thousand years and then he got up and went on.” “What an ass!” cried Ivan, laughing nervously and still seeming to be pondering something intently. “Does it make any difference whether he lies there for ever or walks the quadrillion kilometres? It would take a billion years to walk it?” . . . “Well, well, what happened when he arrived?” “Why, the moment the gates of Paradise were open and he walked in; before he had been there two seconds, . . . he cried out that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion kilometres but a quadrillion of quadrillions, raised to the quadrillionth power.” (The Brothers Karamazov , Book XI, Chapter IX.)
What do you do when you have lost hope? Do you continue to pour water frantically onto a fire which continues to burn out of control? Do you brush your teeth on the day of your execution? Do you continue writing the 7th chapter of your 25 chapter novel as your vitality ebbs away on the last day of your life?
In some ways our age is characterized, more than anything else, by a type of despair. All of us are in despair in some respects. Most of us have despaired of escaping death; of persisting in any of our earthly activities without end; of holding onto the things we care about forever. Some of us have despaired of being the person we hope to be, of loving the people we care about as we should. Some of us have despaired of being able to transform the world; of repairing all wrongs; of helping all those in need. Much of our lives takes the form of escaping or dealing with these and other types of despair. The question of the logic of despair is the central question of our time.
Some of our actions have meaning only within the context of a completed whole in which they make sense and which constitutes their value. It would seem that a loss of faith in the possibility of the completion of the whole should destroy our ability to take these types of actions seriously. (This might appear to be the case in each of the examples above.)
It may seem that sometimes we are still capable of throwing ourselves into other activities and values that are not constituted by the whole in which we have lost faith. We can still enjoy a sandwich even after we give up on saving our house from the fire. Sometimes we view this as healthy, as when we throw ourselves into volunteer work after having lost out beloved child; and sometimes as unhealthy, as when we lose ourselves in alcohol or video games after flunking out of school.
Irrespective of how we make the distinction between these good and bad ways of escaping despair into values that are not affected by it, the story from Dostoevsky above suggests a more fundamental way of dealing with despair, even with respect to the very values that are constituted by the faith we have lost. It suggest that it is illogical to abandon these values even in the face of despair, despite the fact that it may appear paradoxical to continue to pursue them; that it is illogical to stop caring for what we love even under conditions in which our love cannot find expression.
What is the argument? Why is failing to walk in the direction of your dreams illogical even when you have lost faith in those dreams? Is it enough to be on your way, even if you have lost faith in the destination?