Every time I go to Jack Whelan’s After the Future, I start breathing carefully and quietly in anticipation of being kicked in the solar plexus by something wonderful. Here he is talking about characters from East of Eden and The Brothers Karamazov who illustrate points on a continuum he is contemplating:
Those who don’t hold it together tend toward either Hell West–which is the conventional idea of Hell–the realm of the seven deadly sins, the human life driven by instinct unmixed with grace. It’s where Papa Karamazov and Smerdyakov are situated in The Brothers K, and Cathy, the sociopath brothel madame and mother to the two brothers, Aron and Cal, in East of Eden. But Kierkegaard, Dostoyevski, and Steinbeck point out that’s only the western wing of hell; the east wing is occupied by those who are seduced by angelism. […]
People who are in angelism hell are generally more socially acceptable than the transgression-prone people on the other side. […] it’s a hell nevertheless. It’s also inhabited by everyone who thinks that some kind of discarnate purity is the goal, and while religious and ideological fanatics inhabit this hell in the greatest numbers, it’s inhabited by fussy control freaks of any stripe–judgmental types in general who demand that the world conforms to their ideal template for it, whatever that template might be. Katarina, like Ivan, fits this description. So does Ferapont the monk. The longing for purity and control is the longing to live in the east wing of hell. I think that both books in the final analysis are asking the same question: In The Brother’s K: how do you become someone like Zossima; in East of Eden: how do you become someone like Sam Hamilton? Goodness is thought of as being boringly, predictably well behaved, but real goodness is not like that. Both Zossima and Sam are interesting, and they are so not because they’re well socialized, but because they’re mensches. The Yiddish word best captures what they are and what the goal is–to be a fully realized, grounded, radiant, particular human being. They’re wise and generous and and free, and there isn’t an alienated cell in their bodies.
Mensch-hood is the goal, and it’s realized in the course of a life well lived. It’s not achieved in a snap of the finger or in a satori moment, but in the slow cooking of the instinctual life by the heat of grace, and the grounding of spiritual life in a particular, finite, mortal life. The main task is to hold both sides together long enough so they can work on one another. You fail in this regard if you are, like Alyosha or Abra, temperamentally inclined toward the angelic side and you reject the instinctual side. And the same is true if you are like Dmitri or Cal, which is to be more temperamentally inclined to the bestial side.
The failure lies in rejecting the other side. […]
But the point is that for both Sam and Zossima, mensch-hood is an achievement, but not a project like body sculpting or other narcissistic self-improvement projects are. It’s a different order of achievement because it comes from submitting oneself to an authority that transcends one’s narcissistic tendencies. For Zossima it was his life-defining commitment as a monk. For most people it’s their life defining commitment to another human being in marriage, and this kind of commitment almost always requires a certain amount of constraint, some times suffering, of going where we would not otherwise go. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing,” says Zossima, “compared to love in dreams.”
I think there are innumerable ways that people have the opportunity to discover this in their lives–and these choices present themselves in so many different ways–but the challenge is to avoid commitment phobia, [not] to live a life in which the key is to keep one’s options open, because in the end it doesn’t matter how many options we have, but whether we have chosen to become something real, concrete, particular. But I’m convinced that it’s this kind of life-defining commitment that is for most of us the main way available for us to hold together the angel and beast in us. It’s the work that both grounds and uplifts at the same time and heals the riven soul.
You could spend hours there, days, reading stuff as amazing as that. Well, I could.