If There is No God?

Published: Sunday | October 30, 2005

AN OLDER friend once advised the young Samuel Johnson to read as much as he could since he would lose the inclination with age. But Robert Louis Stevenson laughed at this, asserting that youth is for living and leave the books till later.

RLS was surely right that books are a mighty bloodless substitute for life. But Dr. Johnson's mentor knew whereof he spoke. Older eyes tire more easily and older minds resist new ideas. If you don't tackle the serious books when young you probably never will.

As a youth I took Francis Bacon's 'all knowledge is my province' boast literally and vowed to read every great book. After devoting a couple years completely to the classics it dawned on me that even Bacon had to choose his spots. I also realised that my cultural worldview, like the language I speak, is a Western one. Ideally we should all understand every tongue and culture, but we only have one lifetime. Ars longa, vita breva.

Classics are supposed to be timeless and universal, but I found many 'great books' dated or impenetrable. I assumed then I would get back to them some day, but now accept that works such as A Critique of Pure Reason, Ulysses, and Remembrance of Things Past will probably always remain unfinished for me. However the likes of The Iliad, Hamlet, and War and Peace, changed my outlook on life, creating a sort of mental mirror in which all my experiences continue to be reflected. And to this day I treasure Don Quixote as 'the best novel in the world, beyond comparison'.


One author above all set my brain on fire ­ Fyodor Dostoevsky. I've often wondered, why Dostoevsky and not say Homer or Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Well, who knows. There's no accounting for taste. Some love oranges, some love mangoes, some love pineapples.

But strange as it might sound considering he was born in Russia 184 years ago today, Dostoevsky's characters are astonishingly Jamaican-like. They talk non-stop at the top of their voices, have few inhibitions, and display almost no self-control. Dostoevsky's critics say his characters are unrealistically hysterical and over the top and 'talk endlessly about things grownups learn to keep quiet about'. Well, I don't know there is such a thing as a grown up person, but his characters don't seem very unusual to me.

In fact, the passionate Dmitri Karamazov is the most Jamaican figure I've encountered in literature. After his mother dies, his rumhead womanising father forgets about him, and he is raised by the father's servants. Then he and his father both fall in love with 'sexy body' Grushenka - although Dmitri is engaged to another woman, who his brother Ivan loves. Dmitri and his father get into raging quarrels over Grushenka, and Dmitri threatens to kill him. Then the father is murdered by his illegitimate son by a mad woman, and Dmitri is charged and convicted. In short, the kind of thing you read about in our newspapers all the time.


Unrealistic? Not in this country when you hear far more complicated real life stories in everyday conversation. A lady friend once casually told me about her father hiring someone to kill her brother who was fooling around his woman, but the hit man was the son's friend and warned him to get out of town, and 20 years later the woman and her father are still friendly.

All Dostoevsky's major novels - Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov - revolve around women and murder. And what could be more Jamaican than that? (Incidentally, the only mention of Jamaica by Dostoevsky I've seen is "she has bought to-day Jamaica rum" in Crime and Punishment.)

Dostoevsky himself had what might be described as a very strong Jamaican streak. According to one biographer "Humanity in a state of tranquility appears to have held no interest whatever for Dostoevsky. He himself could only tolerate existence provided that no element of serenity was permitted to invade his personal life? [He] was a seeker of strong mental sensations or, to put it differently, he usually preferred to be violently unhappy rather than mildly happy."

Personally, I've never seen a better summary of the Jamaican personality. It's weird really. What could 19th century huge snow-swept Slavic Russia possibly have in common with 21st century tiny, sunny, African, Jamaica? But there you are.


Dostoevsky often talked rubbish. His recipe for world peace was for Russia to more or less conquer the world. He is a perfect example of why the political pontifications of even great authors should be taken with a grain of salt. But in his fiction he edited out the ideological nonsense and in his famous polyphonic style lets all arguments contend and leaves readers to make up their own minds.

What makes Dostoevsky especially convincing is his unmatched experience of life. How can you ignore the views on murder and capital punishment of a man who was once condemned to death and reprieved at the last moment and then lived in a Siberian prison for five years amidst hardened murderers?

Writers write best about what they know, and no other author experienced so many personal traumas and travails. When you start arguing with him, figuratively of course, you can almost hear the withering retort ­ "And what is your experience on the matter, sir?" Or in another voice, "Who you gonna believe, a guy who faced a firing squad or chess problem butterfly chasers?"

If art is entertainment that lasts, Dostoevsky is in my experience the greatest artiste of them all. No one has provided me with more mental stimulation and for that alone he has my eternal gratitude. As someone once remarked, "Read Dostoevsky and you will never be bored or lonely again. Because he always gives you something to chew on. And you can't beat that for a ten dollar bargain."

Though Dostoevsky created unforgettable characters ­ 'visualised more clearly than any figures in imaginative literature' - it's the passion for daring debate that gives his books their unique character. He continually explores the consequences of thoughts put into action, and two themes above all permeate his works ­ 'Man does not live by bread alone', and 'If there is no God then everything is permitted'.


While we Jamaicans are certainly not given to metaphysical anguish, again these ideas illuminate much in this country. For instance politicians and businessmen routinely rebuke the people here for not being rational economic animals and hence not acting as their material self-interest would predict. But as Dostoevsky's Underground Man exclaimed, "Shower upon [man] every earthly blessing, give him such economic prosperity that he would have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with ensuring the continuation of world history and even then, man would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element."

Dostoevsky never actually wrote his most famous 'quote'. "If there is no God then everything is permitted", in fact, combines "If there is no God then I am God" from The Devils and "Everything is permitted" from The Brothers Karamazov. But it sums up his essence and crystallises with unequalled clarity the great dilemma facing the modern world. Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mao's China and Pol Pot's Cambodia are only the most graphic examples of the depths to which society can sink when man acknowledges no power but his own desires.


It's a mindset we have become depressingly familiar with in Jamaica, albeit not on such a grand scale but still with terrible consequences. The deliberate burning alive of Sasha Kay Brown and her family in revenge for a relative's transgressions was as horrible as anything any tyrant ever ordered, and sprung from the same "I will do whatever it takes to achieve my goal regardless of the consequences to anyone else" mind set. The men who carried it out would no doubt laugh as derisively as Pol Pot at any notion of a higher power or the sanctity of human life.

Of course, plenty of crimes have been committed in the name of religion. But the atrocities committed by the fanatical 'faithful' pale beside the machine-like killings of those who hold a man's life to be of no intrinsic value and human beings as expendable as any other animals.

"If there is no God then everything is permitted" is to my mind an irrefutable assertion. Yet it doesn't prove there is a God, as Dostoevsky himself knew. Ivan's Revolt and the Grand Inquisitor scenes from The Brothers Karamazov are perhaps the most powerful arguments against the existence of a benevolent God in world literature. Even Dostoevsky admitted they could not be refuted with logic, and his counter argument of Father Zossima demonstrating the profundity of love in action does not convince everyone.

Religion is both a personal choice and a child of custom, since people are Christians, Moslems, Hindus or Buddhists mostly because of where they were born. And its proclaimed truths often seem subjective to outsiders. But even the most convinced atheist could not ignore Dostoevsky's warning - if you wish to do away with religion, make sure you have something better to replace it with.

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