January 04, 2013

The Sandy Hook School Massacre

I was reminded after the horrific schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut late last year of a passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Beyond the sheer carnage, perhaps it was too heartrending aspects of the aftermath such as the moving footage of one of the bereaved fathers emotionally paying tribute to his lost daughter, or that another of the slain six year olds was herself slated to play an angel in the town's annual Christmas pageant. Given such poignant details and regardless of whether one is particularly faithful, the passage where the 'elder'* Zosima provides comfort to a woman who has just lost her three year old son seems somewhat apropos. Important to note, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigorievna had just suffered a very similar loss (their own three year old), so that the passage is somewhat autobiographical. The excerpt is below, from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's transcendent translation (at pp. 49-50):

Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once, long ago, a great saint saw a mother in church, weeping just as you are over her child, whom the Lord had also called to him. ‘Do you not know,’ the saint said to her, ‘how bold these infants are before the throne of God? No one is bolder in the Kingdom of Heaven: Lord, you granted us life, they say to God, and just as we beheld it, you took it back from us. And they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore,’ said the saint, ‘you, too, woman, rejoice and do not weep. Your infant, too, now abides with the Lord in the host of his angels.’ That is what a saint said to a weeping woman in ancient times. he was a great saint and would not have hold her a lie. Therefore you, too, mother, know that your infant, too, surely now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God for you. Weep, then, but also rejoice.”

The woman listened to him, resting her cheek in her hand, her eyes cast down. She sighed deeply.

“The same way my Nikitushka was comforting me, word for word, like you, he’d say: ‘Foolish woman,’ he’d say, ‘why do you cry so? Our little son is surely with the Lord God now, singing with the angels.’ He’d say it to me, and he’d be crying himself, I could see, he’d be crying just like me. ‘I know, Nikitushka,’ I’d say, ‘where else can he be if not with the Lord God, only he isn’t here, with us, Nikitushka, he isn’t sitting here with us like before!’ If only I could just have one more look at him, if I could see him one more time, I wouldn’t even go up to him, I wouldn’t speak, I’d hide in a corner, only to see him for one little minute, to hear him the way he used to play in the backyard and come in and shout in his little voice: ‘Mama, where are you?’ Only to hear how he walks across the room, just once, just one time, pat-pat-pat with his little feet, so quick, so quick, the way I remember he used to run up to me, shouting and laughing, if only I could hear his little feet pattering and know it was him! But he’s gone, dear father, he’s gone and I’ll never hear him again! His little belt is here, but he’s gone, and I’ll never see him, I’ll never hear him again . . . !”

She took her boy’s little gold-braided belt from her bosom and, at the sight of it, began shrieking with sobs, covering her eyes with her hands, through which streamed the tears that suddenly gushed from her eyes.

“This,” said the elder, “is Rachel of old ‘weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not.’ 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. And I will remember your little child in my prayers for the repose of the dead. What was his name? Alexei, dear father." A lovely name! After Alexei, the man of God? Of God, dear father, of God. Alexei, the man of God"**

Dostoevsky returns to the theme in other parts of the book, for instance (at p. 292):

God restores Job again, gives him wealth anew; once more many years pass, and he has new children, different ones, and he loves them--Oh Lord, one thinks, "but how could he so love those new ones, when his former children are no more, when he has lost them? Remembering them, was it possible for him to be fully happy, as he had been before, with the new ones, however dear they might be to him? But it is possible, it is possible: the old grief, by a great mystey of human life, gradually passes into quiet, tender joy; instead of young, ebullient blood comes a mild, serene old age: I bless the sun's rising each day and my heart sings to it as before, but now I love its setting even more, its long slanting rays, and with them quiet, mild, tender memories, dear images from the whole of a long and blessed life--and over all is God's truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”

Indeed, the very novel's dedication (to this wife Anna) reads: "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" (John 12:24).

During episodes such as these, I prefer to turn to such perspectives than those of abysmal hacks carping on about Rupert Murdoch's pro-gun regulation tweets, as they merrily turn against their former patrons amidst the internecine shrieks. Anyone who denies the epidemic of gun violence is a national issue of utmost import requiring multi-faceted solutions (yes, to include greater regulation as part of the overall approach, and not just talk of armed guards and 'concealed carry' as supposed panaceas) does not merit much, if any, serious attention.

* The concept of the 'elder' might have been partly inspired by Paissy Velichkovsky, the so-called 'father of the Russian elders.' Related, and as one of the end-notes to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation also states: "Dostoevsky owned a copy of the 1854 edition of Velichkovsky's translation of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century monk...St. Isaac, whose spiritual influence has been very great, seems also to have influenced Dostoevsky's elder Zosima."

** The Dostoevsky's deceased child was also named Alexei. Additionally, as another end-note clarifies: "St. Alexis, a Greek anchorite who died around 412 A.D., is much loved in Russia, where he is known as "Alexei, the man of God." And, of course, the book's protagonist is named Alexei (Alyosha) Karamazov, and is on occasion referred to as a "man of God" by the author.

Posted by Gregory at January 4, 2013 04:48 PM | TrackBack (0)

Anyone who doesn't admit that only the abolishment of all handguns would make a dent in these events, and instead calls for vague 'regulations' hoping for the slippery slope to take its course without directly confronting (and conflicting with) public opinion, is equally unworthy of attention.

Glad to know where everyone stands.

Posted by: Sean at January 5, 2013 12:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Unendurable. Yet, we endure. As the march of folly parades by, uninterrupted.

Posted by: Adams at January 9, 2013 12:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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