Reflections on the meaning of life and other mysteries, part IV: How do we define greatness? The pinnacles of Western Civilization
By Charlotte Cerminaro
“Yet I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the last day upon the earth...and I shall behold him with my own eyes, and not a stranger’s...Job 19:25
It was many years ago that I first decided to tackle the Russian literary giants. During our Humanities classes at Juilliard, I and my fellow first-year students would frequently joke about which writer we’d study for our final paper. War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, and the masterminds who created them, would invariably come up. To be able to get through a work like that took patience, tenacity and memorization---or so we thought---and in my ignorance I took the challenge. It didn’t last long. I was unable to grasp the concepts, let alone the depth of writing.
Some time passed before I tried it again. Fifteen years to be exact, when I started reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It was immense, an epic, the characters were disturbingly real but I couldn’t put it down. I wondered why I understood it then and not 15 years before; the same impatient person was reading. But it was the 10th chapter, titled The Grand Inquisitor, that offered a hint.
There is a break in the narrative here, a parenthetical chapter designed to illustrate an important point. The setting is now the middle-ages during the inquisition. The narrator tells us that Jesus, the Lord Himself, has been captured and is being questioned by the Grand Inquisitor. The case against Him is impressive. The crimes of humanity are laid out--unspeakable violence going unpunished, the murder of the innocents, people with blood on their hands facing no apparent earthly justice, the horror of it all. The Creator is asked why this has all been allowed, and how can it ever be made right. “Why did you do it” and “How are you going to fix it” are the charges repeated by the Inquisitor. He then pronounces Jesus “guilty of all charges” and waits for Him to plead for His life. Instead, Jesus approaches his accuser, kisses his forehead and walks out.
After reading this chapter, thinking back over those past 15 years, I realized the same two questions had crossed my lips more than once in a state of grief. When real tragedy strikes, up close and personal, it is a normal human reaction to look up and ask, “Why?” When terrible waves of hot grief burn in our chest, we want answers. We want justice. We feel empty and do not even know why. All we can think about is what was lost. Then we begin to see that loss is inevitable, and though grief eases with time, it never disappears.
Some of the wisest, most influential people endured terrible tragedy, then had to live with it and work through it. Before becoming a writer, Dostoevsky was imprisoned for months, then put in front of a firing squad. Execution was stayed at the last second but the damage was done--epilepsy plagued him thereafter. Then he spent two years in Siberia. Reformation composer J.S.Bach was orphaned as a small child, lost his wife when she was young. Mozart was seriously ill much of his life as well, and he and Constanze lost their first 4 children in infancy. Many of the pivotal moments for our civilization came after unspeakable violence or loss, moments where people chose to act with bravery, justice or kindness even while enduring the grief caused by another’s cruelty. The World Wars, 911 and the sinking of the Titanic come to mind.
I know I’m not alone in wishing tragedies could be avoided. But I would not want to lose what little understanding I gained enduring them. Comprehending the depth of Dostoevsky, or understanding someone else’s grief, is a great gift indeed. That God placed such value on our lives that even agony, horror and death can’t subtract, is an impossible paradox. Clearly, some people are given a bigger piece of the puzzle, though it does seem to come at a price. The life of Mozart, so prolific and brilliant, was so very brief. That his work also represents one of the great pinnacles of western civilization is a clue to our mystery, one I believe I understand. The finale/presto of his famous Posthorn Serenade is easily the most exciting 4 minutes of music ever written.Its pure, innocent exuberance and unbounded joy reaches into us and finds that which is eternal. Mozart knew for whom he was writing. His true audience was in heaven, and he was celebrating, with all of creation, for all time.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2018