Orphans and Elders

In last week’s post I noted how similar the Grand Inquisitor passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was to my Devouring Mother archetypal analysis of modern society. The Inquisitor perpetuates the childlike happiness of the majority and is happy to lie (gaslight), blackmail and deceive in order to maintain that happiness. This attitude betrays the Inquisitor’s own psychology by which he is prepared to burn even Jesus at the stake to uphold the status quo; a status quo in which the Inquisitor, coincidentally, has all the power.

There is a hidden assumption in the Inquisitor’s position which is that the people would follow Jesus if left to their own devices. Therefore, the Inquisitor must intervene to keep them in the childlike state which he believes makes them the most happy. It’s a strange paradox. If people really do prefer earthly happiness over the “freedom” which Jesus offers, why wouldn’t the people reject Jesus by themselves? There is an implied lack of faith by the Inquisitor in his own position which matches the Devouring Mother’s psychological need to retain control by preventing her children from becoming independent (“free” in the Inquisitor’s language). For these reasons, I think the Grand Inquisitor’s psychology is almost identical to the Devouring Mother.

The novel Karamazov is primarily about the other side of the Devouring Mother dynamic; namely, the Orphans. In the Grand Inquisitor passage, the “children” are the archetypal Orphans and Jesus is their “elder” calling them to initiation/individuation. That’s why the Inquisitor must intervene. Like the Devouring Mother, he must ensure the individuation process does not occur so that his “children” remain in a state of dependence.

In my series of posts called the Age of the Orphan, I sketched out the archetypal structure of the Orphan Story. Well, it turns out The Brothers Karamazov fits the archetype perfectly. The brothers in the novel are almost literally orphans. Their mothers died at a young age and their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, abandoned them to be raised by other people. That’s the microcosmic perspective. But Dostoevsky clearly intended to draw parallels between it and the macrocosmic. He was trying to say something about the state of society.

So, I was about 140 years too late. Dostoevsky had already intuited the core dynamic of the modern world and represented it beautifully in The Brothers Karamazov. My thesis in the Age of the Orphan series was that we are living during the time of the Devouring Mother (Grand Inquisitor). We are archetypal Orphans stuck in a culture which no longer has initiation rites because we no longer have a live culture to initiate people into. Because we lack those initiation rites, we do not make the (psychological/spiritual) leap from adolescence into adulthood and remain trapped in a state of dependence.

(Note: it may very well be that the Devouring Mother-Orphan dynamic goes beyond the modern world. Dostoevsky seems to suggest it is more fundamental and is possibly inherent in civilisation itself. Alternatively, it could be just an ever present force competing with other forces and is dominant due to the present state of our culture).

The Brothers Karamazov gives us the archetypal Orphan Story in the form of the main character of the book, the youngest brother, Alyosha. His story is contrasted against the parallel stories of his two brothers, Ivan and Dmitri. But Ivan and Dmitri’s stories are not Orphan Stories. That is, they do not show a “successful” initiation/individuation process. Dostoevsky clearly made this contrast on purpose and if we drill down more into the characters we can see that each represents a type which is still valid in the modern world.

Dmitri is the Byron-esque romantic character. Passionate to a fault, he’s the guy who goes into the bar and shouts everybody a drink just for the hell of it. He’s always head over heels in love with a woman, and maybe more than one. He’s the one whose emotions run so hot that he is capable of murder, even of his own father. In the post war years, Dmitri would be the singer of a rock band travelling from one town to the next and one party to the other, getting into fights, throwing TV sets out of hotel windows, getting arrested and all the other amusements of that lifestyle.

In Dmitri, we see the self-destructiveness of the pleasure seeker. It’s all fun and games until the money runs out. What happens then? Well, you take on debt to keep the party going. But with debt comes shame, resentment and, if you’re Dmitri, threats to murder people.

Is it too much of a stretch to see this dynamic in the modern consumer economy? It was fun for a while but then the money ran out. So, we took on debt. And now we’re up to our eyeballs in debt and, like Dmitri, frantically running around trying to figure out how to keep the party going.  

So, Dmitri is still with us in the modern world. What about Ivan?

Ivan represents the intellectual Orphan. He’s the one that went to university and who formulates new ideas such as if God is dead, everything is permitted. Even though the content of these ideas are deadly serious (quite literally in the plot of Karamazov), Ivan presents them as if they were half jokes. When questioned on them he laughs off the objections. That’s the luxury that comes with armchair philosophy. It also represents the lightness and joviality of the Enlightenment; what Kenneth Clark called “the smile of reason”.

The problem, which Dostoevsky clearly knew, is that it’s all well and good to sit back in your armchair and come up with new ideas. When you let those ideas into the world, even if you’re half joking, they have consequences but far too often the generators of the ideas are nowhere to be found when the proverbial hits the fan. We’ve seen a great example of this dynamic in the last two and a half years. “What? No. We never said the vaccines would prevent infection. Huh? We did? Well, so what? Science is about adapting to new information. Stop living in the past, bro. Lol.”

How many “experts” and so-called “leaders” from the last two and a half years are on record stating things that turned out to be 100% wrong? How much damage was caused by their errors? And how many of them have faced any consequences? But the problem is more widespread. With all our wonderful modern education we are drowning in “new ideas” generated by our university-educated elites most of which turn out to be a complete flop as soon as they are tested against reality.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the elites tested the ideas on themselves first and bore the brunt of any failure. But, no, we the general public get to be the guinea pigs while the elites get to wash their hands of any responsibility. None of the so-called experts who were wrong in the last two years have suffered any repercussions whatsoever.

That was the danger in the new ideas that Dostoevsky foresaw and he shows it in the novel by making Ivan confront the consequences of his ideas. Ivan is tested and found wanting. For all his intellect, he is unable to prevent an act of evil. But more than that, he knows deep down that when the time came he was unable to do what was right. All the philosophising in the world cannot reason away an ethical problem that is right in front of your face. Our “elites” only get away with it because they are removed from the consequences of their decisions.

The dangers of the disconnected intellect are everywhere to see in the modern world and 20th century Russia had already provided us with a preview. During the Soviet times, the wonderful brand new ideas were channelled through a giant bureaucracy featuring “experts” who were detached from the consequences of their actions and beliefs. The results, explained in great detail in a book I’ve referred to many times, Scott’s Seeing like a State, were the death by starvation of millions of people. Dostoevsky was right and yet we continue to make the same mistakes.

So, we can clearly see that both Dmitri and Ivan are with us to this day. In fact, they have become even more dominant through the pop culture consumer society (Dmitri’s pleasure seeking) and the rise of education, news media and social media allowing “new ideas” completely untethered to reality to spread around the world instantly. If Dostoevsky was right about all that, maybe he was also right about the antidote as exemplified by the hero of The Brothers Karamazov: Alyosha.

Alyosha is the only one of the three orphan Karamazov brothers to go through an initiation and thereby fulfil the archetypal Orphan story. This initiation takes place in the local monastery under the tutelage of the elder, Zosima (Zosima is literally called an Elder in the book and there is apparently an old tradition of Elders in the Eastern Orthodox Church).

In the archetypal Orphan story, it is the Elder who will guide the Orphan through the initiation process that leads them to adulthood/selfhood. Dmitri got his “initiation” in the army. Ivan got his at university. But these are not archetypal initiations because they lack esoteric spiritual content. Alyosha, by contrast, is initiated through an esoteric sub-sect of the church, albeit one that is belittled by the exoteric-minded priests who are trying to do away with it.

The core of Zosima’s teaching to Alyosha could be summarised as follows: everybody is responsible for the whole world and for every individual within it. This understanding leads to infinite, universal, inexhaustible love.

This sounds very mystical and yet it is an interpretation on the basic Christian teaching. Jesus died on the cross for the sins of man. He was “responsible”. To follow the teachings of Jesus is to assume the same responsibility. This is not responsibility in any legal or scientific sense (Dostoevsky goes into great detail to make this point by contrasting Alyosha’s experience with the legal trial of Dmitri) . Rather, it is concerned with developing what you might call a universal conscience. It is the description of Alyosha’s attainment of that universal conscience which Dostoevsky so beautifully describes at the midpoint of the book in one of the great passages in literature.

Alyosha’s initiation comes to its completion with the death of Zosima which forms the final test of faith. This is almost identical to Luke Skywalker’s initiation in Return of the Jedi which reaches its finale with the death of Yoda. But unlike Hollywood versions of the Orphan Story which inevitably represent the Orphan’s “victory” as a heroic conquest over somebody else, Alyosha’s final transcendence takes place alone under the vault of the heavens. It is the fusing of the self with God or the cosmos or whatever you want to call it; not as a logical, objective, scientific occurrence but a personal and inherently subjective one.

It is here that we see the key difference that distinguishes Dostoevksy’s version of the Orphan Story. Alyosha’s transformation is decoupled from any exoteric element and, uniquely, doesn’t represent any meaningful change in Alyosha’s character. This is evident from the fact that the other characters in the story do not treat Alyosha any differently afterwards or, in fact, notice anything different about him.

In the normal Orphan Story, the hero takes on a new exoteric form after the initiation. Thus, even in a primarily psychological work such as Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, the apprentice Ged becomes a true wizard at the end of the book. He has metamorphised into an adult archetype: the sage/mage. The same is true of Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi or Neo at the end of The Matrix. But it is not true of Alyosha in Karamazov.

In archetypal terms, Alyosha has not graduated from Orphanhood into any of the archetypes we traditionally associate with an adult. He does not become a warrior, a sage, a lover, a fool or a ruler. Instead, he remains a Child archetype, specifically the Innocent. The Innocent’s primary traits are faith, optimism and simplicity. Alyosha had these before Zosima’s death. They are severely tested by Zosima’s death. But Alyosha passes the test and retains his faith, optimism and simplicity on the other side.

In terms of normal human psychology, this is unique because the normal pattern of an adult manifesting the Child archetype is that they are in the shadow form of the Child precisely because they have failed the archetypal mission of initiation/individuation. This is what is called arrested development and it results in exactly the kind of shadow childishness that the Grand Inquisitor (aka The Devouring Mother) encourages: obliviousness, dependence, denial, naivete; in short, dissociation.

What we see in the story of Alyosha is the idea that the challenge of initiation for all of us in the modern world is to face the destruction inherent in the world, seen in its purest form in death, and not to dissociate; not to lose the positive forms of our inner Child. To fail this test is to lapse into the shadow forms of the child and fall under the power of the Grand Inquisitor/Devouring Mother. When the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that most people are not up to the task, it is this task that he was talking about. But even though the other Karamazovs, and other characters in the novel, fail the task, they still understand what it is and aim for it. They still have a conscience.

This idea of the fully initiated Innocent was presented for the first time in Dostoevsky’s earlier work The Idiot. The Prince Myshkin character in that book is very similar to Alyosha. As the name of that book suggests, the fully initiated adult Innocent is easily mistaken for a fool or a coward by wider society. We see this in Karamazov in the scene where Rakitin accuses Alyosha of being a chicken (a coward) to which Grushenka replies that Rakitin only thinks that because he has no conscience.

Alyosha is not a hero in the sense usually found in film and literature. Nevertheless, he is heroic in his anti-heroism. He represents the voice of the inner child who has come face-to-face with the realities of the world but has refused to be corrupted. Alyosha’s test, his archetypal Orphan mission, is to face death without giving in to cynicism, nihilism or despair like Ivan or to seek oblivion in drinking and pleasure like Dmitri.

To face the pain and agony of the world (to really face them without dissociation) without losing your inner child was what Dostoevsky considered the highest and most difficult task. To not shy away from that task was Dostoevsky’s answer to cynicism, nihilism and despair. It’s a task that is once again showing itself to us in the modern world. What we are increasingly seeing now is a return to nihilism and despair (Ivan). It’s no coincidence that this is happening now that Dmitri’s bill for the sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and consumerism of the post war years needs to be paid.

In the final scenes of Karamazov, we see Alyosha helping a group of young boys face the impending death of their classmate. He does so not from a position of authority as some kind of father figure or priest but as if he was one of them. And, archetypally, he is one of them; the eternal Innocent. His advice to them is to keep at least one moment of true goodness and honesty in your heart and think of that as “home”. In other words, don’t let the world destroy your inner sense of what is good and right. Don’t lose your conscience.

13 thoughts on “Orphans and Elders”

  1. Brilliant, Simon the sage/mage ? A master class in connecting the dots disparate on the face of it even at second glance.
    It’s this fully initiated Innocent that’s subsumed under the Child below, innit? ?

    ? Real intimacy requires that the Child be set free from both the inner Parent and the Adult, for they have corrupted true seeing with notions of knowing: naming things, classifying things, conceptualizing things—the interpretive filters we superimpose over raw experience as we grow up.
    ~~Eric Berne paraphrased

    ? Most human beings never really see another person after they are five years old.
    ~~Eric Berne verbatim

  2. Daiva – hah, yes that’s a very pithy way of putting it. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but there’s a symbolic/psychological interpretation here. The “death” of the adult is actually just the death of the image you were projecting onto them. Death leads to transformation: learning to see them as they are. In that way, the “adult” must die and be resurrected.

  3. Interesting series of posts on classic literature.
    I read some of the books that got a mention, but for some reason I have always been struggling with literature.
    My thinking might be too literal and not able to pick up subtle symbolic meanings.
    Any advice on how to approach literature for people who are trained to think like engineers?

    P.S: i made 3 attempts at reading “the glass bead game” so far and while it is a nice story, i cannot for the life of me, see what is so deep about it.

  4. Roland – that’s a very interesting question. I used to be the same. I read Dostoevsky at uni but didn’t really get it because I hadn’t learned to think symbolically. Our society actively discourages symbolic thinking too because we’re “scientific” and reject “superstition”. Thus, if something happens to an individual, we say it’s not “statistically significant”. Symbolic thinking assumes that everything is meaningful. The question then is how to identify the “correct” meaning. For example, corona was clearly a “viral event” but I would say it occurred almost entirely on the mental plane whereas the average person would say it occurred entirely on the physical plane. Knowing which “plane” the symbol points to seems a crucial question.

    Daiva – interesting. I’ll have a closer read when I get a chance. Just on first glance, though, I feel this meets the same problem that Freud and Jung both faced in that it is necessarily individualistic/solipsistic. Dostoevsky takes the more religious perspective that disintegration precedes re-integration with God/cosmos. That was the issue Jung struggled with later in his life and it’s where psychology hits its analytical limits (unless it wants to become theology). That’s why I feel that this is one area where literature can do what psychology cannot i.e. give us at least some first-person perspective on what “re-integration” into something outside oneself might feel like.

  5. Tom Bombadil, an individual living outside the World of the Rings, is one of the few in modern fiction, who show us an example of individuation.
    Hilma af Klint maybe is a female version of a individuation, living in real life, but outside history. They are not affected by the powers of daily life, but their influence on the spirit of the day is almost zero.

  6. Olle – hadn’t heard of af Klint. That’s an interesting story. A group of women invented abstract painting decades before men took the credit. One for the feminists 😛

  7. Hey, Simon, just wondering – where would you situate the ‘fully initiated adult Innocent’ aka ‘Child archetype, specifically the Innocent’ in relation to Jung’s concept of the Self? And where do you see Alyosha in relation to the journey of individuation? You appear to be using the terms initiation & individuation interchangeably here – do you regard them as the same thing?

  8. Shane – if I remember correctly, Jung also thought of individuation being predicated on “disintegration” i.e. first you have to become aware of parts of the psyche and this could be done through activities like active imagination of which the Red Book is a prime example.

    Alyosha goes through a Red Book-type experience before what I am calling his attainment of universal conscience where he experiences Zosima at the biblical scene where Jesus turns water into wine. In that sense, I think it fits with Jungian theory and also with Jung’s personal experiences.

    The parts about the Orphan Story and the personality archetypes, although I think they are consonant with Jungian theory, I don’t think Jung ever used them in his writings. Jung seemed to view individuation as a personal process (it was for him) and he had a problematic relationship with religion. But I think the Orphan Story dictates that the purpose of (esoteric) religion is to guide the initiate to individuation.

  9. Simon – some symbolic correspondences for you: the astrological glyph for the Sun, a circle w/ a dot at the centre, symbolises the self; Arcanum XIX of the tarot, the Sun, traditionally depicts a child (Rider Waite deck) or children (Crowley/Thoth deck) – representations of innocence, the individual soul & its wholeness (individuation)…

    Unlike Freud, Jung saw religion as integral to personal growth. And if he viewed individuation as a personal process, he also saw it as the goal of the psychology he practised, & the work proper to the second half of life.

  10. Shane – nice pickup. And tarot XVIII is the moon which looks a lot like dark night of the soul/disintegration. Going back further, Death is card XIII with the Devil at XV (Alyosha is tempted by Rakitin) and then the Tower leading into the Moon. Meanwhile, Judgement is card XX which could refer to Dmitri’s legal trial. Now I need to do a Tarot interpretation of the novel 🙂

  11. I know this is a bit off topic, but i have just read Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut. After following your blog and rereading Robert Bly’s Iron John, it is so easy to read this story in a mythological context as an initiation story. I may have to stick to detective mysteries or look at a lot of my reading in a deeper context; perhaps Winton’s Breath and Dirt Music for starters.
    Thanks for the slap upside the head. Hopefully never too old a dog to learn a couple of new tricks.

  12. Stephen – the Orphan Story pops up all over the place from which we can deduce that the Grand Inquisitor was wrong. People do want “freedom” or at least they like reading about it 😉

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