When I was a teenager, I used to believe—fanatically—that the greatest thing you could do with your life was live it as art. I’d read a lot of Oscar Wilde, and I was easily moved by novels and easily seduced by beauty. A life that was not ordinary or domestic, but poetic, felt like the only enchanted way to be. I wanted a life that was a novel, with a clear narrative line—a bildungsroman, probably, not exactly tragic (I had my limits), but at least indulgently melodramatic. I wanted a life with rising actions and satisfying denouements, with outcomes thematically, if not always morally, justified. I could not divorce my inchoate belief in a God of some kind and my belief in life as art. (Hadn’t Oscar Wilde become a Catholic on his deathbed?) Both seemed, then, to spring from the same source. There was ordinary, unexamined life, in which nothing meant everything, and then there was the charged life of the novel: the life in which everything mattered, everything was a kind of poetry.
The irony was that, by my early twenties, my favorite novel—and by far the most formative in my ultimate conversion to Christianity—was wonderfully, vexingly, narratively unsatisfying when it counted. And my favorite scene in that favorite novel was the most unsatisfying of all.
That scene comes in “Pro and Contra,” Book V of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in a chapter called “The Grand Inquisitor”: a story within a story—often published, rather reductively, as a standalone book—told by the neurotic, intellectually inclined second Karamazov brother, Ivan, to his saintly younger sibling, Alyosha. Ivan has spent most of the chapter trying to explain to Alyosha why he does not, cannot, believe in God.
Ivan’s doubts are twofold. There is the problem that belief in God seems impossible and irrational according to the structures of earthly reality. “If God exists and if He really did create the world,” Ivan ruminates, “He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind.… Yet [some]…even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God.” Then, too, there is the problem of human evil. How, Ivan asks Alyosha, can a good God allow the horrors of the world—murder, rape, the abuse of children? Even if Ivan could conceive of the existence of a divine creator, he could not bring himself to morally accept Him. He would have to, in his own words, “return the ticket.”
Ivan explains his views to Alyosha in what he calls a poem—though the language is prose. Ivan imagines an alternative universe in which Jesus Christ returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ performs a number of miracles, for which he is dragged before an inquisitorial council and tried for heresy. The Grand Inquisitor accuses Christ of asking the impossible of human beings: of attempting, in vain, to override human nature. He excoriates Jesus Christ for resisting the biblical temptations of the Devil in the desert: refusing to turn stones to bread to ease his hunger and refusing to prove his own divinity by casting himself down from the temple. There can be no greater cruelty toward human beings, the Grand Inquisitor insists, than to demand that they live outside the structures of knowledge, of logic, of human certainty bolstered by political authority—the very structures that give their lives shape and sense. And so, the Grand Inquisitor insists, Christ must die again.
We might expect Christ to lay the Inquisitor’s doubts to rest, to come up with a brilliant defense of the meaning of his death and resurrection. After all, this section of the book is called “Pro and Contra.” Instead of an apocalyptic battle, or at the very least a debate, Jesus thwarts narrative expectation altogether. He does not answer the Grand Inquisitor, but instead kisses him “on his bloodless, aged, lips” before slipping off incognito into the night. A kiss is also how Alyosha answers Ivan: an expression of brotherly love that transcends or subverts or confounds the way the story ought to go. Love wins by changing the story altogether.
There is something unsatisfying—narratively speaking, at least—about the two kisses that end the chapter. Neither Alyosha nor Christ gets in the final word; neither provides the necessary pro that would lead Ivan or the Inquisitor to the intellectual resting place he so desperately longs for. We are not altogether sure whether good wins, or whether good deserves—rhetorically speaking—to win.
Yet I think that is precisely the point of The Brothers Karamazov: a novel that is about a bunch of broken people trying to figure out what genre, exactly, their life belongs to, and what conclusions—ideological and practical—that genre will suggest. Oldest brother Dmitri leads a stormy, dissolute existence out of a Romantic-era European novel, full of alcoholic rages and ill-fated love affairs. Ivan’s dilemma is straight out of a Russian nineteenth-century political novel such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor, lives in a hagiography.
There is a tragic grandeur to so many of these characters’ stories: a grandeur intensified by the sense that Dostoevsky’s characters tend to live life as stories, overwhelmed by the weight of their self-referential self-understanding. Yet the moments of greatest grace in the novel are the moments when these stories collapse in on themselves, when the unexpected and the miraculous deprive us of the pleasure of narrative consummation. The act of love—a kiss in place of a riposte—stops tragedy in its tracks.
* * *
There is nothing very sexy about hope. Certainly, there is nothing sexy about grace. The idea that we might be redeemed by an act of love—a wordless affirmation of something beyond the paradigms through which we are capable of understanding ourselves—is, well, a little mawkish, a bit cringe. Hope has little aesthetic appeal. Hope is the awkward comic reversal, shoehorned in like the end of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, which rewrites the Greek myth to have the doomed lovers be reunited by none other than the soprano-singing personification of love itself. Better at least, according to Ivan Karamazov, to look at the horrors of the world straight on, to stare the absent and unloving God in the face, to take stock of the rapes and murders and terrors and quotidian derelictions that make up the whole of human existence, and to live—whatever that kind of living looks like—accordingly. Better to know that our life is inherently a tragic one—a conclusion no less inescapable than the fact that two parallel lines will never meet.
* * *
Over the past few years, in certain insalubrious corners of the Internet, members of the scattershot reactionary right have often taken to referring to themselves as taking the “black pill,” a spinoff of the men’s rights activists’ approved “red pill” (itself a riff on the truth-revealing “red pill” in the 1999 science-fiction movie classic The Matrix). Originating in the online communities of “incels” (the involuntary celibate) around 2016, the “black pill” first referred to the notion that men’s social identities and sexual desirability were fixed. No amount of gym-going or “looks-maxing” or self-improvement techniques could change the fundamental truths of the universe: Women were primed by evolution to want “chads” (high-status, wealthy, handsome alpha males) and to look down their noses at “omegas.” Taking the black pill meant accepting the inherent bleak brutality of human existence, in which love could only ever be reducible to a power struggle among competing animals in a hierarchy rendering mutuality impossible. Inevitably, though, the idea of the “black pill” metastasized. Such nihilism wasn’t limited to shitposting, either; more than one mass shooter, including a young man who shot and killed six people, including himself, in Plymouth, England, in August, 2021, has blamed a black pill “overdose” for inspiring his violence.11x“Plymouth Shooting: Jake Davison Was Licensed Gun Holder,” BBC News: UK, August 13, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-devon-58197414.
Like red pill ideology before it, black pill fatalism came to encompass not just the degeneracy of the Internet dating market but the entirety of a certain brand of reactionary online troll. There were, certainly, the doomers: terminally online in every sense, despairing of any joy or hope in a world benighted by late capitalism, climate change, and cultural decay. But there are other strains of cultural pessimists, albeit those whose pessimism has been occluded by other political or aesthetic commitments: an atavistic belief in the power of a paleo diet or a “return” to tradition (and certain kinds of social normativity), or the potential for a Roman Catholic theocratic state to redeem the irredeemable, or an obsession with the position of lobsters in the evolutionary hierarchy.
These groups differ in their precise politics, their theological maxims, and their memes. But what they have in common is a fundamentally tragic vision of the world and of human beings. The world is bleak and meaningless; the social hierarchy is encoded into the very building blocks of nature; there is no way of understanding ourselves or one another outside the erotically violent patterns of dominance and submission. Facts, as one common saying among these groups goes, don’t care about your feelings. As Jordan Peterson puts it in his self-help book 12 Rules for Life, “The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism.… It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy.… It’s not even a human creation.… It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment.”22xJordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto, Canada: Random House Canada, 2018), 14. The world is the way it is, the story goes; those soft-hearted sheep who wish to pretend that it’s otherwise—the social-justice activists who deny differences among persons, the utopian progressives who wish to explain away crime as a product of circumstance, the idealists who think two people can fall in love without implicitly comparing and maximizing their social capital—are simply too cowardly to recognize it. Optimism is simply cope: clichés believed (and posted) by people who need illusions to cling to.
This vision of life is not exclusively modern. Rather, it owes as much to the nineteenth-century pessimism of philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche as it does to the nihilistic shitposting of 4chan. (It is not hard to imagine Ivan Karamazov on Twitter.) It is a vision of life that contrasts the mediocre illusions of ordinary people— characterized complacent sheep, slaves to outmoded idols of love, marriage, and family—with the highly individualistic moral and intellectual strength it takes to face life’s harsh truths alone. Life is about power. It is a zero-sum game. Its winners are either those who are already lucky enough have power or those who are brave and ruthless enough to seek it. Life’s losers are the resentful bourgeoisie, with their feigned Christian morality, which is nothing more than a smokescreen to cover up their own weakness by condemning strength in others. For example, in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche condemns “the will of the weak to represent some form of superiority, their instinct for devious paths to tyranny over the healthy—where can it not be discovered, this will to power of the weakest!”
Nietzsche reserves respect only for those who, in encountering the emptiness of the world, simultaneously embrace the necessity of power hierarchies and fit themselves to stride atop them.
It is this logic that we find throughout so much of the reactionary right: a valorization of the “natural,” of “strength,” of difficult truths and those who are willing to accept them. It is a valorization of authoritarianism—by state, by church, by strong and rugged men, by “dark elves” (this last one courtesy of blogger Curtis Yarvin, whose fanatically hierarchical reactionary worldview extends to the belief that some races are better suited for slavery than others) who are willing to make the tough calls that ordinary people are too afraid to face. It is a mood, too, that we find—albeit with somewhat less frequency—in certain apocalyptic memes on the online left: the idea that “all this” is little more than a “trash fire,” that “because capitalism,” our lives and our obligations do not matter. It is the end of history, after all (or so this story goes), and so hedonism can double as self-care.
Perhaps it is obvious, but it must nevertheless be stated, that such pessimism is fundamentally aesthetic. By this, I do not necessarily mean that it is a posture, or even a vibe. Rather, I mean that the appeal of this pessimism is less about logic or metaphysics than the alluring narrative it presents. This kind of pessimism is a fantasy of aloneness, of uniqueness, of being the only person (or, at least, one of a very few elect people) brave or intellectually honest enough to see the inherent tragedy of the world. It is a fantasy of being, in a sense, a story’s “main character”: the heroic figure who can comprehend, through the world’s suffering, a higher truth. (The tragic hero, Aristotle himself argued, is always better than the ordinary person.)
Tragedy, and its narrative consummation, are sexy, in a way comedy cannot be. Tragedy presents us with the inevitability of death, of failure, of degradation: It tantalizes us with the finality that awaits us. There is something sexy, too, about the tragic hero: alone among the rabble, speaking in high poetry instead of dull prose, realizing truths that the rest of us are too bovine to understand. It is Ivan Karamazov, standing alone against God, taking a brave and solitary stand against eternity itself.
* * *
Except that Ivan Karamazov is not alone. He has a brother who loves him very much. He has a brother who kisses him, in the moment of his crisis, and wagers that this love means something, something that is bigger than the expectations of genre in which the tragic, tormented Ivan finds himself. Alyosha’s love is a wager that there is a place where parallel lines meet; a wager that Ivan’s expectations about the world and his place in it collapse when confronted with a greater, and kinder, reality than he has the capacity to imagine. It is a wager that life might, in fact, be a comedy.
And what if life were a comedy? What would it mean to live—mawkish though the thought might be—in expectation of an ending replete with joyful reversal and romantic reconciliation, an expectation in which Love comes down from the heavens and declares all wayward lovers forgiven, even though they hadn’t earned forgiveness in any narrative sense? What would it mean to understand ourselves not as tragic heroes, solitary in our revelations, but as ordinary people, whose lives are lived entwined with one another, maybe even in prose? What if the truth of our lives lay not in our self-separation from the sheeple but in our embrace of the fact that the life we live with one another is the truest expression of who we really are: that there is as much weight to our kid brother kissing us, gently, in the middle of our existential crisis, as there is in the substance of the crisis itself?
Such a reading of our lives demands humility. It asks that we envision ourselves not as special or distinct but as ordinary human beings, those shepherds and butlers and housemaids, whose ordinary lives are as worthy of attention as those of tragedy’s kings and warriors. It insists, as a moral and philosophical duty, that we take ourselves not more seriously but less, that we learn to laugh at ourselves. It demands that, instead of aestheticizing our foibles—raising our sins to the substance of high art—we see ourselves as, well, a little bit silly, perhaps well intentioned, but constantly getting in our own way: Gilligans failing in every single episode to get off the island. To accept grace—the undeserved happy ending—demands that we see our lives as a comedy (as Dante indeed understood). In order to accept our lives as a comedy, we must accept that none of us are the heroes we imagine ourselves to be.
This is the truth understood by Dostoevsky’s Alyosha and by the wider Russian tradition of the “holy fool”: the innocent whose faith in God causes him to appear stupid, if not mad, in the eyes of the world. To hope is a kind of foolishness. It is, too, a kind of refusal of the aesthetic, at least of the sophisticated aesthetic stance that rejects such populist kitsch as Hollywood happy endings. To hope is, necessarily, to hope for a narratively unsatisfying ending: to hope for an unearned joy that changes the entire genre of our lives, that brings comedy from ruin. It is to refuse the red pill or the black pill, to refuse any narrative of ourselves as uniquely heroic or uniquely brave, because we can withstand the wickedness of the world. It is a quieter kind of bravery: the conviction that, one day, we might not have to. It may not be narrative. But it remains, instead, poetry.