Last week, I invited readers to send in the literary passages that most spoke to them and shaped them. Here’s Jen, with a passage from Dostoevsky:
I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was 17, on a rocky family vacation. At first, it was a melodramatic Russian escape from my fighting parents’ slow-ending marriage. But then I got to the chapter “Rebellion.” I couldn’t look away from the page. It was my teenage introduction to the existential unfairness of the world. It was heartbreaking and exhilarating, depressing and empowering. Even now when I read it, my heart beats faster as Ivan breathlessly works his way up to his declaration. He feels as real to me as the impossible dilemma with which he struggles.
It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to “dear, kind God”! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
Adam Bielka wrestled with similar questions after reading a very different text, The Answer by K.A. Applegate:
In the ending of the Animorphs series, the titular child superheroes manage to take control of the mothership of the Yeerks—a race of alien parasites intent on enslaving all of humanity, and the Animorphs’ main antagonists. At this moment the Animorphs’ leader, Jake, considers whether to massacre the Yeerks aboard by flushing them into space.
Seventeen thousand. Living creatures. Thinking creatures. How could I give this order? Even for victory. Even to save Rachel. How could I give this kind of order?
They could have stayed home, I thought. No one had asked them to come to Earth. Not my fault. Not my fault, theirs. No more than they deserved. Aliens. Parasites. Subhuman.
“Flush them,” I said.
Having spent over fifty books watching the noble Animorphs fight the Yeerks, I had internalized a deep hatred for them. At the time I first read this, I full-heartedly agreed with the decision to massacre them, despite the fact they posed no longer posed a threat. Later, after some reflection, both Jake and I reconsidered the moral stakes, and regretted the moment’s extreme vitriol.
This passage stuck with me because it pointed to a dark part of my own soul. It was a jarring picture of how noble causes can turn horrible so quickly, and how easy it was to internalize hate and dehumanize enemies. An important lesson, and one that really shattered my confidence that I was an inherently good person.
I remember Animorphs as a staple of my middle-school-library shelves, which makes me think of another turn our literary-passage series could take: Can you recall a children’s book or young adult novel in particular that shaped your views growing up? If so, let us know. Emma has one:
In high school, I discovered Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I still maintain that it was the best discovery of my life.