By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
01 Feb 2018
Reading Dostoevsky and Levinas and Bringing Local Testimonies on Evidences of Our Guilt
Imagine we are suddenly summoned for any crime committed anywhere while we have no idea about even our remote involvement and we have no forum or chance to plead our innocence. According to world religions and, as expressly stated by such writers as Dostoevsky, Beckett, Kafka and such philosophers as Levinas, this is indeed the case and we stand accused and are currently facing the trial and it seems that punishment phase has already begun. The task is to awaken to the full implications of this Kafkaesque nightmare. We are not responsible for sins of others but for injustice suffered by others anywhere. The Quran accuses man for choosing to accept the Divine Trust when the earth and the heavens had refused. This trust requires being true to the divine image in which man is created and that in turn means being responsible for the whole creation. This responsibility is back breaking.
Unspeakable crimes are committed routinely against the bulk of human population that includes most parents, countless daughters-in-law, prisoners, beggars, servants, labourers, prostitutes, soldiers, officials, spouses and the poor in general across the world. The prophets and saints are defined by their inability to accept all this. According to world religions all destinies are somehow intertwined and there is need of universal compassion. The Quran equates unjust killing of one person with killing the whole of humankind and also states “Your creation and resurrection is but like a single soul.”
Religions command us to pray for all or help access/ invite all to the Beauty and Joy one has access to. Prophets, saints and artists are those who take upon themselves the burden of the suffering masses. The Prophet (S.A.W) insisted that we must help a brother (Aren’t strangers also our brothers or who is not our brother according to traditions?) whether he is an oppressor or the oppressed one (by “preventing him from oppressing others.”) The Prophet (S.A.W) keeps night vigils, weeps, prays until feet swell and prostrates for long hours to help suffering people.
Let us try to understand why we have been justifiably accused of crime by reading Dostoevsky (for Kashmiri readers there is a feel of Kashmiri Dostoevsky in many pages of Shamshad Kralwari’s translated Crime and Punishment) and Levinas. For bearing witness we bring Kashmiri short story writers Rahim Rahber and G. N. Shahid.
To begin with a quotation from The Brothers Karamazarov that was a mantra for one of the greatest 20th century philosophers Levinas: “Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.” Similar idea is further developed in the same work: “Know that this is the truth and that every one of us is answerable for everyone else and for everything.” Refuting Cain who said in his answer to God that he is not his brother’s keeper, religious traditions have emphasized some deeper connection with all living things and not just our neighbours or strangers. The Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of bodhisattva who postpones entry into nirvana to help all those who are struggling or the ideal expressed by many saints in Semitic traditions that one agrees to suffer for others and doesn’t go to heaven alone or the ethic that blames on one’s own self when any bad news drops in (Panen Gunhen Haenz Shahmeth) or first praying for the other (“Derwish”) as against Khaysh (oneself) presuppose something similar.
But, how many times we have acquitted ourselves while refusing the request for lift or for any help to stranger by stating “Who knows him?” “I am not responsible” or “It was not my job” or “What do I owe him?” Levinas has shown that we owe everything to whosoever we encounter. Some Sufis have tried to live this ethic and they have sought to offer free food and free spiritual sustenance. We have been commanded to be all ears to anyone and never to frown on anyone seeking help (all persons in need are virtually God in disguise as implied in a sacred tradition) and not withhold at least the gift of smile if we have to offer nothing concrete.
There is a simple test to determine who is in hell here and now and may, in all probability, end up in posthumous hell as well and that is seeing, under normal conditions or when encountering a stranger/neighbour, if one is short of nose as that expresses anger. How we meet our maids or servants/labourers – or the less privileged people – shows who we are really. We read again from Dostoevsky: “Since the world cannot exist without servants, you must see to it that your servant feels freer in spirit than if he were not a servant. And why shouldn’t I be my servant’s servant?” “Suddenly the words of my brother Markel came back to me, the words he had spoken before his death, when he had asked the servants why they were so kind to him and waited on him, and had wondered if he deserved their services. And I asked myself: “Do I deserve to be waited on? Why should another man, made in the image of the Lord, just like me, be my servant?” The Prophet’s slave Zayd reported that the latter never told him why he did or didn’t do this or that. Zayd in fact preferred the Prophet’s house to his own home.
Inability to experience love or feel loved is at the root of crime and sorrow according to Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch. For Dostoevsky we are healed by a dose of love, by being with children and can bear anything, even deep sorrow if we can find love. Indeed, we can’t be healed in prison/psychiatric ward space but family space as Laing noted and traditions have ever emphasized. Love and thus healing is in cafes with appreciating friends, in mosques and temples where community is at the centre and not the self, and in poetry recitation sessions. Inability to forget and forgive is hell. If we realize this, most court cases would be withdrawn. But we want to suffer and thus carry grudge against the so-called enemies. The question is why does Dostoevsky appear too idealistic and his hero idiot by our standards? Do we have hearts or we suffer from sclerosis and have turned into stones? Our short story writer Rahim Rahber thinks this is indeed the case.
Rahim Rahber guides us to a city without compassion where souls have been almost destroyed with such brutality that people have forgotten life lived under the shadow of the Sacred or orientation towards the Good. In “Tem-i Shahr-i” in his short story collection Yekh Khawb-i Talawuk he presents us a stony world of dead souls where people carry gravestones with inscribed epitaphs with them. There were all stones – even gods and priests were stones – and the rulers were stone deaf to people’s aspirations. People were condemned to take care of their dead bodies. People organized festivals where they would weep to their hearts’ fill and then disperse giving one another good news of their own impending death. There such beautiful things as truth, justice and compassion were all sick words. Faith, modesty and nobility were on death bed. Such words as elderly, honour, mother, sister, daughter were hardly recognizable or in use in dictionaries. This is the nihilistic city that has exiled God as predicted by Nietzsche and that explains why everything is permitted. Dostoevsky’s intervention here would be to have faith in some buried seeds of goodness even in this stony icy world. He would preach the gospel that Father Zossima and saintly Alyosha (who indeed recalls Hazrat Ali in love informed ethics though not in resolve to fight evil squarely where it could be fought) preach.
Similar impression one gets from G.N. Shahid’s Ailaan Jari Hai. I have space for only two stories here in one of which (“Baazyaft”) we find the hero happy for the first time in last few years after his son had been reported missing. And on inquiring the reason for happiness the answer is that his grave has been found. Yes it is our dead bodies that the living are condemned to take care of as the soul has already taken flight. Another story (“Khaabida Goonghat”) recounts how we are all beggars of love and this flowers best in the homes of the poor and the simple and how treating someone merely as a servant instead of fellow seeker of love is a desecration that costs us meaning in life.
No hell is hotter than the fever of uneasy conscience – in fact the heat of the hell is derived from the inescapable guilt that haunts hounds and burns us. Who can acquit us if we are condemned by the King within? Hell in the next world is there only an exteriorization of the failure to take due note of the demands of the Absolute or, in moral terms, shame and pain in unheeded conscience. Our tragedy consists in not heeding our prophets and those artists/writers who are burning with this prophetic passion for justice. “That’s just the point: an honest and sensitive man opens his heart, and the man of business goes on eating – and then he eats you up.” The truth – human lived truth – artists capture shows us how we fall short of the perfection we adore within (art is a witness to the Truth, Justice and Beauty we are/seek/can access) – and no wonder we find few heroes and most villains around – we are in fact criminals and if we could understand that crimes would be no more.