Capacities to Act and to Love
Recently, Marina Nemat gave participants at Acton University an account of her experiences as a political prisoner in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After an idyllic upbringing in a generally free society, everything changed when Nemat was arrested by Islamists at age sixteen. These perpetrators captured, interrogated, and tortured her relentlessly – almost to the point of death. When men beat the soles of her feet with cables, she wanted to die and says that she would have sold her soul to the devil in order to escape the pain. This thought perpetuated her agony because she was a Catholic who sensed in this moment that she was not fit to be a martyr. Arguing firmly that the purpose of torture is not to gain information nor punish, she insists the true purpose of torture is the destruction of the soul. Eventually, Nemat was forced to “marry” one of her torturers. She went to his mother’s house and was warmly welcomed by his mother who showed her great hospitality. Nemat wondered to herself: how can this woman be the mother of a torturer? Soon, this mother told her that her son had been the victim of even more severe torture. This marked a turning point at which Nemat says, “I realized then that he had been tortured – just like me. And I didn’t like that part because it made me recognize that he was a human being.” Briefly she considered revenge, perplexed by the possibility that someone can be the torturer today and the tortured tomorrow. But ultimately she conquered both this appetite for revenge and her desire to be placed in solitary confinement. Instead, Nemat chose to discover how to reaffirm her dignity in spite of the circumstances that made this seem impossible.
Circumstances condition human acts; they do not determine them. The capacities to act and to love can transcend the material circumstances and are uniquely human since love is not rooted in the circumstances but in the human will. Existential crises provide character forming and revealing opportunities for persons to practice these capacities. The triumph over predictability through action and love constitutes participation in the process of becoming more fully human.
Juxtaposing Responses to Crises of Meaning
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” the anonymous Man from the Underground reveals the anxiety he experienced in his life that had become “gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.” Similarly, in Dostoevsky’s short story, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” the protagonist characterizes his experience of life as anguished, dismal, and filled with indifference. Both characters in the respective stories confess to boundless vanity and pride combined with a profound sense of meaninglessness and alienation from society. Despite comparable factual realities and perspectives on society, the Ridiculous Man is more capable of love than the Underground Man. This is because, in an experience of existential crisis, the Ridiculous Man is drawn out of himself. Conversely, the Man from the Underground remains self-absorbed and does not undergo any authentic opening of his soul to the other, the image of transcendent meaning beyond himself.
“All friendship is impure if even a trace of the wish to please or the contrary desire to dominate is found in it. In a perfect friendship these two desires are completely absent. The two friends have fully consented to be two and not one, they respect the distance which the fact of being two distinct creatures places between them.” – Simone Weil
The Underground Man’s Confusion of Love with Power
The Underground Man reminisces about his lack of friendship saying, “I also once had a friend. But I was already a despot in my soul; I wanted to have unlimited power over his soul.” This is a recurring theme throughout “Notes.” The Underground Man consistently attempts to conquer his restlessness through dominating others. First, he sought to dominate his former schoolfellows: “…I passionately wanted to prove to all that ‘riffraff’ that I was by no means the coward I made myself out to be. More than that: in the strongest paroxysm of cowardly fever, I dreamed of getting the best of them, winning them over, carrying them away, making them love me-if only for my ‘lofty mind and indubitable wit.'” Second, he tried to exert his power over Liza, the prostitute. He says, “I reflected, almost rubbing my hands. ‘No, how can I fail to get the better of such a young soul?…’ It was the game that fascinated me most of all.” Lastly, the Underground Man sought to control his servant Apollon. The Underground Man testifies he “did not, did not, simply did not want to give him his wages, did not want to because that’s how I wanted it, because such was ‘my will as the master…'” He states his conclusion from these vain attempts quite explicitly saying that he was not able to love because he had confused love with tyrannizing another person. But, power is intrinsically limited insofar as it cannot compel any person fall in love with him. This is why it is better to be loved than feared. Fear is compulsive and requires only one will. Love is of a higher order because it necessarily requires two.
“To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and that the true center is outside the world, this is to consent to the rule of mechanical necessity in matter and of free choice at the center of each soul. Such consent is love.” – Simone Weil
The Ridiculous Man’s Emptying of Himself
In Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: A Fantastic Story,” the Ridiculous Man expresses his consuming conviction that “nothing mattered,” “that it would not matter,” and that “there was nothing around me.” At the pinnacle of his apathy, he resolved to shoot himself. But his plan was thwarted when an 8-year-old girl began tugging on his elbow and calling his attention. The Ridiculous Man reflects, “I knew that I would certainly shoot myself that night, but how long I would go on sitting at the table, that I did not know. And I would indeed have shot myself, of course, had it not been for that little girl.” After encountering the girl, he was not immediately changed. He had merely caught a glimpse of innocence and goodness in her and this glimpse was sufficient to arouse his pity.
Next, the Ridiculous Man had a dream. In his book, Guarded by Mystery, David Walsh describes this dream as the result of the little girl having “broken into his closed consciousness in such a way that now he cannot simply turn his back on reality.” In his idyllic dream involving beauty, serenity, childhood gaiety, and “feeling the love from those innocent, beautiful people,” it ended with him corrupting them all. Suddenly the potential act of his suicide took on a cosmic significance and he became at once humbled and dignified by the meaning of his own actions in light of the brotherhood of humanity. Walsh summarizes, “[The girl] is the one who drew him out of himself, put him in contact with the common humanity they share, and showed him that this is a reality far beyond his own petty self-absorption.”
Love Transforms Nihilism
The Nihilist says nothing matters. The Lover says, my matters are nothing. Both the Underground Man and the Ridiculous Man are examples of individuals living in the kind of society described in the first half of “Notes.” However, they have manifestly different responses to the facts of their existence. The Underground Man consistently rejects the opportunity to deny himself for the sake of the other. He has no standard outside of his own consciousness against which to measure his responses. This non-receptiveness to community inhibits his ability to love. Conversely, seemingly by grace, the Ridiculous Man’s self-absorption is transformed. His soul is opened to transcendent reality and his pride is overcome with the conviction that he has seem the truth in all its glory. There is something beyond him, a standard against which he may be measured. And from this standard, his life gains meaning outside of himself. Meaning is discerned through his understanding of himself within the complete wholeness of which he was formerly a mere and unintelligible part. And this vision of the whole is a “living image [that] has filled my soul forever.”
Back to Nemat
Marina Nemat experienced a personal and social crisis. She says, “One day, I looked around and having fun had become illegal.” She lost her friends, family, freedom, and dignity, and began to beg for solitary confinement. She was alienated and wanted a further escape. Her experience in an oppressive, torturous regime reminded me of the nihilistic society described by Dostoevsky. There were moments when Nemat thought only of herself and her pain and longed for retribution and revenge. But like the Ridiculous Man, she was drawn out of herself not with a dream, but with the openness of her soul to transcendent reality. This occurred through a decisive uniting of her own suffering to that of Christ and the Christian martyrs and by her recognition of the common humanity she shared with even her torturers. Having a sense of meaning rooted outside of herself and her dismal circumstances, she was able to situate herself within the context of a meaningful whole. She was never wholly powerless as long as she could love and defy expectations. She says, “With my friends, we talked about what made us human. We talked about memories that confirmed that you loved and were loved, despite all the evidence against this. I am alive because friends told stories that gave our lives hope. Hope and meaning in an impossible place.”
I could not resist a comparison between the recapturing of reality and meaning in the Ridiculous Man’s dream and in Marina Nemat’s recollection of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection during her own experience of suffering. Also, the discovery that Nemat’s torturer was a human being like her parallels the Ridiculous Man’s encounter with the little girl. The recognition of common humanity through community has a correspondingly humanizing influence on the individual. In both cases, the totality of reality is the transcendent ground of being that illuminates and transforms particular suffering from darkness into light and the alienated individual into a person with purpose.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “A Gentle Creature and Other Stories.” Translated by Alan Myers. New York 1995: Oxford University Press Inc.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Notes from Underground.” Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Random House Inc., 1994.
Walsh, David. Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999.
Weil, Simone. “Waiting for God.” Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground,” Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York: Random House Inc., 1994), 42.
 Simone Weil, Waiting for God, Translated by Emma Craufurd, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 135.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground,” 68.
 Ibid, 70.
 Ibid, 93.
 Ibid, 114.
 Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 100.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “A Gentle Creature and Other Stories,” Translated by Alan Myers, (New York 1995: Oxford University Press Inc.,) 108.
 Ibid, 111.
 Ibid, 112.
 David Walsh, Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999), 4.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “A Gentle Creature and Other Stories,” 119.
 David Walsh, Guarded by Mystery: Meaning in a Postmodern Age, 4.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, “A Gentle Creature and Other Stories,” 127.