Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Predestination and the Hero of Our Time

It's amazing what staring down the barrel of a loaded gun will make you believe.

Late in Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time," its Byronic hero Pechorin bets one of his barracks fellows, a Serbian lieutenant named Vulich, that there is no such thing as predestination. The bet stems from an argument, and comes after Pechorin has survived various physical and romantic threats that have thus far failed to stir his blood. However a game of Russian roulette, so to speak, ends with Vulich aiming a pistol at his own head to no effect, when it misfires. Moments before, Pechorin had sensed from Vulich's manner, and a feeling in the air, that the man was going to die. As he walks away, Pechorin tells Vulich he does indeed believe in predestination, then he goes out into the night air: 

"Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amused to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men's petty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody's 'rights.' While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that's felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny." 

This beautiful passage sums up our hero and his time. Pechorin confesses to various people that he gains little pleasure from life, and sees it as mostly pointless. He comes to embody a new wave of Russian, less certain of the religious truths that had long dominated the nation, and a student of the absurdity of life. But for just a moment, he is faced with the disconnect between his intuition - which told him Vulich was doomed, and the reality - with Vulich collecting on the bet.

Predestination in Lermontov's time was a Christian idea, of course, though the novel also points to the Islamic idea as well. The argument hinges on when a person's appointed moment of death will come, but the question deals with life as well. What will we do? What can we do? How much control does God have over us? Is the future already written? If we are fated to know Him (or not know Him as the case may be) then should we do anything at all to speed or change the outcome? Pechorin is bored with an absurd life, seeing little point to anything, but we see him in this little moment as questioning all he has believed or not believed, if only for a second. Pechorin disbelieves in it because he does not believe in a divine order, or perhaps any other.

Our time has a different version of predestination that is more scientific, and perhaps more pitiless. Some scientists who study the brain tell us that what we have come to believe is free will may be nothing more than the biological responses of our brain to external stimuli. That our deepest fears and emotions, not to mention our most dire decisions, are the product of silent chemical and electrical impulses is a disquieting and dispiriting thought. In this world as in Lermontov's, the "hero" is robbed of his heroism because heroism itself isn't anything more than a name we give to a behavior, which no longer seems as mystical or praiseworthy. All social strata and every emotion loses its "magic," for lack of a better word. If he becomes a hero then, it is only because he is not afraid of a world robbed of meaning. But a hero to himself? To others? In the eye of the beholder...

But the story does not end with his walk. When Pechorin returns, he finds that shortly after winning his bet, Vulich was the victim of a Cossack sword stroke. He is dead, so Pechorin's intuition, and Vulich's fatalism just before putting the gun to his head, were both right and wrong. Whatever fate was ordained, it was not what we or they expected. Pechorin indulges his own fatalism in nabbing Vulich's murderer, then states that he prefers to doubt everything. "I always go more boldly forward when I don't know what lies ahead. After all, the worst you can do is die, and you've got to die some time."

The author of "A Hero of Our Time" died as a young man, and in a preface to his work says that the novel is full of bitter truths that are meant for people who have dined on sweets for too long. Yet he curiously ends his introduction by saying that mankind suffers a malady and "Heaven alone knows how to cure it!" The argument over predestination obscures an older one in each human soul over meaning and the inadequacy of human beings to find meaning on their own. We learn midway through the novel that after Vulich's death, Pechorin will eventually meet his end in Persia. Through his and our sleepless nights, the silent stars go by.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

1 comment:

  1. I understand Lermontov's extensive use of fate and predestination in the novel, but how does that relate to his point of writing the book?